Of Chaucer’s immediate followers and imitators, John Lydgate is, perhaps, the most remarkable literary figure. He is often, like Gower, highly praised and given a rank very near to his great master. But actually Lydgate’s literary achievements are nothing exceptional to place him on the rung of Chaucer.
Little is definitely known about Lydgate’s life. Possibly he led a cloistered life, as a monk, at Bury St. Edmund, spent sometimes abroad and had probably a personal acquaintance with Chaucer. He had, like the great master, a good deal of experiences of men and worldly matters, but lacked the Chaucerian gift to make the capital use of his experiences in his literary works.
Lydgate is taken as the most prolific author of the fifteenth century, rather of the whole of the Middle English period. His composition is found to include about 1,45.000 lines. Though a voluminous author, he is not a much-talented one, with little, as already noted, of his master’s excellence.
Lydgate’s longest poems are The Storie of Thebes and The Troy Book, both of which are taken from notable French romances. None of these works bears out his command over the art of storytelling or versification of either Chaucer or Gower, and he appears somewhat a mere imitator in both of them. His other works include Fall of Princes or Tragedies of John Bochas, adapted from Boccaccio’s De Casibus Illustrium Virorum and written in rhyme royal. This is also a long work with a little variety. The Temple of Glass and The Assembly of Gods are written in an allegorical vein.
Lydgate is also the author of another voluminous work-The Pilgrimage of the Live of Man-which is a sort of translation from the French work of Guillaume De Guileville. This is also a sort of allegory and may be taken as a forerunner of Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. Of course, Lydgate has nothing of Bunyan’s moral conviction, character-painting, and vigorous description. The best and most poetical among Lydgate’s enormous works is, perhaps, The Life of Our Lady, containing several lives of the saints. This appears to bear the Cynewulfian tradition to verify the lives of saints.
Lydgate has some shorter verses, not at all of a high order, but well indicative of his poetical genius. Of them, two of his bestiaries-The Churl and the Bird and The Horse, the Sheep and the Goose-may be mentioned as quite lively works. These two works are somewhat fables, written on the model of Aesop. Chaucer’s inf!uences is noted here, though Lydgate never attained the Chaucerian height.
As already noted, despite the bulk of his works, Lydgate nowhere proves to be a successful author. He imitates Chaucer’s way of story-telling in verse, but he exhibits little of the Chaucerian genius either in his description or in his character representation. He tries to imitate his master by introducing wit and humour, but here, again, his attainment lags far behind Chaucer’s. Lastly, under Lydgate, verse decays and lacks the orderliness of Chaucerian lines. He is found rather careless in the arrangements of accents and here, again, his inferiority to Chaucer is distinctly discernible.
Yet, in his own days, Lydgate enjoyed popularity for two basic reasons. First, he carried on the tradition of story-telling in verse, so much popular in the age. Second, he provided the readers with the numerous stories of varied interests in a simple and straightforward manner. He contributed here to the thematic materials of English literature.
Also read: Stephen Hawes and his famous works