Lydgate, “The Fifteen Joys and Sorrows of Mary”

This poem appears in a volume titled “The Minor Poems of John Lydgate”, and it is indeed minor (about 12 pages). I know next to nothing about Lydgate, but learned that he was a prodigious poet and friends with Chaucer’s son, Thomas. I’m reading Book of the Duchess in a few months and think I will need to at least glance at Lydgate’s version, A Complaynte of a Lovers Lyfe or The Complaint of the Black Knight. (Side note, the opening lines of that poem have a speaker who talks about leaving to go outside “When that the mysty vapour was agoon, / And clere and feyre was the morownyng”, which given the melancholy of the narrator makes me wonder about whether “mysty vapour” that prevents a scholar from doing something is a kind of brain fog… anyway.)

15 Sorrows is one of several “sorrow” poems formatted as a kind of list. Like BoD and Black Knight, it begins with the author opening a book and finding Mary’s “gladnesses” and “heuynesses” (20-1). He is inspired to write them down and, in doing so, is overcome with love and affective compassion for Mary’s suffering.

In my eventual project, I am very interested in connecting the melancholy body to the material form of the book. In my previous work on physicians’ manuals, I have explored what it means to be conferred authority by and simultaneously reimagined as a text, but here I ask an opposing question: how are melancholy individuals helped, dispossessed, or identified with books, both their content and their physical forms? The description of red and black rubrication here is striking (l.18). He sees a picture of a man kneeling and saying the Our Father after each sorrow, but instead of doing that, he takes his pen and writes down the joys for us to read. When he gets to the sorrows, he says something similar: “With our ladye, hir sorrows to compleyne/ Lik as the picture in order did ordeyne” (167-8). He also mentions seeing Mary’s red and white tears, but whether this is in the book or not is not clear.

He talks briefly about his “affeccioun”, meaning the capability of emotion or the emotion itself of love, desire, etc.; “for affeccioun” he continues to look and write this down. This poem comes about purely from emotion (sorrow leading to joy) and is about emotion (joy and then sorrow). It’s also interested in infinite or near infinite things (space, pain that “by comparisoun is incomparable” (124)). The emphasis in the end is on the usefulness of this treatise for allowing readers to cultivate compassion, and not on the individual affects of transcription on the speaker; unlike BoD, the speaker disappears into the poem. I wonder if the embodiment in text that is tracked in the beginning and (in a limited way) in the middle, is really forming a solution about how to deal with melancholy, and if so how the process of engaging with material text contributes to that.

Key words: heuynesse, affeccioun, compleyene (ing), wo

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