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John Lydgate, The Temple of Glas: Introduction


1 Pearsall, John Lydgate (1997), pp. 14 and 31.

2 Edwards, “Lydgate Manuscripts,” p. 21. Some contemporary humor might be found in an impor­tant early manuscript containing The Temple of Glas copied by John Shirley (BL Add. 16165). In a prologue Shirley describes the black monk as a man who aimed to “plese gentyles,” for which literary labor he was amply repaid: in what sounds like a pun (nobles = gentlemen and coins), Shirley says of Lydgate, “God wolde, of nobles he hade ful his hoode” (cited in Lydgate’s Temple of Glas, ed. Schick, p. lxxxiii; transcribed in Connolly, John Shirley, pp. 206–08).

3 Simpson, Oxford English Literary History, p. 52.

4 For comprehensive accounts of the poet’s biography and bibliography, see Schirmer, John Lydgate; Pearsall, John Lydgate (1970); and more recently Pearsall, John Lydgate (1997).

5 Critics usually assume adultery or marriage; the notion of a clandestine marriage was put forward by Kelly, Love and Marriage, pp. 291–93, and is accepted by Tinkle, Medieval Venuses and Cupids, pp. 154–59.

6 See Connolly’s John Shirley, the second chapter of which offers a discussion of BL Add. 16165; the likelihood of Shirley’s personal acquaintance with Lydgate is addressed on p. 84. See also Edwards, “Lydgate Manuscripts,” pp. 19–21, on the role of Shirley in disseminating Lydgate. Pearsall, John Lydgate (1997), p. 18, notes in general: “When Shirley tells us something in his rubrics, we may assume that it is not mere carelessness or desire to deceive, though he might embroider or exaggerate for effect or in order to assist in the construction of romantic narratives of the lives of the poets, or for the sake of enhancing his reputation as a communicator of inside knowledge.”

7 Bianco, “New Perspectives,” pp. 104–05, who proposes that the poem marked the 1403 royal union, at the same time acknowledges that The Temple of Glas may not have been all that suitable given its unsavory depiction of a sexually wayward Venus; see note 38 below.

8 MacCracken, “Additional Light.” Moore, “Patrons of Letters,” pp. 193–94, soon gave excellent reasons to reject the idea that Lydgate was celebrating the wedlock of William and Agnes. Schirmer, John Lydgate, pp. 37–38, thinks the Pastons “improbable” but still believes the poem celebrated a wedding. William’s son owned a copy of The Temple of Glas and once requested it urgently in inter­esting circumstances, on which see below.

9 Seaton, Sir Richard Roos, pp. 375–76. The Prince of Wales, future Henry V, would go on to develop an important patronage relation with the poet: he commissioned Troy Book (c. 1412–20).

10 On the amatory intrigues of Katherine see Griffiths, Reign of King Henry VI, pp. 60–62; Jones, “Catherine (1401–1437)”; and Strickland, Lives of the Queens of England, pp. 141–214. Katherine’s earlier amorous attachment to Edmund Beaufort seems to have precipitated the parliamentary Act of 1427–28. Duke Humphrey of Gloucester would have been extremely put out had Katherine finally settled on Edmund, nephew to Gloucester’s long-time rival Bishop Beaufort, who for his part must have stood to gain a great deal by promoting a royal marriage to one of his family members during the minority of Henry VI. Lydgate’s relationship with Gloucester, whom the poet honors in other works from the same decade (e.g., On Gloucester’s Approaching Marriage, written around 1422), makes it possible that The Temple of Glas takes the side of the Gloucester faction in opposing Beaufort by backing an alternative candidate in Owen. More detailed investigation is needed to decide whether the poem is about one or the other controversial love matches of the dowager queen, but at least the stealth involved in her marriage makes her a more likely candidate than the others proposed by scholars so far. Lydgate composed other poems for Katherine (on transience and in praise of the Virgin), and he celebrates her in several places; see Schirmer, John Lydgate, pp. 92, 106–07, 131–34, and 200, and Pearsall, John Lydgate (1970), pp. 164–65. Might she be the dedicatee at the end of The Temple of Glas?

11 Pearsall, John Lydgate (1970), p. 84.

12 Bianco, “New Perspectives,” p. 104.

13 Seaton, Sir Richard Roos, p. 376. Sir John Paston was betrothed but never married to Anne Haute, though they were together for nine years and produced an illegitimate child, so the poem may have had particular poignancy in their case. See Davis, Paston Letters and Papers.

14 Compare Bianco, “New Perspectives,” p. 114, on the way the poem “demands critical engagement.” Crockett, “Venus Unveiled,” p. 68, also emphasizes the mysteries of the poem and compares the work to the detective novel: “The pleasure of reading a poem like The Temple of Glas may have been more like the pleasure of reading Arthur Conan Doyle than of reading Keats.”

15 The terminology is that of Iser, Act of Reading.

16 For example, Schirmer, John Lydgate, p. 38, criticizes the poet for being “imitative” and “remote from life in his archaic book-knowledge and predilection for rhetoric.” Norton-Smith, “Lydgate’s Changes,” p. 177, says the “borrowings of time and place illustrate Lydgate’s characteristic stripping away of Chaucerian complexity, especially of allegory.” For Spearing, Medieval Dream-Poetry, p. 173, the poem indicates Lydgate’s “failure to grasp what is really happening in fourteenth-century dream-poems.” And Russell, English Dream Vision, pp. 199–201, agrees that Lydgate pays homage to his elder without coming close to rivaling his achievements. New approaches to Lydgate do not find much use for these tired truisms, and Edwards, “Lydgate Scholarship,” confirms that actually they have long been suspect. Simpson, Oxford English Literary History, p. 50, offers a salutary corrective: “almost none of Lydgate’s works is directly imitative of Chaucer: those poems that do relate to Chaucer’s do so with more powerful strategies in mind than slavish imitation.”

17 Bianco, “New Perspectives,” p. 96.

18 On the French background, see, for example, Bianco, “Black Monk,” and Boffey, “English Dream Poems”; and for examples in translation, see Windeatt, Chaucer’s Dream Poetry.

19 Spearing, Medieval Dream-Poetry, p. 173, argues that Lydgate takes up such details because he is “interested in such things simply for their own sake, as a magpie is attracted by anything shiny.” Yet comparable images of mutability, fragility, and flux have an important place in The Temple of Glas, as befits a poem about shifting loyalties and erotic passions (especially if they are unsanctioned).

20 See Pearsall, John Lydgate (1970), pp. 39–40, who notes that some figures (e.g., Theseus and Canacee and her brother) appear in the list for reasons that have nothing to do with love.

21 See Bianco, “New Perspectives,” pp. 109–14; and Tinkle, Medieval Venuses and Cupids, pp. 129–35. But Schick, in his edition of Lydgate’s Temple of Glas, p. cxxxvi, complains that this is evidence of the poet’s confusion (“general muddle-patedness”).

22 The relationships between The Temple of Glas and literary and historical “courts of love” is explored by Boffey, “‘Forto compleyne.’”

23 Compare Tinkle, Medieval Venuses and Cupids, pp. 154–59.

24 Pearsall, John Lydgate (1970), p. 104. The idea was originally expressed in Lydgate’s Temple of Glas, ed. Schick, pp. lxxxviii and cxiii. Spearing, Medieval Dream-Poetry, p. 174, thinks the poetry here is especially good because it draws on something at least closer to personal experience than romantic love.

