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History of English Literature, Volume 1: Medieval and Renaissance Literature to 1625
 3034322283, 9783034322287

Table of contents :
Contents
List of abbreviations
§ 1. The initial and terminal dates of this volume
Part I: The Formation of a National Literature
§ 2. Placing Old English literature in the canon
§ 3. English history to 1066
§ 4. Bede
§ 5. Old English poetry
§ 6. Beowulf
Part II: The Middle English Period
§ 7. English history from 1066 to 1485
§ 8. Genres and ‘matters’
§ 9. The Arthurian romances: Geoffrey of Monmouth, Wace, Layamon
§ 10. Ricardian literature
§ 11. The influence of the Roman de la Rose
§ 12. Pearl and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
§ 13. Gower
§ 14. Langland
§ 15. Chaucer I: Stereotypes of courtly love and symptoms of modernity
§ 16. Chaucer II: Biography
§ 17. Chaucer III: Dream-vision poems
§ 18. Chaucer IV: ‘Troilus and Criseyde’
§ 19. Chaucer V: ‘The Canterbury Tales’ I. The poem as a field of contrary vectors
§ 20. Chaucer VI: ‘The Canterbury Tales’ II. The internal texture
§ 21. The English Chaucerians: Hoccleve, Lydgate, Hawes
§ 22. Barclay
§ 23. Skelton
§ 24. Fifteenth-century Scottish literature
§ 25. The Scottish Chaucerians: Douglas, Henryson, Dunbar
§ 26. Lyndsay
§ 27. Popular ballads and lyrics
§ 28. Medieval drama
§ 29. Fifteenth-century prose
§ 30. The Paston Letters
§ 31. Caxton
§ 32. Malory I: ‘Le Morte d’Arthur’ I. Authorship, publication and popularity
§ 33. Malory II: ‘Le Morte d’Arthur’ II. The stark kaleidoscope
Part III: The Sixteenth Century
§ 34. England under the Tudors
§ 35. The English Reformation
§ 36. English humanism and the Renaissance I: The continental trail
§ 37. English humanism and the Renaissance II: Forms, reception and genetic and historical theories
§ 38. English humanism and the Renaissance III: The arts
§ 39. More
§ 40. Conduct books
§ 41. The ‘Miscellanies’
§ 42. Wyatt
§ 43. Surrey
§ 44. The ‘Mirror for Magistrates’
§ 45. Gascoigne
§ 46. Other minor poets
§ 47. Elizabethan Catholic poets
§ 48. Sidney I: The diagnostician and healer of infected man
§ 49. Sidney II: ‘The Lady of May’ and other youthful lyrics
§ 50. Sidney III: ‘Astrophel and Stella’
§ 51. Sidney IV: The ‘Old Arcadia’ I. The neoclassical polish and the oblivion of reality
§ 52. Sidney V: The ‘Old Arcadia’ II. Malice, humour and political allegory in the pastoral canvas
§ 53. Sidney VI: The ‘New Arcadia’. The toning down of the pastoral and the emphasis on the heroic
§ 54. Sidney VII: ‘The Defence of Poesy’
§ 55. Greville
§ 56. Spenser I: The most poetic of English poets
§ 57. Spenser II: ‘The Shepheardes Calender’. 1579: The fateful year
§ 58. Spenser III: Aesopian and pastoral fables and elegies
§ 59. Spenser IV: ‘The Faerie Queene’ I. The poem’s ‘dark conceit’
§ 60. Spenser V: ‘The Faerie Queene’ II. Upright knights against felons, monsters and enchantresses
§ 61. Spenser VI: ‘The Faerie Queene’ III. Man vs beast
§ 62. Spenser VII: ‘The Faerie Queene’ IV. The ‘Mutability Cantos’
§ 63. Spenser VIII: ‘Amoretti’
§ 64. Spenser IX: ‘Epithalamion’ and ‘Prothalamion’
§ 65. Spenser X: The four hymns to heavenly love
§ 66. Ralegh, Wotton
§ 67. Thomas Campion
§ 68. Drayton
§ 69. Daniel
§ 70. Other sonneteers and pastoral poets
§ 71. Davies and Davies of Hereford
§ 72. Hall
§ 73. Donne I: The holy sinner and the ‘querelle’ on concettism
§ 74. Donne II: Biography
§ 75. Donne III: ‘Songs and Sonnets’ I. The obsolescence of Petrarchism
§ 76. Donne IV: ‘Songs and Sonnets’ II. Love, rescued from, and a slave to, time
§ 77. Donne V: Elegies and epithalamia
§ 78. Donne VI: The satires
§ 79. Donne VII: The ‘Verse Letters’
§ 80. Donne VIII: The ‘Anniversaries’
§ 81. Donne IX: Divine poems I. ‘La Corona’ and ‘Holy Sonnets’
§ 82. Donne X: Divine poems II. The hymns
§ 83. Donne XI: Treatises, libels and sermons
§ 84. Puttenham
Part IV: The Elizabethan Theatre
§ 85. Tudor masques and interludes
§ 86. Elizabethan drama: An overview
§ 87. The incunabula
§ 88. Udall
§ 89. Bale
§ 90. ‘Gorboduc’
§ 91. ‘Cambyses’
§ 92. ‘Arden of Feversham’
§ 93. Kyd
§ 94. Peele
§ 95. Marlowe I: The apotheosis and its nemesis
§ 96. Marlowe II: ‘Dido, Queen of Carthage’
§ 97. Marlowe III: ‘Tamburlaine the Great’
§ 98. Marlowe IV: ‘The Jew of Malta’
§ 99. Marlowe V: History plays
§ 100. Marlowe VI: ‘Doctor Faustus’ I. A short history of Faustism
§ 101. Marlowe VII: ‘Doctor Faustus’ II. The drama of irresolution
§ 102. Marlowe VIII: ‘Hero and Leander’
§ 103. Marston I: The satires
§ 104. Marston II: His theatrical career and his early retirement
§ 105. Marston III: Plays of disguise and revenge
§ 106. Marston IV: ‘The Malcontent’
§ 107. Marston V: The two city comedies
§ 108. Marston VI: ‘Sophonisba’
§ 109. Marston VII: ‘The Insatiate Countess’
§ 110. Chapman I: ‘Homeri metaphrastes’
§ 111. Chapman II: Orphic and mythological poems
§ 112. Chapman III: The comedies on the trial of chastity
§ 113. Chapman IV: ‘Bussy D’Ambois’ and the surrendering hero
§ 114. Chapman V: The stoic hero
§ 115. Jonson I: Construction and deconstruction of Jonson’s classicism
§ 116. Jonson II: The comedies of ‘humours’
§ 117. Jonson III: The Roman tragedies
§ 118. Jonson IV: The tetralogy of tricksters I. ‘Volpone’ and ‘The Alchemist’
§ 119. Jonson V: The tetralogy of tricksters II. ‘Epicoene’ and ‘Bartholomew Fair’
§ 120. Jonson VI: Last Jacobean and Caroline plays
§ 121. Jonson VII: The masques
§ 123. Tourneur
§ 124. Webster I: Nihilism and possibilism in the Italian trilogy
§ 125. Webster II: ‘The White Devil’
§ 126. Webster III: ‘The Duchess of Malfi’. The blood taboo
§ 127. Webster IV: ‘The Devil’s Law Case’
§ 128. Dekker I: The brothel syndrome
§ 129. Dekker II: The prose
§ 130. Middleton I: A journeyman in Olympus
§ 131. Middleton II: Comedies set in the London gutter
§ 132. Middleton III: The romantic comedies
§ 133. Middleton IV: ‘Women Beware Women’. Conjugal fidelity checkmated
§ 134. Middleton V: ‘The Changeling’. Woman is voluble, and so is man
§ 135. Middleton VI: Other tragedies and tragicomedies
§ 136. Middleton VII: ‘A Game at Chess’
§ 137. Beaumont and Fletcher I: The pliable centaur
§ 138. Beaumont and Fletcher II: Independent plays
§ 139. Beaumont and Fletcher III: Co-authored plays
§ 140. Beaumont and Fletcher IV: Plays by Fletcher alone
§ 141. Massinger I: Necessity and apology of self-sacrifice
§ 142. Massinger II: Satires of pretentiousness
§ 143. Massinger III: Caroline compromises
§ 144. Ford I: The focus on incest
§ 145. Ford II: Heroines of firmness
§ 146. Ford III: ‘Unity is no sin’
§ 147. Thomas Heywood I: ‘A Woman Killed with Kindness’
§ 148. Thomas Heywood II: Other plays
§ 149. Shirley I: Elegant ‘causeries’
§ 150. Shirley II: The demise of Elizabethan tragedy
Part V: The Beginnings of Narrative Prose
§ 151. The first eclectic writers
§ 152. Lyly I: The Euphues romances
§ 153. Lyly II: The comedies
§ 154. Lodge
§ 155. Greene I: From the Arcadian euphuist to the Defoe-like realist
§ 156. Greene II: The dramatist
§ 157. Nashe
§ 158. Deloney
§ 159. The ‘Marprelate Tracts’
§ 160. Hooker
§ 161. Travel literature and historical compilations
Index of names
Thematic index

Citation preview

olume 1 Book 1

History of English Literature

Histor y of English Literature Franco Marucci

Medieval and Renaissance Literature to 1625

Franco Marucci

Peter Lang

Volume 1

History of English Literature

History of English Literature Volume 1

Medieval and Renaissance Literature to 1625 Franco Marucci Translated from the Italian by Julia Bolton Holloway, Rosalynd Pio, Maria Cristina Cignatta and Valentina Poggi

PETER LANG

Oxford • Bern • Berlin • Bruxelles • New York • Wien

Bibliographic information published by Die Deutsche Nationalbibliothek. Die Deutsche Nationalbibliothek lists this publication in the Deutsche Nationalbibliografie; detailed bibliographic data is available on the Internet at http://dnb.d-nb.de. A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Names: Marucci, Franco, 1949- author. Title: Medieval and Renaissance literature to 1625 / Franco Marucci. Description: Oxford ; New York : Peter Lang, [2018] | Series: History of English literature ; Volume 1 | Includes bibliographical references and index. Identifiers: LCCN 2017047860 | ISBN 9783034322287 (alk. paper) Subjects: LCSH: English literature--History and criticism. Classification: LCC PR83 .M37 2017 | DDC 820.9--dc23 LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2017047860 Originally published in Italian as Storia della letteratura inglese – Dalle origini al 1625 by Casa Editrice Le Lettere (2015). Cover image: N.C. Wyeth, illustration from The Boy’s King Arthur, edited by Sidney Lanier ed. (1880). Cover design by Brian Melville. ISBN 978-3-0343-2228-7 (print) • ISBN 978-1-78874-194-1 (ePDF) ISBN 978-1-78874-195-8 (ePub) • ISBN 978-1-78874-196-5 (mobi) © Peter Lang AG 2018 Published by Peter Lang Ltd, International Academic Publishers, 52 St Giles, Oxford, OX1 3LU, United Kingdom [email protected], www.peterlang.com Franco Marucci has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as Author of this Work. All rights reserved. All parts of this publication are protected by copyright. Any utilisation outside the strict limits of the copyright law, without the permission of the publisher, is forbidden and liable to prosecution. This applies in particular to reproductions, translations, microfilming, and storage and processing in electronic retrieval systems. This publication has been peer reviewed. Printed in Germany

Contents List of abbreviations § 1. The initial and terminal dates of this volume

xv 1

Part I

The Formation of a National Literature

3

  2. Placing Old English literature in the canon

5

  3. English history to 1066

14

  4. Bede

19

  5. Old English poetry

21

 6.  Beowulf

28

Part II

The Middle English Period

35

  7. English history from 1066 to 1485

37

  8. Genres and ‘matters’

45

  9. The Arthurian romances: Geoffrey of Monmouth, Wace, Layamon

59

10. Ricardian literature

64

 11. The influence of the Roman de la Rose

67

vi

§ 12. Pearl and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

73

  13. Gower

85

  14. Langland

92

  15–20. Chaucer

105

§ 15. Stereotypes of courtly love and symptoms of modernity, p. 105. § 16. Biography, p. 119. § 17. Dream-vision poems, p. 123. § 18. Troilus and Criseyde, p. 131. §§ 19–20. The Canterbury Tales (§ 19. The poem as a field of contrary vectors, p. 136. § 20. The internal texture, p. 147).

  21. The English Chaucerians: Hoccleve, Lydgate, Hawes 160   22. Barclay

173

  23. Skelton

178

  24. Fifteenth-century Scottish literature

191

  25. The Scottish Chaucerians: Douglas, Henryson, Dunbar197   26. Lyndsay

210

  27. Popular ballads and lyrics

215

  28. Medieval drama

219

  29. Fifteenth-century prose

225

  30. The Paston Letters

228

  31. Caxton

232



§§ 32–33. Malory

vii

236

§§ 32–33. Le Morte d’Arthur (§ 32. Authorship, publication and popularity, p. 236. § 33. The stark kaleidoscope, p. 245).

Part III

The Sixteenth Century

251

  34. England under the Tudors

253

  35. The English Reformation

263

  36–38. English humanism and the Renaissance

267

§ 36. The continental trail, p. 267. § 37. Forms, reception and genetic and historical theories, p. 275. § 38. The arts, p. 281.

  39. More

284

  40. Conduct books

294

  41. The Miscellanies

304

  42. Wyatt

307

  43. Surrey

318

  44. The Mirror for Magistrates

326

  45. Gascoigne

330

  46. Other minor poets

333

  47. Elizabethan Catholic poets

334

viii

§§ 48–54. Sidney

338

§ 48. The diagnostician and healer of infected man, p. 338. § 49. The Lady of May and other youthful lyrics, p. 345. § 50. Astrophel and Stella, p. 347. §§ 51–52. The Old Arcadia (§ 51. The neoclassical polish and the oblivion of reality, p. 354. § 52. Malice, humour and political allegory in the pastoral canvas, p. 360). § 53. The New Arcadia: The toning down of the pastoral and the emphasis on the heroic, p. 364. § 54. The Defence of Poesy, p. 367.

  55. Greville

372

  56–65.  Spenser

375

§ 56. The most poetic of English poets, p. 375. § 57. The Shepheardes Calender. 1579: The fateful year, p. 381. § 58. Aesopian and pastoral fables and elegies, p. 386. §§ 59–62. The Faerie Queene (§ 59. The poem’s ‘dark conceit’, p. 389. § 60. Upright knights against felons, monsters and enchantresses, p. 398. § 61. Man vs beast, p. 404. § 62. The Mutability Cantos, p. 414). § 63. Amoretti, p. 416. § 64. ‘Epithalamion’ and ‘Prothalamion’, p. 419. § 65. The four hymns to heavenly love, p. 423.

  66. Ralegh, Wotton

427

  67. Thomas Campion

434

  68. Drayton

437

  69. Daniel

442

  70. Other sonneteers and pastoral poets

448

  71. Davies and Davies of Hereford

451

ix



§ 72. Hall

454

   73–83. Donne

457

§ 73. The holy sinner and the querelle on concettism, p. 457. § 74. Biography, p. 467. §§ 75–76. Songs and Sonnets (§ 75. The obsolescence of Petrarchism, p. 470. § 76. Love, rescued from, and a slave to, time, p. 476). § 77. Elegies and epithalamia, p. 484. § 78. The satires, p. 488. § 79. The Verse Letters, p. 490. § 80. The Anniversaries, p. 493. §§ 81–82. Divine poems (§ 81. La Corona and Holy Sonnets, p. 497. § 82. The hymns, p. 505). § 83. Treatises, libels and sermons, p. 506.

  84. Puttenham

510

Part IV

The Elizabethan Theatre

515

  85. Tudor masques and interludes

517

  86. Elizabethan drama: An overview

520

  87. The incunabula

525

  88. Udall

531

  89. Bale

533

  90. Gorboduc

536

  91. Cambyses

540

  92. Arden of Feversham

542

x

§§ 93. Kyd

545

  94. Peele

550

  95–102. Marlowe

554

§ 95. The apotheosis and its nemesis, p. 554 . § 96. Dido, Queen of Carthage, p. 561. § 97. Tamburlaine the Great, p. 563. § 98. The Jew of Malta, p. 566. § 99. History plays, p. 569. §§ 100–101. Doctor Faustus (§ 100. A short history of Faustism, p. 572. § 101. The drama of irresolution, p. 578). § 102. Hero and Leander, p. 582.

  103–109. Marston

584

§ 103. The satires, p. 584. § 104. His theatrical career and his early retirement, p. 587. § 105. Plays of disguise and revenge, p. 591. § 106. The Malcontent, p. 595. § 107. The two city comedies, p. 598. § 108. Sophonisba, p. 601. § 109. The Insatiate Countess, p. 602.

  110–114. Chapman

604

§ 110. Homeri metaphrastes, p. 604. § 111. Orphic and mythological poems, p. 611. § 112. The comedies on the trial of chastity, p. 616. § 113. Bussy D’Ambois and the surrendering hero, p. 620. § 114. The stoic hero, p. 625.

  115–122. Jonson § 115. Construction and deconstruction of Jonson’s classicism, p. 627. § 116. The comedies of ‘humours’, p. 637. § 117. The Roman tragedies, p. 645. §§ 118–119. The tetralogy of tricksters (§ 118. Volpone and The Alchemist, p. 648. § 119. Epicoene and Bartholomew Fair, p. 654). § 120. Last Jacobean and Caroline plays, p. 659. § 121. The masques, p. 664. § 122. The poems, p. 665.

627

xi



§§ 123. Tourneur

668

   124–127. Webster

674

§ 124. Nihilism and possibilism in the Italian trilogy, p. 674. § 125. The White Devil, p. 682. § 126. The Duchess of Malfi. The blood taboo, p. 687. § 127. The Devil’s Law Case, p. 692.

  128–129. Dekker

696

§ 128. The brothel syndrome, p. 696. § 129. The prose, p. 705.

  130–136. Middleton

706

§ 130. A journeyman in Olympus, p. 706. § 131. Comedies set in the London gutter, p. 710. § 132. The romantic comedies, p. 714. § 133. Women Beware Women. Conjugal fidelity checkmated, p. 716. § 134. The Changeling. Woman is voluble, and so is man, p. 720. § 135. Other tragedies and tragicomedies, p. 723. § 136. A Game at Chess, p. 725.

   137–140. Beaumont and Fletcher

727

§ 137. The pliable centaur, p. 727. § 138. Independent plays, p. 730. § 139. Co-authored plays, p. 734. § 140. Plays by Fletcher alone, p. 739.

  141–143. Massinger

742

§ 141. Necessity and apology of self-sacrifice, p. 742. § 142. Satires of pretentiousness, p. 751. § 143. Caroline compromises, p. 753.

  144–146. Ford § 144. The focus on incest, p. 757. § 145. Heroines of firmness, p. 764. § 146. ‘Unity is no sin’, p. 770.

757

xii

§ 147–148. Thomas Heywood

773

§ 147. A Woman Killed with Kindness, p. 773. § 148. Other plays, p. 779.

  149–150. Shirley

781

§ 149. Elegant causeries, p. 781. § 150. The demise of Elizabethan tragedy, p. 790.

Part V

The Beginnings of Narrative Prose

795

  151. The first eclectic writers

797

  152–153. Lyly

798

§ 152. The Euphues romances, p. 798. § 153. The comedies, p. 804.

  154. Lodge

808

  155–156. Greene

811

§ 155. From the Arcadian euphuist to the Defoe-like realist, p. 811. § 156. The dramatist, p. 818.

  157. Nashe

821

  158. Deloney

827

  159. The Marprelate Tracts

831

xiii



§ 160.

Hooker

833

  161.

Travel literature and historical compilations

835

Index of names

839

Thematic index

861

Abbreviations G. Baldini, Storia della letteratura inglese. La tradizione letteraria dell’Inghilterra medioevale, Torino 1958. BAUGH A Literary History of England, ed. A. C. Baugh, 4 vols, London 1967. BEL B. Bush, English Literature in the Earlier Seventeenth Century 1600–1660, vol. V of The Oxford History of English Literature, ed. F. P. Wilson and B. Dobrée, Oxford 1973 (1st edn 1945). BRP J. A. Burrow, Ricardian Poetry: Chaucer, Gower, Langland and the ‘Gawain’ Poet, Harmondsworth 1992 (1st edn London 1971). CEL E. R. Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, Eng. trans., New York 1953 (1st German edn 1948). CHI The Cambridge History of English Literature, 14 vols, Cambridge 1934 (1st edn 1907–1916). CLA M. Praz, Cronache letterarie anglosassoni, 4 vols, Roma 1951, 1966. CRHE The Critical Heritage of individual authors, London, with editors and publication years indicated in the Bibliographies. EETS Early English Text Society, with editors, volume numbers and dates as specified. ELS C.  S. Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama, vol. III of The Oxford History of English Literature, ed. F.  P. Wilson and B. Dobrée, Oxford 1965 (1st edn 1954). ESE T. S. Eliot, Selected Essays, London 1963 (1st edn 1932). GSM H. J. C. Grierson and J. C. Smith, A Critical History of English Poetry, London 1956. HWP B. Russell, History of Western Philosophy, London 1964 (1st edn 1946). LEW C. S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love, Oxford 1938 (1st edn 1936). MAR Storia della civiltà letteraria inglese, ed. F. Marenco, 4 vols, Torino 1996. MIT L. Mittner, Storia della letteratura tedesca, 3 vols in 4 tomes, Torino 1964–1977. BAL

xvi Abbreviations 

TLS

George Orwell, Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, ed. S. Orwell and I. Angus, 4 vols, Harmondsworth 1970. The Pelican Guide to English Literature, ed. B. Ford, 7 vols, Harmondsworth 1966 (1st edn 1954). M. Pagnini, Letteratura e ermeneutica, Firenze 2002. M. Praz, Machiavelli in Inghilterra e altri saggi sui rapporti letterari anglo-italiani, Firenze 1962. M. Praz, The Romantic Agony, Eng. trans., London 1956 (1st Italian edn La carne la morte e il diavolo nella letteratura romantica, Firenze 1930). M. Praz, Storia della letteratura inglese, Firenze 1968. Il Rinascimento, ed. C. Corti, Bologna 1994. G. Saintsbury, A Short History of English Literature, London 1948 (1st edn 1898). A. C. Swinburne, The Age of Shakespeare, London 1908. J.  L. Styan, The English Stage: A History of Drama and Performance, Cambridge 1996. M. Praz, Studi e svaghi inglesi, 2 vols, Milano 1983 (1st edn 1937). H. A. Taine, History of English Literature, Eng. trans., 4 vols, London 1920 (1st French edn 1864). V. Woolf, The Common Reader, First Series, Harmondsworth 1938 (1st edn London 1925), and Second Series, London 1935 (1st edn London 1932). The Times Literary Supplement.

Volume 2 Volume 3 Volume 4 Volume 5 Volume 6 Volume 7 Volume 8

F. Marucci, History of English Literature, vol. 2, Oxford 2018. F. Marucci, History of English Literature, vol. 3, Oxford 2018. F. Marucci, History of English Literature, vol. 4, Oxford 2018. F. Marucci, History of English Literature, vol. 5, Oxford 2018. F. Marucci, History of English Literature, vol. 6, Oxford 2018. F. Marucci, History of English Literature, vol. 7, Oxford 2018. F. Marucci, History of English Literature, vol. 8, Oxford 2018.

OCE PGU PLE PMI PRA PSL RIN SAI SAS SES SSI TAI TCR

Note. Except for the above abbreviations, full publication information of cited works will be found in the bibliography for each author.

§ 1. The initial and terminal dates of this volume The ‘year zero’ of English literature, as I shall argue below, cannot be pinpointed with any degree of certainty, and indeed various theories exist as to when it all began. I believe that, rather than identify this elusive beginning, it is important to concentrate on subsequent fractures and demarcations, which should not be arbitrary, but as objective as possible. The terminus ad quem of this volume is a subject of controversy: in general I shall consider as Elizabethan not only those authors who, by 1603, had already written and published at least one of their major works, and who therefore were over the age of twenty. The reason this volume breaks off in 1625 lies in the fact that many playwrights straddle the dividing line of 1603, and are both Elizabethan and Jacobean. I have preferred not to split their careers and deal with them in two separate volumes, as will be done with the first- and second-generation Victorians, or Victorians and Edwardians. Indeed, there is a continuity that lasts for half a century, and more, if we include those playwrights who lived long enough to be Elizabethan, Jacobean and Caroline. The socio-political history of the reigns of James I and Charles I will be presented together, as will the literature and culture of the age, at the beginning of the third volume. For the use of ‘Elizabethan’ as conventionally inclusive of ‘Jacobean’ and a period considered as a whole, irrespective of historical watersheds, one can cite (at least Italians can) a panoramic essay surveying drama by Mario Praz.1 Another loophole was proposed and used by George Saintsbury, who determined the properness of the label ‘Elizabethan’ on the basis of the date of birth of the writer under question. The second caveat concerns the titles of works from the origins up to the period of linguistic stability: these have usually been given following inconsistent and erratic norms, even by British and American authors. So too with quotations, which will appear either in the old spelling or in a modernized form. The justification often given, that some texts must be read and cited in old spelling while others may be presented in modern form, is far from convincing. I have in general chosen to respect general consensus and the criterion of frequency. Sidney’s two Arcadias, 1

‘La fortuna del dramma elisabettiano’, in SSI, vol. I, 133–52, in particular the opening remarks.

2

§ 1. The initial and terminal dates of this volume

for example, are usually read and quoted from in modern English, which is absolutely not the case for Spenser, his contemporary. Shakespeare too is presented in modern spelling. In this regard it must never be forgotten that the normalization of spelling took a very long time, and can be said to have been completed towards the end of the seventeenth century, saving here and there residual archaic forms. In any case, normalization was gradual and not evenly spread, bearing in mind regional and local usage, so that a text which is later than another will not necessarily have a more ‘modern’ spelling. This remark of C. S. Lewis on methodology is worth repeating and remembering:  ‘A poetic translation is always to some extent a new work of art’.2 In other words, I will not make a priority of looking for sources at any cost. Lastly, the reader will be aware of a glaring omission in this volume: Shakespeare, who will, however, be the subject of my second volume. In studying the dramatists I also warn that the two dates, separated by a dash, given to the individual works, indicate the first performance and the first publication; where neither one or the other is certain, I only note in passing its composition date. It is superfluous to mention, concerning the dating, that the English legal calendar until 1750 began the year on 25 March; to avoid confusion between O.S. and N.S. (‘Old Style’ and ‘New Style’) the dates are not given in the dual form but only refer to the modern calendar.

2

ELS, 492.

Part I 

The Formation of a National Literature

§ 2. Placing Old English literature in the canon The literature written in England in Latin, in Old English or AngloSaxon and then Middle English, dazzlingly proves the validity of E. R. Curtius’ theory expounded in European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, as to the particular and different meaning of the word auctor in the Middle Ages as compared to today’s. The author was not expected to be original; on the contrary he was and was supposed to remain hidden; he did not experience the drama and the anxiety of literary authorship. This is the reason why a great deal of the documentation relative to this long period, is either anonymous or attributed to an undefined or doubtful author, and why we have to wait until Gower, Langland and Chaucer before we get anywhere near our modern concept of authorship.1 As a further proof, the editors of the works in this canon do not classify them by author, even when they are fairly certain, but by genres,2 so that each individual work is almost exclusively identified by its title. The absence of the principle of auctoritas tallies with another fact, that is, that literature, from its beginnings to a watershed which I shall identify later on, is mainly a form of historiography. We therefore rely on these written documents to reconstruct history, and the word ‘document’ is by no means a haphazard choice. One section of this canon consists of archival material, title deeds, the census;3 another repertory is that of religious material, chants, hymns, and graces; a third comprises early romances. The historical calendar consists

1

One must note that several anonymous poems were re-written by monks and that they are the fruit of controlled empathy, and celebrations of what stemmed from earlier sources but from a far later viewpoint, say around the ninth or tenth century: a primitivism that is thus coloured by Christian spirituality rather than found in its pure state. 2 Or even usefully by manuscript, the four chief manuscripts of which I will speak below. 3 The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, originally commissioned by Alfred the Great, is the most significant amongst Old English prose works, and one of the first modern, continuous narrative in the vernacular, consisting mostly of a list of historical facts, though interspersed by fine poetic compositions. After Alfred, this Chronicle benefitted from his ideas and organizational gifts. It was developed in various cultural centres, corresponding to abbeys, until 1154. It comes to us in seven manuscripts.

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of a list of important dates and begins with the invasion of the island by Julius Caesar and early Roman colonization, and closes with the Romans abandoning this distant, unmanageable, fairly unprofitable and, for them, unappetising fringe. The Empire was disintegrating, attacked as it was by barbarians. Some of the mainland tribes then invaded the island which the Romans had left. One is irresistibly reminded of the paradox with which Marlow’s narration opens on the deck of the Nellie lying at anchor in the Thames in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: this island, which would move the epicentre of Europe to the North, and from being a periphery, would become central, was, 2,000 years earlier, a conquered, looted, and substantially undefended land. Relationships would be gradually reversed, and from being colonized it would become the colonizer. 2. In the Old English canon, Widsith is normally held to be the most ancient literary document, The Battle of Maldon the latest. This canon, covering four centuries, may be contained in a book of scarcely 400 pages, and it seems thus to possess a relaxed productive rhythm, or even to move on slowly and sparely, but only because it has come down to us greatly incomplete. The Danish raids brought about the destruction of the monasteries, where many of the manuscripts were kept. Initially, the sagas from the far north, which dealt with happenings in Denmark, Sweden, Frisia and other territories of that latitude, were rewritten in England. At the same time hagiography and sermon literature acted as links to Anglo-Norman literature. The celebration of the heroic age develops according to concepts similar to all heroic canons, and the behavioural customs of the Germanic court foreshadow those of Arthur’s Camelot, where the king is at the centre of the ‘Table’ of his faithful band, and rewards them after a victorious battle with song, music and libations – even if a traitorous Judas may be amongst them. Blood feuds were intrinsic to the Germanic world, and filled with wonder the people who listened to the minstrels singing about them. The accepted chronology is as follows: literature in Old English4 up to 1150, in Middle English up to 1500, in Early Modern English afterwards. In macro4

‘Old English’ is synonymous with ‘Anglo-Saxon’, but is the more extensive term, including all the various dialects spoken on the island until the advent of Middle English.

§ 2. Placing Old English literature in the canon

7

historical terms the watershed between the second and the third phase is represented by the Reformation and the Renaissance (though the conventional date usually chosen is 1485, i.e. that of Henry VII’s accession to the throne); but the Reformation is a northern event that most closely affects England, while the absorption of the Renaissance is not synchronic but later, with the medieval period being prolonged, one could say, until the Romantic period.5 After all, one may easily find or posit an opposition (and a very clear-cut one, as does Yuri Lotman’s typology of culture) between the two cultural types, medieval and Renaissance, as well as some form of continuity. We owe the notion of a Renaissance flowering in the Middle Ages, before its official inception and definition in France and in Italy, to the English, or at least to some of them, like Pater and Ruskin. The pertinence of Old English literature to the English literary canon is, in effect, anything but taken for granted, and even today two theories confront each other, one of which can be defined as atomistic, the second as organic. According to the first, Old English literature must be kept separate from the study of both English language and literature; for the second, it is a part of an integral whole, inasmuch as it is a moment of its development – not unlike texts in poetry and prose, historical and religious, written in Latin or in Anglo-Norman before the advent of Chaucer. The one differentiation, the sine qua non condition of belonging to English literature, is, according to those who uphold the second theory, that texts should have been written by English authors and on English soil. As regards Old English literature, there are histories of English literature, like the earliest editions of the Pelican Guide, which exclude it, while others include it but only as

5

Curtius (CEL, ‘Appendix’, 585–96) reduces his manual by fifty to one in these ten pages, summing up his theses and salient points. He emphasizes the compactness of the European cultural system of the early Middle Ages, noting above all the cultural, national and political unity of northern France with England. Exchanges in both directions took place: poets emigrated to the English courts and men of the Church became bishops in France. Curtius insists that the boundaries of the Middle Ages must be shifted forward to a much later date, that of the Industrial Revolution, around 1750.

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part i  the formation of a national literature

a well-circumscribed prologue.6 In B. Ifor Evans’s brief History the author discovers and analyses a mysterious symmetry between what came after Chaucer and what was written before.7 Whoever establishes the beginning of English literature in Chaucer’s writings, Evans says, assigns only six centuries of life to it, but it had had just as many before Chaucer. England was conquered and colonized repeatedly, as Evans rightly reminds us using a German word that evokes the same kind of shudder that the recurring thought of invasion was to arouse 1,500 years later, when England actually had to defend itself against the German bombs.8 Those very Angles, Saxons and Jutes were already trying to find Lebensraum in England in the fifth century. It is thus legitimate to consider the Anglo-Saxon invasion, and the successive conversion of those peoples from paganism (AD 597), as much as the Norman Conquest, as a series of milestones. The discovery of pre-Conquest manuscripts took place after the Reformation, when the idea of a true and proper national literature dating back far earlier than the fifteenth century started to emerge. The historic reason for the celebration of this heritage was the English rivalry with the Germans and the French. The study of the roots of this literature was carried out by Coleridge, De Quincey and Carlyle in the Romantic period. The transition was from a separatist vision to one of an organic, uninterrupted development triggered by historical developments: Latin, succeeded by Germanic dialects, by Old English, then by Middle English, and finally by English. The Romantics were later aided by the philologists. But Legouis and Cazamian were against the total merging of literatures, which dangerously obscured distinctions: ‘There is no other literature which has lived and developed in as much ignorance of its indigenous past as English literature’,9 they said, above all because Old English literature had been for centuries largely unknown, and, when known, could not be understood. 6 7 8 9

Also BAL, 31–3, removes this canon because it is ‘autonomous’, and too much separated for various reasons from Middle English, this last being more recognizably the progenitor of English. But he does study it summarily. B. Ifor Evans, A Short History of English Literature, Harmondsworth 1940, 9. On the threat of imminent war and on anti-German sentiment in the late nineteenth century, see Volume 7, § 59. E. Legouis and E. Cazamian, A History of English Literature, London 1967, 5–6.

§ 2. Placing Old English literature in the canon

9

3. No ready scientific criteria exist to separate Old English literature from English literature, and those who include it, do so, admitting perplexities and stretching a point or two. Undoubtedly, the arguments against are neither few nor slight: one can invoke the case of Latin and Italian literature, which, it is true, are themselves kept unanimously apart, although written in languages that present fewer differences, and where Latin is the undeniable forebear of Italian, while Old English is further apart from English, though ‘English’ was what the Anglo-Saxon language spoken by the peoples settled on the island was called. The criteria of place and people also fail us, that is, those of an ‘English’ literature originating in a unified land, the land that gave birth to English literature ‘proper’, written by one people, rather than by that ethnic mixture that in fact authored it. Yet the fact remains, that what little remains of Old English literature would be stateless, and one would not know which linguistic-literary category one should attribute it to: it could, perhaps, be classed among the writings included in Germanic Philology studies, but its subject matter has been found extraneous to the content and spirit that informs Icelandic and Old German sagas. Everything however changes radically if we substitute for ‘History of English Literature’ ‘History of Literature in England’, even if Old English literature was not written synchronically in different languages – like the literature of linguistic minorities today in Italy, Spain or America – but diachronically. Similarly no Scot or Irishman would dream of excluding Gaelic literature from the history of his national literary heritage, but would today discover and draw on it for elements of most intrinsic continuity. Nineteenthcentury historians posed the problem and found a somewhat more scientific criterion: that of the foundational character of Old English literature. On the one hand they had to reply to another substantial objection: that this literature could not be foundational because it had been discovered too late, and was therefore unknown, wherefore it could not interact with the writers of the successive centuries, until the 1800s10 (and yet we find that Milton’s Satan echoes various Old English poems on Genesis and was perhaps inspired by them). On the other hand Taine and his followers

10

The Old English canon became part of the academic syllabus with Henry Sweet’s primer (1st edn 1876).

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part i  the formation of a national literature

began to point out genes and traits that would have remained as identifiable marks for later generations of writers. Mario Praz follows the same kind of guidelines, stating that ‘throughout the whole course of literature’ one witnesses a ‘curious clash’ between paganism and Christianity. Other enduring traits, alluded to by Praz, are the sense of Ossianic melancholy, of the ‘tempestuous’ sea (which we will find in Swinburne), of the heath, of the gloomy forest and of the menacing mountains. One can prove this continuity in early, Ossianic Romanticism, in Coleridge’s ballads and in Matthew Arnold’s essays on the Celtic element. Later a fanatical fascination with this poetic repertoire and world view was to be shared by the twentieth-century English Catholics headed by Tolkien, addicted to fantasy and apologetics. On a purely formal level, the accented syllabic alliterative measure was inherited by Hopkins with his own rhythm, ‘sprung’ exactly like that in the Old English epics (and Hopkins, seldom mentioned in these discussions, esteemed the role of the poet as the scop, and for him poetry was supposed, above all, to be declaimed).11 Many surviving Old English lyrics are embryonic dramatic monologues and constitute a precedent most dear to Browning, and through Browning to Pound, and, perhaps, even to T. S. Eliot. This foundational nature, or mere continuity, is also proved by the far from extravagant and impressionistic quantity of echoes and foreshadowings disseminated in the works of many poets of later generations, the sea evoking for instance Kipling and Byron, the wind Shelley, the bestiaries Ted Hughes. 4. What Old English literature has come down to us, we owe to monks of the seventh to the eleventh centuries. Only edifying and morally sound literature was accepted and transmitted through their filter, and sagas and myths were in many cases manipulated and Christianized. On the other hand the invading peoples were already civilized and socially organized, thanks to their contacts with the Celts. So this literature cannot be compared to the primitive German literature of the same time, such as the Nibelungenlied and the Edda. The Christianization of Anglo-Saxon England took place in 597, the year in which the monk Augustine came 11

Seamus Heaney, in the preface to his translation of Beowulf (see § 6 Bibl.) claims Hopkins as the heir of the Old English tradition.

§ 2. Placing Old English literature in the canon

11

from Rome to convert the Jutes and founded the Abbey of Canterbury. At the same time Ireland, already Christianized, was sending missionaries to the Angles and also the Saxons came under their influence. The Roman alphabet was imported along with Christianity, replacing the Germanic runes and the Celtic Ogham script. All Old English literature was therefore strongly influenced by Latin literature. At the same time, however, the monk scribes were the sons of Viking warriors, so that Old English poetry also presents hybrid pagan traits. Together with early literary forms in Old English one finds inscriptions in runes and others in the Roman alphabet. It is an exemplary form of crossing over from paganism to Christianity, or from magic to Christian ritual. The alphabet of the first Old English writings is substantially the Latin one of the Irish monks, but joined to it are some phonetic runes that represent Old English sounds. Here two consequences are discernible: the scribes copied, even two centuries after their composition, poems that had previously circulated in oral form; and alongside the popular Anglo-Saxon heroic literature, scholarly writings in Latin also survived. The scribes also translated homiletic and spiritual works into the vernacular. 5. Runes were the ancient alphabet of the Germanic languages held to be of obscure origin (for Sweet they were a Nordic modification of a Greek alphabet; according to Carlyle, in the first lecture of Heroes and Hero Worship, the Scandinavian alphabet was invented by Odin; according to recent scholars, runes are the Phoenician Etruscan alphabet that reached Iceland and Greenland as a by-product of trade and plunder). They were employed for inscriptions and epigraphy, and therefore their use was not for writing on parchment or paper, but for incisions on stone, metal or even wood bark, the so-called ‘bóc’, the ancestor of the word ‘book’. Runes, therefore, had a phonetic, as well as an iconic and even an ideogrammatic value, and represented not only a sound, but also were associated with objects, with an animal or a plant, while some runes survived to represent sounds which were not in the Roman alphabet. The word itself had a shamanic or mysterious value, and the word ‘rún’ recurs in subsequent English expressions. Runes were mystic signs that held magic power, and hid treasures of wisdom, incised often on swords. The advent of the Latin alphabet was also used for exorcising purposes, as runes were thought of as devilish.

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6. By common consensus Old English was a transformation and reelaboration of the language spoken by the first invaders of 450. It was therefore akin to German and Dutch with injections of runic symbols, such as those which stood for the ‘th’ sound. In linguistic terms around 80 per cent of Old English is Germanic, the rest neo-Latin. North and South had remarkable dialectal differences but these merged with a progressive reduction on stress, which gradually led to the creation of Middle English. This is confirmed by Edward the Confessor’s removal of his court and of his capital to London, thus putting an end to the predominance of the Wessex dialect. Baugh12 vigorously stresses the formation and acquisition of a common language as the ‘King’s English’ unifying the other dialects, as a result of the transition from a tribal and fragmentary, to a centralized, statutory and organized nation. In the year 1000 there was, in fact, no single kingdom having such consciousness of its own unity as the English realm. Of the four dialects mostly spoken – northern in Northumbria, central in Mercia, the Kentish and the western Saxon – the latter became hegemonic, while, in the course of time, it underwent flexional and even grammatical simplification and the loss of final unstressed vowels. Baugh13 also adds that Old English was linguistically more refined than the rough language introduced by the Normans, who supplanted and suppressed it, both as a spoken and a literary language, and that the Conquest was a linguistic impoverishment and a violent break in an ongoing process. The characteristics of Old English and particularly of its poetic language are the predominance of consonants, the stress given to the root syllable, the division of the line into two hemistichs, with two accents in the first part and two in the second; alliteration; the ‘Latin’ spirit of synthesis, with conjugations and declinations; the non-logical but poetic order of the phrase. Other features include the compounds, which look ahead to the imitations and parodies by Carlyle and Joyce; the accumulation of circumlocutions, almost an end to themselves; the chains of synonyms, and the syntagmatic and paradigmatic links; the metaphoric designations and finally the wellknown artifice of the ‘kenning’ (a euphemism or expression serving to 12 13

BAUGH, vol. I, 5. BAUGH, vol. I, 10.

§ 2. Placing Old English literature in the canon

13

identify a person or a thing, consisting of a word and a genitive), which leads to the riddle. Old English poetry belongs to the period between the eighth and the tenth centuries, and was edited by transcribers who, as I have said, were already Christian and conversant with Greek and Latin models. The greater part of Old English poetry comes to us in four manuscripts from the eleventh century: the Junius, which contains Cædmon’s poems; the Codex Exoniensis, a curious medley of different poems; a manuscript in the British Library which unites Beowulf and Judith; and the Vercelli manuscript, discovered in the Vercelli Chapter Library in 1822,14 which contains lives of the saints and religious poetry. Other brief fragments complete the canon. 7. As to the purely literary value of Old English literature, the general consensus is, to repeat, lukewarm if not unfavourable. And after all, the whole of this canon is the domain of philologists and textual, and only rarely literary, critics; and the issues that hold the stage are those of dating, ordering and attributing the texts. The highest praise, on the other hand, is attributed to Old English as an expressive instrument: it is a flowing, refined and flexible language, able to express a spectrum of registers and spheres of intellectual activity. It is often claimed that the Normans had an inferior literary culture and artistic taste compared with the English, and that they brought to a halt, rather than promoting, England’s literary progress. It is true that before the Danish invasions, England was a cultural beacon, from which shone the light of Christianity and of the religious life. Her monasteries, abbeys, bishops and numerous episodes of devotion were legendary and sensational, so that Europe, having first evangelized pagan England, and now in need of re-sanctification, came to be re-Christianized by the nation it had Christianized. A similar symbolism can be perceived in Charlemagne’s appointment of Alcuin, Bishop of York, to organize his schola.15 Such a distorted perspective has enjoyed uncommon favour with Protestants 14 15

See PSL, 11, for some curious conjectures regarding the circumstances whereby this manuscript ended up in this Italian city. Alcuin came from Northumbria and spent much time among the Franks, but only after he was sixty. He wrote personal and elegiac poetry in Latin and also manuals and pedagogic works.

14

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and Puritans, as the coming of the Normans seemed to them as an earlier instance of Catholicization, Romanization or even ‘Vaticanization’ of the island. According to this version, the Normans were seen to have devastated, if not degraded and paralysed a land that promised to become in a short while the highest European pinnacle of poetry and prose.16 § 3. English history to 1066 English history in the first millennium is a still wide open field of study, on which the ongoing archaeological excavations – one of these in 2009, in ancient Mercia – can shed essential light and furnish valuable updates. The fact from which to begin, in the years preceding 1000, is that the Saxon emigrants of northern Europe, who were periodically invading England, became Christian, unlike other peoples and clans of the surrounding areas. These immigrants rapidly acquired a national consciousness, feeling themselves a different people compared with the race into which they had been born. The next odd aspect is that they were soon spoken of as English, though formerly Danes or Vikings, and that they had, as such, to fight against members of their own race, during the numerous invasions of the Vikings proper. One can therefore speak of internal feuds and intestine wars amongst the Nordic races. A precocious nationalistic feeling and consciousness, which distinguished these settlers, even on a linguistic level, from their inherited origins, thus ensued. 2. To the Celts, organized in tribes, who had come from Gaul in the fifth century BC, the Romans had transmitted their civilization, commerce and law and, when Rome became the seat of Christianity, their religion. They traded with the clan chiefs, acquiring luxury items which served to maintain a high standard of living in Rome, in exchange for basically necessary merchandise: according to Strabo the island was fertile with grain and animals, gold, silver and iron, exported to Rome, while the Celts discovered wine. Caesar had invaded the island, Claudius conquered it. The Emperor proceeded with a pervasive colonization, Romanizing the land as far as urbanization, uses and customs were concerned, and with fortifications (the two walls, or ditches, of Hadrian and Antoninus); and

16

On Ralph Waldo Emerson’s theory about the Normans as ‘twenty thousand thieves’, see BAUGH, vol. I, 105 n. 45.

§ 3. English history to 1066

15

he imposed the educational model of Roman citizenship. Four centuries of Roman rule provoked occasional mutinies, repressed with bloodshed, when the luminous example of heroes, like Caractacus or Queen Boadicea shone forth, to be sung much later by Tennyson and, in music, by Elgar. In practice, the Romans instituted and favoured the role of client rulers, as an instrument for subjugating families and hostile peoples. London became the capital of the colony, operating centre and headquarters, replacing Colchester. In the first years of the fifth century (AD 410) the Roman legions started to withdraw, in order to protect Rome from the barbaric invasions, and the island was gradually abandoned. Roman Britain had by then fallen into neglect and decay, and the Britons, a weaker civilization, became absorbed and almost obliterated (‘Briton’ meant ‘slave’ for the Saxons). But not altogether. One can surmise that, though there is a lack of written records, the British or Celtic language became mixed with that of the incoming Anglo-Saxons. The Celtic element, gentle, elegiac and lyrical, would have been a counterweight to that of the more masculine Anglo-Saxon. 3. In 449, the first invasion or migration of the Angles,1 Saxons and Jutes drove the Britons, or Celts, to the west, to the north and to the south. Many centuries later the abandonment of the island on the part of the Romans would be forgiven and thought to be less grave: the Romans left the country to confront and block the ‘German threat’, which was to be recurring for the English over the centuries. In reality the Romans were thinking of their own, German threat, and the first example of this occurred when the barbarians were left free, the Romans gone, to invade the defenceless island. But it was soon rumoured that a reckless British king, Vortigern, had himself invited the Germans to protect him from the Picts of Caledonia and from the Scots from Ireland.2 Bede speaks of four areas peacefully 1

2

First mentioned in Tacitus, Germania, chapter 40, as ‘Anglii’. For reasons that are not very clear the term that was applied to the mixed population which came to be on English soil was ‘Saxon’; but the term ‘Angli’ prevailed amongst writers from the time when Gregory the Great (who died in 604) used it for the entire population of Germanic immigrants mixed with the indigenous Celts. Later a compromise was reached with the label ‘Anglo-Saxon’. Bede I.14 and 15; but the episode is also narrated by Geoffrey of Monmouth and Wace, the latter spinning an intriguing account of Vortigern’s trickery in pitting the Germanic Hengist and Horsa against the Picts.

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divided between the Picts, the Britons, the English, and the Scots, and of seven distinct kingdoms at the end of the sixth century. In 597 Pope Gregory I had sent the monk Augustine with forty followers to Christianize the island, and Ethelbert was the first English king to convert. In Ireland, the Irish had been previously Christianized by St Patrick3 and others. The heart of England was thus clenched in a pincer grip: from the north-west, the evangelization by the Irish Christians who came from Iona, and, from Rome, Augustine with his monks. Pope Gregory adopted the wise policy of not wiping out the pagan traditions at a single stroke, but promoted a gradual transition to Christianity, proved by the surviving repertoire of magical formulae and exorcisms, of spells and charms derived from the ancient rites used for propitiating fertility.4 Another major date is 664, that of the Synod of Whitby, when the two English churches (the Irish of travelling missionaries, and the Roman, more systematically organized) were unified under Rome. In reality, paganism continued to exist in a fluctuating state and was not wiped out (as proved, in Bede, with the episode of pagan Penda who killed Edwin, the Christian King of Northumbria, in 632). The Anglo-Saxons were described by Taine, following Tacitus with somewhat exaggerated emphasis, as drunkards and ‘butchers’, that is, ready to hunt, kill, and horribly dismember even human beings. But they also had a code of

3

4

Joyce would only have confirmed, or more exactly polemically and emphatically stated, that Ireland from its origins was heretical, or at least independent in its orthodoxy, thus almost heterodox. St Patrick was English – as Bertrand Russell (HWP, 396) noted, defining this as an ‘extremely painful fact’ (naturally for the Irish) – but what is more important is that, before his coming the island was already converted by none other than the Copts and Gauls, already pushed onto the island by the barbarian invasions. They were the custodians and importers of continental learning, and perhaps they knew Greek. Joyce was to celebrate this heritage. But Russell adds that Irish missionaries were monks, even bishops, but cut off from Roman contacts and sympathizing with the Pelagian heresy (according to Russell Pelagius was a Welshman whose real name, Morgan, signifies ‘man of the sea’ [HWP, 361], being in other words rather heretical). An Irish Neo-Platonist of the ninth century was Scotus Eriugena. Some of these spells, such as the ‘nine herbs charm’, remind one of the scene of the witches’ cauldron in Macbeth.

§ 3. English history to 1066

17

honour, and were determinedly monogamous, therefore precociously ‘sane’.5 Taine sought, and thought he had found the traces of, a Scandinavian gene which, according to Carlyle and others, would be fixed and embedded in the Englishman’s imagination of the following centuries. Nonetheless, the fundamental, basic seriousness, morality and inclination towards the sublime of the Anglo-Saxon could be absorbed without attrition by Christianity’s Gospel. Carlyle noted proudly that, above the Humber, there still were, in his time, Scandinavian linguistic residues, that Danish elements emerged in the language, and signs of Icelandic mythology survived. 4. England, towards 800 AD, was vaguely like Italy 1,000 years later. It was a racially homogenous area (except for the Britons), and this also applied to the practices, customs, history, provenance and, loosely, to the language as well; it was a self-sufficient civilization, even if broken up into monarchies that made war on – or, from time to time, made peace with – each other. Politically it was a federation, or even a precursor of the feudal system. There were indeed defined monarchies, each king swearing faith to an overlord from whom they were dependent; or it could be described as a system of connected provinces. In this context, if this analogy is correct, the Kingdom of Wessex functioned like that of the house of Savoy in Italy, and its representative sovereign in that century, Alfred the Great, placed himself at the head of a movement of unification from which a united kingdom emerged. But the analogy ends here, because, 200 years later, there was a new invasion. And yet England actually remained a united kingdom, only its reigning dynasty changed and the language changed as well in a revolutionary way. At the end of the eighth century, a second wave of Vikings and Danes invaded an England already taken over by the preceding invaders; in 871 this new population had already managed to conquer the whole island area north of the Thames, and the so-called Danelaw was consolidated, despite Alfred’s resistance. Having temporarily checked the Danes, Alfred dedicated himself to the moral, spiritual and cultural construction 5

Tacitus stresses the freezing cold of the polar climes and emphasizes the unfailing and inviolable sense of hospitality of its peoples. His chapter 21 helps one to understand the description of Heorot in Beowulf, while chapter 27 confirms the use of cremation on funerary pyres of the bodies of victorious warriors who died in combat.

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of the country and to the founding of schools. Following Charlemagne’s example, he was also the father of Old English prose with his two translations of Boethius’ Consolation and of Gregory the Great’s Cura pastoralis, in which he taught the clergy the duties and tasks for the care of souls.6 When he died in 8997 Wessex fell back into illiteracy and above all into religious apathy, until the bishops Dunstan and Æthelwold’s reform of the Benedictine monasteries. The vast mass of Old English prose lies outside the literary domain even more than its poetry, because of its prevalently practical, didactic, and pastoral nature. The huge corpus of sermons and lives of the saints by the Benedictine monk Ælfric (955–1010 or 1020, or 1025) was prompted by the need to seize the attention of the hearer with a plain, direct style and in a language stripped of obscurity, even though it used the rhythmic style it owes to Latin poetry, which became clear during the twentieth-century revival of his writings.8 Wulfstan of York (who died in 1023), though a bishop, was a fiery preacher in his Sermo Lupi ad Anglos which echoes the thunderous, apocalyptic tone of coeval religious poetry. The son of Alfred the Great defeated the Danes and reunited England under a single sceptre. In 980, however, the island was subjected to further incursions by Danish invaders, which were not entirely successful and were eventually re-absorbed. With the Normans it was very much the reverse. When, in 1066, William the Conqueror defeated the English led by Harold, successor to Edward the Confessor, England was a country with few large cities, but having many independent cultural centres.

6

7 8

In these translations he often consulted a team of scholars from the surrounding kingdoms. During his reign, Bede’s Historia was also translated from Latin. See CEL, 177, for King Alfred as an example of the changing of the role of the heroic king, and as a synthesis of fortitude and wisdom in the late Middle Ages. The modern fame of Alfred reached its highest point in 1901 at the death of Queen Victoria, when, to underscore the historic link, the date of Alfred’s death was held to be 901, as erroneously reported even now in various manuals. As a consequence of a new EETS edition, ed. W. W. Skeat, London 1881 and 1885.

§ 4. Bede

19

§ 4. Bede The idea of English history put to the test and to verification in the Venerable Bede’s (672–735) Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum1 is that even in the eighth century AD England was subdivided into many small regional monarchies, often even called provinces, and lacked the charismatic figure of a ruler who could unite them into one strong kingdom. Owing to historical vicissitudes, throughout more than seven centuries, the individual populations were of different races and had their own uses and customs. Above all, until well into the seventh century there were on the island, according to Bede, five main German languages that were not immediately understood – in some cases not understood at all – by the various local populations. The lingua franca was Latin, and the national binding force was the Christian religion, which was gaining ground but which might also lose it. Bede’s history is, above all, the history of a permanent evangelization, and it is so because, at its close, the historian has to admit that, although England had been Christianized even before Augustine, its paganism had not been definitely expunged, and its dying embers could always be rekindled. One must repeat that Bede’s is an ‘ecclesiastical’ history, which begins and proceeds against the background of Roman history and thus of the history of its emperors and, above all, of its popes. A pre-Dantesque similitude he uses is that the Britons and the Anglo-Saxons were the Elected People of God, who, like Israel, were punished with invasions when they went astray, and to whom prophets were sent in the guise of bishops and martyrs. As in the biblical Books of Kings, there had been a succession of kings who were either devout or pagan and idolatrous, and whom it was the duty of the bishops, abbots, and men of faith to convert and guide. In Bede’s view, the Christianization of the island had not taken place in a linear way, and a pious king could easily have a pagan, murderous, degenerate and desecrating son. The pace of Bede’s history is therefore not particularly diachronic; rather it is somewhat synchronic, because it often turns back from the facts of one reign to those of a previous one. 1

On the basis of a treatise by Bede on tropes, Curtius (CEL, 47) demonstrates how the Bible came to be taken by him as a poetic text and a repertory of rhetorical figures, like a classical work.

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The Roman popes were most careful not to permit any loosening of the fetters linking the English faith to the fulcrum of universal Christianity, lest it should deviate from orthodoxy. The missions sent by popes were supposed to evangelize regions and peoples that were still pagan, or had relapsed into paganism, as well as maintaining and assuring discipline and uniformity; and this entailed a battle against heresies born in England, such as Pelagianism. Bede’s text reproduces verbatim the various letters which the popes wrote incessantly to the English clergy to block deviations, dissidence and divergence, or to resolve diatribes, such as the dating of Easter or the correct form of tonsure.2 The second book opens by recalling Pope Gregory the Great and his famous pun of ‘Non Angli, sed Angeli’, as he was supposed to have defined some fair-haired Anglo-Saxon youths being sold as slaves in a market place in Rome. Bede confirms, citing two other calembours, that the great pope was also a player with words, able to find a providential key, and thus an omen, in nomina.3 Bede shows that the English were ‘angels’ – though they could also be occasionally tempted by the devil – by dedicating much space to documenting the precocious, early medieval saintliness of the English. The Historia becomes hagiography, or a listing of repetitive and somewhat boring acts of devotion, sacrifices and miracles derived from lives dedicated only to faith and to the denial of the world and its temptations. One might say that the foundation of an English medievalism can, to a certain degree, be found in Bede, resurfacing in some nineteenth-century poets like Hopkins, whose odes on the English martyrs (St Thecla, St Winifred) are foreshadowed in Bede’s work.4 Daily 2 3 4

The very long chapter 27 of the first book, which unfolds like a catechism, reminds one of episode 17 in Joyce’s Ulysses, written as if Joyce were parodying Bede. The native province of the Angles was Deira, which could be decoded as ‘De ira’ or ‘saved by the mercy of Christ’: and from their king, Aella, Pope Gregory deduced ‘Alleluia’. A typically Hopkinsian spirit (that of the ‘Echoes’) may be detected in the episode of the Abbess Etheldreda (IV.19), who believes that the tumour in her neck was caused by ‘the useless weight of the jewels’ she wore in her youth. Symptomatically, in the hymn in honour of Etheldreda (IV.20), St Thecla, on whom Hopkins wrote a poem, is mentioned. The collection of the biographies of the English saints contains those of the Abbess Hilda and of Bishop Cuthbert, the latter considerably lengthened by the accounts of his miracles. All these biographies follow the same pattern, and the Historia is modelled on the Acts of the Apostles.

§ 5. Old English poetry

21

miracles seem to have been freely in circulation in Bede’s time. In the fifth book, he recounts countless miracles performed by or attributed to various bishops and hermits; and the story of the man who returns from the realm of the dead to tell of his otherworld visions is not only a mini-Divine Comedy, but a connection to the anguished search for answers as regards the otherworld, so often observed in the Victorian world and alluded to in the frequent re-enactions of the resurrection of Lazarus which occurred in the nineteenth century. 2. Among the other Latin prose writers, Aldhelm (639–709) is distinguished by a style full of violent, shocking metaphors, somewhat protomannerist in his warnings to nuns as to the commandment of virginity. This oppressive and menacing weight of sin is a sort of foretaste of Protestant and Puritan attitudes. Curtius5 attributes to him the old theory of Isidore and of other Fathers of the Church, that the artes are needed to understand the Bible, but that the auctores should not be studied for themselves alone. For this reason Aldhelm checks and rejects the vagaries of the Irish Church and represents a vein of ecclesiastical rigour and a chapter in the process of conciliation between the pagan and the biblical cultures. The epistle of the monk and saint Gildas (494–570) on the English corruption is also rife with biblical and apocalyptic invectives.6 § 5. Old English poetry* Widsith1 catapults us directly into the heart of a pre-year 1000 tradition and custom of early medieval Europe, when wandering bards or jesters entertained courts with their ‘word hoard’. Their livelihood was assured by their acknowledged, appreciated and indispensable institutional function, 5 6

CEL, 46, reaffirmed at 457–8. On Gildas as a historian see § 9.1–2.

*

The whole poetic corpus is collected in Bibliothek der angelsächsischen Poesie, ed. C. W. M. Grein and R. P. Wülcker, Kassel and Leipzig 1883–1898, and in The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records, ed. G. P. Krapp and E. Van Kirk Dobbie, 4 vols, New York 1931–1942. Anthologies in modern English are Anglo-Saxon Poetry, ed. R. K. Gordon, London 1954, and, with parallel text (but in small print and scarcely legible), Old and Middle English: An Anthology, ed. E. Traherne, Oxford 2000.

1

This is either the name of the poet or a paraphrase for ‘the traveller in a distant land’.

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as an integral part of the court, charged with singing and entertaining. The voice speaking in this poem is not that of a, but of the bard, whose name therefore indicates his function rather than being that of an individual. Such a super-individualized and categorical identity allows the reader to follow the peregrinations of a figure who freely moves through space and time, and is just as comfortable in the age of Alexander the Macedon as in that of Alboin, among the Israelites or the English. He sings the principle and essence of the barbarian civilization: a solid, strong and established monarchy, and the self-evident reality of ethnic diversity and of the divisions into interrelated tribes, who are thus harmoniously connected, except in exceptional cases, such as when the sovereigns threaten order, by governing badly and foolishly. This civilization therefore hinges on warring and subjecting, regulated by the rhythm of wars and truces. All the rulers are ‘lords of the rings’ and distribute gifts in metal work, gold and iron, and utensils that are always serviceable weapons, designed for war. History means genealogy, the description of the movements and vicissitudes of races, tribes and peoples in the Northern and Scandinavian areas, led by either good or traitorous kings. Widsith’s song becomes a list of them. Culturally, Widsith pinpoints a period of transition, as is revealed by the final lines that speak of God as guarantor of the monarchic principle, of the figure of the king to whom the subjects delegate their power, although, immediately afterwards, ‘fate’, or rather fatalism, is named, seen as ever dragging glory, and ‘light and life’ down towards ‘ruin’. Deor’s lament in separate lays is not cast in a historical or illustrative mould, being rather lyrical, more personal and elegiac; it closes, unusually, with a refrain (one of the first such instances, which propels the development of prosody forwards).2 This refrain states that all sorrows are lessened by time and that the present sorrow of the poet will also be alleviated. The reason for the lament is revealed at the close: the lord or king has preferred another scop or jester, and Deor is in disgrace. The historic/ legendary heritage from which Deor draws its ‘objective correlatives’ is drastically sieved, and only four emblematic episodes are cited, recounted in a few lines – telling of punishment, worry, anguish, exile, subjugation, even 2

No Old English poem is in rhyme, except the Rhyming Poem, a warning to a king about how the splendour of his reign will end, inducing him therefore to think of death and life in the world to come.

§ 5. Old English poetry

23

of tyranny. At the end, the bard mourns over the few unfortunates contrasting their fate with that of the many rewarded by God. Tone and mood are remarkably divergent from Widsith. Deor and The Wanderer are far indeed from Widsith’s exuberance and its impassive heraldic poetry, and present, instead, the morbid sensitivity of a figure and profession which must have early depended on the extremely uncertain favour of the ruler. The wanderer in the poem of the same name is not really a bard, perhaps only a favourite or courtier who writes, or rather, soliloquizes, offering an early expressive instrument to the poets of future centuries. This rhapsody touches, with querulous repetitions, on his lonely, rootless, exiled condition, sorrowfully and pessimistically moralizing that the whole shifting cosmos moves towards its dissolution.3 A palpable and obsessive sense of the frozen seas of the north, of rough weather and lonely sea watches emanates from The Seafarer. This would be a profoundly pessimistic and nihilistic poem if the poetic voice did not also describe the electrifying quiver imparted by the sea and by the seaman’s life, mentioning how divine providence causes the seasons to follow each other, bringing the mildness of summer after the winter storms, and giving meaning to death and human actions. Unfortunately, however, the remarkable opening, full of imaginative symbolism, is followed by heavy sermonizing. The link is the ambiguity of a barbarian civilization based on migration and on displacement, which might lead to a career of honour and favour at court, yet more often hid the drama of becoming rootless, of the destruction of a family environment,4 of exile and of solitude. In The Lover’s Message we hear the voice of the wood on which the lover’s runes are carved, the message being an invitation to his beloved to come to him. 2. In the other categories of Old English poetry the first place ex aequo goes to the poems of legendary or even historically documented heroism, lengthy and variously fragmentary according to the state of the texts that have come down to us. The Battle of Maldon glorifies the resistance to 3 4

‘The Ruin’, a fragment, launches an archetype much loved by later Romantic poets, that of an apparently indestructible city fallen into ruins, together with its builders, in hammering cadences, such as those found in biblical prophecies. For example in ‘Wulf and Eadwacer’, a fragment of no more than twenty lines that are difficult to decipher. Wulf is an exile whose wife or beloved is kept prisoner by Eadwacer in an island cave.

