- Futile Counsels: Prophecy and Poetry in John Lydgate’s Troy Book
Monk of Bury and prolific poet, John Lydgate (1371–1449) concerns himself in his Troy Book with true history and advice for kings. The Troy Book, which translates Guido delle Colonne’s Latin prose Historia destructionis Troiae (1287) into Middle English verse, was commissioned in 1412 by the future king, Henry V, though it was not completed until 1420.1 Lydgate’s stated aim is to translate Guido faithfully, but he expands Guido’s text substantially as he adds moralization, praise of Chaucer, and an envoy to his king. In the Troy Book, Lydgate aims to imagine a chivalric ideal and legitimize Lancastrian rule, but, although Henry commissioned this poem and it serves his interests, Lydgate’s text does not simply praise Henry’s imperialistic ambitions. In the Troy Book, we see an ambiguous stance, as Lydgate both celebrates his king’s warlike virtues and aligns himself with values of peace.
Previous scholarship on Lydgate has attended both to Lydgate’s politics and to his poetics. Some have focused on Lydgate’s poetry as Lancastrian legitimation, apology, or even propaganda,2 and many have noted the way Lydgate’s work functions as counsel for kings.3 Several writers examine the fraught nature of Lydgate’s attempts at providing counsel,4 while others have focused particularly on Lydgate’s interest in history and in memorialization.5 My aim is to bring these ideas together and suggest another avenue of exploration in regards to the Troy Book’s prophets. Though scholars have not entirely ignored these prophets,6 I suggest that exploring the intersection of prophecy, counsel, and translation provides another way to understand not only Lydgate’s politics, but also his poetics, and thereby to reconsider the translation and reception of classical texts in fifteenth-century England more generally.
In this article, I examine prophetic counsel in the Troy Book as it relates to translation, reception, and the medieval concepts of “translatio imperii et studii,” and I discuss what Lydgate’s prophets reveal to us about his own poetry. The [End Page 95] complexities of medieval prophecy overall are too broad to address in a single paper; I focus on prophetic counsel within a work that retells the classical past. Prophecy and poetry share in the work of translation, preservation, and counsel, and within a work that retells a well-known story from the past, the ending is already determined, already known—much as the ending is already known in prophecy itself. Like the prophets that predict Troy’s fall, the poet knows how the story must end before embarking on the work, and again like the prophets, the poets offer knowledge and counsel: they pass on the knowledge of the past to future generations, and some of them—including Lydgate—even offer counsel to kings. Prophecy thus becomes another way to understand Lydgate’s poetic project in retelling the story of Troy. In particular, through his portrayal of prophets, Lydgate gives us another avenue to understand his poetics and reveals his alignment with peace and “translatio studii” over war and “translatio imperii.” But the repeated failure of the counsel described in his work undermines the status of his work as counsel—and demonstrates that prophecy and poetry have functions beyond counsel. I conclude by suggesting that prophecy and poetry make space for memory and for imagination: neither prophets nor poets can save Troy from destruction, but both preserve the memory of the past, and both allow their audiences to imagine alternate possible futures.
The Troy Book and “Translatio”
The Troy Book translates and adapts Guido’s Historia from Latin prose to Middle English verse, but in addition to being a translation itself, it considers questions related to the idea of “translatio imperii et studii.” I use Latin “translatio” to denote transfer and expansion; “translatio imperii” to denote the transfer of power and empire; “translatio studii” to denote the transfer of knowledge and culture; and English translation to denote both translation and adaptation. By translating a text about Troy, Lydgate inevitably engages with “translatio imperii et studii,” an idea intimately connected with the spread of classical culture...