I don’t often write about Lydgate, and perhaps here I will only state the obvious which has been taught in every course around the globe for years. However, I have never studied Lydgate in school, so I am unfamiliar with what is said in the classroom. Yet I have read him and about him on my own, and these are some of the observations I have made.
In reading his work it becomes apparent that he was greatly concerned with worldly matters and grounded in reality – specifically, his local reality and what it meant for his contemporaries and the human condition. While his catalog of subjects reflected the likes of Chaucer (Temple of Glas), as did his literary complexity (A Complaynt of a Loveres Lyfe), he also translated the Chaucerian dream-vision into such stuff as reality is made on.
Yet here, (with perhaps little authority but wholehearted conviction) I would like to disagree with those who believe Lydgate’s style to be “simplistic” with a negative connotation. Considering the enormity of such criticism I have encountered I am made to believe this is the accepted view in academia, and Lydgate’s poetry is amateur-like and unrefined. Then there appear to be instances where he is lauded, and where he supposedly transcends his mechanical tendencies. However, I do not see this either; his simplistic style to me absolutely reflects his subject-base, and is a testimony to the reality of his text. In other words, he is not overcoming mechanical inclinations, but making overt what other authors work so hard to conceal and thus further perpetuating the distinction between tangible written matter and abstract creation. He does not elevate human matters to otherworldly proportions, but rather anchors them into the earth from which they came (much like the poem I will be looking at shortly, “As A Mydsomer Rose”). God and Heaven are above and unreachable, with only death and transcendence serving to breach the gap. In the meantime, humanity must look towards its surroundings and observe life not as people wish it were, but as it is.
Before I delve into the poem, I want to talk about the mechanics of it. The rhyme scheme for every stanza is ABABBCBC, known as a huitain. Essentially it is an eight line stanza with 8-10 syllables per line. As it happens, “As A Mydsomer Rose” is written in trochaic pentameter (10 syllables per line – stress-unstress-stress-unstress… etc.). However, what I find most interesting about this is that the huitain gained its greatest popularity and prominence in France shortly after Lydgate’s time, most notably with Francois Villon, and Charles D’Orleans. Further, the subject matter between several of Lydgate’s shorter poems are echoed by Villon (especially in his Le Testament) within the reemerging themes of mortatlity, humanity and the human condition. Perhaps sometimes form does inform content.
Within the poem I am most concerned with, “As A Mydsomer Rose,” one of the most recognizable tropes is that of ubi sunt (and coincidently, for inexplicable reasons, one of my favorites). Yet, this is found only in the middle of the poem which appears to change towards the end into an allegorical piece, and for the first time the actual titled rose is endowed a type of definition (of martyrdom) that until the last stanzas remained elusive and reliant upon the intangible. Once again Lydgate brings the subject matter down to earth.
Before even approaching the poem the title bears certain connotations. Lydgate was not the first to explore the temporal beauty of the rose, reminiscent of the ephemeral nature of life. Here the idea of a midsummer rose evokes the image of a rose in full bloom – not in the youth of spring where it is merely a bud, and also not in its last phases where the petals are about to fall off, but right at the peak of its life where it embodies its most beautiful point, fully open and ripe for picking. In calendar terms (another image that will appear), midsummer could be considered in July, the month right before August that is generally associated with fall, decline, and only steps before death and winter. That is the crux of the poem as will become evident from the last line of each stanza. The ubi sunt motif begins in a rather unusual way by enumerating various traits experienced in nature and in humans only to compare them with the fate of the “mydsomyr roose,” as the question of the whereabouts of these traits remains present even if unvoiced. In this sense the rose acts as a momento mori. By the latter part of the poem the motif transitions into its more traditional form. The last stanza is a combination of elements (to be discussed later).
And my last note here will concern the actual manuscripts. This poem can be found in seven manuscripts, and between these seven there are two versions of the poem. The first, which is thought to be the earliest version, exists only in one manuscript (BL MS Harley 2255). However, this version understandably lacks a lot of the finesse found in the second. As often is the case, the second version is considered to be edited and depicts a more cohesive thought process. Consequently, the second version is the one I will be quoting when I get to the actual text. However, I am reserving that for a separate blog post that I hope to have up by next week.
In the meantime, while I could not find as many digitized images as I would have wished (read: digitized images that allowed me to repost them), here are a couple of the manuscripts:
Folio 1 of MS Harley 2255 (unfortunately I could not find folio 3, where “As A Mydsomer Rose” is).
Folio 36 of MS Harley 2251 (still not the poem in question), but it does provide a sampling of stylistic and handwriting differences between this and MS Harley 2255. Also, the scribe who worked on this manuscript, the Hammond Scribe, was also responsible for parts of Cambridge, Trinity College R.3.21 (of which I could not obtain pictures).
Folio 85 of San Marino, Huntington Library HM 140. Six hands worked on this manuscript, and this is the work of Scribe 3. (still not a picture of the poem in question).
A Catalogue of the Harleian Manuscripts in the British Museum.
Ebin, Lois A. John Lydgate.
McCracken, Henry Noble. The Lydgate Canon.
—. Minor Poems of John Lydgate.
Pearsall, Derek. John Lydgate.
Scanlon, Larry, and James Simpson, eds. John Lydgate: Poetry, Culture, and Lancastrian England.