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one of the last Danish invasions by the English who defiantly refuse to give in to the enemy, rejecting all compromise and even any price for their freedom; the English succumb, fighting with honour to the last man. The Battle of Brunanburh was translated into dry, rough, unrhymed lines by Tennyson. Beowulf deserves a separate discussion. The almost equally rich repertory of hagiographic poetry is shared, or rather, stubbornly disputed, between two shadowy and possibly legendary figures, the poets Cædmon and Cynewulf. How Cædmon became a scop or gleeman is told by Bede. Cædmon, an unforthcoming cowherd, used to fly from the refectory of Whitby Abbey whenever the harp was passed to sing songs of thanksgiving; one night, however, a vision in a dream ordered him to sing, and he sang of the marvels of Creation and became a monk. The so-called Cædmonian hymns in the Junius manuscript – even if some insist on attributing to him only the nine lines quoted by Bede in Latin, and known as ‘Cædmon’s Hymn’ – are mostly biblical paraphrases. The intent of Judith was not to re-invent, but to popularize the knowledge of the Bible. Its distinguishing features are the ingenious imagination which superimposes the structures and forms of Anglo-Saxon social organization on the Bible, so that Judea is endowed with the appearance of the northern sea coasts. The Cædmonian poems on Lucifer’s rebellion lead one to think that Milton must have read them, because one immediately notices similar solutions and identically turgid expressions. Genesis is composed of two nuclei, neither of which is by Cædmon. The first is attributed to a monk, a rather slavish copyist and translator; that the second foreshadows Milton is an opinion motivated by the fact that Junius, the owner of the manuscript, was an acquaintance of the author of Paradise Lost.5 The sacred element is represented by heroic 5

In Manuscript B Satan leaves Hell with the help of a magic helmet that renders him invisible. Another variant is that in Eden there are two trees, one of life with fruit and leaves, the other of death, all black, dark, and gloomy. The responsibility of Adam and Eve is lessened, as in Milton, because Satan introduces himself as a true and authoritative messenger from God, while Eve does not know the fatal consequences of eating the fruit of the tree of death. When they are banished, the Old English adaptation underlines their fear of exposure to bad weather, freezing cold, hail and frost. Hell is not therefore the traditional place only of flames, but there is an alternation, as in the poem Christ and Satan, of flames and ice. In Cynewulf ’s Life of St Julian, Satan is, once again, disguised as a divine messenger to make Eve sin; but, unlike Eve, the

§ 5. Old English poetry

25

models or stereotypes, as in the sumptuous paraphrase of Exodus. That of the biblical episode of Daniel, for instance, focuses on the sensational miracle of God, who does not allow the three youths, shut in the fiery furnace, to burn. 3. Christ, parts of which were attributed to Cynewulf (a hypothesis, based on the runic characters that punctuate it, which, ingeniously agglutinated, provide the poet’s name),6 draws on liturgical and homiletic material as well as on the Advent antiphons, dramatizes the story of Mary and Joseph, and ends with a description of Doomsday. Of course, one has to put up with the text’s formulaic verbosity and insistent repetition, but is repaid by occasionally witty, eccentrically ‘metaphysical’ flashes that seem to foreshadow Crashaw, as in the description of Jesus’ career as a series of ‘leaps’ (six in all) downward and upward, such as his jump from Mary’s womb into life, the leap up to the Cross and his soaring rise at the Ascension. The apostles, as described by Cynewulf, are devout servants of God and sacrificial martyrs, who may or should be taken as brave mariners who defy the elements and challenge pagan and often savage monarchies, in which other apostles and believers are frequently imprisoned and threatened with death. The most vivid of these ornate, florid, embellished and romanced paraphrases is Andreas, which encloses the usual metaphor of the transition from the northern, pagan barbarism to the Christian civilization. In fact, the twelve apostles are presented as bringers of light to the human lands subject to the barbarian laws of wanton, unpunished massacre and murder. Andreas crosses the seas to their aid. It is obvious, even from this brief summary, that the poem retells, paraphrases and echoes Beowulf. Andreas is a type of northern hero who rushes to the defence of an innocent victim, and who must fight another hypostasis of the monstrous – the Mermedonians are in fact, like Grendel and his dam, devourers of human bodies or cannibals.7

6

7

martyr saint resists, calls on God and induces Satan to unmask in the course of an interminable debate. As we also find in the fifteenth and last section, of a personal and confessional character, of the Life of St Helen. Cynewulf, who lived in the middle of the eighth century, has been variously identified as the Abbot of Peterborough, the Bishop of Lindisfarne, a wandering gleeman, a warrior who was later converted by the vision of the Cross. Famine is at the root of the cannibalism of the starving Mermedonians, making one suspect that, in Beowulf, Grendel is an allegory of a contemporary reality.

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And, like Beowulf, Andreas organizes and heads a handful of men, readies the ship, ploughs the sea, and reaches the imperilled land. God launches this mission of liberation and, disguised in the figure of the pilot, guides the apostle and magically steers the ship to its destination.8 But heroic deeds are not finished, and Andreas has to fight a desperate battle with Satan himself. God, a very Old Testament God, dogs the weak man, who protests and argues, and, though he puts Andreas to the test, saves him and lets him survive unharmed. The parable is complete, and closes happily, with the expulsion of paganism from the coast and the flight and destruction of the idols. 4. Cynewulf might also be the author of the lives of St Julian, St Elene and of the hermit Guthlac, as well as of The Phoenix9 and The Dream of the Rood. In the life of St Elene, the poet, a barbarian descendant, exemplifies and celebrates in Constantine the historical concept of a Christianized Roman world that checks the barbarians. But the poem becomes verbose, and even involuntarily satirical regarding the reticence, the double-dealing and even the treachery of the Jews in revealing to the Empress the place where the True Cross is buried.10 The Dream of the Rood11 is a naïve dramatic

8 9

10

11

At the same time, the miraculous liberation of St Matthew typologically repeats the scene of the Resurrection, with Christ leaving the tomb empty. Lactantius, in particular, took the Phoenix as the symbol of Christ; and Hopkins in ‘Heaven-Haven’ may have summarized (in eight lines) this luxurious, ecstatic imaging of the religious life as a land where ‘flies no sharp and sided hail’. The Phoenix is, perhaps, the most modern poetic specimen of Old English poetry, because it avoids devotional and homiletic obligation more than others – at least in the first part – soaring up to a detailed, loving and often inspired description of the legendary life of the mythical bird. The religious and apocalyptic allegory re-emerges however, somewhat ponderously, towards the end. The poem is historical but greatly romanced, and therefore occasionally incorrect and anachronistic. At the end, it jubilantly celebrates the conversion to Christianity of a Jew, who becomes Bishop Cyriacus of Jerusalem; at the same time it is also remembered that the nails of the Cross were found and ‘fixed on the bridle as a bit for the steed of the noblest of the kings’, who is always described by the Old English kenning, as ‘giver of the rings’. The thematic links with Elene have induced many to attribute its authorship to Cynewulf rather than to Cædmon. Both poems celebrate the healing powers of the Cross.

§ 5. Old English poetry

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monologue similar to that of the ‘Lover’s Message’, as in both cases it is the wood, this time of the Cross, that speaks. Guthlac, the Mercian saint who died at the beginning of the eighth century, opens with a paragraph which foreshadows the sense of the end of the world, of its deterioration and depravity and of the death of all beauty. The life of the saint is in fact the exemplum of the hermit whose psyche is the living theatre of the battle between the good and the evil angel, between diabolical temptations and the life of virtue. He is therefore comparable to Jesus himself in the desert, thrice tempted by Satan. Heroic, tenacious, unshakable is his resistance to the temptations conveyed by diabolical voices which assail him. It is a rather Milton-like work, based on a morbid fixation with the diabolical, which keeps on resurfacing and must therefore be repeatedly revanquished. On a figurative level, Guthlac is a pictorial subject, a kind of St Jerome in the desert with his lion, as depicted in so many fifteenth and sixteenth-century panels. In the second version, the saint lies dying, surrounded by sneering demons assaulting him. He lives through a morbid, delirious, Gethsemanelike experience; and after his death he rises, like Jesus, to heaven. It is a commonplace that Anglo-Saxon writers, and in particular these medieval poets, did not feel that they belonged to a ‘middle age’, but to a declining one. Their homiletic, didactic and persuasive poetry turns, with obsessive insistence, to the end of time, and is thus truly and profoundly apocalyptic, as if the authors sensed the imminent threat of the world ending in the year 1000. It shows the full success of the recent Christian preaching, and how deeply rooted it was, or, on the other hand, how slowly the Good News was gaining ground – so much so, that a poem entitled Doomsday is only to be expected. The counterpart to this somewhat heavy-going poetry, and the antithesis to its glumness, absence of happiness or humour, is the incidental, circumstantial, minor, entertaining yet anything but secular production. The ‘riddles’ provide a wide range of the cardinal points of Anglo-Saxon culture and a good sense of how to get one’s bearings, as they chiefly describe war implements, seascapes and nature, both animate and inanimate. This genre is deceptive: they are, in fact, snapshots of the landscape or of the weather, delicate and impressionistic, and modern enough, and some of them almost pre-imagistic.12 12

Like, for example, the very short riddle describing swallows.

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§ 6. ‘Beowulf ’* The implications of this anonymous poem of little more than 3,000 lines – one tenth, it is often noted, of the entire canon of Old English poetry that has come down to us – are innumerable. It is the first, in order of time, to be written in a European vernacular language and extant in its entirety, and has therefore incalculable importance as regards the history of the language and of Old English and English philology. In itself and because of its compositional code, it is a precious historic and anthropological relic of Baltic and North European culture, dating from before the late first millennium. Specifically, it offers an initial check, or an ex post idea, of the integration, then taking place, of the barbarian with the Christian civilizations, of their compatibility and potential conciliation.1 Behind an allegorical and marvel-filled veil, it celebrates the virtues of altruistic heroism, sacrificing itself for the public good and defeating the efforts of evil. It is the allegory of an exorcism, an exorcism that must time and again be renewed.2 The barbarian legacy survives, in fact, in the awareness of the Fall *

The title of the poem, anonymous according to contemporary manuscript tradition, was given to it by modern editors. Facsimile edited by N. Davis, Oxford 1966. Critical editions edited by F. Klaeber, Boston, MA 1950; by C. L. Wrenn, London 1958, and, revised, by W. F. Bolton, London 1973; by M. Swanton, Manchester 1978; by G. Jack, Oxford 1994; by G. Brunetti, Roma 2003. There are many translations into modern English in prose and verse, amongst which the most recent in verse is by S. Heaney, London 1999 (with preface). G. Brodeur, The Art of Beowulf, Berkeley, CA 1959; E. B. Irving, Jr, A Reading of Beowulf, New Haven, CT 1968, 1969, and Rereading Beowulf, Philadelphia, PA 1990; T. A. Shippey, Beowulf, London 1978; C. Clark, Beowulf, Boston, MA 1990; A Beowulf Handbook, ed. R. E. Bjork and J. D. Niles, Exeter 1997; A. Orcherd, A Critical Companion to Beowulf, Woodbridge 2003.

1

The Manichaean conflict between good and evil was found and energetically held as the allegorical basis of the poem by J. R. R. Tolkien (in his 1936 lecture, ‘Beowulf: The Monster and the Critics’), who challenged the historical value of the poem and insisted on its having a literary one. Tolkien could not but take up the epithet so often repeated in Beowulf, of the ‘Lord of the Rings’ (‘ðā hringa fengel’ in Beowulf, 2345). It is difficult to agree with Heaney, who in his preface (Heaney 1999, xi) defines this rather long-winded essay as noteworthy and ‘brilliant’. Hagiography was well known to the poem’s author, who was also conscious of the allegorical meaning of saints who, like St George, fought against a dragon.

2

§ 6. ‘Beowulf ’

29

of Man and the vanity of all human effort. The cyclical law, the root of all optimistic philosophies, upholding the return of the world to its primitive wholeness after catastrophe, yields to the barbarian and Germanic wyrd or Wurd, that is, Fate, against which not even God can intervene;3 a law that is also subjected to the recurring and pessimistic fear of the unknown and of the non-extirpation of evil. Beowulf thus fuses history and fictional myth; myth in other words stands out against a historical background. The immediate and superficial plot is that of the cruel monster Grendel – who sows terror and death in the kingdom of the wise King Hrothgar of the Danes – and of the rescue undertaken by Beowulf, a subject of Hygelac, King of the Geats. He has already killed giants and strangled sea serpents, and now promises to confront Grendel unarmed, with the force of his bare hands. Beowulf defeats Grendel, then confronts the beast’s ferociously vengeful mother and, in the terrible challenge, is only victorious thanks to a miraculous sword that Beowulf finds in his hands when he is just about to succumb, in the cave under the sea where the monster dwells. After these two heroic deeds, the hero returns to his own country where, now king, he has to take up a third challenge, fifty years later, against a firebreathing dragon guarding a treasure. Helped by his companion at arms he fells the dragon, but is mortally wounded. Dying before the treasure, which he bequeaths to his subjects, Beowulf is cremated on a funeral pyre. The hero’s deeds from youth to death are completed by a more synthetic and discontinuous survey of historical/legendary events and blood feuds of these Northerners, from the middle and end of the millennium, in the form of digressions, inserted by the narrator, or bards’ songs and chants sung by gleemen, during the celebrations after Beowulf ’s victories. These accounts are difficult to understand fully, as they are excessively detailed, yet they bear witness to a shared heritage of well-known dynastic events, testifying to the compactness of that well-defined northern world, and to its own homogenous culture. Which is why the poem has been frequently spoken of as a sort of bewilderingly muddled encyclopaedia of northern and Scandinavian folklore, providing some insight into the social or even 3

Finn, whose name is made in a digression, is a King of the Frisians, settled in today’s Holland, and therefore not in any way related to Joyce’s Finn.

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semiotic sphere that had no contact with the late Roman and continental culture. The northern world of Beowulf was, by and large, the environment described centuries earlier by Tacitus: consisting chiefly of ethnic or linguistic tribes and clans, whose social codes rested on opposing behavioural traits, such as laziness and cowardice, contrasted with bravery and an unswerving sense of honour and of duty, and on unfaltering loyalty to the ruler. This was already a partially civilized barbaric culture, that excelled in architecture and gold work and in the decoration of iron, as is visible in the gifts, always of this form and nature, such as rings and coats of mail,4 and in the epithets and titles they used. The poem opens on the progressive and generous Danish dynasty of the Scyldings, given to sharing and to public works, one of which is an ‘open palace’ or immense ‘mead hall’. The king’s comitatus or court is a kind of early King Arthur’s Round Table. But in this context, much less graced by female attendance, Beowulf is not rewarded by the love of a woman, and the only woman we see at work is Hrothgar’s wife, who only devotes herself to serving the men, and distributes mead at the feasts. The underlying allegory is basically the bonding process among the many races in the melting pot, which the Scandinavian basin was at the time. Beowulf strengthens the bonds of peace between Scyldings, Danes and Geats, but his death coincides with new violence and anarchy, almost foreshadowing Hamlet’s dictum that ‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark’. The paradigm is thus one of disorder giving way to order, which, in turn, is undone by renewed disorder. The gold fever of human greed, and the avaricious thirst for wealth irreparably contaminate Beowulf ’s descendants. Wagner and Morris were later to develop the character of Sigemund, the conqueror of the treasure, sung briefly in Beowulf by a scop. At an even deeper level is the allegory of the exorcism of evil. The author, who was of a later generation and Christianized, shows Grendel as an infernal instance

4

The quality of this exquisite and fully developed beauty in gold work was confirmed in 1939, when a seventh-century burial ship was discovered on the Suffolk coast, bringing to light many artefacts such as silver vases, shields, buckles, gloves and a small harp. These objects have become proverbially known among the scholars as the ‘Sutton Hoo ship burial’, from the place of their discovery. On ‘barbarian jewellery’ as a synonym for poetic technique, see PSL, 8.

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of the race of Cain, strongly and basically satanic and Lucifer-like, who fights to the last, in an unconscious, imaginative anticipation of Milton.5 2. I said above ex post, because the oral composition and the written draft or drafts of the poem date from some centuries after (even if we cannot define exactly when) the historic time of the events in the epic, which are more or less datable to the fifth century.6 According to a fairly reliable version, amidst many others which are conjectural, the manuscript, written in the West Saxon dialect, belongs to around the year 1000, but it was already the result of one or more translations and retranslations. A first version, on the basis of some linguistic evidence and some internal historical allusions, was probably drafted two centuries earlier in Mercia7 or in Northumbria, at a moment in history between the era of the migrations and that of Bede, who died in 735. The poem is thus part of Old English literature because, although its material was brought to England by the Angles, and although the events it tells of are not part of the island’s history, it was composed and sung orally very soon afterwards on English soil. However, after a long period during which there had been ample certainty about all of the above, the debate on the dating and the place of its composition has been reopened, and the reasons for and against a very much earlier or less early or a later date have been weighed and found in substantial balance. The same applies to the courts and to the most likely settings where Beowulf could have been drafted. The study of the identity

5

6 7

The number 30 is repeated and recalled, when Beowulf is said to be able to strangle thirty men with his bare hands. Half of thirty, that is fifteen, is the total number of the Geats led by Beowulf, who come to Hrothgar’s court. These numerological occurrences are not casual, but ritual, like Grendel’s twelve raids, the three principal exploits, Beowulf ’s fifty-year reign, or the twelve loyal companions surrounding the hero’s pyre. Confirmation comes from an often quoted fact, jumbled with myth, which occurred between 512 and 520. This supposition, or rather this rather remote indication, is supported by the fact that the one link between the subject of the poem and England’s Anglo-Saxon history is the mention of Offa II (757–796), King of Mercia, whose multi-faceted and benevolent figure would be recalled and reinvented by the twentieth-century poet Geoffrey Hill (see Volume 8, § 94).

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of the ‘Beowulf poet’ can be said to be of philological and historical as much as of anthropological and cultural importance. The author is unanimously held to be an English Christian who had not forgotten his Germanic roots and who uncomplicatedly managed to attribute the events as much to Germanic Fate as to Christian providence. More precisely one can assign it to an author who was obviously well-educated and bi-cultural, in perfect control when handling material advanced with a precocious sense of estrangement: an invention that he reveals to his hearers right from the start, and one in which he shows the sound heroism of a world on its way to redemption and capable of being Christianized. Nothing he told was true, but it was an enchanting romance. The open questions are the following: is the author a single one, and is this a unitary text, or rather a combination of layers and episodes of different provenances? And, if the author is single, is he an author or more properly an editor? The prevailing opinion today is that a single Beowulf poet did not probably exist, and that the text is the work of at least two copyists/composers.8 Such a ghost author or essential editor must, however, have been an extremely learned and able manipulator of the classical, biblical9 and Germanic myths. As we have seen, he is able to superimpose the scheme of Cain and Abel on the simple narrative of heroic and marvellous adventures; and he suggests that the monsters, Grendel and the Dragon, are symbols of intrinsic as well as of extrinsic and cosmic evil. At the same time, Grendel, the giant, who can carry on his shoulders thirty courtiers or nobles of the court whom he has killed, and eat them, reminds us of Homer’s legendary Polyphemus.10 Thus Beowulf quotes Ulysses, and is, in fact, like him, an equally ‘astute’, 8

9 10

An indication of this barely concealed discontinuity can be seen in the genealogical prologue on the Danish dynasty of the Scyldings, whose first king tames anarchy and reinstates order amongst the clans, and is given a sea burial. An incoherence is represented by the introduction of a second, Danish, Beowulf, which led some scholars to think that this was the beginning of a poem, then abandoned, on this new character. Specifically of the Old Testament, as no references to the New have been found in the poem. Tolkien, however, in the above-mentioned lecture (see n. 1), compares the two works and their respective mythologies, defining them northern and southern.

§ 6. ‘Beowulf ’

33

‘prudent’ and valorous warrior, and leads a non lotus-eating band of men, ready for action. He is a hero who uses his strength as well as his cunning to win, aided by fortune who smiles on the daring.11 Or he comes, with other armed men, to Denmark in a small ship, bent, like Jason, on a heroic mission. The monster and the dragons are magical and metaphorical disguises, like the pestilence at the beginning of the Iliad, which is believed to be caused by the ire of Apollo. To define Beowulf as a new Iliad, with Hercules in the place of Achilles, or better still as Prometheus, is however wrong and incomplete, because Beowulf, unlike Achilles with his infantile and capricious heroism, is a useful hero who places himself at the service of internal harmony.12 He is a responsible hero, just as the Danish and Geatish kings are patriarchs and not despots. 3. Beowulf’s addition to the canon amounts to a little, somewhat incredible romance in itself. We owe the discovery of the manuscript to Sir Robert Cotton, a learned seventeenth-century collector of manuscripts. It also contained other, shorter poems or compositions on fantastic themes. The manuscript, known as MS Cotton Vitellius A.XV, got singed in a fire in 1731, was then acquired by the British Museum, and is now in the British Library.13 It was first copied by hand by a learned Icelandic scholar, and printed for the first time in 1815; since then, it has been re-edited and amended many times. As the text did not have any capital letters or punctuation, it was put into verse form by successive editors. It did not even have the title which it conventionally has today.14 It remains a mystery why no one bothered to print and publish a literary collection of such magnitude for two centuries following its discovery. Beowulf was therefore 11

Beowulf nevertheless prepares himself for the fight, conscious that it is a kind of divine judgement and that the fight between good and evil will result in God automatically rewarding the good. 12 Tacitus (Germania, 3) asserts that Hercules may have visited the Germans and that his deeds were sung by those peoples. 13 The general opinion is that the five different texts in prose and poetry, gathered together in the volume, belong to the monstrous and fantastic genre. 14 However, it was divided into numbered sections called ‘fitts’, a term Lewis Carroll used in The Hunting of the Snark, as did Chaucer in the Tale of Sir Thopas, in both cases with ironic effect.

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unavailable to all the most eminent English Romantics, whose imagination could have had valuable stimuli from it. Nonetheless, the exotic subject matter and, most of all, the myth of the sanity of royal courts, undivided by discord, as well as the epic of autochthonous, non-Homeric heroes, entranced the Victorians. Carlyle’s Heroes and Hero-Worship opens emblematically with a study of Scandinavian mythology and its god-like hero; Morris was the first eminent translator of Beowulf; whilst Tennyson, of ‘The Kraken’ and the Idylls, and Browning with the sinister wasteland of ‘Childe Roland’, were to be inspired by the magical atmosphere and by the seascapes in the poem. There is a double-edged resonance, to be encountered in the ironic, playful, burlesque parodies of Carroll and of Auden. In Tolkien and C. S. Lewis the forthrightness of the Teutonic hero, of whom Beowulf is the prototype, and the allegory of which the poem is the vehicle, were to constitute an ideal breakwater against the degenerations of modernity.

Part II 

The Middle English Period

§ 7. English history from 1066 to 1485 Four long and packed centuries of English history cannot be summarized, divided and distinguished from one another as, by definition, the literary ages of the monarchs reigning during these periods, unlike those in which the rulers were Henry VIII, Elizabeth I or Victoria, except in the case of Richard II. Some kings are identified by epithets, nicknames, metaphors; others emerge from anonymity for other reasons: William II (‘Rufus’, 1087–1100) because of his red hair and because he was killed in the New Forest, Richard I (‘Lion Heart’, 1189–1199) because of his mad and romantic egotism, John (‘Lackland’, 1199–1216) because he lost his French possessions; Henry III (1216–1272), because Dante called him ‘il re della semplice vita’ [‘the king of simple life’, Purg., VII, 130]. Edward I (1272–1307) is by definition the ‘English Justinian’. There are some decidedly strong personalities, such as Richard III, who in his brief two-year reign (1483–1485) was the anti-model of a good king. Henry V (1413–1422) is celebrated by Shakespeare, who described Henry VI (1422–1471), on the other hand, first as an exiled boy king, then as a ghost king. History rests above all on the social and political developments and their consequences rather than on the kings and the reigns during which they took place: the consolidation of a centralized state, the birth and development of the parliamentary system, with the limitations to the prerogatives of the Crown,1 the position of local clergy as regards political power, and its relationship with the Roman Curia. With hindsight, it was a teleological history right from the start. The corruption of the clergy was condemned everywhere, though ecclesiastics with integrity were exceptions proving the rule; and all over in Europe sovereigns could be defined as proto-Protestant, because they all dared, with lesser or greater arrogance, or simply unrealistically, to defy Papal authority as to the appointment of bishops and the administration of justice. The terminus a quo of 1066 raises no objection either in literature or in history and is a useful watershed, accepted by almost everyone; 1485 1

Parliament was soon to consist of two Chambers, and the freehold owners of property with an income of at least forty shillings a year were admitted to the Commons between 1430 and 1445 – a rule which continued to be applied until 1832 and the electoral Reform of that year.

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can be proposed among other ending dates because it marks the advent of the Tudor dynasty and of a monarchy more closely involved with English internal affairs, followed by the decided affirmation of England as a political and culturally mature power. It was around this time that one can descry if not ‘the’, at least ‘a’ division between medieval England and a Humanist and Renaissance nation. This was when a certain medieval period, though not the Middle Ages themselves, ended for England. More precisely, the dream of an English and at the same time Norman Crown collapsed, thus causing the English monarchs to give up eyeing and coveting French possessions. Thanks to Joan of Arc, this dream of a continental empire was adjourned, and after the Hundred Years’ War there was to be no more major fighting between England and France until the late eighteenth century. By 1485 the feudal system was dismantled and social prospects were no longer blocked on the hierarchical ladder with the king at the top, with his Privy Council, followed by the barons and other nobles and their knights, whereas the status of the peasants was that of serfs. The merchant class and that of university students had started emerging. The Inns of Court for legal training came into being in London, and Oxford and Cambridge had sprung up as the English alternatives to the University of Paris, attracting not the sons of nobles, but those of the less wealthy bourgeoisie, whose aim was to gain access to the lesser clerical and bureaucratic careers. Internal mobility was increased by the many wandering clerics, who were generally badly off and haunted the inns and taverns in which ribald songs resounded. From the time of Richard the Lion Heart, who died in grotesque circumstances after a romantic life, the whole of Europe had been penetrated and bedewed by Arabic influences thanks to the Crusades.2 It is said that the Chanson de 2

Aristotle was transmitted to the West through the filter of Arabic translators, and the new university teachings in mathematics and medicine are due to Arab teaching too. Poetry, philosophy and poetry received a new and conspicuous impulse from the religious re-awakening of the Dominicans and above all of the Franciscans, which in the first decades of the thirteenth century spread from Italy to England. Bishop Robert Grossetête (ca. 1175–1253) and Roger Bacon (ca. 1214–1294), or Friar Bacon, magician, prolific writer, corrector of human errors, first natural philosopher and experimenter, later at the centre of a play by Greene (§ 154.1), grew up in this environment, like the greatest of medieval English philosophers, John Duns Scotus

§ 7. English history from 1066 to 1485

39

Roland may have been sung by the invading troops in 1066 by the minstrel Taillefer: and that Taillefer was the first of a succession of Anglo-Norman authors (uprooted and surrounded by a different language) of tedious, insignificant re-elaborations of material that, inasmuch as they did not belong to French literature proper, were encouraged for didactic and unification purposes. Hence the Normans were not, for the time being, creators of a local, English literature: they discouraged and even silenced the literature they found and imposed their own. In the long run, however, they contributed to the fertilization of culture. 2. Edward, called the Confessor, because of his chastity, faintheartedness and because he was the founder of Westminster Abbey, had studied and lived in Normandy for more than twenty years, and had surrounded himself with Norman counsellors and nominated a Norman Archbishop of Canterbury. Edward had illegally promised the crown to his cousin, William (called the Bastard, because he was the illegitimate son of the previous Duke of Normandy); but he had already offered it to Sweyn the Dane and to Harold, son of his father-in-law, Godwin. Harold, too, perhaps swore an oath that the English crown would be William’s. William, with the Italian bishop Lanfranc, who had the Pope’s blessing, landed on the English coast with 15,000 mounted lancers from ships constructed by cutting down forests, as illustrated in the Bayeux Tapestry. It would be the

(ca. 1265–1308). After having been, with a wordplay upon his name, the ‘dunce’ or idiot for the sceptics of the sixteenth century, Scotus was to be rediscovered and re-evaluated in the late nineteenth by Hopkins as an intuitionist and voluntarist, thus becoming the principal philosophic adversary of St Thomas. Bertrand Russell affirmed that he caused English philosophy to become more Platonic, Augustinian and Franciscan, than Aristotelian and Thomistic, and this is particularly true if one thinks that Hopkins himself was black-balled within his own Jesuit Order, firmly entrenched in its allegiance to Thomism and Scholasticism; but not true for Joyce, whose aesthetics was notoriously shaped by Thomas Aquinas. William of Ockham (1288-ca. 1350), by ‘shaving away’ all abstract entities, which he had called mere definitions or names, could not but repeat that religion depends on pure faith and on the principle of authority. It is not the superiority of reason over faith, in the case of conflicts, but voluntarism that links Duns Scotus to the other Scot, John, or Scotus Eriugena (815–877).

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last historical invasion of England by any conqueror. Harold was defeated having the day before confronted and vanquished the King of Norway, who had also laid claim to the throne. He was caught therefore in a kind of vice, between the Scandinavian Viking and Roman European claims to possess England. Properly speaking, the Normans were, remotely, Germanic: themselves wanderers, as ‘North Men’ they had settled in northern France, adopting the religion and above all the language which came to be commonly designated as Norman, or Anglo-Norman, or Anglo-French, as it was a variation of ‘Parisian’ or central French.3 They however formed an independent or vassal state to the realm of France. Greedy for conquest, they had already colonized Sicily and southern Italy, without, however, suffocating their languages. In England they found moors, marshes, villages, but also compulsory conscription, the fyrd, and a taxation owed to the Crown, which derived from the Danegeld custom. A land census was undertaken in 1085, and the Domesday Book, compiled by special envoys sent by the king, reported an estimated population of 2 million.4 The many AngloSaxon federated kingdoms became a centralized kingdom which built up a bureaucracy and a chancery. The Anglo-Saxon kings thus transmitted to their conquerors a functioning and efficient state machinery, which administered justice, coordinated the economy and local government, managed the distribution of duties and rewards, and had already worked out a kind of blackmail enabling them to obtain and maintain power: it now only needed to be strengthened and the Normans themselves were already formidable bureaucrats. This feudal system, which coexisted with its opposite, a centralized state, was based, in fact, on the knight’s fee, an administrative unit that owed the king, in time of war, five knights (5000 during William’s reign).5 William quickly assigned properties extorted 3 4

5

Rollo, the Norwegian Viking chieftain also known as Hrolf, was baptized in 892, becoming the first Norman ruler in fief to the King of France. The Black Death, or bubonic plague epidemic of 1348, reduced to about two and a half a population that had been about 4 million. Its bacteria were propagated by the black rat (A. R. Myers, England in the Middle Ages, Harmondsworth 1982, 24). A somewhat later provision was ‘scutage’ or payment that certain knights had to provide, in order to obtain exemption from serving in war, which, except in times of emergency, was limited to forty days.

§ 7. English history from 1066 to 1485

41

from the Anglo-Saxon nobles to his vassals, later subdividing them in the form of rentals to subtenants in exchange for services. The term the Exchequer was coined when, chaired by the king, his Lord High Justice or viceroy or Chancellor, the most powerful men of the realm sat together around a table covered with checked cloth to discuss the accounts of the state.6 The accounts were kept so scrupulously that the kings could leave the country, and be certain that there would be sufficient funding for their ventures overseas. Richard I was thus able to visit his kingdom only twice in ten years. The delegating system and the institution of intermediaries assured secure links between central and local power; from outside, the king would every so often issue his writ, or brief letter to the sheriff of the shire,7 whereby he ensured that his voice was heard on specific matters. In the judicial system, the law courts overlapped in part, such as the ‘hundreds’ which complemented the shire courts. 3. During the reign of Henry II, whose queen was the celebrated Eleanor of Aquitaine (a patron of the arts, and tireless overseer, chiefly of her French territories), Archbishop Thomas Becket was murdered (1170). At first, Becket had been a knight and the king’s trusted chancellor, but after becoming a prelate he unexpectedly changed into an ascetic and a strenuous defender of the Church’s rights. The murder concealed a conflict that was more juridical and economic, between the ecclesiastical and civil courts over the prerogatives of payment of land taxes. The murder was the result of a violation of formal codicils linked to practice (the sixteen Constitutions of Clarendon), and the presumed reduced rights of bishops, whom the king had assumed the right to nominate and remove, overruling the Pope. It was at this time that the long drawn out controversy exploded between the Crown and the Church, the latter having been up to that point a loyal supporter of the former. The 1215 Magna Carta included the granting of

6 7

Under Edward II the ‘Wardrobe’ of the king, or Privy Council, briefly acquired decisional powers equivalent to those of the Exchequer. The term ‘sheriff ’ is a transformation of the Old English ‘shire reeve’, and corresponds to the Norman role of the ‘vicomte’, ‘shire’ being used as ‘county’. The smallest administrative unit was, however, the Manor.

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freedoms, curbing the royal prerogative and hence absolute monarchism.8 But it was no precocious French Revolution and the Magna Carta was not translated from the Latin until the sixteenth century.9 The barons banded together again, led by Simon de Montfort, under Henry III (1216–1272) and England’s first Parliament was called in 1265, now including the new knightly and burgher classes. All decisive opposition to the Crown, however. vanished with the defeat and death of Montfort at the Battle of Evesham in 1265. Henry’s successor, Edward I (1272–1307), tamed and annexed Wales although he did not manage to conquer Scotland. The Scots, led by Robert the Bruce, defeated the corrupt and effeminate Edward II at Bannockburn in 1314,10 after which the king was dethroned and murdered, some say, by being impaled on a red hot poker.11 The Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453) can rightly be defined a foolish and unnecessary expansionist war – which was concluded with the sole acquisition of the port city of the Pas de

8

9 10

11

Among the sixty-four articles were the writ of Habeas corpus, the restoration of feudal rights to the Church and to the common citizens, and the prohibition to impose any tribute not authorized by the King’s Council. After the text was approved, however, Pope Innocent III excommunicated the king and declared the document to be invalid, claiming that he was feudal lord of Ireland and England, which were granted to the king, as his feudal vassal, in exchange for the payment of 1,000 marks a year. The Magna Carta was confirmed and twice re-issued, in 1216 and in 1225, with the articles reduced from sixty-three to forty-seven. For a long time, historical judgement upon John Lackland remained controversial, and the pros and cons were ably discussed by writers and above all dramatists, beginning with John Bale (§ 89). The Celtic tribes were driven up into the Highlands of Scotland, where they remained unharmed until 1746. Formally, Wales was only annexed by Henry VIII’s Act of Union in 1536. The Welsh national hero is Owen Glendower, vanquished by Henry V. The Tudor dynasty came from Wales. Ireland was never directly ruled over by the English until William of Orange, and a timid nationalism was led unsuccessfully by one of the principal dynastic baronies, the Fitzgeralds. Recent historians (see TLS, 9 July 2010, 9) consider him more unlucky than fearful and cowardly, and tend to exclude that his relations with his two favourites, Piers Gaveston and Hugh Despenser, were homosexual; the tales of the king’s ignominious death are legendary, as he probably ended his days in prison. On Marlowe’s version see § 97.1.

§ 7. English history from 1066 to 1485

43

Calais –12 because a relative peace had already been achieved in England and the national consciousness had been strengthened. The war was based on presumed dynastic clauses concerning the ownership by English kings of France, but it was above all sparked by Flanders, which had built up an important commercial axis with England, as the Flemish worked the raw English wool both in Flanders and, as immigrants, in England. The confrontation was between a recently de-feudalized state and a gathering of feudal baronies – as well as between the English longbow, well handled by mercenaries, and the not very well armoured French. The war, which became a paradigm in military and armaments history (the cannon was employed for the first time in the West during this war, yet only for its roar), in economy and in demography, went on being fought, even after the Black Death of 1348 had sparked off the Peasants’ Revolt (which called for the emancipation of the serfs) and the repeal of the Statute of Labourers. Soon afterwards, or almost simultaneously, and probably connected to it, the Lollards, or ‘Poor Priests’, led by John Wyclif (1328–1384), confronted the clerical Romanized hierarchy. In his treatises, De dominio divino, De civili dominio and De Ecclesia, Wyclif, professor at Oxford and already ambassador to the king, maintained that it was necessary to appeal directly to God, should his earthly representatives be fraudulent; that the Church of Rome was the direct descendant and heir of the Caesars and not of St Peter, and that the hierarchy was not really essential to the Church militant, which was constituted by all the ‘predestined’ and equals in grace. All these proto-Protestant assertions gained followers among the nobles and, above all, among the lower-ranking clergy, until Wyclif attacked the doctrine of Transubstantiation. His principal literary merit is the first translation of the Bible into Middle English. He however lived two more years, after the Blackfriars Synod condemned him as a heretic, and died of a natural death. 4. Edward III, come to the throne in 1330 after the dethroning and assassination of his father in 1327, had to confront his mother Isabella and her lover Roger Mortimer. He fought against the Scots to defend the 12

By 1422 there had been four principal battles in this war, all won by the English: of Sluys in Flanders (1340), of Crécy (1346), of Poitiers (1356), and of Agincourt (1415).

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parts of the country that had suffered during the regime change, and to avenge a 1327 treaty that had been very punitive for the English. But he soon had to rush to another front, to protect the Plantagenet possessions in France.13 The French campaign culminated in various victories, among them that of Calais, chiefly thanks to the valour of his son Edward, known as the Black Prince.14 Edward III died leaving an unsettled country and a number of sons and grandsons to dispute the succession. The Wars of the Roses – an epithet derived from a story by Walter Scott – was brought about by the marriages of the various sons of Edward III with daughters of the nobles, who on the strength of these unions claimed the succession to the throne on Edward’s death for their lines of descent. The conflict lasted for thirty years, from 1455 to 1485, thus coinciding with the later years of the Hundred Years’ War as well as continuing afterwards. Opposition was raised against Richard II by the families excluded from government and also by anti-Lollard ecclesiastics; after quelling a revolt of the nobles, Richard chose political appeasement with France, which automatically implied doing without plentiful war booty and therefore brought on heavy internal taxation. The struggle commenced with Richard being deposed by an erstwhile exile, Henry Bolingbroke – a coup d’état that, ending the Plantagenet dynasty, as contemporaries opined, gave birth to that of the house of Lancaster. Henry V reopened hostilities with France, winning and imposing the Treaty of Troyes and marrying the daughter of the French king. After being away from the country for over three years, Henry returned in 1420, but, hearing of a sudden setback amidst his forces left in France, he rushed back and died there. The decline of English fortunes in the war, after Henry V’s death, was due to the immaturity of his successor, his son Henry VI, and to the ever diminishing resources granted to the

13 14

The English right to the Crown of France was based on the fact that Edward’s mother was French (and on the analogy with the reign of Judea, which came to Christ by way of his mother). Edward’s cruelty to the Burghers of Calais was softened by the intervention of Queen Philippa (six citizens offered themselves as hostages, with ropes around their necks, in exchange for the liberation of the city). The queen was so struck by this gesture, that she obtained their freedom. The episode was famously dramatized by G. B. Shaw.

§ 8. Genres and ‘matters’

45

conquering armies.15 The political axis had by then shifted, leading to a struggle for power between the Yorkists, headed by Richard Duke of York (the father of the future Richard III), and the eternally dithering sovereign Henry VI, crushed between two regents, subject to periodic attacks of dementia, and overpowered by the personality of his queen, Margaret of Anjou. After sudden volte-face, bloody confrontations and instances of high treason, Edward IV emerged as the winner. But even at this point, it was merely an apparent and not a final victory, due to the change of allegiance of the new king’s plenipotentiary, who joined the Lancaster family cause, after they had been exiled to France. Henry VI was again crowned, but was again deposed by Edward, and imprisoned and murdered. The war ended, although further cruel consequences were to follow. Edward IV strengthened the stability of his throne, no longer relying on the noble faction, but on the merchant class, rewarding them with protective measures. The impetuous rise to power of Richard III witnesses the opportunism and exploitation the two factions had recourse to. The future king had in fact forged equally strong alliances with the former friends of Edward as well as with the surviving Lancastrians. He managed to eliminate both and get himself proclaimed king. The only practical solution for his enemies was diplomacy, an alliance between the Yorkist opponents of Richard and the Lancastrians. In other words, a marriage between Henry Tudor, who had vanquished Richard III at Bosworth Field, and the daughter of Edward IV. § 8. Genres and ‘matters’ It is always difficult to get one’s bearings in periods of transition such as Middle English literature before 1350, which, at least until Chaucer, includes works that do not intrinsically stand out for their excellence. At first glance these three centuries are still represented by mostly anonymous writers; even if named, very few of them have definite identities. One could say that 15

The loss of France was really due to the collapse of the alliance between England and Burgundy, which was considered unbreakable; more exactly it was caused by the betrayal of the latter, and by the ineptitude of Suffolk, an official, who was later beheaded on board a ship, probably by the followers of Richard of York. A popular revolt was led by Jack Cade and is recalled in Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part II.

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documented authors are more numerous and certain than before, but in almost all cases we are unable to carry out research on them in the traditional way: their works, in large part compilations lacking originality, are like paintings without the painter’s signature. This difficulty is heightened by the fact that the period from 1066 to 1350 was not what one would call a ‘literary civilization’, even if the definition of the term is somewhat subjective. What fails to make it a literary civilization is the anarchy, or worse still the inexistence, of national schools. It is a literature which works on a regional basis, circumscribed geographically, written in different dialects, and characterized by the fact that the dating is uncertain and conjectural, and therefore often not influential: a literature therefore that is undated, and isolated, and which, apparently, does not significantly evolve. The only exception is the case of the inconspicuous political poetry, on historically and chronologically recorded events, of Laurence Minot (1300–1352). So, to place a work later or earlier, or in the middle of a century, would not change our perspective, as it is impossible to perceive any correspondence between the work and the time of its composition. The gravest deficiency in this kind of literature is that it does not flourish around one or more cultural centres and is not headed by any leading figure; also lacking is the mechanism that generally animates a literary civilization, the transmission of formal and thematic models, or imitation and emulation – except in one case, the series of writers represented by Monmouth, Wace and Layamon. Most of these works derive from a French original and are in the best of cases translations and re-translations.1 The dimensions and extension of this canon are also matters open to question. An unfavourable verdict can be due to the fact that Old English literature has come down to us mutilated, while Middle English literature has been transmitted to us in a

1

They include a thirteenth-century romance in rhyming octosyllabic lines, based on a collection of Oriental tales called of the ‘Seven Sages’, translated, manipulated and adapted in many European languages, before being translated into English. It is vaguely similar to the plot and structure of the Scheherazade cycle of the Arabian Nights. Original French and Spanish sources produced a most delightful story, modelled on them, also in rhyming octosyllabics, on Floris and Blanchefleur, dated around 1250.

§ 8. Genres and ‘matters’

47

more complete form; in quantitative terms, Middle English literature up to 1350 is impressive, and not only very extensive, but also largely prolix and excessively wordy. 2. It is true, above all, that no past historian of this literature subdivides this period of three centuries into sub-periods, thus postulating its unity. 1066 is accepted without objection as the year in which the English language proper was born and started evolving. Old English went through three fairly evident and symptomatic phases of transformation, affecting the endings of nouns, which were full up to 1150, then levelled (i.e. with case endings reduced to ‘e’), subsequently omitted, thus disappearing from the spelling and from pronunciation. Immediately after 1066 multilingualism becomes quadruple: Anglo-Norman, Latin, Old English, the Celtic language group (above all in the West and the North, principally Welsh). Middle English was gradually to emerge in practice thanks to the fusion and amalgamation of Old English with Norman French. But the individual regional dialects did not evolve as rapidly towards the kind of utopia that is a unified, consolidated, no longer fluid, linguistic and therefore literary mean. Comparing texts in Middle English belonging to the same moment in time shows in fact much variability in the speed of linguistic transformation: some are still, in spelling and form, very far from that illusory ‘mean’ and that final goal; others close enough, already advanced. The dialect that became dominant, among the five principal ones that had their centres in the various geographic quadrants, was that of the East Midlands. The hesitant, multilingual propensity of AngloNorman literature is itself the result of a long and laborious operation that led to the birth and evolution of a substantially brand-new literary language. Writers may have had the ideas and the material but were still doubtful as to the language in which to express them. Many turned to Latin and some preferred Anglo-Norman. 1350 is effectively proposed as a historical watershed because that is when English flanked French in the schools, and was soon afterwards employed in Parliament and in Law.2 The translator John of Trevisa (1362–1402) reports that in 1385 French had 2

The Norman language was already much less used by 1204, when the English Crown ceded Normandy to the French.

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been definitely abolished as the current tongue in the schools: it was slowly becoming a foreign language, to study and learn, not the common speech. If one looks only at literature, there is basically a void for a good hundred years, and the centuries to be considered are two, not three, the starting point being from 1160 or even as late as 1190. A further, or alternative cutoff point is 1155, which was when the Chronicles ceased to be written in Anglo-Saxon and were known henceforth as the ‘Peterborough’ Chronicles. The intermediate examples are somewhat erratic, like Canute’s poem that tells of the king in a boat in the river who hears the monks singing in Ely Cathedral and stops to listen to them; or St Godric’s ‘Hymn to the Virgin’ (the first with four, the second with eight rhyming lines). At present, historians are debating whether there was a definite break between Old English and Middle English literature or whether there was continuity in the flow of one into the other. Broadly speaking, it is obvious that the two canons are written in two totally different languages, and that the newer one is influenced by French, which lacks rhetorical depth, halo effects and excessive embellishments (Praz’s ‘barbaric jewellery’),3 and is based on the conjunction of euphonic words, producing a less heraldic, pompous, periphrastic vernacular than Old English. In the area of prosody, the difference is mainly between the rigid syllabic principles of French or Latin and the English tolerance for extra syllables in metre and rhythm, which, in itself, is an allegory of the English language’s eternally lurking, wayward propensity to shake off Latinity and continental, ‘romance’ linguistic elements (or so it may appear). Alliterative literature was reborn in the late fourteenth century – after three centuries of predominance of the syllabic principle – in the areas most removed from French influence, although some say it was no re-elaboration but a new, unrelated foundation, and others that the Norman and therefore romance winds would, in any case, have reached the English shores. The terminus ad quem could be put forward by about ten years, to 1360, because it was in that year, as most scholars agree, that a definite, valid, sufficiently detached literary phase came into being: that of Gower, Langland, Chaucer and the Gawain poet. But other dates are

3

PSL, 8.

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symbolic and might be preferred: Chaucer’s year of birth, possibly 1343, or 1348, the year of the Black Death. 3. On the basis of its variety and importance the poetic canon in Middle English up to Chaucer resembles an army in battle formation, divided into troops, companies, platoons of artillery, knights, foot soldiers, and untrained recruits. Having come down to us with remarkable completeness,4 it already makes up an entire library, and reviewing it in detail would produce a very long list.5 In order to proceed in a more organized fashion, one could classify the material by: a) sub-periods, thus adopting a chronological procedure; b) historical editions, making use of the authoritative volumes of Old English literature (many of the texts are edited in the Early English Text Society [EETS] series, published at the end of the nineteenth century); c) matter, genre and language. So as not to make this discussion too unwieldy, I have decided to exclude the Anglo-Norman writings composed by Normans and English authors residing in Britain or working at the English Court. I have also chosen to skim over Latin texts, concentrating instead, depending on the aesthetic value of the works, on the poetry and prose written in the new-born, Middle English language. What causes the new, living sap to rise, after 1066, is the importation, the reformulation, the adding and the re-exportation of myths and archetypes most widely spread in southern Europe, following a historical process that has not really come to an end. The Germanic myth of the Nibelungen, which is a basically exclusive cult of masculine heroism with little elaboration of the symbolic role of women, was to lie dormant for centuries from then on, replaced by the Arthurian myth of courtly love. Incidentally, that Germanic myth never had much following in England; when Tolkien and some of his Anglo-Catholic acolytes in Oxford revived the tradition between the two twentieth-century wars, they aroused a fair amount of disapproval and hostility, chiefly because of the lack of female roles and of even sublimated erotic elements.6 With the Arthurian myth a soft wind 4 5 6

And, though self-evident but not to be forgotten, in manuscript form. There are seventy verse romances extant, excluding Chaucer’s, in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. See Volume 7, § 48.5 n. 20.

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from the south reaches the British soil, and the Germanic element begins to wane. Apart from the incomparable gift of the Arthurian mythology, the Normans gave England a new world view that resembled the European cultural model, as defined and analysed in various, now classic studies, like those by Curtius and C. S. Lewis. The medieval romancing is the invention and eruption of a different range of colours, the darkness of the AngloSaxons giving way to light (allegorically, one could compare the earlier style to the crow and the later style to the falcon). All is filled with colour whereas darkness, and absence of colour, become the kingdom of evil. Religion itself is festive, and one cries more because one loves life more, whereas the Anglo-Saxons were better than the French at expressing the lugubrious and the sinister. Gentleness and softness replace an even expressionist, graphic violence. C. S. Lewis’s The Discarded Image7 reconstructed a unified model that survived until the end of the seventeenth century: the chain of transmission of legends and myths validated by ancient authority – a more or less unconscious chain, as the last link was oblivious to the fact that it was re-elaborating the ideas that came from the first, original source of the ideas themselves. Authors and books belonged to a moment of flux, and Christianity and paganism were still in the process of merging.8 If Anglo-Saxon England had been an importer of literary topics (even Beowulf was based on non-English material), during the Norman period England reshaped literary material and sent it back to the Continent. A good way of evaluating excellence in any literature is its capacity to transmit and impose enduring myths, allowing them to become archetypes of the collective imagination: such is the case of the legends of King Arthur, of Tristram and Iseult, of Lancelot, Guinevere and the Round Table, the Holy

The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature, London 1964. 8 C.  S. Lewis’s argument could be integrated by bearing in mind that medieval Englishmen lacked true critical consciousness, lumping most things together, and naïvely relying on mediocre, second-rate sources, rather than on the great classics (see the absence of Homer and Virgil in the ‘matter’ of Troy). This was mainly because they simply did not have access to these texts. 7

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Grail, or of Orpheus and Eurydice,9 which bounced back and forth from England, manipulated, transfused, mixed, as myths which would fascinate the arts for centuries, spreading and spilling over into painting and into music. The materials of the poetic literature in Middle English are conventionally called ‘matters’, and these ‘matters’ are three (we owe this classification to Jean Bodel). The literature of the Arthurian cycle derives, above all, from Celtic material, although we are no longer so sure that Arthur was Cambrian. The Celtic influence was synonymous, as in the case of Anglo-Saxon literature, of the marvellous and sentimental element.10 The second ‘matter’ was the Carolingian, the third the Roman, which included Troy, Thebes,11 and the stories of Alexander of Macedon made known thanks to Latin translations from the Greek.12 The chivalric ideal arose and coincided with the training of the nobles, owing much to the Christian ideal and to the Christian philosophy of love.13 A universally recognized archetype came thus into being – and one which would leave an indelible historical imprint: that of the wise, prudent, self-controlled knight, in the service of his ‘lady’ (or domina), who is both human and angelically divine, thus implying the interminable, ambiguous compromises ranging from 9

10 11 12

13

In the sprightly and graceful Sir Orfeo, by an anonymous author and in octosyllabics, the myth was blended with the Christian tradition, so that it became a parable on the exorcism of the demonic and of the hero’s recovery of divine grace after his soul has undergone ten years of hermit-like purging; so the tragic outcome of the classical fable is turned upside down and becomes a happy ending. Conceived in the Celtic spirit of the marvellous is the Voyage of St Brendan, which was to affect countless generations of writers. Not through Homer, but derived from Dictys of Crete and Dares of Phrygia, from Benoît de Sainte Maure, and from Guido delle Colonne in Latin: all of which were sources for the popularity of the love story of Troilus and Cressida. The Carolingian matter is represented by very few examples, a Sir Ferumbras (in non-rhyming octosyllabics), a Sir Otuel (again, octosyllabic, but rhyming), and other anonymous poems derived from the French translation of the Latin chronicle of Charlemagne authored by Archbishop Turpin, and centred on the bitter conflict between Christianity and Islam, and on the attempted conversion, in many cases successful, of Muslims who then fight with prowess against their former co-religionists. Above all in the Roman de la Rose by Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meung. As to how it penetrated the English tradition, see § 11.

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purely sublimated, mystical ‘service’ to a sometimes carnal one, accompanied by the religious allegories it entailed. In reality, there are at least two supplementary epics that can constitute a fourth and a fifth ‘matter’. The fourth consists of a slightly magical and fantastic, though basically realistic English epic in alliterative blank verse or more often in octosyllabics or rime couée verse, the main instances being Havelok and Horn (both composed towards the middle of the thirteenth century). The first, a rather spare account that shifts from one to the other of its settings, tells of the Danish protagonist’s love for Goldeboru (daughter of the good King of England). He marries her after having been entrusted by his traitorous guardian to a fisherman, in order to have him killed. Havelok will have a brilliant literary future as the prototype of the naïve innocent, rewarded because he is tenacious, courageous and full of initiative. Horn is, in a way, his twin: orphaned after an attack by the Saracens, he drifts, rudderless, in a boat to Westernesse where, after various adventures, he obtains the hand of Rymenhild and is knighted. In these epics the Arthurian knights are replaced by what appear to be rustic youths, unaware that they are of noble birth or incapable of making others believe that they are, enterprising enough to accept all challenges and to overcome all obstacles. In the end they demonstrate that knighthood can be granted even to the humble, who have proved, by their prowess, that they possess the required qualities.14 The spirit of systematic protest, of instinctive suspicion towards authority, and righteous rebellion against injustice, was introduced when the legend of Robin Hood was first formulated (Taine saw this as clearly anticipating the Reformation). The favour of later Englishmen went soon enough, in this repertory, to these rough but genuine stories, in no way plagiarizing French models; they became known as ‘metrical romances’ in English settings, such as, besides those already named, William of Palerne,15 Guy of

14 Both poems have a French source behind them, but the English versions in adopting the story-lines have none of the finesse and the intellectual cogitations of their sources. 15 A variation on the werewolf theme, which will return in the twentieth-century fables of Angela Carter: Prince William of Apulia escapes being assaulted under the protection of a wolf who is, in reality, the heir to the Spanish throne.

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Warwick,16 Bevis of Hampton,17 Athelston, or Richard Coeur de Lion.18 All the metrical romances mark the advent of an accessible verse narrative on a popular level, sometimes in a sentimental vein, which reflects the growth of bourgeois readership and is the forerunner of the serial and of its spirit of half a millennium later. However, impregnated as they were by amour courtois they evolved rapidly towards a grotesque or absurd representation of this topos, introducing mockery and Don Quixote-like satire. The fifth ‘matter’ of the metrical romances is mixed and includes examples of Oriental adventures and even salacious, sensational themes, modelled on the French fabliau.19 Flanking these five blocks are genres and subgenres, none of which can be properly defined as ‘matters’: such as the devout sermon in the form of a poem, songs and a wide variety of models of lyrical poetry. 4. At the same time the poetry and prose in Middle English from the beginning of the thirteenth until the fourteenth century were heavily influenced by the religious surge leading to the foundation of the Mendicant

16

17

18

19

The stale and conventional storyline is that of a brave Englishman who, while waiting to obtain the hand of his disdainful lover, travels the world, fighting for honour and the Christian faith. The episode of the duel with the giant Colbrand is the most memorable (the story was also revisited by Lydgate, in one of his worst works between 1423 and 1426), and is recalled by Shakespeare too. Guy’s Cliff is near Stratford (Rowse 1967, 13 [see Volume 2, Shakespeare Bibl.]). The rejected son of a countess, who has plotted to kill her husband, is the combative protagonist, tenaciously engaged in reclaiming his dignity. After various adventures with the Saracens, he marries a converted Sultan’s daughter, and regains legal possession of his county. This canon consists of extremely long, verbose tales, often recounted at great length with obvious patterns, such as honourable knights confronted by evil characters, leading the former, after countless adventures, to obtain the hand of a most beautiful and pure beloved; or, for penance, making heroic promises and leaving on pilgrimages to Christian shrines. Sir Eglamour of Artoys is among the less conventional, for the triple trials that the hero must overcome to aspire to a Crystabell, which looks forward to Coleridge’s heroine. Dame Sirith (ca. 1250) is based on a locus classicus: the attempts of a cleric to seduce a lady while the husband is absent, and who succeeds with the help of a go-between. This is also the plot of the oldest exemplar of English theatre, the Interludium de clerico et puella.

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Orders. This resulted in devotional works which were mainly transcriptions and translations from French and Latin saints’ lives, and sermons mostly in praise of chastity. The Poema morale of around 1170, in stanzas of three or four lines with seven accents, has come down to us in seven manuscripts, which demonstrates its wide circulation. According to its title it advocates the need to convert and renounce the world and, to this end, it dwells on the horrors of Hell. An Augustinian friar in Mercia, Orm, was the author of Ormulum (around 1200), an unrhymed summary, in lines of fifteen syllables, of some forty Gospel passages from the liturgy. The language and dialect used by Orm is idiosyncratic in his odd use of signalling a short vowel when followed by two consonants, or long if followed by one. In prose, the Ancrene Riwle or Wisse (end of the thirteenth century?),20 is a collection of rules of ascetic life for the benefit of three ‘pious sisters’ who have decided to renounce the world and enter the religious life. Both the latter, as well as, above all, Handlyng Synne (1303) by Robert Mannyng of Brunne, and Cursor Mundi (written between 1300 and 1320, and a reworking of passages of the New Testament) spice up the arid classification of devotional material with colourful stories, historical information and picturesque anecdotes. The Cloud of Unknowing, from the middle of the fourteenth century, by an unknown author (or, according to some, by an Augustinian canon, Walter Hilton)21 addressing a twenty-four-year-old, formulates austere instructions for his mystical encounter with God, separated from man by an impenetrable cloud that can only be pierced by prayer and by the ‘pointed dart’ of love. The hermit Richard Rolle of Hampole (ca. 1300–1349), a prototype of the visionary Protestant to be, wrote voluminous works in Latin prose, but was long held, erroneously, to be the author of the verbose and mediocre poem, in almost 10,000 lines, The Pricke of Conscience.22 He was one of

20 Written by an unidentified ecclesiastic of broad, liberal ideas. 21 Hilton, who died in 1396, wrote Scala Perfectionis, often reprinted, which are the instructions written for a woman about to enter a nunnery and describing the steps of the ladder of perfection and the ‘dark night of the soul’, which means the separation from all worldly things to purify herself. 22 On the ‘four last things’, Purgatory, Judgement, Hell and Paradise. One might be led to think that Joyce superimposed the treatise Ayenbite of Inwit (bearing almost

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the first English writers whose adventurous life we know something about. A tortured, fretful Oxford student, he imitated St Francis, sewing himself a patched, harlequin-like habit, and wandered through the country as a hermit preacher, before dying in the nunnery of Hampole. Not included in literary manuals, until recently, because they were women and because they were active in the borderline contexts of literature and para-literature constituted by mystical and confessional writings, are the two contemplative Norfolk visionaries, Julian of Norwich (1342-ca. 1416) and Margery Kempe (ca. 1373–1438). Today, however, they have gained a huge following and great appreciation since the literary canon has been enlarged, even if for other and indirect reasons, such as the instrumental use of style – a naïve choice that goes against the grain and, in itself, innovative – and the fact that their prose and confession concentrate upon minute, humdrum aspects, detached from the life of their times, commonly avoided by other, more decorous contemporary writers (therefore for an explicit lack of what is commonly defined ‘literariness’). The sixteen ‘Revelations of Divine Love’, or contemplative visions of the sufferings of Christ on the Cross were received by Julian when she was an anchoress in the church of the same name in her native town, after a miraculous cure from illness.23 They occurred, as Julian relates, on 13 May 1373. As with all mystics, one admires her almost cheeky familiarity with the figure of the Father, the

23

the same title and with the same meaning) on this poem. The four last things are the subject of a Jesuit father’s sermon, transcribed in the third chapter of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The Ayenbite, dated 1340, is actually a translation, but in prose (a very colourful and undisguised Kentish dialect), and made by one Michael of Northgate, of a French manual on devotional practices. A short version, drafted on the spur of the moment, was followed by a second, more organized and more concise, twenty years later. The standard edition is A Book of Showings to the Anchoress Julian of Norwich, ed. E. Colledge and J. Walsh, 2 vols, Toronto 1978; both versions are translated into modern English by E. Spearing, London 1998. See also Julian of Norwich, Showing of Love: Extant Texts and Translations, ed. Sr A. M. Reynolds CP and J. Bolton Holloway, Firenze 2001. Julian’s aphorism in chapter XXVII, ‘Sin is behovely’, was used in the last of the Four Quartets by T. S. Eliot (Volume 7, § 100.1).

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audacious tropes that foreshadow the Metaphysical poets,24 as well as her trusting optimism as to the ultimate salvation of the world, seemingly in the devil’s grasp. Some of her theological concepts are rather bold, such as the Motherhood of Christ – developed in many extended metaphors – and making us think of a Bernadette of Lourdes in whom a girlish candour is joined to the theological wisdom and ardour of a St Catherine of Siena. The Booke of Margery Kempe, for a long time only available in a quarto edition of only eight pages, and printed in 1501, was discovered and published in full in 1934 and 1940, five centuries after it had been written under dictation.25 Though Julian’s disciple, Margery was never a nun. Daughter of the Mayor of Lynne, and mother of fourteen children, she decided, when her husband was forty, to embrace chastity and live as an apostle in the world. A pilgrim to the Holy Land, she journeyed far and wide to European shrines, battling indomitably with the Church’s representatives, like the great saints of Christianity. She died in the decade following the burning of Joan of Arc, between 1430 and 1440, thus a contemporary of the ‘Maid’ and her spiritual twin, thanks to the frequent inquisitions and trials she was subjected to and the whiff of heresy attributed to her words.26 Her ‘Book’, which relates her prostrating and melodramatic mystical crises, is a factual, frank, unprejudiced autobiography written in the third person as if she were reporting events that had happened to someone else. Margery always refers to herself as ‘that creature’, and veers in dizzy leaps from mystical discussions to quotidian details. It is therefore very different from Julian’s learned and refined spirituality. 5. The canon of miscellaneous poetry also includes ballads and songs for music, some patriotic, others on hunting or drinking themes; there are beast fables and other forms such as the alba, the pastourelle, the carol, the fabliau. There is, above all, a plethora of folksongs27 in which one sees the

24 The celebrated reduction of the universe to a simple hazelnut in the palm of her hand (chapter V), and the following discussion of the indissoluble union of man with God, will be echoed literally in the poetry and sermons of Hopkins. 25 Standard edition in modern English ed. B. A. Windeatt, Harmondsworth 1985. 26 BAL, 314, recalls Shaw’s genius in dramatizing her life. 27 A full repertory is in MS Harley 2253.

