Medieval Poetics and Social Practice: Responding to the Work of Penn R. Szittya

By Seeta Chaganti | Go to book overview

THE IDEA OF PUBLIC POETRY IN
LYDGATEAN RELIGIOUS VERSE:
AUTHORITY AND THE COMMON VOICE
IN DEVOTIONAL LITERATURE

John T. Sebastian

Recent analyses of the verse and prose writings of John Lydgate have turned to Anne Middleton’s well-known idea of Ricardian “public poetry” to describe the role of the Lancastrian laureate in shaping response to social debates conducted in the public sphere.1 Public poetry, in Middleton’s formulation, is above all that which speaks in a common voice on behalf of the common good.2 Although Lydgate’s credibility as a spokesman for the masses has had to contend with his status as what we might call a “Westminster-insider” and representative of the institutional church, several scholars have nevertheless found Middleton’s concept productive for reappraising Lydgate’s relations to his patrons and the ways in which those relations are reflected in his poetry. Thus Scott-Morgan Straker, in calling into question Lydgate’s presumed subservience to a Lancastrian political agenda, has remarked that “it is a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of Lydgate to assert his complicity in his patrons’ self-interested and aggressive agendas, because such an assertion overlooks his willingness to criticize those agendas.” Straker instead proposes a realignment of “Lydgate’s illocutionary acts with the public poetry that Anne Middleton situates in the late fourteenth century” and asserts that Lydgate’s laureate productions strike a careful balance between promoting Lancastrian causes, on the one hand, and critiquing political authority, on the other.3 Similarly invoking Middleton, C. David Benson has identified a “civic Lydgate” who writes the “idea and experience of the city, especially London” but in doing so avoids naive or propagandistic idealization by at least hinting at the city’s shortcomings.4

This representation of Lydgate’s public voice in the service of a common good has not gone unchallenged, however, with some scholars suggesting

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