Hoccleve at Kalamazoo 2018: Highlights

The Hoccleve society partnered with the Lydgate Society to sponsor a session this year. Thank you to Danielle Bradley for writing this excellent recap.

Hoccleve, Lydgate, and their Patrons (Session 172)

This year’s joint panel co-sponsored by the Hoccleve and Lydgate Societies explored the two poets within the context of one of the most powerful forces shaping late medieval poetry—patronage. The three panelists generally view Lydgate and Hoccleve taking control over their poetic content, catering to patrons while also subtly criticizing their influence and constructing alternative networks for the production and consumption of literature.

R. D. Perry’s “Naming Names: Creating an Audience in Hoccleve and Lydgate,” an extension of his piece soon to appear in Speculum, posits that these poets envisioned “coteries” comprised of significant potential patrons and other artists. Coteries function like a virtual creative space, inscribing proper poet-patron relations into the very form of a piece while harnessing the creative dynamism of a salon environment. Lydgate’s broader networks and prolificacy lent greater flexibility to his coteries, while Hoccleve necessarily played the role of the careful suppliant. Perry argues that both poets strategically name historic and contemporary writers to set the proper stage for their works, but that Hoccleve’s more intimate associations deserve attention for the great stock he set by proper names—especially that of Chaucer. Hoccleve also deploys silences strategically, for instance leaving Christine de Pizan unnamed in his “Letter of Cupid” as the composer of his source material; Perry believes this tacit nod to a well-known writer is meant to show Henry IV, who may have commissioned the piece, just how “in the know” Hoccleve was and how ideal he would be as an English version of Christine, writing for the Crown.

Leah Schwebel’s “Imperial and Literary Lineage in Lydgate’s Troy Book” also deals with poetic naming, and the significance of silences when a name goes conspicuously unuttered. Schwebel attempts to move beyond interpretive binaries that mark Lydgate as either antagonistic or sycophantic towards Chaucer, by showing that Lydgate engaged in complex naming strategies borrowed from Chaucer himself. She notes that Chaucer is both excessively present in and excessively absent from the Troy Book, and much like Chaucer “erases” his sources by declining to name them, Lydgate suggests Chaucer’s source Lollius for his Troy epic Troilus and Criseyde may be untrustworthy and thus launches into a discourse on Lydgate’s own status as truth-teller.

Mimi Ensley’s “Monuments, Memory, and Patronage in Lydgate’s Guy of Warwick” underscores the importance of poetry as a site of memory construction and dissemination in late medieval England. Lydgate curated the axe with which Guy drove the Danes from England into a religiously and militarily potent indicator of the prowess and importance of Guy’s heirs, Lydgate’s patron Margaret Talbot and the Beauchamp family. Much like a poet can immortalize and memorialize a family or political regime through a poetic genealogy, so Lydgate and his contemporaries might name their source material as an authorizing gesture.

It is clear, then, that patronage generated major opportunities as well as obstacles to Middle English poets, and while Hoccleve may have engaged in a similar balancing act as his contemporaries between assertiveness and silence, his greater precariousness impacted his formal poetic strategies. Our three panelists assert that patronage is a tool serving greater poetic ends, and as respondent Bobby Meyer-Lee pointed out, Hoccleve seems to be writing for “desired” rather than actual patrons, or even “invisible patrons” in the case of a poem like “Letter of Cupid” that may not have been officially commissioned. A vital avenue to pursue when studying these works is not simply how artists responded to patrons, but to each other, viewing other artists as audience members or even participants in the creative process who were all endeavoring to reveal themselves as heirs to a legitimate literary pedigree.

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