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germination of a genre unrestricted by time or space, one of airy, enchanted or disenchanted rhapsodizings on natural phenomena that would be echoed by Donne, Herrick, Burns and Shelley, as well as by many other successors. The model and the stimulus underlying most of them, leading to the rejection of accentual and alliterative metre, is the Latin poetry composed by rowdy students, even if rhyme, in some cases, co-exists with alliteration. One of these compositions, The Owl and the Nightingale,28 probably by a Nicholas of Guildford (about 1250), reverts to the French genre of the débat and adopts its procedure to represent the conflict between the world and the cloister, or joy and sadness. These are antithetical visions of the religious life and the horns of a dilemma that becomes rooted in English literature, with a tension also found in Luve Ron.29 6. Historiography is abundant, entrusted to the Latin of the chroniclers of the school of William the Conqueror, which, initially conceived in a rapidly superseded parochial perspective, tell the history of England up to their own day. Among these authors are the monks Roger of Wendover and Matthew Paris, whose name was derived from his being schooled in Paris; William of Malmesbury, who wrote the colourful and shrewd Gesta Regum Anglorum; Henry of Huntingdon and Jocelyn of Brakelond, whose account of daily life at the Benedictine monastery at Bury St Edmunds inspired Carlyle. Oxford was the birthplace not only of Roger Bacon, but also of the Bishop of Chartres, John of Salisbury (ca. 1120–1180), considered the greatest intellectual of his age. His Policraticus suggests a theory of the well-ordered state very similar to those of the Renaissance, as well as of Shakespeare.30 The very identity and literary persona of Sir John Mandeville, as a traveller, are pretty vague and legendary, concealed by a sort of ‘whodunit’ that the intervening centuries have only made more obscure, 28

It is introduced and narrated by an external voice, which frames the debate. The owl often quotes proverbs attributed to King Alfred. 29 The Rune of Love. 30 Curtius (CEL, 53) sees in him a bastion against the growing discredit of the classics: although he did not know Greek, John gave his works Greek titles of obscure significance. Curtius also remarks (77) on the importance rhetoric had for John, as the union between reason and expression, and finds in him an ‘intellectual kinship’ with Petrarch.

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rather than shedding light on them. Although, up to 1798, one could read, on his presumed grave at St Albans, that he had been a French knight who emigrated to England, known as Jean de Bourgogne à la Barbe, the latter is however also the name of another totally different and identified author. However, this does not solve the mystery at all, unless we suggest that Mandeville was an alias for Jean de Bourgogne, or that both names were the pseudonyms of a third real and incognito author, whose name might have been d’Outremeuse, a chronicler from Liège. Other, even more elaborate theories have been advanced, however. Mandeville’s Travels, written first in Norman French and translated into Middle English in four versions, is an ably stitched together digest derived from other accounts of travels to the East. The compiler of this account probably never travelled to any of the places described or ever even left his library, although he claimed to have seen everything he described. It was therefore the first great instance of plagiarism in English literature. He recounts how he departed for the Orient in 1322 and journeyed for thirty years, and having received the Pope’s blessing returned in 1356 to his own country, afflicted by gout, to write his memoirs, first in French, then in Latin and finally in English (the first translation is dated 1377). In itself, the work is an immense inventory, an encyclopaedia overflowing with curiosities, digressions, reminiscences and anecdotes of the most various kinds, and creating the very successful ‘voyage’ genre, yet a voyage that progresses into the marvellous, the naïve, or even the grotesque, in untrammelled crescendo. Some have called it a sort of English Marco Polo’s Milione. It was to influence Coleridge (some chapters mention the Great Khan, and the redaction of the two texts presents similar vicissitudes) and the early nineteenth-century adepts of the exotic – or a kind of less venomous Gulliver reviewing the physical deformities and oddities of creation. Reading all of it is exhausting, but occasional cameos are inserted in anthologies and still amaze readers; and some critics have seen it as the first example of self-conscious English prose. Outside England, in Ireland the myth of Cuchulain – the great warrior who fought single-handedly and victoriously against overpowering forces – developed, only to dissolve and be forgotten, along with other interlinking myths, until the early nineteenth century.31 Another, even more infectiously 31

See Volume 6, § 253, for the Irish Renaissance, with O’Grady, Lady Gregory, Yeats and others.

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fascinating myth is the saga of the chieftain Finn or Fiann, from which the Oisin myth was derived. Oisin was Finn’s companion, and his legend, in turn, links Oisin to St Patrick. This myth, too, had to wait until 1762 to be revived in Macpherson’s Fingal. In Ireland, the 1066 watershed is 1169, the year in which the island was conquered by the Normans. At the end of the millennium the Irish monk scribes had produced lyric and elegiac poetry both in Irish and Latin. § 9. The Arthurian romances: Geoffrey of Monmouth, Wace, Layamon The first and most important poetic ‘matter’, among verse epics up to 1350, is the Arthurian. Faral, in his La légende arthurienne (1929), attributes the first instances of this kind of epic to the French, thus resolving the diatribe between the ‘inventionists’ and the ‘Celtists’. Chrétien, writing between 1160 and 1190, undoubtedly precedes Layamon, even if the contents of the romances are Celtic and British.1 The Celts are always in the background in English literature, and are responsible for a kind of pervading sensitivity that is evoked whenever the cult of heroic prowess is softened into elegy, melancholy and mystery: this kind of atmosphere will recur repeatedly up to Matthew Arnold, as a sort of literary trump card. The prehistory of the legend features a British king, Constans, whose crown was transferred to his son, a monk called Constantine, killed in a court conspiracy led by Vortigern, who was deposed by Uther, Arthur’s father. Not named by Gildas – the second of the great British Latin historians – Arthur, a valorous tribe-chieftain of Roman descent (Artorius), was mentioned by Nennius (the Welshman Nyanniaw, a Latin writer of about 800), who recalled his deeds at the battle of Mount Badon (960 warriors killed by Arthur). Arthurian traces are found in the Mabinogion – which includes eleven stories in Welsh prose first edited in 1838 by Lady Charlotte Guest – as well as in the poetry of Welsh bards and in early poetic sources dating from the seventh to the eleventh centuries.2 As for Lancelot, he was

1

2

As regards my conjectures in Volume 7, § 96.1 n. 81, the title of T. S. Eliot’s most famous poem could have been drawn and translated from Chrétien’s Perceval. Chrétien, in the initial phase of his romance, and before Perceval meets the Fisher King, causes his knight to wander through a ‘terre désolée’. Taliesin and Aneirin do not name Arthur. Other engaging, but obscure, Welsh epics refer to legendary undertakings of the king, like the expedition on the ship

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called ‘of the Lake’ because he was seized from his mother by the nymph Vivian, Merlin’s lover, to be educated at the bottom of a lake; at eighteen he was taken by the nymph to Arthur’s court. Victorious against the Saxons in various campaigns, Arthur fell after being wounded in battle against his treacherous nephew Mordred, who had seduced his queen Guinevere. Buried on the Isle of Avalon he was thought to be, in some versions, merely asleep, and would, one day, return. This main body was to be enriched, with time, by a host of branches, or peripheral and subsidiary legends as early as the pioneering Geoffrey of Monmouth’s (ca. 1100–1155)

Pridwen to bring back a cauldron from Hades. The text, commonly known as the Mabinogion, is the conflation of two books, the White Book of Rhydderch and the Red Book of Hergest, the manuscripts of which are kept respectively at Aberystwyth and at Oxford. The general title of the collection, resulting from the union of the two books and the inclusion also of Hanes (that is the tale of ) Taliesin, was given by Charlotte Guest in her first edition in English, but she misunderstood the meaning of the word mabinogi, plural according to her, and which is at the centre of a hitherto unresolved etymological debate amongst scholars. The philologically weak edition of the Mabinogion by Guest was then replaced by the one edited by G. Jones and T. Jones (London 1949, 1978). The story of the Mabinogion is divided into three branches and then into sections of four, four and three tales, all of them developed in a somewhat excessively detailed and desultory manner which is rarely enthralling. The first foursome recounts the marriages between small local Welsh and Irish dynasties, to bring about territorial peace. Some of the tales appear to be distant transpositions of Indo-European fertility myths. Of the four independent tales of the second foursome, Culhwch and Olwen can be singled out. Here Arthur, amid a mass of digressions, sluggish delays and incidental anecdotes, helps the young Culhwch to obtain the hand of Olwen, daughter of the giant Ysbaddadden: the tale includes above all a chaotic, grotesque and marvellous diorama of Arthur’s feats (the last scene is vaguely reminiscent of Beowulf ’s battle against the giantess). The last story of the second foursome is also linked to the Arthurian saga. The final threesome involves a series of parallels and even paraphrases of Arthurian material, and leaves the question open as to how much earlier or later the continental romances, and specifically those of Chrétien, were than the Celtic ones, and whether they influenced or were influenced. Although they include many more adventures, these tales effectively remind one of some of Tennyson’s Idylls.

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chronicle.3 An imaginative historian, and thus considered by some the father of the English historical novel, Geoffrey, an Oxford clergyman, or more precisely a bishop,4 claimed – in his Historia Regum Britanniae (1137) – that a certain Brutus, the great grandson of Aeneas, landed in England to found a new Troy, and that the name ‘Britannia’ derived, with a vowel change, from this Trojan ancestor.5 The legend, contained in a ‘British book’ which Geoffrey said was passed to him by an Oxford archdeacon, was to become widely accepted. Wace (1100–1175), a Norman cleric from Jersey, translated the Latin of Geoffrey into French rhymes (Brut, 1155), stressing Arthur’s consummate and refined ability as a politician and statesman, with no mention, for the time being, of the later icon of a weak, melancholy and disconsolate monarch.6 These psychological traits were added by Layamon (or Laзamon), an English priest who translated Brut into alliterative verse with frequent middle rhyme in the thirteenth century (1190–1215). The Arthurian ‘matter’ was thus passed from hand to hand by three authors, who formally belonged to the same nation, but wrote in three different languages. Walter Map (ca. 1140-ca. 1209), too, was for a long time considered the author in Latin of the Arthurian legend and of its fusion with the legend of the Holy Grail, the platter or chalice of the Last Supper brought to Glastonbury by Joseph of Arimathea, and lost through the victory of sin.7

3 4 5 6 7

The somewhat literal source of King Lear, but without the subplot of Gloucester, is in Geoffrey’s Book II, chapters 11 and 12. His patron was the Earl Robert of Gloucester, who had strong family and political links with Wales, the area in which the Arthurian myth had its origins (CHI, vol. I, 256–7). According to Walafrid Strabo, on the other hand, the name ‘Britannia’ derives from its ‘brutish habits’ (CEL, 497). The episode where Arthur refuses to receive the ambassador, sent by Lucius to urge the payment of tribute, was to reappear in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline. And the king’s wise speech to his knights revolves around the concept that Rome was not invincible. The original manuscripts have never been found, however. Map is also supposed to have composed student songs in Latin and, in particular, a popular ‘anacreontic’ drinking song. What is indisputably attributed to him is De nugis curialum, an admirable collection of maxims, notes and impressions.

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2. Geoffrey claims to rival Gildas and, above all, Bede, stating he wants to fill in the gaps they have left. On the other hand, he is surreptitiously one of the first forgers in English literature: as we have seen he uses the wellworn technique of a probably inexistent manuscript by a certain Walter that he claims to have discovered. This deception explains, to a certain extent, the imperceptible mixture of fact and fiction, and the first phases, referring to Brutus and his wanderings, are a case in point. Geoffrey transforms the legendary founder into a sort of Jason, Ulysses, or Aeneas, while his companions become lotus-eaters. Inevitably, Albion is found to be inhabited by giants, whom Brutus kills one after another.8 The place names that we know are derived from the names of his warriors, and Trinovantium becomes city of Lud, then Londres. Before introducing Arthur, Geoffrey seems to be aware of writing in the manner of the biblical Books of Kings and Chronicles: brief little chapters, merely containing arid genealogical lists, outline one kingdom after another. However he also likes to include synchronic history, hardly ever failing to note that a certain English event occurred at the same time as another event in some other part of the world, like Israel or Rome. Nonetheless, he does not give a single real date, only indicating the time according to the Roman calendar, forcing the reader to search and infer. The style he adopts is that of a chronicler, listing facts, and hardly ever introducing striking interruptions, side comments or even metaphors; his drifting into metafictional estrangement and the humorous nudges is almost inexistent. With the arrival of the Romans, Geoffrey proudly insists on how strenuously the British resisted their landing, but cannot deny the Romans’ contribution to civilization. The three final books describe Arthur’s deeds, but the ingredients later to polarize the world’s attention – the founding of the Round Table, the betrayal by his nephew Mordred and Guinevere’s adultery – are very vaguely defined. Wace’s Li romans de Brut takes the story in medias res, and these res which interest the poet are different: not a succession of brave heroic deeds, but shady, 8

Mysterious echoes of Beowulf are in Book II, chapter 15, where a monster comes over the sea from Ireland during the reign of Morvid, who fights it in single combat but is swallowed as if he were a little fish; and in chapter 3 of Book X, which tells of the victorious combat of Arthur with another monster.

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deceitful manoeuvres, or ever increasing betrayals, ambitions, threatening prophecies, shadows. The reign of Vortigern is described at length, and his libidinous sensuality is underlined when describing his marriage to Hengist’s seductive daughter. He propounds an Anglo-Saxon and antiRoman view, celebrating Britain’s unquenchably bitter heroism. A long parenthesis follows the coming of Merlin, born by ‘immaculate conception’.9 When Lucius’ emissaries reach the court and indignantly claim payment of the tribute, Arthur responds that the Romans are his debtors, as he is the legitimate sovereign of Gaul and the other territories occupied by Rome. The final half of Wace’s poem is taken up by the deeds of the king, first against the Saxon hotbeds and then against the Romans, when he crosses the sea to meet them in Gaul and stops them. Arthur dies by the hand of Mordred, who has courted and seduced his wife, Guinevere, a kind of nemesis as Arthur was conceived by his father Uther and Igerne, the wife of Gorlois. Wace causes the curtain to drop abruptly in 642, the only date he gives, and leaves the reader with the image of Arthur’s tomb in Avalon, and of his companions awaiting his return, as if Arthur were a Messiah. Layamon, who recommences the tale with the traitor Vortigern, repeats its salient points, including the more readable anecdotes. His vein, however, is chronicle-like and rather unremarkable. Arthurian romances were written up to the beginning of the fifteenth century, about a century

9

One episode linked to Merlin concerns the transport from Ireland to England of the huge stones from which Stonehenge was built. The miraculous part chiefly relates to Arthur’s duel with a giant who has raped a defenceless maiden, which seems modelled, for the umpteenth time, on Beowulf ’s deeds. A life, or more exactly, a prophecy of Merlin was written in Latin by Geoffrey and added to an edition of the Historia Regum Britanniae in 1929. In this prophecy, Merlin was a child of prophetic powers who predicted to the King of the Britons the future overthrow, legitimization and consecration of Plantagenet power. The text opens with the supernatural vision of the fight between a red dragon and white dragon who have emerged from the water of a pond; Merlin explains to King Vortigern that the dragons are images of the Saxons who will be expelled and of the Britons. ‘A sad desolation will beset the kingdom / And the harvest-filled farm-yards will revert to barren slopes’, says Merlin. Geoffrey here is very close to Blake and his prophetic books, or to the visionary poems by Yeats.

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after Layamon. Le Morte Arthur, from around 1400, is in stanzas and in the Midland dialect, a vivacious and well organized narration that served as a base for Tennyson;10 the alliterative, almost identically entitled Morte Arthure, directly or indirectly derived from Wace and used as a source by Malory, concentrates on Arthur’s early European adventures and on his final defeat at the hands of Mordred. Other romances are basically paraphrases of Chrétien. § 10. Ricardian literature Is it possible to extract and discuss common elements linking the four poems which objectively stand out and emerge, for their overall artistic excellence, from the more anonymous texts of the last decades of the fourteenth century, such as those by Gower, Langland, Chaucer and the Gawain poet, whom I am about to introduce? In other words, can we posit a plausible category of Ricardian literature, in the same way as we take for granted the existence of Elizabethan and Victorian literatures? Can we do this when the only common denominator is that the authors were active in the reign of King Richard II, and despite the fact that, with one sole exception, they did not know each other, and could not have been acquainted with or influenced by each other, speaking and writing in regional idioms and in clearly distinct dialects, and on thematic materials that are apparently different? That the uniformity and convergence of their qualities were greater than the apparent quantity of their divergences is what J. A. Burrow argues in his book Ricardian Poetry.1 The author admits to there not being a well-defined or definable Ricardian period, according to the 10

In Tennyson’s re-elaboration we find the clearly defined episodes of the Maid of Astolat or Ascolat (which will become ‘Lancelot and Elaine’), and Bedivere’s consignment of Arthur’s sword, Excalibur, to the waters.

1

BRP, a short, succinct, wonderfully economical book, full of truly essential observations, which was at the time a decisive step forwards, at least as regards Chaucerian criticism. As to the recurrence of ‘tags’, ways of speaking, interjections and word padding in the Middle English tradition, Burrow was preceded by Chaucer and the Chaucerians: Critical Studies in Middle English Literature, ed. D. S. Brewer, London 1966, whose introductory essay, 1–38, is worth reading.

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usual parameters, and that from the prosodic point of view there remains a vast gap between the persistence of the alliterative tradition and the rise of the rhymed couplet, and between the northern tongue and the London idiom. Richard II was not the beacon nor, as patron of the arts, did he receive the panegyrics and homage of these poets, for whom he reached the throne too late. Not only was there no poetic school or official and closeknit academy, but the four poets would, over time, enjoy a separate and dissimilar reception. The echo of alliterative poetry was to be long silenced, but for Langland, who reached the Elizabethans and the Jacobeans intact, and was praised as a satirist by Puttenham, Milton and Warton, the first historian of English literature. On the other hand, Chaucer and Gower were recognized as the beginners of English poetry from Sidney onwards, and held to be the first unofficial Poet Laureates, that is, those representing a transition in English poetry and literary art from a still obscure, primitive and barbaric period, to an adult, sophisticated and refined one. The stylistic test, undertaken by Burrow, proves that the four poems already share an oral mark, and are ‘minstrel-type’ compositions: for the ear therefore, and to be recited before an audience. 2. Critics like Burrow did not, until recently, disguise their nostalgia for the dry masculine tang of Old English poetry – and for the refusal to accept the conventions and the repetitive, space-filling formulae, of easy rhymes and glib commonplaces – although the poets of the late fourteenth century, like Chaucer, did use them in a slyly ironic manner.2 Addressing the audience with fixed commonplaces recurs, even further back in time, in the other branch – this is the principal distinction – of the alliterative poetry of Gawain and of Langland. Gower has also been charged with this negative trait, although later critics considered that his compositions were the epitome of direct and even lofty English style and simplicity. On the other hand Langland, who cares only about the content of his writings and not, in the least, about stylistic elegance, consciously rejecting formulae, creates a new style, or ironically reuses the same formulae whilst voiding them of their traditional impact. It is not a stylistic comment, but structural and 2

Burrow classifies the metaphors as ‘drastically’ extravagant, metaphysical and shocking, or tempered.

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constructive, to say that each of these Ricardian classics is told by a persona, reported by an internal narrator. This split between author and internal narrator causes the author to play with stylistic masks. Burrow concedes that the norm and the unity of measure of the four principal Ricardian poems is the sequence, not the single line, however memorable and exquisitely fashioned. Examination of the contents reveals a common propensity towards the narration of actual facts, rather than allegories, and narrations aimed both at setting examples and diverting the reader – lyrics supplant narrative genres in French and Anglo-Norman poetry, whereas the historian prefers to write in prose. It is here that we find an indigenous trait: a distinct taste for verse narrative. The Italian fourteenth-century models, followed by the English, were narrative too, even if tending towards the lyrical. Chaucer, on the other hand, never alludes to any personal autobiographical happening, but objectifies it. Specifically, the four most important Ricardian poems reveal a particular sense of the internal proportions and subdivisions of the action, with unprecedented and precisely defined articulations (fitt or passus); they fit into the scheme of the dream, and often appear as interpolated tales within tales.3 However, the succession of episodes and other insertions is not linear or causal: it is often arbitrary, or encircling. Burrow calls Chaucer the precocious specialist of the ‘scale’ technique, whereby he pinpoints minute, tiny details, fading out others. Ricardian allegory is not narrow and one-directional, but slides into and blends with the literal. If anything, the established mode is to provide examples, which the four poets do with greater or lesser bravura and subtlety, at times subverting their own example. What is common, in the end, to Ricardian writers, is their vision of man and the world. The single protagonists lack heroic stature, and even when they are warriors and knights the descriptions of the actual fighting scenes are not particularly detailed or realistic; there is more focused interest on what leads up to or follows the actual battle scene. Chaucer’s mask is incongruous among the effigies and busts of the epic poets of antiquity, and he tells twice the story of pious Aeneas in 3

This structural device was inspired by the Roman de la Rose, to which, as we shall see in the next section, the four poets were deeply indebted, though Burrow doesn’t mention it or minimizes its relevance.

§ 11. The influence of the ‘Roman de la Rose’

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his works. The typically revisionist hero in Chaucer is, of course, Troilus. The arrival situation often reproduces the departure scene, without much variation, the common factor being a deep pessimism, due to the author’s conviction of the ultimate insignificance of the individual in the immensity of the cosmos. Chaucer’s view is that life is a ‘thoroughfare of woe’, and the practice of confession, penance, contrition, humiliation4 seems to be the prevailing framework within which everything happens. Amorous passion and its agony are de-sublimated by ever-present ‘confessors’, at times disguised or concealed in the four poems, but acting in the counterpoint of a humorous attitude, which corresponds to the relativizing coexistence of seriousness and flippancy studied by Curtius.5 § 11. The influence of the ‘Roman de la Rose’ Gianfranco Contini, the great Italian philologist, wrote of the Roman de la Rose as a ‘knot’ in medieval European culture,1 independently of the general low consensus that the poem normally receives. It is for Dante, for example, what literature – or an illustrated book, or a form of visualized literature – is for poetry, although various elements of the Roman entered the work of the Italian poet thanks to the intermediation of Brunetto Latini. Contini proposes the formula of a vertical and linear Roman and of a spiralling Divine Comedy. It is thus only apparently strange that English poetic literature of the late fourteenth, fifteenth and of the first decades of the sixteenth centuries should advance under the aegis, the tutelage and the model of a text in French. Chaucer was its translator (in all likelihood, 4

5

1

BRP, 106, calls attention to the new importance of the Sacrament of Penance after the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215–1216. Dante, too, according to Burrow, found Guilielmus Peraldus’ Summa Vitiorum influential; this treatise is also important, as is Pennaforte’s Summa de poenitentia, for Chaucer. Gawain’s examination of his conscience seems to draw on this and other treatises. Theseus dampens the ardour of the two knights in Chaucer, and Amans, in Gower, reflects that love is not made for old men. This confirms the stance of Chaucer and Gower – through their internal narrators – as to the distancing and objectifying of passions. ‘Un nodo della cultura medievale: la serie “Roman de la Rose” – “Fiore” – “Divina Commedia”’, in Lettere italiane, 25 (1973), 162–89.

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with other poets), and a collective translation increases the prestige and the authority of the translated work, because it demonstrates a wider and more generalized influence. It could not be otherwise, because English culture, which centred on the court, had French as the official and in some cases only language, and the poets learnt their métier from the literary works in that language; there was moreover no poem or poetic example greater and better known than the Roman. The fourteenth-century poets naturally absorbed their culture in France, and at that time Chaucer and the others had a fairly vague, nebulous, not to say second or third hand knowledge of Italian culture and poetry. Chaucer, as an imitator and follower, could, just as usefully, have employed the ideology of love of the Stilnovo, which is not very different from that of the Roman, as it shared the same kind of thirteenth- and fourteenth-century beliefs and sensibility. The Stilnovo was for the English, however, a hermetically closed chapter, as they had never heard of it and it never influenced them. This state of affairs was to continue until Rossetti became an English Dantesque poet and a Stilnovo follower in the nineteenth century.2 The second point is to ask why the Roman so obsessively inspired English and Scottish Chaucerian allegorists, among whom one finds late fifteenth-century imitators such as Dunbar or even a sixteenth-century poet like Hawes. To explain this, we need to say what it is. From a general point of view, the Roman is a dream poem, and this recalls a medieval belief, derived from classical literature, that visions in dreams had prophetic value, as superior and credible revelations on divine and human things. The symbolic journey has the protagonist enter a flowering garden, or locus amoenus, where wise beings dispense their precepts, and the wandering dreamer undergoes an initiation experience and becomes acquainted on a number of truths: it is an oracular experience that ends with his waking. This kind of scheme had hitherto been principally employed to illustrate the definition, practice and etiquette of love. After the Roman, a model is established, which is both a model, as well as a genre and above all an epistemic vehicle. The dream, and that which is

2

To provide some idea as to how little knowledge of Dante there was, it seems that Sidney was the first to mention Beatrice’s name.

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recounted, imaginatively channel the mindset of fourteenth-century sensibility and beyond, until it is replaced by alternatives which will be the chivalric poetry and prose of Malory, or the pastoral poem or novel. At the end of the sixteenth century the two forms will coalesce seamlessly in Spenser’s poem and in Sidney’s romance. 2. To go back to what we were saying, and to English literature at the end of the fourteenth century, embedded in the dream model is the catechism of Love. Chaucer and Gower are both involved in making use of the ploy of courtly and Stilnovo poetry, as a way of transforming the sexual urge and the longing for a woman into spiritualized love. The Roman recounts, and allegorically dramatizes, all of this. But the allegories are so complex, wordy and elaborate, in these poems and their sequels, that at times they predominate over the truths to be proved, causing the latter to fade out. The Roman addresses both sides of the ambiguity of love. Above all in the interminable debates of the second part, we see the lover, who should and would like to conquer the rose, believing as he does in the purity of his love, listening to laborious lectures on the seamy side of love itself, on the impurity of women and the fraudulent nature of matrimony, and on a perfectly natural yearning which, derived from totally un-medieval or non-spiritual, ‘Shavian’ evolutionism, thanks to its impetus causes life in the universe to keep going. My third point concerns the legacy it accumulates: at first, the Roman addresses Chaucer, who, apparently, does not proceed beyond the first, radiant and sunny part of the poem. In reality, Chaucer’s work turns love upside-down, and after having illustrated it as the purest, sublime, fleshless flame, he also shows us its earthy, worldly side, describing the passion of the senses and the bestial gratification of the flesh: thus Chaucer learns from the first as well as from the second Roman. All literature at the end of the fourteenth century is dream literature. Gower does not compose a formal dream, but sends his lover to be catechized by his confessor, Genius. As in other cases, we find in Gower an improbably spiritualized Venus – a sort of absurdity, or mythological blasphemy – as the provider of warnings. All the numerous future allegorical poems will vary the situation of the lover, wandering dreamily about in a garden of love and taught by allegorical personifications. The Cupid-and-Venuswith-the-lover masque will continue to appear until the sixteenth century.

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Langland, however, seems to destroy the sunny dream and replace it with a nightmare, although it is really still a dream or a vision. This scheme will be unrecognizably changed in Pilgrim’s Progress. 3. A distinct thread comes to the surface when – and this happens in quite a number of cases in the poem – the motif of a fallen and corrupt nature (that Sidney will call ‘infected’)3 which has to be healed (and Sidney will speak of the ‘erect intellect’) – is introduced in the Roman’s debates. The locus amoenus, described by almost every other poet, is always connected, as here, with an early May morning and with birds which sing invitingly above a clear, rippling stream. This landscape is visited by a dreamer, who at the end of his dream tells of it. The effigies and statues on the garden’s walls are, in reality, dynamic allegories in the Roman; the prologue does not, in fact, introduce living, flesh and blood people as in Chaucer, but tableaux vivants, or moving statues. The locus can cease to be a place of delight, becoming elsewhere terrifying and infernal, but always full of figures, statues and images, as in Sackville’s Induction. The Rose in the rosebush cannot be plucked because it is protected by thorns, and Cupid lurks in the background, ready to shoot his arrows. Love is re-kindled by five benevolent arrows, shot by the god of love. The admonitions and commandments of love outline a sort of identikit of Castiglione’s Courtier. The concept of a subjugated lover, blocked and suffering, because of the unattainable status of the loved one, founds a Romantic Sehnsucht that was to have many followers. One could almost link this genre to Sidney’s numerous sonnets on Cupid. Yet it is also clear that all these skirmishes to get to the rose form an ersatz and a sublimation of the sexual conquest. Picking a flower means sexual possession. There is also a kind of allusion to the original sin, because picking a rose is like plucking an apple from a tree, if one considers that disobedience is often equated with carnal knowledge and with the prohibition involving copulation (Adam and Eve often cover their genitals in pictorial images). A suggestion of this kind is confirmed in the final page of the poem. The rose is really the female sexual organ, thanks to very precise allusions: the lover revisits the rose and discovers

3

§ 48.

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that it is not yet fertilized and therefore deflowered, and the seed which fills it is not visible. The kiss is obtained but causes the vengeance of further hostile forces. The rose bush is next surrounded by an impenetrable wall and a tower is beside it. The first part ends with the pain of love, the rose strictly protected, and Fair Welcoming imprisoned. 4. In Part two by Jean de Meung, we witness the assault on the castle on the part of the Lover, who finds himself in the midst of persuaders and dissuaders. Allegorical figures hypocritically force their way into the castle and speak with a Duenna. But the opposing forces regroup and push out the Lover and Venus sets the castle on fire. The Rose is granted to the Lover and he awakes from his dream. In a long section, the personification of Reason expounds misogynistic precepts echoing a sequence of Burtonian oxymora on the malady of Love; this is continued in a series of admonitions against exclusively carnal love. The Rose is thus more than ever equated with female sexuality. In reality, Reason introduces points often included in fourteenth-century sermons: Love as avarice, and the giddiness of Fortune. The use of proverbs and maxims in this section is more evidently than ever a foreshadowing of Burton’s Anatomy. Gower himself will adopt fables and historical and demonstrative anecdotes, such as that of Nero and Croesus, in his Confessio. Thus it is in the Roman that the poetic model of the confession is founded, or more precisely that of the spiritual instructions delivered by a figure of authority to a sinner who has not yet repented. This long, drawn out educational lecture is however rejected by the Lover.4 It is therefore easy to forget that the Lover is always waiting to enter the castle. But let us think at the same time of this preKafkaesque situation of a symbolic figure bent on conquering an enigmatic, symbolic, surreal castle guarded by threatening, hostile allegorical figures. In a similar, long drawn out interlude the Lover listens to predictable warn-

4

The Lover also rebukes Reason because, being a lady, she ought to have used euphemisms when speaking of testicles! It is an objection that leads to an agitated, grotesque and much too drawn out squabble on the extent to which euphemisms should be used instead of literal expressions. One point of the debate concerns the proposal that testicles should not be cut, a punitive provision that would impede the continuation of the species: ‘it is a great sin to castrate a man’.

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ings that the flame of love will die out in marriage, and that no woman and no wife is chaste: significantly love exists solely before marriage and that is the moment in which one loves par amour. The Lover is humiliated at the very moment in which he is about to rescue Fair Welcoming. There is a fairly grotesque scene when two hypocrites in disguise, as in some of Chaucer’s tales, pretend to plead the Lover’s case in front of Foul Mouth, who is guarding the entrance to the castle. The torrential moralizing of the Duenna seems, on the one hand, to remind one that all men are voluble, quoting innumerable examples from mythology; on the other she presents a code of conduct for women, who although they should always be modest, and care about their appearance and their manners, must always be temptresses, denying their favours to importunate males; thus she explains the arts of seduction and, at the same time, the ruses necessary to hold seducers at bay.5 In reality, the Duenna’s monologue is most interesting, at least in certain parts, because it is a free-wheeling rhapsody in which advice and personal memories, laments and cynicism alternate in an apparently unplanned fashion, so that we seem to be listening to an interior – and most certainly ‘grammatical’ – monologue that vaguely foreshadows that of Joyce’s Molly Bloom – another disappointed lover, embittered by old age and the miseries of life. We are reminded of a modern digital link when, recalling that at times one raises one’s eyes heavenward, the Duenna launches into a history of astronomical treatises. The association is made because if there had been no secret telescope or mirror, Venus and Mars would not have been caught in flagrant adultery. This digression then falls back into the macro-theme of celestial influences that determine everything, except human free will. Nature enters upon the scene, introducing herself to the Lover as the mediator and collaborator of the Creator, who is obeyed by the animal and vegetable kingdom, as well as by the weather. Suddenly, the story of Pygmalion is recounted in great and lengthy detail. It is the pagan way of illustrating the miracle of life infused into matter, like the miracle of love which blossoms and crowns it. But this fresh and genuine story of love 5

In a page, surely read by Chaucer, she speaks of the care with which a woman ought to dip her hand in the gravy, so that not a drop of grease stick to her lips or fall onto her clothes.

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§ 12. ‘Pearl’ and ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’

is gradually corrupted and becomes a paradigm of ruin. The final assault on the castle assumes the appearance of a violent clash, as against a palisade, thus leading to further sexual allusions: the dreamer is armed with a kind of pointed, iron-tipped staff and a symbolic sack. The rosebud is plucked, and this act is compared to Adam’s gesture when he picks the apple. Only Joyce’s Finnegans Wake will be a longer dream than this one, with even more episodes developing in the same, chaotic manner, crowded with images and with unlinked stories, the compatibility of which is unexplained. § 12. ‘Pearl’ and ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ * Starting with the so-called ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Pearl poet’, the plausibility and even, in a History of English literature, the 1

*

Pearl, ed. I. Gollancz, London 1891, 1921; ed. C. G. Osgood, Boston, MA 1906; ed. and trans. F. Olivero, Bologna 1930; ed. E. V. Gordon, Oxford 1953, 1974; ed. A. Guidi, Firenze 1958; ed. Sr M. V. Hillmann, New York 1961, 1967; ed. S. deFord, Northbrook 1967; ed. E. Giaccherini, Parma 1989; ed. J. Draycott, Manchester 2011. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, ed. J. R. R. Tolkien and E. V. Gordon, Oxford 1925, 1940, 1967; ed. I. Gollancz, London 1940; ed. R. A. Waldron, London 1970; ed. F. J. A. Burrow, Harmondsworth 1972; ed. W. R. J. Barron, Manchester and New York 1974; ed. D. Didoni and A. Matranga, trans. P. Boitani, Milano and Scandicci 1986, 2000. The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript: Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, ed. M. Andrew and R. Waldron, London 1978; ed. M. Borroff, New York 1978; ed. W. Vantuono, 2 vols, New York and London 1984. The Middle English Pearl: Critical Essays, ed. J. Conley, Notre Dame, IN and London 1984; J. A. Burrow, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, London 1965, 1966; Sir Gawain and Pearl: Critical Essays, ed. R. J. Blanch, Bloomington, IN 1966; P. M. Kean, The Pearl: An Interpretation, New York 1967; I. Bishop, ‘Pearl’ in its Setting: A Critical Study of the Structure and Meaning of the Middle English Poem, Oxford 1968; A. C. Spearing, The Gawain-Poet: A Critical Study, Cambridge 1970; W. A. Davenport, The Art of the Gawain-Poet, New Jersey 1978; P. Boitani, La narrativa del Medioevo inglese, Bari 1980, and Il tragico e il sublime nelle letteratura medievale, Bologna 1992; T. Bogdanos, Pearl, Image of the Ineffable: A Study in Medieval Poetic Symbolism, University Park, PA 1983; L. Staley Johnson, The Voice of the Gawain Poet, Madison, WI 1984; Text and Matter: New Critical Perspectives of the Pearl-Poet, ed. R. J. Blanch, M. Y. Miller and J. N. Wasserman, Troy, NY 1991; M. Marti, Body, Heart and Text in the Pearl-Poet, Queenston 1991; E. Giaccherini, Il meraviglioso e il sogno nella narrativa inglese del Medioevo, Pisa 1992, and Orfeo in Albione. Tradizione

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advisability of devoting only a cursory survey to the works of the canon in Middle English – apart from the exceptions that we have already encountered – can be dismissed. The works and the authors that we are about to confront will deserve more systematic and deeper analyses, because they possess a higher aesthetic value rather than a solely linguistic and documentary one. By almost unanimous consent Pearl as well as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight were written by the same cultivated and well-read poet, an adept in French romances, metrically a virtuoso, and a theological expert, perhaps a priest. If this is true he would be – even nameless, faceless and placeless (though some say he was a Scot, named Hochoun, Huchown or Hucheon, or a Ralph Strode) –1 the first of the four major English authors of the second half of the fourteenth century. In reality, the theory of a single poet as the author of the two works – possibly due to a somewhat romantic delusion, unsubstantiated by any proof whatsoever – is literally full of holes, was already considered suspect by Saintsbury, and is now much discredited. The theory is only, or only partly based on the fact that the two poems are contained, together with the biblical paraphrases Purity and Patience,2 in the British Library manuscript Cotton Nero A.x., were transcribed in the Cheshire dialect,3 and were copied out

colta e tradizione popolare nella letteratura inglese medievale, Pisa 2002; From Pearl to Gawain: Forme to Fynisment, ed. R. J. Blanch and J. N. Wasserman, Gainesville, FL 1995; S. P. Prior, The Fayre Formez of the Pearl Poet, East Lansing, MI 1996; A. Putter, An Introduction to the Gawain Poet, London 1996; A Companion to the Gawain Poet, ed. D. Brewer and J. Gibson, Woodbridge 1997 (twenty-seven uneven essays by super-experts, many of them centred on the surroundings of the texts while others aim at updating their perspectives by using Lacanian, anthropological, narratological and gender approaches); J. M. Bowers, The Politics of ‘Pearl’: Court Poetry in the Age of Richard II, Cambridge 2001. 1

I. Gollancz sought to give him a romanticized one, in CHI, vol. I, 329–34. On Huchown ‘of the Awne Ryale’ see § 24.2. 2 The Gawain poet’s compositions are five if we add the legend of St Erkenwald to them. 3 It is markedly different from Chaucer’s London dialect. In Gawain, there are words deriving from Scandinavian languages which are not present in Chaucer. The Pearl manuscript is illustrated.

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by the same scribe. Metrically, Pearl is divided into parts and stanzas with alternating rhymes; Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Purity (also called, with the same meaning, Cleannesse) and Patience,4 are alliterative; Gawain’s stanzas range from sixteen to twenty lines, with a free and vaguely dactylic rhythm with four accents (Saintsbury) that end with the ‘bob and wheel’, that is with a line with only one iambic foot and a quatrain of lines of six or eight syllables (the rhyming scheme being ababa). A similar disagreement prevails amongst scholars as to the dating: broadly speaking, without being too precise, we can say the four poems were written in the last thirty years of the fourteenth century, not before 1370 and not after 1395. 2. Pearl, the title given to the poem by its first modern editor, Richard Morris (1864), is divided into twenty parts, with a total of 101 stanzas (of which one is spurious, therefore 100) of twelve rhyming octosyllabic lines rhymed abab. Critics have long debated its genre and its literary type – whether it is an elegy, or the first dirge in English literature (therefore, whether there is some clear biographical fact lying behind it); whether, on the other hand, it is simply a stylized allegory, or even a symbolic poem. One could argue, I suppose, that all three aspects are present.5 The narrator says he has lost an incomparable pearl in a garden, and because of this loss is still enduring unspeakable sorrow.6 This purest of pearls is soiled by its contact

4

The two poems are paraphrases and didactic expansions of biblical episodes ( Jonah, the Flood, Sodom and Gomorrah and others), resembling the similar and similarly popular biblical paraphrases in Old English (§ 5.2), but they surpass them in hallucinatory fancy and self-reliant descriptive vigour. They have thus been recently restudied and re-evaluated: Boitani 1980, 19–34, stresses the ‘dramatic individuality’ and the ‘extraordinarily narrative autonomy’ (30) of the two works. 5 The Pearl author had two traditions to draw from: the pearl as the type of authentic femininity, modelled on the queen of married Love, Alcestis; or that of the pearl in Matthew’s Gospel (13, 46). ‘Behold, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant who goes in search of a precious pearl and who, finding it, goes and sells all he has to buy it’, that is, the Virgin (according to I. Gollancz in CHI, vol. I, 321). 6 The three literary sources most influencing it are the Roman de la Rose, the Chaucerian Book of the Duchesse and Boccaccio’s fourteenth Latin eclogue, Olympia. It is also true that Pearl has 100 stanzas, the same number as the cantos of the Commedia, and that Pearl is modelled on Beatrice and Matelda – although, as said above, it is unlikely that the poet actually knew Dante’s work.

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with the ground, but this has made the most beautiful and multi-coloured flowers grow around it, to symbolize the vast distance between the heavens and the earth, but also to reverberate an echo of the Incarnation. The pearl falls to earth and is defiled, as the stain of original sin sullied Eden’s stainless purity, a sign of the Fall. The fallen pearl, however, will cause the earth to be re-seeded, and stinking miasmas will be replaced by perfumes and spices. Christ is the first to cooperate in the Incarnation, but the Virgin carried him in her womb, and it is, after and above all, the Virgin who is the pearl ‘withouten spot’. Immediately afterwards in the poem comes the account of a dream of the narrator who, assailed by the fragrance of the meadow where the pearl had fallen, faints. He dreams of finding himself in a landscape of crystalline rocks and of woods, where nothing is dark, but sparkling with light, and where birds sing celestial music. He then comes to a river in the bed of which he notices diamonds and precious stones, and believes that Paradise may be on the other bank.7 This dream creates or reprises a timeless topos, that of the copse which, much unlike Dante’s ‘selva oscura’, or the medieval wood, is an enclosed garden (hortus conclusus) bathed in brilliant light, pierced only by a stream, in which it is lovely to wander, untouched by fear or disturbance – a symbol of a Middle Ages already tinged by the Renaissance, as Walter Pater would term it. Against the background of a crystalline hill, a little, golden-haired girl, dressed in white and adorned with pearls that cover her entire body, a crown of pearls upon her head and a large pearl in the middle of her breasts, appears to him. From the other side of the stream, she converses with him, and the girl urges the man not to grieve for the lost pearl, because he is now in a 7

A blatant premonition of Freud’s dream mechanism: from the waking reminiscence of the lost pearl, to – thanks to dream association devices – a totally pearl-covered maiden (‘Wyth precios perles al umbepyghte’). The allegorical procedure is ingenious: before the dream, the ‘jeweller’ has only lost an exquisitely pure pearl that has fallen into the grass; in the dream he wonders if this pearl is not his little daughter who has been taken from him – one believes – by death. Or perhaps, before the dream, he had only been reticent. In other words we are witnessing a transfiguration. The Pearl can be a synonym or indicator of Margarita (pearl in Latin) or Margery in English. In Purity we find the same use of the pearl as a symbol of purity: ‘Quat may þe cause be called, bot for hir clene hwes, / Þat wynnes worschyp, abof alle whyte stones?’.

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place in which no sorrow dwells. She adds that one can only attain God and spiritual life through fleshly and bodily death, purging oneself of Adam’s sin. The dreamer is repulsed, because he presumes he is allowed to cross the stream, without humbly asking to do so.8 He may not, therefore, even think of straightaway crossing the river to join her. The girl shows him how, lost, she was found by Christ and became his bride, without in any way affecting the prestige of the Virgin, since anyone reaching Paradise becomes king or queen without usurping any other’s place.9 All the brides of Christ dwell in the celestial Jerusalem, those described by St John in luminous procession and in a sort of celestial concubinage. The heavenly City is indeed seen by the dreamer, sparkling with incomparable lights, while a procession of virgins is led by the Lamb against a background of intoxicating music. After which he awakes. 3. Pearl promises, therefore, to be a secular poem, consisting in a kind of exquisitely coloured and heraldic idyll instead of an apologia or homiletic elegy preceded by a courtly prelude. Its length is justified by the paraphrase of the Gospel parable of the vineyard10 and of the vision of John’s heavenly Jerusalem. The more weighty the subject, the more it loses its exquisitely airy freshness when describing the dreamlike fantasy. In other words, it might appear, at first, to be a courtly lay by a knight harping on the death of a lady; in fact, the identity of the speaker is only revealed in the final lines, so the ambiguity is kept up throughout, and the entire narration might very well be the desperate lament of a lover who has lost his exquisitely pure beloved. The urgent request to sublimate all erotic feelings, and the hymn raised to chastity and continence – above all the stern prohibition 8 9 10

Reiterated exhortations to humility and reminders of divine forgiveness are delivered in heartfelt, stern sing-song tones that foreshadow Eliot’s Four Quartets (as noted, too, by Davenport 1978, 40). The fact that the jeweller is accused of lacking humility but turns the tables on the girl, by accusing her of the same fault, when she boasts of being a queen, bride of Christ and possibly superior to the Madonna, is involuntarily humorous. The interpretation of this notoriously enigmatic parable is interesting: it seems that Pearl – who died when only two years old – is rewarded by God in the same way as all the saved, no account being taken as to how long they have lived on earth, inasmuch as they have lived, above all, risking the danger of damnation.

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to enter, impure, into the divine area of the blessed, firstly by crossing the stream, and secondly by coming to the ‘tower’ – cause one to suspect an expurgated metaphor and be aware of too palpitating an underlying sensuality to dismiss some kind of erotic relationship.11 The man’s plea suggests a sensual lover and some brusquely interrupted relationship; it suggests then a lover who feels rebuked and taken to task by his pure, celestial vestal virgin. Traditionally, the narrator has been identified as a father who has lost his daughter,12 although the text only calls her ‘my lyttel quene’. Critics mention Dante and the Roman de la Rose, as texts underlying the poem; but the courtly style presents elements and refined metaphors, as well as other theological and far-fetched details (‘He gef me myght and als bewté; / In Hys blod He wesch my wede on dese / And coronde clene in vergynté / And pyght me in perles mascelle’),13 all of them foreshadowing metaphysical and Mannerist sensibilities. Pearl, however, is chiefly the prototype of all subsequent English allegories based on the marvellous, those that conceal vague counsels to pursue Christian virtues and harping on the themes of temperance and humility. It has the same iambic rhythm and the same, or similar, cadences as Coleridge’s two main ballads, which is why it also reminds one of the poetry of the founder of the English neoStilnovo, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Pearl could indeed be taken as a draft for the nineteenth-century poet’s first poem – The Blessed Damozel – which is about the sorrow of the lover, who converses from the opposite bank of ‘impure earth’ with his beloved, as she looks down upon him from the ‘gold bar of heaven’ (there is no river between the lovers, in Rossetti, but the starry spaces between earth and the Damozel’s heavenly dwelling).14 11 12 13 14

Well understood by J. Gilbert in Brewer and Gibson 1997, 59, insinuating, however, that between the father and daughter there is a hint of incest. At l. 483 he mentions that she is two years old. ‘He gave me power and beauty, / He washed with his blood all earthly stain, / He crowned me with virginity / And adorned me with immaculate pearls’. The celestial concert is played with the aid of an instrument that was later to be mentioned by Rossetti, known as the ‘cytole’. One of the Virgin’s five serving maids is a ‘Margaret’. D. G. Rossetti is not often recalled as influenced by this poem, except by Olivero 1930, xi, who includes a number of comparisons with Pre-Raphaelite paintings on the following page.

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The maiden in Pearl is grimmer, less covertly sensual than Rossetti’s. She gets onto her platform, puts on her spectacles, so to speak, and lectures, knowing all the scholastic ins and outs.15 There is no information as to the context, and the roles are much stylized. What we would like to know is where, when and how the action of the poem takes place.16 What is the social role of the protagonist/narrator? There is an enigmatic ‘prince’ who is briefly mentioned in the last section of the poem, and one is uncertain as whether he should be identified as Christ or as an enlightened vassal, in whose court this evanescent, courtly episode is supposed to have occurred. 4. I mentioned above that there is a legitimate doubt as to whether Pearl and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight were actually composed by the same author. If the author of both is the same person, the second poem testifies to a more worldly, varied and relativistic mindset, when describing the knightly world. The allegorical and pedagogical scheme is looser, and less marked.17 The text shows this more advanced status18 in the meta­ narrative layer. Again and again the author states that the tale has been written down, but that it was conceived and should be considered as oral; time and again, he calls attention to the tale itself, pointedly explaining and exhibiting the author’s strategic choices, such as the leaps forward, the compressions and the digressions that have been planned and weighed

15

16 17 18

Her immediate promotion to bride of Christ, although flanked by a further 144,000 other virgins, is based on Matthew’s vineyard parable and on the celebration staged in heaven when a lost lamb is brought back to the fold, to be treated in exactly the same way as the lambs, which have never been lost, are treated. The initial lines allude to the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin on 15 August. Bowers 2001 states that Richard II’s grief over the death of his queen, Anne of Bohemia, occasioned the poem. As a further proof, Cleanness, if its author is the same as that of Gawain, in paraphrasing the story of Sodom and Gomorrah condemns perverted sex, but approves its righteous practice. Some say that Gawain was written earlier, and was dictated by impetuous youthfulness, whereas Pearl is more mature, more theological and official. BAUGH, vol. I, 237 n. 19, is one of the many who discuss the poems in the order I am following, but suggests, rather weakly, that the order in the manuscript should be taken as the chronological order in which the poems were composed.

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up, in order for the tale not to be boring, but, above all, entertaining for its audience. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is thus the second, great anonymous poem of the English Medieval period, after Beowulf. Pearl is heavily didactic; Sir Gawain is not, as it manages to be gripping and riveting almost to the end, thanks to its carefully organized plot, its wellbalanced episodes divided among 101 stanzas. To this constructive gift one must add the author’s ability as an illuminator, miniaturist, scenic director: he minutely and technically describes how the knights are armed before combat; he lists the tiniest details as to how game is disembowelled, during a hunt, and the bloody aspects of beheadings are dispassionately itemized and the interludes depicting winter or moorland landscapes are exquisitely defined in delicate word-pictures. The characters are, or become, aware of living or listening to an improbable, dream-like or marvellous experience no less than the reader, who shares this very embarrassment right from the prelude, when the curtain rises on an Arthurian world that, at the time, was the end-point after the Homeric and Roman historical cycles. In the end, the moral of the first poem is the opposite of the other. Man is weak in Pearl and the dreamer, although a father, trembles with scarcely repressed sensuality, whereas the Pearl is a mirror of virtue and of the sublimation of the flesh. In Gawain the male desperately resists the appeals of the senses, and the author transmits a covertly misogynous message. At times, a kind of Everyman’s morality seems to emerge from the tale, as Gawain is tempted by the devil or desperately fences with Death.19 One might be witnessing here that kind of merging process of the Teutonic or, by then, Celtic20 myths with the Christian, which we mentioned regarding Beowulf.21 If this is true, the actants are inverted or deformed. The chatelaine thrice tempts an 19

See Burrow 1966, 121–2, 129, 140. Burrow, however, systematically underestimates the objectively sinister aspects of the castle and of the Green Knight, which he interprets as totally domesticated, also insisting on an irreprehensible Gawain who dexterously juggles with the three basic rules of chivalry: clannesse (purity), cortaysye (courtesy) and trawþe (loyalty). 20 The most ancient form of the challenge and of the beheading is in Fled Bricrend, an Irish legend (CHI, vol. I, 327–8). 21 The game of beheading and the parallel exchanges are anthropologically derived from the Celtic tradition.

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Adam who resists her; she has a kind of alias or double in the horrible, evil ‘Morgan le Fay’, who may be meant as her even more seductive metamorphosis, to enable her to be a more formidable temptress. The temptation of the three kisses recalls the betrayal in Gethsemane; they are kisses received from a Judas and, due to human weakness, returned. Confirming the allusion to the Sanhedrin, ‘bi þat þe coke hade crowez and cakled bot þryse’.22 Gawain yields and compromises, accepting the belt, which he believes to be magical and capable of saving his life, above all promising not to say anything to anybody. The unnamed fellow traveller, who attempts to deter Gawain from his deadly combat against the Green Knight, reminds one of Herod trying to persuade the three Wise Men to follow his directions, or could be taken as a stand-in for Satan tempting Jesus in the wilderness. Nonetheless, Gawain’s staggering adventures, that keep the reader holding his or her breath, prove, in the last stanzas, to be one of those colossal hoaxes or jokes that English theological literature was to be so full of. 23 5. At the court in Camelot, all the knights of the Round Table beam joyfully, thanks to the new golden age and dance, drink toasts and celebrate as the thanes had done in Beowulf ’s mead-hall. Nonetheless, a series of imperceptible signals warns us of a measure of Ariosto-like naïvety. Arthur is slightly ridiculous or, at least, childishly stubborn, refusing to dine, unless he can listen to a marvellous tale of a challenge between knights. As nobody accepts the challenge thrown down by the newly arrived and gigantic Green Knight,24 Arthur himself boldly comes forward, but Gawain intervenes 22

‘the cock had croaked and cried only three times’. The scriptural quotations and allusions attributed to the Gawain poet are everywhere and it is somewhat surprising that they are not generally noticed, even in R. Neuhauser, ‘Sources II: Scriptural and Devotional Sources’, in Brewer and Gibson 1997, 257–75. 23 See for instance the joke woven by Chesterton in The Man Who Was Thursday (Volume 7, § 45.2). 24 D. Brewer, ‘The Colour Green’, in Brewer and Gibson 1997, 181–90, after a very learned analysis of current opinions, reaches the astonishing conclusion that the meaning of this colour is ‘to be found in a wide range of possibilities’ and confirms the variability or perhaps even ‘the inexistence of its implications’ (190). The first later titles that spring to mind are The Green Child, Herbert Read’s only novel, and The Green Knight by Iris Murdoch (Volume 7, § 68.4 n. 11, and Volume 8, § 150.6).

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and takes the king’s place. From this point onwards, Gawain will take on a disarmingly ingenuous, slightly mentally retarded role.25 The way he hacks off the knight’s head is told in chilling, anatomical detail; the green knight takes his leave, by causing his own chopped off head to speak, while he grasps it, dangling from its green locks, as a puppeteer holds a puppet.26 There is no getting away from the fact that the pact governing the duel between Gawain and the Knight is absolutely senseless, as per the canons of medieval marvellous tale-telling, and even more senseless, if modern canons, regulating our contemporary conscience, are taken into account. If an axe blow is properly given, no second blow can be returned. Just as Arthur cultivates and controls his suspension of disbelief, the narrator pretends to consider the stupid, senseless rules as sacred. Chrétien27 teaches us how common it was for knights to conceal their names, and Gawain, who does not know his challenger’s name, also accepts a deadly riddle: to get himself killed, he will have to wander, without any indications, searching for the green knight’s abode, exactly one year after their first encounter. A few wise members of the court lament that he is fated to unavoidable death, but Gawain himself proclaims valiantly that he would rather die, than give up his mission. Once the initial scene has been told, the pace of the tale speeds up, summing up various valorous and miraculous deeds, such as for instance a fight against dragons, which Gawain carries out on his way towards the Green Chapel. When he reaches a castle, which he has been told is very near his destination, one is impressed by a kind of I agree with S. N. Brody in MAR, vol. I, 168–74, who draws attention to the author’s aporias, uncertainties, incongruities and deliberate ambiguities recalling those in Chaucer’s Troilus in emphasizing the diminishing credibility of romances towards the end of the fourteenth century. In this context, some have even argued that Gawain can be defined an ‘anti-romance’. 26 The holly shown by the Green Knight upon his arrival is not mentioned in the following stanzas. His gigantic axe too is left with Arthur when he departs, and is eyed by the courtiers with religious awe. Gawain does not take the axe with him when, a year later, he leaves for the Chapel; he only bears his sword and lance, as he does not intend to fight, but merely offer himself to be beheaded. The axe, with which the Knight threatens to chop off Gawain’s head, is of a new, Danish kind. 27 As in this poet’s chronicles, Gawain’s horse is called Gringolet. 25

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atmosphere that will be imitated28 by Keats in his ‘The Eve of St Agnes’ and by Coleridge in Christabel, as the beautiful chatelaine and wife of the hospitable lord of the castle is accompanied by a sinister, unsightly old hag. Exchanging secret signals, Gawain and the lord of the castle, who knows the way to the Green Chapel, establish a pact to exchange what they will hunt down over the next three days with each other. The stay at the castle, which threatens to distract Gawain from his mission and even cause him to forget it altogether, thus overstepping the time by which it has to be accomplished, is the only overlong episode in the whole tale. It is meant to show us the immaturity of a hero who is fully human, and thus, not, or at least less, heroic. In the meantime, Gawain is fast asleep, rather than mustering all his inner reserves to tackle the forthcoming duel, and the chatelaine enters his room and unashamedly offers herself to him. This temptation is repeated on two successive nights and Gawain, in a semi-unconscious state, resists her overtures with great difficulty, only accepting her burning kisses. The hunts are simultaneous and parallel: one is real, the other figurative. In the figurative hunt, the tone is no longer epic, but farcical. On the third night, the semi-naked, very provocative chatelaine attempts a third assault and, after being again repulsed, gives Gawain a belt which is supposed to endow whoever wears it with magical powers. This scene, too, has comical and farcical undertones, as Gawain has no gift to give her in exchange, as he had left Arthur’s court without baggage or attendants. On his way to the Chapel, he is vainly dissuaded and refuses the possibility of becoming a ‘cowardly knight’. For the first time he suspects that a little hill with two mysterious clefts might be the cavern of a devil, which he has been drawn to. The atmosphere is like, or perhaps parodies, the death combat between Beowulf and the monsters, when Gawain, trusting in God, offers his head to the Green Knight, who has arrived. Gawain, at least, has enough common sense to dodge the knight’s blow, as if realizing, at the last moment, how absurd the trial is. When the second blow barely touches him, the Green Knight suddenly changes his aspect and reveals that he is actually Sir Bertilak, who blames him for the kisses Gawain had given his 28 This is a kind of optical illusion, as both Romantic poets composed their works before the first publication of this poem. It can be termed a topos, or shared theme.

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wife and for accepting the belt she had given Gawain. He has returned feigned, punitive blows for the kisses Gawain had accepted from his wife, as their mutual pact of exchanging the results of their hunting expeditions had established.29 Sir Bertilak thus reveals himself as a kind of good magician, who ordered his wife to give Gawain the belt to make him believe that it was magical. Wisely, he excuses Gawain for having moved his neck to save his life. Gawain has committed venial sins, merely in thought, but he also recognizes that uncontrolled erotic impulses can affect upright behaviour and offers himself to be killed. Sir Bertilak forgives him, admonishing him that the Gospel orders mankind to follow the law of forgiveness. In the course of the rapid conclusion, Gawain censures the ‘Ewig-Weibliche’ that had damned Adam, Samson and Solomon. Morgan le Fay, in an evidently Manichaean plan, is a diabolical principle and agent, which man can limit, but not eliminate. She has the Mephistophelian task of causing good men to stray from the right path (although she only means to frighten Guinevere). When Gawain begs him to explain, Sir Bertilak reveals that he had been transformed by Morgan le Fay into the terrible Green Knight and had been sent to put to the test the resolution and valour of the knights of the Round Table. She was the ugly old hag seen at the court. Gawain returns to King Arthur, where he is triumphally welcomed and all the knights decide to wear a green belt to honour his valour.30 6. The alliterative, secular, salty Wynnere and Wastoure31 (believed to be composed around 1352 because of internal evidence, and attributed to a North-West Midland author), unfolds simulating the device of the ‘mask of age’, that is begins with a general remark on the degeneration of current times. There are allusions or clearly defined descriptions of historical facts such as the Black Death of 1348. Adopting the overused contrivance of a dream, the author imagines the saver and the waster before a king in judgement in his tent, where each of them presents the reasons justifying their opposite choices. No verdict is forthcoming, as the poem was 29 Whenever he returns from hunting, Gawain always embraces and kisses Sir Bertilak. 30 This close may be a celebration of the recent institution (1354) of the Order of the Garter. 31 The Saver and the Waster.

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interrupted after 500 lines. Apart from the theme that is being debated and the historical aspects, Wynnere and Wastoure offers a rich variety, even bordering on unnecessary prolixity, of descriptions, such as those of the legendary armour, of the helmets surmounted by fantastic tableaux, of the pastimes, of the guzzling and even of the types of food and game; so that one is given a vivid, detailed, realistic portrayal of life in the busy town taverns. The prologue of the twin poem The Parlement of the Thre Ages32 predictably consists in the description of a hunter’s careful arrangements to hunt fallow deer on a traditionally radiant May morning, when he suddenly has a kind of vision-like dream in which he, too, is visited by three picturesque beings, representing the three ages of man. The poem ends and Old Age ventures into a wide-ranging account of historical anecdotes, in order to prove that death is invincible. § 13. Gower* Born into a well-to-do family in Kent (but of Yorkshire origins), a tradesman, financial speculator, estate agent, man of law and the owner 33

32

‘Parliament’ in the sense of ‘debate’, or débat.

*

Complete Works, ed. G. C. Macaulay, 4 vols, Oxford 1899–1902. An edition of Confessio Amantis in verse and in modern English (abridged by a third) is edited by T. Tiller, Harmondsworth 1963; there is another edition by R. A. Peck, Toronto 1980. The Major Latin Works of John Gower, ed. E. W. Stockton, Seattle, WA 1962; Selections from John Gower, ed. J. A. W. Bennett, Oxford 1968. G. G. Fox, The Mediaeval Sciences in the Works of John Gower, Princeton, NJ 1931; LEW, 198–222 (Gower as the master of plain style, synthesis, non-inclusion, an accomplished chiseller of verse, with a poor sense of vision, but skilled in intensive narrative; the eternal poet of the allegory of love: pages now slightly outdated on the ‘parallelism between erotic and moral law’, elegantly contested in the book quoted below by Fisher 1965, chapter IV, 135–204); M. Wickert, Studien zu John Gower, Köln 1953; J. Fisher, John Gower: Moral Philosopher and Friend of Chaucer, London 1965 (overburdened by an archival, bibliographical and documentary approach, rather than an attempt to interpret the work; argues that the objective of Confessio Amantis is to show that ‘unity and national peace can be fostered by love, under the guidance of a king’, rather than the ‘disavowal of romantic love’ [192]); BRP, passim; P. J. Gallacher, Love, the Word, and Mercury: A Reading of John Gower’s ‘Confessio Amantis’, Albuquerque, NM 1975;

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of two manors, John Gower (ca. 1330–1408) was sufficiently leisured to become acquainted with most of the cultural environment of his times. He became a very gifted linguist, an erudite bibliophile and the compiler of three imposing and (of their kind) important works, illustrious within their particular genre. Having taken up residence in London towards the end of the 1370s in the suburb of Southwark, he became friendly with Chaucer, who gave him power of attorney over his affairs during one of his absences and paid him affectionate – and humorous – homage in his works. We also know that he married a certain Agnes, perhaps his second wife and probably his nurse when he lost his sight in his old age. He was buried in Southwark Priory (now Southwark Cathedral), where his tomb is surmounted by a recumbent statue of him, his head supported by the three books that made him famous. Gower’s literary trilingualism, a primacy unrivalled even by Joyce or Beckett, is not synchronic, but subsequent, and to some extent ascensional: from French to Latin and then to English, in that order. Written in a somewhat artificial Anglo-Norman, far removed from Parisian French, is his Mirour de l’Omme, also known by the title of Speculum meditantis, unearthed as late as 1895 and handed down to us in a single manuscript. This encyclopaedic work is dedicated to man’s moral and religious life and shows the path to salvation. Its allegorical and prophetic narrative is based on the contest between the devil and human conscience for supremacy over man, who is redeemable through the exercise of his free will. This skeletal frame is padded out with a complex convolution of details and sub-specifications.1 His Vox clamantis in Latin, dated 1382, and based on Wat Tyler’s Peasants’ Revolt of the previD. Pearsall, ‘Gower’s Narrative Art’, PMLA, 81 (1966), 475–84, and Gower and Lydgate, Harlow 1969, 5–22; Gower’s Confessio Amantis: Responses and Reassessments, ed. A. J. Minnis, Cambridge 1983; R. F. Yeager, John Gower’s Poetic: The Search for a New Arion, Woodbridge 1990; K. Ollson, John Gower and the Structures of Conversion: A Reading of the Confessio Amantis, Cambridge 1992; D. Watt, Amoral Gower: Language, Sex, and Politics, Minneapolis, MN 2003. 1

Another work written in Anglo-Norman is Cinkante Balades, dedicated to King Henry IV. This work is more widely known, and often more highly acclaimed, than Gower’s other less significant and marginal works.