25 Pearsall, John Lydgate (1997), p. 13.

26 For similar complaints in Middle English poetry, see Court of Love, lines 1095–1136, and James I’s Kingis Quair, lines 624–30. On the practice of “child oblation” and its decline in the later medieval period, see de Jong, In Samuel’s Image, pp. 44–45, 294, 297, et passim. Readers can be forgiven for speculating about a monk who gives expression to wayward sexual desire in agreeable verse. Often men­tioned but seldom discussed, the paradox of a celibate cleric indulging in romantic fantasies exerts an irresistible tug. There are other examples (e.g., Douglas, Dunbar, Skelton) of celibate love poets, and Lydgate may have been writing for commission or even “on spec.” Still, Lydgate’s autobiographical questions (long out of favor in modern literary scholarship) will not go away.

27 The phrase is from Lawton, “Dullness and the Fifteenth Century,” p. 767.

28 Appearing to do things like Chaucer is indeed one of the ways Lydgate may be able to “get away” with artistic choices he would otherwise need to justify.

29 Compare Miskimin, “Patterns in The Kingis Quair and the Temple of Glas,” p. 354.

30 For an intelligent discussion of looking and longing in other poems besides The Temple of Glas, see Spearing’s Medieval Poet as Voyeur.

31 Pearsall, John Lydgate (1970), p. 108.

32 Scanlon, “Lydgate’s Poetics,” pp. 86-90.

33 Compare Bianco, “New Perspectives,” p. 114.

34 Lydgate’s Temple of Glas, ed. Schick, p. cxxxv.

35 Lewis, Allegory of Love, p. 241.

36 Pearsall, John Lydgate (1970), pp. 106–07.

37 Torti, Glass of Form, pp. 77–80.

38 Bianco, “New Perspectives,” p. 111, notes that the love knot may be unpropitious: “When she binds the lovers together . . . is she performing a ‘marriage’ ceremony, or simply echoing the action of Vulcan in the early part of the poem?” Compare Crockett, “Venus Unveiled,” p. 85, who argues that the chain of Venus is an “image of enslavement to erotic love.”

39 Lewis, Allegory of Love, p. 242.

40 Why might Lydgate come at the topic in this indirect manner? He may have polarized the issue between social constraint and individual consent to make it palatable. The antithetical frame of mind is something for which the poet has been criticized by Pearsall, John Lydgate (1970), pp. 110–15, but it allows him some immunity by stirring up pathos for ideas that would otherwise be too easy to dis­countenance.

41 The phrase is from Walker, “Muse of Indifference,” p. 204.

42 Crocket, “Venus Unveiled,” argues that in The Temple of Glas Lydgate employs “ironic allegory” (p. 69) to condemn the idolatry and sensuality of the lovers and all that Venus symbolizes.

43 Compare Torti, Glass of Form, pp. 81–82; Davidoff, Beginning Well, p. 141. An older view has it that the dreamer is “merely an observer” before whom a dream unfolds without involving him in interesting (i.e., Chaucerian) ways; see Spearing, Medieval Dream-Poetry, p. 174.

44 Davidoff, Beginning Well, pp. 144–45.

45 Brown, Reading Dreams, p. 33.

46 See the ninth chapter of Culler’s Pursuit of Signs.

47 See Barthes, Pleasure of the Text, p. 9: “Is not the most erotic portion of the body where the garment gapes?” (emphasis original).

48 On which see Lydgate’s Temple of Glas, ed. Schick, p. xx; Bianco, “Black Monk,” p. 65; and Symons, Chaucerian Dream Visions, p. 87, for the correct identification and translation of line and folio numbers.

49 Troy Book 5.3483–84. For another discussion of meter and style, see Schirmer, John Lydgate, pp. 70 ff.

50 On the particular importance of self-deprecation and professions of dullness (or the “humility topos”) in fifteenth-century writing, see Lawton, “Dullness and the Fifteenth Century.”

51 Schirmer, John Lydgate, p. 73; Lydgate, Minor Poems, ed. MacCracken, p. viii; Manzalaoui, “Lydgate and English Prosody,” 87–104.

52 Duffell, “Lydgate’s Metrical Inventiveness,” pp. 240 ff. Earlier discussed by Schick in Lydgate’s Temple of Glas, p. lxxiv, but not accepted as a real obstacle or extenuating factor.

53 A five-type schema is developed by Schick in his edition, Lydgate’s Temple of Glas, pp. liv–lxiii, but he admits that many lines falling in one category can with different emphasis fall just as well into another.

54 See Lydgate’s Fall of Princes, ed. Bergen, pp. xxx–xliv.

55 Bianco, “Black Monk,” pp. 65–66, observes that mixed verse forms are not favored or employ­ed at all in those works of Chaucer (i.e., House of Fame, Legend of Good Women, and Parliament of Fowls) that most influenced Lydgate’s Temple of Glas.

56 Lewis, Allegory of Love, p. 240.

57 Schirmer, John Lydgate, p. 76.

58 See Couormont, “Studies on Lydgate’s Syntax,” pp. 134–37; Lydgate’s Temple of Glas, ed. Schick, p. cxxxiv; and Hardman, “Lydgate’s Uneasy Syntax,” pp. 12-35.

59 Pearsall, John Lydgate (1970), p. 40.

60 For introductions to the drama, see Schirmer, John Lydgate, pp. 100–08, and Pearsall, John Lydgate (1970), pp. 183–88.

61 Pearsall, John Lydgate (1970), p. 109; Spearing, Medieval Dream-Poetry, p. 172; Davidoff, Beginning Well, p. 138.

62 See also John Lydgate: Poems, ed. Norton-Smith, p. 176; Renoir and Benson, “John Lydgate.” p. 2160; Pearsall, John Lydgate (1997), p. 79. The fragments are found in the first four folia of British Library MS Sloane 1212, on which see Seaton, Sir Richard Roos, p. 376, and Pearsall, John Lydgate (1970), p. 18; and in National Library of Scotland Advocates 1.1.6.

63 Bianco, “New Perspectives,” p. 104.

64 See Boffey, Fifteenth-Century English Dream Visions, p. 19; Bianco, “New Perspectives,” p. 104.

65 This appended Compleynt should not be confused with Lydgate’s A Complaynte of a Lovers Lyfe (or The Complaint of the Black Knight), which also appears in many of the same manuscripts. See Symons, Chaucerian Dream Visions, p. 89-90.

66 Lerer, Chaucer and His Readers, p. 68.

67 Edited by Boffey, Fifteenth-Century English Dream Visions, pp. 15–89.

68 See MS Tanner 346, ed. Robinson, p. xxiv, for the hypothesis that Tanner shares with Fairfax and Bodley a com­mon ancestor in a lost “Oxford” archetype.
John Lydgate (c. 1371–1449) composed The Temple of Glas in the first quarter of the fifteenth century, though it is not certain for whom or what occasion, if any, the dream vision was written. Chaucer’s House of Fame, written just around the time Lydgate was born, is usually recognized as one of the most important literary sources of inspiration for Lydgate. However, Lydgate does not consistently follow any single source or analogue but rather, in the style of a highly educated and capable medieval poet, absorbs and adapts materials from a cosmopolitan literary tradition to invent something new and enigmatic.

Lydgate belonged to the order of the great Benedictine abbey of Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk, and by the time he came to write The Temple of Glas he had already advanced through the stages of his novitiate to become an ordained priest. But he is not to be thought of as confined to a sheltered existence. Lydgate was sent to be educated at Oxford, and he spent stretches of time abroad and in London. Moreover, Bury St Edmunds was in some measure at the intersection of fifteenth-century political, intellectual, and religious life. In this milieu an aspiring poet could have found audiences hospitable to the type of fashionable courtly verse Lydgate produced in The Temple of Glas. Still, although the poem cannot be dated with any certainty, it may come from a period in the 1420s when Lydgate enjoyed comparative independence from the monastery.1 For indeed, the poem is an example of secular court verse in which he indulged without the scruples one might assume (however anachronistically) in a medieval cleric. In fact, Lydgate took on multiple roles and worked in various genres throughout his career as a writer of love complaints, devotional verse, saints’ legends, dramatic entertainments, historical works, didactic poems, satires, and more; and he responded to com­missions from kings, clerics, guildsmen, and women of rank. The list of patrons “reads like a Who’s Who of fifteenth-century England.”2 In effect, as James Simpson has observed, Lydgate’s “corpus is riven by distinct, often exclusive, generic and discursive commitments.”3 Such is the long, retrospective view of a writer who put himself at the service not just of religion but also of the secular realm, and whose prolific literary output totals some 145,000 lines of verse to which it would be ludicrous to fasten a single label. When he wrote The Temple of Glas Lyd­gate was probably just beginning his career: the chronology is uncertain, but he had likely trans­lated fables (e.g., Churl and the Bird and Isopes Fabules), composed other love poems (e.g., A Complaynt of a Loveres Lyfe), and attempted to render an extended French love allegory into English (Reson and Sensuallyte) — showing that his literary horizons were already expansive.4

The Temple of Glas takes the form of an elusive and suspenseful — but for that reason all the more sensational — dream vision that demands close attention to detail and the dynamic way in which the meaning of events unfolds. It also requires some detective work. Leaving aside complications generated by the framing fiction and the presence of the dreamer, the “plot” of the dream vision is deceptive in its simplicity. In it a lady is seen confessing to a secret desire for a man she is forbidden or unable to love but with whom, in the latter stages of the vision, she becomes joined in a cryptic extramarital ceremony con­ducted by Venus. The god­dess instructs the couple to wait until some unspecified obstacle is removed, which will even­tually allow them to consummate their love. What holds them back until then? Some readers have been inclined to take the poem as an allegory of adulterous love, the impediment to instant sexual gratification or a licit union being the lady’s existing husband; but there may be some other, quite different set of constraints imposed on the couple by a guardian. The lady’s dilemma may also be explained, in psychological terms, as a reluctance to yield the personal freedoms she recognizes are not available to women in public betrothal. Is she caught, like Criseyde in the second book of Troilus and Criseyde, between the desire for a romantic bond and fear of social institutions and coercive conventions that would transform romance into mere bondage? The anonymity and ambiguity of the affair prevents us from ascertaining such basic facts, the uncertainty of which is due as much to the narrative form of the work as to its matter. What may be called the limited legibility of the poem is a func­tion of its fantasy structure.

A few critics have sought to plumb the mysteries by locating within The Temple of Glas a corresponding set of historical references and contemporary realia, proposing that Lydgate must originally have composed the poem to mark a public betrothal or clandestine marriage.5 Encouragement for such literal readings of the poem can be found in a manu­script rubric written by John Shirley, a scribe who may have been personally acquainted with Lydgate: Shirley’s early copy of the poem (BL Add. 16165) describes The Temple of Glas as “une soynge moult plesaunt fait a la request d’un amoreux par Lidegate Le Moygne de Bury” (“a very pleasant dream made at the request of a lover, by Lydgate the Monk of Bury”).6 Yet the state­ment is about as elliptical as the poem. For which lover might the poem have been commis­sioned? Over the years, various connubial and patronage arrangements have been con­jectured and circumstantial evidence marshaled. Most recently it has been argued, based on internal evidence such as the emblematic hawthorn (appearing in line 505 in one version of the poem) with its connections to the House of Lancaster, that Lydgate composed The Temple of Glas for the wedding of Henry IV and Joan of Navarre in 1403.7 Other schol­ars propose later dates. That the motto of the lady in the dream (De Mieulx en Mieulx, line 310) is the same as that of the Paston family leads one early critic to wager that the poem was occasioned by the 1420 nuptials of William Paston and Agnes Berry.8 Another believes the poem was begun in 1438 to celebrate the wedlock of Richard Roos and Margaret Vernon, though the same critic admits that The Temple of Glas equally appears to suit the marriage of Henry V and Katherine of Valois in 1420.9 In this connection, however, with its strong suggestion of scandal and demands for secrecy, Lydgate’s poem is more likely to be concerned with Queen Katherine’s dalliances in the years following the death of Henry in 1422. For indeed, there is an argument to be made that Lydgate was lending his clerical authority and poetic craft to the cause of justifying the clandestine marriage of Katherine and Owen Tudor. Probably no later than the end of the decade the dowager queen had entered into wedlock with the Welsh squire, a union that had to be kept quiet both because it was morganatic and because it flouted a recent Act of Parliament (1427–28) that required an adult king to approve the widow’s next marriage. Consequently, in the late 1420s the young queen was in a similar position to that of the lady in The Temple of Glas, unable publicly to exercise her “liberté” in affairs of the heart.10 If in fact Lydgate’s poem addresses Katherine’s forbid­den but not strictly speaking immoral (i.e., adulterous) affair, certainly we can more easily explain the monk’s interest in the matter, and why it is said that the couple comes together “withoute synne” (line 1346).

But ultimately the list of candidates and corresponding dates — ranging from 1400 all the way to 1438 — may suggest that none of the particular historical occasions or individuals fits the poem satisfactorily, or exclusively. Attempts to pin down a single rationale for the poem also risk begging the question about which of the surviving versions is original or authorial (need there be only one?). I will return to these textual difficulties below. Still, some will find consolation in Shirley’s assertion that the poem is a bespoke artifact — for the notion of a commission is, as Pearsall admits, “something to appease our sense of the pre­posterousness of a monk writing love-poems.”11 If Lydgate did write The Temple of Glas for a specific occasion the particular facts remain to be demonstrated. Like any good gossip the “facts” seem charged with significance, though their credibility and usefulness is uncertain.

One other possibility that needs to be considered is that a patron is just what Lydgate hoped to obtain with The Temple of Glas: the poem’s notorious vagueness or abstractness may have been an attempt on the part of Lydgate, opportunist that he was, to attract the widest range of customers in different situations. There is indeed some circumstantial evidence that the poem had attracted several applications and audiences throughout the fifteenth century, for a point to which we will need to return is that the poem as we have it survives in three different versions, each of which may have been tailored (“customized”) to fit different circumstances.12 And in its afterlife the poem seems to have been employed in at least one other real-life romance:
Sir John Paston demanded his copy in a hurry in 1461/2 when he was wooing Anne Haute; he probably wanted it, just as Slender wanted his “Book of Songs and Sonnets,” to woo another Mistress Anne.13
But again the details are hazy and readers can only speculate as to their significance.

Seducing readers with possibilities remains what The Temple of Glas does best, and that special magnetism speaks not only to the provenance and textual history of Lydgate’s poem but also to its literary qualities. For indeed, if The Temple of Glas appears to “go public” with private matters we can no longer identify, there is a way in which fresh documentary evidence (should it ever come to light) would not be enough to settle the text’s meaning. Lydgate’s poem is not reducible to the literal or referential level, for what it offers is a mystifying and alluring aesthetic experience.14 Designed to seduce its audience with a spectacle of a secret and illicit love affair, The Temple of Glas is contrived to capture and concentrate attention. I will return to consider the implied or hypothetical audience of the work whose good favor the poet attempts to court (i.e., “my lady,” who is the poet’s fictional paramour), but it may be equally important to recognize that the poem has designs on us (or any actual audience). Critics agree that it is charmingly obscure and faintly, delectably taboo. Something of the poem’s sex appeal lies in the way it is curiously reticent and secre­tive about its purposes while remaining extremely suggestive, puzzling, provoking, even scandalous. How it man­ages to turn its relatively limited resources to advantage is worth considering. The following discussion attempts to highlight the “strategies of the text” around which the reader’s aesthetic experience is structured and through which the mean­ing of The Temple of Glas is gradually realized.15 Principally, these strategies include the careful modulation and juxtaposition of contrastive elements brought together in original and absorbing ways, making the poem itself a secret and seductive affair — which may, in fact, be the main point.

The Temple of Glas begins with the poet recalling how recently one December night he was kept awake by anxious and oppressive thoughts, the exact cause of which pensiveness is not identified. He tells us no more about his personal condition than that eventually he fell fast asleep and dreamt of being taken up to a resplendent Temple of Glass. Immediately the dream sequence recalls the opening to The House of Fame in which another disturbed dreamer is transported to a nearly identical location on a mid-December night. Explanatory notes to this edition will indicate the many debts Lydgate pays to Chaucer throughout The Temple of Glas, although tracking the intertextual references alone will not decode the poem. Long reputed for striving to imitate Chaucer, Lydgate has until recently been compared unfavor­ably with the older poet.16 “The inevitable result,” as Sue Bianco has said, “is that Lydgate, not being Chaucer, is found wanting.”17 In fact, Chaucer is only one point of departure for Lydgate: he owes much to Continental dream poetry and dits amoureux (e.g., Le Roman de la rose and Froissart’s Le Temple d’honneur), and the results are post-Chaucerian due to substantive differences in execution and effect.18

While at one level The Temple of Glas clearly speaks to the legacy of Chaucer, it rapidly develops in other directions by absorbing and recombining “borrowed” elements. For exam­ple, the glassy temple and its icy foundation (lines 16–20) are details picked up directly from different places in The House of Fame but coupled together here in order to lay special emphasis on the symbolism of the Temple of Glass.19 Lydgate’s dedicated focus on the lovers’ shrine is distinctive. Remaining for the duration in and around the precincts of the building (rather than treating it as a picturesque diversion en route to the House of Fame as in Chaucer), Lydgate finds scope for his own poetical invention by moving through Chaucerian images. Not content with superficial appearances, the poet investigates the depths of the temple. As if extending and dilating upon a brief moment in Chaucer’s House of Fame, Lydgate makes something original and strangely — if only deceptively — familiar.

The scenes inside the temple confirm the poet’s own conscious preoccupation with mutability and superficiality; surface appearance is a main theme. Having entered the place through a small “wiket” (line 39), resembling portals found in French love allegories as well as in Chaucer’s House of Fame and Merchant’s Tale, the dreamer goes on to describe what he saw on the walls. They depict “sondri lovers” (line 46), both faithful and faithless, divine and human, married and adulterous, grouped together according to no self-evident organ­izing principle. Many of the famous lovers are derived from Ovid’s Metamorphoses but also appear prominently in Chaucer’s works. Seth Lerer has thus argued that Lydgate is here emulating a Chaucerian anthology: the wall painting, with its précis of The Knight’s Tale in the center and of the Squire’s Tale at its end, functions as a tribute and table of contents to Chaucer’s works in the manner of the catalogue in the F-Prologue to The Legend of Good Women. For Lerer, this apparent homage to the older poet is symptomatic of the younger poet’s anxious fixation on Chaucer’s paternal authority. But there is surely also something unsettling about Lydgate’s casual listing of the images displayed on the walls, making it hard to accept that they could be so transparent (even if made of glass). They do more than just mediate Chau­cer. For indeed, “various traditions merge and combine” on the walls.20 Lydgate treats literary tradi­tion here as though it were itself in a state of flux. That volatility about the place is made emphatic in the image of Venus — herself portrayed floating on the sea, the focal but fluid image around which lovers gather to present their pleas (lines 50–54), while also appearing several lines later as one of the lovers (lines 126–28). Multiform and mutable throughout, Venus will figure later in The Temple of Glas as a statue, a planet, and an active deity.21 Her vari­able ontol­ogy matches the metamorphoses and miscellaneousness of the lovers on the temple mural and indicates the freedom with which the poet felt he could combine disparate materials.

The dreamer goes on to report that the sanctuary of the temple is crowded with thou­sands of people who have come to present appeals to Venus (lines 143–246). Here the poem comes to resemble other near-contemporary love allegories, such as The Assembly of Ladies and Kingis Quair, which feature courts of love where pleas are presented and adjudicated.22 The diverse amatory predicaments of the lovers mirror the sorrowful conditions depicted on the walls (i.e., unrequited love, jealousy, duplicity, absence, abandonment, the incompa­tibility of youth and age, the interference of parents), though some lovers face the further and perhaps “present-day” impediments of forced religious celibacy and arranged mar­riages. One does not have to read far into The Temple of Glas, then, to realize that the poem is a frank exposé of the refractory desires which lurk behind the masks of social propriety and conscience, even escaping the most cherished legal and moral bonds. The antithesis be­tween spontaneous sexual passion and imposed social controls, or between desire and duty, begins to emerge as another preoccupation of Lydgate’s The Temple of Glas.23 And it is one more sign of the poet’s concern with what lies under surfaces and simulacra.

It may seem significant, indeed, that the poet goes so far as to peer under the cloak of his religion. Here Lydgate imagines one group of female complainants, committed at a young age to the convent by their parents and now unable to renounce their vocation, who “al her life cannot but complein, / In wide copis perfeccion to feine” (lines 203–04). Some critics are tempted to think Lydgate is getting personal, as though the passage were a “belated cri de coeur for what he has missed.”24 Lydgate was himself only a boy when he joined the order at Bury.25 The passage is clearly sympathetic, even if not symptomatic of his own repressed desire; cer­tainly there is no overt moral condemnation of the hypocrisy of holy women who con­ceal sexu­al love-longing. But the complaint, however moving or rele­vant, is convention­ally grouped together with others, and it refers to a practice that was ob­solescent by the fifteenth century.26

A more likely scenario is that Lydgate presents himself as the opposite sort of fellow, adopting the “Chaucerian stance of noncombatant,”27 claiming no experience of love, for it does not seem that he has come to Venus’ temple for amatory reasons. Yet this Chaucerian stance, as we will see, may just be a momentary disguise or self-delusion.28 After describing the temple building and the multitude of lovers within, the dreamer fixes a loving gaze on one female supplicant whom he saw kneeling beside the statues of Pallas and Venus. In a conventional but highly focused description of the physical and personal attributes of the courtly lady (lines 250–320), the dreamer perceives that she is a paragon of beauty, courtesy, discretion, and faithfulness. He is like another Troilus struck by Criseyde in the Palladian temple. Yet it is not explained how, just by looking at the lady, the dreamer could have gauged not just her appearance but the quality of her character or “condicioun” (line 284). His penetrating, voyeuristic gaze is an important part of the fantasy, a fictional world of his own invention (or projection) in which surfaces and depths unexpectedly converge. Sight and seduction are intimately related on the diegetic level of The Temple of Glas, the piercing look functioning throughout as a leitmotif describing the eyes of the beloved whose rays reach deep into the heart (e.g., lines 262–63, 582–83, 813–17).29 Sight violates normal bound­aries, upsets the order of things, and is not merely a passive faculty. The dream vision, as it develops, is itself invasive: the dreamer exposes private affairs, secret rites, intimate hopes and fears, in an act of looking that is really a kind of longing.30 Moreover, his looks are invested with a fetishistic desire comparable to that of the lovers. Indeed the poet’s experi­ences will seem to develop into those of a Chaucerian combatant unexpectedly engaged in love. Nar­ration, as we can already discern in this early part of the poem, becomes an act of adoration.

But if the dreamer seems to unveil everything, important elements remain unknown and untold. Who, for example, is the lady? Her clothing is green and white, decorated with scrolls, and emblazoned with the motto De Mieulx en Mieulx (line 310), as though she were some specific and identifiable person. The dreamer goes on to report her complaint to Venus, inviting further speculation about her identity:
For I am bounde to thing that I nold,
Freli to chese there lak I liberté.
And so I want of that myn herte would —
The bodi knyt, althoughe my thought be fre —
So that I most of necessité
Myn hertis lust outward contrarie;
Thogh we be on, the dede most varie.

Mi worship sauf, I faile eleccioun;
Again al right, bothe of God and Kynd,
There to be knit undir subjeccion . . . (lines 335–44)
don’t want
lack; desires
outwardly contradict
one (united); deed

honor preserved

Her complaint, candid though it may seem, is short on specifics. The evocative lan­guage she uses to describe her double bind suggests that the lady may be caught in a loveless marriage, betrothed to be married against her will, or prevented from marrying at all due to a religious vow or some other regulation. At this point the reader is left guessing. It is only clear that she desires a man she cannot possess:
For he that hath myn herte feithfulli
And hole my luf in al honesti
Withoute chaunge, albeit secreli,
I have no space with him forto be. (lines 363–66)

completely [possesses]

In reply, Venus promises that some day the lady will have what she desires, though she must wait patiently, and that meanwhile the man will be made to love her devotedly (lines 370–453). The lady then praises the goddess for her beneficence (lines 461–502). Venus bestows on her a green and white hawthorn chaplet along with instructions about constancy in love (lines 503–23). The first part of the poem ends with great promise.

The second part opens with the dreamer leaving the commotion of the temple to be alone, whereupon he sees a solitary man complaining (lines 567–693), thus recalling Chau­cer’s encounter with the grief-stricken knight in the Book of the Duchess. But Lydgate’s man is lamenting his subjection to the God of Love. He has just now been smitten by the sight of a lady in the temple (fulfilling Venus’ promise at lines 440–53) and finds himself suspended between dread and hope. And he is unaware of being observed by the dreamer. The parallel with Book of the Duchess lies not in the details of the man’s situation but rather in the dis­tancing effect produced by the presence of a naïve or uncomprehending dreamer: for at this stage the dreamer does not or cannot say if the object of the man’s affection, whom the man calls “goodli fressh in the tempil yonder” (line 577), is the same lady who featured in the first part and was described as “so goodli on to se” (line 269). The lover’s own stereotyped description of the lady hardly narrows down the possibilities, for every courtly lady is super­latively excellent. He does not mention her motto or any other distinguishing marks; and he shows no cognizance of the practical obstacles she raised in her earlier speech to Venus, for in his lament the man thinks the only thing keeping him from her is his own dread and her “Daunger” (“Aloofness” — line 646). If she is married or otherwise “knit undir subjeccion” (line 344), then ironically he faces additional obstacles. The dreamer does not seem any better informed, or at least we can say he is hardly informative on this point. Lydgate’s practice of postponing the truth and merely teasing out implications — all the while seeming to expose everything — generates subtle ironies and mounting tensions.

The man goes on to make his own complaint to Venus (lines 701–847), pleading for Cupid to strike the lady with his firebrand so that she becomes enflamed with passion. But if she is the same lady, then why should he have to ask? It has been suggested that the man’s complaint about unrequited love is “rather ungrateful, and Venus’s promise of help unnec­es­sary.”31 Probably the lover does not know as much as Pearsall thinks he should, and it is right to recall that the lady loves him “albeit secreli” (line 365). Here we must recognize that the lady enjoys an uncommon autonomy and priority in the narrative of events — and that the man’s perspective is particularly incomplete and his understanding belated.32 Lydgate is managing a narrative of self-discovery and disclosure for the male lover as for the narrator and the reader, presenting events in an allegory that compresses time and space for poetic effect. Part of reading The Temple of Glas is learning how to read.

Venus subsequently tells the man to take heart and speak to the lady, for “Withoute spech thou maist no merci have” (line 912). Once he gathers his courage (and the poet collects his wits to be able to relate what happens next), the man goes on to address the lady, asking for mercy and promising fidelity and secrecy (lines 970–1039). She grants him her love as far as she is able, telling him that until Venus “list provyde / To shape a wai for oure hertis ease” (lines 1082–83), they must wait. The reader must also wait to see whether these vague references will be clarified; for now, at least, given the lady’s reference to her own dif­ficulties, we can be quite certain that she is the same one who approached Venus earlier. The love allegory thus advances by incremental steps, gradually revealing its perturbed mean­ings; the reader’s understanding is cumulative, albeit uncertain.

Venus now embraces the pair in a golden chain and, in a lengthy hortatory speech that is pivotal within the whole sequence of the dream, she instructs the pair of lovers: the couple must remain truthful, humble, and courteous until the day of their deliverance (lines 1106–1277). And the lovers are told that the waiting is for their own good: “So thee to preve, thou ert put in delay” (line 1193). The idea that something becomes more precious the harder it is to attain is central to the whole experience of the poem, not only for the lovers but also for readers. Here the principle is elucidated at some length: Venus lays out what is known as the doctrine of contraries (lines 1250–63), derived originally from Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy and later twisted into its present form by Chaucer’s Pandarus in Troilus and Criseyde. But Venus’ speech is not only informative, elucidating a philosophical point about the benefits of long-suffering for committed lovers; her speech is also “performative,” in the sense that it sanctions and secures their commitment. In a quasi-nuptial procedure — as if officiating at a marriage ceremony before the whole temple — the goddess has the couple hold hands, make vows, and finally kiss. She then locks their hearts with a golden key (line 1225), and at the same time Venus proclaims the couple is united: “Eternalli, be bonde of assuraunce, / The cnott is knytt, which mai not ben unbound” (lines 1229–30). As men­tioned, this central legislative act has itself become something of an interpretive knot that will not come un­done, despite great scholarly ingenuity.33

The dreamer is now nearing the end of his vision. When Venus finishes her exhortation to the lovers, the temple rings out with praise, the Muses sing, Orpheus and Amphion harp, and lovers pray to the goddess. Venus provides further assurances, and the whole temple joins in a ballade glorifying Venus who has “withoute synne / This man fortuned his ladi forto wynne” (lines 1346–47; compare 450). Venus’ determination to keep the lovers from committing sin has led some critics to suppose that Lydgate has, so to speak, baptized Venus. In this reluctance to allow the couple immediate gratification, the poet has been ac­cused by some of exerting the pressure of his monkish morality after all. Schick comments that in Venus’ speeches she “occasionally appears to us in a very philistine aspect.”34 C. S. Lewis says the poet’s punctiliousness in this regard makes his conception of love more “modern” than in previous medieval poems — since being married “had not troubled Guinevere.”35 Pearsall says the “presence of Venus is didactic” and her scruples are a way for Lydgate to avoid the embarrassment of promoting an extramarital union.36 Anna Torti argues that Venus comes increasingly to act as a force of social order and is a proponent of Christian values.37 Yet if the majority of critics are also right about the nature of the rela­tionship (i.e., extramarital), then Venus’ unorthodox commitment ceremony may be taken to be sanctioning non-norm­ative, patently sinful sexual desire anyway: she would be paying no heed to the biblical idea of adultery “in the heart” (see Matthew 5:27–28). There are reasons to believe Venus’ “cnott . . . which mai not ben unbound” may itself point to the ignominy of adultery rather than to the marriage bond.38 Arguably, then, her reasons for self-restraint and fortitude may be no less pragmatic than those of Pandarus (e.g., Troilus and Criseyde 1.953–61), rather than the principled expression of Christian morality. Perhaps Venus may be counted on for being even more treacherous behind the scenes than Chaucer’s go-between ever was in Troilus and Criseyde, for as Lewis suggests the goddess may be euphemistically vowing that “some­thing may happen” to the unwanted husband, so that the couple need not wait very long before they are finally able to be together.39 One is reminded here of such drastic measures as the fatal “furie infernal” sent by the gods as a kind of deus ex machina in Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale: a rivalry between lovers is there resolved only by the untimely death of one of them. Palamon consequently wins Emelye, and he, it will be remembered, was a knight of Venus.

To return to the scholarly search for historical referents and nuptial occasions, it would be surprising to discover that the poem had ever celebrated a straightforward conjugal ar­rangement. On the one hand, it would be in bad taste for Lydgate to leave any hint that the female partner was adulterous, rebellious, or devious. On the other, the terrible pathos of the lady’s situation leaves readers with little to celebrate. At this point an argument could be made that The Temple of Glas is closer to being anti-matrimonial (whether ironically so or not), in conformity with the nature of the goddess of unregulated sexual passion, i.e., Venus. This reading may seem unlikely for Lydgate, the monk, until one considers the way extramarital love has already been glamorized in Tristram and Isolde (lines 77–79), Paris and Helen (lines 92–93), and Mars and Venus (lines 126–28). While there are also refer­ences to faithful wives (e.g., lines 405–10), the romantic discourse running throughout the work is that artificial social constraints such as marriage are worthy only insofar as they do not oppress the natural passions and free choice; duty is subordinate to desire. Venus’ logic of contraries perhaps embodies the rationale of the work (“For white is whitter if it be set bi blak,” line 1250), the substance of which logic could be set out schematically: forced or loveless marriage is bad; therefore, extramarital affection is good.40 The consensual nature of the second kind of relationship trumps the austere legality of the first. Far from being epithalamic, then, The Temple of Glas may constitute a genuine counter-discourse and social critique in its defiance of “compulsory conjugality.”41 Is not this poem about love and its liberation (e.g., lines 209–14)? By the same token, the poem has also been read as an “ironic allegory” of the sinful excesses of sexual immorality.42 There is, perhaps, a melancholy and ultimately monkish recognition of the “wo that is in marriage” (Wife of Bath, Canterbury Tales III [D], 3).

Could the poem ever constitute a flattering epithalamium? Perhaps the only occasion in which the poem would seem appropriate as matrimonial verse is if it were read in relation to a clandestine wedding, such as the one that took place between Katherine and Owen, as mentioned above. In such a difficult circumstance the lady could come off as courageous rather than false, and the monk would be pressing a case for the recognition of true married love over against the interdictions of the state. We cannot rule out nuptials such as these.

The epilogue to the poem opens up further questions. The heavenly hymn sung in the temple causes the dreamer to start up from his slumber, and he is immediately grief-stricken for lack of the happy vision (lines 1362–66). But whereas he went to bed oppressed by some vague anxiety, now his sorrow has a specific object:
gret thought and wo
I hade in hert and nyst what was to do,
For hevynes that I hade lost the sight
Of hir that I all the longe nyght
Had dremed of in myn avisioun.
Whereof I made gret lamentacioun
Bicause I had never in my life aforne
Sein none so faire, fro time that I was borne . . . (lines 1370–77)

knew not

dream vision


The poet has ended up like the man in the dream, struck by the “sight” of the lady in the temple, but not yet assured of a requital. But there may be some considerable perversity to the poet’s situation compared to that of the man: not only has he dreamed the whole thing up, but he also is smitten by an unavailable woman. Or is there some other naughty secret? Perhaps the man in the dream is really a surrogate for the dreamer himself.43

Reminiscent of Chaucer when he apologizes at the end of Troilus and Criseyde, the poet finally vows to write a little treatise in praise of women; and then he dedicates his book to “my lady.” The reader is left speculating, again, about what all this means. Has the poet dis­covered love through the dream? Or, is the dream a wish-fulfilment fantasy relating to a prior affair? Is his paramour merely dreamt up, or does she have a real existence outside the text? Is she the poet’s female patron cast flatteringly as a beloved? And what might she find enchanting in the work?

The poet registers some uncertainty himself about the nature of the dream and requires “leiser” to “expoune my forseid visioun, / And tel in plein the significaunce, / . . . So that herafter my lady may it loke” (lines 1388–92). Davidoff suggests the import of the dream has been fulfilled already in the poet’s desire to communicate with the lady: by writing to her he is putting into practice Venus’ advice to the male protagonist: “For specheles nothing maist thou spede” (line 905).44 But if so, the speech he has chosen to make (i.e., the poem) is encrypted. In the concluding lines, in a variation on a favorite Chaucerian envoy, the poet sends off his work to an unnamed beloved, “I mene that benygne and goodli of hir face” (line 1402), em­ploying words used earlier by the man inside the dream to describe the lady. The poem invites us to make such connections, however tenuous, between the vision and the framing fiction, as is typical of Middle English dream visions. They are not as a rule mere flights of fancy: “the dream world is not to be thought of as wholly different from waking experience, but in some measure a different account of it, although the connections are not always im­mediately obvious.”45 Indeed so much remains unknown.

Looking back it is clear that Lydgate employs specific strategies to solicit desire, court­ing not only “my lady” but also a wider audience: the poem seduces by being full of prom­ises and portents that describe everything without precisely explaining anything. The point can be illustrated with the distinction between the story and the discourse.46 On the level of the story (i.e., narrated events occurring within the dream) desire is articulated and aroused in the senti­mental speeches of the lovers when they address the goddess and each other. But even as the lovers appear to be confessing their innermost feelings, their man­nered speeches make it difficult to tell exactly what they are saying or doing — so complete is the exposure of their private sentiments, their practical lives remain concealed. Who are these anonymous appari­tions? What exactly is the obstacle that separates them from each other? Spectral figures in a dream, the secret lovers resist even as they invite identification. Something of the erotic energy of the dream vision clearly resides in a frustrated form of desire that is the result of carefully modulated obfuscation and illumination, concealment and exposure — or what Roland Barthes calls “intermittence.”47 On the level of the poetic discourse (i.e., the narration of the dream) the poet finds himself drawn in and increasingly engaged: he emerges at the end with a burning desire to communicate with the lady of the dream. At­tracted by her sexy figure, he becomes her devoted lover and poet. But the dreamer is him­self a phantom figure, a fiction, a nameless conduit. The dream is not just a vision of lovers; the poet envisages himself. How is this figure related to the poet? Why is Lydgate, a monk, mediating such experi­ences? Whence this strange telepathy? And who is “my lady” but another specter of desire? The Temple of Glas effectively becomes an elaborate love letter, a sort of Valentine intended to work its charms on some unknown other.

Taken together, the trajectories and circuits of erotic energy traced by these questions indicate something of the multiple, mutable, and equivocal nature of desire in The Temple of Glas. And posterity can hardly escape the pull of its articulate eroticism, or what can be iden­tified as the affective dimension of the work. The dream lady, for one thing, seems to have provoked readers from very early on. Comments found in the margins of the poem in one late fifteenth-century manuscript (MS Bodley 638) are indicative: alongside passages referring to the lady at line 847 (fol. 29v) there is a quizzical remark, hic vsque nescio quis (“up to this point I do not know who”); and at line 972 (fol. 31v) there is an apparently exas­perated marginal comment, “who in all godly pity maye be,” the impatience of which is perhaps re­inforced by the use of the vernacular rather than Latin.48 As observed already, the poem makes sense cumulatively (“up to this point”) but not completely and conclusively. Lydgate’s poem can therefore seem evasive, but beguilingly so, becoming a vicarious source of frustra­tion, affection, confusion, and enjoyment to the attentive audience.


The poet was among the first to acknowledge that he is not a fine metrist, declaring in the Troy Book: “For wel wot I moche þing is wrong, / Falsly metrid, boþe of short and long.”49 Lydgate has often been taken at his word, though it is noteworthy that such professions of inadequacy are commonplace and may themselves imitate Chaucer (e.g., “Though som vers fayle in a sillable” [The House of Fame, line 1098]).50 In fact Lydgate’s early admirers thought he equaled Chaucer’s brilliance as a versifier, but since the nineteenth century scholars have tended to have a much lower opinion of Lydgate’s versification and style while elevating their esteem of Chaucer. Lydgate has indeed become notorious for his metrical irregularity, though without further study of the manuscripts it is difficult to say how much variation is attributable to the poet rather than scribes. The Temple of Glas is designed on the pattern of iambic pentameter, but in practice there is considerable variation in stress and syllable count. Several accounts of Lydgate’s tendencies have been offered. For example, Schirmer thought that, in general, Lydgate emphasizes accentual rather than syllabic regularity; MacCracken supposed that Lydgate freely mixed four-beat and five-beat lines; Manzalaoui proposed that Lydgate capitalizes on the flexibility inherent in Chaucer’s verse.51 More recently, Duffell has argued that Lydgate’s verse design is different from Chaucer’s, and so we should not judge one by the standard of the other. Duffell develops the idea that language change in the fifteenth century (especially the loss of the final –e resulting in the creation of monosyllabic out of disyllabic words) meant that Lydgate could not have followed Chaucer’s rules of versification.52

The Temple of Glas is best approached by recognizing that its verse design makes allow­ances for a great amount of variation in syllable count: i.e., the majority of lines fall in five-stress units, whether or not they are decasyllabic. The challenge of reading Lydgate’s verse, then, has always been getting the stress right. Lines that deviate from the iambic rhythm tend themselves to recur regularly enough to have resulted in a critical typology, though one must be cautious about such schemata.53 The most characteristic variation is known pejora­tively as “broken backed,” and it is common enough in his works to have been dubbed “Lyd­gatian.” These lines have a caesura or “void position” at the midpoint (e.g., lines 3, 196, 787). As ever, the rhythm of verse is subject in part to the reader’s voicing, and there are ways of pronouncing many words that can increase or decrease syllable count, if need be. This may make it sound as though reading Lydgate requires special training or initiation, but the verse can mostly be taken as its own guide; readers must use their ears. Bergen believes that when the verse is given the appropriate delivery, due to the potential for elision, synizesis, syncope, and other ways of realizing unstressed vowels, Lydgate’s lines are overwhelmingly regular and thus do not require frequent editorial emendation.54

The poem alternates between two styles of verse: rhyming couplets that are reserved for narrative description and are also used in the male lover’s soliloquy and seven-line stanzas called rhyme royal (or Chaucerian stanzas) that are used for speeches and lyric set pieces. Near the end of the poem is a ballade consisting of rhyme royal stanzas with a refrain. The combination of verse forms owes perhaps more to French than to English, Chaucerian influence.55 The personal pleas and prayers in stanza form are full of grace and sophisti­cation, demonstrating “daliaunce” (line 291), or the attractive courtly virtue of verbal dex­terity and discretion. Lewis is typical in speaking of the “superiority of stanzaic speeches and dialogues over the poet’s own narration in couplets,” for most agree that if it were not for the demands of the complex stanzas Lydgate’s prolixity would have got the better of him.56

Indeed the work eschews what Schirmer refers to as Lydgate’s “late style” with its pre­tentious polysyllables, archaic diction, and general ostentation.57 However, The Temple of Glas does have a few examples of Lydgate’s characteristically elastic and sometimes involuted syntax, although readers of modern poetry and fiction should not find such passages very taxing.58 Pearsall has occasion to speak of the poet’s “compulsive accumulation” or “encyclo­paedism,” exem­plified in the way references pile up seemingly without purpose.59 For example, in Lydgate’s account of the temple mural the painted lovers are catalogued as though for the sake of quantity rather than for sense or sequence, putatively so unlike the way Chaucer does things: e.g., as in Dorigen’s lament in The Franklin’s Tale. Lydgate has long been criticized for being voluminous and verbose and for going off on tangents — so it has also come as some relief to critics that this poem is so short. Nor does it rely too heavily on narrational descrip­tion, giving the poet few opportunities to digress or overwork his verse.

Because of the preponderance of speech over narration in The Temple of Glas, it may be said to have the dramatic quality of a court masque or mumming. Large tracts of the poem are given over to figures whose action is limited to monologues, interlocutory appeals, and pantomimic gesture. In the elaborate costuming and the careful disposition of characters “on stage” there is something of the austerity of a tableau vivant. In the end Lydgate’s poetry yields to music making, when the dream comes to a close with a choric ballade sung by the gods in what has to be imagined as a moment of supreme aural and visual spectacle. Lyd­gate, a writer of several “semi-dramatic” performance pieces (mummings, pageants, pict­orial poems, allegorical masques, ceremonial verses), was familiar with the potentialities of drama and probably would have been alive to the theatrical possibilities of this poem.60

But the reliance on direct speech, dialogue, and song over physical action has been crit­icized, for it is a common complaint that The Temple of Glas lacks narrative momentum. “There is no action, in fact no movement at all.”61 Actually, it is not strictly true that no story unfolds. The lovers and the dreamer himself move and are moved to take up positions, change per­spectives, and experience new sensations. The speeches also indicate, albeit ob­liquely, that some momentous things are happening: for example, the man says he has just been smitten by the sight of a lady, and later it is implied that some time has passed in which he has been able to prove his fidelity. It is true that not much action is directly reported, but not that no action is represented: the temporal, spatial, and physical coordinates of real events are just abstracted to the level of allegory. Moreover, as I have suggested throughout, per­haps the most important things that happen occur to the reader in the act of inter­preting the poem.


The popularity of The Temple of Glas is attested by the fact that the poem survives complete in seven manuscripts and several early printed versions; fragments are preserved in other manuscripts and indicate that the poem was something to be plundered and used piece­meal. The bibliography below lists the known texts. A fuller description of the manuscripts and printed editions is given by Schick, pp. xvii–xxx.62

On the initiative of the author or scribes, the poem had early evolved into three sepa­rate versions, each of which may have had discrete purposes or clientele.63 The variation between them is chiefly found in the lady’s complaint and accoutrements, as well as in the poem’s conclusion. Norton-Smith’s influential 1958 article on “Lydgate’s Changes in The Temple of Glas” proposes a particular set of affiliations between the three versions of the poem and concludes that they represent Lydgate’s tinkering and progressive improvements (in a first, intermediary, and final draft). Recent scholars have registered doubts about the assumptions that informed Norton-Smith’s classification, but his article remains an impor­tant point of reference and a useful account of the texts.64 Part of the problem with trying to date and describe the manuscripts is as much hermeneutic as a result of the lack of historical detail: critical opinions rest on circular arguments about possible occasions and commissions.

Mention should also be made of the short Compleynt appended to the end of two copies of The Temple of Glas (see bibliography).65 This poem expresses the grief of a man for his absent lady and seems to have been treated by the scribes as a continuation of The Temple of Glas. Scholars agree that it is not Lydgate’s.

This Middle English Texts Series edition presents the copy of The Temple of Glas as pre­served in Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Tanner 346, a manuscript whose description can be found in the introduction to Pamela Robinson’s facsimile edition. Tanner is an anthology of love poetry, containing The Legend of Good Women among other Chaucerian pieces, and is datable to the second quarter of the fifteenth century. Two previous editors have chosen the same manu­script for their editions. Schick, who edited The Temple of Glas for the Early English Text Society, argued that Tanner is the oldest and best of the manu­scripts, and Norton-Smith, who produced his edition in 1966, believed this copy of The Temple of Glas represents the final and finest draft of the poem. Lerer makes much of the centrality of The Temple of Glas within the manuscript as a whole: he argues that the poem is positioned as “the kernel of the col­lection.”66 But other manuscript versions have their importance. British Library, MS Add. 16165 contains an early version that was copied by John Shirley, who may have known Lydgate. It may represent the first version of the poem, but in any case offers an interesting set of comparisons. In the explanatory notes I provide transcriptions of passages taken from this copy where it deviates from Tanner in its account of the lady’s complaint, dress, motto, and garland.

Tanner was chosen as a base-text not because it is aesthetically superior or historically more significant. This edition serves its purpose by making widely available a version of The Temple of Glas that has long been out of print. A fine edition of an alternative and possibly earlier version (based on BL Add. 16165) has been published recently.67


This edition of The Temple of Glas follows the editorial conventions of the Middle English Texts Series in modern­izing special Middle English characters (i.e., thorn [&254; ] and yogh [ʒ]) and in normalizing the letters i/j and u/v. The scribal ampersand is replaced with and (e.g., line 38), and contractions are marked with an apostrophe (e.g., lines 449–50). Words ending in a single long syllabic final -e are marked with an accent (e.g., pité) to indicate pronunciation. And a final -e is added to distinguish the pronoun thee from the article the. Double consonants at the beginning of a line have been treated as capitals, so, for example, the manuscript reading fful is printed Ful. Suspension marks and common abbreviations have been silently expanded where they are not otiose. Capitalization and word division are editorial, and the punctuation is modern.

With MS Tanner 346 as the base-text I have found it feasible and desirable to use a con­servative policy of emendation. Two manuscripts with which Tanner shares a family resem­blance (together forming the so-called “Oxford Group”) were consulted when a particular crux, mechanical error, or omission was encountered.68 Notably, Tanner omits several lines (96, 154, 216, 320) that had to be supplied from the other manuscripts. Emendations were otherwise made where sense blatantly required or there had been misspelling. Final -e has been added as required for meter.


Manuscripts indexed as item 851 in Boffey and Edwards, A New Index of Middle English Verse:
  • G: Cambridge, University Library, MS Gg. 4. 27, fols. 491r–509v. 1420–25. [Norton-Smith thinks this represents the first version; it is one of two copies that append the Compleynt as though it were a continuation of The Temple of Glas. For a facsimile, see Poetical Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, intro. Parkes and Beadle.]
  • S: London, British Library, MS Additional 16165, fols. 206v–241v. 1450. [Norton-Smith thinks this represents the first version of the poem; it is identified as the work of John Shirley and includes the only other copy of the Compleynt.]
  • F: Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Fairfax 16, fols. 63r–82v. 1450s. SC 3896. [Norton-Smith thinks this represents the intermediate version of the poem, and it belongs to the so-called “Oxford Group” with B and T. For a facsimile see Bodleian Library MS Fairfax 16, intro. Norton-Smith.]
  • B: Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 638, fols. 16v–38r. 1470–80. SC 2078. [Norton-Smith thinks this represents the intermediate version of the poem, but it was copied later than either T or F. For a facsimile see Manuscript Bodley 638: A Facsimile, intro. Pamela Robinson.]
  • T: Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Tanner 346, fols. 76r–97r. 1440s. SC 10173. [Norton-Smith thinks this represents the final version of the poem. For a facsimile see Manuscript Tanner 346: A Facsimile, intro. Pamela Robinson.]
  • L: Longleat, Warminster, Library of the Marquis of Bath, MS 258, fols. 1r–32r. 1460–70. [Norton-Smith thinks this represents the final version of the poem.]
  • SL: London, British Library, MS Sloane 1212, fols. 1, 2, 4. Fifteenth cent. [Fragments of the poem and of the Compleynt.]
  • P: Cambridge, Magdalene College, MS Pepys 2006, pp. 17–52. 1470–1500. [Norton-Smith thinks this represents the final version of the poem. For a facsimile see Manuscript Pepys 2006: A Facsimile, intro. A. S. G. Edwards.]
  • BAN: National Library of Scotland Advocates 1.1.6, fol. 220v. (Bannatyne MS.) 1568. [Fragment of the poem starting at line 743.]
Early prints indexed in Pollard and Redgrave, eds., A Short-Title Catalogue of Books Printed in England, Scotland, and Ireland and of English Books Printed Abroad, 1475–1640:
  • The temple of glas. Westminster: William Caxton, 1477. (STC 17032)
  • Here begynneth the Temple of glas. Westminster: Wynkyn de Worde, 1495. (STC 17032a)
  • Here begynneth the Temple of glas. London: Wynkyn de Worde, 1506. (STC 17033.7)
  • The temple of glas. London: Rycharde Pynson, 1503. (STC 17033.3)
  • This boke called the Te[m]ple of glasse, is in many places amended, and late diligently imprinted. London: Thomas Berthelet, 1529. (STC 17034; see also STC 12955)

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