Karen Smyth, Imaginings of Time in Lydgate and Hoccleve’s Verse

Karen Smyth, Imaginings of Time in Lydgate and Hoccleve’s Verse (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2011). 198 pp. £89.99. ISBN 978-1-4094-0631-0.

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In this well researched study, Karen Smyth delineates the ways and means of literary expressions of time in the poetry of Lydgate and Hoccleve. The choice of texts automatically relegates this project to an exclusive academic audience; Hoccleve and Lydgate are not widely read today except amongst scholars specializing in late medieval literature and their students. The long poems, especially, tend to be passed over as they are very long indeed, and often lack the sprightliness of Chaucer that is more to our modern taste. But Hoccleve and Lydgate are important figures in our cultural transition from medieval to modern, and Smyth does an excellent job of explaining how something as deceptively simple as telling time in literature is culturally invested in ways that are scored deeply into the texts.

The relationship between the topic of time and the topic of science is a partial one: time-telling technologies and the cosmological frameworks such as astronomy are closely connected to the development of science, even if they are not exactly scientific themselves. But the experience of time is also connected to other cultural experiences such as individual aging, familial generations, ecology and spirituality, and these issues are linked to science in more tentative ways, especially in the Middle Ages. In her analyses of Hoccleve and Lydgate, Smyth demonstrates the integrated nature of scientific and humanistic concepts of time in the medieval era; in fact, one of her central arguments is that these realms overlap and inform each other extensively. Likewise, she is interested in de-emphasizing boundaries such as medieval and modern, and poetic and mechanic: many readers will appreciate her integrated approach.

In the first chapter Smyth undertakes a robust and comprehensive explanation of the varieties of time-telling in late medieval lives. The temporal world of the medievals was fluid and evolving; technologies such as astrolabes, sundials, quadrants, horologes, and so forth were used in combination with liturgical, astrological, agricultural, regnal and purely personal methods of structuring time. What is interesting from a literary perspective – and also Smyth’s primary focus – is the way in which all of these diverse experiences of time were made poetic, textualized by medieval writers in ways that intersect with literary forms, interpretive tropes, and cultural identities.

The range and depth of Smyth’s research is impressive: including, for example, documentation from the Society of Antiquities on collections of time-telling devices like astrolabes, sundials, quadrants, and so forth is extremely helpful, constructing a historical and material framework for reading the texts. Another good tactic is to consider evidence for an evolving practice of timekeeping, along with an evolving language for time, by considering a fifteenth-century collection of over 1,000 letters produced by three generations of the Paston family. Smyth discovers that their references to timekeeping do indeed change between the 1420s and the first decade of the sixteenth century, becoming increasingly more precise about smaller increments of time.

The most exciting contributions of this book are when socio-historical evidence like this is extended to the poetic texts. Smyth makes the valuable argument that telling time in Middle English narratives was equated with eloquence, authority, and a standard of cultural literacy that validated the author’s project. In the case of The Troy Book, for example, Lydgate uses several different temporal referents as part of the narrative (astronomical, regnal, seasonal and technical) and produces a multi-voiced chorus of time referents and their attendant cultural authorities. This layered approach to time telling reinforces cultural projects of the late Middle Ages: in Lydgate’s case, the blurring of history with contemporary time reinforces the political, cultural and ethical connections between fifteenth century England and mythical ancient Troy.

According to the medieval church, the human experience of time is a lapsarian state, associated with aging and therefore mortality. Thus, there is an ethical dimension to simply experiencing time in the medieval mind, as Lydgate explores in the Fall of Princes. Even the absence of temporal markers in a text can be significant; Smyth demonstrates that the absence of references to time in the Proem of Hoccleve’s Regiment of Princes signals the stability of the author’s values and the moral certainty of the text in a time-ridden world. Time-telling, Smyth notes, is not only a formal quality of the text but an ethical one: ‘the manner of producing attitudes towards ideas about time is a much a theme of these texts as a feature of their structure’. With the advancement of chronological technologies, these late medieval authors had a range of referents from which to choose when anchoring time in their texts: Lydgate, Smyth suggests, negotiates ‘a hybrid consciousness of time deeply rooted in the cultural narratives of his period’ (113).

The greatest strength of this book is Smyth’s ability to demonstrate that the construction of time in literature connects in important ways to concepts of textual authority, authorship and the literate culture. Examining time structures shows how the text works, and by extension, how the book, the author, and the wider reading public of the late middle ages work in relation to something we take for granted. The meticulous research and essential intelligence of this project, however, are betrayed by weak writing, most notably a tendency towards leaden academic jargon and inelegant sentence structure. The author also appears to be trying to construct links to scientific culture that aren’t really there: a bothersome phrase repeatedly used in the book is that the study is an ‘empirically based morphology’: this awkward phrase has a whiff of science attached to it, but I’m not sure it means what the author wants it to mean. She seems to imply that empirical information is the opposite of theoretical interpretation, in that empirical knowledge is experience-based, not philosophical, knowledge. But with her primary methodology in this book being close reading, the suggestion that her study is somehow more experiential than other critical texts is odd.

Use of 'empirical' puts me in mind of an anecdote related by Martha Nussbaum in Not for Profit, where a young scholar peppered the word randomly throughout a funding application to assure the evaluators that he wasn’t simply reading literature – with the result (he felt) that he got the money. I doubt that Smyth’s motives were as cynical, but I would suggest that her study is not ‘empirical’, but a well-researched literary analysis with significant contributions to our understanding of the medieval-modern transition, especially the conceptual groundwork for understanding time (both scientifically and not) that was constructed during this important threshold period.

Janine Rogers (Mount Allison University, Canada)