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ous year, focuses on a second tangible example of decadence in history, while presaging the ominous future lying in store for the nation unless it repents. The tone is that of a Ruskin ante litteram.2 The two versions of this poem3 reveal a change in Gower’s political and moral attitude: the first apparently absolves King Richard II of all responsibility; the second holds him accountable, while hailing his successor Henry IV as the saviour of the world. This uncompromising apocalyptic moralism is mitigated in Confessio Amantis, although Gower’s good-natured disposition is to be taken with a pinch of salt. His cantankerous nature had, in the meanwhile, become known to the public ever since Chaucer’s understatement – ‘moral Gower’ – had made it clear that his friend had his phobias and bêtes noires, for instance lawyers and Lollards. He was what we would term nowadays a right-wing intellectual. A typical country squire whose income from his estates provided him with a comfortable living, he strenuously opposed any kind of change or subversion of the established order. 4 No courtier, and a man not actively engaged in court life, he enjoyed a virtually unlimited intellectual independence. 2. Confessio amantis is Gower’s most important work for our purposes, inasmuch as it was written in Middle English and in the variety spoken in London, despite Praz’s insistence on Vox clamantis being his best work, in the light of the tribute paid to the latter by Legouis and Cazamian. Highly popular, it was handed down in forty-nine illuminated manuscripts,5 and printed by Caxton in the late fifteenth century. According to the Prologue, the work was devised in a single day, when King Richard invited the poet to enter the royal barge on the Thames and suggested the theme of the poem, 2 3 4 5

Specifically of the two ‘Storm cloud’ lectures (Volume 6, § 48.3–4). We hardly need to add that Gower’s title echoes St John the Baptist’s voice ‘crying out in the desert’. Gower was a ‘constant reviser’ (Pearsall 1969, 9), as is also confirmed by C. S. Lewis (LEW, 204). Cf., in Fisher 1965, 97, the view of Gower as an ‘excellent topic for a Marxist analysis’ of the up-and-coming bourgeoisie. On the basis of these manuscripts, we can date a first version in 1390, a second in 1392–1393. The third, as I am saying, deleted a few laudatory lines dedicated to Chaucer. The text reproduced in the Macaulay edition follows the Fairfax 3 MS. On this issue cf. Fisher 1965, in particular 125–6.

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lamenting the scarcity of poets writing in ‘our English’. Gower, heartened by Chaucer’s success, welcomed the proposal not only with determination but also with enthusiasm, and composed a poem of over 3,000 lines, the first version of which dates from 1390. As in Chaucer, the structure follows that of Boccaccio’s masterpiece, with a narrative frame comprising approximately 100 tales presented as exempla. According to the convention of the period, an elderly lover approaches Venus, who directs him to confessor Genius, who guides him through a highly complex process of soul-searching and, at the end of an unbelievably lengthy sitting, purifies and vaccinates him, that is, makes him adept at spiritual, Stilnovo-like love. However, the frame adopted by Boccaccio merges with a second, native and far from obsolete tradition, both in prose and in poetry, of the ‘pricks’ and ‘pangs’ of conscience described in the manuals of good conduct, in the hermits’ handbooks and in the manuel des pechiez. The priest confesses and absolves the lover singling out each of the seven deadly sins and calling attention to a vast range of other key issues and disputes in medieval philosophy (such as – and above all – the duties of a ruler). Love, even sensual passion, has its legitimate place in Christian life. This was endorsed even in mystical treatises, on condition that it remained subservient to the sovereignty of the established order, namely to self-control in every human sphere, and provided that it acknowledged the divine principle of universal harmony. The analogy with Pearl and with the poems attributed to the Pearl and Gawain poet is highlighted in the eighth and final book, when Venus gives the aged penitent a rosary of black pearls bearing the letters Por reposer; at this stage, the poem pays further homage to the classic genre of the ‘dream’ and to the Roman de la Rose. Having now regained his senses, the old man counts the pearls, the symbols of purity and of his newly attained clannesse. The didactic intent, the overt and prolix allegorism, the implausibility of the frame and the chaotic accumulation of the exempla are among the reasons why Gower was subsequently underrated, scaled down or even harshly criticized as compared with Chaucer, thus settling the debate as to who should claim the title of the first poet in the lyrical tradition to succeed in leaving the earliest emblems of an English linguistic and literary consciousness. Gower, like Chaucer, is indeed a poet endowed with literary consciousness. He did not choose to conceal his name when he wrote Confessio amantis. It is no coincidence that his works, all meticulously handed down to posterity in their final, revised form, carry humorous Latin titles and

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sub-titles in the form of syntagmatic and syntactic parallelisms (noun plus genitive). He certainly was less talented and less entertaining than Chaucer. In a handful of lines omitted in his second edition, he has Venus applaud Chaucer, the poet of love; Chaucer, in turn, refers to Gower as a licentious poet in the Canterbury Tales.6 It is hard to say how they influenced each other but, in all probability, this was a two-way process. Gower lacks all sense of proportion; his story-telling flows smoothly, yet he is incapable of – or maybe he is not interested in – creating true-to-life characters. From a metrical point of view, the iambic tetrameter is endlessly and tediously repeated without any rhythmic break. Yet it cannot be denied that Gower is a central figure in English literature for having enriched it with a certain amount of inspirational material, as well as an encyclopaedia of medieval ‘lore’.7 Is his Confessio amantis of the same nature as the compilations, the miscellanies of the type of Brunetto Latini’s Tesoretto,8 or of those of Orosius or Burton,9 which encompass medieval culture in its entirety? The fact that two centuries later Shakespeare drew from Gower the subject matter for his Pericles, and made the poet the mouthpiece of his prologues to each act, guides us towards a different opinion and appreciation. The paradigm of separation, division and disunity in Gower is extended towards human personality and becomes a kind of psychic foundation. After the Prologue, the eight books investigate the various forms and phenomenologies of disharmony. This is where the novelty of Gower resides: he heralds Shakespeare in his morbid probing – almost as if he had already undergone the same experience himself – of the abysses of the psyche, reminding us of the general opinion that Shakespeare was the first to explore man’s innermost recesses. The poem begins explicitly with an investigation into 6 The exempla at times outstep the boundaries of the bawdy, though these are extreme cases described to prove moral truths. Ifis, for example, is a girl who is married to another woman, and the two sleep in the same bed for some time. Cephalus begs the gods to prolong the night, while Aurora lies naked in his arms, and Gower agrees that he is right. 7 It is no mean task to have gathered together an English catalogue of tales that include Pyramus and Thisbe, Hercules and Dejanira, Narcissus, Acteon, Theseus and Philomela. 8 This work is considered to be the origin of the seventh book (CHI, vol. II, 149 n. 1). 9 In Book III, melancholy is dubbed one of the forms of anger and the penitent is provided with maxims, proverbs and medical diagnoses.

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the dynamics, physiology and phenomenology of pride and envy, the fourth book being dedicated to avarice and the eighth to fornication. These are essentially the self-same impulses that trigger Shakespeare’s tragedies. 3. From the opening words of the Prologue, Gower makes it clear that he intends to dissociate himself from the homiletic and didactic tradition, opting for a middle ground, so as not to unduly tire his readers: he proposes to put into practice the Horatian formula of combining moral profit with pleasure. Furthermore, like Dante, he believes in the progressive decadence of history, which can only be redeemed by a regeneration enacted by a new saviour. He is not, therefore, a cyclical thinker. A macroscopic chasm separates an ancient Golden Age from the present time, more precisely the sixteenth year in the reign of Richard II (which, incidentally, enables us to attribute a reliable date to the poem). Historiography has the task of identifying the virtues of the righteous in the past, and to impart their upright behaviour to the present generation, with a view to counteracting its evil. However, the cause of this progressive decadence is something known only to God. Therefore the Prologue launches an indictment against political, moral and above all ecclesiastical degeneration, accusations which were fairly widespread towards the end of the fourteenth century. Such degeneration is to be attributed to the triumph of hatred over love and of disorder over order. There is a Dantean echo, restrained yet pungent, especially in his censure of the Church and clerics guilty of simony, and in his nostalgic veneration of primitive Christianity, poor and without apparatuses.10 Gower’s anger tends to overstep the mark as he mercilessly attacks them (we are in the period of the Great Schism of Avignon). The criticism levelled at the Lollards and at the absolute primacy of the Bible is equally as biting: ‘It were betre dike and delve / And stonde upon the ryhte feith, / Than knowe al that the bible seith / And erre as somme clerkes do’.11 When Gower casts doubts on the chastity of the clergy, and accuses them of a series of other vices, he is echoing Langland to the letter. Gower is not exactly a fatalist, but a follower of the voluntaristic school of thought: the world does not fall apart 10 The example of King Midas seems to be applicable to the criticism of monetary economics, and to approve the principle of exchange in kind. 11 ‘Better one who digs and delves / And who has never erred in his faith / Than one who knows the Bible word for word / And goes wrong, as some clerks do’.

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by chance, but due to the weak will of those who have the power to rectify it. Thus, throughout the course of history, the ‘golden world’ of the history of Israel was followed by a succession of ages of metals that are less and less noble. The commandments and practice of the good governor are laid down and discussed in the seventh book of the poem in the form of a report on the education of Alexander the Great by Aristotle. The frame of the poem can hardly be acquitted from the accusation of being inelegant, pretentious and passively reproduced from the models in circulation. Where, and how, and in how many sessions does this endless confession take place? No information is provided as regards the time and place, also because rites and myths are inevitably devoid of these. As for the month, however, this is certainly May, when the birds are chirping, and Gower enters a wood. He is in the throes of the sorrows of love, because a medieval courtly ‘lover’ is, by definition, desperate and yearning. Strangely enough, it is Venus herself who directs Gower towards the confessor Genius. The contradiction is blatantly obvious and, indeed, the poet’s aim is twofold: first of all to set up a debate centred on human vices and to foster deterrence from them, and secondly to create the identikit of the spiritual lover.12 Gower constructs and personalizes, in an embryonic phase, a dramatic and cathartic mechanism, inspired by the nascent dramatic genre of the morality play. The confession takes the form of a dialogue between the two hypostases of a confessor on the one hand and a penitent on the other. The Dantesque trail is undeniable: the confessor plays the role of a Virgil, who answers in great detail all his pupil’s theoretical questions, dispels his doubts and solves his perplexities. The exempla are based on the two typologies (persuasive, but more often dissuasive) employed by Dante; in the second case, they tend to comply, as in the episode of the avaricious ‘Emperor’ Crassus (in Book V, where the Romans pour molten gold into his throat) with the Dantean contrappasso or fitting punishment. Critics generally agree that Gower lacks the typically English sense of humour, yet the hoary penitent provides comical relief when he persistently protests his innocence and lack of involvement in the most grievous and contemptible sins. The exempla are derived from a plethora of sources, in primis from the Bible, history, legend and above all mythology, with Ovid as an inexhaustible

12

Pearsall 1969, 13.

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provision.13 Thus they reflect a certain amount of variation within the range of the marvellous, the metamorphic, the sensational, the fabulous, the picturesque, the pathetic or simply of everyday routine. However, Gower also invents a few simple and successful folktales of his own, as well as a few crisp, outspoken apologias, such as the story of Bardus, the poor carter (Book V) who saves the life of a rich man by pulling him out of a pit. The rich man is by no means grateful, yet Bardus will be rewarded by the monkey and the snake, also rescued by him. Every capital vice is introduced in general terms, and the range of cases is subsequently extended to encompass human love: for instance, a man can be literally intoxicated but also intoxicated with love. Gower’s ‘lover’ thus takes on features and contours that herald the perfect and impeccable knight as the embodiment of courtly manners, that is Castiglione’s courtier or the Renaissance gentleman. Gentilesse is not an innate quality, but fit, that is to say, it can be acquired.14 § 14. Langland* Legends and common opinion are clearly divided on the issue of the author of the poem Piers Plowman, conventionally assumed to be 15

13

14

*

The Greek subject matter is drawn from non-Homeric sources, for instance the Roman de Troie, with the amalgamation of various other apocryphal and bizarre episodes. A few anecdotes on wit and the ability to escape from difficult situations, such as an episode concerning Socrates, are derived from Boccaccio. The Testament of Love by Thomas Usk, who was executed in 1388, also describes, in an idiosyncratic, contorted, obscure and at the same time rhetorical style that foreshadows Euphuism, an ambivalent conception of love, the woman being as both a concrete terrestrial entity and an allegory of love. Historical edition of the three versions A, B and C, ed. W. W. Skeat, 2 vols, Oxford 1886, 1965; the B-text, the most popular of the three (and the one I follow here), is edited by A. V. C. Schmidt, London 1978 and 1987; the C-text by D. Pearsall, London 1978; a fourth text, termed Z, anterior to text A, is edited by A. G. Rigg and C. Brewer, Toronto 1983. All four texts have now been edited by A. V. C. Schmidt, 3 vols, London and New York 1995–2008. The most up-to-date report on the question of the textual controversies, in which notice is given of an ongoing digital transcription of all the existing manuscripts of the poem, can be found in TLS, 7 October 2011, 27. A translation in modern English is Piers the Ploughman, ed. J. F. Goodridge, Harmondsworth 1959, 1986. J. J. Jusserand, Piers Plowman: A Contribution to the History of English Mysticism, Eng. trans., London 1894; T. P. Dunning, Piers Plowman: An Interpretation of the ‘A’

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William Langland or Langley.1 He is presumed to have been born in 1332 (probably illegitimately) into a family of landowners of humble origins in Shropshire or in Worcestershire, possibly in the town of Ledbury,2 and to have been educated in the mid-west area of the Malvern Hills, where he received a thorough grounding in theology and in the rule of Text, Dublin 1934; D. W. Robertson and B. F. Huppé, Piers Plowman and Scriptural Tradition, Princeton, NJ 1951; R. W. Frank, Piers Plowman and the Scheme of Salvation, New Haven, CT 1957; M. W. Bloomfield, Piers Plowman as a Fourteenth-Century Apocalypse, New Brunswick, NJ 1962; J. Lawlor, Piers Plowman: An Essay in Criticism, London 1962 (a weighty, authoritative essay, meticulously subdivided into paraphrase and commentary and an extremely detailed general framework); E. Salter, Piers Plowman: An Introduction, Oxford 1962, 1969; N. Coghill, Langland: Piers Plowman, London 1964 (an attempt at collating the three manuscripts); Interpretations of Piers Plowman, ed. E. Vasta, Notre Dame, IN 1968; Style and Symbolism in Piers Plowman, ed. R. J. Blanch, Knoxville, TN 1969; Piers Plowman: Critical Approaches, ed. S. S. Hussey, London 1969; P. Calì, Allegory and Vision in Dante and Langland, Cork 1971; E. D. Kirk, The Dream Thought of Piers Plowman, New Haven, CT and London 1972; D. Aers, Piers Plowman and Christian Allegory, London 1975; D. Lets, Piers Plowman and Christian Allegory, London 1975; P. Martin, Piers Plowman: The Field and the Tower, London 1979; M. E. Goldsmith, The Figure of Piers Plowman, Cambridge 1981; A. P. Baldwin, The Theme of Government in Piers Plowman, Cambridge 1981; J. Coleman, Piers Plowman and the ‘Moderni’, Roma 1981; M. Stokes, Justice and Mercy in Piers Plowman, London 1984; A Companion to Piers Plowman, ed. J. A. Alford, Berkeley, CA 1988; H. White, Nature and Salvation in Piers Plowman, Cambridge 1988; W. Scase, Piers Plowman and the New Anticlericalism, Cambridge 1989; M. Godden, The Making of Piers Plowman, London 1990; J. Simpson, Piers Plowman: An Introduction to the B-Text, London 1990; T. L. Steinberg, ‘Piers Plowman’ and Prophecy: An Approach to the C-Text, New York and London 1991; L.-A. Crowley, The Quest for Holiness: Spenser’s Debt to Langland, Milano 1992; J. S. Wittig, William Langland Revisited, Boston, MA 1997; J. M. Bowers, Chaucer and Langland: The Antagonistic Tradition, Notre Dame, IN 2007; S. A. Kelen, Langland’s Early Modern Identities, New York 2007; L. Warner, The Lost History of Piers Plowman, Philadelphia, PA 2011; S. Wood, Conscience and The Composition of ‘Piers Plowman’, Oxford 2012. 1

2

His nickname, Longe Wille, was due to his height and thinness; his surname, which similarly means ‘long field’, possibly originated from his place of birth. He was in the habit of dressing in beggars’ clothing and was considered mad or bizarre by some, due to his irreverent attitude towards those in power. Both references are included in the poem, in the opening lines of Passus XV. As conjectured by Coghill 1964, 12–13, by virtue of the interrelation of the surrounding landscape and the magical atmosphere described in the opening of the poem.

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St Benedict at the local monastery. He took minor orders, without however embracing the priesthood,3 and may have died in 1387 or, according to other sources, in 1400, in London, where he had emigrated and lived in poverty with his wife and daughter, working as a clerk and topping up his meagre income by reciting prayers in the funeral ceremonies of the wellto-do. Piers Plowman, the only work attributed to him, enjoyed enormous popularity at the time, as attested by the over fifty manuscripts handed down to us of the three versions, labelled A, B and C by the philologist Skeat, and approximately dating respectively from 1367 (certainly not prior to 1362),4 1377–1379, and from 1385–1386. Thus Langland, an author unius libri,5 devoted his entire life to the revision and amplification of the poem. Nevertheless, not all scholars are unanimous in attributing it to just one author: some consider the work to be the fruit of as many as five different writers, among whom a certain John But.6 However, it was not until 1813 that the poem was reprinted after 1561.7 The period in which the poem was composed (around 1380, and subsequently during the last two decades of the fourteenth century) coincided with the first revolutionary or reform movement within the Church and in society. On the literary front, this atmosphere of innovation is echoed in Piers Plowman. In an unprecedented attack on the hierarchical structure of the Church, the author fervently defends the need for an austere, unadorned religion, launching the same accusations that were destined over the centuries to become constant in the literature of religious dissent, from the Reformation up to the present time. More precisely, the poem is linked to Wyclif and the Lollards and to the 1381 uprising, and it is no coincidence that the hero in the title is a 3 4 5 6 7

This has been explained by some as a sudden lack of resources on the part of his family for his upkeep in the convent. Coghill 1964, 16–17, on the other hand, suggests that Langland felt unworthy of the priesthood due to his resurgent sensuality. This is substantiated by an internal reference to a cyclone, later to become proverbial, on Saturday, 15 January 1362. Critics are unanimous in affirming that Langland is not the author of Piers Plowman’s Creed; however, in all probability, he is the author of a second alliterative poem, Richard the Redeless, on the deposition of the king of the same name. Coghill 1964, 8. However, this opinion, advanced in particular by J. M. Manly in his chapter on the poem in CHI, vol. II, 1–48, is now discredited. 1st edn Crowley, 1551.

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‘ploughman’, although he is not the protagonist of the poem. Moreover, the ferocious attack on the thirst for riches, and the consequent exaltation of material poverty, was the dominant theme of the preachings of the mendicant orders.8 The author is not, however, in favour of the king being dethroned; he simply urges him to play an active role, in the same way that the workers of the fields should refrain from laziness and indolence. Virtually all – or at least most of – Langland’s vision is centred on the supremacy of St Paul’s notion of charity, as expressed in the famous passage in 1 Cor. 13, 1,9 and on the suppression of avarice and ecclesiastical and political simony. In the field of human vices and in their ideal order of succession, the first figure on the scene is Lady Mede, whose alter ego is gain or profit, the worst of all the iniquities afflicting the world. The first part of the poem reaches its climax in the dispute on forgiveness: Piers, already a righteous man, is made to believe that he is in need of a written pardon in order to gain salvation, but he becomes suspicious and tears up the paper. The formal knowledge of the Law and of the Scriptures is inferior to love, charity and honesty. What counts is conscience, genuine integrity and concrete deeds, and this is the reason why the second part of the poem hinges on the ways in which salvation can be attained. Piers is the embodiment of an innate form of religion based on a genuine sense of unpretentiousness and integrity, viewed as an anchor against the winds of change or degeneration. In one of his aspects he is the ‘good sower’, whose task is to keep his fields free from certain weeds, as well as the owner of the vineyard who employs his labourers in the Gospels. Will the dreamer and Piers the ploughman (his mirror-like self ) are two figures destined to acquire popularity in English literature as the first two clear-cut embodiments of the honest and upright citizen, the enemy of verbal ploys, only to a certain extent naїve, and a sort of opening link in the chain of the ingénus or of the ‘intelligent artisans’.10 Nevertheless, Piers Plowman is not a ‘comedy’,

8 9 10

St Francis and St Dominic are mentioned in XX, 251–2. Cf. Calì 1971, 126 n. 11, and 120 n. 3, where the critic’s just observation that ‘Fides sine operibus mortua est’ can be considered to sum up the intent of the poem. Lawlor 1962, 219.

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however much it may engage and debate with Dante.11 Langland is an obsessed, tormented soul, whose temperamental disposition infuses into the poem the rancour of the social nonconformist, instinctively suspicious of all highly professional categories, and convinced that the world is corrupt and rank. Thus Piers Plowman becomes an open-ended poem packed with suspense of an allegorical and theological nature by virtue of sudden, unexpected turns of events. The final victory of Good is apparently a foregone conclusion, while it is always at risk, and, with a lash of his tail, the Devil, or Antichrist, returns in full force to undermine the unity of the Church. In the end, Piers the ploughman, the human and superhuman hero, the hypostasis of the incarnate Christ, disappears off stage. The curtain falls upon this absent saviour, who leaves humanity – now at the mercy of the forces of evil – to fend for itself. Langland may not be a Protestant in pectore, as some have said, but he is perhaps already an existentialist contemplating a destabilized world and a decadent or lapsed humanity. He composes a genuine parable of the fall of the human condition from grace. 2. The language in Piers Plowman, purged of the last traces of refined Norman French, is alliterative, rugged, zesty, akin to the one of the common people that had been Anglo-Saxon. For all that, Piers is far from being easily accessible; on the contrary it is structurally unwieldy, repetitive in its subject-matter, and overflowing with abstruse erudition. It is a hotchpotch of allegories, a pot-pourri of quotations from the Bible and the Scriptures, an avalanche of aphorisms foreshadowing Robert Burton’s famous compilation. C. S. Lewis justly remarked12 that Langland ‘hardly makes his poetry into a poem’, and that Piers pales in comparison with Chaucer’s exemplary clarity. The three versions of the poem tend to become longer and longer due to the subsequent elaborations. Texts A and B undergo minimum variations until the twelfth Passus, which generates a sequence twice as lengthy as the first part. It can be argued that all three versions are the work of the same author; however, at times, the clarity and lucidity of the

11

More precisely, critics are divided on the hypothesis that Langland had read Dante. The poem is mainly influenced by certain types of French poetry on states of trance, such as Guillaume de Deguileville’s Pèlerinage de la vie humaine, dating from the beginning of the fourteenth century. 12 LEW, 161.

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text become so compromised as to justify those critics who accuse Piers of blatant incoherence. As laconically stated by J. J. Jusserand,13 ‘[Langland] est la victime et non le maître de sa pensée’. Stifled by its allegory and abstract personifications, Piers is devoid of any element of descriptivism or naturalism, nor does it venture to attain these. For this reason, in spite of the linguistic dissimilarities, it is more akin to Gower’s poem. The frame of a confession or of a maieutic dialogue, albeit within the illusion of a dream, appears to be a constant in fourteenth-century literature. Whereas Gower copiously exploited – or was to exploit – the mythological and literary exemplum in his most important compilation, Langland rarely indulges in this practice.14 However, Langland is even more well versed in quotations from the Scriptures and knows by heart entire sections of the Bible, which leads him to embellish his scriptural Latin quotations with a variety of popular aphorisms. The consequence is inevitably the usual interlinguistic medley. Gower’s diachronic succession of French, Latin and English is adopted and implemented synchronically by Langland, as he touches upon – in a pre-Joycean approach, that is to say, simultaneously – the registers of the three parallel languages of the period, and he grafts the Bible in Latin, together with the odd word or two in French, onto the broad substratum of the English language. In some cases, the end product constitutes a highly suggestive pastiche, with certain lines verging on the macaronic, such as the following: ‘For “quant OPORTET vient en place il ny ad que PATI”’.15 3. Due to the fact that medieval allegory in England died out as late as the end of the seventeenth century, Langland’s name has been automatically associated with a number of authors, and his writings have generated a stream of echoes and reverberations up to and including Bunyan (for Bunyan is, undoubtedly, the next link in the chain). For the same reason, with the decline of the genre after the end of the seventeenth century, he became – and remained – unpopular for two whole centuries. The 13 Quoted in CHI, vol. II, 24. 14 When Langland does not avail himself of mythology as a source of examples, he occasionally ventures into legendary and anecdotal explanations, such as in the legend of Mohammed and the dove in Passus XV. 15 X, 436. On the links with the fourteenth-century macaronic tradition cf. Schmidt 1987, xxxi.

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contemporary debate as to the purely literary merits of the poem, which critics generally consider to be rather limited, has been soon closed, whereas focus has been placed on other issues concerning the sources as well as the cultural and historical setting. Such issues include the importance of the philosophical debate and of its propagators as filtered through Langland’s vision; the legal theories of the period; the political and ideological ambiguities in the poem, which could – and still can – be considered as defending the status quo, while at the same time supporting the Lollards and the peasants.16 In this way, Piers has been downgraded to an instrumental and documentary text. As a result, we tend to overlook the fact that Piers Plowman embodies the greatest theological poem in the whole of English literature and is second only to Paradise Lost, inasmuch as both seek to ‘justify the ways of God to men’, both allegorize the contest between Christ and Satan and both reject the embellishments of rhyme in favour of the powerful expressiveness of the four-beat alliterative line, or of blank verse. The opening of the poem is a blaze of visionary and oneiric verse suggesting a deliberate adaptation of Dante,17 whose poem had been brought to a close approximately half a century earlier.18 The allegorical landscape – a tower, a dungeon and a field, albeit in the absence of the three wild beasts – is a clear and conspicuous variatio on the opening canto of the Inferno, and also Dantesque is Langland’s utopian yearning and dream of a reformed and morally righteous world. Praz refers to Langland as ‘the

16 17 18

Cf. D. Aers, ‘Piers Plowman e le tradizioni di protesta sociale e religiosa’, in MAR, vol. I, 182–206. The explanation of the allegorical vision is given by Lady Holy Church, the epitome of purity: the Tower symbolizes Truth, the Abyss Falsehood, namely the Devil, and the field the whole of mankind. Calì 1971 stages a risky tour de force to demonstrate the existence of a marked parallelism between the two poems by Dante and Langland, despite their essential differences; apart from the vague circumstance that the allegorical remedy remains unvaried – that is to say: know sin in order to defeat sin – the critic’s affirmation that Piers and Beatrice share ‘the same allegorical model’ (131) is particularly mystifying. Calì makes no attempt to clarify whether Langland had actually read Dante or not. Lawlor 1962, 253, says explicitly that Dante and Langland have little in common.

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little democratic Dante’,19 perhaps with the intention of placing emphasis on the word ‘little’, rather than on the word ‘democratic’. The fifty-year time shift did not, however, contribute to making Langland’s allegory a more natural one. It is probably more akin to Nordic allegory, that is to say, still immature and overburdened with detail. In Dante’s case, allegory may be dispensed with: his narrative is readable even within the context of human probability, the balance between the purely doctrinal, the homiletic, the famously deprecated ‘didactic’ and the solely realistic elements being always guaranteed. In Langland this is certainly not the case. Instead of simplifying, he deliberately complicates, amplifies, magnifies and re-opens debates that have already been concluded, thus becoming disorderly and pedantic. Piers remains a largely utopian and visionary figure taking the place of Dante’s ‘greyhound’ (from which Piers probably derives), namely the new legislator, the man sent by providence in the role of the alter Christus contemplated by Dante in order to regenerate Christianity. As in the case of Dante, the point at issue is whether Langland had a particular individual in pectore, or whether Piers was a mere hypostasis. Hopkins20 equated Langland and Chaucer in their defective scanning of verse, due to the oscillation in the pronunciation of the final e of individual words, and he traced in Langland’s poetry the use of ‘triple time’, a variety clarified by him in the letter to which I refer in the footnote. Given that over the years Langland had acquired the fame and stature of the greatest English Catholic poet, Hopkins inevitably felt obliged to voice his opinion not only on metrical issues. A second letter21 encloses an extremely critical peerto-peer assessment, from one religious poet to another. If, in his previous letter, Hopkins had admitted to not having read Piers Plowman, now, in October 1882, he claims to have done so, having reached the conclusion that ‘it is not worth reading’. Nevertheless, having identified in Langland’s work a distant forerunner of his sprung rhythm, the Hopkins of the future sonnet ‘Tom’s Garland’ and of the previous ‘communist letter’ could not but detect in Piers Plowman a foreshadowing of his social thinking – so 19 CLA, vol. II, 55. 20  Letters of Gerard Manley Hopkins to Robert Bridges, Oxford 1935, 107–8. 21 Ibid., 156.

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to speak – as clearly stated in the third Passus, where fair and equitable wages – fair pay, therefore, as opposed to gain and profit – is what oils the wheels of a just society: ‘That laborers and lewede [leodes] taken of hire masters, / It is no mannere mede but a mesurable hire. / In marchaundise is no mede, I may it wel avowe: / It is a permutacion apertly – a penyworth for another’.22 Recompense or reward is not frowned upon, whereas the corruptio of an optimum certainly is. Harry the ploughman in Hopkins’s sonnet of the same title is a direct descendant of Piers.23 Audacious modernist anticipations have even been detected by Gabriele Baldini,24 who notices in the sequence of events in the poem a foreshadowing of the stream of consciousness. That is not all: by its use of multiple styles and languages, and because Piers is in itself a ‘work in progress’, we inevitably end up at Finnegans Wake. Will dreams and, once awake, he narrates the events that took place in his dream; having finished his description, he goes back to sleep and resumes his dream; thus the work becomes a sort of uninterrupted Traumdeutung, the Middle English employed in the narration embodying, as I said, unconscious, subsequent aspects of Joycean macaronism in Finnegans Wake. Langland’s penultimate Passus prefigures a genuine case of oneiric juxtaposition, which is also the theme of the poem, namely that Piers the ploughman and Christ are one and the same person, in the same way that Earwicker embodies a variety of archetypal cyphers: ‘Thus I awaked and wroot what I hadde ydremed, […] In myddes of the masse, tho men yede to offryng, / I fel eftsoones asleepe – and sodeynly me mette / That Piers the Plowman was peynted al blody, / And com in with a cros bifore 22 ‘What labourers and lowly folk obtain from their masters / Is by no means profit, but adequate salary. / There is no gain in commerce, I may well assert that. / It is simply an exchange, one pennyworth for another’. 23 Like Langland, Hopkins also employs personification in his ‘terrible’ sonnets and could also be termed as an allegorical poet: see for example Fury in ‘No worst …’, or Despair in ‘Carrion Comfort’ or Patience in the sonnet of this title. In the second part of the poem Langland occasionally has recourse to extravagant and ‘metaphysical’ arguments which bear a certain similarity to a few passages in Hopkins’s sermons: see for instance the comparison of the Holy Trinity with a hand, its fingers and its palm (XVII, 140ff.). 24 BAL, 140–1.

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the comune peple, / And right lik in alle lymes to Oure Lord Jesu’.25 Critics understandably have a certain amount of difficulty in deciphering the ‘simultaneous identifications’ or the ‘fluctuations’ of Piers, who symbolizes the prophets, Christ, God the Father but, above all, the whole of humanity, like Joyce’s HCE. Just as we witness in Joyce a synchronic overlapping between Finnegan the bricklayer, the giant Finn McCool and Earwicker the innkeeper, Piers the ploughman is a mirror-like idealization of Will the Dreamer and vice versa. Both Langland and Joyce get the titles of their works wrong (Langland’s might have been more suitably entitled Will the Dreamer). ‘Circuitous’, 26 that is to say circular and concentric, is an appropriate term to define Langland’s train of thought. Regrettably, the oneiric visionary inspiration is not adequately elaborated in Langland, and the dream remains a ploy for this most diurnal of eschatological sermons. 4. The unit of measurement within the poem is the passus, an original Latin term coined, quoted and employed as it stands by Langland; the B-text consists of twenty, in addition to a general Prologue. Sequentially, the diegetic unit is the individual vision or the individual dream,27 and the poem narrates the visions dreamt by Will the Dreamer over a period of almost half a century. More precisely, the poem departs from a Prologue and winds through seven Passus, all of which constitute the first part, known as the Vision of Piers Plowman, or Visio; the second part is entitled Vita de Dowel, Dobet, et Dobest (a triad of allegorical personifications interpreted in a wide variety of ways by critics, including the internal characters, which essentially represent subsequent levels, states and stages of the spiritual life) and comprises the remaining thirteen Passus. The dreamer of the visions 25

‘So I awoke and wrote what I had dreamt, […] In the midst of the Mass, while the people were placing their money in the collection box, / I fell asleep once more, and all of a sudden I dreamt / That Piers the ploughman was stained with blood, / And came in with a Cross amongst the common people, / And he was identical to our Lord Jesus in all his limbs’. 26 This is an adjective expressly used by Lawlor 1962 (157, 175 and passim, as well as ‘cyclic’ [228]). He also refers to ‘epiphanies’ (ibid., 162) to define Piers’s sudden apparitions. 27 The poem apparently comprises eight of Will’s visions; Skeat, on the other hand, counted eleven of them. The mystical works of Julian of Norwich (§ 8.4) also consisted of ‘visions’.

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described in the poem – an alter ego of Langland, not exactly Langland himself – dreams that he has embarked on a pilgrimage along these three stages of the gradus. The vision recounted in the Prologue – scenic in structure and of a pictorial nature, portraying a swarming and teeming of subsidiary scenes as in certain paintings by Bosch, Bruegel or Hogarth – is concerned with the multi-faceted humanity of his time. The dreamer’s gaze, which occasionally focuses on the righteous, is however riveted on phenomena of secular ambition, or vanity, but primarily on the economic exploitation of the peasantry and poor people by those in power. Even more prominent is the behaviour of the ruthlessly ambitious clerics and men of the Church. In the dream, the unexpected appearance of a king – or maybe the king – in the midst of the crowd is accompanied by an equally unexpected account, as an integral part of the dream, of the fable of the cat and mice, a tale that masks the attitude of the king towards his subjects and the relationship between monarchy and parliamentary government. The Parliament of Mice decides to bell the cat, or in other words the king, in order to monitor his actions and to keep them under control, but the faction inclined towards indifference or non-participation – or worse still, cowardice – is the one that prevails. Throughout the first part, the dominant theme is hinged on the poet’s censure of cupidity and hence avarice, as can be seen right from the onset in the episodes of Falsehood and Gain, incarnated in Mercy, a maiden gaudily rigged out and bejewelled, who represents fair and equitable remuneration, yet at the same time gain, namely the extra profit on what has been asked for and granted; this also therefore comprises usury. Langland always nurtures an authentic sense of deference towards the king figure and, at this stage of the poem, he is confident that the king, with the assistance of reason and conscience, will prevent and thwart the nefarious nuptials between Conscience and Mercy, the incarnation of Profit. These pseudo-Dantesque echoes are confirmed by the procession of the personified Seven Deadly Sins, each of which bows down in repentance. This time the confessions are not of an abstract nature, but are structured in such a way as to represent concrete episodes of contemporary English social life, exuberantly and salaciously sketched, as in the tale of the miser or the glutton. Piers the ploughman indicates the path towards Truth and convinces the penitents to help him attend to the pasture-lands, before they embark

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on the pilgrimage. A military leader, ploughman, sower, a genuine disciple of the apostles and fishers of men, Piers is a lowly tiller of the land endowed with the potential to command a cosmic crusade to return to Truth and Righteousness; however, his apathetic followers opt for non-participation. In the last Passus of the first part, a priest translates for Piers, ‘in simple English’, his ‘pardon’, making him aware of the fact that there exists no intercessor between man and God. Nor is there any guarantee that God may speak through his intermediaries in order to justify man who, on the contrary, must justify himself by performing good deeds, rather than by producing credentials to exempt him from his daily duties: ‘And so I leve leelly (Lord forbede ellis!) / That pardon and penaunce and preieires doon save / Soules that have synned seven sithes dedly. / Ac to trust on dise triennials – trewely, me thynketh, / It is noght so siker for the soule, certes, as is Dowel’.28 From the opening lines Piers Plowman tends towards asymmetry and disorder. The dreamer often finds himself having to point out that he is narrating a dream, and often forgets that he is doing so, thus allowing himself to be transported by an irresistible urge to preach and moralize. He is inclined to exaggerate in the repartee between an allegorical figure who is holding court and a sinner whom he harangues or indoctrinates. He occasionally succeeds in providing an effective – but above all grotesque – description of physical appearance and somatic idiosyncrasies, as well as of a few typical behavioural elements. He is unquestionably a master of fast-moving scenes packed with characters and panoramic descriptions. 5. From the beginning of the second part, and throughout the second group of thirteen Passus, Piers undergoes a striking change of pace and 28

‘So I firmly believe (The Lord forbid otherwise!) / That pardon, penance and prayers are the salvation of souls / That have seven times seven committed mortal sins. / But I am certainly convinced / That to trust in these indulgences is not so safe for the soul as is the desire to Do Well’ (VII, 177–81). Lawlor 1962, 79, who comments on Piers’s impulsive nature, interprets this controversial extract as the ploughman’s decision to advance from an altogether uncritical attitude towards religion to a passive and meditative one. In the pages that follow, Lawlor comments on the exceptional integrity and honesty of the priest when he insists on the fact that ‘pardon’ is not tantamount to an indulgence. On another occasion the critic comes to the conclusion that ‘deeds and actions […] are everything’ (81).

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proportion. There is no trace of diegesis, and the occasional touch of humour on the part of the poet is crushed underfoot in a cadence of lengthy, tiresome, unwieldy exhibitions of a purely theological nature, or in prolix paraphrases and biblical exegeses. Some of the topics concern the history of mankind from the Creation since Adam, related by Abraham in a new dream; the explanation of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity; the Passion and Death of Jesus; the foundation of the Church; the threatening prospect of the Antichrist. The narration is overpowered by the author’s sermonizing, as he yields to the urge to plead and becomes totally immersed in his personifications. This is perhaps where the specifically inventive nature of the poem falls short and leans towards the genre and the rules of homiletic compilation under the pretext of an oneiric narrative frame. In this way, it resembles the typically interminable, cumbersome assemblages of exempla, and the handbooks of maxims such as Ormulum. This lack of inventiveness and creativity, this self-evident yielding of the poem to a forum for debate, substantiate, at least in part, the arguments of those critics who advance the hypothesis of a second or third author.29 On the subject of Dowel, Dobet and Dobest the accent is invariably placed on the prefix do,30 hence the outspoken criticism hurled at the mystifying and deceptive words of the friars in particular. Dame Studie’s lengthy tirade (Passus X) is hinged on the need for temperance and generosity and cautions us against theological arrogance and the avarice of the rich who donate nothing to the poor. In Passus XIII the dream is centred on a banquet in which the scholar gorges himself, while leaving just the crumbs for the dreamer. The way to salvation is always through love and poverty. The figure of Piers reappears just when the Antichrist is about to take by storm the castle of the united 29 Langland lays great emphasis on the legend of Trajan who, although unbaptized, was traditionally considered to have been saved and rescued from Hell. Another realistic encounter is the one between Will and Haukyn the baker who, guilty of having committed the Seven Deadly Sins, however benefits from the teachings of Patience, once more hinged on the need to lead a life of poverty; the man repents and the dream is temporarily suspended. We are thus offered both a vivid portrait and an authentic catalogue of vices and foul deeds. Another legend cited by Langland is that of Mohammed, demoted to a sorcerer. 30 As clearly stated by Lawlor 1962, 298.

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followers of Christ, already wounded in spirit; the Tree of Charity, tended by a team of workers under Piers’s guidance, is therefore the counterpart to the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. § 15. Chaucer* I: Stereotypes of courtly love and symptoms of modernity Were the metaphor of the human body to be applied to literature, with Geoffrey Chaucer (ca. 1340–1400) English literature ceases to 1

*

Works, ed. W. W. Skeat, 7 vols, London 1894–1897; in one vol. 1912; ed. F. N. Robinson, Boston, MA 1933, and, rev. edn, 1957, both now replaced by The Riverside Chaucer, ed. L. D. Benson et al., Boston, MA 1987; The Complete Poetry and Prose of Geoffrey Chaucer, ed. J. H. Fisher, New York 1989, Boston, MA 2012. The Canterbury Tales, ed. M. Praz, Bari 1957, 1961, contains a still useful introduction (5–158). Life. Chaucer Life-Records, ed. M. M. Crow and C. C. Olson, Oxford 1966; J. Gardner, The Life and Times of Chaucer, London 1979; D. Pearsall, The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer: A Critical Biography, Oxford 1995 (very few new elements, due to a systematically sceptical attitude towards the allegations of previous biographers); G. Ashton, Geoffrey Chaucer, London 2011. Criticism. T. R. Lounsbury, Studies in Chaucer, His Life and Writings, 3 vols, London 1892; G. G. Coulton, Chaucer and His England, London 1908 and further edns up to 1963 (among the first standard critical works on the medieval episteme, as illustrated in Chaucer); E. Legouis, Geoffrey Chaucer, Paris 1910; G. L. Kittredge, Chaucer and His Poetry, Cambridge, MA 1915, repr. London 1970; B. Ten Brink, Chaucers Sprache und Verskunst, Leipzig 1920; R. K. Root, The Poetry of Chaucer, Boston, MA 1922; C. F. E. Spurgeon, Five Hundred Years of Chaucer Criticism and Allusion, 1357–1900, 3 vols, Cambridge 1925, New York 1960; G. K. Chesterton, Chaucer, London 1932; J. L. Lowes, Geoffrey Chaucer, Oxford 1934, 1956; A. Castelli, Chaucer, Brescia 1946; N. Coghill, The Poet Chaucer, London 1949; J. Speirs, Chaucer the Maker, London 1951, 1972; R. Preston, Chaucer, London 1952; D. S. Brewer, Chaucer, London 1953 and 1960; Chaucer and His World, London 1978, A New Introduction to Chaucer, London 1998, and, as editor, Chaucer and the Chaucerians, London and Edinburgh 1966, and CRHE, 2 vols, London 1978, 2001; A. Zanco, Chaucer e il suo mondo, Torino 1955; C. Muscatine, Chaucer and the French Tradition, Berkeley, CA 1957; H. G. Wright, Boccaccio in England from Chaucer to Tennyson, London 1957; Chaucer: Modern Essays in Criticism, ed. E. C. Wagenknecht, New York 1959, 1960 (an excellent anthology of the most outstanding contributions published in journals); W. C. Curry, Chaucer and the Mediaeval Sciences, London 1960; H. F. Brooks, Chaucer’s Pilgrims, London 1962; M. Praz, ‘Chaucer e i grandi trecentisti italiani’, in PMI, 29–96 (originally from 1942); D. W. Robertson, A Preface to Chaucer,

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develop at a natural, orderly pace and matures overnight to adulthood, making such a gigantic leap that, after him, for almost half a century (for some critics even for two centuries) a kind of stagnation or even recession sets in, and we witness a process similar to the transition from Brobdingnag to Lilliput. Chaucer is the first accomplished modern artist in the history of English literature and, by virtue of his overall literary production, he Princeton, NJ 1962; M. A. Bowden, A Reader’s Guide to Geoffrey Chaucer, London 1965, Syracuse, NY 2001; G. G. Williams, A New View of Chaucer, Durham, NC 1965; E. T. Donaldson, Speaking of Chaucer, New York 1970; P. M. Kean, Chaucer and the Making of English Poetry, 2 vols, London and Boston, MA 1972 (one of the most convincing and balanced studies); I. Robinson, Chaucer’s Prosody, London 1971, and Chaucer and the English Tradition, London 1972; Companion to Chaucer Studies, ed. B. Rowland, Oxford 1979; J. D. Burnley, Chaucer’s Language and the Philosophers’ Tradition, Cambridge 1980, and The Language of Chaucer, London 1989; E. Giaccherini, I fabliaux di Chaucer: tradizione e innovazione nella narrativa comica chauceriana, Pisa 1980; G. H. Roscow, Syntax and Style in Chaucer’s Poetry, Cambridge 1981; H. Cooper, The Structure of the Canterbury Tales, London 1983, and The Canterbury Tales, Oxford 1989; V. A. Kolve, Chaucer and the Imagery of Narrative, London 1984, and Telling Images: Chaucer and the Imagery of Narrative II, Stanford, CA 2009; I. Bishop, ‘Troilus and Criseyde’: A Critical Study, Bristol 1985; Geoffrey Chaucer, ed. H. Bloom, New York 1985; D. Aers, Chaucer, Brighton 1986; The Cambridge Chaucer Companion, ed. P. Boitani and J. Mann, Cambridge 1986, and, rev. edn, 2003; R. O. Payne and E. J. Howard, Geoffrey Chaucer, Boston, MA 1986; D. R. Howard, Chaucer: His Life, His Works, His World, New York 1987; G. Brunetti, Sui ‘Canterbury Tales’, Padova 1988; P. Strohm, Social Chaucer, Cambridge, MA 1989; F. Buffoni, I racconti di Canterbury: un’opera unitaria, Milano 1991; J. Mann, Geoffrey Chaucer, London 1991; J. Dillon, Geoffrey Chaucer, Basingstoke 1993; M. Hallissy, A Companion to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, London 1995; A. J. Minnis et al., The Shorter Poems, Oxford 1995; Chaucer, ed. V. Allen and A. Axiotis, Basingstoke 1997; S. H. Rigby, Chaucer in Context: Society, Allegory and Gender, Manchester 1997; C. Cannon, The Making of Chaucer’s English, Cambridge 1998; Critical Essays on Geoffery Chaucer, ed. T. C. Stillinger, London 1999; D. Wallace, Chaucerian Polity, Stanford, CA 1999; A Companion to Chaucer, ed. P. Brown, Oxford 2000; H. Phillips, An Introduction to the Canterbury Tales: Reading, Fiction, Context, Basingstoke 2000; G. Rudd, The Complete Critical Guide to Geoffrey Chaucer, London 2001; R. Edwards, Chaucer and Boccaccio: Antiquity and Modernity, Basingstoke 2002; Sources and Analogues of the Canterbury Tales, ed. R. M. Correale and M. Hamel, Cambridge 2002–2005.

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towers above both Langland and Gower, as well as the Gawain poet. He can be said to exemplify the first, definitive rules governing language and prosody in English literature. He is accessible even to non-specialists, with the minimum support of a parallel modern English rendering or a glossary. Indeed, the language (South-East English) employed by Chaucer was to become the predominant variety in the formation of so-called ‘modern standard English’ and of its lexis, where words of Teutonic1 or Danish derivation were gradually and almost imperceptibly ousted by those of French or romance origin. Although Chaucer’s dialect was, in any case, destined to become Modern English, the poet’s works enhanced its prestige. Ipso facto it is a linguistic variety closer to that of Spenser and Shakespeare. On a specifically prosodic plane, Chaucer invents, stabilizes and transmits to posterity the long-lasting scheme of a rhyming pair of iambic pentameters, the so-called heroic couplet; he patents, that is, a peculiarly flexible and successful metre, of which he becomes a master, and by means of which he succeeds in giving full utterance to everything he desires to express and to what is expressible, ranging from the theoretical and the abstract to the concrete and the practical. Yet it is in the sphere of literary competence and professionalism that Chaucer distances himself immeasurably from his contemporaries. Prolixity, amplification, excessive digressions, the loss of the logical and diegetic thread, the lack of all sense of proportion: Chaucer is obsessively conscious of these endemic contemporary flaws and declares war against them, while endeavouring, to the best of his ability, not to stray from the subject at hand. He frequently calls himself to order: ‘But now to come ageyn to my matere’. In other words, he is fully aware of the diegetic necessity, and, although he is partial to digressions, he repeatedly informs the reader that he will dominate his urge to ramble. The analogies of the Canterbury Tales with the two most significant poems of his predecessors and contemporaries are reduced to a few remnants of catalogued exempla, as in Gower’s Confessio. These are part and parcel of a consolidated convention and tradition, and Chaucer’s works are still linked, albeit only minimally, to the literary genre of the 1

On the term ‘Teutonic’, with the meaning of ‘Germanic in its most archaic and undivided phase’, cf. MIT, vol. I, 6.

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exemplum and of enumeration. Langland’s poem also opens with a crowded, panoramic scene.2 Chaucer is undoubtedly an ‘architect’ – or rather the first architect – in English literature, and a dramatist or novelist ante litteram who, however, preferred to express himself in verse, verse occasionally gracious and sculptured, but at times drab and second-rate, as sometimes in a novel.3 He has the power to master a brief but also a lengthy plot, and to handle a pithy, tense narrative involving real-life down-to-earth characters, as opposed to allegories and personifications (although we cannot deny that he handles these expertly, too). However, if necessary, his magnifying glass also focuses on detail, on the tiniest particular, the infinitesimal trait, the imperceptible peculiarity. Transfusion or transposition is an ennobling expression that can be rendered by the word translation; indeed, however skilful his final product may appear, Chaucer might be, wrongly, downgraded to a mere translator or transliterator (albeit an exceptionally gifted one – French contemporaries such as Deschamps viewed him as such). Yet, paradoxically, this theoretical limitation becomes a merit. Chaucer avails himself of the pre-existing French and Italian repertoire as raw material, creating a collage that modifies the original intents, often also due to his prosody, which is unsuited to and incompatible with the subject matter. In this way, parody becomes the prevailing genre in Chaucer’s work. The chasm that distances him from his contemporaries lies also in his mastery of literary rhetoric, which works in him like a filigree or a kind of open repertoire. He familiarizes with and becomes proficient at handling the French and Latin rhetorical treatises that were the height of fashion at the time and which provided him with a pre-established key to poetic modes and conventions.4 Thus, one of the obvious preliminary issues concerns the sources on which Chaucer drew. Critics still come to blows over the question of whether Chaucer had read certain classical authors in the original or in French translation, and persist in drawing up first- and second-degree lists of 2 3 4

On this Ricardian topos cf. BRP, 122–4. Kean 1972, chapter II, 31–66, refers to the prevalent features of Chaucer’s style as the ‘urban manner’. Cf. BRP, 73, on the model of Geoffrey de Vinsauf ’s Poetria Nova.

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influential authors, that is to say, authors of whom he had gained firsthand or filtered experience. Source researchers have provided evidence of Chaucer’s astonishing literary memory, of the ease and confidence with which he combined his acquired knowledge, and of his conjurer’s skill in forming associations. In truth, this was a practice that was anything but shameful or disreputable, given that plagiarism was not put on the index in the Middle Ages, which, on the contrary, thrived on it.5 However, critics still widely contest the assumption that three periods (French, Italian and English)6 can be clearly distinguished. Other critics tend to reduce this threefold distinction to a bipartition, between youth and maturity, or to reword it as the period ‘of the rose’ and that ‘of the daisy’, or even to make them correspond to the supremacy of the one or the other of the two authors of the Roman de la Rose, with their respective natures: that of Guillaume, candid and sincere, and that of Jean, caustic and scathing. Yet it is also true to say that Chaucer takes his cue from the stereotype of the ‘dream’, or rather the ‘somnium’, only to gradually break away from it and concentrate on a purely diurnal observation. One cannot leave the topic of Chaucer’s originality, or his tendency to derivativeness, without a reference to the quaestio of his borrowings from the fourteenth-century Italian authors whose influence, superimposed on classical and French models, proved to be highly and vitally productive. From a certain time onwards, the knowledge of Dante becomes an established fact, and Chaucer admits to having drawn certain topics and suggestions from Petrarch, although he distances himself from both, and from Dante in particular, in his religious attitude, which was undoubtedly less staunch, 5

6

In this connection, critics often cite St Bonaventure’s quadripartite division in the first book of the Sententiae, that of the scriptor, the compilator, the commentator and the auctor. The latter ‘writes his own words and those of others, yet he gives priority to his own and only uses other people’s words to sustain his ideas’. From the etymological point of view, auctor is related to augere, and thus to the enhancement of knowledge and wisdom of mankind. It is also true, however, that Chaucer was neither a university student, nor was he therefore a graduate, and that he was undeniably less learned and educated than Gower; he perhaps lacked the ability, or above all the inclination, to attempt a Latin or French version of his works.

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less complex and more disenchanted. He negotiates the stoical and otherworldly ideals of both authors. His ideal affiliation to Boccaccio and to his secular Weltanschauung becomes stronger. Since Chaucer never cites him by name (nor, for that matter, does he ever mention the Decameron), it has been hypothesized that either he was unaware of having drawn material from books that did not bear the Italian author’s signature, or that he deliberately kept silent. However, Praz objected that Chaucer invariably makes reference to the primary source, and not to the intermediary one, and that he might even have confused Boccaccio with Petrarch, to whom he attributed certain works of Boccaccio. Praz also reminds us that in 1373 the stature of the Decameron was downgraded by contemporary scholars. On the other hand, none of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales appear closely derived from Boccaccio’s masterpiece, and Petrarch’s famous short preface to the Decameron did not encourage Chaucer to read an early work, in which the only part that was worth keeping was the tale of Griselda, handed down in the Latin version by Petrarch himself (or rather from its re-translation into French). The issue of Chaucer’s debt to Boccaccio is one that is destined to remain forever unsolved; it has even been suggested that he was indebted, for the overall plan of his masterpiece, to an obscure Italian poet by the name of Giovanni Sercambi, the author of a coronet of novelle within the frame of a pilgrimage, all of which are narrated by the author himself.7 Such assumptions and inferences are not intended to imply wilful misconduct, or excessive naїveté on Chaucer’s part in his decision to refrain from citing Boccaccio. It seems, however, a twist of fate that, under these circumstances, a bookworm like Chaucer should be ignorant of such a work as the Decameron,8 the most probable and most evident model for his magnum opus. 2. While being thoroughly English, Chaucer is the first author to be endowed with a European and pro-European outlook. His knowledge of 7 8

A summary of the work, and a comparison of a few of his tales with some of Chaucer’s, can be found in BAL, 184. The assertion that Chaucer considered only Latin sources and not vernacular works to be worthy of imitation and citation is unsustainable, because in this case he would similarly have disregarded the Divina Commedia.

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foreign languages came not indirectly, or by hearsay, or even thanks to the normal coexistence of idioms, but thanks to his extensive travelling, and his experience of and familiarity with the world at large. On a historical level, he has long been described as a synthesis, the synthesis of medieval culture and spirit: on the contrary, I tend to view him as an antithesis, as the writer who experiments and inaugurates a new literary and cultural episteme. He becomes the first English humanist or proto-humanist, which probably explains why he eludes the ties and constraints of religion and homiletic literature, although there remains in him a constant feeling of being oppressed and threatened by them. He occupies a position halfway between anonymity and individualism, between the annihilation of the individual in the mass and the surfacing of an even unrestrained egotism. Chaucer lived at a time when London had only 40,000 inhabitants, that is, half of the population of Florence;9 English was gaining strength as a language while French was losing ground; the nation was fast becoming bilingual, and a new legal system was being formulated. The power of Parliament was increasing, as were the number of non-religious people who now occupied positions that had been previously restricted to the clergy; anticlericalism was on the rise. The years from 1327 to his death in 1400 are marked by the deposing of two monarchs, in 1327 and 1399. Winds from the south were conveying, together with Dante and the first humanists, the principle of free thinking. In England the culmination of the fashion of courtly love coincided with the onset of its decline: love remained ideal, but was also carnal and materialistic, aimed at enhancing one’s property and economic profit. Chaucer no longer believed in, indeed felt indifferent to the Arthurian cycle, and refrained from writing tales and anecdotes taken from that particular repertoire.10 Typical and yet an individual, he can serve to reconstruct the academic curriculum and training of an educated late fourteenth-century Englishman. The adolescent Chaucer’s sources of inspiration are, as I have said, the two compilers of

9 10

Brewer 1960, 50. The Wife of Bath’s Tale may prove that Chaucer had read Sir Gawain, but it is also its parody.

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the Roman de la Rose and the almost contemporary Machaut and Froissart, who were not acquainted with Chaucer’s work, and Deschamps who, on the contrary, was a friend of his and with whom Chaucer exchanged literary works. This bookish culture was based on the transcription of a number of important classics: no Homer, but a ‘moralized’ Ovid along with the Aeneid, Thebaid and Pharsalia available in the original, but more often than not assimilated via thirteenth-century French romances. The ‘matter of Troy’ also reached Chaucer indirectly through Dictys, Dares and Benoît. In the religious sphere, the points of reference were Boethius, whose treatise on spirituality was the most widely read and translated throughout the English medieval period, Pope Innocent III (De contemptu mundi), Bishop Bradwardine’s treatise on predestination and Macrobius’ comment on Cicero’s Somnium. It would, of course, be erroneous to affirm that, given the absence of specific references to the historical calendar – the plague, the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, the Lollards, or Wyclif – Chaucer turned a deaf ear to contemporary events and conflicts: he filtered them, softening them down by creating a sort of buffer or screen between these and the reader. One of Chaucer’s most renowned lyrics reflects on the ‘preceding age’, and ultimately celebrates the topos of the Golden Age, when overindulgence in food and drink was unheard of, when greed, especially of an economic nature, was not rampant, when everything was in a primeval state, even if almost by magic or by some optical illusion. This leads us to focus on other qualities of Chaucer as an artist and modern thinker, and on the further implications of his poetics and aesthetics. His neutrality can be best illustrated with a musical metaphor, by defining him as a chromatic, as opposed to a diatonic, author; or alternatively, with the metaphor of a skilled ‘blacksmith’ who amalgamates the most diverse cultural and real-life experiences. In his combination of metals, and thus materials, he proves to be an accomplished blender and mediator who avails himself of telescope and microscope at the same time. One of the few autobiographical passages in the Canterbury Tales provides us with a description of the poet – or perhaps a projection, or a mask – as a plump, stout man (a description which incidentally finds confirmation in portraits of the author), taciturn and with his head held high, but with his gaze fixed on the ground like a hare hunter (which indeed Chaucer was also in everyday

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life).11 He is certainly one who scrutinizes man and human nature, and we are reminded of Christ’s statement ‘I will make you fishers of men’.12 Chaucer has indeed no theories to propound or demonstrate, or palingenetic schemes to launch. On the contrary, he portrays human weaknesses and treats them benevolently, passing over them in silence, and therefore making a more extensive use of the classical rhetorical device of preterition. Judging and condemning human behaviour are two things that are alien to him. It should be noted how delicately, subtly and objectively he handles the episode of Aeneas and Dido in The Hous of Fame. In this work Chaucer leaves a definition of his aesthetic theory: that of writing poetry ‘Withouten any subtiltee / Of speche, or gret prolixitee / Of termes of philosophye, / Of figures of petrye, / Or colours of rethoryke’ (855–9). Such declarations have been cited by critics to support the interpretation of his self-effacement as faint-heartedness and apathy. In the Prologue to The Legend of Good Women Chaucer declares that he is sceptical with regard to the existence of the afterworld, and satirizes Dante’s cast-iron certainties. This led Praz to hypothesize a clear-cut dialectical contrast with the Italian poet, whose religious and spiritualizing ardour and political credo were not shared by the ‘placid bourgeois’, Chaucer. 3. This last statement, echoed and paraphrased by many critics, is however only partially true: behind the mask of placidity and composure Chaucer conceals anxieties and even extraordinarily precocious contradictions. He was above all volatile, moody, even schizophrenic at times, on which account he was prone to bouts of depression; and he was both nocturnal and diurnal. A chronic insomniac, he was in the habit of reading in order to fall asleep and, during his sleep, he dreamed and largely elaborated on what he had read. Once awake, he sculpted in polished and less incandescent verse the mysterious visions he had experienced in his dream. In contrast, in his daily life he was a conscientious, esteemed, efficient and level-headed clerk. However, once he returned home, it was the 11 12

Lowes 1956, 98. A metaphor expressly evoked – but in order to insinuate how people can be deceived (‘I walke, and fisshe Cristen mannes soules’) by the mendicant friar in the Summoner’s Tale.

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introverted and irritable dreamer that gained the upper hand. His sense of modernity, or his sense that the Middle Ages were near their end, lies in the rediscovery of the classics and in the full-blown conviction that all possible knowledge is encased in them. Hence, while donning the robes of the protagonist and pioneer of his own vernacular, in practice he quite naturally shared the desire to return to the pre-eminence of Latin which flourished towards the end of the fourteenth century. However, Chaucer probes into the self-awareness of the writer and instinctively senses the possibility of playing with his masks: for instance, masquerading as a false first-person narrator, but being fully conscious of the fact that the real author and the implicit author must necessarily be kept distinct, and that he can avail himself of a whole range of possibilities. A significant dichotomy in Chaucer’s art is that his work targets a specific audience and therefore needs to be declaimed and recited; on the other hand, there is the veiled intention that it should present itself as a written text. For this reason, we are faced with a text teeming with colloquialisms, hints and cues, or criticisms directed towards a potential reader, and with seemingly premeditated slips of the tongue. As proof of this, Chaucer is an unflagging experimenter of forms, modules, genres, and of a never-ending stream of proposals and of unprecedented patterns and solutions. His entire literary production is imbued with the spirit of fluidity and openness,13 being the work of a seeker or a ‘hunter’ whose gaze appears, at first sight, to be rapt and disoriented. In his oeuvre, we witness the juxtaposition of polished, refined and marmoreal neoclassical works, such as his Troilus, alongside other ‘romantic’, unfinished works, which are the majority. Certain individual stories in the Canterbury Tales are fragmentary, left half-finished or even in an embryonic state; others are complete, yet encased within an open structure, thus creating two separate aesthetic orientations and demarcations, which contribute to the creation of yet another of Chaucer’s incongruities. Others end almost mimetically – prevalently due to the catcalls and boos of the internal audience. The unfinished state is, of course, a hallmark,

13

See the conclusions to this effect by Kean 1972, vol. I, 111, with regard to the epilogue of The Hous of Fame.

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not of artistic mediocrity, but of torment, and the mark of a creator who is incapable of attaining the perfection of form. Chaucer is therefore a writer who re-writes his own works, as in the case of the two alternative Prologues of the Legend; and Troilus, his only totally completed work, is in itself open-ended because the hero fades away, vanishing into a nimbus that transports him to some unknown destination. Chaucer’s decision to disguise himself as a maladroit, inept amateur poet was not solely made to pay homage to a literary convention. The Canterbury Tales were not – and still are not – arranged in a definitive order, and, above all, they are a demonstration not only of Chaucer’s reluctance to organize his tales but also of the frenetic and almost destructive haste with which he demolished his fragile house of cards. Gower, on the contrary, followed a rigid, though somewhat superficial, ordering criterion. The implausible oscillation of genres, planes and horizons in the Canterbury Tales is accompanied by the author’s vehement and biting self-criticism, the authentic demiurgic gesture of a sort of Super-ego, as embodied in the Parson’s Tale, which forges as with fire an explicit description and vision that had been disputed until then – an unexpectedly sharp cut, and the descent of an axe. Finally, the transition towards unequivocal orthodoxy in the ‘Retraction’ seems rather impetuous after all his discordant and contradictory ramblings and digressions. Chaucer often finds himself doubting whether Creation may be, or may have been, ordered and whether it may constitute an order in compliance with the prime intent of the Divine Will: could God have created disorder and chaos ab aeterno? Four hundred years later, Hopkins was to nurture the same concern, while at the same time finding a solution to the enigma; for him, as for Chaucer, the cosmos was ‘dappled’, that is to say, speckled, mottled, variegated, but God the Creator embodied all opposites and bestowed on mankind the faculty to perceive the innermost unity of the multiplicity of forms. Those who are reluctant to detect rules and regulations established by the author within the work, or any explicit intentions in the layout and conclusion of the Canterbury Tales, reach the foregone conclusion that Chaucer limits himself to echoing voices and visions that neutralize one another, without taking a stand. The caveat we apply when reading Browning and the Victorian dramatic monologue has a precedent in Chaucer. Browning describes his monologues as objectivized,

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rather than personal confessions. Thus the voice of the first-person narrator becomes subjected to this process of objectivization. A similar principle is also applicable to Chaucer’s masterpiece, polyphonic in a Bakhtinian sense, as the author gives a voice to the ‘other’ and apparently withdraws without obstructing, even partially, the lens or the auditory field. The Tales thus present themselves as a series of enunciations, not as one of énoncés. However, by 1387 Chaucer had already put into practice a few strictly personal choices, and had translated the Roman and above all Boethius. Are we to deconstruct these works, too, by affirming that they were translated by some other author? At this rate, we might even go as far as to contest the fact that the voice that pronounces the ‘Retraction’ is Chaucer’s and to attribute it to the persona who qualifies himself as ‘I’, and says his name is Chaucer. I personally do not subscribe to such an annihilation of the coherence of the authorial ‘I’. 4. The two volumes dedicated to Chaucer in the Critical Heritage series14 verge on 900 pages, and Chaucer finds himself placed on an equal footing, for all this assessment is worth, with other great and illustrious English authors, and second only to Shakespeare, who prides himself on six volumes. This prominence is less gratifying than it may seem at first sight, considering the temporal extension of Chaucer’s reception, far wider than that of any other major writer. The Chaucerians who came immediately after, and whose two distinct ramifications will be illustrated and discussed below,15 were mediocre and second-rate poets. The almost two centuries that followed Chaucer’s death, leading up to the beginning of the seventeenth century, give occasional evidence of a variety of acknowledgements, both of his poetical and rhetorical skill and of his linguistic creativity (especially for Sidney). In the seventeenth century, editions inclusive of apocrypha gained him the fame of an irreverent protester and reformer; yet he also became a test in the debate on the purity of the language. Strangely enough, in that period he began to be perceived as linguistically obscure (or to be defined as such), and his works were modernized, or even worse, retranslated. His lowest ebb, which heralded his revival, occurred towards the end 14 15

There is a similar collection edited by Spurgeon 1925, in 3 vols. § 21 and § 25.

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of the seventeenth century, with Dryden as his main re-discoverer and the most important promoter of Chaucerian criticism, although his translations are unfaithful reinventions of the original texts. Dryden’s view of Chaucer was that of a writer of novels, and therefore of short stories, and of the father of English poetic language, unadorned, natural and realistic. As was only to be expected, by the Romantics and Victorians Chaucer was viewed, in the wake of Schiller’s theories, as sentimental, spontaneous, naïve, if not immaturely candid. At the same time, an alternative critical current, having postulated that poetry is tantamount to self-expression, relegated Chaucer into a secondary role. However, the whole of the nineteenth century shows a marked disparity of judgements. The debate on the essence of Chaucer’s language was distorted and became relativistic, and what one observer considers as ‘ornate’ may be considered ‘simple’ by another. Nevertheless, by this time, the hoard of emulators and imitators of his works had become fairly substantial and, without taking into account transnational acknowledgements, Sidney and Spenser are followed by Pope, Crabbe,16 Wordsworth17 and Tennyson under the sign of the courtly tradition and that of the poetry of feeling, just as Dickens succeeds Fielding in the humour tradition. Dryden had already censured in no uncertain terms Chaucer’s ‘immodest’ tales, while Ruskin coined for Chaucer a new category, that of ‘fimetic’ literature, that is to say, a type of literature stained by wanton vulgarity and void imagination, and crosses the Canterbury Tales off the list of books in the library of the Guild of St George.18 Arnold’s disapproval can be related to the same reasons, and formally due to the absence in Chaucer’s works of ‘high seriousness’. On both sides of the Atlantic, academic criticism engaged in an archaic con-

16 17

18

Cf. Speirs 1972, 204–6, on the re-exhumation of Chaucer’s heroic couplet, even if Crabbe lays greater stress on the uneven battle between man and the forces of nature. Chaucer is the first noteworthy Englishman characterized by the love for simple things and humble delights; he is also the first example of a recluse, with minimal and sporadic intrusions into the world, like Wordsworth. The comparison between the two poets is frequent in nineteenth-century criticism. It was Ruskin who pointed out that no description of the sea can be found in Chaucer’s entire works.

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troversy until the mid-twentieth century with all its experts, authorities and pundits. The issues that hold court – dates, metrics and, above all, the reliable affiliation of certain of Chaucer’s works to those considered to be authentic, with the exclusion of other spurious ones, or the compilation of the list of lost works and the estimation of their value – are therefore of a philological and ecdotic nature among a smug, self-righteous élite of scholars. In the meantime, the notion of Chaucer as the poet par excellence of the nascent national spirit had become consolidated, and he had been triumphantly awarded the merit of being an ante litteram Protestant like Langland, armed against the corrupt clergy and against every form of fraud, in defence of the wellbeing of the less privileged social classes. Chesterton’s standpoint was subsequently branded as jingoistic and xenophobic, an attitude that was also discernible in Leavisites such as Speirs, who identified and emphasized in Chaucer the poet of an organic community.19 Until 195020 Chaucer’s greatness was thus of an axiomatic nature (‘an art which in the end eludes analysis’),21 and critical terminology provided a plentiful supply of exclamatory, high-sounding and often glorifying adjectives. Presumably, the scholars’ skill lay in their ability to detect between the lines Chaucer’s boredom every time he slavishly dogged his models. This entire preliminary phase of academic criticism seems today rather outdated, and, more often than not, prolix and inconclusive. The major authors of the second half of the twentieth century, on the other hand, hailed with the advent of Chaucer the closing phase of the medieval period, torn apart by the sense of sin and by the exhortation to repentance. For Orwell, who insisted that obscenity resided in the ‘rebellion in the moral sphere’, 19

Cf. in CLA, vol. I, 144–8, Praz’s review of Chesterton’s book dated 1932, which traces the history of Chaucer’s reception in England to that date, a reconstruction that is somewhat arbitrary and debatable (did his fellow-countrymen really not take Chaucer seriously?). Praz expands on Chesterton’s view of Chaucer as the last bastion of the Middle Ages before the leap into the unknown towards the irrationality and scepticism of the Renaissance. In practice, Praz appears to subscribe to the view from which he claims to diverge. 20 CRHE, vol. II, 1, maintains that the year 1933 represents the dividing line between amateur and professional literary criticism. 21 Lowes 1956, 167.

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Chaucer and Boccaccio were even much less moralistic than Shakespeare.22 Chaucer took for granted the fact that society was morally corrupt. Orwell is basically in agreement with Lawrence,23 who saw Chaucer as being free from ‘terror’ and endowed with a ‘real natural innocence’, despite the fact that subsequent writers went back to being gripped in a state of fear – the fear of ‘the consequences’, and specifically the fear of sex. In the last five decades, critics have adopted and worked on a variety of approaches. On the one hand, each minor work and, in particular, each and every story in the Canterbury Tales, have engendered a wide range of independent literary interpretations, like each Shakespearean drama; on the other hand, we have witnessed a proliferation of initiatory studies based on historical or computational linguistics, stylistics and lexicography, mainly aiming to demonstrate the extent to which Chaucer availed himself of a tradition already permeated with romance influences. Each of the last decades leading up to the present has naturally focused on a particular facet of the author – with deconstruction, feminism, gender and psychoanalysis – taking cues from real or variously instrumental elements. § 16. Chaucer II: Biography Chaucer’s life, as reconstructed by his biographers, while possessing a documentary solidity far superior to that of Gower and above all to that of Langland, is to a large extent a chain of assertions preceded by the adverb ‘probably’, and very rarely by the adverb ‘undoubtedly’. Among the probable and conjectural elements feature: the date of birth, the birthplace and the birth house of the author; his law studies; his affiliation to the party or ‘faction’ of the king;24 almost all the composition dates of his works; the number of his children (one, two or three); the loss of two ‘comptrollerships’, namely the position of tax inspector, due to the fall from grace of the supporters of King Richard II; the miserable state of his finances during his last years; finally, the year of his death. Doubtful is likewise the date of 22 OCE, vol. II, 155, and III, 326–7. 23 Phoenix, vol. II, 551–5. 24 In addition to this, there were two other factions, the Lancastrian faction headed by John of Gaunt, and a baronial faction hostile to the first two.

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his translation of the Roman de la Rose, as well as the exact portion of the three extant fragments for which he was responsible; nor, unfortunately, do we possess any original manuscript in his own handwriting. A master of objectification, capable of expressing himself in and jesting with a variety of masks, Chaucer very rarely discloses any revelations or indiscretions regarding his personal life; moreover, the testimonies of his contemporaries (such as Lydgate) provide scanty information regarding him. In reality, critics in general have been quick to exploit this paucity or latency of precise data, and this atmosphere of uncertainty has given rise to the most daring flights of fantasy and inductive soul-searching. Chaucer led a ‘double life’, spearheading a recurrent typology of English part-time writers, obliged as he was to compensate the luxury of his art with the decidedly less sublime occupation of the civil servant.25 He was obviously endowed not only with a highly refined literary talent, but also with a flair for decision-making and with practical and organizational abilities, which explains why, at Court, he was more appreciated for his diplomatic skills rather than for his prowess as a poet. All this paints a different picture with respect to nowadays. Chaucer’s works, with no exceptions, were not destined for the public at large, but were read and recited before a selected audience of cultured people, mainly courtiers. Yet it is the second or the first of Chaucer’s ‘double lives’ that has provided posterity with important reports and documents which are lacking in the other poets during the Ricardian period. 2. Chaucer’s presumably adoptive surname was linked to chauffecire,26 namely the actions performed by those whose task it was to affix seals to royal signature; or to chausses, that is, trousers, breeches or hose, articles of clothing which had been manufactured by Chaucer’s ancestors (or alternatively shoes).27 Thus his surname was of etymological origin, like many others in the Middle Ages. Yet subsequently the family trade had

25

Lowes 1956, 45, cites a list of writers and artists who worked as customs officials, and in particular Hawthorne. If Chaucer is a painter in verse, we cannot help thinking of Henry Rousseau ‘Le Douanier’. 26 Coulton 1968, 10. 27 The difference is negligible because, as Praz points out, those trousers extended to the feet and also served as shoes.

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taken a different turn; the poet’s father, whose family had been merchants in Ipswich, was a vintner, but, once settled in London, he held a number of royal posts as a diplomat and attendant to the king. While still an adolescent, Chaucer was a page to Elizabeth,28 one of Edward III’s daughters-in-law. At the age of nineteen, he took part in the expedition against the French, was captured near Reims, released and ransomed for the sum of sixteen pounds by the king in March 1360. From 1360 to 1367 he was promoted to valet to the king, during which time he is likely to have studied law at the Inns of Court. In 1366 he entered into a marriage – considered to have been far from happy – with Philippa Roet, a lady-in-waiting in the queen’s household, and sister or sister-in-law to John of Gaunt’s third wife. Philippa bore him a son, Lewis by name, who died at an early age.29 From the year 1368 or 1369 he was engaged in military and above all diplomatic missions on behalf of the Crown, including one to Milan in 1368 (not, however, clearly documented), which marked the festive occasion of the marriage of Lionel, the king’s son, to Violante Visconti; on that occasion Chaucer might possibly have met Petrarch. In 1372 he certainly departed on another mission, this time to reach an agreement with the Genoese regarding a seaport for English trade, after which he headed towards Florence to negotiate a loan from Florentine bankers. A third or second mission to Italy was undertaken in 1378 in Lombardy, to conclude an agreement for assistance against the French. Altogether, the estimated length of time

28 The year of birth (1342 or 1343) is more compatible with the age, twelve, in which pages were employed at Court. 29 To Lewis, a student at Oxford, Chaucer dedicated his prose treatise, structured in five parts, on the ‘astrolabe’, a compendium of Ptolemaic astrology derived from a work written by the Arab Messahala. Only two parts (the second part being incomplete) on the astrolabe instruments, the signs of the zodiac and star distance measurements, have come down to us. Chaucer appears to be responsible for two poorly documented acts of violence: as a student, he was alleged to have assaulted a monk; as a mature married man, he may have committed a rape, for which he underwent trial in 1380. Pearsall 1995, 216, is of the opinion that Lewis might have been the son of the woman who accused him, Cecily Champaigne. Critics are unanimous in attributing to Chaucer a second son, Thomas; there is slightly more doubt as to whether he was also the father of two daughters, Elizabeth and Agnes.

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of these two sojourns in Italy, with the exclusion of the first, was no less than ten months, an important detail that can certainly shed light on the extent of the poet’s knowledge of contemporary Italian literature. However, strangely enough, in Florence Chaucer is thought to have been more impressed by the financial organization and by the well-established book industry of the city, rather than by its cultural activity.30 Subsequently, from 1374 to 1386 he was appointed Comptroller of the Customs and Subsidies on Wool, Skins and Hides in the port of London; to this were added the positions held in various other offices, such as Justice of the Peace for the county of Kent, member of Parliament, and Clerk of the king’s works overseeing royal building projects (notably the restoration of St George’s Chapel in Windsor), and inspector of the walls and ditches along a stretch of the Thames. He lived on gifts, donations and extra contributions ever since the year 1374, when King Edward jokingly rewarded his services with a daily tankard of beer. Well aware of his partiality for alcoholic beverages, King Richard II also gave him a cask of wine in 1398. From 1374 he was awarded for life a rent-free house overlooking Aldgate, from which he enjoyed a splendid view of city life. His fixed annuities were munificently supplemented in the form of interest from property holdings, recovery of fines, generous rewards and even secret missions.31 His status flourished and reached its pinnacle with the rise to the throne of Richard II, when Chaucer was in a position to appoint a deputy. He left his house in London and moved to the countryside, near Greenwich, where he lived almost until the end of his life. Before his death he returned to London, where he took up residence in a house adjacent to Westminster Abbey. The last prestigious administrative position held by Chaucer was that of Deputy Forester of the Royal Park of North Petherton.

30 According to Praz (PMI, 90–1), Chaucer returned from his journeys to Italy, like the Elizabethans and all other literary figures up to Browning, overwhelmed by the ‘pageant of life’ and by the ‘dramatic’ nature of the Italians. 31 Saintsbury (CHI, vol. II, 158) calculated that in 1399 Chaucer commanded an annual income of approximately 600/700 pounds sterling (1932 valuation). BAL, 146, writing in 1958, estimated a total of 8,500,000 Italian lira.

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§ 17. Chaucer III: Dream-vision poems Several of Chaucer’s juvenile works have gone lost; the surviving works provide precious information on certain references, tendencies or, more precisely, issues of fundamental importance. If this is the case, Chaucer ranges from the genuinely pious, almost naïve faith portrayed in the Roman de la Rose,32 to the progressively pessimistic agnosticism of his last years. From the age of thirty, and even in his forties, if the chronology is reliable, Chaucer is a hagiographer and follower of Boethius. Undertaking the task of translating De Consolatione is tantamount to embracing a fundamentally fideistic view of existence, which combines human free choice with divine foreknowledge. For all that, it must be stressed that, every time he makes a profession of agnosticism, Chaucer feels a sense of guilt and returns to seek refuge once more in orthodox faith. Of the very few short lyrical poems, only one, estimated to be an early one, a hymn to the Virgin in the form of a litany, is clearly of a devotional nature; others, composed by the poet as lover, probe the conventional theme of female fickleness. The classical formula, also via a mythological intermediary, is that of the lament or planctus of the requited, or the rebuffed or sorrowful lover. These excessively tormented and prolix compositions are variations on a theme; immature and rudimentary, disproportionate and repetitive, they are probably indebted to the Stilnovo stereotype (the servant lover and the modest lady) – albeit with prosodic variations and ambitions to check the intrusiveness of the rhyming couplets or alternating rhymes. The counterpoint is that of curt, almost condensed, witty and vivacious bits of verse of limited scope. His brief recollection of the Golden Age, apocalyptic and yet nostalgic at the same time, stands somewhat apart. Therefore pessimism co-exists or silently alternates in Chaucer, who now and again envisages the world plummeting towards its doom. 2. Four of Chaucer’s five lengthy minor works (the fifth negates this classification and is to be numbered among his major works) are not of a 32

The translation The Romaunt of the Rose, which distinguishes Chaucer as an adherent of the French tradition, has survived in only three fragments, and there is a considerable amount of doubt as regards its authorship; the first of the three is generally attributed to Chaucer.

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distinctly homogeneous nature, but they exploit the stylistic feature of the text within the text, or of the dream within the sleepless vigil. They take the form of the imbrication. Although we cannot affirm that the dreamer and the real author are one and the same person, it would be erroneous to separate the two roles altogether. Too much insistence has been placed on the insomniac poet being a medieval stylization. Chaucer slept and dreamed and, above all, he was in the habit of reading before falling asleep, and occasionally he went to sleep very late. The preludes to the four above mentioned works all tend to confirm that everything Chaucer wrote had its origins in the books he read. This was part and parcel of a medieval convention, according to which poems were to be modelled on other poems; yet, at the same time, from a real-life biographical point of view, Chaucer was an avid reader who fantasized on the traces of the books he read and which remained imprinted on his memory. Critics nowadays have difficulty in pinpointing the genesis and circumstances that triggered The Book of the Duchesse – the death in 1369 of the beautiful Blanche, wife of John of Gaunt, because no explicit reference is made to the duchess in question, or to any other duchess. However, this was compatible with the conventions of the time, and Chaucer could simply direct this allusion to his educated and élite audience. The backbone of the Book hinges on a dream, initially dreamt and then expertly and glibly narrated, and above all on the dexterity with which the poet transposes and camouflages the occasion and sublimates his grief over the duchess’s death in two suggestive parallel scenarios. In the Prologue, a mythological figure falls asleep and, in her dream, sees the ghost of Morpheus, who inhabits the body of her lost husband, and then dies of grief: this is a chiasmus, or mirror-like prolepsis, with respect to the ‘black duke’. The sleepless poet has gained knowledge from Ovid of Queen Alcyone, the widow of Ceyx, anxious to bury her husband’s body. All in all, this first story offers a description of a happy marriage put in danger and then broken by the husband’s adventurousness and thirst for heroic deeds, with the implicit Ulyssean dilemma between fulfilment and audacity, a dilemma that was soon to become a typical Chaucerian leitmotif. Once awakened from his deep slumber, Morpheus takes possession of Ceyx’s body and appears before the queen as a ghost to announce the truth, thus giving life to a dramatic scene of visionary hallucination. The

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curtain falls on Alcyone’s grief and death, which is nothing more than a paraphrase on the part of the poet who is reading and which gives rise to the symbolic parallel with the death of the English duchess. The poet, now gratified and finally asleep, falls into a dream in which he finds himself in a sunlit garden on a clear, entrancing day in the month of May. This is a Chaucerian topos, because the poet repeatedly draws upon and moulds it from the opening of the Roman de la Rose translated by his own hand. The lengthy introduction is skilful and free-flowing, precisely because it reflects standard stereotypes, yet in an impressively professional manner. The lexis is also repetitive, the term ‘swete’ recurring to the extreme. At this point, the dream continues with a deer hunt, in which the dreamer takes part, and a knight in black clothes, pensive and distraught, comes into sight. Just as Ceyx’s corpse ‘lies’ several ‘fathoms’ under the sea (the same word used for the supposedly dead body of Ferdinand’s father in Shakespeare’s The Tempest), so the knight is the prototype of Keats’s knight who ‘ayleth’, in despair over the death of his lady, a lifeless knight whose blood ‘was fled’. For his part, the poet acquits himself like Dante with certain damned souls, because he urges the knight to speak and give vent to his emotions, thus easing his pain.33 However, we can reasonably suppose that there is an echo not only of Dante’s Commedia but also of his Vita nuova, inasmuch as the lady is also the epitome of human perfection and the incarnation of the divine countenance, and she has mesmerized and revitalized the Duke ever since his youth. What is more, there is a pre-announcement of Troilus, in the wild, passionate and desperate love that tends towards suicide, with the poet playing the role of the sagacious, emotional realist Pandarus. The lai stereotypes are based on a suppressed note of satire on the most pompous hyperboles of the courtly language and codes: ‘For I am sorwe and sorwe is I’. The spiritless voice of the poet at the beginning softens into an enticingly mellow one, as he endeavours to persuade the knight, untimely struck by the harmful consequences and by the mental affliction caused by his loyalty to the courtly love tradition, to review his position.

33

The knight’s tirade against blind Fortune and her wheel is in itself a Dantesque topos (see Inf., VII).

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Moreover, he offers the knight a few suggestions based purely on common sense (‘whiche a fool’, referring to Dido as an example of someone who committed suicide for love). Blanche, the lady bemoaned by the knight, is the compendium of all virtues, the acme of physical as well as intellectual perfection, thus a typical figure of the courtly love tradition. At the end of the commemoration, the timorous knight, initially tongue-tied, proposes to the lady who, moved to compassion, rewards him with a ring, but only shortly before her death. 3. The Hous of Fame, a work composed certainly after 1374 and probably before 1378, left unfinished in three books and written in octosyllabic rhyming couplets, is a highly delightful, witty and succinct work, the product of a consummate master of dream-vision poetry, a story-teller, minstrel and cataloguer. Thus, in one respect, Chaucer, an advocate of the literary opus viewed as a collection of exempla, here vies with his friend and contemporary Gower, mimicking and usurping the sheer delight of the illuminator of mythological cameos. This is also a composite work, and the story begins on the night of the tenth of December, when the poet has a dream which takes place in a temple dedicated to Venus. Here many other visions converge, including those of the wanderings of Aeneas until he finally lands in Latium, as well as the lengthy analysis of a series of unfaithful men, whose betrayal led to the death of their deceived lovers. Never, as in these first 500 lines, has Chaucer perhaps narrated, or rather paraphrased, his sources in such a smooth and polished manner. The opening lines of his brief complaint, ‘Anelida and Arcite’, already raise the issue of fame and of a kind of fame – given that time is the edax rerum that corrodes memory – that fades and finally obliterates the traces of Anelida’s story, ‘devoured out of our memorie’. This, too, is a legend of an exemplary woman and an adulterous lover. In The Hous of Fame, in the temple where the pilgrim dreamer has entered, a sort of slideshow is enacted; statues or niches embody legends that give rise to a scene or make a particular episode in Aeneas’ peregrinations come to life. This entire mythological preamble is based entirely – it must be noticed – on classical authors, and is thus a case of fame handed down, or of an item of news requiring confirmation. Given that Chaucer is the bard of love and among the disciples of love, while he himself is frustrated and without love, his reward consists in a similar dream journey which

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will enable him to gain greater knowledge of Love and its dealings. Love is also callous and uncaring, and all that glitters is not gold. Dido’s suicide demonstrates that she is already a victim of fame, and a link is established with the continuation of the dream in the next two Books, when a Virgilian eagle swoops down from the sky and abducts the pilgrim. The Dantesque remake, another of Chaucer’s skills, becomes unequivocal, as the eagle wisely instructs the captured pilgrim, by means of a short treatise on the theory and properties of sound, and as it introduces the House of Fame as a boundless repository of every kind of sound wave, and consequently of every word that has been pronounced and written ever since the very beginnings of history.34 The poem defines itself as an allegory of verbal transmission, which can be of a dual nature, both true and false, or even futile. The theme of the poetic truth, or rather of the ultimate non-fallacy, of the myth itself is subtly interwoven. In the House of Fame we witness the parade of the great dispensers of fame, and thus of stories (some more reliable than others), namely the poets from their respective nations from Homer onwards. Before the goddess Fame clamour groups of people who have acted and spoken justly or unjustly, people in search of fame or of no fame at all (some have acted in the service of God and not for their own personal benefit), and others who are punished with the discordant notes of Aeolus’ black trumpet, which metes out fame and infamy at the whim and prompting of the goddess herself, with no regard whatsoever for merit, like Dante’s Fortuna with her wheel. As in Dante, Fame is a dispenser of punishments and rewards, a benevolent yet fearful judge; a Minos that wraps his tail around his body and assigns the doomed their respective circles in Hell. Perhaps it is superfluous to point out that good fame, or the correction of bad fame, or the request to mitigate or suppress their infamy, is exactly what the majority of the damned in Hell ask of Dante, and with firm determination. Fame is herself not a graceful and attractive goddess, 34 Cf. the eagle that carries Dante during his dream to the circle of fire in Purg., IX, 19ff. Yet Dante hurriedly disposes of the episode of the dream in very few lines and there is no real contact between the eagle and the dreamer. However, the poet is rapt in ecstasy by the majestic upward flight of the eagle, with its wings of gold. Then the dream is interrupted by the fire.

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but a monstrous figure, shaped by Chaucer by means of a grotesque imagination akin to that of Dante. At the outset physically minute, the goddess’ body is expandable, it increases in size and swells – thus symbolizing the very nature of fame – until it becomes gigantic, through a series of horrific metamorphoses, including countless eyes, ears and tongues, and winged feet. The building next to the House of Fame is that of the flatus vocis, of uninhibited Rumour, of gossip that spreads like wildfire.35 In a decidedly modern fashion, or even with postmodern foreshadowings, The Hous of Fame illustrates the heuristic function, or rather the issue of the deceitful nature, of the human word, and is thus an allegory of literature itself and of historiography. Poets themselves have put in verse not history, but fables and legends, those which Chaucer himself takes pleasure in churning out. In short, literature is essentially restrained mendacity. 4. The Parlement of Foules (1382) provides further confirmation of the central role played by the Somnium Scipionis in English mediaeval literature. Chaucer’s conception and theory of dream-vision poetry hinge on a sort of link between the dream itself and its immediate ‘diurnal residues’ in everyday life. Having read about Scipio Africanus in the Somnium, the poet allows himself to be guided by Scipio himself through a park, whose gates bear two explicitly Dantesque inscriptions, because the path splits in two directions: one leads to the Paradise of the blessed, whereas the other leads to the Hell of the doomed. They then reach a luxuriant and resounding garden adorned with various types of trees, where animals innocently play and on the branches birds are singing, surrounded by allegorical figures of virtues and vices. In this interlude, the poet puts to the test his powers of description in the pictorial narratives of the pagan goddesses inside the temple,

35

The sudden ending (critics tend to affirm that this was due to boredom on the part of the author) coincides with the appearance on the scene of an unknown character ‘of gret auctorite’. The house of Rumour, over which Aeolus presides, also known as ‘Domus Dedaly’, a place where the most inane conversations pass from one person to another, represents an evident imaginary anticipation of the seventh episode, in the newspaper offices, of Joyce’s Ulysses. Joyce’s familiarity with Chaucer is almost certainly due to Skeat’s edition, published when Joyce was attending university. Skeat is also the editor of an English etymological dictionary, cited as one of Stephen Daedalus’ most frequently consulted volumes in Joyce’s two Portraits.

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and sings the praises of a kind of eternal, undying love, while expressing his profound disenchantment with short-lived, transient love, similar perhaps to that of his own broken marriage. This is also one of the first instances of the game of ‘hide-and-seek’ that Chaucer plays with the first-person narrator, thus creating a dual-personality effect. As in Dante, we witness in Chaucer a clash or conflict – which however aims at creating a compromise – between pagan mythology and the new Christian monotheistic dispensation. Having benefited from Scipio’s teachings, the pilgrim dreamer delights in the enticing visions of paganism that swirl into phantasmagoria. This particular moment in the text, prior to the actual ‘Parlement’, resembles a visit to a circle of Hell, with a surprising element of audacious and allusive surrealism (Priapus and Venus undraped and in the nude). Everything works out in the end, with the appearance of vicarious and Solomonic nature who takes office on the judge’s throne. On St Valentine’s Day, she presides over a council of discordant opinions, or démande d’amour in which each bird will choose his or her companion to mate with. 5. The extremely important Prologue (in two versions) of The Legend of Good Women (1385–1387) comes as later confirmation of the final notes of The Hous of Fame. Here Chaucer resumes the theme of the need to verify the validity of legends, myths, rumours, of simple gossip and therefore of transmitted fame. A story handed down or retold cannot be verified through personal experience, but at the same time, it is not possible to live in total epoché (suspended judgement) – a remote anticipation of critical empiricism, or at least of Victorian scepticism regarding issues of faith, the authenticity of the Gospels and the existence of the afterlife. Chaucer begins by reminding his readers that no one has ever come back from Paradise or Hell. What surfaces is a clear sensation of estrangement and light-heartedness, and Chaucer announces that the stories he is about to narrate are true, or they could be – and indeed they are – false, and therefore they are nothing more than magnificent and delightful lies. The epistemologist ante litteram wonders about the validity of historicolegendary transmission but, having raised the issue, he puts it aside. The story of Aeneas is picked up once again in the context of the debate on fame. Chaucer himself awards the hero a different kind of fame from the one he had attributed to him in the preceding poem: now he inverts the terminology and emphasis, stating that women are faithful and men are

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unfaithful – truth is twofold, ephemeral, according to one’s point of view. On the whole, the Prologue to the Legend of Good Women is unusually lyrical, personal and autobiographical, in its narration of Chaucer’s passion for flowers, the spring season and the month of May, and in the topos of a pleasurable dream during his slumber amid the flowers. It also provides us with an indirect catalogue of Chaucer’s written works, along with his lost ones, as well as giving precious information on their dates.36 In the prologue, in the manner of Poliziano, Alcestis appears on the scene. She is the chorus leader, with a garland of flowers around her hair, the personification of the beautiful daisy, and she is followed by a train of faithful wives chanting the ballad of Love. Indeed, Cupid is surrounded by them. The final part of the prologue turns into an act of self-defence on the part of Chaucer the poet, reprimanded by Cupid and defended by the compassionate and forgiving Alcestis. In this case, the defendant has to clear himself of the charge of having depicted Criseyde as an inconstant woman without taking into account the multitude of faithful women throughout the course of history. Stung to the quick, Chaucer feels the need to make amends, and having written five books on the story of a frivolous and disloyal woman and of a naïve but perfect lover (Criseyde and Troilus), subscribes to the opposite view of males as traitors and cheaters and females as paragons of integrity to the point of self-sacrifice. If the eulogy of female fidelity obeys a precise literary genre, this is the same oscillation that we will find replicated in The Canterbury Tales. The nine stories of historical women and mythological heroines loyal unto death form an anthology of classical cases narrated from a distinctly feminine point of view, reflected in the seething impatience with which the third-person narrative switches into the direct address, and in restrained and more often impassioned empathy. Even-tempered and skilful as usual, Chaucer here appears to be rather detached. The episodes are described without marked originality; his remake is far too mechanical with respect to Ovid, Virgil and other sources. Dido and Aeneas had already been evoked in the first part of The Hous of Fame, and the high-handed Chaucer, as previously stated, ‘defames’ Aeneas with respect to the traditional icon of 36

All the rest of Chaucer’s works are listed, apart from The Canterbury Tales, with the exception of the first tale, that of the Knight.

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the ‘pious’ hero.37 Theseus is not the just, level-headed, Solomonic monarch and civilizer of the first of the Canterbury Tales, but a supporter of the basic principles of the faithless male. Ultimately, The Legend of Good Women is an instance of canonical selection: Cleopatra, Thisbe, Lucrece are figures who will later be resumed above all by Shakespeare, alongside other ubiquitous and amazingly analogous myths in English literature of the future, such as those of Tereus and Philomela. The nineteenth-century heir of Chaucer (and of Chaucer as a composer and remaker of myths) is obviously William Morris, who reprinted him in a stylishly illustrated edition. § 18. Chaucer IV: ‘Troilus and Criseyde’ In the five books of Troilus and Criseyde (written in the early 1380s, perhaps in 1385 or, according to other scholars, between 1379 and 1383, composed in rhyme royal, that is to say in seven-line stanzas),38 Chaucer’s attribution of the story to his ‘authors’ has become so insistent as to be almost contradictory, as is his constant assertion that he was writing as if under dictation. He had two precedents, first Benoît de Sainte-Maure and Guido delle Colonne,39 but he claims to take inspiration from some mysterious Lollius; for all that, he actually translates – occasionally verbatim – Boccaccio’s Filostrato, while making significant changes to the plot.40 On at least two occasions, Chaucer’s poem was to pave the way and give a

37 38 39

Cf. BRP, 98–9, on the reaction of the Scottish poet Douglas towards this distortion. So called because it was inaugurated by James I, King of Scotland. On the increasing importance in the Middle Ages of the narrative framework of the two lovers, which is merely touched upon in Homer, see BAL, 170. 40 The poem is conceived and composed with the explicit objective of offering an exemplum to a ‘filostrato’, as a cure for his malady, and Pandarus is initially a physician who promises to heal Troilus of his wounds and make him see reason (but in I, 58–9, Chaucer has Troilus recite the translation of a Petrarchan sonnet). It is generally agreed that Chaucer creates Pandarus, merely adumbrated in Boccaccio; moreover, he develops the character of Criseyde, and extends its source by almost a half. The comparison between the two texts has been, and continues to be, a hunting ground for the most illustrious scholars in the field of comparative literature, such as Pio Rajna, C. S. Lewis and above all the spectacular Praz in PMI (who more explicitly speaks [41 n. 1] of a ‘land of plenty’ for a source researcher).

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few precious hints to Shakespeare for his Troilus and Cressida. If he apparently lags behind Shakespeare, this is merely due to the fact that the two writers were operating at a distance in different contexts and different genres, with the result that the two works defy any kind of comparison. Chaucer’s work is justly lacking in outdoor scenes and in a certain variety of personae; above all, the absence of Thersites and Ulysses, as well that of an ideological and argumentative contest regarding political power, is to be noted. Yet this remains a dialectical or indeed a dramatic poem, as opposed to an action-packed one, consisting as it does of an endless war of words for the most part between two characters. Thus, on principle, Troilus and Criseyde is at odds with Chaucer himself, and is marked by intensity and obsessive rigour, as opposed to the delightful variety of the Canterbury Tales; in short, it is monochromatic as opposed to polyphonic. The two lovers act out a heated, frenzied war of positions in a series of what we may define as arias and concertatos. It is important to note that this type of poem is the very first of its kind, considering that in Chaucer’s time stylized allegory predominated over psychological analysis. The poet stresses the need for celerity, and informs his public every time he recapitulates, summarizes or makes an omission, almost as if he foresaw that, far in the future, readers would consider excessively prolix a poem teeming with flowery Homeric and classical similes, almost invariably related to the alternation of the seasons and their natural scenery, and to the hours of the day. In actual fact, what Chaucer brings into focus, for the very first time in English literature, is erotic pathology and amour fou. Troilus, wildly in love, is an exact replica of Tristram,41 smitten and infatuated with passion; a valiant warrior, he becomes obsessed with his beloved and drives himself towards the maelstrom of self-destruction. It would then be more appropriate to compare this poem with Shakespeare’s Othello rather than with his Troilus and Cressida. Loyal Pandarus uses his matchmaking skills to unite Troilus and Criseyde, yet unwittingly forges the first link in the chain that will ultimately lead to jealousy and betrayal, thus involuntarily playing the part

41 Book III begins with Criseyde’s comforting visit to Troilus, sick in bed.

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of Iago.42 On the strength of a few subtle details, concerning the background and setting of the story, as well as the content and themes of the dialogues, Chaucer’s Troilus is also a remake. The event is transposed from the period of Homer to that of chivalry and courtly love; indeed, the estranged reader is continually prompted to consider that the story has been post-dated.43 What is more, Chaucer foreshadows the much later novel of seduction, betrayal and jealousy. Here the world of mythology and heroism is abandoned in favour of the era of men and bourgeois society. The precariousness of love is analysed in a genuinely Hardyan atmosphere of honourable promises that are destined to fall apart and become frustrated: the immature and weakwilled Troilus, with all his story-telling and philosophizing, resembles – and foreshadows – the obstinate and ‘obscure’ Jude of the novel of the same name. Pandarus and Troilus are paralysed by human respect and therefore by the fear of rumour, and the love story between Troilus and Criseyde must remain secret; Diomede is the judicious lover whose career must be ouverte aux talents. 2. Availing himself of his best and most consistent skills, Chaucer unites grace and order; and he masters his subject matter by observing his characters’ actions in the guise of an impartial arbiter. Knowing that he is also the author of The Canterbury Tales, we cannot help being taken aback by the absence of humour and satire. The stylishness of the translator and transposer, the dexterity with which he monitors and interchanges the various central themes remind us of another supreme recreator and transcriber, namely Alfred Lord Tennyson, the author of Idylls of the King five centuries later. In the same way that Tennyson victorianizes the palimpsest of King Arthur, so Chaucer medievalizes and domesticates one of the most distinctive of secondary episodes of the Trojan War. It would be improper to label Troilus and Criseyde as a chivalric poem, but not so improper if we bear in mind that, although this episode has its place in ancient Greek literature, Chaucer filters it through the sieve of chivalric codes. Strangely 42 On the subject of Shakespearean anticipations, P. Boitani, in MAR, vol. I, 219, sees in Troilus ‘a decidedly pre-Hamletic character’. 43 Speirs 1964, 51ff., enters into a debate with C. S. Lewis, who affirmed that Chaucer portrays the background in the allegorizing spirit of Guillaume de Lorris.

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enough, he revived this specific ‘matere’44 of Troy, which in the past decades or half-centuries had remained very much on the sidelines. Yet we are dealing with a rudimentary blending of materials, because there are many suggestive correspondences between Tristram and Troilus, and both stories overlap on the theme of irrational and self-destructive love and of female seduction. If we classify the work as a chivalric poem, then surely we are dealing with the greatest and most far-reaching one of its kind before Spenser. Chaucer is, of course, not renowned for his lyricism but for his epic and narrative poetry, but he occasionally assays the same ‘romantic’ poetry and romanticism of the Sehnsucht, as in the case of Troilus, who returns full of nostalgia and regret to see the palace abandoned by the now fugitive Criseyde, or vents his woe on the moon. This represents the inauguration of the narrative poem in several cantos and various metrical structures, a pattern adopted in Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh or in Tennyson’s narrative poems; above all, it is a foreshadowing of Byron’s Don Juan, although Chaucer lacks Byron’s taste for mockery and improvisation. A strong sense of everyday life transpires from the frequent scenes of a hero captured in his moments of privacy ‘in chaumbre’; the urban setting of Troy has been inevitably fantasized as a fortified medieval citadel, with roads, palaces and windows with ‘lattis’, that is, lattices or grates; the palace is surrounded by a garden in which the damsels stroll and while the hours away. Criseyde indulges in bourgeois pastimes, such as reading books on the siege of Thebes. The demeanour of the individual characters is modelled on manuals of etiquette, and the perfect – almost Renaissance – courtier possesses ‘excellence’, ‘wit’ and, at the same time, ‘governaunce’. The letters exchanged between the two lovers are signed in the formal French courtly manner ‘Le vostre T.’ and ‘La vostre C.’, but the prosaic rain intervenes and indeed contributes to their first embrace.45 Never could any Greek warrior like the desperate Troilus in the temple – and here is a blatant anachronism – have 44 This is a term used above all by Pandarus, in its secondary meaning of ‘objective’ of his own mission, that of making the two characters fall in love and of keeping them united. 45 Also in the ‘legend’ of Queen Dido, she and Aeneas are driven by the rain into a cave, where their love blossoms.

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commented so disproportionately on the medieval, Boethian controversy between predestination and free will. It might be worth mentioning that Troilus is very much younger and consequently far more immature with respect to Criseyde, already a widow; moreover Pandarus, being her uncle, is a sort of presumably youthful spiritual father, while Priam is an aged man, totally immersed in the war and in political issues. Not until we reach Book V (stanza 116), are we given a detailed physical description of Criseyde, who is ‘mene […] of hir stature’, with plaited hair adorned with a golden ribbon, and heavenly eyes (stanza 117); however, the poet confesses that he is ignorant of her age. In the next stanza, 119, he offers a brief description of Troilus’ character: gentle and courteous by definition, he can virtually compete with a woman on this account; and, indeed, he lacks two qualities, bravery and the gift of speech. Being reserved, he avails himself of Pandarus to intercede on his behalf;46 in doing so, he lets Criseyde slip through his fingers, and he loses her forever, instead of winning her over. After his tremendous loss, he becomes a snivelling, excessively submissive hero, a prey to fatalism. Diomede, like Pandarus, wields the weapon of rhetoric and, in next to no time, he achieves the objective that took Troilus an endless amount of time to reach. If Troilus is instinctive by nature, Criseyde treads very carefully, ‘in no soden wyse’. Fate or human frailty induce Chaucer to acquit the heroine or to suspend judgement. On the other hand, the modern code of conduct of treachery and even Machiavellian self-interest and expediency surfaces in Calchas, the soothsayer who flees from the now vanquished Troy. The Trojans, however, react with another code, that of loyalty, and Criseyde, unlike her father, is reinstated and esteemed. In Book III Troilus, visited by the heroine as he lies sick in his bed, devotedly places himself at her service, and the climax coincides with the evening meal at Pandarus’ house, with Troilus entering Criseyde’s bedroom, where we witness one of the longest and most extenuating scenes of seduction. In 46 A schemer like Iago, innocent and naïve but also extremely malicious, Pandarus is perhaps powered by indirect sexual intents; otherwise, it would be impossible to explain – and Chaucer fails to do so – why he so actively und unflaggingly keeps running back and forth from one to the other. He goads the even-tempered and poised Criseyde with the verbal weapons of slander and gossip.

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Book IV, the text gains vigour and Chaucer excels in stanzas that do not describe orderly skirmishes and wars of words, but the making of actions and decisions. Criseyde, who will later be traded for Antenor, is sincerely heartbroken for having to abandon Troy but, after rationally reflecting upon the situation, she devises and proposes her plan to Troilus, who is merely intent on slashing his veins. Initially the two lovers had deplored the arrival of daybreak, and also their agreement to defer matters for ten days. Criseyde’s promise to return to her lover reminds us of the wishful thinking of the two Shakespearean ill-fated lovers of Verona. ‘Fatal’ Troilus does not expect Criseyde to keep her promise and return ten days later; he falls victim to Diomede’s proposals, also because the latter has sworn that Troy will be burnt to the ground and not a single inhabitant will be saved. Troilus plummets into the abyss of desolation. In the last lines, Chaucer gives a detailed account of how Troilus is thunderstruck when he sees the gift he had given to Criseyde adorning the Greek warrior’s armour. § 19. Chaucer V: ‘The Canterbury Tales’ I. The poem as a field of contrary vectors A few of The Canterbury Tales were written separately prior to 1380; later – around 1387 – Chaucer decided to make them parts of a single text. The work became then a collage of pre-existing texts incorporated with, or adapted to, other new ones. It was presumably shelved before its completion, around 1395, not, therefore, cut short by the author’s death. The work was then reproduced in over eighty manuscripts, and printed for the first time in 1478 and later, in 1484, by Caxton. Originally created with the aim of entertainment, the tales were subsequently interconnected and reordered. The obsessive dilemma of what came first, the chicken or the egg, that is to say, whether the characters in the Prologue were created before the stories attributed to them, or vice versa, has been solved once and for all: Chaucer wrote the stories and then the characters were adjusted and matched to them, even if the combination appears at times to be hardly noticeable, inexistent or even contradictory. Similarly, at the risk of sounding somewhat pedantic, we must add that Boccaccio concludes his work with a perfect number of 100 tales, whereas Chaucer sets out to compose 120, but founders and throws in the towel before the end. We witness the same intermingling of themes and genres; but Boccaccio’s work is written

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exclusively in prose, whereas Chaucer alternates poetry and prose, with the predominance of the former. Boccaccio makes an orderly subdivision of the tales in terms of genre, whereas Chaucer deviates from this pattern. These are all gestures of independence. According to the original plan, the poem, as I mentioned, was to be a mammoth structure of 120 tales, given that the group of pilgrims on their way to Thomas Becket’s shrine consisted of thirty people, each of whom was supposed to tell two stories on the outward journey and two on the return journey. The project was left unfinished, and was tacitly abandoned or downscaled during its composition, with the result that only the General Prologue and twenty-two tales are complete, with two additional fragmentary ones. Above all, the sequence, not so much of the tales themselves, but of the ‘groups’ (nine, commonly identified with the capital letters from A to I) in which they have been assembled and into which the work is divided, requires further investigation.47 Each group encloses two or more tales, interconnected by interludes and prologues; however, there is a lack of diegetic and discursive links between one group and the other. Nevertheless – just as episode ten of Joyce’s Ulysses is symbolically crucial to the novel, mainly due to its opening and closing scenes – the Tales must begin with the Knight’s Tale and end with the Parson’s Tale, two symbolic figures, or allegories, or banners of medieval cosmology and everyday life. The list of pilgrims does not include any specific representative of political power or any official symbol of law and order, but it is the Knight who acts as their spokesman. With the Parson, the embodiment of religious power, the work comes full circle. It is interesting to note that both the most lowly and the most influential social classes have been excluded, above all for the sake of mimesis, inasmuch as neither the nobleman nor the yokel could realistically have been included in a company of pilgrims. In truth, the question of the order of the tales conceals a few more deceptive implications. It would have been rational to arrange for the tales to follow on from each other according to the order in which the characters make their entrance in the Prologue and

47 The manuscripts which have been preserved follow different sequences; the Ellesmere manuscript, in California at present, is the highest rated, even if the most recent research deems the Hengwrt, kept in Aberystwyth, the closest to Chaucer’s holograph.

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are there introduced; yet this is not the case, even in the various groups, with the result that we come up against the first striking and unexpected incongruity. Moreover, some of the characters in the Prologue have not been assigned a tale, as can only be expected in an incomplete work. The lack of correspondence between the order in which the characters enter the Prologue and that of their respective tales depends on random selection, that is, drawing lots; the first name drawn is that of the Knight, but this is obviously an expedient of the real author.48 The need for order, we infer, clashes with the threat of disorder in the Canterbury Tales, and heralds the major Elizabethan theme of discordia concors. 2. It is common knowledge that the pilgrimage constitutes a hackneyed narrative framework handed down by tradition, yet Chaucer succeeds in firing it with unprecedented – at times compelling – realism. The group of pilgrims is recruited at the Tabard Inn in Southwark on 18 April of an unspecified year,49 and, to a certain extent, it is possible to follow the route every step of the way as they proceed. At ten o’clock in the morning of the same day, the Man of Law’s Tale begins, and shortly after we are informed that the town of Rochester is now in sight. By the time we reach the third tale in group A, the company has arrived at Deptford, already halfway through the first day of the pilgrimage.50 Considering the period in which it was composed, the poem is more than a skeleton of a road novel, by virtue of the interchange of the story itself and the information pertaining to its enunciation. In the narrative fiction the pilgrims travel on horseback and, as has been agreed, they pass the time by telling stories.51 The Host of the inn,52

48 Kean 1972, vol. II, 73, appears to believe that the work might have been complete, but not according to the type of sequence attained and described at the end of the Knight’s Tale. 49 Conventionally taken to be the year 1387. 50 The text is apparently discontinued at the gates of Canterbury at the end of the fourth day. 51 Praz (PMI, 80) finds it unlikely that thirty people on the move, either in a line or on horseback, could all hear each tale clearly and distinctly. 52 He is known in the text as Harry Bailly and, like other pilgrims, he might have had a counterpart in real life.

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having now joined the company, is the one who takes note of the passing of the hours and establishes both the duration and sequence of the tales. He comments on and distorts them, being the only person who is not a storyteller, but simply a moderator and a judge. The Host is essentially the character who orders the text, insofar as he is the one who organizes the journey, devises the storytelling game and sets the rules and timeframe, in spite of the fact that the scribe is Chaucer himself, or an alter ego of Chaucer. Though a good-natured fellow, the Host dictates fairly strict rules, and ratifies the agreement, which gains the approval of the whole company. A similar ‘social contract’ adumbrates the constitution of human society, also due to the fact that the medley of the pilgrims is its mise en abyme. The pilgrimage was, in fact, a societal ritual which, on an exceptional basis, eliminated the rigid disparities based on class and area of origin and, at least for a short period of time, made it possible for men and women, and the most heterogeneous social classes and trades, to live together in harmony, thus unifying the country. The narrators are distributed according to medieval customs, practices and categories. The unprecedented realism of the Tales is confirmed by the following observations. While being rigidly structured in verse form, the tales at times appear to respond to an irrepressible urge to reply in kind to a preceding speaker, and the whole sequence is edited on the basis of vindictiveness and personal rivalry. Between the introductory tale of the Knight and that of the Miller, we witness a bathos, both in terms of internal time (from the mythological era to contemporary times) and of theme (from the high and noble to the base and sardonic). The two tales are diametrically opposed, also due to the dissonance and at the same time the similarity of the contexts, since in both tales two men are rivals for a woman. However, no sooner has the Miller told a story in which he disparages a carpenter than the Reeve (himself a carpenter) immediately retorts, with the result that one tale gives rise to another, thus enacting a catalytic process. Similarly, the Friar’s Tale departs from a long-standing grudge of his against the Summoner. Historians remind us of the parochial rivalries and proverbial hostilities among the various categories and trade associations in Chaucer’s time. Secondly, the overall design is sufficiently adaptable to be able to accommodate sudden unforeseen changes of plan. Further along the way a panting knight, accompanied by his squire, joins

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the company of pilgrims, whereupon an interlude in the form of a short, delightful tale in its own right comes to life: the knight is a quack who makes a living by hoodwinking simpletons, claiming that silver can be obtained from melted coal, but the squire, pressed by the Host, finds the courage to expose him and reveal his evil arts, thus forcing the unmasked swindler to make a getaway. Another unexpected event is afforded by the drunken cook who, for this reason, is unable to fulfil his duty of telling his story when the Host calls out his name. It is Chaucer himself who makes amends for the firm rejection of his chivalric parody and tells the story of Melibee, which is, however, awarded a less than lukewarm applause (he jests over his own incompetence and moves on to prose, after swallowing their criticism – or rather his own self-criticism – on account of his limping rhymes). It is not surprising that the taste of the period should appreciate tales spontaneously invented and transposed into verse, invariably in rhyming couplets of decasyllabic pentameters; especially since, due to a similar correspondence between theme and metre, Chaucer’s tale of Melibee and the final tale of the Parson, which externally resemble a treatise or debate, are written in prose and with numbered paragraphs. 3. As previously stated, the exact year of the pilgrimage is not specified, but the month and also the place of departure are. There is no dreamvision or surreal geography in the Tales; everything is ascertainable and plausible. At this point, the distinction between the internal author and the real author virtually fades away, given that Chaucer – in his own name – joins the other twenty-nine pilgrims as the thirtieth member of the company. The ‘layered’ communication model in the Canterbury Tales is as follows: ‘Chaucer’, the internal narrator, with his own viewpoint and bias, has the group of pilgrims as his audience; his words are recorded by the real author, the historical Chaucer, whose name appears on the title page; the final audience is constituted by us, the readers of posterity. It is, as it were, a game of retransmission, more or less as in Wuthering Heights. In the Prologue the first person ‘I’ is predominant, but our modern critical conscience, after Bakhtin, is now well skilled in the art of exploring the ambiguity of the statements pronounced by the mask of the author, and thus with no guarantee. Very rarely have critics asked themselves whether Chaucer had really been to Canterbury on a pilgrimage, or whether he had ever gone through a similar experience, and therefore whether he was

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describing a real event; they limit themselves to stating that Greenwich, the author’s town of residence, was a privileged observation point to watch the groups of pilgrims on their journey towards Canterbury. The narrator plays on this ambiguity and hastily takes cover behind a few categorical judgements, which are, however, to be interpreted within the context of this game of make-believe and of the not totally convincing Erlebte Rede. The ‘voice-over’ says ‘I’, but reports only what he sees, what he witnesses, what he listens to, and has thus sometimes a limited knowledge. He also weighs and organizes spaces and times at a later stage, enters into considerable detail but also abridges and summarizes. Moreover, in the tales where two or more plots run parallel, he zigzags, and skilfully shifts from one to the other. Occasionally, as in the Knight’s Tale, he gives prior notice of, and includes, a crucial digression, for instance a description of the statue of Venus, in order to illustrate the overwhelming power of Love (Chaucer is notoriously an unrivalled master of ekphrasis, and is superbly captivating when he describes pictorial and architectural details, as in this case).53 Like Boccaccio, and like Browning, he is therefore a ventriloquist poet ante litteram, capable of imitating various fake voices and registers. A wide range of narrative rules can be derived from the narrative practice. The first internal rule is related to the inclusion in the General Prologue of the poem of a global overview and a kaleidoscopic slideshow of the pilgrim narrators, instead of giving a description of each storyteller before each tale. The only physical portraits and descriptions of clothing that are postponed are those of the Canon and the Yeoman, a necessary transgression, due to the fact that they join the group later and are not present at the inn at the moment of departure. Another internal rule is the interlude or the preamble, that is to say the interstices between one tale and the other, extratextual skirmishes that are part of the story frame: one character protests, another gives a lecture, another churns out lengthy, orchestrated prologues,54 yet another formulates captationes or preteritions or professes false modesty. 53

This is the learned and well-argued view, based on medieval visual and iconographic culture, advanced by Kolve 1984 and 2009. 54 These prologues are invariably short, yet the one which introduces the Wife of Bath’s Tale reverses this tendency and, in this case, the world-famous Wife of Bath’s Prologue overpowers the tale itself.

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At the same time, the Host takes it upon himself to devise a sort of collective feedback, speaking on behalf of the group and expressing a rating of approval, although not systematically: for instance, how can the pilgrims listen to the tale of Melibee without yawning? The blatant discrepancy of the Yeoman’s Tale lies, at least in the first of the two parts, in the fact that it is not a fictional tale involving imaginary characters far removed from the narrator – which seems to be the general rule – but specifically an autobiography dealing with the narrator himself, his master and his trickery: in short, a canon’s yeoman speaks about or maligns canons. The Squire’s Tale is, in turn, the most explicitly metanarrative of tales that are occasionally metanarrative: he affirms point blank that it is possible to make introductions and defer pathos, but at the cost of a certain amount of verbosity. Being self-aware, for the very reason that they are all ‘offspring’ of Chaucer, having been born from his kaleidoscopic imagination, the several narrators take account of what exactly reaches the recipient. For this very reason the need for narrative economy unites different storytellers from all walks of life, all of whom are unanimous in their decision to dispense with all the marginalia; thus they tend to punctuate the flow of their tales with self-addressed appeals for conciseness. Variety, a rare quality with which Chaucer is clearly endowed, is reflected first and foremost in the dimensions and the planning. Alongside more traditional diegetic models, the Monk’s Tale assembles isolated and detached snippets dealing with mythological and biblical themes, in order to exemplify the reversals of fortune: at the same time, it is a prime example of an extraordinary mise en abyme, reflected in a series of short stories linked by a theme, but each with a different protagonist and with remarkable variations in terms of time, space and geographical location, in accordance with the principle of variety underlying the Canterbury Tales as a whole. Moreover, in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale, two or more plots are interwoven in the main plot before they finally surrender to it. Could it be that the Cook’s Tale was curtailed, interrupted and abandoned because in the narrative fiction it turned out to be just too mediocre? As previously stated, Chaucer personally takes the floor in order to deliver a tale, which is, however, destined to be nipped in the bud due to its marked inferiority. The connecting thread is the aforementioned bickering among the representatives of the

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rival categories; however, this thread may also be thematic, when two tales are linked like the horns of a dilemma and present two conflicting sides of an issue. The so-called ‘Marriage Group’ camouflages one of Chaucer’s haunting obsessions: is marriage a wise course of action, are wives an asset, and is marriage a blessing or a curse? On this topic, Chaucer launches an investigation that is destined to become a constant and common theme in English literature up to Hardy. Internal cohesion is also provided by the fact that the pilgrims themselves have good memories, make links and find connections: the Wife of Bath is not easy to forget. 4. In the first interlude preceding the Miller’s Tale (in current editions usually the second tale in the series), the author states explicitly that the subject matter of The Canterbury Tales provides a 360-degree view of human life. We can expect a series of tales regarding nobility and baseness, and covering the whole range from the sublime to the brutish. It is not inappropriate to quote Joyce for the second time, because the carnal and sexual do not gradually evolve towards the sublime, but they very often ascend, only to crash down again haphazardly, with the result that they coexist shoulder to shoulder. Both authors report unabridged sermons, steeped as they are in homiletic culture and Catholic theology and exploit this material, though not entirely in the form of parody. The shift in tone and theme from one pole to another is as disconcerting and astonishing in Chaucer as in Joyce. The shortlist of literary genres alternates in Chaucer from the realistic to the mythological, the fantastic, the surreal and the sensational. His sources are common knowledge handed down over the ages, the repertoire of legends, original observation, or false rumours. The Clerk reports a story he heard from other people, and which turns out to be Petrarch’s Latin translation of Boccaccio’s tale of Griselda. Chaucer’s alertness to historical issues is exemplified by the tales dealing with the relations between Christians and Jews (as in the aforementioned Prioress’ ‘anti-Semitic’55 tale of the young martyr Hugh of Lincoln) and

55

It is hardly realistic and plausible that the Jews should kill the boy simply because he sings the praises of the Virgin. Orwell (OCE, vol. III, 385) probably relied on this tale in recognizing in Chaucer the beginning of a ‘perceptible antisemitic strain’ in

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those between Christians and Muslims, a common theme in many previous epics on the Crusades and their historical context (Constance in the Man of Law’s Tale). There is a never-ending series of tales regarding amorous or erotic affairs, tales on lost or unspoiled virginity, on adultery and on the marital Decalogue. 5. The Tale of Melibee is one of the two Chaucerian transpositions of a tedious religious treatise on medieval spirituality and a manual of righteous Christian behaviour,56 and it elaborates on the necessity and nature of Christian virtues. It is wholly theoretical rather than narrative, and the frame of the story, which describes Melibee’s intention to take revenge on his enemies after their attack on his house and family, merely serves as a pretext. It takes the form of a typical lectio swamped with constant references to Cicero, similar to the one imparted to Langland’s pilgrim by the allegorical figures and incarnated virtues (in Chaucer the lesson is delivered by Prudence, and Melibee is also ‘one who feeds on honey’).57 From a conceptual point of view, however, this is a crucial tale, because it attempts to inspire and instil in the audience the power of self-control, something that they specifically lack, or which Chaucer’s male but also female characters violate in the tales. The Tale of Melibee thus gives the impression of a series of rules (more often than not spurned or flouted in the subject matter of the other tales), such as the writer’s pleas for temperance, moderation, abstinence or control over one’s compulsions; it also attempts to dissuade his audience from vindictiveness which, ironically, is the driving force that powers the tales of trickery. Melibee lays the emphasis on human inadequacy and fragility. We pass from a pilgrimage towards the other world to a horizontal, concrete one; and, in this precise sense, Chaucer is an ‘English Dante’ or in any case a Dante, because the latter was an expert

English literature. Others argue that there were no Jews in England when Chaucer wrote, and that he based himself on popular hearsay. 56 The source followed slavishly is a French translation of a treatise by Albertanus of Brescia. 57 In her interpretation of the name of Cecilia, the Second Nun indulges in etymological fantasies that herald Ruskin: the name Cecilia means ‘lily from heaven’, ‘the way of the blind’, ‘absence of blindness’, ‘heaven of the people’.

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in making the sublime and the vulgar clash jarringly. In the Summoner’s interlude, a small masterpiece of bitingly satirical and lewd wit, he visualizes Hell like Satan’s rear end, from which 20,000 friars come swarming out.58 Yet, as opposed to Dante, Chaucer impassibly depicts the human individual in the grips of an extremely volatile psyche and the precariousness and unpredictability of human existence. His valediction strikes us as being somewhat bizarre or humorous and, at any rate, enigmatic, insofar as the author retracts his entire works, in primis his licentious tales in the manner of Boccaccio. This retraction is an obtrusive, discordant diegetic intrusion, a veritable discursive incongruence, almost as if Chaucer had caught himself, or had been caught red-handed, by some external authority, or even by a hypostasis of his own conscience.59 Chaucer’s Weltanschauung precisely hinges on the overpowering fear that humanity may not be governed by reason and that the flesh may gain the upper hand; he apparently downplays the issue, but in actual fact it perturbs him, and the Parson has to bring down his axe, as it were, to admonish the company, in an interminable sermon, that the senses need to be kept in check. His tale goes as far as to pose the question of whether the entire text of The Canterbury Tales might not be governed by a mechanism based on transgression and atonement: whether the price to pay for this carnival parade might not be, also in terms of emphasis, this unbearable manual of Christian life. For this very reason – due to its excessively abrupt appearance in the work – some critics are still in doubt as to whether it was, in fact, really meant to be a finale; some even have reservations regarding its authenticity. The poem certainly has a carnivalesque evolution, even if it is not sequential, but rather in the form of almost simultaneous alternating cycles, apart from the fact that the Parson’s prose tale, while vehemently and menacingly exhorting

58

59

The idea impressed, and indeed fired, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s imagination in his film dated 1972, which Chaucer scholars hardly ever, or never, take into consideration. Two detailed data sheets, compiled by the present writer, and comparing Chaucer’s text with the film script, can be accessed at , dated 16.9.2012 and 19.9.2012. This crisis is attributed by Coulton 1968, 62, to Chaucer’s fear of the unknown, but also to a few visits he received from monks urging him to repent.

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the company to repent, marks, so to speak, the end of the carnival and the advent of Lent. Similar visions have the effect of making the majority of Chaucer’s male characters suspicious and chauvinistic misogynists; having said that, we witness the bursting on the scene of the pugnacious, aggressive wife of the Host in the following prologue. Chaucer’s typical female character is ambivalent – vulgar and chaste, lascivious and virginal. Three female figures, self-confessed virgins and champions of chastity, stand out as paragons of virtue and resistance towards carnal desire: Constance, Griselda and Cecilia. Chaucer therefore juxtaposes, without voicing an opinion, two contrasting points of view. Incontinence affects the clergy itself, albeit not systematically, and often in the very moment when its representatives preach against it. The most despicable Chaucerian clergyman, who thirsts after sex and riches, is the one described in the Shipman’s Tale, where he is portrayed as the perpetrator of a string of misdeeds, committed suavely and almost absent-mindedly. Monks, in the Host’s opinion, are failed procreators, whose libido has obviously been channelled elsewhere, but at the cost of enormous sacrifice. Behind the façade there lurks a bogus ideology, whereby something unnatural worms its way into the bachelor’s life and corrupts it. With the Pardoner we border on unadulterated Langlandian territory and, sooner or later, we can expect a tirade or an insurgence on the part of the more sound and virtuous of the pilgrims. Yet the Pardoner meekly confesses to the trap, making no mystery of the guile with which he extorts alms; thus the self-confessed criminal unmasks himself. Browning might have taken a cue from this tale, above all in the monologues in which he demonstrates how this ancient, corrupt Catholicism retains the power to seduce and deceive the common people, by putting into practice the fraud to which the Pardoner pleads guilty. Chaucer espouses, in particular and in all honesty, the idea that one’s life should be spent in the world, far away from the desolation and darkness of the convent. He invariably frowns on the advocates of monasticism. For his part, the layman’s duty is simply to put his talents to good use, thus sanctifying his existence: in the exercise of their trades, very few other people surpass the thirty pilgrims, for which reason Chaucer very often avails himself of hyperbole and indulgently glosses over their failings: ‘Ther nas no man nowher so vertuous’. The array of characters alternates righteous monks with lecherous and villainous friars, who appear to be out of place at a pilgrimage, just like the

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Shipman, the Summoner and the Pardoner.60 Langland’s whip is wielded contrary-wise: the Parson is not the kind of priest that goes in search of offerings, nor is he corrupt, like many; on the contrary, he unassumingly does his duty. Scrolling down in the Prologue, we see the appearance of an honourable, just ‘plowman’ – a nod or a wink to Langland is de rigueur. The fact that this pilgrimage takes place during the daytime and has nothing to do with dream-vision is evidence of Chaucer’s thorough realism, and one that can therefore be more accurately assessed with respect to Langland’s. Ironically, the reward at the end of the pilgrimage is not so much the arrival at the agreed spiritual destination, as the ‘soper’, the evening meal awarded to the winner of the storytelling competition. § 20. Chaucer VI: ‘The Canterbury Tales’ II. The internal texture Critics, as I have already mentioned, have been unanimous in stating that variety is one of the most evident and indisputable merits of The Canterbury Tales. For this reason, it is customary, analysing them, to start from an inventory made according to genre. The tales of the Knight and Squire, as well as that of the Franklin, belong to courtly romance; those of the Miller, Reeve, Friar and Summoner belong to the fabliau tradition; those of the Lawyer and the Prioress derive from the hagiographic genre; those of the Wife of Bath and the Pardoner from the didactic; Chaucer’s tale of Sir Thopas and the Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale fall into the burlesque and parodic genre. Chaucer’s main problem was orchestration, which also becomes a problem for modern readers. There are several possible solutions, that is, regarding the rearrangement of the collection for the purpose of a more detailed discussion: the distinction between poetry and prose, between the earlier and the later tales; the list of places and settings and thus also of historical periods, from ancient Greece to almost all the rest of Europe, to Asia and other purely fictional and imaginary lands; or the alternating of contrasts and similarities, or the ascending or descending order according to the social spectrum and prestige of the narrators. In the text the tales challenge one another without interruption, but they do so for

60 The poet Crabbe seems to have been the first to draw attention to this discrepancy (see CRHE, vol. I, 263).

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reasons that go beyond a mere repartee; and in the definitive arrangement the connections might perhaps have worked even at a distance, according to principles and criteria we have no way of knowing. As matters stand, we are of course in no position to be able to speak of the nexus between the ‘groups’ of the surviving tales. I propose to follow a descending order in terms of theme, also along the lines of the degree of ‘nobility’ of the various genres; a thematic division is, in practical terms, tantamount to a division in terms of genre.61 It must, however, be underlined that such a procedure, after my initial emphasis on the ‘openness’ of The Canterbury Tales, is necessarily a practical and arbitrary one, adopted for the sole purpose of critical discussion. 2. In the General Prologue Chaucer is a caricatural illuminator who dwells on minute, unusual, infinitesimal detail and on the microscopic element, without the visionary distortion of a Langland, whose work, after all, begins on the same thematic chord. As previously stated, we are dealing with ekphrases, in the manner of a Flemish painter ante litteram, with a keen eye for the exterior aspects (hats, fashions, wristbands, demeanour and speech); thus shedding precious light on the psychological connotations linked to these. Chaucer could perhaps be more accurately defined as a water-colourist, without Rembrandt’s depth and his masterly use of chiaroscuro, as stated by Praz who, with his own optical anachronisms, underlines the analogies with the paintings of Altichiero and Pisanello; or simply a naїf artist. Notably, and strikingly, this Prologue thronged with portraits lacks the author’s self-portrait, which is reflected much later in the hare-hunter with his lowered gaze. The dominant aesthetics is that of apparent disorder. Yet basically the method employed in the introduction of the characters, in which discontinuity, and even dissonance and coincidence reign supreme – according to what attracts the author’s attention as he goes along – has repercussions on the layout of the work in general, if only as regards a felicitous or unavoidable circumstance, namely the mishmash created by the tales being read in the established order, or in any other order. In maintaining objectivity, Chaucer sits back and allows himself to

61

This is the pattern also adopted by the first-rate study by Kean 1972.

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be entertained by the kaleidoscope of English life, which he is determined and obliged to accept in its unquestionable reality, and pretends to do so on the spur of the moment, without amendments. The task he sets himself is that of the authentic chronicler who reports even the various accents and dialects of his characters. He is decidedly tolerant towards human idiosyncrasies, being armed with a vision of man ontologically a victim of powerful, uncontrollable passions. Only at a later stage comes the prompt, even merciless, admonition to dominate our instinct ‘che virtù nol guidi’ [‘lest we run where virtue guides not’], as Dante had said. Chaucer is already a budding humanist because his man, with his multifaceted charismas, is nevertheless endowed with some degree of ‘vertue’; in other words, he excels in his own professional sphere. Chaucer, in fact, very rarely accuses his pilgrims of being incompetent, for which reason each and all of them are gifted with a coherent form of pride and self-esteem. He does make a few vitriolic comments on some of his characters from a moral point of view, but he ends up being merciful towards them and compensating their vices with other virtues. Life is already a struggle for physical, material and intellectual supremacy within a temporarily horizontal range; and sexual mockery is the rejoinder to fraudulence, as in the Reeve’s Tale, and represents the possibility of compensation, even if taken to extremes. A similar concurrence of conflicting attitudes can be seen above all in the figures of the clergymen. All in all, Chaucer does not appear to be unduly outraged by the fact that, for the most part, they are worldly, pleasureseeking, epicurean, amorous individuals, because he seems to think that a cleric’s mission lies in the world of the living and not within the walls of a convent. A similar predilection for life and good living is only contradicted by the category of university students. The myth of chivalry, in the Knight’s Tale, is already impaired by the sarcasm directed towards the two relatives or cousins, who in words profess their fervent love for each other, only to foolishly become, in practice, bitter enemies and rivals for the same woman. Yet, just to suggest the extremely abrupt breaks in continuity, the following scenario is immediately that of a rural context with thoroughly commonplace characters, like the carpenter ridiculed by the student, and fooled with the aid of culture or magic, such as astrology or predictions of impending doom. Contemporary events continually alternate with historical, mythological, legendary and esemplastic ones.

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3. The Knight sets out to narrate, and indeed gives a summary of the ancient clichéd story of the heroic deeds of Theseus,62 from the defeat of the Amazon women to his marriage with Hippolyta, a story which looks ahead to Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and especially to The Two Noble Kinsmen. Beginning in medias res, it begins with Theseus’ meeting with a company of dishevelled Theban widows, clad in black, who stop him and entreat him to wage war against Creon, by whom they have been denied burial of their husbands. Like an authentic medieval knight, Theseus immediately decides upon a change of schedule and routs the tyrant. The Knight’s alleged concision is merely a semblance, and is overtly infringed in the unfolding of the misadventures of the two cousins Palamon and Arcite, captured and deported to Athens. Having both set eyes one day on Emelye, Hippolyta’s sister, through the prison bars, the two Thebans immediately fall in love with her and come to blows over her. One of the fundamental rules in the chivalric code is at issue, but at the same time the absolute primacy of love over any other human law is recalled. One of the two hopes that there will be a free contest, as they have both been condemned to remain prisoners for life. Through the intercession of a friend of his, Arcite is set free but, on pain of death, he is never to show his face again in Theseus’ kingdom. Paradoxically, Arcite’s newly acquired freedom becomes a prison for him. For the first time, Chaucer pronounces an adage, which is subsequently to recur in his work, to the effect that fortune does not always produce favourable consequences and is sometimes short-lived.63 For his

62 The task of narrating the Theban wars will be undertaken by Lydgate (§ 21.3), who attributes the story to Chaucer’s knight on his return journey. 63 At a distance, the Monk’s Tale is intended to respond to the tale of the cunning, unscrupulous and profiteering priest who is the protagonist of the Shipman’s Tale, with a view to rehabilitating the category. He is boldly described by the Host as a ruddy, lecherous monk in his sexual prime, a potential procreator of offspring; however, in the manner of Gower, he churns out a mediocre chain of descriptions of illustrious men from mythological times, for the sake of morality, underlining the fact that fortune is ephemeral and, once it reaches its zenith, it plummets. Therefore these are all examples of downfalls in a historico-fictional timespan extending from Adam to Croesus, attributable above all to women, responsible for the heroes’ reversals of fortune. With a certain amount of imagination, and with one of his simplistic generalizations, Praz (SSI, vol. II, 243, expanded in PMI, 56–63) identified in the

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part, the jealous Palamon gives voice to his hatred of the cruel gods, as well as the moral law that differentiates men from beasts. Therefore there is an abundance of moralizing reflections and debates in the disguise of topical medieval issues. Pining over his lost love, Arcite, acting upon Mercury’s advice, leaves Thebes for Athens and works as Emelye’s steward’s footman. At this point, the Knight telling the story adopts a technique which is later to become frequent in Chaucer, whereby he passes from one side of the story of the two suitors to the other. One night in May, Palamon also decides to flee the city, with the intention of winning Emelye over; and in a wood outside the city, on hearing Arcite’s love song dedicated to his beloved, he comes out in the open and challenges his rival to a duel. The Ariostesque flavour of this somewhat mock-heroic duel consists in the fact that Arcite himself, seeing that Palamon is disarmed, provides him with the necessary arms for the contest, as well as a place to sleep for the night. When the time comes to open the hostilities, the two heroes turn pale. Theseus, engaged in a deer hunt, encounters the two duellists and stops the fight, calling them to order according to the rules of chivalry and above all to the more enlightened laws of social life, on the basis of the medieval supposition that he was the mythical originator of an evolutionary chapter of history, that of art and civilization. For this reason, there is a digression dedicated to the temple of Venus and to her statue, as well as to Diana and her legends. Using a fade-out technique, the narrating Knight returns to the two suitors, whose quarrel will be settled a year later, each flanked with 100 knights, described in great visual detail and with the same microscopic observation witnessed in the Prologue. Parallel actions are accomplished at the dawn of the duel. Palamon enters the temple of Venus to pray and, shortly after, Emelye also goes to the temple of Diana to offer a sacrifice and, although she is contrary to the prospect of marriage, she dedicates a

cameo of Count Ugolino the birth certificate in English literature of ‘bourgeois pathos’, of the ‘sentimental’ genre and the ‘Flemish style miniature’, in short of the Biedermeier sensibility. Following this cue, the incipit of the Franklin’s Tale might be considered to mark the birth of the Romantic Sehnsucht of the restless, yearning woman, similar to the protagonist of John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman, who finds in the symbolic and evocative craggy rocks an objective correlative of her state of mind.

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prayer to the goddess, who miraculously appears before her and tells her that, even against her will, she will have to marry one of the two suitors. For his part, Arcite goes to the temple of Mars to pray. Parallelistically, the god appears before him to assure him of the victory. The scene is shifted to the heavens where discord reigns supreme among the gods, and where Saturn devises a stratagem to favour Palamon. However, on the day of the contest, Theseus announces that bloodshed is to be avoided, for which reason the duel will be conducted using weapons for hand-to-hand combat, in itself an allegory of another advancement in civilization. The Homeric veneer is filtered: among the rules the respites to enable the warriors to regain their strength are also included. Theseus proclaims Arcite victorious but, during the celebrations, Saturn and Pluto cause him to be thrown off his horse and, mortally wounded, he lies in the palace, until he finally dies, entrusting Emelye to Palamon. In his funeral speech, Theseus elucidates a few concepts of medieval philosophy, like that of the ‘First Mover’ and of the duration and limits of human achievements. Emelye marries Palamon. The tale glorifies, yet at the same time undermines, the medieval concept of chivalry: Theseus enacts rigid and impartial draconian laws, and the friendship between the two Thebans runs counter to and is unable to resist the compelling attraction of the flesh. Love is a tyrant, and overrides the laws of chivalry, by mutual agreement of the two heroes. At the same time the artlessness, or chivalric and Ariostesque ‘gran bontà’ [‘goodly truth’] of the two duellists reaches a climax when they agree that death is the preferable alternative to losing one’s beloved. 4. The Squire’s Tale opens with a manifest reference to Sir Gawain: a knight arrives at the king’s palace, where a feast is taking place, on a brass, flying horse, and with a magic ring and a glass mirror that reflects the emotions in other people’s hearts; he is also armed with a sword that wounds and heals. The horse resembles a contraption similar to the machines in H. G. Wells’s fiction, because, by twirling a peg, it is possible to perform simple acts of magic. In this particular case, the knight bestows on Canace the gift of understanding the language of birds and conversing with them. She speaks with a bleeding peregrine she-falcon that laments the betrayal of a false tercelet who has seduced and abandoned her, an episode of innocent female love betrayed, transposed in the context of the animal kingdom.

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The Franklin’s Tale overturns the situation of Griselda: a knight suffers the humiliation of obeying and suffering at the hands of his wife, a lady of noble birth. For this reason, we witness the frequent ambivalence or even the mutual interference of certain Chaucerian tales, because the themes of chivalry and romance intersect with that of marital issues. The married couple Arviragus (a name which will later recur in Shakespeare) and Dorigen vow to live according to endurance, tolerance and equal rights. Arviragus puts their union to the test by embarking on noble quests, thus compromising the basic principles on which they had founded their marriage. His departure, while being a source of heroic gratification for the husband, brings in fact grief and the risk of separation for his wife. In a splendid soliloquy, the wife wonders why God has created the sea rocks, whose sole purpose is to kill any and every kind of life. Shortly after, she begins to nurture an adulterous passion for a squire. The woman’s self-deception is admirably portrayed, as she professes eternal loyalty to her husband, but at the same time plays with fire, as she sets the squire an apparently impossible condition: she promises to yield to him on the day he makes the cruel sea rocks disappear. Chaucer has recourse to his usual irony with regard to astrology, by making the squire resort to the magic arts, after having beseeched Phoebus and Lucina in vain. The magician actually succeeds in making the rocks disappear and, when Dorigen realizes her error, she would prefer to die rather than betray her husband; when she reveals the truth to Arviragus, he delicately comments: ‘Is ther oght elles, Dorigene, but this?’ with perceptive, almost tragic undertones. At this point the characters in Chaucer’s tale are faced with a dilemma: the husband consents to his wife keeping her word, in deference to the code of chivalry: in other words, Dorigen has to yield to the squire’s desires, but as discreetly as possible, without anyone knowing. Yet, all’s well that ends well, and the squire, in a contest of nobility, chooses to let Dorigen’s promise go unfulfilled, although he is overcome with grief. This is a tale that can be interpreted as a new condemnation or criticism of the absurdity of the chivalric code and, at the same time, as a caution against irresponsible behaviour in love, which invariably masks a certain element of self-deception. The situation could have been disastrous, and even the magician gives a display of magnanimity. The legendary Wife of Bath seems to be a – or the – mouthpiece of

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Chaucer’s human and humanistic philosophy: she has had five husbands, in obedience to the Holy Writ and the teachings of Jesus on the subject of matrimony, and justifies her polygamy, though not contemporaneous, by citing the example of Solomon. In the abstract debate on spiritual virginity (and fertility) versus carnal fertility, dating back to St Paul, there can be no doubt as to whose side the woman is on. In her tale, a man rapes a young woman, but his life is spared and he goes in search of the reply to the question: ‘What do women most desire?’ However, in the meanwhile, we are presented with a profusion of mythological digressions. The answer is that women love to better their husbands, dominate them and keep them under their thumb, but the old lady who gave her the answer had made the knight promise to marry her. Dorigen, too, had committed a similar act of imprudence. Yet, miraculously, the old hag turns out to be a young and fair lady, after having given her husband a good talking to. An idea and suggestion for Joyce’s Molly Bloom?64 The Wife of Bath’s Prologue takes indeed the form of a rambling speech, disorderly and instinctive like that of a stream of consciousness, with a host of overlapping, jumbled and haphazard memories, all of which pertain to sex and marriage. 5. The fabliaux have been recently reinterpreted as allegories, parodies, masquerades, carnivalizations, for example of the mystery plays or of Pentecost. The act of breaking wind is tantamount to sacrilegious mockery, as splendidly surmised also by Pasolini, with the release and emanation of pressurized air. The finale of the Shipman’s Tale, in particular, is bursting with similar irreverent allusions. This tale is rather unique in the sense that neither the author ‘Chaucer’, nor the narrator, ever let slip any comments or opinions; indeed they tend to cynically connive with the disgraceful, glib philandering of the priest and the attractive buxom wife. It is in fact the Host who has the task of tying up loose ends and, through his comments, of encouraging the company to unearth some moral lesson or to launch a grievance. I cannot avoid mentioning that this type of parodic associationism recurs dynamically in Joyce (let us recall the opening of a bottle of beer 64 A man must use his ‘sely instrument’ [‘fine tool’], an allusion to the male organ as in Joyce, the poet of Chamber Music. Also in the Miller’s Tale the cleric takes the psalter and ‘plays it loud’.

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in ‘Ivy Day in the Committee Room’), and that flatulence is employed in his works with the same semi-serious intentions. This Chaucerian group of fabliaux therefore conceals explosive and corrosive elements. The endings of the individual tales display extreme chaos: and to think that in the past they had been viewed as the re-establishment of poetic justice! On the contrary, they originate in a state of disorder only to conclude in an even more chaotic one.65 In the Miller’s Tale, the deception is of a dual and interlaced nature. Nicholas and Alison cuckold the carpenter and, in addition, trick Absolon the paramour with a despicable prank; but Absolon gets his own back on them by branding Nicholas’s backside with a redhot ploughshare. The latter had offered his backside (in place of that of Alison) to be kissed by Absolon himself. The comical element is assured by the fact that Nicholas cries out ‘Water!’ and his exclamation has the effect of waking the carpenter, who is convinced that he is trapped in the midst of a second universal flood. Then he cuts the cord and his tub falls to the ground, which is perfectly dry. The carpenter is the laughing stock of the passers-by and is made to appear a madman. This tale consists of a chain of mockeries in which the dupe becomes the duper, and therefore there are no winners or losers. In the following fabliau of the Reeve, Symkyn is a dishonest miller, who grinds the corn from the local college. Being well aware of his bad reputation, two students, Aleyn and John, go to the mill to supervise him. The two clerks, having gained permission to stay the night, play a nasty trick on him by having sex with, respectively, the miller’s wife and daughter, with the aid of a ruse. In the ensuing pantomime there is a third change of beds, thanks to which the miller discovers the ploy, as he finds himself lying next to one of the two clerks. The moral appended at the end is that those who do evil should not expect good. ‘Somnour’ is the old English word for ‘summoner’, indicating the profession of one who goes in search of corrupt and degenerate citizens in order to report them to the Archdeacon, or to save them by obtaining money from them by threat. The fabliau that deals with this particular topic, narrated by the Friar, takes on a surreal hue when the wicked yeoman – the mirror-like 65

The clash between order and disorder is also Kean’s interpretation (Kean 1972, vol. II, chapter I).

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image of the summoner, in other words the Devil – takes him away with him to Hell, together with all his fellow summoners, as witness to yet another wicked deed committed by the summoner himself. The Summoner’s Tale describes, in turn, a friar in extremely negative terms; and it is the most merrily ‘dirty’ and slanderous of Chaucer’s tales. The smarmy mendicant friar, who cancels the name of the benefactors and pockets all the donations, with fine words but with dire deeds, gives a sick man a lecture and, in return, gets waited on hand and foot. Moreover, he sings the praises of abstinence and moderation while brazenly cramming his mouth with food. Yet the sick man, Thomas, stands up to him and finds an excuse to let fly a colossal fart in his face. Thomas is not such a dupe after all, and even asks the friar to split up the ‘gift’ equally among the other friars in the convent (could the Devil have had a hand in this irreverent design? Chaucer gives this comment between the lines with a masterly touch of irony). The conclusion is a totally unexpected one, because a shrewd fellow suggests using a cartwheel to spread out Thomas’s formidable fart, with the friar’s nose on the hub, on which the sick man will have placed his backside. Thus a veritable coprolalic firework display is enacted.66 6. There is a clear link with a new, alternative type of story about good, saintly women and wives in the Man of Law’s Tale regarding Constance, a nomen omen after the interregnum of two immoral, adulterous, insatiable women in the Miller’s and Reeve’s Tales. Having been put to sea, Constance ends up in the hands of the English pagans;67 she refuses however to yield to a knight who makes an attempt on her chastity and, defamed and unjustly accused of murder, she is forced to escape and sail away for the second time. After a series of agnitions and indescribable adventures worthy of a Shakespearean drama – the ‘romantic’ Pericles – the couple formed by Constance and her husband the king is finally reunited. The tale is a caution66 The finale rings like a premature parody of the scientific theory of the conductivity of materials: here the spokes of the wheel ‘conduct’, diminishing gradually and proportionally, the sound and stench of the fart. 67 Chaucer glorifies or describes allegorically the successful transformation of England, from a barbaric to a civilized form of government, and from a pagan to a Christian country, in the figure of the penitent King Alla; but Islamism remains ostracized.

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ary one, but in reality it cautions against the inconstancy of human fortune, and the inexorably ephemeral nature of human possessions and happiness. The Second Nun’s tale tells of the chaste Cecilia and her husband Valerian, baptized in secret, together with his brother, by Pope Urban. The angel has placed crowns of lilies and roses in the married couple’s bed. The two brothers are captured, forced to renounce Christianity, and decapitated, whereas Cecilia is first condemned to be boiled to death, and then slain in the bath. The Clerk’s Tale is a story retold and modelled on Petrarch’s Latin translation of Boccaccio’s tale of Griselda. Walter of Saluzzo, a pleasureseeking and unrepentant bachelor, is urged by the populace to take a wife and his choice falls upon Griselda, a virtuous woman of humble birth. The extravagant marquis resolves to torture her gratuitously, taking away from her first their daughter and then their son and sending them into exile; however, his wife suffers all these insults and affronts in silence. By means of a counterfeit Papal Bull, Griselda is on the verge of being repudiated (we witness the scene of Griselda returning naked, clad only in a simple peasant’s smock, to her father’s house), and is even compelled to suffer the humiliation of planning the marquis’s wedding ceremony with his second wife, who in actual fact turns out to be Griselda’s daughter, whom the marquis has ordered to return. Finally the truth is unveiled. The marquis comes to his senses before it is too late. This tale, second only to that of Constance, has an extremely effective dramatic – virtually Shakespearean – structure, and heralds The Winter’s Tale, where the daughter is lost and then found again, and Walter’s son anticipates the character of Florizel. It is even more closely linked to Measure for Measure, in which the Duke devises a plan in order to put his subjects to the test. The marquis redeems himself finding the fundamental values of life reflected in his wife; in both cases, the risk of a tragic epilogue is averted and supplanted by the happy ending. The story of Constance is connected with another group, that of the stories of saints. The Prioress’s Tale of the slaying of Hugh of Lincoln on the part of certain Jews living in the ghetto is a reverberation of the Slaughter of the Innocents.68 Maybe someone of the likes of Browning

68 Cf. M. Padgett Hamilton’s essay in Wagenknecht 1959, 88–97.

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would have re-written the story, and refrained from laying the blame on the Jews, and defended them. 7. The Nun’s Priest tells a story about Chaunticleer the cock and Pertelote the hen in order to discuss, under the veil of allegory, the issue of the veracity of dreams and the correspondence to reality of episodes in dreams, especially if these are of an ominous nature. The story evolves, in the manner of Aesop, towards the final humiliation of the fox who, having held the cock tightly between his teeth, now lets go of his prey because the latter forces him to open his mouth and speak. The Merchant’s Tale, one of the most refined, humorous and most authentically Boccaccesque ones in the entire Canterbury Tales, is also enfolded in a fairy-tale atmosphere. The beginning reviews the opinions voiced by sixty-year-old January’s brothers, who engage in a debate as to whether he should marry, whether marriage can bring happiness, or whether women are harlots or paragons of virtue. However, the plot is gracefully set in motion when January’s choice falls on the highly vivacious May, and the marriage is consummated on the festive first night. Chaucer’s humorous description of the intercourse between an old man and a young woman is unrivalled: ‘With thikke bristles of his berd unsofte, / Lyk to the skin of houndfish, sharp as brere’. The impending threat consists in the fact that, quite rightly – as the narrator seems to infer, considering the unnatural nature of this marriage – May falls in love with a young squire named Damyan; but the climax of the sequence of events is tragicomic. The aged January, now blind, is still eager to have sex with his wife, and takes her to a garden, which Damyan also manages to enter. Having stood on January’s back to climb a pear-tree, May copulates with the squire on one of the branches. However, at the very moment of climax, January regains his sight and roars with anger: the subtle element of comedy lies in May’s prompt reply, to the effect that, despite his newly regained sight, he is not yet seeing clearly and January merely thought he saw the couple indulging in sex. It is tantamount to say that an old man should refrain from marrying a young woman because, sooner or later, she will be tempted to cuckold him. The more specifically moralistic tales include in particular that of the Pardoner, a grimly pre-Poesque and pre-Gothic one69 regarding the meeting of three drunkards with the spectre of Death, the 69 Thomas Gray saw in Chaucer, far in advance, ‘images of horror’ and ‘a certain terrible grandeur’ (quoted in Brewer 1966, 260).

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evangelical Thief who arrives without warning like the plague, as well as, in its ambiguity, the sign of punishment for sin70 and a satanic symbol – or rather the moral consequence – of covetousness. The protagonists, under the guidance of Death itself, come across a treasure near an oak tree. They decide that one of them will carry the treasure away during the night, but the other two promptly conspire to stab their companion and split the gold between them. However, the third drunkard maliciously devises a similar plot, with the result that the three companions inflict death on one another. The atmosphere enfolding the Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale is equally sinister. The yeoman, obliged to spend his time blowing in the fire in order to fuse metals and produce other substances, is now free to censure his master’s scheming sorcerous arts. This is one of two instances in The Canterbury Tales in which the narrator is unmasked by the tale itself: the Pardoner divulges the tricks and wiles of his art in the same way that the Canon’s Yeoman discloses the frustrating attempts of another canon to hoodwink a gullible priest. This is not exactly a case of self-unmasking, or at least it is, in two oblique forms, insofar as the yeoman pretends to refer to another canon – a clever expedient – and therefore the narrator of the tale and its protagonist are not one and the same person. This tale can also be considered as a precocious satire on the pseudoscientist and quack, and it launches a highly popular literary sub-genre, which extends as far as the most powerful nineteenth-century novella on the dismantling of mesmerism, George Eliot’s ‘The Lifted Veil’. It would appear that the Parson’s Tale was included on the spur of the moment by Chaucer, now moribund, in order to seal and orient the entire work.71 This extremely lengthy tale challenges and violates the narrative genre and deviates into the purely homiletic one. It is no coincidence that it dwells on the necessity of penitence (also addressed to Chaucer himself, as previously mentioned), and unleashes the terror of the Last Judgement. By degrees – having retraced the steps leading to a life of righteousness, and the formalities of confession, and after the appeals to banish lechery and covetousness, and a close examination of the Seven Deadly Sins – towards the end Chaucer verges on the key issue in Langland and in Piers Plowman, the accusation of economic fraud and simony. 70 The Black Plague in this case. 71 Probably derived from the treatise of a French Dominican friar.

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§ 21. The English Chaucerians: Hoccleve, Lydgate, Hawes* If we go in search of prominent personalities and signs of vitality or continuity among the authors active from 1400 onwards, the scenario, as previously stated, is that of a wasteland or even a desert.1 There is a dearth of figures of any significance until we reach, in the realm of poetry, Skelton and the Scottish poets Henryson and Dunbar (who can be considered as sixteenth- as opposed to fifteenth-century poets) and, in the realm of prose, Malory, whose Morte d’Arthur was however composed at least seventy years after Chaucer’s death. On the other hand, it would also be true to say that this interim period saw the birth of the English medieval theatre, as well as that of the popular ballads.2 This is also confirmed by the fact that biographical information regarding fifteenth-century poets is, to say the least, scanty and irregular. As will be more fully illustrated in the follow-

*

Hoccleve’s works are in 3 vols, EETS 1892–1970; selected writings ed. M. Seymour, Oxford 1981; by B. O’Donoghue, Manchester 1982; by R. Ellis, Exeter 2001. J. Burrow, Thomas Hoccleve, Aldershot 1994; E. Knapp, The Bureaucratic Muse: Thomas Hoccleve and the Literature of Late Medieval England, University Park, PA 2001. Lydgate’s works are edited by various editors, EETS 1906–1966; selected and ed. J. NortonSmith, Oxford 1966. W. F. Schirmer, John Lydgate, Tübingen 1952, Eng. trans., London 1961 (an excellent historical reconstruction, weak as criticism); A. Renoir, The Poetry of John Lydgate, London 1967; D. Pearsall, ‘John Lydgate’, in Gower and Lydgate, London 1969, 23–42, and John Lydgate, London 1970; M. Nolan, John Lydgate and the Making of Public Culture, Cambridge 2005; N. Mortimer, John Lydgate’s Fall of Princes: Narrative Tragedy in Its Literary and Political Contexts, Oxford 2005; John Lydgate: Poetry, Culture, and Lancastrian England, ed. L. Scanlon and J. Simpson, Notre Dame, IN 2006; Lydgate Matters: Poetry and Material Culture in the Fifteenth Century, ed. L. H. Cooper and A. Denny-Brown, New York and Basingstoke 2007. Hawes’s The Pastime of Pleasure is edited by W. E. Mead, EETS 1928 and 1971 (a superb critical edition, preceded by a highly commendable introduction [xiii-cxiii]); The Minor Poems, ed. F. W. Gluck and A. B. Morgan, EETS 1974. A chapter in CHI, vol. II, 223–38, is one of the few critical overviews of any appreciable length on Hawes. However, Hawes is currently on the rebound.

1

A revival of the French language is documented during Henry VII’s reign. A blind French poet, Bernard André de Toulouse, was awarded the title of Poet Laureate for his panegyric of the king in his native language. § 27.

2

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ing section, such a literary void is explainable, even if only in part, from a sociological point of view, in the sense that after the year 1400 the foreign wars and internecine strife in which the sovereigns were engaged prevented them from fostering and providing a fertile ground for the flourishing of the arts – which, in times of peace, is one of the Court’s main priorities. From a psychological standpoint, Chaucer’s influence had the effect of triggering a paralysing sense of intimidation on the next generation of poets; technically speaking, the discontinuation of the pronunciation of the final e in the lexis and the shift in stress from the final to the penultimate syllable, thus transforming the pentameter into a tetrameter, gave rise to a certain amount of disorientation in the field of metrics. The chasm is populated, rather than by isolated authors, by isolated literary works, an assortment of approximately fifty of variable quality, mostly consisting of translations and re-translations conceived in the spirit of the Roman de la Rose. These constitute a corpus of Chaucerian apocrypha, which were to feature for a considerable period of time in Chaucer’s printed editions, and which, due to fact-based counterevidence of a lexical and metrical nature, have been gradually excluded from these and tentatively attributed to minor poets. Dryden considered The Flower and the Leaf to be an authentic work of Chaucer and translated the poem, transforming the rhyme royal metre into rhyming couplets. Hazlitt made the same mistake of attribution, going as far as to extol Chaucer’s excellent description of landscape. The Flower and the Leaf sets off from a Chaucerian topos, that of a sleepless spring night, with its sweet gentle rain and the first flower buds on the trees; but despite the appearances, we are not dealing with a vision, or a dream. The sleepwalker is, uncommonly, a young woman who enters a field, where a series of marvels and wonders are unfolded, in a lavish and sensual kaleidoscope, as in Keats’s juvenile poetry, or in Spenser. The climax of the poem is the dance in a magical arbour of a group of ladies, dressed in white with splendid garlands, belonging to the company of the Leaf, followed by the arrival of nine knights who engage in a joust. In a triumphant display of stylized gestures, each knight who wins the contest comes forward to pay homage to a lady. The other company on foot, that of the Flower, is caught in a violent storm but, with a similar exquisite display of courtesy, the company of the Leaf provides the new arrivals with succour and sustenance. As stated by the Queen in White, queen of Diana’s handmaidens, the gentlewoman has witnessed a ‘moral

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exhibition’ exalting female chastity and the values of chivalry. The Court of Love preserves the external format of the dream, with all the typical stereotypes, such as the May morning, the chirping choir of birds, the allegorical personifications, the introduction to love as well as the lover’s meeting with his lady and subsequent declaration of love. He will only be rewarded with her hand in marriage after having passed several tests. Being a relatively late work, it echoes the genre of the allegory of love, but in a now parodic key. Other apocryphal works reproduce the stylistic elements of contrast (between the cuckoo and the nightingale, reminiscent of The Parlement of Fowles), and of the love debate, with a few touches of originality. 2. First and foremost, the Chaucerians or post-Chaucerians set about the task of completing The Canterbury Tales. The far too short Cook’s Tale was continued with the story of Gamelyn, whose elder brothers deprive him of his legitimate portion of their father’s inheritance. After many trials and tribulations, justice is done.3 In the tale of Beryn the final seal is set on Chaucer’s general design, with the arrival of the pilgrims at the cathedral. Taking as a starting-point the secret or alluded inclinations of the Pardoner, the author follows the character as he is in the throes of seducing a housemaid. These tales were regularly annexed to the editions of the Canterbury Tales until the end of the nineteenth century. The three literary figures that elude anonymity have often been categorized as prolix versifiers enslaved to the imitation of past models. This kind of paralysis is, in many ways, similar to the stagnation that affected the early Victorians after the death of the great Romantics. In other words, Chaucer, far from providing fertile terrain for the following age, gives the impression of hindering any further developments and, in the short term, of having annihilated literature with his masterpieces. Thomas Hoccleve, or Occleve, gives us some idea of the typical atmosphere that reigned after the year 1400 (and of the orphaned nation after Chaucer’s death) in various poignant epicedia, or funeral songs, embedded in his works. His date of birth, either 1368 or 1369, or even more probably 1367, can be inferred from internal evidence, but we know nothing of his family, and his surname (as in the case of Langland, who took 3

Thomas Lodge is said to have drawn one of his tales from this story, or from another text derived from it (§ 152).

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the minor orders which Hoccleve decided against) might have derived from his native village of Hockliffe in Bedfordshire.4 When he was about twenty years of age, maybe in the same year that Chaucer launched The Canterbury Tales, he was employed as a clerk and copyist of official documents in the Office of the Privy Seal, a position that required knowledge of French and Latin, which would seem to suggest that he had benefited from higher education. Although not particularly enthralled with his routine job as a clerk, he held the post, off and on, for thirty-five years, being paid, often with some delay, by King Henry IV. Like Chaucer, he therefore composed poetry during his free time from work, debuting in 1402 with a ‘Letter to Cupid’, which is, however, no more than a translation from the original French version which, in turn, had been written as a reply to or confutation of Chaucer’s Troilus. ‘Wommen, be waar of mennes sleighte, I rede’: the attitude that prompted this riposte is identical to that of the repentant Chaucer after his Troilus, or the Chaucer of the Legend of Good Women. Yet Hoccleve also argues against Ovid and the second author of the Roman, citing the same examples as Chaucer, for example that of the unfaithful Jason. The ‘Male Regle’ (dated 1405 or 1406, in eight-line stanzas) is a rich source of autobiographical information and retells Hoccleve’s previous life of dissipation, ending with a prayer to the Lord Treasurer to pay him his salary arrears. A discontented clerk during the day, Hoccleve frequented taverns and disreputable haunts at night; he took to parading around like a man-about-town and bon vivant; and in return for a tip given to the boatmen, he delighted in receiving the gratifying address of ‘Sir’. The ‘Male Regle’ marks a turning point. Hoccleve comes to his senses and repents, marrying in 1410 and setting up a family, after having rejected the idea of taking sacred orders, while still composing a considerable amount of poetry of a prevalently moralistic and homiletic nature (he was also the author of two hymns dedicated to the Virgin Mary, attributed to Chaucer).5 4 5

The date of his death, traditionally supposed to be around 1450, has been predated by approximately twenty-five years to 1426 by the majority of modern scholars, because the retirement benefit in his name was paid to another person after that year. Of which ‘Ad Beatam Virginem’ certainly does not strike one as being ‘lacking in inspiration’, according to traditional opinion, just as the roundels to the summer and

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Meanwhile, he had become politically subservient and religiously orthodox after his affiliation to the Lollards, to the extent of launching a dissuasive remonstration at the heretic Sir John Oldcastle. In 1414 he was affected by a serious illness, a sort of nervous breakdown, or state of depression, from which he recovered, managing to find the energies to compose, above all, the ‘art of accepting death’ and to translate two stories from the Gesta romanorum.6 In 1424, discharged from service, he retired with a small annuity to a monastery in Hampshire. He is thought to have died perhaps two years later. The historical appraisal of Hoccleve embodies an element of truth, because he lacks a terse, curt and concise formal style and any sense of artistic wholeness. Until not long ago, his devotees could be counted on the fingers of one hand. In his poems, he is accused of being a mere syllable-counter, lacking the power to instil in his verse anything but metrical precision, and perhaps not even that. Notable exceptions are a few isolated brief lyrics, or rather the odd flash of genius here and there, that is to say, a few individual, incisive lines garnered according to that process of dismemberment of the whole poetic unit so dear to Matthew Arnold. After much disparagement and ostracism, critics began to appraise his work more objectively, once they managed to view his discontinuity with respect to Chaucer in the correct perspective. The exaltation of the illustrious dead poet is a medieval convention;7 at any rate, whereas Chaucer tends to objectify, Hoccleve is an independent, innovative, overwhelmingly idiosyncratic, lyrical and dramatic poet: a pre-Romantic, we might hazard, and one heralding the tormented Metaphysical poets like Donne, and subsequently Hopkins. From the metrical point of view Hoccleve – though a declared disciple of Chaucer – gives preference to and employs a less elegant, Frenchified verse style, indeed a rather harsh and contorted type of versification less pleasing to the ear both from the lexical and constructive point of view, and one giving the vague impression of being modelled on memories and echoes of alliterative poetry, as opposed to that of Chaucer (it

6 7

to money are, in my opinion, delightful compositions. These four constitute, together with a fifth composition, the work known as Hoccleve’s Series. On the stereotype, typical of medieval panegyrics, of the superiority of the illustrious poet, with respect to all his predecessors, cf. CEL, 163.

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must be remembered that Hoccleve was not a native of London). With respect to his master, he disregards and abandons the last traces of mythological poetry and the irresistible attraction of the May morning, as well as the various ‘matters’ of Troy and Rome and the Breton saga. Being indifferent to nature, he is not tempted by word painting and ekphrasis, and is insensitive to allegory. Transcending the discretion of the enigmatic and ambiguous Chaucer, he emphasizes his personality as a social outcast. He recaptures Chaucer’s idea of the wheel of fortune and the precariousness of human affairs, but he extends the concept to man’s state of mind and fluctuating psyche, lacerated by visions and hallucinations. In English literature, he inaugurates the motif of the sleepless wayfarer, who wanders at dawn through the still slumbering city of London, real but at the same time spectral, a motif that looks ahead to Dickens and to his solitary promeneur, or to Thomson B.V. These dispassionate outpourings of his burning existential torment – ranging from sin to repentance – must however be conjoined with, and occasionally subjugated to and repressed by, the poetic conventions of the period. His most accomplished and famous work, datable to the year 1411, is the Regement of Princes or De Regimine Principum, composed in royal rhyme for Prince Hal before his ascension to the throne as Henry V.8 This work, extant in forty-three manuscripts, is seemingly a treatise on virtues and vices modelled on French and Latin originals and on other diverse sources (Aristotle, Solomon, Egidio Colonna); and yet over 2,000 of the 5,000 lines of the poem offer us the description of a series of reminiscences of his turbulent and schizoid existence: ‘Be waar of thoght, for it is perillous; / He the streight way to desconfort men ledith’.9 The stylistic feature of the insomniac is of Chaucerian inspiration, but Hoccleve walks ad extra not through a spring meadow but through the roads of the city of London. The dialogue with an old white-haired man first of all takes a dramatic turn, being interwoven with a curt repartee, with a mark of realism, although it rapidly merges into a confession in the manner of Gower, with the old man reclaiming the allegorical role of Christian

8 9

It was in a manuscript of this poem that the most authentic portrait of Chaucer was included, the author being Hoccleve himself. In Hopkins the ‘mind has mountains; cliffs of fall / Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed’.

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wisdom, or sounding like Chaucer’s Parson doling out wordy gnomic admonitions.10 What is particularly striking in Hoccleve’s ‘lament’ and ‘dialogue’ is the unprecedented anguished sense of pain and alienation, as confirmation of the fact that he is the first English poet who probes in depth the heartstrings of a real, as opposed to a stylized, self; he is the first ‘religious’ poet who identifies in God the Father the source of all his misfortunes, but ultimately for his own good. His state of mind is that of a penitent John Donne, the author of the hymn addressed to God ‘in his illness’; or of Hopkins’s sonnet ‘Thou art indeed just, Lord’.11 3. With John Lydgate (ca. 1370-ca. 1450) we return – decades, if not centuries later – to an author (or a periphrastic identity if we refer to the Anglo-Saxon period) who can be quantified and classified according to weight. No historiographer, critic or authority has ever failed to begin discussing Lydgate by drawing attention – with a certain amount of embarrassment and thinly disguised unease – to the mammoth size, in numerical terms, of his literary output. Lydgate has left us 145,000 lines of verse and his compositions total 250. There is no escaping the fact that every critique that deviates from the monographic has taken on the form of a reasoned catalogue of his works, without the possibility or even the desire to enter into or enlarge upon any kind of detailed and meticulous exegesis. Yet this succinctness conceals an underlying message: that it is not worth the effort. The recognition and appraisal of this poet can be rapidly summarized as follows: a modern edition of his opera omnia is not extant even to this day; critical works on the poet are few and far between and, of his entire output, only a 100-page anthology seems to have been extracted half a century ago. Lydgate is therefore another surviving author, to be commended for a few chosen fragments and to be savoured in small doses. The above mentioned anthology reproduces an unabridged version only

10 11

The Dantesque reminiscence or analogy resides in the old white-haired man who recaptures the desperate man who has wandered into a kind of dark forest. For O’Donoghue 1982, 103, he is a ‘mendicant priest’. For reasons of space, I refrain from listing the numerous verbal recurrences and echoes I have detected in Hoccleve and Hopkins, the fruit, I believe, of a totally fortuitous and unconscious sixth sense.

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of his allegorical poem ‘The Temple of Glass’, which, thanks to this privilege, should, and is intended to be tacitly designated as the poet’s most continuous, compact and most legible work; if this is the case, that says all. The only characteristic Lydgate has in common with Hoccleve is his veneration, albeit on a more concrete basis, for Chaucer; apart from that, the two poets are polar opposites. Lydgate lacks the compelling dramatic sense of the individual and concrete self. The poet remains a persona, not a frustrated, tormented, reminiscent self. Lydgate led a more peaceful and temperate life, bereft of conflict, which in any case he had the power to mask and sublimate.12 A native of the town of the same name in the Suffolk area, he was admitted to the Benedictine monastery of Bury St Edmunds (the scene of Carlyle’s Past and Present), where he was consecrated to the priesthood in 1397. Nevertheless Lydgate, a court poet as well as a religious poet, is an uncharacteristic Benedictine monk of the high Middle Ages, insofar as he adapts and modernizes the ora et labora motto, and plays an active role in the outside world rather than retreating to the cloisters. He is indeed a prominent cultural figure in the intermediation between political power and the Church in the first half of the fifteenth century. The qualms and misgivings of the other Benedictine poet (in pectore at least), Hopkins, are alien to him, and he is unaware of their existence. Having probably pursued his studies at the Universities of Oxford and perhaps Cambridge, he was a master of rhetoric at the monastery for the sons of noblemen. Nominally ordained parish priest in 1423, he retired in 1434 and spent his final years at the monastery, where he died. Curtius frequently reminds us13 that the duty of the monastic orders was to transmit the sacred and profane knowledge enshrined in books, and adds that the role of the monk was that of a compiler of summae and catalogues of facts. This is substantially how Lydgate views his role as a poet. His main works, adaptations of

12

13

His ‘testament’ concludes, after an endless asphyxiating litany addressed to Christ the Saviour, with a few pleasurable personal reminiscences of his unruly and dissolute adolescence. For this very reason, this epilogue is one of Lydgate’s most admired anthological pieces. See for example CEL, 312.

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other previous ones,14 were composed under the patronage of three sovereigns and other influential figures. The Troy Book (1420), commissioned by Henry V, draws once again upon Guido delle Colonne; The Siege of Thebes15 (ca. 1420–1422) makes up for the omissions in Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale; Chaucer’s Monk’s Tale, as well the French translation of Boccaccio’s De casibus, are the sources of his voluminous Fall of Princes (1439, after a gestation period of eight years) in royal rhyme. The first Elizabethan tragic dramatists were to draw material and allegorical admonition from this repertoire of exempla (of the ruinous falls from glory of great men of fame) for the benefit of the rulers, rather than from Chaucer. The War of the Roses was approaching and the suppressed threats to social peace and the consequences of civil conflict were soon to come to the surface.16 The three above mentioned epics of Lydgate were an immediate success with the populace, having been repeatedly printed in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, but they ended up by falling into oblivion in the libraries without reprints in philologically respectable editions. After a long period of obscurity Lydgate was rediscovered by Gray and remembered in fairly positive terms by Coleridge. Both were unable to subvert the prevailing opinion – destined to become axiomatic, and harshly voiced by an editor – of an ‘extremely verbose and voluminous poetaster’ and ‘delirious monk’. Lydgate is undeniably a highly professional transcriber, a seasoned and worldly storyteller and a consummate mass producer of second-rate verses in a variety of stanzaic and prosodic models. On the rare occasions when he succeeds in curbing his encyclopaedic learning and his indulgence in digression, he shows the necessary skill to tailor a pleasurable anecdote. In truth, the three epic poems, while representing virtually half of his legendary 14 Or translations tout court, like that of Guillaume de Deguileville’s Pèlerinage de la vie humaine. 15 The frame is patently Chaucerian, given that in the Prologue Lydgate claims to have participated, during a period of convalescence, in a pilgrimage to Canterbury, to have encountered Chaucer’s pilgrims, and to have narrated this poem on his return journey. For the underlying allegorical design – the need for peace, hindered by the domestic party advocating war with France – see Schirmer 1961, 64–5. 16 The warning addressed to the nation in Lydgate’s sole prose work, The Serpent of Division, on the Roman civil war, concerns the consequences of discord.

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output, embody only one of the genres – and not even the most fortunate – of his repertoire.17 Lydgate, who was personally acquainted with both Chaucer and his son Thomas, reinterprets a variety of classic Chaucerian genres even if, owing to his profession, he steers clear of the fabliau. He revisits The Book of the Duchess in ‘A Compleinte of A Loveres Lyfe’, and ‘The Temple of Glass’ is positively teeming with Chaucerian echoes, ranging from the poet’s dream and the parade of the icons of Greek epic heroines abandoned by their lovers, to the lament of the beautiful lady to Venus, who promises that her lover will be faithful to her and sanctions their union. Chaucer’s hagiographic stories are the source of various legends of saints and of a life of the Virgin Mary. For all that, every trace of Chaucer, his vigour, and his subtle irony have been lost. Lydgate is also the author of a few Aesopian fables and propitiatory epistles in verse addressed to various sponsors. One way of recognizing his value consists, as previously in the case of Hoccleve, in subverting the hierarchies and focusing on the occasional, brief samples of poetry of a commonplace nature, witty, outlandish and entertaining, pertaining to a medium-to-decidedly low genre, rather than on his overblown and pedantic epic compilations. In recent times, scholars have given Lydgate the final blow by excluding from his canon ‘London Lickpenny’, a remarkable satire in ballad form on the London world of bureaucracy, where the country yokel fails to get a hearing. In this spontaneous type of output the imperfections of a metrico-prosodic and stylistic nature are somewhat mitigated. Critics have gone so far as to affirm, and prove, that Lydgate is a poet excessively focused on the signifier, or tending to exhaust his energies in style, or rather in parodies of style. His ballads and epistles in verse flaunt an extensive, even amazing lexical range and an abundance of new coinages; polished, well-proportioned and arranged in stanzas often with a refrain, they seem to belong to a different poet, who cannot be accused of linguistic mediocrity and monotony and of ‘aureate diction’ reflected in a hyperbolic, pompous and Latinate language. Some of his delightful lyrics even look forward to the harmony and peace17

Among which are the mummings, plays in verse to accompany short pantomimes on festive occasions, which played an important role in the history of drama (cf. Schirmer 1961, 100–8). Cf. Pearsall 1969, 25, for other new and unusual genres.

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ful serenity of the contemplation of nature so characteristic of the Caroline poets, as for example in his ballad on the topos of the ephemerality of all things human, which he compares to ‘a mid-summer rose’. 4. Lydgate, however, did not die without leaving a number of followers. Benet or Benedict Burgh (†1483) continued a pseudo-Aristotelian compilation undertaken by Lydgate (the Secreta Secretorum); among the didactic and hagiographic poets who took inspiration from him are George Ashby (†1475) and Henry Bradshaw (†1513); among the ‘alchemists’ (encouraged by King Henry VI, who had inaugurated the trend), and therefore the authors of curiosities, were George Ripley (whose death is presumed to have occurred in 1490) and Thomas Norton (active in the mid-fifteenth century). The Augustine friar Osbern Bokenham (1392 or 1393–1467 or later) wrote stories of the lives of male and female saints, the object of a recent rediscovery, in an even more ‘aureate’ diction. William Nevil (1497ca. 1545) has been attributed with a Castell of Pleasure18 dated 1518. The latter poet, and Stephen Hawes (1484–1529, but both dates are unreliable),19 are proverbial examples of the kind of drained, uninspiring and clumsy poetry that was rather commonplace at the turn of the fifteenth century. Hawes is a sort of case in point. The first editions of his poems are extremely difficult to trace and nowadays constitute bibliographical rarities; various literary manuals do not even include his name but, while remaining unknown to most people, he is discussed at length and treated with respect by others. Looking at his identity card, we realize that Hawes died only thirty years before Shakespeare’s birth and was born 140 years after Chaucer; yet his poetry still bears the hallmark of the courtly love period. As regards his poetic nature, he is therefore a medieval man, a nostalgic bard, a revisitor;

18 19

A rather flat ‘allegory of love’, invariably in the form of a dream vision, occasionally enlivened by a few masterly descriptive passages, especially during the journey towards the ‘castle’. Perhaps the illegitimate son of Richard III, like Chaucer he was Groom of the Chamber to Henry VII. He was educated at Oxford University and travelled in England, Scotland and France. A courtier from the year 1502, he became famous as a jester, choreographer and master of ceremonies. He was able to repeat by heart – a rather extraordinary ability – the entire works of Lydgate.

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though in biographical terms he is a Renaissance poet. He is also an impulsive and eccentric character, a kind of erudite and pedantic mannerist who defies classification, a figure of which there are a few sporadic examples through the centuries up to Ronald Firbank. He is not so much a prized precursor of the modern era, as a laggard struggling to stay in step with the times.20 The persistence with which he professes his reverence for the Chaucer, Gower and Lydgate triad 100 years later is in itself an indirect confirmation of the continuing dearth of literary figures of some magnitude, and of the poetic impasse of the times. Hawes’s major work is The Pastime of Pleasure21 (1503–1506, printed in 1509 with woodcuts, divided into sections after the manner of Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, in seven-lined stanzas, with only one episode in couplets). This is a first-hand account of the gradus to perfection of the sixteenth-century gentleman, who is at the same time a lover, a knight and a staunch follower of the precepts of the Church. A young man named Graund Amour sets out in quest of La Bel Pucel, at the suggestion of Lady Fame, but not before gaining knowledge, in the Tower of Doctrine, in the trivium and quadrivium.22 La Bel Pucel is the incarnation of Music, the seventh art. The fact that the damsel agrees to marry him but is compelled to leave for some distant land, where the young man will later join her after a series of vicissitudes, sheds light 20 Hawes is therefore unmistakably an author dear to Praz, full of extravagances, whims and eccentricities, and whose diction was rugged, convoluted and immature: however, the three lines in PSL, 43, which incidentally contain a minor inaccuracy, are apparently the only discussion dedicated to Hawes in all of Praz’s writings. 21 Mead 1971, cv, observes that the title is to be interpreted as ironic, given the didactic intent of the poem. 22 This particular stage of his progress, often judged to be incongruous and excessively technical and digressive, is therefore obviously modelled on the Marriage of Mercury and Philology by Martianus Capella, on which subject cf. Mead 1971, xlvi and xlix. It is indeed regrettable that Curtius (in CEL, 38–9, pages dedicated to Capella) failed to capture this detail, which confirms the genesis of Hawes’s poems within the context of the long-lasting ‘Latin Middle Ages’. Another source not cited by Curtius is the Latin treatise Margarita philosophica dated 1503, by Gregorius Reisch, which proved to be even more influential than Capella on Hawes’s poem, as demonstrated by Mead. The relationship between Capella and Hawes did not, however, escape LEW, 81.

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on the poem’s ideal connection with the romance epics dating even as far back as the late thirteenth century (for example Guy of Warwick and Bevis of Hampton), and even with Langland’s Piers. While having nothing in common with the latter’s apocalyptic tone, it however revives the overflowing crowd of allegorical personifications and Langland’s narrative style. If Hawes emulates Chaucer, we are necessarily referring to the early Chaucer inspired by the Roman de la Rose. On his journey to La Bel Pucel’s abode, Graund Amour tackles and slays giants, encounters a garrulous and misogynous dwarf and finally reaches the island of his beloved, plagued by another monster. Graund Amour is taken up to Heaven after a dispute between destructive Time and Eternity. The poem was praised by Gray and by Elizabeth Barrett Browning (‘one of the four marble pillars’ that supported the Faerie Queene),23 but panned by others, like Scott, on the basis of it being dreadfully boring. We are presented with a succession of improbable events, a mechanical hotchpotch of pre-established scenarios; nevertheless, we are also inevitably made to savour the odd flash of poetry and, above all, a few unintentional humorous, caricatural, even grotesque episodes, such as that of the three-headed giants, of the evil dwarf and of the fire-breathing monster. In short, this is a miniature Arthurian mockheroic poem but also a parody of Beowulf, mingled with a few echoes of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. In his previous work, The Example of Virtue (1504), virtually identical to the Pastime but even more extravagantly overflowing with allegorical personifications, Hawes recounts the allegorical union of Youth with Cleanness, after having resisted the temptations of Sensuality and Pride in yet another dark forest, and defeated a dragon. After a hard-won victory, Youth, now sixty years of age, renamed Virtue, visits the lost in Hell and ascends to Paradise. The cultural milieu in which Hawes composed his poetry witnesses the birth, in the wake of Malory, of the need to exhume the now old and outworn myth of chivalry within the framework of a most complex system of allegorical personifications; and it is no coincidence that Lydgate’s ‘The Temple of Glass’ was attributed by some to Hawes. His upholders draw attention to the fact that he is an important connecting link with Spenser, substantiating their opinion

23

Mead 1971, cxi.

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with the quantity of loan words – even letter-perfect – from Hawes in Spenser’s poetry, not to mention the common objective of the formation of the self-controlled gentleman.24 As previously mentioned, it is generally agreed that Hawes can be historically classified as a prime example of literary Kitsch and of the unpoetical. At any rate one of his couplets – which tautologically describes the closing of the day to the sound of the evening bells – has now become legendary, although the composer of these lines is unknown to the most. Hawes is also rather wayward as regards lexical idiosyncrasy and above all in his stylistic and prosodic deviations. In one of his minor poems, composed as a deterrent to blasphemy, an unexpected passage consisting of mono- and disyllabic lines heralds the pattern poetry of the Metaphysical poets, in particular of Herbert. § 22. Barclay The advent on the literary scene of Alexander Barclay (1475–1552) enables us to take stock of how English literature measures up to other more evolved European literatures. A cursory glance at the period that goes from 1387, the year in which the Canterbury Tales were composed, to the year 1509, which saw the publication of Barclay’s most important work, The Ship of Fools,1 reveals a scarcity of noteworthy literary figures and works in the sphere of poetry, and fewer still in other genres. Barclay represents a break with the past, although on a minor scale, showing a few timid signs of revival but, when all is said and done, we have the impression that he has missed out on a golden opportunity. The first observation is that, by 1509, English literature lags two centuries behind its European counterparts. This stasis can be attributed to a series of circumstances. First and foremost, as fortune would have it, there was an absence of great intellects during this century and a half; but even a budding genius ceases to be such, if he operates within and for the benefit of an intellectual void. In other words, in England there was a lack on the one hand of a propi24 Mead 1971, cxii, casts doubts on this. 1

A work completed in the first year of Henry VIII’s reign, at Ottery St Mary, Coleridge’s native village.

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tious recipient and end-user, and on the other hand the driving force of the great literature that characterized the late Middle Ages. Thanks to its bad fortune in the political sphere, but to its privileged position in the literary one, Italy represented a multi-centred model, with a cluster of minor but autonomous city-states, each of which yielded a fruitful output of literary works. On the contrary, in England all power was concentrated in the hands of the monarch, and every initiative in the realm of literature lay in the hands of the court, at times solely in those of the monarch himself. Therefore the relative paucity of great literature in England up to this date is certainly attributable to the fourteenth- and fifteenth-century literary system. Queen Elizabeth is the first English monarch to take a particular interest in literature and the arts. King Edward III, partial to French manners and customs, was a bellicose monarch whose primary concern was that of annexing France; Richard II and Henry IV found themselves faced with the problem of maintaining stability within the country and among the various factions; Henry V, and even more so Henry VI, were pious and religious sovereigns. While not being insensitive to art, they tend to commission from poets narratives of ancient heroic deeds and historical compilations, as well as hagiographic and homiletic literary works. To quote the words of the poet Horace, English monarchs up to Henry VII sacrifice the dulcis to the utile. This explains why pure enjoyment and entertainment are not admitted at the royal court or, at least, not to the extent to which they became predominant a few decades later. This is evidently the reason why court drama, the dominant genre from the sixteenth century onwards, had still not got underway. This tendency is matched, as in a perfect jigsaw puzzle, by the total complacency of the poet, who readily gives in, without objection, to the requests of the public. Far from proclaiming the pre-humanistic pride of the awareness of a monumentum aere perennius,2 the poets of this period avow their mediocrity and make excuses for their monotonous and commonplace compositions. The notable exception is Skelton. Many of them compose, and even accumulate, vast oeuvres, but none of them can be considered poets in the true sense of the word; while donning the stylish livery of the poet, they are devoid of authentic poetic 2

Cf. CEL, 515–18.

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identity, and make no attempt to reflect on the significance of their role. These part-time poets, who during the day are employed as diplomats, royal clerks, scribes and copyists, are manoeuvred by some patron or noble courtier, king’s spokesman, or even by the king himself: they simply forward their invoices and receive payment. Once again Skelton is an exception. The limits of English literature up to the mid-sixteenth century reside in the fact that the recruitment of men of letters was solely confined to the spheres of the Church and bureaucracy, very rarely from the lay sector of the population. Moreover, the late onset of the poetry of a concrete, historical, biographical self, implanted and sublimated in verse with all its human, emotional and intellectual, as well as erotic, components is due to the fact that fifteenth-century England, having little or no knowledge of the lyrical poetry of the Troubadours, or of Stilnovo, or of Petrarch, failed to import and assimilate these models. Strangely enough, they all embarked on a grand tour, only to return with their saddlebags half-empty. Chaucer had at least been influenced by Dante and was personally acquainted with Petrarch, but did not know his Canzoniere. At any rate, Chaucer is universally acclaimed as a master of versification and prosody, having established the prosodic model of rhyme royal. How can we explain the fact that these travellers – nascent artists – upon their return to England lacked the courage to supplant a type of literature of an exclusively exhortatory and moralizing nature? Dante had also composed the Comedy in the form of a series, or ‘skewerfuls’, of imaginary encounters, but, with his astounding powers of imagination, he had revisited the classical topos of the descent into Hades. For the same reasons, we have to wait until Wyatt, Surrey and Sidney to see the birth of the sonnet, a metrical form exceptionally apt to express the poet’s love for his condescending lady. Yet we must hastily add that this delay on the part of English literature is just as mysterious as the extraordinarily short space of time in which this gap is bridged: in the latter half of the sixteenth century, English literature is on an equal footing with the rest of Europe, and overtakes it towards the end of the century. 2. This preamble is necessary for a correct appreciation of the figure of Barclay, albeit as a precursor as opposed to a creator: as an intermediary link, or trait d’union, between the end of the medieval period and the beginning of the English Renaissance, which was still, however, to bear for

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some time distinctive traits of medievalism. Barclay leaves a mark on English literature, although the process spans over several decades: in particular, in the realm of satirical poetry – a challenge undertaken and also put into practice simultaneously by Skelton – and in pastoral poetry, which was to reach its heyday with Spenser at the end of the sixteenth century. These are Barclay’s sole intrinsic merits; his aspiration to grandeur required talents such as originality and creativity, both of which were foreign to his ambitions. He essentially remains a translator or transcriber of pre-existing texts, with very few added extras.3 Perhaps of Scottish origins, he emigrated during his childhood to Croydon and was a student in one of the English universities. In all probability, he travelled throughout Europe at a later date, acquiring familiarity not only with modern, but also with ancient languages and, having become a diocesan priest, he was affiliated to several Benedictine and Franciscan monasteries in the south of England. Held in high esteem at court, on the occasion of the ‘Field of the Cloth of Gold’ (marking the summit between King Henry VIII of England and King Francis I of France in April 1520 near Calais), Barclay was awarded the task of composing texts for public entertainment. A convert to Anglicanism after the Reform, he died shortly after having been assigned the rectory of a church in London. His name remains historically linked to the translation – for the first time not from French or Latin, but from the original German – of the Narrenschiff (1494), the bizarre idea of Sebastian Brant or Brandt, inspired by German carnival pageants, in which it was customary on Shrove Tuesday to hold parades of ships drawn by carts and laden with grotesque masks. While taking into account the three German, French and Latin versions, Barclay embellished his own free rendering, entitled The Ship of Fools, with the original German woodcuts. It was these woodcuts, at least in part, that gave rise to the subsequent spreading and fame of the seventeenth-century emblem poetry (at least two similar poems appeared in quick succession). The ship and the crossing constitute yet another patent stylistic element serving the purpose of assembling, in one single

3

Among his other works are translations of a French allegory, of Sallust’s history of the Jugurthine War, of other late Latin works, as well as a version of the Life of St George and the intriguing compilation of a manual of French writing and pronunciation.

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convenient container – as in the case of the pilgrimage to the cathedral – the most hybrid representations of human stupidity and folly. In this way, Barclay’s translation, or more precisely adaptation, provides a display or phantasmagoria of contemporary England. The ship, whose helmsman is the poet himself, wanders aimlessly over the seas, with no port of call in sight. In itself, The Ship of Fools remains an endless, chaotic and incomplete parade of vices and their perpetrators, and the ship becomes a sort of Dantesque infernal pit in disguise where, in line with a meticulously detailed medieval categorization, the various departures from virtue are catalogued, portrayed and punished with apt retribution in the manner of Dante’s contrappasso (visibly in the links between the text and the illustrations). Barclay’s merit lies in his additions to the original text, wherein he occasionally gives vent to splenetic, obsessive and arbitrary misanthropy, targeted at the usual victims (Skelton, women, the Turks, the French, pagans and, of course, politicians and men of the cloth). Without being either a reformer or a Lollard – on the contrary, he has a distinctly conservative outlook – Barclay can be vaguely compared to Langland; like Gower, he is a cataloguer. Nonetheless, he shares with Chaucer the far from negligible merit of displaying not abstract figures but true characters that now and again gain concreteness and recognition. However, prosody historians reproach him for his unpolished and run-of-the-mill verse. His second historical merit is linked to five eclogues, for which Barclay owes a debt of gratitude to Mantuan (also known as Johannes Baptista Spagnolo) and to Pope Pius II, Enea Silvio Piccolomini; having been composed during his youth, they were set aside and later reviewed for publication in 1515. Although disregarded by Spenser, they mark the birth of English pastoral poetry,4 even if on close inspection they also contain a vein of satire and, through the mouthpiece of the various shepherds, they deplore the mendacity of court and city life, while exalting the simple amenities of life in the country.

4

The trajectory of the genre probably concludes with the twentieth-century eclogues of MacNiece (Volume 8, § 18.1), who was surely inspired by Barclay’s fifth Eclogue, ‘The Cytezen and Uplondyshman’.

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§ 23. Skelton* Literary critics over the centuries have been invariably cautious, if not sparing in giving praise, with regard to John Skelton (ca. 1460–1529), and unanimous in dampening the enthusiasm of those who ventured to award him the status of one of the greatest poets of all time in English literature. I am of the opinion that the arguments in his favour outnumber those to his disadvantage, and Skelton proves to be the most prominent figure on the literary scene in the period from Chaucer to Wyatt, being the author at least of a modest collection of delightful medium length compositions whose vitality has remained intact over the centuries, and which deserve a place of honour in any anthology of English poetry. Such glorification stems from a relatively recent change of attitude, insofar as Skelton tends *

‘Monumental’ poetic edition, ed. A. Dyce, 2 vols, London 1843, 1844, repr. 1965. The Complete Poems, with modernized spelling, ed. P. Henderson, London and Toronto 1948; The Complete English Poems, ed. J. Scattergood, Harmondsworth 1983, with an unpretentious but constructive comment. W. H. Auden, ‘John Skelton’, in The Great Tudors, ed. K. Garvin, London 1935, 55–67, repr. in CRHE (listed below), 176–86; W. Nelson, John Skelton, Laureate, London 1939; L. J. Lloyd, John Skelton: A Sketch of his Life and Writings, Oxford 1938; I. A. Gordon, John Skelton: Poet Laureate, Melbourne 1943; H. L. R. Edwards. Skelton: The Life and Times of an Early Tudor Poet, London 1949; E. M. Forster, ‘John Skelton’, in Two Cheers for Democracy, London 1951, Harmondsworth 1970, 141–59; A. Lombardo, ‘Magnificence’, in Il dramma preshakespeariano. Studi sul teatro inglese dal Medioevo al Rinascimento, Venezia 1957, 128–43; P. Green, John Skelton, London 1960; R. Graves, ‘The Dedicated Poet’, a lectio magistralis delivered at Oxford, in Encounter, XVII (December 1961), 11–18 (other writings by Graves in CRHE, 27–9, listed below); A. R. Heiserman, Skelton and Satire, Chicago 1961; E. Schulte, La poesia di John Skelton, Napoli 1963 (Skelton ‘was acquainted with the works of the Italian fourteenth-century writers, of the Latin satirical writers and of those of the late Renaissance humanistic period’, and distinct verbatim echoes of Petrarch, Boccaccio, Bracciolini, Folengo and Poliziano can be noted in his works [10–11 and 29–30]; this view is contested by Scattergood 1983, 406); S. E. Fish, John Skelton’s Poetry, New Haven, CT and London 1965; N. Cooke Carpenter, John Skelton, New York 1967; M. Pollet, John Skelton: Poet of Tudor England, Eng. trans., London 1971; CRHE, ed. A. S. G. Edwards, London 1981, 1995, 1999; A. F. Kinney, John Skelton: Priest as Poet: Seasons of Discovery, Chapel Hill, NC 1987; G. Walker, John Skelton and the Politics of the 1520s, Cambridge 2002; J. Griffiths, John Skelton and Poetic Authority: Defining the Liberty to Speak, Oxford 2006.

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to transcend the literary preferences and tastes of his own and of the following periods, and to appeal to those of a more modern audience. He was triumphantly reassessed and acclaimed in the early and mid-twentieth century, more or less in the light of the same criteria that had previously determined his condemnation.1 At first glance, his life and works appear to support the cliché of the man of letters recruited from the only social class that continued to replenish the ranks of the poets, namely the Church. Leaving aside his poetic output in English, Skelton is indeed a highly erudite cleric, a first-class, well-versed Latinist, a refined and methodical translator of works written by authors such as Diodorus Siculus, which earned him the praise of Erasmus and Caxton, as well as being a poet in his own right in that language. The author of a lost Latin grammar in English, he is in his own way a Browninguesque ‘grammarian’. He was probably a native of northern England, more precisely from the Cumberland area, the son of humble craftsmen. He graduated at three universities, including that of Leuven, for which reason he was improperly referred to during his lifetime as ‘Poet Laureate’.2 Judging from the fact that he was young King Henry VIII’s respected tutor, we can infer that his erudition was held in high esteem at a national level. Appalled by the corruption rife at court, and imprisoned for some unknown offence, he was ordained priest in 1498 and in 1503 he was assigned, with no obligation as regards residency, to the parish of Diss in Norfolk. Yet it is highly likely that he continued to travel back and forth from Diss to London, considering his active – or rather, morbid – interest in current affairs, both in the political and social sphere. Many previous English poets had been priests and monks, but it would be difficult to imagine a less zealous, pious and subdued man of the cloth than Skelton; donning the cassock was perhaps an ersatz in order to survive. Until he was in his thirties, he had led a life of enjoyment, indulging in every kind of pleasure and striving to excel; he had also perhaps 1 2

In the 1934 edition of CHI, vol. II, 67–79, Skelton is still the object of negative criticism, due to the violation of the imperative canon of brevitas and to his ‘lack of constructive ability’, that is to say, his innate technical negligence. Almost all of Skelton’s poetic compositions open and close with the words ‘Skeltonidis Laureati’.

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led a life of dissipation, and above all had made many enemies, whom he provoked, slated and mocked in his verse.3 Skelton, however, differs from other poets in that he is not a wayfaring cleric and could never have been such; he hardly ever (or perhaps never) ventured outside the confines of England,4 and he was likely to have been awarded his degree by the University of Leuven thanks to his established reputation, in absentia. In 1512 he was summoned back to the court from Diss as ‘regius orator’ and composer of interludes, but the last decade was tainted by his unrelenting hostility towards Cardinal Wolsey, second-in-command and factotum of Henry VIII. He succeeded in escaping a sort of manhunt staged by the Cardinal himself, taking ‘sanctuary’ in Westminster Abbey. However, maybe putting on an act, he finally resolved to bow down to his enemy with the aim of obtaining grace and pardon, for which reason he was obliged to render him a sycophantic dedication in his last work. Those critics who find fault with fifteenth-century poets in general for their mundaneness and total lack of idiosyncrasy and individuality will surely give credit to Skelton for his genuine, virile egocentricity and insatiable fiery rancour. Skelton’s poetry is permeated with a Super-Ego of enormous proportions. Woe betide those who offend him; but, luckily for us, his creative verve is catalysed by his calumny, and the words seem to pour out of their own

3

4

The fact that Skelton lived with a woman and on one occasion proudly and audaciously exhibited, from the pulpit of the church in Diss, the child born from their union, and married his partner when he was on the brink of death, is considered by a few sceptical biographers to be fictional, and indeed this information was drawn from The Merie Tales, a collection of anecdotes included in Dyce’s edn, vol. I. Due to this scandal Skelton seems to have been reported by the Dominicans to the Bishop of Norwich, but no action was ever taken against him by any ecclesiastical authority. Schulte 1963, 18–19, is among those who show a certain amount of perplexity vis-àvis this anecdote; Fish 1965, 82, with whom I agree, has instead an open-minded attitude towards it. The overt analogies with the life of Luther, which emerge from what went on behind the scenes, have been exploited by some critics to identify in Skelton a Protestant in pectore, a hypothesis strenuously rejected by others. It must be underlined that officially Skelton was a sworn enemy of Luther, as well as of every heretic sect, beginning with Wyclif. Edwards 1949, 46, is of a different opinion.

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accord in self-generating chains of surly alliterations. When Skelton singles out an adversary, he is not content to floor him; having knocked him out, he helps him to his feet and revives him only to continue striking him and to finish him off. For this reason, his invectives are never-ending, and no sooner do they seem to come to an end than they rise to the surface yet again. Such frenzied and ferocious satires ad hominem are destined not to reappear until the eighteenth century in English literature.5 Such vigour is not, however, instrumental to any kind of enlightened progressivism. His fixed target is ‘double delinge’, that is to say duplicity, in the name of a moral code of righteousness and integrity. Politically speaking, Skelton is terrified of chaos and thus he tends towards an apocalyptic Weltanschauung.6 At the very moment when he feels the age-old, traditional cosmos moving under his feet and witnesses the ominous arrival on the scene of Luther and other heretical doctrines, he keeps a firm foothold and lashes out at old Wyclif and all the disruptors, in defence of the rock-hard unity of the Church. An Englishman through and through, a chauvinist and xenophobe, he therefore defended King Henry to the hilt, and ferociously vituperated the dissidents, the opportunists, and the Scots. 2. Deconstruction, or even Oscar Wilde, might argue that inflexibility is the outward manifestation of some deep-seated conflict or contradiction.7 Like any psychopath or manic depressive hungering for affection and sincere care and attention, during his moments of peace and tranquillity Skelton becomes the most sensitive and charming poet imaginable. His impassioned ardour is kept under control and at bay; yet, at times, he gives free rein to pure verbal ranting which inevitably degenerates into the illegible. When hard pressed, he changes languages and speaks and

5 6 7

His is the quotation from Juvenal, his favourite Latin author: ‘Quia difficile est / Satiram non scribere!’ A ‘radical right-wing Catholic’ for Green 1960, 38. R. Graves’s reference in The White Goddess, New York 1976, 425, to the group of poets – in which Skelton finds himself in the company, among others, of Donne, Swift and Hopkins – who found it ‘impossible to combine the functions of priest and poet without doing violence to one calling or the other’, seems to be particularly appropriate.

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writes in Latin. Several of his compositions, after grandiose prologues of great consequence, take the form of notes and jottings that suddenly become a medley of incomprehensible fragments and other irrelevant multi-lingual additions of dubious attribution. Crammed beyond description, they give the impression not of being incomplete, but muddled and cumbersome. Apart from that, Skelton, as regards poetic praxis, is an innovator above all because he is not an official poet with ‘objectivizing’ tendencies, but a subjective one,8 preceded only by Hoccleve in this respect – albeit to a minor degree. Yet we are surprised to discover that his inclination is almost towards drama, as opposed to poetry or argumentative debate. Indeed, he deserves a place in the history of the dramatic monologue, some of his compositions being vocal exploits that are to be imagined as being recited on stage. One of his works, perhaps the most impressive, although the least successful, remains one of the incunabula of English pre-Shakespearean drama. Subjectivity could be synonymous with humanistic conscience and in the last of his most significant compositions Skelton, proud of his stature as a poet, goes as far as to audaciously crown himself, in true Petrarchan fashion, as the most illustrious poet of his age. If he is not a fully fledged humanist it is not – as critics traditionally suppose – because he is ‘still’ a representative of the Middle Ages. Skelton even possesses certain characteristics not only akin to the Renaissance period, but also to the modern and (could this be an exaggeration?) postmodern cultures. While not having familiarized as yet with a concise, stark, self-contained type of poetry (on the contrary, he blatantly ignores it), on the other hand he permanently breaks with monumental poetry. Skelton’s poetry has been assembled in a collective edition of accessible specimens, without there being any need to glean here and there: we are dealing with a book of poetry of approximately 400 pages, a size which in future was to become canonical. We could hardly attribute to an exponent of the Renaissance period poems structured in such a bizarre and fanciful manner, and composed with the most startling linguistic and prosodic distortions, such as those relating to the funeral of a sparrow, with its blend of sacred and profane elements, the

8

Auden (CRHE, 182) also appears to have voiced the same opinion.

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dramatic monologue of a parrot, or the pursuit of a falcon inside a church, undertaken by a zany priest who delights in practical jokes. 3. While readily paying homage to a few outworn stylistic elements featured in almost two centuries of medieval literature, Skelton pulls out of his hat similar eccentric genres that herald eighteenth-century pathos, the Biedermeier or the fantasy genre. All his outrageous, pedantic flaunting of poorly blended late Latin, which has irritated many critics, nowadays strikes us being burlesque and parodic, and, as such, pleasurable. He foreshadows the postmodern notion of a medley text, disjointed in its still amorphous and unrefined components, with its constant illusionistic transitions from one narrator to another – a far cry from the harmonious, sculptured verse of the Elizabethans. In the final analysis, however, Skelton is one of those writers who, to quote Joyce, lays considerable, if not absolute, importance on style. He far surpasses Chaucer himself in his flair for words and dexterity in playing with language; in this respect, his compositions are, indeed, second only to those plays of Shakespeare that mainly hinge on the signifier, such as Love’s Labour’s Lost. For the first time in English literature we witness the entry of elements that satisfy no other purpose but enjoyment, for example, puns, neologisms, rhyming chants, multilingualism and macaronic language, rhymes between English words and other words in other languages, repeated three, four and even more times. His verse therefore pre-announces Carlyle, Lewis Carroll, the nonsense genre and, of course, Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.9 For this reason, Skelton’s lexical repertoire constantly oscillates between polysyllabic Latinate words (invariably with parodic intent) and the crisp-sounding monosyllabic words of Anglo-Saxon derivation. For the same reason, he is a poet whose lyrics are even closer to the spoken language and leagues apart from ornate and aureate diction, a distant precursor of Hopkins’s sprung (or abrupt) rhythm. More specifically, he is at the head of a revolution in the sphere of prosody, second only to that spearheaded by Chaucer, whose rhyme royal had been at the forefront for a century and a half. As a master of prosody, Skelton varies from Chaucer’s rhyme royal to the twelve-line stanza, to the parody of the heroic couplet; 9

A reading of the alternating prose episodes in Skelton’s Replication will give the impression of a jumble of passages later to be found in Joyce’s novel.

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however, ‘Skeltonics’, a prosodic form of his invention, can be defined above all as lines of very few syllables (five, four, three, two, or even just one) in dipodic and trochaic metre, in compositions with rhymes repeated even as many as ten times. Let it be said clearly that, from a metrical point of view, Skelton draws generously upon the tradition of alliterative verse, in particular upon Langland, except for the fact that we are dealing with a binary system, where alliteration is coordinated with rhyme. Skelton has always been awarded the highest tribute (by Auden above all) for his skill as a prosodist, for the vibrant vivacity of his rhythm, for his unconventional and prompt inflections, for his replication of spoken language (by Auden once again), and for his exuberant, plebeian, outspoken, irreverent and off-colour vein. However, his linguistic and lexical creativity, his multilingualism and his use of macaronic language have been understated; in this regard, as far as we know, the name of Hopkins has been regularly cited, but not – or at least, to a lesser degree – that of Carroll, and never that of Joyce or Browning. Interestingly, the acclamations of Skelton were voiced by the modernists of the 1920s.10 4. Skelton’s idiosyncratic style has met with uncompromising criticism over the centuries and, among other contemporaries, Barclay and Puttenham disassociated themselves from his licentious and inappropriately clownish manner. As proof of this, no edition of his works was printed until 1718. He was certainly unpalatable for the Augustans, and Pope disbarred him, without considering that, as an argumentative poet and polemicist, Skelton was in actual fact an Augustan in pectore, although he lacked their wryness and understatement. Pope’s invective (‘beastly’ Skelton) was aimed at the latter’s infringement of good taste and euphemism. If Johnson opts for litotes, at the end of the eighteenth century Warton, the first historian of English literature, endorses Pope, invoking the law of ‘decorum’, a law in his opinion violated by Skelton. It was Robert Southey who was to spearhead a turning point, when he acclaimed Skelton as ‘one of the most extraordinary writers of every age or country’. Yet is the fact that 10

The only scholar who points to the ‘importance of the contribution made by Skelton to the lexical development of the English language’, with the inclusion of other idiolects, is Schulte 1963, 216–19.

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the Romantics were the first to re-evaluate Skelton so surprising? And that, in addition to Southey, other poets such as Coleridge, Wordsworth and Elizabeth Barrett Browning (the latter a Romantic poet writing in a post-Romantic period) should speak of him in such deferential tones? Given that Victorian criticism bears the hallmark of the Augustans and of Matthew Arnold, it is hardly surprising that the Victorians should virtually pass over Skelton in silence. A critic, Peter Green, underlines Skelton’s further upsurge of popularity in the 1920s, coinciding more or less with the period of the unrealistic ‘bright young things’ of Waugh and others, a period when Dylan Thomas was becoming a legendary figure. ‘Speak, Parrot’, it was realized, manifestly echoed and prefigured The Waste Land.11 Green was writing in 1960 under the influence of the modernist revolution and the long-term effects (three or four decades later) of the rediscovery of Hopkins. Skelton’s nineteenth-century pioneer, historical ambassador and plenipotentiary is the poet, historian and anthropologist Robert Graves. The imaginative Graves considered Skelton to be no less than the unacknowledged founder of a literary movement, or rather of a poetic practice between two possibilities in human history: Skelton as a ‘Muse-inspired’, as opposed to an Apollonian, poet, a poet who creates and writes from the back, rather than from the front, of his mind, intuitively, ecstatically, melancholically. Above all, Skelton is for Graves the historical counterpart of Milton: whereas Skelton’s poetry is wide-ranging, flowing and effortless, that of Milton is spasmodic, harsh and grim. The coupling of Graves and Skelton was tantamount to a summit meeting between two great poets so distant in time from each other. Graves hailed him as a kindred spirit in much the same way that Hopkins hailed Scotus, and this metempsychosis fired Graves to knock ill-informed critics and editors into shape. Shortly after, in 1935, Auden also championed him. Orwell confirms12 that Skelton could take pride of place in the domain of political poetry and literature, and that a few of his lyrics, such as his elegies on the death of certain female figures, and the fragments of other macaronic poems, formed an integral part of the poetic canon of the British intellectual in the inter-war period. 11 12

Green 1960, 13. OCE, vol. IV, 330.

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5. With the exclusion of all the dubious poems, Scattergood’s edition features only twenty-four items in a production beginning in 1480. Their dating is uncertain, questionable and based on conjecture, due to obscure allusions in the texts deriving from the scarcity of biographical documentation. This is the edition I shall follow in the presentation of Skelton’s works. The point of departure is the panegyric, the epicedium, the laudatio of the righteous, alternating with jest, abuse, a flood of meaningless or obscure but rhythmical, sapid, terse utterances, as well as with the strambotto, the nonsensical poem and the rhyming chant. Where Skelton excels is in his macaronic verse, with burlesques featuring a medley of English and late liturgical Latin, and outrageous insults drawing heavily on alliteration.13 Of this shortlist at least six poems stand out for their absolute value. Skelton’s impressive canon opens with ‘The Bouge of Court’.14 A merchant vessel docks at Norwich, where an allegorical pageant of personifications, individualized in the manner of Chaucer with minute descriptions of their attire and manners, takes place. Skelton’s pictorial spirit of observation is legendary, so much so that Dutch painters are often mentioned as close to him. The court is a congregation of privileged people, where there is no reward for merit; yet, amid this moral squalor, Drede (that is to say, modesty, who embodies the poet Skelton himself, without however the loss of the lexical nuance of ‘terror’) manages to save himself. For this very reason Drede is feared and is the object of a conspiracy. Just when the situation is becoming critical, the poet wakes up. Skelton therefore has recourse to a Chaucerian stylistic device, intermingled with an allusion to Barclay’s ship of fools. ‘Ware the Hauke’ dates from the period in which Skelton was rector of Diss. From the metrical point of view, it is structured in rhyming couplets, but with a tendency towards lines of no more than four or five syllables. It describes the bizarre actions of an irreverent falconer priest, and the exemplary punishment meted out to him by Skelton the rector; 13

His most vitriolic – yet at the same time entertaining and creative – invective, bursting with alliteration, is launched at Garnish, the Lord Chamberlain, whose bad breath is lengthily and obsessively commented upon. 14 ‘Bowge’ derives from the French bouche, meaning one’s right to sit and eat at the king’s table: something very similar to the modern luncheon voucher or meal ticket.

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however, it also underlines the sense of scandal with the addition of liturgical invocations of a composite linguistic nature.15 ‘Philip Sparrow’,16 Skelton’s masterpiece, consists of sixteen-line stanzas, in which the lines contain a varying number of syllables, although they are generally pentasyllabic, in a general pattern of rhyming couplets. The opening of the poem, written in a naïf style, is vivacious and of fairy-tale simplicity, with the use of the formulary of the Office of the Dead and – apparently with a solution which anticipates Browning and Joyce – with the rhythmical interposing of Latin biblical verses. I speak of naïf style because we are dealing with the idealization of a little bird, a pet sparrow, transformed into a fetish and into a little girl’s erotic ersatz. This work was subsequently to inspire Carroll, The Ingoldsby Legends, de la Mare, and the twentieth-century fantasy genre, of which Firbank was also an exponent. The poet gives the floor to his mask who, claiming to possess wide-ranging knowledge and to have read many stories, churns out a long list of historico-mythological issues, in the manner of Gower, after which he proceeds to compose the Latin epitaph. Towards the end, he takes over again and sings the praises of the little girl, whose face is ‘adorned’ by a wart,17 a deliberate instance of bathos. ‘The Tunning of Elinour Rumming’ is an even more astounding vocal exploit. It recounts a scene to be recited on stage and subdivided into ‘fits’, like The Hunting of the Snark, or Langlandian ‘passus’. For his love of vulgar, bizarre, extravagant and flamboyant micro-scenes, as well as his passion for coining neologisms and the use of obsolete words, simply for the pleasure of inventing new meanings, one is tempted to see Skelton as a previous incarnation of Carroll. Elinour, the owner of an ale-house, with her hooked nose and gypsy features, is depicted even more markedly and grotesquely than in Chaucer. She serves the neighbourhood women, who

15 16 17

On second reading, one notices resemblances between this poem and Pater’s Gaston de Latour, as well as the opening scene of the baptism of a pet dog in the cathedral in Firbank’s Cardinal Pirelli (Volume 7, § 88.5). This poem is vaguely reminiscent of Catullus and of Lesbia’s sparrow, as well as of numerous precedents in Latin poetry. Erotic passion and senile delirium, like Ruskin’s with his flower girls, or Joyce’s Bloom eyeing up (literally in the same way as Skelton) Gerty’s garter.

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are eccentric, filthy, with stinking breath and stubbly faces, badly dressed, penniless and ready to sell anything to pay for their ale. The first part of ‘Speak, Parrott’ could quite easily have been written by Browning, the Browning of the most eccentric and fanciful dramatic monologues; in the parrot’s linguistic prowess, reflected in the profusion of words from other languages apart from English, lies proof of Skelton’s truly Joycean macaronism. However, this is also a prime example of how certain lyrics of Skelton’s tend to degenerate as they go along. ‘Speak, Parrott’ founders, in fact, in the midst of a chaotic and disconnected collage of biblical references, pedantic allusions and invectives hurled at the Court and, in particular, at Cardinal Wolsey. Frankly, the text is essentially reduced to a series of disjointed multilingual telegraphic outbursts, almost an anticipation of the last stylistic imitation in the hospital episode of Joyce’s Ulysses. The poem gradually loses the stylish lyrical hallmark that characterized its opening, and this has the effect of enhancing Skelton’s oddity, eccentricity and peculiarity.18 6. Magnificence deserves to be extrapolated (and a few critics of Skelton as a poet have already done and do so) and included and assessed among the first experimental works of medieval and pre-Shakespearean allegorical drama, together with other lost works of his of which we know.19 In actual fact, it is a sort of drama version of Hoccleve’s Regiment of Princes, since it offers a picture of the identikit of the just, righteous and judicious prince, a ruler who is neither a squanderer, nor incontinent, and lives according to ‘measure’. The stern admonition is that the king rely on counsellors who are equally upright, moderate and not deceitful. There can be no such thing as absolute freedom, to which certain limits need to be imposed, in order to avoid anarchy; in a similar way, unrestrained generosity can turn into wastefulness. At the end retribution lies in store for the negligent 18

19

Allegory yields to symbolism, and the parrot has been variously interpreted as the heart or soul or the poetic principle simultaneously of divine and human origin. Critics (cfr. Edwards 1949, 190–199) have deciphered with extreme difficulty the references to historical events and given a tentative reconstruction of a highly abstruse religious allegory of redemption. According to Graves (CRHE, 169), Skelton’s lost works constitute two-thirds of his total literary output.

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Magnificence who, now in the depths of despair, is captured as he is on the verge of committing suicide. Another personification, Measure, one of the key Renaissance virtues, was later to influence Shakespeare, insofar as it is Ulysses’ ‘degree’ in Troilus and Cressida, though something different in Measure for Measure. At the same time, the scene in which Magnificence, now in the throes of madness, banishes Measure and lies prostrate and afflicted on the ground, stripped of all his possessions, denuded and cold, is a preview of Lear wandering in the wilderness. Additionally, the ordeal is identical to that of Marlowe’s Faust, but with a happy ending.20 The hardly awe-inspiring interest of the play, or rather pageant, lies in the interchange of dialogues and soliloquys. The former are typically concise one-line speeches, but these alternate with longer speeches in various metres. On the one hand, we witness an attempt on the part of a number of Jonsonian ‘Volpones’, who hound Magnificence in order to corrupt him (hence the exchange of insults and abuse); on the other hand, salacious quips of already Shakespearean stamp fill the air.21 The verbal crossfire of adages and aphorisms look ahead to the Restoration comedy; from the point of view of prosody, they are highly alliterative lines, in the manner of Langland. The rest of Skelton’s output bears the hallmark and urgency of the invective, the unifying element being the author’s language play. ‘Colin Clout’ is Skelton’s mask, namely the make-believe outsider who criticizes the ways of the world. Written therefore in the first person, and pretending to produce a rough-hewn type of verse, which on the contrary appears to be finely structured, it launches an invective against the corrupt, gluttonous and remiss clergy. This is another of the endless examples of Skelton’s macaronic style, teeming with Latin words and expressions,22 as well as of his parodic vein in the series of short lines with the same rhyme, and short words alternating with other Latinate ones, echoing the prototype of the Dies irae. ‘Colin Clout’ sheds light on the turmoil prevailing in the 20 Cf. A. S. G. Edwards in CRHE, 13–14, for Skeltonian echoes in Marlowe and (with reference to what has been stated above) in Jonson, although these do not refer to Magnificence. 21 Note how closely this line resembles a Shakespearean – or more specifically, a Falstaffian – line: ‘By Cockes harte, thou arte a fyne mery knave’ (l. 1826). 22 ‘Of suche vacabundus / Speketh totus mundus’ (ll. 246–7).

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ecclesiastic sphere of his period and on the resistance to the Reformation, since Colin stands his ground in the face of the waves of heresy sweeping over the British Isles. The Reformation will be without effect, provided that the prelates and the upper reaches of power perform their duties. ‘Why Come Ye Not To Court?’, aimed at human folly, but at Wolsey in particular,23 takes the form of a deluge of exclamations and accusations denoting inexhaustible linguistic verve and peerless inventiveness. Though disjointed, discontinuous, overflowing and often unreadable, ‘Garlande or Chaplet of Laurel’ contains a few rather praiseworthy flashes of genius; its main aim is the poet’s bold self-glorification, which takes shape within the context of a hackneyed framework, that of the dream, in which the poet is seen walking through a wood and meeting with a few mythological figures. Skelton has no qualms about brazenly simulating both Dante and Chaucer at the same time. Under an oak tree he finds himself in the presence of Dame Pallas and the Queen of Fame, and is made to speak on his own behalf in order to demonstrate that he possesses the necessary requisites to win entry to her Palace. The poets of antiquity parade in front of the two figures, together with Bacchus, who offers them refreshment. This particular phase of the rhapsody is invaluable for its contribution to the definition of the English and continental literary canon at the turn of the sixteenth century, with its arbitrary estimates. The fact that Skelton fails to mention the name of Dante is just as incomprehensible as the fact that Chaucer makes no reference to Boccaccio, also considering that he celebrates his own place of honour ‘amid such knowledge’, that is to say amid a trio composed of Chaucer, Gower and Lydgate. The crowned poet (in the Petrarchan sense) will not be awaited by a Dantesque quintet, which is confirmation, a century and a half later, of who exactly was considered to form part of the triad of unrivalled poets at that time. Notably Langland has been excluded, in favour of Lydgate, together with Chaucer and Gower; similarly, the anonymous authors – if indeed we are dealing with two distinct authors – of Pearl and of Gawain have also been excluded. Nevertheless Skelton, rendering an invaluable service to bibliographers, 23

A typical characteristic of the Renaissance clergy, embodied in Browning’s Bishop of St Praxed, is their ignorance of Latin (‘His Latin tongue doth hobble’).

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includes a complete list of his poetic ‘book’. At the Palace of Fame, his laurel garland is commissioned by a lady of his times, and Skelton closes his composition by dedicating to certain court ladies, whom he addresses by name and who therefore really exist, some of his most charming and delicate lyrics of varying metre and rhythm. As previously stated, doubts have been cast as to whether the pen of the unsophisticated Skelton could have produced such delightful little odes, which raises the issue of whether this coda represents the true birth of English Petrarchism, since the poems are addressed not to allegorical and conventional figures, but to real-life women, with all the ritual tropes and sublimations.24 At the end of this lengthy poem, the author states that it has also been a pageant, that is an allegorical and dialogued scene, and a vanishing dream. § 24. Fifteenth-century Scottish literature* Until the mid-fifteenth century any survey of the literature written in Scotland can only be conducted on a broad-spectrum – as opposed to a methodical and systematic – basis, owing to the scarcity of texts of a marked and well-defined intrinsic literary value, to be distinguished from others of a documentary, linguistic, historical, philological and archaeological nature. Scholars undertaking this task find themselves confronted with a series of cyclically recurring issues: the semi-anonymity of the authors, problems of attribution, dating of works, comparison and contrast of texts, the endless spiral of rhyming couplets alternating with alliteration in various prosodic forms, and stanzaic units of various numbers of lines, not to mention the mysteries that surround authors whose names are known but lack any matching works, or vice versa. However, the rebirth of Scottish literature coincides with the urgent request for heroic epic poems, in order to address the imminent need to create and promote a

24 This is an opinion shared also by Schulte 1963, 175–202. *

Bruce, ed. W. W. Skeat, 4 vols, EETS 1896, and ed. A. A. A. Douglas, Glasgow 1964; Chronikl by Wyntoun, ed. F. J. Amours, 6 vols, Edinburgh 1903–1914. The Kingis Quair by James I is edited by W. M. Mackenzie, London 1939, and J. Norton-Smith, Oxford 1971.

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nationalistic mythology sufficiently close in time, to underpin and fortify the nascent state of Scotland, to officially inaugurate its existence and to clearly distinguish it from the English monarchy. As in every other newly instated regime, this campaign lays emphasis on Scotland’s historical genealogy, even presumed to surpass that of England, while at the same time inevitably introducing a few minor feats of historical conjuring as well as numerous historiographic forgeries. From the late fourteenth century, we therefore witness the development of a heroic, even Homeric, phase in Scottish literature, embodied above all in two chansons de geste modelled on real-life heroes who had taken on legendary prominence. One of these is sung by a minstrel bard, of illustrious status and identity, referred to – not without reason – as ‘Blind’. The implications accompanying this reawakening are of a linguistic nature. As a result of the complex merger of all the ethnic groups living together on Scottish soil, a rift is created between the tradition of the populations or regions of Gaelic extraction and language, with their respective literary compositions (which remain outside the scope of the present historical survey), and the affirmation of a Scottish language comparable to that spoken contemporaneously in London, or elsewhere in England, but characterized by marked local inflections, in a period in which there still existed an elevated degree of flexibility in the variants from one speaker to another. By analogy with Middle English, this language is referred to as Middle Scots, bearing in mind that, at an earlier stage, Gaelic was known as ‘Scottis’, whereas Middle Scots was known as ‘Inglis’, which will subsequently become ‘Scottis’, in order to avoid any unwanted confusion with the terminology used to indicate the language of the enemy and oppressor. 2. A handful of poems upon the death of the Scottish king Alexander III, dating from just before 1286, as well as a few isolated lines of scorn and mockery, targeted at the English and handed down in other subsequent chronicles, constitute the entirety of the thirteenth-century repertoire documented in ‘inglis’ or ‘scottis’, as the case may be. The fact that the cultural relations were closer and more privileged with France, as opposed to neighbouring England, is demonstrated for over a century by the prevalence of Breton and even Arthurian models, with no counterpart in contemporary English culture (the legendary Thomas the Rhymer was the author of a Sir Tristram). The very first national epic poem, Brus by John

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Barbour (1320–1395), a graduate from Oxford University, Archdeacon of Aberdeen, and highly esteemed court dignitary entrusted with important diplomatic missions, does not make its appearance on the literary scene until 1375. Barbour, who was apparently not acquainted with Chaucer, compiled a simple yearbook in verse until he amplified out of all proportion the turning point of the victory of Bannockburn (1314), which was to mark the conquest of independence from England thanks to Robert and Edward Bruce and to Douglas, their ally. The historical events are sketchily outlined, with astonishing blunders and perplexing factual errors; at the same time, Barbour avoids any avowal of Manichaeism, by demonstrating that there is good and bad on both sides. As a man of the cloth, he tactfully displays a vein of allegory in the successful Scottish War of Independence, and at least one of his hymnal apostrophes to freedom has become a proverbial quotation. Good King Robert is, on the one hand, an invincible war hero and, on the other, a good-natured, sagacious humorist. The historian Andrew of Wyntoun (ca. 1350-ca. 1425), in his chronicle of the history of Scotland in verse dating from the early fifteenth century, traces the origins of mankind from the creation of the angels. He can hardly be termed as an original compiler, despite the fact that he subtitles his work as ‘original’ (in the sense of ab origine); he patches together miscellaneous bits and pieces from other sources, with very little self-assurance and historical reliability. His merit lies in his mention of the legendary regicide King Macbeth, with all the supernatural elements that will later recur in Shakespeare. In Scottish mythology the valiant and bloodthirsty William Wallace1 contended with Bruce for the title of national hero, and a poem in verse by ‘Henry the Minstrel’ or ‘Blind Harry’ was dedicated to him. This work, entitled The Wallace, a monotonous catalogue of battles and slaughters compiled in Chaucerian heroic couplets and ‘aureate’ diction, composed after 1460, and even less reliable as regards historical veracity, probably remained a – or even the – national-popular classic in Scotland for two centuries. It fomented the ingrained hatred towards the English until, having become incomprehensible, it was revisited and modernized in 1722. The mystery surrounding the figure of Huchown of the Awle 1

Captured and executed by the English in 1305.

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Ryale, to whom early tradition attributed stories based on Arthurian and biblical themes, has not been wholly clarified. This author has been hailed as a sort of Scottish counterpart of the Gawain poet. He has in fact been identified with a certain ‘little Hugh’ quoted in Dunbar’s ‘Lament’, or more precisely with the real-life knight and statesman Sir Hew of Eglinton. The specification ‘of the Awle Ryale’ would seem to indicate ‘judge of the Royal Chamber’. The above works are ostensibly more of English, as opposed to Scottish, character and quality. The most notable one composed by this mysterious author is another endless version of the death of Arthur and of the Arthurian ‘matter’, followed closely by two others, one a revival of the Trojan legend and the other a Carolingian legend (a coalman unknowingly gives hospitality in his house to Charlemagne, who rewards him in the end and reveals his true identity). The end of the century registers a host of poems of varying length and nature, including a poem on ‘Swete Susan’, also attributable to Huchown, and one regarding an owl who wants to impress with finer plumage with respect to that of the other birds, but is humiliated in the end.2 3. However, the period between the end of the fifteenth century and the middle of the sixteenth century witnesses the emergence of a limited, but refined, output of Scottish literary works, and of a literary civilization whose focal point is the Royal Court of Edinburgh. This is due to several factors: first of all, a few of the promising literary talents are Oxford graduates, secondly this is a period that marks the birth of the first Scottish universities, and lastly because the Court, having suddenly become more erudite, is rather more inclined to offer patronage. As a result, paradoxically, during the seventy-year period from 1480 to 1550, a second nucleus of literature written in English, which is in actual fact Middle Scots, becomes rooted in Edinburgh; and at least four poets, a forerunner and three successors, vie with the other quartet of English Chaucerians for supremacy, and indeed easily surpass them. Traditionally referred to as the makeris (that is, Scottish ‘verse-makers’ or poets), they are mirror-images of those engaged at the Tudor Court in London at the very beginning of the sixteenth century. 2

This is the cleric Richard Holland’s The Buke of the Howlat, in stanzas of as many as thirteen lines, each containing a varying number of syllables. It is highly likely to have been composed as a satire aimed at King James II of Scotland.

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From a historical point of view, this miniature Scottish Renaissance can be explained by the fact that the medieval models and formulae arrive later and therefore tend to wear out slightly later; they are in fact initially assimilated whole-heartedly and enthusiastically, and even revitalized. Although the medieval influence spread like a rising storm and its culture was inevitably to approach and eventually settle in Scotland, at a much later stage in the north than in the south of Britain, and although the tail end of the storm coexisted with other cultural influences, the Chaucerian tradition was established by James I of Scotland thanks to a classic, improbable stroke of luck in disguise. Having been made a prisoner at the age of eleven by the English near the coast of France, where he had been secretly sent to study on a merchant ship, James spent eighteen years in the Tower of London and in other English fortresses, but was chivalrously allowed to pursue and complete his studies. In this connection, he probably made the acquaintance of another hostage, the French Duke of Orléans. Once released from prison, James composed before 1437 The Kingis Quair.3 This work not only bestowed the name of ‘rhyme-royal’ on the seven-line stanza also known as the Chaucerian stanza; not only did it provide a direct, expeditious and stylish account of the successful outcome of his love for the beautiful Jane Beaufort, of whom he had caught a glimpse between the prison bars under the ramparts of Windsor Castle and with whom he had immediately fallen in love; but it also transmitted to his fellow nationals the layout and stereotype of the allegorical dream poem based on the Roman de la Rose and on the perspicacity of Chaucer’s translation of the same poem, as well as on other works of Chaucer inspired by it.4 As can 3 4

However, James’s authorship has often been challenged. Particularly evident in the poem are Chaucer’s outline of the Knight’s Tale and of the Book of the Duchess. On an archetypal bright May morning, the king dreams of ascending to Venus’ palace, where the goddess directs him towards the sagacious Minerva, who in turn sends him to the Goddess of Fortune, for his love to be blessed. He then wakes up to find a turtle dove and a symbolic, auspicious bouquet of flowers sent by his beloved. From a linguistic point of view, this short poem tends towards Middle English, as opposed to Middle Scots, with the exception of a few inflections ascribable to the transcription; it also abounds in Chaucerian lexical echoes and references to Boethius and astrology. However, the allegory is not particularly important, and the poem can be read from beginning to end without interruption.

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be seen, all this took place after a delay of over half a century. The heyday of Scottish poetry was destined to last only a century and a half from that date. All things considered, the saying that Scottish vernacular literature was the last to flourish and the first to degenerate is a truthful one. From the mid-sixteenth century, the influence of Chaucer, who had unseated the French, is in turn deposed by the Italian, and more specifically, Petrarchan influence, with the translations of the Canzoniere and the Trionfi, and the Scottish versions of the English Petrarchists. At the time of the fusion of the two reigns of England and Scotland, James VI still surrounded himself with a circle of refined poets, in spite of hostility on the part of the reformers; and from 1603 Scottish court poetry necessarily ceased to exist,5 even if poets continued to compose popular songs and ballads and Protestant hymnal poetry. In other words, Scotland plunges into anonymity until we reach Drummond of Hawthornden, or even Thomson and Ramsay, all of whom will, however, be affiliated to English literature.6

5

6

ELS, 113, notes the curious fact that the Reformation favours and sustains literature in England, while inhibiting it in Scotland, and is clearly diffident vis-à-vis the theory that in Scotland the Royal Court was a sine qua non of poetic vitality. Lewis concludes that, on the whole, teleology has no place in the history of culture. Praz in SSI, vol. II, 29–33 (‘Ariosto e la Scozia’, one of his weakest and most gratuitously polemical writings [aimed at M. D’Amico]), attempted to rebut the theory of the ‘pitch dark’ after Lyndsay by reappraising, in the light of a book by I. Jack, an Ariostesque remake dated 1582 by a certain Stewart, as well as the mediocre sonnets – some of which, Praz says, are ‘da colascione’ [suited to a ‘Neapolitan lute’] – composed by William Fowler (§ 25.2 n. 11). This century and a half is not, and can never be, characterized by elevated literary merit, and the only poet to rise above the general mediocrity is Drummond of Hawthornden. More than anything, as stated in his title, Praz is eager to demonstrate the fact that, from the end of the fifteenth century onwards, Scotland began to turn more favourably to Italian, rather than French, models, as well as the uninterrupted acknowledgement and popularity enjoyed by Ariosto in Scotland. Nevertheless, the authors and texts cited to endorse this ‘trend of Ariostesque influence’ are, apart from a few exceptions, mere literary curiosities.

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§ 25. The Scottish Chaucerians: Douglas, Henryson, Dunbar* In terms of the quality of their literary output, this triad of Scottish Chaucerians outclasses the three English Chaucerians, Hoccleve, Lydgate and Hawes. The vulgates indicate that Henryson or Dunbar vied with each other for the title of leader, although there is no definite consensus on this; in any event, Douglas always seems to come third in the list. One or the other of the first two is ipso facto the greatest ever Scottish poet, with the exception of, or even including, Burns.1 Indeed, Dunbar is occasionally judged to be the greatest British poet of his own generation, with the express inclusion of Skelton too. Other critics surprisingly opt for a fourth poet, Lyndsay. However, the tag of ‘Chaucerian’ is imperfect and partly misleading: it indicates above all that each of the three poets composed, in the midst of a great deal of material belonging to other genres, one or more short poems of a Chaucerian, allegorical stamp, or poems inspired by or deriving from Chaucer, but uninhibited by any kind of prosodic restriction. Their independence and self-sufficiency stand out in comparison with the slavish spirit of imitation characterizing the three English Chaucerians. Gavin Douglas (1474 or 1475–1522), a cleric and bishop from the year 1516, and a protégé of the Scottish Queen, Margaret, daughter of Henry

*

Works by Douglas, ed. J. Small, 4 vols, Edinburgh 1874; selection, ed. D. F. C. Coldwell, Oxford 1964. Works by Henryson, ed. G. Smith, 3 vols, London 1906–1914, and D. Fox, London 1980 and 1987; selection, ed. C. Elliott, Oxford 1963, 1974. M. W. Stearns, Robert Henryson, New York 1949; S. Rossi, Robert Henryson, Milano 1955; J. MacQueen, Robert Henryson: A Study of the Major Narrative Poems, Oxford 1967; D. Gray, Robert Henryson, Leiden 1979; R. L. Kindrick, Henryson and the Medieval Art of Rhetoric, Kalamazoo, MI 1993. Works by Dunbar, ed. J. Small, 3 vols, London 1884–1893, ed. W. M. Mackenzie, London 1932, ed. P. Bawcutt, 2 vols, Glasgow 1998; selections ed. J. Kinsley, Oxford 1958, 1968, 1979; ed. H. Harvey-Wood, Manchester 2003. R. A. Taylor, Dunbar, The Poet and his Period, London 1932; J. W. Baxter, William Dunbar, Edinburgh 1952; P. Bawcutt, Dunbar the Makar, Oxford 1992. I shall enlarge upon Alexander Smith’s essay on Dunbar in the text. A general overview is provided in J. Speirs, The Scots Literary Tradition, London 1940, and, rev., 1962.

1

On the ‘return to Dunbar, not to Burns’ in twentieth-century and contemporary Scottish literature, cf. GSM, 57, and Volume 8, § 98.2.

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VII, but loathed by the ruler himself, died of the plague in London.2 He is an example of a Virgilian poet in a precise sense, despite the fact that he began his literary career with two short allegorical poems. The first, The Palice of Honour, is a belated and complex imitation of Chaucer’s Hous of Fame or of Hawes’s two dull short poems; yet it is occasionally fired by a few delightful descriptions of nature and by an uncommon search for the precise word. What we find here is the usual process of a cognitive Bildung within the framework of the May morning dream, with various prominent historical and mythological figures spied upon from a hollow in a tree, parading towards the Palace of Honour, which the dreamer also reaches after a series of fantastic events. The second work, King Hart,3 has an even more conventional medievalizing design,4 being an allegory of human life in preparation for old age and death, and concluding with an admonition to be on the alert at all times. Douglas is decidedly more famous for his translation in rhyming couplets of the Aeneid (completed in 1513), the first work of its kind written in any variety of English vernacular, in thirteen books, the last of which including a translation of the continuation of the poem written by the Italian Latinist Maffeo Vegio. Elegantly accomplished with the maximum lexical proficiency, to the extent of compensating, even with recourse to multilingual calques, the inferiority of the Scots language with respect to the distinctive compactness of Latin, this translation dispenses with any classical veneer and, like Chaucer in his Troilus, domesticates epic matter with deliberate anachronisms and Scotticisms.5 Moreover, curiously enough, each book is preceded by a prologue unrelated to the poem itself, where he displays an overtly reflective, but also argumentative, attitude, yet at the same time a precocious sensitivity towards

2 3 4 5

A prayer ‘for the plague’, even if the reference was not to this particular outbreak, was written by Henryson. Hart, or rather Heart, and therefore King Heart. Coldwell 1964, xxi, endorsed by two other sources, denies Douglas the authorship of this short poem. LEW, 287–90, passionately adheres to a different opinion and tends to make a clear distinction between Douglas and Hawes. C. S. Lewis discusses this issue in a work quoted in Coldwell 1964, xxvi-xxvii.

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nature, in a variety of creative and resourceful prosodic solutions.6 Critics have inevitably defined him an earlier James Thomson, only to conclude that Douglas was the more authentic and successful of the two, and that a comparison with Wordsworth and Blake would be more appropriate. He is, therefore, a Romantic avant lettre. Douglas shrouds Virgil’s sunny Mediterranean scenarios in melancholy, languor and winter hues.7 The difference between Virgil’s poem and Caxton’s translation was similar to that between St Augustine and the devil; Dryden’s version was supposed to be too neoclassical and unfaithful.8 Thus Pound correctly judged Douglas’s text to be the best among all the existing versions.9 2. There is a scarcity of reliable information on the figure and career of Robert Henryson (ca. 143010–ca. 1506), except for the fact that he was a simple but much-appreciated schoolmaster at the Benedictine abbey in Dunfermline. Nevertheless, his outstanding humanistic culture and his wide range of reading, which established him as a polished and original

The prologue to the eighth book is virtually a macaronic tour de force. Coldwell 1964 tones down this enthusiastic Romantic and modern interpretation: the inclusion of the prologues is found to be ‘in total harmony with the medieval and Renaissance tradition’ (cf. 136). 8 As stated by Coldwell 1964, vii-xix. Douglas is at least superior to Dryden in the more action-packed episodes (such as when the sea serpents emerge from the sea and strangle Laocoön), and in the episodes describing states of mind, as well as in nautical matters. 9 PGU, vol. I, 58, and E. M. Tillyard, quoted in Coldwell 1964, xxvii-xxix (where the sources of Pound’s judgements are provided). Tillyard is among the few critics who do not hesitate to point out the recurring flaws and weaknesses in Douglas’s translation. Between Douglas and Dryden there were translations of the Aeneid by Surrey (§ 43.1 n. 2), Stanyhurst and Phaer (the latter is the author of a ‘tragedy’ in the Mirror for Magistrates [§ 44]). The pre-eminence of Douglas is all the more significant if we consider that he had no previous models to rely on, although he availed himself of the comments of the Dutch humanist Ascensius. 10 His date of birth has been postponed to 1450 by some critics. The considerable number of homonyms in Henryson’s area of birth in that period led some scholars to attribute to the author such irreconcilable duties as those of a notary. The dating of the texts is purely conjectural, for which reason I have refrained from specifying dates. 6 7

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remaker, have often induced certain critics to imagine and hypothesize, with the intent of creating a missing link, a sort of joint-degree obtained by Henryson in his native land and in universities on the Continent.11 On the contrary, his three masterpieces appear to have been engendered in the silence, shadow and everyday routine of his daily office. The first is a collection of Aesopian fables in rhyme royal; the second is a Testament of Cresseid; slightly less noteworthy is his poetic re-elaboration of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Among a handful of other unassembled allegorical, hymnal and sententious compositions, emerges a delightful, amusing pastourelle entitled ‘Robene and Makyne’.12 A moralist in spirit, Henryson also displays a restraint that is alien to the impassioned preachers in poetry, and is as firm, but benevolent and temperate, as Langland is harsh and impetuous. The bulk of his finest lyrics are moral fables, in which the poet on the one hand makes amends for – or rather exploits – a certain lack of creativity and imagination, while on the other hand acknowledging a

11

12

Praz (SSI, vol. II, 29), for example, opines that the poet might have attended the performance of Poliziano’s Orfeo at the Gonzaga court in 1480; he then proceeds to document (cf. above, § 24.3 n. 6) the debt of gratitude owed by fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Scottish poets to the Italian humanists, as opposed to the French ones. Praz provides no supporting evidence, and there is absolutely no trace in the critical bibliography on Henryson of any tour made by the poet to the Italian courts at the close of the fifteenth century. As observed by Elliott 1974, xxiv, Henryson may have been awarded a degree at the Universities of Paris, Leuven or Cologne, even if there are no documents to support this. The title of ‘Master’ undoubtedly signifies magister, that is to say a graduate, but not in his case. In concrete terms, Italian influence in Scotland can be applicable to Alexander Scott (ca. 1525-ca. 1584), Alexander Montgomerie (1560–1612, who, however, translated above all Ronsard), and William Fowler (1560–1612), who was responsible for the translation of Petrarch’s Trionfi. All three, but in particular the second author, composed derivative lyrics, allegories and sonnets based on English models. Montgomerie’s tedious, sententious The Cherrie and the Slae was, until a short while ago, extremely popular among the Scottish. With reference to the issue under debate, this ballad or pastourelle contains a moral, which is not made explicit but is embedded in the text, concerning the lack of foresight or negligence: Robene is not aware that, due to his youthful capriciousness, he will have no alternative but to implore Makyne in vain. For her part, she had initially rashly promised the young shepherd ‘Eik and my madinhead’ [‘Also my virginity’]. Makyne’s reply was to remain proverbial.

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subtle and slightly pained sense of submission. This is due to the fact that he harbours doubts as to whether the effectiveness and simplicity of the allegorical tale have the power to elicit a moral lesson; so he plainly and whole-heartedly adopts a didactic approach, delivering his message in a brief appendix to each individual tale. Thirteen fables are taken from Aesop; the more gloomy, more moving and poignant, and therefore tragic, tales – tragic first and foremost in the medieval sense, with downfalls from a condition of prosperity, but already with a modern relevance – pertain to the renowned ‘matter of Troy’. The illustrious Chaucer had not drawn from the story of Troilus and Cressida all the possible moral teachings that could be imparted, and even the myth of Orpheus potentially lent itself to a Platonic, neo-Platonic, and therefore Christian interpretation. An excellent and incomparable storyteller, Henryson is the greatest and most skilful narrator in verse in the period that separates Chaucer from Shakespeare. Over and above the other aptitudes in the realm of both prosody and theme, which are generally attributed to him, he is endowed with a specifically Chaucerian technical art or talent: a sense of moderation and proportion. On numerous occasions, Chaucer happened to caution himself in extremis against straying from his topic: Henryson follows suit 150 years later. Between the fourteenth century and the beginning of the sixteenth, the centuries are almost equivalent to decades as regards literary status and impact; after the turn of the sixteenth century, however, each decade becomes equivalent to a single year. Yet Henryson transcends Chaucer, and handles the fundamental key moments of his narrative in a brief, perfunctory, even tumultuous and overwhelmingly anti-rhetorical fashion: it will be sufficient to count the number of lines, in his Orpheus, in which he describes the musician’s fatal loss of his wife after he had turned round to look at her. His poems are, therefore, few and far between; none of them exceed 1,000 lines, and only very few top 600. Contemporary taste identifies in Henryson one of the first poets in English literature who can be read without any complications of a philological nature, in an informal manner, and in a variety of English that suddenly appears – as if by magic – effortless and free-flowing. 3. Henryson imagines that he dreams of encountering Aesop in the fable of the lion and the mouse, and pretends that it is Aesop himself who is telling him the story. The Greek poet is considered to be an unwitting

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dispenser, almost on a par with Virgil, of moral truths attuned to those of the Christian faith and which are implicit in his fables. The mechanism of the animal fable proves a mask in order to conceal a discussion on irredeemable human nature. The Chaucerian element lies in the even-handed acceptance of the legacy of original sin, and yet with the awareness, however problematic this might be, that the entire cosmos is redeemable. However, like a wise schoolmaster, Henryson is not happy to assign the lesson and admonishment to the fable itself, but he includes these separately at the end, even if he is not in the habit of dwelling at length on the moral. Basically, each of the fables regularly converges towards an illustration of man’s failure to abide by the spirit, in pandering to irrepressible brutish, worldly impulses (the fable of the cock and the gemstone); or it extols a life of humbleness and modesty, devoid of luxury, because all earthly possessions are ephemeral and those who are insatiable will never be satisfied (fable of the city mouse and the country mouse). The charming little mouse is a symbol of poverty and destitution, even if this is not always the case; the lion is the epitome of cold and arrogant regal majesty; the wolf embodies the false judge and the fox exemplifies cunning. Negligence is probably the penalty of human nature on which Henryson repeatedly insists: it is by no means a trivial vice, because it has the power to put man’s eternal life at risk. A series of tales involving the fox repeat that ‘he who laughs last laughs best’, and that the Heavenly Father is to be taken seriously. Haughty and self-centred dupes will be an eternal prey to flatterers.13 The tales inevitably take on a political hue and are directed, as usual, at the ruling authorities. Hence it must be stressed that the order of creation is in decline and is constantly under the threat of diabolical incarnations; nevertheless, Henryson is confident that, in the final analysis, God will not abandon it. More precisely, in these fables he is already a seventeenth-century sacramentalist, as he sees divinity reflected in nature and God as a vital force imposing harmony on the entire cosmos. The demonic element always lying in wait is mentioned in the lengthy preamble to the fable of the swallow – a miniature, jubilant 13

The frog, like the fox, deceives the little mouse who asks to be ferried towards the other bank of the stream, and ‘paddock’ refers specifically to the most repugnant toad. In other words, ‘better to be alone than in bad company’.

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masterpiece. In his remake of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde14 Henryson follows Boethius in his representation of the wheel of fortune, which now transforms Cressida into a female foil of Troilus. After having been abandoned by Diomedes, she wanders desolately and aimlessly through the Greek battlefield; at the same time, Cressida is the living symbol of carnal ‘appetite’ which, by its very nature, is destined to be satiated and then instantly burn out. Henryson awards the same compassion towards Cressida as Chaucer and, in one stanza, he mimics the voice of the Greek chorus, imploring the deities to desist from the punishment imposed on her. However, he cannot resist the temptation to stage the uncompromising and exemplary allegory of her disloyalty, in a dream vision of a cosmic trial in which the seven planets, incarnated in the divinities from whom they take their names, engage in a debate. On waking up, Cressida sees in the mirror that her dream has become reality, and her face is disfigured by leprosy. The link with Aesop’s fables is seen above all in the use of the same didactic device, the inexorable consequences of negligence. The climax of the story coincides with the non-recognition of Cressida on the part of Troilus, who, contrary to what happens at the end of Chaucer’s poem, somehow remains alive or is brought back to life. In the hands of Henryson, Cressida is transformed into a symbol of the demonic power of the flesh and of the consequent inevitable decay that sets in. This grim, macabre twist is absent in Chaucer, and a tragic epilogue of this kind is also somewhat rare in Henryson himself. As the poet correctly states at the end, the poem is a ‘ballet schort’, a short ballad of an unprecedented conciseness, and one of the indisputable masterpieces in the realm of short narrative in verse prior to Shakespeare. In his Orpheus and Euridices15 the languid, frail and lifeless 14 Henryson describes the ‘setting’ of the composition of the poem. During a sleepless winter night he decides to pick up a book, Chaucer’s poem to be precise – a Chaucerian artifice in itself – and he invents the continuation of the story and begins to write it. The question he asks himself, similar to the one that was to engender Pater’s imaginary portraits, is ‘What has become of them?’ Henryson even goes as far as to ask himself: ‘Quh wait gif all that Chauceir wrait was trew?’ [‘Who knows whether everything Chaucer wrote was true?’]. 15 Henryson skilfully, and judiciously, blends Chaucer’s rhyme royal with alliterative alternating rhyme. In the closing Moralitas he passes directly to the heroic rhyming

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Orpheus is wooed by the more dynamic and innocently sensual Eurydice, who flees from the unwelcome advances of a lusty shepherd, but ends up being bitten by a symbolic poisonous snake and immediately abducted by Proserpine to her cavern in the underworld. Orpheus’ lament is embedded in the story with a refrain at the end of each stanza. His voyage through the planets in search of Eurydice will be a fruitless one, so the story takes the form of a realistic, demonstrative journey into the depths of Hades. It is customary to identify in Henryson the Platonic debate between the active and contemplative life, or between the sublimation of the instinct and the surrender to bestial instincts. But the core of the poem is a realistically Dantesque vision of the degradation and suffering of the sinners condemned to everlasting punishment, and of the kind of life that people may and will be obliged to fully endure in Hell, unless they repent. The ideal caption is: sic transit gloria mundi. As further proof, Eurydice will not be found by Orpheus in his journey through the celestial spheres; she does not therefore reside in the heavens, because she is guilty of having committed a fault – however trivial this might be – during her earthly existence. In this ancient myth of Orpheus Henryson captured a theological nuance, or rather exception, consisting in the fact that a doomed sinner could leave Hell and return among the living, and that eternal damnation might not be such a definitive and irreversible verdict. At the end there is a recurrence of the parable of human negligence, or of human weakness in yielding to impulsive instincts: the impatient Orpheus destroys with his own hands a priceless state of bliss on earth, for which he has wept and suffered. 4. One of the essays in the collection entitled Dreamthorp by Alexander Smith,16 a Scottish poet of the nineteenth-century Spasmodic School, but balanced and cautious as a critic, is dedicated to William Dunbar (ca. 1460-ca. 1520).17 Although Smith is responsible for a few innocent

16 17

couplet. The least successful parts are those in which Henryson aspires to listing all the specific technical details of the tunes played by Orpheus’ harp; yet it must be added that, once he becomes aware of this excessive pedantry, he closes this section. London 1905 (1st edn 1863). Cf. 79–110 for the essay I quote (on Smith’s book, and for my discussion of it, cf. Volume 4, § 228). This date is a compromise solution. Since there is no information available after the Battle of Flodden (1513) some scholars have assumed that he died on the battlefield

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errors of a philological and attributive nature, as well as a few inaccuracies as regards dating due to the low quality of contemporary standards (1863), after a lengthy preamble extending over a good two-thirds of the essay, as is his habit, he finally focuses on his subject. Once Smith gets to the heart of the matter, readers of posterity are surprised to note that they are in total agreement with many of the opinions and judgements expressed. Smith introduces Dunbar first and foremost as a court poet and therefore justly offers a picture of the ‘Medicean’ court of James IV, a ‘merry monarch’ like his descendant Charles II, a polyglot and patron, a lover of the arts with a keen interest in various branches of humanist culture, an antiquarian and scientist, and the founder of the Scottish university institutions. During his reign, Scotland became an economically flourishing maritime power, but also a nation torn apart by baronial feuds. However, under the façade of the ‘merry’ monarch lay a disturbed soul, with melancholy and neurotic traits. Having risen up against his father, James suffered from periodic fits of depression and schizophrenia and from persecution manias. The priest, poet and courtier Dunbar was, or felt, a lifelong victim of the unpredictable nature of the largesse and favours bestowed on him by this king. Praise, welcome, adulation (also, if not especially, towards the queen), panegyrics and entertainment feature just as frequently in his poetry as envy, frustration, rancour, protest, scorn and abuse. The Scottish court, in some ways so cosmopolitan and progressive, was at the same time a claustrophobic milieu, and Dunbar the poet found himself composing within its limiting and conditioning horizons. Dunbar’s identikit presented by Smith is

in defence of the king. Lyndsay, on the other hand, traces his death to the year 1530. Born into a family from the local minor nobility, a Bachelor and Master of Arts at St Andrews University, Dunbar was a Franciscan novice and, having later abandoned the Rule, was ordained as a secular priest, a role that was not particularly suited to his temperament. From the year 1500, he was employed as a poet at the court of King James IV. Many other biographical details have been derived from his own compositions, but, as I shall argue, Dunbar skilfully manipulates his masks, so this information is inevitably to be taken cum grano salis. For instance, he is supposed to have spent some time in Paris, where he led a life of merrymaking and debauchery, at a time when the poems of Villon, with whom he shares clear affinities, were being posthumously published.

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that of a melancholic ante litteram, of a frustrated, disenchanted, marginal figure who vents his exasperation on those who have undeservedly obtained greater benefits and promotions than he.18 And yet, in the final analysis, Smith adds that Dunbar remains a sibylline poet, impenetrable behind his masks, the author of poems that cannot be linked to a specific biographical ‘self ’. There is no existing portrait of the poet,19 nor is his place of burial known; Smith concludes his essay, referring to him as ‘the Pompeii of British poetry’. The data collected hitherto seem to warrant and require a few preliminary comparisons. Dunbar earns the epithet of ‘Chaucerian’ not so much for his incurable malaise as a courtier, but because he wrote – apart from his other works – the allegorical ‘The Thrissil and the Rois’ on the occasion of the marriage of King James with Margaret, ‘The Golden Targe’ in the wake of – or rather at the tail-end of – the May morning dream motif, ‘The Tretis of the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo’, apparently derived from or inspired by the Prologue to the Wife of Bath’s Tale, and a fabliau almost superior to those of the master, entitled ‘The Freiris of Berwick’. And like Chaucer, Dunbar expertly shifts from the profane to the sacred and vice versa, at his own desire and leisure. The most consolidated parallel, or contrast, is however with Skelton. Dunbar is, par excellence, the Scottish counterpart of Skelton, thanks to his sheer passion for words, his occasional whimsical oddities, and the bawdiness of his invectives aimed at both his enemies and rivals with the same unsuppressible vigour.20 However, he perhaps leaves a less indelible mark on the reader and, as a poet, he is also less unified, at least judging by the state in which 18

The confession of his chronic moodiness emerges in the lyric, consisting of only three stanzas, normally known as ‘The Headache’, whose incipit looks ahead to Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’. The poems in which Dunbar claims to be depressed and dispirited are not few in number, even if the poet tends, sooner or later, to view himself as the bone of contention between two opposing forces of allegorical personifications, as in another poem, entitled ‘A Meditation in Winter’. 19 Smith paints himself a ‘portrait’ having the same vagueness as those made by Walter Pater to depict the poets he studied. 20 The flyting between Dunbar and the poetaster Kennedy spills over 500 lines and can undoubtedly compete with Skelton’s invectives, and indeed often surpass them on the strength of their endless machine-gun fire of insults. The poem addressed to the

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the works of Skelton have reached us. We are under the impression that we would recognize Skelton if we saw him on the street (also because we possess more biographical, or legendary, information on his life and works), but this is not the case with Dunbar, who has always donned a protective mask, with the result that we never succeed in catching a glimpse of his private life or, to quote Lewis, see him ‘in literary undress’.21 Dunbar is suave and graceful even when he is ribald; only Skelton is genuinely and uncontrollably vulgar. Classicism versus Romanticism? From the point of view of form, Skelton is more intemperate, whereas Dunbar is guided by a keen sense of finish; in reality, none of his works have been left fragmentary, drafted or unfinished.22 What the two poets do have in common is their partiality for short poems; neither of them composed lengthy poems, and only one of Dunbar’s poetic compositions exceeds 600 lines. The author of 100 poems or so, he is the counterpart of the voluminous Lyndsay. Dunbar is commonly defined as a consummate master of rhyming refrains,23 and, just as Skelton is remembered for the famous line of the lizard lying lurking in the grass, so the refrain in the stanzas of Dunbar’s ‘Lament for the Makaris’, his most universally acclaimed poem, remains etched in memory, despite the fact that it is a line of trite ecclesiastical Latin: Timor mortis conturbat me.24 king as a plea for a rise in salary is proof of Dunbar’s prodigious skill in producing line after line of never-ending epithets. 21 ELS, 97. 22 There are very few examples of ‘macaronic’ language; these include a dramatic monologue attributed to another Kennedy. 23 He is also one of the greatest masters of the incipits, namely the plain, lengthy, perfectly spontaneous preludes that launch many of his various lyrics. However, they sometimes deteriorate as they go along. 24 A highly ingenious syntagma from the phonological point of view, Dunbarian ante litteram: timor and mortis are the same word repeated anagrammatically, apart from one letter, with the reversals [t/i/o/r] – [o/r/t/i]; moreover, the line is inscribed within the assonant syllables [ti] and [mi], and presents the reversal [im] / [me]. It has often been observed by scholars that Dunbar is not interested in issues of ethics, theology or philosophy. In this respect, he is therefore the exact opposite of Skelton, who is a staunch supporter of the Church and its unity, and a sworn enemy of every kind of heresy.

