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Lydgate’s Literary History: Chaucer, Gower, and Canacee Maura Nolan University of California, Berkeley The fall of princes has traditionally been seen as Lydgate’s least inspired work, a monotonous translation of Laurent de Premierfait ’s translation of Boccaccio’s De casibus virorum illustrium, undertaken during his long retirement at the behest of Humphrey of Gloucester and showing signs that even he found the endeavor tiresome. Indeed, it is long (36,000 lines), repetitious, sprawling, and disorderly. Unlike another famous compilation, the Canterbury Tales, the Fall of Princes does not contain ‘‘God’s plenty’’ (in Dryden’s felicitous phrase) but rather limits itself to the ceaseless reenactment of a single basic narrative: the fall of a great man. It is true that there are many lengthy sections of the poem in which nothing much happens, in which the eye of the critic—trained to seek out the oddity, the poetic swerve, the contradictory or inexplicable detail—slides helplessly over the smooth and impenetrable surface of the text. But as I will show, Lydgate used the poem to grapple with the most serious literary and aesthetic questions known to him, questions with which he engaged many times over the course of his career and which came to fruition in his last work. In particular, he was concerned to explore the vexed relations among the classical and vernacular models of writing history that he had inherited from such figures as Ovid, Boethius, Boccaccio, Chaucer, and Gower, and put to the test in a variety of genres and historical contexts, from the early days of the Lancastrian era, through its zenith during the reign of Henry V, and culminating in the ‘‘laureate’’ years of Henry VI’s miMany thanks to Andrew Cole, Jill Mann, and Paul Strohm, who read and commented on this essay in an earlier form, and to James Simpson and the anonymous reader for SAC for their comments and suggestions. PAGE 59 59 ................. 11491$ $CH3 11-01-10 14:00:59 PS STUDIES IN THE AGE OF CHAUCER nority.1 These include the Boethian understanding of Fortune, an Ovidian model of complaint or elegy found in The Legend of Good Women, and the clerkly practice of moralization, exemplified for Lydgate by the Confessio Amantis. The only way to cope with the immense size of the Fall of Princes is to narrow one’s focus and examine it in parts; I will concentrate here on Book One, itself a substantial poetic intervention in the literary tradition inaugurated by Chaucer and Gower. In it, I will argue, Lydgate remakes as he translates the text he inherited from Laurent de Premierfait and Boccaccio, mining an essential ambiguity—its uncertainty regarding worldly causality—by exaggerating available understandings of Fortune and stressing their ultimate incompatibility. On the one hand, as several critics have noted, Lydgate makes the explicit claim, over and over, that sin, not chance, causes the falls of great men, a claim latent in Boccaccio’s De casibus, and articulated more fully in Laurent’s version of the text but most forcefully asserted here.2 However, as I will show, he also makes room for a notion of Fortune as radical contingency, as a force that operates in the world without regard for right and wrong, morality and immorality. This latter vision of Fortune is hardly dominant . But it does surface at critical moments in the Fall of Princes, posing a serious challenge to the moralism that otherwise pervades the text, and demanding from readers a far more nuanced reading than the poem typically receives. Indeed, I will argue that Fortune functions as a kind of ‘‘vernacular philosophy’’ in the Fall of Princes, a mode of engagement with history and with the aesthetic that emerges from the sheer intensity of Lydgate’s relationship to his predecessors—especially, of course, his connection to Chaucer, but also his little-noticed (but crucial) use of Gower’s Confessio Amantis. These relationships become critical in the exemplum that concludes book one, the story of Canacee, and it is on that story that I will focus here. 1 The tag ‘‘laureate’’ is Derek Pearsall’s; see his John Lydgate (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1970), pp. 161–91...


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