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John Lydgate

B. at Lydgate, Suffolk, about 1370; d. probably about 1450

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Lydgate, JOHN, b. at Lydgate, Suffolk, about 1370; d. probably about 1450. He entered the Benedictine abbey at Bury when fifteen and may have been educated earlier at the school of the Benedictine monks there and have been afterwards at the Benedictine house of studies at Oxford. It is possible, as Bale asserts that he studied at both Oxford and Cambridge, and it is fairly certain that he traveled in France, and perhaps in Italy. He was ordained priest in 1397. Bale (Scriptorum Summarium) says he opened a school for sons of the nobility probably in the monastery of Bury. His verses seem to have been much in request by noble lords and ladies, and having been court poet he wrote a ballad for the coronation of Henry VI. For eleven years (1423-1434) he was prior of Hatfield Broadoak, but is said not to have busied himself much with his duties there. He then returned to Bury. At various times he received as rewards for his poetry some land and a pension. Many of these details of his career can only be vaguely asserted, but his poetic work is not vague. It is certain that he was a learned and industrious poet who wrote much verse on varied subject-matter. His poetry, however, though interesting from other points of view than the poetical, never rises much above mediocrity. A blight seemed at that period to have fallen upon poetry in England, though in Scotland the Chaucerian tradition was followed still with dignity and force. The writings of Lydgate are very numerous. Ritson, in his “Bibliographica Poetica”, numbers 251 poems, some of them of enormous length, such as the Troy Book of 30,000 lines. It is fairly certain, too, that much of what he wrote has been lost. A good deal of his existing work is still in MS. He is said to have written one piece of prose—an account of Caesar’s wars and death. Most modern critics agree as to the general mediocrity of his work, but Lydgate has not wanted admirers in the past such as Chatterton, who imitated him, and Gray, who was impressed by the carefulness of his phraseology and the smoothness of his verse. Among his poetical compositions may be mentioned:—”Falls of Princes,” “Troy Book”, “Story of Thebes”, narrative poems; “The Life of Our Lady” and “The Dance of Death“, devotional poems; “The Temple of Glass”, and imitations of Chaucer. The well-known poem of “London Lackpenny”, which has been for long reckoned as Lydgate’s, is now almost certainly proved not to be by him.


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