His Pilgrimage of the Life of Man, for example, consists of more than 20,000 lines and similarly his Troy Book consists of about 30,000 lines of heroic couplet. At times his diction tends to be similar to the highly Latinized and aureate diction of the Scottish Chaucerians but it is usually dull and lifeless, characterized by a flat and prosaic diction. Joseph Ritson, who catalogued his writings, describes him as “a voluminous, prosaic and drivelling monk” and Sampson (1979:70) denounces his diction as follows:
He rarely rises above sheer flatness of diction, the dull, hackneyed, slovenly phraseology emphasized by occasional aureate pedantry, which makes the common commoner and the uncommon uninteresting.
Lydgate’s was an experiment in style, an experiment in imitating the Chaucerian diction and his experiment failed. His writings had, however, their own importance in the context of the Middle English period.
They catered to popular taste at that time and helped to create a reading public. His popularity is evident from the fact that Caxton, who was highly selective in the choice of the materials he should print, printed three of his writings, Temple of Glass, The Horse, the Sheep and the Goose and The Churl and the Bird in 1477, the very first year of the history of printing in England. Richard Pynson, one of the post-Caxton printers, printed his Fall of Princes in 1494.
At a time when the dialects of Middle English were enthusiastically asserting their existence as a literary medium no less acceptable than French, the English Chaucerians like Lydgate played an important role in creating readers appreciative of literary writings in English.
The Scottish Chaucerians:
In the fifteenth century, the Middle English poets known as Scottish Chaucerians started a highly Latinized diction consisting of unfamiliar Latin words. Chaucer knew Latin very well and in his poetry he made a very effective use of a number of Latin words. But in the writings of the Scottish Chaucerians, this tendency took the form of a distinct mannerism and an obsessive fondness for an artificial style dominated by unfamiliar Latin words.
The three main poets of this group were James I, Henryson and Dunbar. The diction used by them was later known as the aureate diction. The first few lines of Dunbar’s Ballad of Our Lady are a typical example of the fact that at its worst this kind of diction could take the form of an obsessive affectation.
Hale, sterne superne! Hale in eterne,
In Godis sicht to schyne!
Lucerne in derne, for to discern
Be glory and grace devyne;
Hodiern, modern, sempitern, Angelicall regyne!
Our turn infern for to dispern
Helpe, rialest Rosyne!
By using this kind of aureate diction, the Scottish Chaucerians were probably hoping to evolve a style to be admired for its learned dignity but they ended up by creating something known for its ludicrous artificiality. And the inevitable happened. Their experiment proved to be a failure and the movement started by them was completely lost in the vast sea of oblivion.
In spite of the Chaucerian scholars’ failure, the Middle English period, particularly the second half of that period was a period of enormous achievements for the English language.
The socio-political situation during that period provided the English language with a golden opportunity to shed off its inflections and to enrich itself by freely borrowing and then assimilating as many words and affixes as it needed.
Malory with his great mastery of the narrative technique exhibited in his Arthurian legends of adventure and romance and Langland with his gift for allegories and personification amply demonstrated that the English language was not a primitive basilect of invading tribes but a language with immense capabilities for imaginative use.
With his superb prologues and tales, Chaucer, “the most technically accomplished, the most widely ranging and the most universally appealing of medieval English writers”,11 prepared the stage for sixteenth century authors like Lyly, Marlowe and Jonson, and particularly for Shakespeare, to take the English language to the highest ever peaks of excellence and glory.