Tuesday, January 5, 2010

"The Voluminous, Prosaic, and Drivelling Monk"

The fifteenth century was a low-water mark for English poetry, inter alia because of the accidentally pernicious influence of Chaucer. So in Chaucer's day words like make, lerne, etc. had the final e pronounced (as in modern German). So for instance a typical Chaucerian line like

Han felt that Love dorste yow disple[a]se

is actually an 11-syllable line in good iambic pentameter. However, even by the time of Chaucer's death the final e was falling out of use, and by the early 15th-cent it was gone altogether. Unfortunately, 15th-cent poets took it as axiomatic that (1) what Chaucer wrote was metrical, and (2) Chaucer pronounced words they way they themselves did. This led to an essentially complete cluelessness about meter and rhythm that affected all their work, which was, as it happens, not free of other faults. Eventually, English verse became metrical again in the 16th century, because people stopped imitating Chaucer and found other models in (e.g.) Italian where all you had to do was count syllables; the process of writing ten-syllable lines leads one fairly directly to iambic pentameter if one has a decent ear. Of course it took about 200 years longer to realize that Chaucer was metrical too if you pronounced the final e, but that his successors were not.

All of this is by way of introducing George Saintsbury's wonderful evisceration of John Lydgate, the most famous -- at his time -- of Chaucer's disciples, which I've excerpted below.


It is thus reasonable to fix his career as lasting from c. 1370 to c. 1450.
If this be so, his life was not short: and it is quite certain that such exercises of his art as we possess are very long.

Of Chaucerian vigour, Chaucerian pathos, Chaucerian vividness of description, Lydgate had no trace or tincture.

To these defects he added two faults[...]: The one is prosodic incompetence; the other is longwinded prolixity. [...] It is enough to say that, even in rime royal, his lines wander from seven to fourteen syllables, without the possibility of allowing monosyllabic or trisyllabic feet in any fashion that shall restore the rhythm; and that his couplets, as in The Story of Thebes itself, seem often to be unaware whether they are themselves octosyllabic or decasyllabic—four-footed or five-footed. [...]

The Temple of Glass, partly in heroics, partly in rime royal, is one of the heaviest of fifteenth century allegorical love-poems, in which two lovers complain to Venus and, having been answered by her, are finally united. It is extremely prosaic; but, by sheer editing, has been brought into a condition of at least more systematic prosody than most of Lydgate’s works. The Assembly of Gods is a still heavier allegory of vices and virtues presented under the names of divinities, major and minor, of the ancient pantheon, but brought round to an orthodox Christian conclusion. The piece is in rime royal of the loosest construction, so much so that its editor proposes a merely rhythmical scansion.[...]

Lydgate has not lacked defenders, who would be formidable if their locus standi were more certain. The fifteenth century adored him because he combined all its own worst faults, and the sixteenth seems to have accepted him because it had no apparatus for criticism. When, after a long eclipse, he was in two senses taken up by Gray, that poet seems chiefly to have known The Falls of Princes, in which, perhaps by dint of long practice, Lydgate’s metrical shortcomings are less noticeable than in some other places, and where the dignity and gravity of Boccaccio’s Latin has, to some extent, invigorated his style. Warton is curiously guarded in his opinions; and a favourable judgment of Coleridge may, possibly, be regarded as very insufficiently based. The apologies of editors (especially those who are content with systematised metre, however inharmonious) do not go very far. On the whole, though Ritson’s condemnation may have been expressed with characteristic extravagance and discourtesy towards the “voluminous, prosaic and drivelling monk,” nobody can dispute the voluminousness in the worst sense, and it is notable that even Lydgate’s defenders, in proportion as they know more of him, are apt to “confess and avoid” the “prosaic” and to slip occasionally into admissions rather near the “drivelline.” It is to be feared that some such result is inevitable. A little Lydgate, especially if the little be judiciously chosen, or happily allotted by chance, is a tolerable thing: though even this can hardly be very delectable to any well qualified judge of poetry. But, the longer and wider that acquaintance with him is extended, the more certain is dislike to make its appearance. The prosodic incompetence cannot be entirely due to copyists and printers; the enormous verbosity, the ignorance how to tell a story, the want of freshness, vigour, life, cannot be due to them at all. But what is most fatal of all is the flatness of diction noticed above—the dull, hackneyed, slovenly phraseology, only thrown up by his occasional aureate pedantry—which makes the common commoner and the uncommon uninteresting. Lydgate himself, or some imitator of him, has been credited with the phrase “gold dewdrops of speech” about Chaucer. He would hardly have thought of anything so good; but the phrase at least suggests an appropriate variant, “leaden splashes,” for his own.

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