A Roll Call of Lovers’ Roles in Lydgate’s Temple of Glas

by Amanda Gerber

Eva von Contzen’s previous Listology post about Namwali Serpell’s story “Account” drew our attention to a list whose readers convert it into a narrative by inferring meaning from its items’ juxtaposition and sequencing. This post returns to the idea of the list as a narrative in order to examine the Temple of Glas by John Lydgate, a fifteenth-century poet whom modern scholars often denigrate for being a compiler and list-maker.[1] In the Temple of Glas, a partial adaptation of Chaucer’s House of Fame, one such narrative in the form of a list stretches past a hundred lines to describe several thousand lovers who come to present their love complaints to Venus. The plaintiffs plead their cases by category of love problem, such as cases involving unreciprocated love or about love objects already possessed by another. The suppliant lovers are thus arrayed as an itemized list of narrative categories, forming a type of roll call for previously written tales of love. As items collected from other sources, such as the House of Fame, Lydgate’s list becomes an intertextual archive that comments on the types of narratives it itemizes and the meanings it collectively produces.

Lydgate’s expansive list of lovers begins with the poem’s re-reading of Chaucer’s own presentation of plaintiffs in the House of Fame. In the House of Fame, characters plead their cases before the goddess Fame, who then dispenses a series of arbitrary judgments to determine their place (or lack thereof) in the annals of fame (III.1484–1867). In the hands of Lydgate, the types of plaintiffs increase to incorporate married lovers among others, but all while stripping the dialogues and courtly proceedings that dramatize Chaucer’s fame-seeking characters. As often occurs in Lydgate’s adaptations of Chaucer’s poems, narrative details seem to be reduced to figures and accumulated as types. The process has often been deemed a characteristic fifteenth-century “narrowing” of Chaucerian poetry, yet as Larry Scanlon points out, Lydgate accompanies this narrowing with an expansion of his source’s scope.[2] In this instance, the collection of typified lovers becomes a list, more specifically, a roll call of lover-types:

Ful mani a thousand of lovers here and there,
In sondri wise redi to complein
Unto the goddes of hir wo and pein,
Hou thei were hindrid, some for envie,
And some ther were that pleyned on absence,
That werin exiled and put oute of presence
And other eke her servise spent in vain,Thurugh cruel Daunger and also bi Disdain;
And some also that loved, soth to sein,
And of her ladi were not lovyd again.
And other eke that for poverté
Durst on no wise hir grete adversité
Discure ne open lest thai were refused;
And some for wanting also werin accused,
And other eke that loved secreli,
And of her ladi durst aske no merci,
And some also that putten ful grete wite
On double lovers that love thingis new,
And some ther were, as it is ofte found,
That for her ladi meny a blodi wounde
Endurid hath in mani a regioun,
And other eke compleyned on Riches,
Hou he with tresour doth his besines
To wynnen al againes kind and right,
Wher trw lovers have force noon ne myght.
And some ther were as maydens yung of age,
That pleined sore with peping and with rage,
That thei were coupled ageines al nature
With croked elde, that may not long endure
And other next I saugh there in gret rage,
That thei were married in her tendir age
Withoute freedom of eleccioun
And other saugh I ful oft wepe and wring
That they in men founde swych variynge,
And som also I saugh in teris reyne,
And pitousli on God and Kynde pleyne,
That ever thei would on eny creature
So mych beauté, passing bi mesure,
Set on a woman to geve occasioun
A man to love to his confusioun
I saugh there eke (and therof hade I routhe)
That some were hindred for covetise and slouth,
And some also for her hastiness,
And other eke for hir reklesnes. (144–246) [emphasis added]


Lydgate’s groups of thousands of lovers include those who complain about their lovers’ absence, some who love in vain, some who love without reciprocity, others who avoid amatory activities due to shame about their poverty, others who love secretly, some who pursue multiple lovers due to their love of new things, some who suffered wounds for love, others who complain about wealth that wins lovers away from true lovers, some young maidens who complain about unnatural matches with old men, others who are enraged because they were forced to marry at a young age, others who weep because men are changeable, some who cry at the surpassing beauty of a woman, some who are hindered by covetousness, some by hastiness, and others by recklessness. Lydgate compiles this list by repeating a series of coordinating conjunctions alongside the determiners “some” or “other.” The parataxis and repetition compile all the lovers as grammatically equal subjects of love, whose suffering, though caused by different factors, appear in equivalent representational forms. Even the manner of their grievances emerges in comparable forms of expression, with their various hardships appearing in a series of complaints and woeful tears.

The itemized and equalized complaints, however, have their own distinct narrative histories. For example, Guillaume de Machaut’s Jugement du roi de Behaigne depicts a character complaining of her lover’s absence due to death and another character lamenting that his lover enjoys multiple lovers. The poem enfolds as a thrice repeated debate about which of the two suffers most, the third of which they present to the King of Bohemia, who rules in favor of the character with an unfaithful lover. Even before Lydgate’s Temple of Glas, Chaucer’s House of Fame had already condensed this French dits genre among others into a series of character types lamenting before Fame, but Lydgate takes this process further to excise all traces of the judgment system used to differentiate lovers’ complaints. Such reductions of characters to a list of equivalent patterns are one of the primary objections that modern readers have to Lydgate’s style, which seemingly reduces artistry such as Chaucer’s to rote and unimaginative forms. As an avid imitator of Chaucer, however, Lydgate repeatedly demonstrates what he considers to be a central component of Chaucerian poesy, extrapolating what he considers to be already present in the House of Fame. Chaucer’s own version presents character types in quick succession before the arbitrary arbiter of fame, a system of judgement and justice that Lydgate removes.

By rearranging the same pieces of discontented characters, Lydgate produces a new meaning for his complaining lovers who profess their anguish without being contained by a court system aimed to weigh their cases against each other. Each character group instead appears to express or even confess their anguish on equal footing. This rearrangement of character types unfolds as a series of confessions more than plaints, a rearrangement that the poem uses to introduce a lady who confesses her impossible love. As a preamble for the lady’s entrance, the list becomes a multilayered context of types of laments that culminate in the lady’s. However, the list also retains its own meaning as an intertextual archive of narratives already told by other poets. The list thereby functions as an identification of the patterns from which the poem itself emerges as well as the drama towards which the poem is directed. The resulting list thus becomes a commentary on itself, questioning what its presumed Chaucerian model both performs and comprises: that is to say, by reimagining Chaucer’s list of plaintiffs, Lydgate’s roll call of lover-types seemingly flirts with the idea that a narrated list of previous narrative subjects can both reiterate and regenerate its collected items.

[1] See for example A. C. Spearing, Medieval to Renaissance in English Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 59–120; and Larry Scanlon, Narrative, Authority and Power: The Medieval Exemplum and the Chaucerian Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 322–50.

[2] David Lawton, “Dullness and the Fifteenth Century,” ELH 54 (1987): 761–99; Larry Scanlon, “Lydgate’s Poetics: Laureation and Domesticity in the Temple of Glass,” in John Lydgate: Poetry, Culture, and Lancastrian England, edited by Larry Scanlon and James Simpson (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006), 78; and Paul Strohm, “Chaucer’s Fifteenth Century Audience and the Narrowing of the ‘Chaucer Tradition,’” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 4 (1982): 3–32.

One thought on “A Roll Call of Lovers’ Roles in Lydgate’s Temple of Glas

Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: