Opus Lyricus: Liturgical and Lyric Forms in Late-Medieval British Poetry

Ard, DeVan, English - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Holsinger, Bruce, English, University of Virginia

What does vernacular lyric have in common with liturgical prayer and song? The question was on the minds of many late-medieval poets, since vernacular poetry was spreading across manuscript networks to new and diverse audiences. Poets such as John Lydgate and William Dunbar, along with a number of unknown or anonymous poets, turn repeatedly to the language and forms of Latin liturgy to capture this growing class of poetry readers. In so doing, they build tradition of liturgically-inflected poetry that runs from the late-fifteenth century to the beginning of the sixteenth. I show that poets recognized this tradition as a coherent and distinctive part of the literary culture of their time, one that helps to explain the peculiarity of the fifteenth century in literary history.
Historians of lyric have long passed over medieval Britain as a time and place in which lyric poetry was not viewed as a culturally valuable mode of composition. This dissertation outlines a subtler approach, arguing that poets did generate theoretical reflection on lyric, albeit in ways that have not yet been recognized. When we look at this poetry in its original manuscript sources, we can see scribes and poets coming to terms with the possibilities and limits of vernacular lyric as a distinctive mode of writing, one with literary effects such as voice and spontaneity that we now recognize as definitive of lyric.
The dissertation begins with two liturgical services that proved especially fecund sites of poetic adaptation in the fifteenth century: the improperia, a ritual lament in the Good Friday liturgy, and the office of the dead, the church’s official funeral prayers. It argues that poetic adaptations of these services reflect, and reflect on, their migration out of official, ecclesiastical books such as Franciscan sermon manuals to non-clerical books. The first chapter compares paraphrases of the improperia in lyric anthologies to dramatic representations of Christ in crucifixion plays. The second chapter looks at the Pety Job, a long lyric based on the readings from the office of the dead, arguing that the poem constitutes a secularization of penitence in the liturgical office.
The third and fourth chapters turn to the work of specific poets. John Lydgate, known primarily to medievalists as the author of massive works such as the Life of Our Lady or the Troy Book, was also an ardent translator of the psalms. Chapter 3 argues that his psalm paraphrases bring together two alternative views of lyric in contemporary debates: the formalist notion of lyric as “event,” and the historicist critique of lyric as genre. The fourth chapter argues that William Dunbar, long viewed as either a Chaucerian or Lydgatian, was most profoundly influenced by the traditions described in the chapters of this dissertation, and argues that he expanded the audience for liturgically-inflected poetry with beloved lyrics such as the “Lament for the Makars.” To recognize this poetic agenda is to understand the particular influence of liturgy on the lyric poetics of the fifteenth century.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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