John Lydgate and the Poetics of Fame by Mary C. Flannery
To explain when and why vernacular poets stepped out from the shadows of anonymity that had been their shelter during the earlier Middle Ages and began to claim for themselves a place in both contemporary public conscience and future literary posterity must be a major objective of late medieval literary history. In a pan-European context, Petrarch, the poet who, in Lydgate’s words, “be writying … gat hymsilff a name / perpetuelli to been in remembraunce,” looms particularly large. It is the contention of Mary C. Flannery’s new book that, for English poetry, Lydgate is himself a pivotal figure.
Flannery’s argument, in its essence, is that Lydgate was aware of and admired the laureate Petrarch’s insistence on the fame due to poets. In the Fall of Princes particularly, Lydgate locates the power of poets in their ability not merely to report the fame of their subjects, but also to create it and to maintain it against the vicissitudes of fortune. These arguments are worked out in Chapters 4–6, which constitute the meat of her book. Through a series of sensitive close readings of the Fall and other texts from Lydgate’s oeuvre, Flannery makes a convincing case that Lydgate is not “dull” (in the sense David Lawton has used the adjective), but instead “brimming with confidence and ambition.”
Chapter 4, “The Poet’s Verdict,” examines Lydgate’s quasi-judicial role in assessing fame in the Fall of Princes, focusing particularly on his account of Queen Brunhilde in Book IX. Here, Flannery contrasts Lydgate’s confidence in the power of the poet to manipulate fame with Chaucer’s deterministic submission to fortune. Chapter 5, “Promotion and Self-Promotion,” places Lydgate’s poetics of fame alongside the work of Italian writers like Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio and their classical forebears, before tracking laureate traces in Book IV of the Fall, the prologue to The Troy Book, and two of Lydgate’s mummings. Chapter 6, “Lydgate’s Fortune in the House of Fame,” explores Lydgate’s presentation of the encounter between Bochas and the goddess Fortune in Book VI of the Fall, to argue that, for Lydgate, unlike Chaucer, poets were capable of subduing the forces of chance. Indeed, the clarity with which the book, beginning with Chapter 1, “Chaucerian Fame,” distinguishes Lydgate from Chaucer (for whose Clerk, remember, Petrarch was irrevocably “deed and nayled in his cheste”) is one of the book’s great strengths. [End Page 306]
These parts of the book live up to its title and offer a sophisticated and thought-provoking account of Lydgate’s self-positioning as a poet. More questionable is the relevance of the two other chapters. Chapter 2, “Fame and the Advisory Tradition,” discusses the status of “fame” in mirror-for-princes texts like the Secreta secretorum and Hoccleve’s Regement of Princes. Chapter 3, “Loose Tongues in Lydgatean England,” provides an overview of the late medieval legislative framework for the prosecution of slander, and briefly discusses three of Lydgate’s short poems on deviant speech. As the necessity of using quotation marks around “fame” hints, these chapters are not about fame in its present-day sense, but rather the Latin fama, with its wide range of meanings, from report to rumour to reputation to renown, good or bad. As it stands, the book is more accurately described by the title of the 2007 Cambridge Ph.D. thesis in which it originated, “Rumour and Renown: Fama in John Lydgate’s Fall of Princes and Its Successors.”
The origins of the book in a thesis on fama are latent even in the chapters that focus most directly on Lydgate’s pursuit of literary fame. The following comments are not intended to impugn these chapters, but rather to outline two of the important, difficult, but unresolved aspects of poetic fame that they raise. One issue is that the semantic field of “fame or renown” is not mapped in its entirety. Flannery begins with a brief, helpful discussion of fame, yet Middle English writers used a number of other words for the same concept, including (taking The Historical Thesaurus of English as our starting-point): hereword, lose (< OF los < L laudes), renown, name, renomee, enpress, and note. Furthermore, as is evident from Flannery’s discussion of the preface to Boccaccio’s De mulieribus claris, where he states that he will use claritas to denote not only virtus, but also other kinds of popular fame, “fame” could be denoted in Latin by words other than fama. A full account of the late medieval vocabulary of fame across Latin, French, and English—not to mention Italian—is a major but necessary undertaking for a study of poetic renoun.
Another issue concerns the importance of Lydgate’s poetics of fame to English literary history more generally. Flannery’s conclusion, subtitled “Lydgatean Fame after the Fifteenth Century,” reads the Mirror for Magistrates and several other early modern works indebted to Lydgate’s Fall of Princes to argue that sixteenth-century de casibus texts repeatedly effaced their model’s confidence that poets could shield their subjects’ reputations against fortune. While these rewritings certainly problematize [End Page 307] the very particular poetics of fame Flannery attributes to Lydgate, this argument raises the question of how Lydgate’s self-presentation fits within the broader developments in poetic self-fashioning outlined at the beginning of this review.
Attractively produced and helpfully indexed, this is an important and interesting book that will provide thought-provoking reading for anyone interested in Lydgate and the literary cultures of the Middle Ages and Renaissance.