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5. However much he lacks Skelton’s typical idiosyncrasy and personal mark, Dunbar is nonetheless a poet who is able to imitate a series of fake voices and registers, covering the entire possible range of tones in poetic diction, from the soft and melodious to the coarsely plebeian, like a skilled ventriloquist. A second Midas, he turns to gold everything he touches. As Alexander Smith observed, ‘His genius combined the excellence of many masters’, also alluding to the fact that his talent and ability do not often go beyond imitation. Therefore editors usually classify Dunbar’s poetry – given the impossibility of establishing any reliable chronological order – according to categories or groups or genres, or even according to the poet’s state of mind. His two allegorical short poems distinguish themselves for majesty and ambition, but they represent the dying embers of medieval allegory, and they soon cloy due to their manifest excess of adulation. ‘The Thrissil and the Rois’ is a cold and lifeless scholarly exercise on an assigned topic, which cleverly blends tried and tested commonplaces. ‘The Golden Targe’ describes the lover, defenceless against Love, which wounds him even in spite of his shield of Reason. It is an extremely flexible, smooth, free-flowing and elegant variation which evokes Poliziano, the delicate settings of Botticelli, or the Roman de la Rose in its purest form. In this poem the poet dons a mask: Dunbar was a priest, and could not possibly present himself as being pierced by the sharp arrows of Love and Beauty, his Reason having been blinded. Obviously, just when the lover is on the verge of surrendering to love, the dream spell is broken and he is once more brought back to reality. The religious and amorous lyrics, in turn, herald metaphysical elements in their elated diction, in the orgiastic string of metaphorical and synonymic epithets, in the carefully designed construction of incisive prosodies and sound patterns.25 Therefore Dunbar should be 25

See by contrast the mysterious and delightfully humorous poem on the black lady ‘with the meckle lippis’ (‘Of Ane Blak-Moir’), whose mouth protrudes ‘lyk ane aep’, and who for some unspecified reason landed up at the court of Scotland. This lyric, among the most notable of Dunbar’s more trivial poems, preannounces Herrick’s female portrayals, which often dwell on physical details and the women’s attire. When Dunbar is relaxed and composed, he is capable of creating exquisitely humorous poems, such as that on Norny, the court jester, the ungainly dancing of the courtiers, or the haughty Keeper of the Queen’s Wardrobe.

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viewed and judged at his best, that is to say when he distances himself from this celebratory and official type of poetry, or a kind of poetry modelled on courtly love conventions, and when he physically withdraws from court to observe and participate in the aspects of everyday life. As Smith justly observes, Dunbar’s excellence resides in his comical scenes enacted on the street or in the tavern, in his fierce and arrogant satires and, above all, in his somewhat grotesque imaginary and visionary ballads, all the more successful when they are short, profit from the brilliance of the poet’s inventiveness and hinge on curious, unusual, wild and bizarre anecdotes. The Devil disguised as St Francis appears before the poet one night, urging him to don the habit, but the poet resists him and the diabolical spirit reveals the mystifying dogma of the Brotherhood the poet was on the point of entering, and its methodical exploitation of good, honest men. Sainthood was, statistically speaking, far more accessible to laymen and the secular clergy than to corrupt monks. The court presented a panoply of scenarios: on the one hand, solemn, romantic and heroic, but on the other hand, also comical, farcical, grotesque and ungenerous. A humorous anecdote describes a certain Friar of Tungland who could not be dissuaded from attempting to fly with the wings of a chicken.26 ‘The Tretis of the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo’ portrays, isolates and distances the chit-chat of three tipsy ladies; for this very reason, it is a story, not a dramatic monologue, and is rather more prolix, and less explosive, than Skelton’s ‘Tunning’, although, as always, the scene of the widow hurling abuse at her husband, like a cluster of carefully chosen bullets fired one by one, is highly entertaining. Dunbar ends up wallowing in the macabre and sombre, and in that late medieval

26

This, and other surreal satires, are closely reminiscent of Skelton’s ad hominem satires: in this case, the poem is targeted at a globe-trotting careerist, a quack doctor, healer and alchemist, whose folly is ridiculed with a plentiful dose of sectorial language and with precise references to medical and alchemic practices. The victim, a certain John Damian, perhaps of Italian origins, had found favour with the king. When he takes flight, the birds in unison ask one another who this fellow is, and then go on to attack, furiously reject, humiliate and overthrow him; shaking with fear, the friar wets his pants. In the end, Dunbar reveals that this was simply a dream, nonetheless based on a true story narrated by contemporary historians. A similar escapade is that of Simon Magus in another ballad.

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taste for the decomposition of the flesh and rotting bodies – a diabolical, or even eldritch, that is to say, weird or ghostly element. The question of which of the ten or so single major poems attributable to Dunbar can be considered his masterpiece remains open: Smith, with whom I opened this discussion, opted for ‘The Dance of the Sevin Deidly Synnis’,27 an allegorical dance composition directed by Mohammed in an infernal bolgia or ditch, in which the personifications of the seven sins parade, dance and perform Dantesquely obscene actions. § 26. Lyndsay* Scottish people nowadays are, however, inclined to acknowledge as their national poet and writer par excellence not one of the previously discussed trio, but David Lyndsay, or Lindsay (ca. 1485–1555, awarded the title of Sir in 1542). As tangible, symbolic and emblematic evidence of this, the first edition of the Edinburgh International Festival in 1948 (since then Scotland’s most important cultural event) included a performance, after an immemorial lapse of time, and albeit in abridged form,1 of Lyndsay’s Satire of the Three Estates. As a follow-up, the twentieth-century playwright John Arden was to draw inspiration from Lyndsay and his most well-known and provocative work for an impressive play of his own. At the same time, 27

This poem has an envoi consisting in a mock-heroic, exuberant and extremely scatological duel between a tailor and a cobbler. The lyric is classified by Dunbar as a ‘trance’.

* Works, ed. J. Small and F. Hall, 2 vols, Edinburgh 1869, repr. New York 1969 (with very useful summaries in the margins); ed. D. Hamer, 4 vols, Edinburgh 1931–1936; Minor Poems, ed. J. A. H. Murray, EETS 1871. The Satire has been re-edited by J. Kinsley, London 1954, and by R. J. Lyall, Edinburgh 1989; and adapted as indicated in n. 7 infra. W. Murison, Sir David Lyndsay, London 1933; J. S. Kantarowitz, Dramatic Allegory: Lyndsay’s Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis, Lincoln, NE 1975; C. Edlington, Court and Culture in Renaissance Scotland: Sir David Lyndsay of the Mount, East Linton 1994. 1

The original duration of nine hours, from nine o’clock in the morning to six o’clock in the evening, was reduced to three hours on that occasion. The text at the end of the first part states: ‘the pepill mak Collatioun’ [‘the public goes to lunch’], and the actors, as specified in the stage directions, leave the scene.

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Arden in 1964 dedicated to Lyndsay another historical play, Armstrong’s Last Goodnight, in which the Scottish poet and diplomat appears as the backstage director amid the chaos and turbulence of the mid-sixteenthcentury Scottish scenario, with the minor characters reciting in a more or less middle ground variety of Scots.2 Lyndsay thus deserves special treatment, because he is neither the tormented, fawning court poet, nor the pure artist, but essentially a political poet who has the power and desire to sacrifice art to a utopian project of moral reform of Scottish society, which takes precedence over art. The same protest, satire and censure that we find in Dunbar are also present in Lyndsay, but they are conscious, less direct and unrelated to personal causes, circumstances or even traumas. Humanist culture is no longer an end in itself and Lyndsay, among the few authors of his period, is not a Latinist. In other words, he sets aside his personal rancours or converts them into an objectivizing Weltanschauung. His tenacious, unfailing concentration on ethical, political and prophetic issues is incompatible ipso facto with the short and perhaps erotic lyric, with the devotional and hymnal lyric, with the tardy, exceedingly listless allegories of courtly love, as well as with the re-elaborations of the Roman de la Rose, which were still being cultivated by his fellow-citizens only very few years previously. In his impassioned, unwieldy yet compelling Messianic mission, with its pristine excess of allegorical personifications, Lyndsay reminds us of Langland. However, the character in flesh and blood, taken from everyday life and not from allegory, gains the upper hand and steals the scene. His works are interlinked by a few metamorphoses and reincarnations of the poor peasant, who undergoes a series of misadventures and who, disregarded by everyone, is an upright, virtuous and hearty man. This is the eternal reoccurrence of the Langlandian archetype or hypostasis which, picked up by Bunyan, survives in numerous key texts of English literature until Romanticism. Lyndsay was probably not a supporter of the Reformation, and he was certainly not a Puritan. He ruthlessly lashes out at the ‘scarlet woman’, but perhaps still from within the fold. For him, religion is merely an inconsequential restriction, because he views the stability of the state and appropriate democratic governance as the overriding objective. The 2

Volume 8, § 128.6.

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flip side of the Scottish temperament, namely the bizarre and explicitly gross and licentious powers of imagination, resurfaces however in a few of his minor compositions. 2. The son of a nobleman and landowner, Lyndsay was born near St Andrews, but modern biographers cautiously harbour doubts as to whether he studied at that university, and they begin to monitor his movements from the year 1511, when he recited in an interlude at the court of King James IV. At court he was supposed to have been engaged as tutor and pedagogue of the young James V and to have married a seamstress. Having been temporarily dismissed by the king, he returned to the service in 1528 as his personal counsellor, ambassador and diplomat engaged in various important missions in Europe, and he held the title of general master of ceremonies at court. He was also responsible for a masque to welcome the French queen. This first phase of Lyndsay’s career is reflected in ‘The Dreme’ (1528), in which the introductory epistle, addressed to the king, tenderly evokes the time they spent in each other’s company during the monarch’s childhood. The date marked James V’s accession to the throne and the martyrization of a Scottish reformer, burnt at the stake under the charge of heresy. Confirmation of the influence of Langland is to be seen in the appearance, here in ‘The Dreme’, of a certain John the Commonwealth, a name which, while being reminiscent of Piers Plowman and Will the Dreamer, also conjures up those widespread imaginative semantic nicknames, all of which prophetic, later to be coined by Bunyan. In the poem John, now unable to support himself in Scotland, is on the verge of emigrating beyond the confines of the country in search of employment; yet, in the meanwhile, he seizes the opportunity to condemn the misgovernment of the realm and to yearn for a ‘good and upright’ monarch.3 In short Lyndsay, through an intermediary, addresses

3

Some critics correctly detect a Dantean echo, and Praz in SSI, vol. II, 30, provides evidence to support a ‘small scale replica of [Dante’s] poem’. Lyndsay’s Hell is therefore mainly populated by monks and prelates smitten with ‘avarice’ and lust. However, Lyndsay already proceeds to indict the three ‘estates’ and to idealize the fourth, that of the poor country labourers. At the same time, Dame Remembrance performs the functions of Chaucer’s eagle (§ 17.3), imparting to the poet a lengthy and detailed

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James V, who has just ascended to the throne.4 All of Lyndsay’s compositions in verse – given that no prose work of his is extant – are in various metres, among which feature both rhyme royal, as well as the heroic rhyming couplet. Thus, at least outwardly, Lyndsay can be justly defined as the last Scottish Chaucerian. As will be seen, there are other substantial analogies to confirm this. Prior to any discussion of the Satire of the Three Estates, it should be stated that this work is the first Scottish (allegorical, for obvious reasons) drama to be handed down historically, though certainly not the first to be written and performed. It owes this primacy to the fact that specific documentation in this regard is rather inconsistent and that, given the prevalently popular nature of the dramatic entertainment, theatrical texts were, as a rule, not printed. Of the moralities that had been performed since the year 1445, as well as of other plays that lashed out against the clergy, the titles are known, but the texts have not been preserved.5 The Satire was published only in 1602, thanks to the popularity and success of the first performance, held at the Scottish court in 1540, followed by other revised versions. Nevertheless, no sooner had the play been printed than the copies were burnt by order of the Church authorities.6 Lyndsay’s drama is of paramount importance and it is the

4

5 6

geography lesson. Many other minor works by Lyndsay hinge on the corruption of the avaricious clergy and goad the king to reform them and to rid himself of bad counsellors. The same demands contained in ‘The Dreme’, together with a tactful plea to award him a monetary benefit, are echoed in the ‘lament of Sir David Lyndsay’ addressed to the king or, on a visionary plane, not infrequent in his works, in the ‘Testament and Complaint of the Papyngo’ and in the monologue of Bagsche, the king’s dog. The monumental anti-Papist poem The Monarche (1555), a history of the world up to the Last Judgement is, to say the least, discontinuous if not decidedly prolix, yet it has its admirers. C. S. Lewis, a fervent enthusiast of Lyndsay, accuses of obtuseness all readers who find this work monotonous, and judges the free-flowing story in verse (or romantic and romanticized biography) of a certain William Meldrum (a chivalrous knight with the fairer sex) a ‘masterpiece’, superior even to Chaucer’s verse tales (ELS, 102, 103, 104). This is the only work of the prolific Lyndsay that is not expressly political. Philotus, the first Scottish comedy, of unknown authorship, was published in 1603. PGU, vol. II, 191.

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greatest work of its period, superior to Bale’s King John (which is, at any rate, a later work), not so much for the ideological message it conveys, as for its revolutionary dramatic structure and for the innovative theatrical mode it spearheads. Basically, the allegorical design proves to be closely remodelled on Skelton’s Magnificence. In the first part a king, allegorically named King Humanity, and thus an alter ego of Everyman, is led astray by Sensuality and by other personified vices disguised as virtues, but he is saved from ruin thanks to the intervention of Divine Correction. The vices present distinctly exuberant farcical scenes in the attempt to corrupt the king; Verity steps in with an English Bible in her hand, outrages the clergy and is consigned to the stocks at a moment in history when Protestant vernacular translations were spreading like wildfire. The drama was allowed to be performed at court, with the king’s approval, because, already at the end of the first part, Lyndsay is still confident that order and justice can be restored. After an interlude, the second part, which is considerably more protracted, stages a sitting of Parliament in which, harangued by John Commonwealth (our old friend from ‘The Dreme’), the three estates of the Scottish nation – clergy, lords and merchants – reach agreement on a plan to eradicate vice and reform the kingdom of Scotland. The absence of any dramaturgic interconnection among the three parts of the drama, and its overall design encompassing a disjointed combination of genres – sacred and profane, serious and facetious issues, tragedy, farce and fabliau – give the impression of a parody of medieval allegory, now in its dying phase. At the same time, it can be argued that this extremely varied kaleidoscope of humanity (the characters are just under fifty in number) propounded with absolute objectivity, makes Lyndsay the most, rather than the least, Chaucerian of the Scottish makaris. Not surprisingly, the strains in Lyndsay’s poem coincide with certain fundamental elements in Chaucer: for example, the eloquent, noble, spiritual, vulgar and unrefined element. A poor man is tricked by the treacherous Pardoner, a key figure in the Canterbury Tales, and other personalities taken from everyday life are assembled in this diorama. As previously mentioned, the Satire has however inspired and fascinated in particular twentieth-century playwrights of the theatre of the absurd, and of existentialist, historical, ‘angry’, political and post-Brechtian drama. This is due to the hybrid, multi-layered, unsystematic structure of the Satire and

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to the concept of a public ceremonial event, as well as to the discovery of the theatrical medium as the primary vehicle for instigation, provocation, involvement, indoctrination, persuasion and propaganda. Lyndsay’s Satire is not only a work of protest, but it involves the spectator, addresses and urges him to participate in the theatrical event. We are not in a position to state whether Brecht was familiar with this work, but Brechtian dramas are, in themselves, a chain of deviations from the norm, and, besides dialogues, they stage songs, interludes, pantomimes and unexpected and impromptu sketches. The mainstay of the Satire resides in the interludes, which typify a Brechtian, didactic type of drama in the shocking selfunmasking of the clergy and men of power. A prioress preaches against monkhood and expresses the hope of a good marriage for herself and for the world; under her nun’s habit, the abbess wears a silk bodice worthy of a whore. The Poor Man, stripped of all his meagre possessions by the Church authorities, is rewarded with an indulgence lasting 1,000 years! The public is aware of the fact that what is being presented is a demonstration, and that any argument might ‘ruin our drama’. At the end, the Vices are hanged after their comical farewell speeches, but Folie delivers an irreverent sermon which casts serious doubts on the validity of the plan of reform previously agreed upon. All these potentials, as previously stated, were perceived by the director Tyrone Guthrie in his performance of the drama in the first Edinburgh Festival in 1948.7 § 27. Popular ballads and lyrics This section will be a condensed history of anonymous poetry composed in Middle English and Middle Scots from the mid-thirteenth century

7

Guthrie staged the play in the open-air auditorium of the General Assembly Hall of the Church of Scotland. SES, 74, draws attention to the ‘thrust’ stage extending into the audience and reports one of the director’s ‘Brechtian’ declarations of intent, his objective not being that of encouraging the immersion of the public ‘in an illusion’, rather of making it consciously participate in a ritual. The text of the adaptation was created on that occasion by R. Kemp, London 1951; a further adaptation of this adaptation is by M. McDiarmid, London 1967, 1970. Mention has already been made of Arden’s plays and, as regards staging and casting, the performances directed by Peter Brook are also to be remembered.

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to the end of the sixteenth century. We must be well aware, however, that, to a large extent, these poems have reached us in a variety of later transcriptions that do not allow us to reconstruct their dates with any certainty, or reasonable margin of doubt. Nor do they shed light on the intermediate linguistic versions, or even the diegetic variants, to which the texts were subjected between their first oral genesis and their first written version. These are day-to-day issues afflicting critics and philologists. From an anthropological point of view, this canon is linked to the effects of the relatively painless, yet centuries-long, transition from paganism to Christianity. It is a well-known fact that written communication is subsequent to oral, and above all musical, communication, because human beings in every period of civilization have tended to express themselves first and foremost through song or by dancing to the rhythm of a song. The singer but not the author of the specimens proposed in this repertoire was the errant minstrel who served as a sort of trait d’union between the court and the populace. When confronted with this canon, and with the origins and mechanisms of oral poetry tout court (nineteenth-century German critics – who were later to be proved wrong – deemed these to be collective and community-based), literary historiographers inevitably enlist the help not only of philologists and anthropologists, but above all of scholars investigating popular traditions. The end result of this ‘catalogue’ is a division between pure, secular and religious lyrical poetry (dating from 1250, and without any demonstrable links or precedents, and for this reason of greater value, and assembled mainly, but not exclusively, around the year 1340, in the Harley 2253 ms.), hymns, carols (dances accompanied by songs dedicated to fertility rites, then subsequently adopted, Christianized by the monks and adapted to be sung at Christmas time), and ballads. The themes featured in the ballads range from the heroic to the pathetic, the comic, the surreal, and above all the tragic. The lyrical poetry that flourished to the north and south of the Tweed absorbed this immediately lyrical afflatus, never found in the official literature at court and in stylized courtly love poetry. Both the lyrical poetry and the ballads display conventional metric schemes, prosody and rhyme (rhyme goes hand in hand with alliteration), as well as typical technical and narratological procedures. The principal ingredients of the ballad-form, just as we have the sonata-form, are overwhelming speed, the abruptness of the changes in scenario, the inevitably rough sketching as opposed to

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the analytical description of human characters.1 Every trace of a first-person narrator has been eliminated. They are usually structured in rhymed quatrains initially accompanied by a flexible and unrelated refrain, which shortly disappears. The secular variety preludes to the Elizabethan lyric, while the ballad enjoys a far more long-lasting recurrence and tradition. 2. ‘Reliques’ of this entire cultural heritage were assembled for the first time by Bishop Thomas Percy in 1765, on the basis of a manuscript dating from the end of the seventeenth century. His anthology was followed by other collections in which the original versions of the texts, which were already forgeries of the oral version, were even more counterfeited and – as was generally believed at the time – ‘improved’, by stripping them of all the coarse, unrefined and primitive elements that were part and parcel of popular literature. Thus they were remodelled and reformulated in the ‘aureate’ diction, the linguistic ideal that they were unconsciously challenging.2 Even before Percy other men of letters were in the habit of softening and standardizing the ballads. This repertoire was hailed enthusiastically by the Romantics, and set the mood for the false, or only partially true, notion of a ‘tragic, magical medieval period, spectral in its content, spontaneous and simple in its form’.3 In actual fact, as if by magic, there are strong blood ties between the ancient ballads of love, death and supernatural events and some of Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads, reflected even in Wordsworth’s use of linguistic archaisms.4 It took Walter Scott ten years to write out and 1

2

3 4

Through the pressing questions addressed by the mother to her parricide son, ‘Edward’ succeeds in conjuring up within the space of approximately fifty lines of verse a story of emotional lability and nemesis. The ballad ‘Lord Randal’ is also structured upon a dialogue between mother and son, from which it becomes apparent that Lord Randal has been poisoned by his fiancée. Both ballads close with the device of the protagonist’s will and testament. Virtually the entire corpus – 305 ballads in 1,300 versions – was assembled for the first time in J. F. Child, English and Scottish Popular Ballads, 5 vols, Boston, MA 1882–1898; but it was subsequently expanded. Also Ballate popolari d’Inghilterra e di Scozia, ed. S. Baldi, Firenze 1946, is worthy of mention. PSL, 48. The ballad ‘Sir Patrick Spence’, which tells the story of a phantasmagorical sea voyage with a shipwreck, is thought to have been one of the main influences on Coleridge’s ‘Rime’.

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publish in the years 1802–1803, immediately after the Lyrical Ballads, the ‘minstrelsy’ of the Scottish Border, transcribing it directly from the living voices of the surviving bards, but allowing himself to fall into the temptation of constructing a ‘critical’ text of each single exemplar from the multitude of variants. The two most famous and widespread semi-anonymous Scottish ballads, attributed to King James I (although, from a linguistic point of view, they could feasibly have been composed by another later monarch endowed with an identical passion for poetry, King James V), are both poems which incorporate mass movements and groups of people giving vent to long-repressed and overly exuberant energies. On the English lyrical poetry scene, the famous fourteenth-century Cuckoo Song gives way to other exquisite poetic compositions devoted to the description of the seasons, to passionate, spontaneous and fervent fifteenth-century hymns dedicated to the Virgin Mary,5 and to carols and narrative ballads dealing with heroic or semi-heroic themes, notably those of Robin Hood, of which at least thirty are in existence. The last anonymous lyrics from the period of Henry VIII cleverly border on the riddle and suggest the atmosphere of Shakespeare’s ‘The Phoenix and the Turtle’. The raison d’être of the popular ballad was the mythicizing and romanticizing of some heroic event, in quatrains with a strongly marked rhythm, and characterized by the author’s complete abstention from any kind of judgement. ‘The Battle of Otterburne’ was the source of inspiration for the very famous ‘Chevy Chase’, with the conflict between two proud Border warriors, both of whom are killed in the end. One of the versions of this ballad made such a deep impression on Sidney that he could not imagine what a masterpiece it would have been if Pindar had been the author. ‘The NutBrown Maid’, published in 1502, is the story of a woman who could not be dissuaded from following into the forest a knight with whom she was in love. The lover finally reveals to her that he is not a banished man but the son of an earl.

5

The lyric dedicated to Adam’s sin (‘Adam lay ibouwndyn’) encompasses in its naïve simplicity a highly controversial theological issue: namely that the Incarnation of Christ was made necessary by Adam’s disobedience in the Garden of Eden (‘And al was for an appil’).

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§ 28. Medieval drama* The reconstruction of the English medieval theatre is not devoid of certain grey areas. However, after the decline and fall of the former autonomist and even negationist theories, according to which its development was detached and fragmented, and proceeded in a dead-end direction, it is now well established that the three main typologies of medieval drama – the mystery play, the morality play and the interlude – are interconnected and that the Elizabethan theatre in particular is the solid link that closes the chain. Remnants of very ancient pagan rituals survived until the late nineteenth century in England, as is reflected, for instance, in the opening scenes of Hardy’s The Return of the Native; and evidence of the protraction of a virtual and clandestine type of drama is provided by various forms of popular entertainment, fertility rites and seasonal celebrations. Those playing the parts of the actors were mimes, jesters, jugglers, acrobats, troubadours, peddlers, dancers, magicians and minstrels that flocked to the towns and performed in local festivals, processions, tournaments or carnival festivities, or they were employed in the dramatized Robin Hood sagas. As always, the Church partly opposes and partly hails, reformulates and panders to these primordial instincts, and the liturgical drama gives rise – whether consensually or unilaterally – to a secular type of drama. The improvement in quality in drama at the close of the sixteenth century – the sweeping away of all forms of popular art, of uncultured and coarse elements, of the absence of cultural filters, and of pure intuition unaccompanied by theory or elaboration – was eventually due to the contribution of the ‘university wits’ and of the compilers and translators, who widened the horizons of drama and facilitated the imitation of classical drama.

*

The four main cycles of mystery plays are available in various EETS editions. Collections of miracle and mystery plays and moralities are edited by A. W. Pollard, Oxford 1890; by A. C. Cawley, London 1960. Interestingly, Everyman and the drama of Noah and the Ark in the Chester Mystery Cycle were translated into Italian by Joyce’s brother, Stanislaus, in Teatro religioso del Medio Evo ( fuori d’Italia), ed. G. Contini, Milano 1949 (BAL, 300, defines this translation as ‘inadequate’). The bibliography on medieval theatre is now vast, and I shall limit myself to quoting The Cambridge Companion to Medieval English Theatre, ed. R. Beadle, Cambridge 1994.

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2. During the late medieval period the Church had everywhere suppressed the spectacular, licentious, barbarian or immoral performances of the late Roman period which, through an optical illusion, might be viewed as bearing a certain resemblance with Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. Yet, as early as the tenth century, the Church had retraced its steps and rediscovered the extraordinary homiletic and educational function of drama. The imposition of a monopoly on dramatic performances was also an excellent way to obstruct any critical interference and disparagement of religion in popular drama. The first form of drama in Christianized Europe is, indeed, the Holy Gospel itself, a script in the making abounding in dialogues and monologues enacted in specific, not stylized but basic, scenarios, often seasoned with quarrels, boutades, puns and minor wars of words. Dramatic episodes par excellence in the Gospels are primarily those of the questioning of Jesus in the Praetorium and the Passion. The liturgy is a sacred representation. In the technical and liturgical sense, the gradual is the song following the Epistle, and a musical elaboration of the final vowel of the Hallelujah, giving rise to a sequence, soon became common practice. This melody was supplemented by a brand new written text. Tropes – initially a musical, as opposed to a rhetorical, term – was the name given to the added texts sung in other parts of the liturgy, and the first of these tropes arose out of the episode taken from the Gospel of St Matthew in the Easter liturgy, in which the three Marys discover the empty sepulchre after the Resurrection. This distant antecedent assumed the conventional appellation of Quem quaeritis? or of Easter trope, and the procedure was soon repeated for the Christmas liturgy. The first known English ‘theatre director’ is Bishop Æthelwold of Winchester, who in his Regularis concordia dated 967 issued detailed instructions as to the staging, acting and costumes for the performance of a Quem quaeritis? In this early phase the space reserved for the forthcoming drama was the inside of the church, the language was Latin, the texts were sung, and those reciting them were strictly members of the clergy. When the action required more open spaces than the choir, presbytery and nave in order to reach a wider public, the miracle or mystery plays1 came into being. These were performances that 1

The miracle plays, the most appropriate term according to certain critics (for example E. K. Chambers, The Medieval Stage, 2 vols, Oxford 1903), imply references to the

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initially took the form of symbiosis between the established Church and the arts and trades guilds, but were subsequently controlled solely by the laity and municipalities (although one might suspect that the transfer of power from the clergy to the laity was not a peaceable and painless one). The mystery play was, in fact, neither a court nor a church event, nor was it a prerogative of the élite, but of the people; it originated and developed far from the city of London, in the prosperous market towns in the central and northern regions. The first important evolution was then determined by the transition from the closed spaces within the church to the open air. The issue of dramatic space was destined to die out or go into hibernation with the advent of Elizabethan conventions, only to re-emerge centuries later and tickle the taste buds of twentieth-century playwrights, eager to appeal to the masses and not to a chosen, sectorial, bourgeois and paying public. The mystery play was no longer a stationary type of drama but a mobile one, performed every year during the religious feast-days and in particular on the newly instituted feast of Corpus Christi (1264, and observed from the year 1311). The dramatic procedure was unified, with a few local variants. Unconnected biblical episodes were cut down in size and adapted to form individual dramatic scenes in a cycle lasting one or even several days. This performance circulated in strategic points in the cities, such as squares and crossroads. There were also scenes performed on carts on wheels, and therefore in the manner of a carnival parade. This term is used deliberately, due to the occasional presence of certain profane and licentious elements which were, however, kept under strict control, in compliance with medieval aesthetics. Each pageant2 was acted out in

2

lives and miracles of saints or of the Virgin Mary, but constitute a genre of minor frequency (noteworthy examples are Mary Magdalene and The Play of the Sacrament); the mystery plays seek to draw the attention of worshippers to the ‘mysteries’ of Christian faith. According to others, the meaning of the word ‘mystery’ is derived from ministerium, the guild that was responsible for scenery construction, or from mestier, the trade of the performers. ‘Pageant’ is thought to derive from the Vulgar Latin word pagina. In the light of the momentum which the feast of Corpus Christi conferred to the mystery plays, they are also known as Corpus Christi plays. The pageant was both the unit of measurement for the whole performance and the two-tier cart on which the scene was enacted: the lower tier was a sort of dressingroom for the actors, whereas the upper tier was the actual ‘stage’; however, certain

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sequential stations, and was therefore repeated for the benefit of the groups of spectators, who were able to see all the scenes in the cycle before their eyes. There were several actors playing the same part – that of Christ, for example – in successive episodes, thus creating a minor, somewhat premature, estranging effect. Nevertheless, the opposite dramatic procedure was also possible: as in a Way of the Cross the people followed the scenes by moving to the various stations. Certain popular episodes from the Bible, as well as others of undeniable didactic import, featured in all of the cycles, with the inevitable creation of duplicates, and rival performances. The variety of individual pageants into which the entire history of the Bible was divided also sheds light on the fact that there were units of measurement and selection criteria that differed in each separate case. At the same time, creativity, improvisation, variation and the blending of the components gained ground with respect to passive paraphrase, and the first scenic mechanisms were devised. The register of solemnity collided with comical and humorous tones (with the Pharaoh, Noah’s wife, Herod and Pontius Pilate) and with occasional departures towards slapstick comedy. The assignment of individual acts in the drama to different guilds according to circumstances was a clever, if not subtly audacious, unconventional and irreverent expedient: such is for instance the idea of entrusting the Crucifixion to the guild of the ‘nailers’. The lengthy exchange of dialogue among the soldiers who are in the process of crucifying Jesus in the York Crucifixion appears, at least to a modern public, to be a grotesque sacrilegious parody, because it shifts the scene from the dying Jesus to focus on the detailed, painstaking, commonplace procedures of the crucifixion. This remains one of the most innovative and inventive episodes in the cycles. 3. Various English towns were accustomed to holding annual cyclical performances of these biblical dramas, but only the cycles from twelve of these towns are extant. Cycles that are – fortunately – almost complete include that of York in forty-eight acts (but nine other acts have gone lost); of Chester in twenty-four acts, perhaps deriving from French originals and re-elaborated by the monk Ranulf Higden; the Towneley, that is to say of scholars cast doubts on this, if only due to the fact that a two-tier cart would have had difficulty passing through the narrow streets in the medieval towns.

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Wakefield, in thirty-two acts, of N-Town, in forty-two acts, namely acts to be performed in different towns, also erroneously referred to as Ludus Coventriae, insofar as Coventry had its own independent short cycle. To these a small number of other cycles belonging to other towns and regions of the island can be added. As is customary in all anonymous and popular literature, there is a wide interval between the first performance of each individual play in every cycle and the first handwritten or printed version. None of the texts of the mystery plays date from before the year 1450, but they flourished during the period of the ‘Black Death’, the plague that ravaged Europe at the end of the fourteenth century, and which tangibly represented the threat of death without prior warning which resounded in the subsequent moralities. Some of these stand out above others, with the result that, as in the case of the Gawain poet, the appellation of ‘master of Wakefield’ has been coined. The so-called Secunda Pastorum of Wakefield is a subdued parody of the Nativity, because a shepherd replaces his newborn son in the cradle with a stolen sheep, in the belief of being able to outwit the other shepherds before being unmasked. In this figure critics have seen a rather entertaining preview of the out-and-out scoundrel of the Elizabethan and Shakespearean stage, such as Autolycus and Falstaff.3 Even in the mystery of Noah’s Ark, the patriarch’s wife is a ‘tamed shrew’, idle above all, with echoes from the fabliau tradition (with Chaucer’s variation on the theme in his Miller’s Tale). 4. The morality plays, which were also anonymous and even started to appear prior to the mysteries, and unrelated to the liturgical calendar, reached their pinnacle in the second half of the fifteenth century. However, these no longer take the form of a paraphrase of the Holy Scriptures, but they are self-contained allegories, psychomachias and contests between 3

The actual traditional scenario of the Nativity bursts on the scene at the tail end; the farce of the sheep in place of the newborn child opens the play, with the shepherds voicing their hardship and their veiled but also caustic protest against their masters, as in the ancient and modern eclogues. The parody of Christmas continues with the shepherds replacing the three Wise men and bringing rather implausible gifts, such as cherries and a tennis ball, to the newborn baby. As for the gifts to baby Jesus, the authors of the mystery plays naïvely and amusingly vie with one another: in the Coventry Nativity there are a flute, a hat and a pair of gloves.

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personified virtues and vices battling for the possession of men’s souls, in accordance with a fixed paradigm of temptation-yielding-redemption. The amateurism of the guilds has now, at the turn of the sixteenth century, progressed to the professionalism of the travelling theatrical companies, which provided entertainment for nobles during their banquets and, by that time, also on a fixed stage. Of the extant moralities, Everyman – the man who has reached the stage of redde rationem (the showdown) – is the most famous and appreciated, although its precedence over a similar Dutch text is still debated among scholars. There is no air of mysticism and transcendentalism in the scene, and the personifications that refuse to accompany Everyman on his journey put forward improper and even squalid excuses to withdraw: one claims to be suffering from leg cramps, another is inclined to participate in an erotic orgy with a friend of his. The Castle of Perseverance, the longest, is a striking dramatic variation on the allegorical poems of Hawes and Douglas, in terms of dialogues, actions and genre. It gives an account of Everyman’s resistance to the assaults of sin in the fortress of Virtue, where the Vices are repulsed by the Virtues armed with roses. Mankind hardly differs, because Mankind has to tackle the vehemence of three villains who wallow in their obscene language. The interludes asserted themselves as short comical and farcical performances embedded in the moralities, such as that of Lyndsay,4 or as independent plays linked to court celebrations. Another hypothesis advanced by Chambers, whereby according to the etymology the term indicated a ludus between two speakers, is, I think, to be rejected; yet another aetiological theory interprets the interlude as a form of entertainment between the courses of a banquet. The somewhat lengthy and hefty Fulgens and Lucres5 dating from 1494 (which however came to light in 1919), remains one of the

4 5

§ 26.2. The source of the play is a Latin novella written by Buonaccorso, a humanist from Pistoia, which was in turn translated into French. It recounts the story of Lucrece, who chooses to marry a plebeian rather than a nobleman. An unprecedented subplot, employed perhaps for the first time as a structural device, involves two servants named with the letters of the alphabet A and B, and provides an interesting foretaste of the symmetries and overlapping of registers in Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors.

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first plays in English to bear a signature, the author being Henry Medwall (ca. 1462–1502), a chaplain in the entourage of the Chancellor of Henry VII, which included also Thomas More.6 Mystery and morality plays coexisted without mutual interference for a considerable period of time, and their fruitful continuity and connection with the Elizabethan theatre is often based on the assumption that during his youth Shakespeare himself, a native of the Coventry area, had the opportunity, at least on one occasion, to see a cyclical play. By the year 1580, the newly reformed Church had vetoed all jocose and light-hearted religious performances, in the conviction that they harboured a dangerous vestige of Roman Catholicism; to say nothing of the Puritans. § 29. Fifteenth-century prose Amazingly, with the exception of a few occasional and less important writings of poets and authors previously discussed, as well as of those to be introduced in the following two paragraphs, fifteenth-century prose lies at the tail end of a literature which – although prolific as regards output – does not always stand out for its literary quality. For this reason, it can be condensed in a short section, even if we include non-literary and instrumental texts, or texts written in a type of ‘all-purpose’ vernacular. In reality, this was a period in which the vernacular, inch by inch, was steadily gaining ground with respect to Latin – the language par excellence of the highly cultured and erudite sector of the population – even in the impenetrable spheres of philosophy, theology, hagiography, polemics, debate and speculation. The three late fifteenth-century prose-writers featured below abandon Latin in favour of the vernacular for reasons of force majeure, that is to say, in order to be easily accessible to a public with a limited degree of literacy. However, in so doing, they become aware of the need to invent a brand-new lexical repertoire and a discursive mode hitherto inexistent, thus offering a precious contribution to the development of English prose. The state of deep crisis in which England found itself towards the end of the fifteenth century provided both the incentive and the context in 6

In another of his plays, Nature, the classical conflict between virtues and vices contending for the possession of Man’s soul is enacted.

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which prose could develop and flourish. The Lollards had not laid down their weapons even many decades after their upsurge, the grievances of the peasants had not been addressed, dynastic feuds for power were still ongoing, for which reason there was a need for timely and vigorous military intervention, as well as an analysis of the situation on a more theoretical and less provisional basis. Nevertheless, prose addresses another type of audience in the fifteenth century; it comes from different senders and orients itself to different recipients. A new cultured middle class with a taste for useful and entertaining books had emerged and developed. Thus we witness the birth of popular literary genres, such as practical guides, vademecums, manuals of etiquette and even culinary handbooks and hunting treatises. The simple and rather naïve work by Walter Hylton, The Ladder of Perfection, describes the pathway of the soul to a life of spiritual perfection, articulated in a basic and uninspiring fashion. Examples of private unofficial documents, not destined for publication, preserved and rediscovered in later periods, include notebooks such as those of William Gregory, a member of the Skinners’ Company who became Lord Mayor of London in 1461. As we shall see, a prominent work dating from the end of the fifteenth century, the Paston Letters, provides a reconstruction of a wellto-do Norfolk gentry household over a half-century period of time. There is also a praiseworthy contribution to translation (the Gesta romanorum, the Legenda aurea, the pseudo-Aristotelian Secreta secretorum), the most exemplary work being that of John Bourchier, Lord Berners (1467–1533), who translated Froissart’s Chronicles and Guevara’s Libro áureo de Marco Aurelio, already adorned with euphuistic embellishments.1 2. Born in North Wales, a brilliant Oxford scholar and member of the court of Henry VI, Reginald Pecock (ca. 1395–1460) was ordained Bishop of St Asaph and subsequently of Chichester. He is remembered in particular for his controversial work Repressor of Overmuch Blaming of the Clergy (1455).2 He addressed it to the Lollards in the conviction that the arguments he put forward would persuade and permanently eliminate the sect solely on the strength of reasoning. The prelate was, however, 1 2

His translation of a French romance introduced the figure of Oberon, King of the Fairies, in English literature. This rather lengthy work was re-edited in 2 vols, London 1860.

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misled, and the plan backfired on him. Not only did he not succeed in swaying the Lollards, but he also alienated the Church hierarchies in his determination to keep an equal distance from the parties in question – something which is seen as commendable nowadays, but which at that time was viewed as an ideological admission of defeat, and even as a tacit legitimization of the heretics. He was personally accused of heresy, his book was blacklisted in 1457 and he was forced to publicly abjure his opinions (in the wake of the analogous episode of Joan of Arc’s auto da fé). His sentence was commuted to lifelong seclusion in an abbey. Pecock had fallen into disfavour with the English hierarchies also because he had unwisely defended the legitimacy of the payment of ‘annates’ to the Papacy. However, he was hindered and fell from grace due to his almost instinctive contestation of the Lollards’ view of the absolute primacy of the Bible as the origo and source of faith and morality, which could however be previously attained through a process of unaided reasoning. It is by no means an exaggeration to categorize Pecock as the greatest fifteenth-century English philosopher or theologian; yet he adhered to the wrong (or less successful or minority) school, namely the Aristotelian as opposed to that of Franciscan voluntarism.3 Self-destructive, provocative, often eager to rub salt in the wound, he obsessively applied Aristotelian logic by frequent uses of syllogism. Judging also from a passage selected at random from his prose writings, Pecock has other intrinsic merits, such as his Teutonization of Latin and Greek and also Romance languages. Among the first enemies of Latinate terms (being a well-versed Latinist!), he is a miniature Carlyle, Hopkins or Doughty.4 He inspired a whole group of bizarre and unconventional Utopians who were prepared to make any and every effort to avail themselves of Anglo-Saxon words in place of every ‘aureate’ term, even at the risk of producing linguistic monstrosities. Pecock was immediately disregarded and forgotten, and remained so until he was hailed by some Elizabethans as a proto-Protestant – whereas, on the contrary, he was among the most conservative of Papists. His idiosyncratic style had the power to kindle an unexpected flame of infatuation in the twentieth century.

3 4

§ 7.1 n. 2. On Doughty cf. Volume 6, § 141.1–2.

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3. John Capgrave (1393–1464), born in Bishop’s Lynn in Norfolk, estimated to be the greatest scholar of his period, was an Augustinian friar and Provincial Minister of the Order in England. A preacher and hagiologist, he is the author of an English chronicle up to the year 1417 and of lives of the saints. He is the conventional, orderly and everyday compiler, virtually devoid of individuality, the exact opposite of Pecock. A native of Devon and descendant of an eminent aristocratic family, Sir John Fortescue (ca. 1394-ca. 1476) embarked upon a legal career and became a magistrate. A court diplomat, he wrote in Latin De Natura Legis Naturae in support of Henry VI. After the king’s defeat and deposition, he fell out of favour but offered his services to Edward IV. He then wrote in English Monarchia, subtitled The Difference between an Absolute and a Limited Monarchy, which already exhibits the proud, chauvinistic awareness of English constitutionalism versus French absolutism. Evidence of the bizarreness of his reasoning is that the greater heroism of the English is measured on the basis of the number of robbers willing to risk the gallows. His is also The Governance of England, published in 1714. § 30. The ‘Paston Letters’ The fact that the Paston Letters were preserved by the members of the dynasty of the same name bears witness to the awareness and selftestimony of the rise of the mid-fifteenth-century English middle-class provincial merchants. These were essentially indifferent to the chaotic political vicissitudes of the period, being solely concerned with their welfare and the protection and expansion of their landed estates and their monetary income, thus creating the first form of compromise between nascent decentralized capitalism and the perfunctory deference towards religious practices. Significantly, letters of the same period belonging to other middle-class families, such as the Stonors and Celys1 (the latter being London wool merchants), are known and are preserved in manuscript. The Paston letters extend over a period of ninety years from 1422 to 1509; dating from the precise year of Henry V’s death, they span the reign of Henry VI and continue after his deposition and the advent of the York and Tudor 1

The Cely Papers, ed. H. E. Malden, London 1900.

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dynasties, to terminate with another historical landmark, Henry VIII’s rise to the throne. The letters were sold en bloc by the last descendant in the Paston line to an antiquary at the beginning of the seventeenth century; subsequently they passed into several hands during the course of the century. Their partial publication in separate volumes took place from 1787 to 1823, but meanwhile the originals were nowhere to be found, and in the wake of the controversies over the authenticity of Chatterton’s and Macpherson’s medieval and Ossianic poems there were rumours of a forgery. However, the original manuscripts were all retrieved by the year 1889. The complete correspondence collection comprises as many as 1088 letters.2 The first member of the family in the fourteenth century was a small landowner on the Norfolk coast, a Clement Paston (whose surname coincides with the family’s village of residence). His son William was able to benefit from a solid education, becoming a Judge of the Common Pleas, and he married the heiress Agnes Berry. The couple had numerous children, the eldest of whom, John (born in 1421), embraced the legal profession and became a London lawyer and politician representing his shire. The sixty-year period of his life constitutes the core of the correspondence. John Paston had also married a wealthy lady, Margaret Mautby, thanks to whom he had acquired manors and estates belonging to the Fastolfs, another local noble family, on the strength of a contested will and testament. The legal suit lasted several decades in an intricate series of events that foreshadow Dickens’s Bleak House; on John’s death, the dispute regarding the property was still raging. The sons of the couple were both christened with the name of their father, and are indicated in the letters as John II, cultured and gentlemanly, and therefore alien to the requisites of the capitalist landowner, and John III, the exact opposite in character, feisty and down-to-earth. The family had died out by the middle of the seventeenth century. 2. The Paston collection has therefore been of particular interest to historians because, from a decentred and privileged point of view, it offers an overview of the typical English provincial middle class, totally absorbed 2

Complete edition, ed. J. Gairdner, 6 vols, London 1904 (reviewed by V. Woolf, in TCR, First Series, 12–31), and by N. Davis, 2 vols, Oxford 1971–1976. A selection (a ninth of the total), with modernized spelling, is edited by the same N. Davis, Oxford 1983.

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in monetary matters, property disputes and other trivial transactions. News of life at court, where the monarch’s power was weak and corruption was rife, reached these areas in diluted form; and the Pastons were certainly men-of-law, but the law was impotent in the face of the continuous raids of the ruffians hired by the local squires. A letter written by Agnes Paston describes how the family’s ancestral home was one day put to fire and sword by Lord Moleyns’s men. In other respects, their daily lives went by peacefully and serenely within stiflingly narrow horizons. We gain an insight into the entertainments that are customary and those that are permissible after a bereavement, the conventional meals and medicines to cure illnesses, as well as gossip and topics of conversation. Parents’ complaints about their good-for-nothing children are interspersed with detailed lists of accounts. On very rare occasions, reference is made to books, and the Pastons’ preference goes to Lydgate’s Siege of Thebes or to the collection of stories in the Seven Sages of Rome (5.6.1472). Fashion is another topic of conversation. Personal clothing items were not too abundant, so we witness wives and children often asking, or even begging, for a new gown: ‘for i haue bot on gowne at Framyngham and an other her, and þat is my leueré gowne and we must wer hem euery day for þe most part, and on gowne wyth-owt change wyll sone be done’ (1.11.1462). The passing of time is governed by the liturgical calendar and the days are taken up by acts of devotion, with the result that thoughts converge partly towards the conquest of eternal life (or even eternal damnation), and partly towards the minutiae of everyday life. The letters written by the Paston women are particularly engaging, because they make no attempt to conceal the preliminary signs of female coquetry. Margaret repeatedly entreats her ‘right worshipful husband’ to bring her gifts in the form of necklaces and girdles. Mother and daughter constantly engage in verbal tiffs over the latter’s wedding with a bailiff. The educational system is still rather rigid; daughters are subjected to their parents’ authoritarianism, wives to that of their husbands,3 and schoolmasters were empowered to inflict corporal punishment on male pupils. However, this collection has found its place in literary histories 3

The absenteeism of husbands and the self-sacrifice of wives is emphasized by Virginia Woolf, who was perhaps thinking of To the Lighthouse, in the review cited above in n. 2 (see ‘But Mrs Paston did not talk about herself ’, in answer to the comment that her husband ‘was (as usual) away’ [15]).

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for predominantly linguistic reasons. The letters provide us with the very first examples of how English people of average literacy wrote and spoke in their private lives, without the constraint and obligation of official formalities, and without being either intellectuals or professional writers. The English language used by the Pastons chronologically represents one of the last varieties of the vernacular prior to the onset of the printing era in England, prior therefore to the process of standardization – above all as regards spelling – that it launched.4 We are dealing with a type of English for practical purposes, totally divorced from literary diction, and the style we find is factual, neutral and tinged only with the occasional metaphor, proverb or note of humour. For all that, it is still – albeit unintentionally – a literary language: it is the sort of idiolect that could be created by a particularly versatile posterior narrator. The inconsistent local and familiar idiosyncrasies in the Paston letters constitute an ante litteram sort of linguistic novel in the manner of Smollett, also considering that one of Smollett’s novels, indeed his masterpiece, belongs to the epistolary genre. The scope of the Paston collection also calls to mind Richardson’s trilogy of epistolary novels, whereas the relish of certain letters veined with solecisms and morphological variations evokes Smollett’s Humphry Clinker, apart from the fact that this is not an invented and devised collection, or a literary creation having no correspondence with real-life events. However, the future template of the letter in the eighteenth-century epistolary novel – in other words, the pragmatics of the epistolary text – is already contained in the Paston letters. A large percentage of the letters are written and finished ‘in haste’ – a mere cliché, an epistolary pretence, given the slow pace of everyday life in that period. However, it is in the Paston letters that we gain a foretaste of the family saga and of provincial life comedy which was to become a highly acclaimed and popular genre in the mid-nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with the chronicles of Barset and Carlingford, and with Middlemarch.5

4 5

To quote one example, the Pastons always write the plural form of the present tense of the verb ‘to be’ as ‘arn’, instead of ‘are’, and omit the final consonants ‘t’ and ‘n’ in words such as ‘it’ and ‘men’. On the ‘Mapp and Lucia cycle’ (set in the 1930s) by Edward Frederic Benson, see Volume 7, § 88.2 n. 7.

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§ 31. Caxton Had William Caxton (born between 1415 and 1422 and died in 1491) been a mere printer, his name would hardly feature in a history of English literature, although he would certainly merit special recognition for having been the first to import and establish printing in his country and to set up a publishing house. If this had been the case, the literary historian would have entrusted Caxton to the care of a bibliographer or of an expert sociologist in the field of the press and other means of communication. For every nation in the world, the date of the introduction of the press marked a major breakthrough, its importance being on a par with the modern-day advent of television or the Internet, insofar as they have the power to revolutionize the system of news transmission, and speed up communication on a global level. However, Caxton deserves a much broader discussion, because he combined with his skills as a printer other abilities that fall within and impact directly on the specifically literary sphere. Other printers in his wake are – and remain – printers tout court; Caxton, on the other hand, is an editor, in the two different meanings or nuances of the word: first of all, someone who prints and sells books by other authors and compiles his own catalogue; at the same time, he is also an author in his own right who ‘edits’ or ‘establishes’ the texts – wholly or in part – that he publishes, and ‘manipulates’ them, now pruning, now extending their content, now making arbitrary textual decisions.1 He is more specifically an author in the sense that, playing a superior role to that of the mere editor, he appends prologues and epilogues written by his own hand to the texts he publishes. For this reason, he should certainly be seen as a critic and interpreter. And he is also a translator. In the final analysis, however, all these multifarious skills and abilities can be summed up and encompassed in the role of cultural mediator, in which Caxton indubitably excelled and of which he was probably one of the first representatives 1

Generally speaking, he was disapproved of as an editor, above all with reference to Malory, whose work was revised, condensed and ordered by him in twenty-one books (§ 32); but C. S. Lewis (ELS, 156) is of the opinion that he ‘improved Malory’. In addition to his other abilities Caxton was also a reviser and even counterfeiter of other authors’ works.

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on the English scene. If it is true to say that he is the father of the English press, it is self-evident that he marked the first step in the development of a still ongoing centuries-old process. From Caxton onwards, editors were to adopt a cultural policy based on their own personal view of practicality and convenience. Certain authors on whom they ensured exclusive rights were promoted as showpieces, whereas others were rejected. They were aware of the fact that literature is a means of consensus, it influences taste and can occasionally be a mediator, also having the power to trigger political revolutions, as well as to modify literary preferences. It was Caxton who foresaw all these things. 2. A native of Kent,2 a region in which several languages were spoken, and an apprentice to a London mercer who became Lord Mayor of the city, Caxton emigrated in 1441 to Bruges, where he soon held administrative posts in the English Company of Merchant Adventurers located in that strategic bridgehead. Having left Flanders twenty years later, he moved to Burgundy, where he offered his services to Margaret, Duchess of Burgundy, sister of King Edward IV, who proved to be a demanding patron. In all probability between the years 1470 and 1472, a visit to nearby Cologne, where printing had been in operation for almost twenty years, changed his life. On his return to Bruges, with the aid of a Flemish illuminator, he translated and printed the Recuyell of the Histories of Troy3 by the French Raoul le Fevre o Lefèvre. Having returned to England, in 1476 he set up in an annexe of Westminster Abbey the first English printing press, producing over eighty diverse works. Caxton’s publications were divided into three typologies in increasing order of importance: didactic works or works of service, chronicles and romances, initially handwritten and in the English language, but also ex novo translations by Caxton himself from French, Flemish and Dutch. He is credited with the first printed edition of

2 3

Cf. N. F. Blake, Caxton and His World, London 1969. Caxton, whose French at that time left much to be desired, was said to have suffered for many years before completing the translation, and to have hit upon the idea of printing it, due to the insistence of various members of the court of Burgundy that he make handwritten copies of it. In Bruges, Caxton also printed a chess manual and a work on the ‘last four things’.

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Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, of Gower’s Confessio Amantis and of Malory’s Morte D’Arthur. His Recuyell is thought to have served as a repertoire and source of inspiration for various Elizabethan masterpieces. Caxton’s previously mentioned supplementary skills all form part of a deliberate project of cultural mediation, and are fully dependent on it. He does not herald humanism but he condenses the Middle Ages, one of the reasons being that, with the exception of Malory, he avoids publishing living and contemporary English writers. He tailors an ideal library and outlines his personal vision of two centuries of English literature; he offers a type of literature, both devotional and entertaining, with the exclusion of obscure, abstruse and overly mystical elements. In reality, he caters for the up-and-coming middle classes seeking to complete their acculturation. His historical merit consists in triggering the revival of Arthurian courtly literature, which he helped to establish and consolidate in the popular imagination, and in his contribution towards the rise from the ashes of prose, hitherto manifestly inferior to verse. Critics and readers have rightly observed that, far from opening the doors of progressive European culture to the English public, in his pursuit of outdated ideals Caxton caused the country to lag far behind and stagnate. There were therefore two distinct cultural channels in England at that time: the educated sector of the population secured Greek and Latin editions from foreign and continental printers, whereas the middle classes availed themselves of Caxton’s editions. A similar work of high or medium-high distribution was inspired by and at the same time suddenly gave rise to a mass readership, thus anticipating the infinitely more significant upsurge in the printing sector at the beginning of the nineteenth century, with the rapid promotion of literacy extended also to the working classes and, with the appropriate adjustments, the creation of new spaces for the publishing industry.4 For this reason, unlike other European printers, Caxton does not regard printing as an art in itself and he lacks the aesthete’s eye for the de luxe edition in terms of the type of character, binding, or the outward appearance of a book. The repercussions of Caxton’s editions were, first and foremost, of a linguistic nature, given that in 1476 the English language was a hotchpotch of dialects and the spelling 4

Volume 4, § 1.2.

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was erratic and inconsistent. In the Preface to his translation of the Aeneid (from a French re-transcription and not from the Virgilian original, albeit under Skelton’s guidance) Caxton, in his capacity as editor, is well aware of the intrinsically mutable nature of language and puts forward a sharp, concrete observation: Old English is now a remote and forgotten relic of the past and totally different from the variety of English spoken in his time, but also the language spoken in the various regions in England is far from being a practical vehicle of intercommunication. In other words, Caxton is well aware of the fact that a language is both a diachronic and synchronic system. Accordingly he tells the story of a merchant who, having landed near the Thames estuary to take refreshment, asks a farmer’s wife for some eggs. They speak two different dialects a few miles apart, and a basic term is referred to by two different words, and eggs are known as ‘eyren’ in the north and ‘eggs’ in the south. This anecdote serves the purpose of demonstrating the urgent need for a standardization of the English language, at least at a lexical level. Caxton’s translations (the most important are those of Jacobus de Voragine’s Legenda aurea, of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and of the Aeneid) are all excessively literal, mediocre, uninspiring and unskilled, often even decidedly inappropriate, because Caxton’s main aim is to contribute to the creation of an uncomplicated, comprehensible type of English prose, by re-modelling the unstylish English spoken in his native Kent, after having ‘dipped it in French waters’; thus he hews and shapes English prose in the same way that Chaucer had modelled verse in the previous century. Thanks to his efforts, prose ceases to play second fiddle to poetry. He was the proverbial target of the fastidious Gavin Douglas, who tore to pieces his translation of the Aeneid, having branded it as abominable and as similar to the original as ‘an owl to a parrot’; but Caxton translated in order to make himself understood, unceremoniously, without any show of literary ambition.5 5

In the Preface to the second edition of The Canterbury Tales Caxton pays tribute to the civilizing mission of poetry and delivers a first-ever ‘defence’ of poetry, which informs, humanizes and educates mankind. He also expresses his own philological scruples, having decided to print a second more reliable version of Chaucer’s tales. The Prologues and Epilogues have been gathered together and edited by W. J. B. Crotch, EETS 1928. Caxton’s disciples and successors were less eclectic and simply went about

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§ 32. Malory* I: ‘Le Morte d’Arthur’ I. Authorship, publication and popularity It is not style that makes the man in the case of a certain Sir Thomas Malory ‘from Warwickshire’ (1415/1418–1471), to whom Le Morte d’Arthur

their work, and certain Flemish printers took advantage of their indolence. Many of those working in England were foreigners: Wynkyn de Worde was from Alsace, Pynson from Normandy, a certain John, whose surname was Lettou, was Latvian. With the exception of Froissart’s Chronicles in Lord Berners’s translation, Skelton’s ‘Bowge of Court’, Barclay’s The Ship of Fools and Hawes’s allegorical poems, these printers published large quantities of reprints or minor works of erudition dealing with legal, educational and hagiographic topics. The confusion among the genres and the war among publishers ceased dramatically with the Reformation, which put a stop to the circulation of escapist literature. After 1525, and Tyndale’s New Testament printed in Worms, Europe was invaded by political refugees and above all by religious dissenters. *

Information regarding Caxton’s and the subsequent editions of the Morte up until the end of the nineteenth century is included below in my text. Le Morte d’Arthur, ed. E. Rhys, 2 vols, London 1906 (obviously Caxton’s version); The Works of Sir Thomas Malory, ed. E. Vinaver, 3 vols, Oxford 1967 (Winchester version), 1971 (in one vol.), 1990 (rev. and ed. P. J. C. Field); Le Morte D’Arthur, ed. J. Cowen, 2 vols, Harmondsworth 1969 (a modernization of Caxton’s version). Partial editions of individual stories or anthologies, with commendable introductions, have been edited by D. S. Brewer, London 1968, by P. J. C. Field, London 1978, and by E. Vinaver, London 1978. P. Ackroyd has produced an abbreviated version in modern English, The Death of King Arthur, Harmondsworth 2010. E. Vinaver, Sir Thomas Malory, Oxford 1929 and 1970, also author of the essay ‘Sir Thomas Malory’, in Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages: A Collaborative History, ed. R. S. Loomis, Oxford 1959, 541–52; M. C. Bradbrook, Sir Thomas Malory, London 1958; Essays on Malory, ed. J. A. W. Bennett, London 1963; R. M. Lumiansky, Malory’s Originality: A Critical Study of Le Morte D’Arthur, Baltimore, MD 1964; E. Reiss, Sir Thomas Malory, London 1966; P. J. C. Field, Romance and Chronicle: A Study of Malory’s Prose Style, London 1971, and The Life and Times of Sir Thomas Malory, Cambridge 1993; M. Lambert, Malory: Style and Vision in ‘Le Morte D’Arthur’, New Haven, CT and London 1975; L. D. Benson, Malory’s Morte D’Arthur, Cambridge, MA 1976; Aspects of Malory, ed. T. Takamiya and D. Brewer, Cambridge 1981; M. Whitaker, Arthur’s Kingdom of Adventure: The World of Malory’s Morte Darthur, Cambridge 1984; Studies in Malory, ed. J. W. Spisak, Kalamazoo, MI 1985; S. V. Smith, A History of the Mallory Family, Phillimore 1985; R. Merrill, Sir Thomas Malory and the Cultural Crisis of the Late Middle Ages, New York 1987; F. Riddy, Sir Thomas Malory, Leiden 1987;

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has been attributed ever since Caxton printed the work. Historians and philologists have in fact often nurtured doubts when comparing this work with the biography of a buccaneer, man of action and highwayman; far from there being any correspondence between the two, they are decidedly discordant. Yet there is really no other possible alternative,1 and all the existing documents have led them to reconcile a Jekyll with a Hyde. So who was this man? Where did he come from? Where are the sources, and above all, what are the intents of his work? He was born in Newbold Revel, in Warwickshire, the son of a local dignitary, sheriff and Justice of the Peace; knighted in 1441, a member of Parliament from 1445, he fought on behalf of the House of Lancaster in the War of the Roses, but was also accused of being a turncoat and campaigning in favour of the White Rose, thus giving proof not of consistency but of cynical opportunism. His criminal record is irreparably and dishonourably compromised after 1443. For having committed a series of crimes and misdemeanours – robbery, livestock theft, rape,

T. McCarthy, Reading the Morte Darthur, Cambridge 1988, and, rev. with the title An Introduction to Malory, 1991; A Companion to Malory, ed. E. Archibald and A. S. G. Edwards, Cambridge 1996, 2000; C. Hardyment, Malory: The Life and Times of King Arthur’s Chronicler, London 2005.

1

Experts on the biographical issue have blown the matter up presenting an author with three, or possibly even four, lives. Even on the Malory from Warwickshire they are extremely divided and certain critics establish a very early birthdate, and claim that he was a soldier in Calais in 1414 (that is to say, even before his birth, in the opinion of others!). If this is the case, he would have completed the Morte at the unlikely age of seventy or over; and, anyhow, he was not in prison when the work was concluded. The second possible author is a Malory from Yorkshire, on the strength of evidence emerging from the internal idiolects: a soldier, but not a knight, he is an extremely unlikely candidate, also because he would have been twenty-four when the work was finally accomplished. The third and most plausible candidate is a certain Malory from Cambridgeshire: he was the right age in 1469, had perhaps been educated in France, was in prison in 1469, and had been awarded a knighthood at the last minute. A fourth candidate, a Welsh Malory, suggested by the editor Ernest Rhys (Rhys 1906) is also highly improbable. On this engaging ‘mystery’ cf. R. R. Griffith, ‘The Authorship Question Reconsidered: A Case for Thomas Malory of Papworth St Agnes, Cambridgeshire’, in Takamiya and Brewer 1981, 159–77, McCarthy 1988, 171–8, and Field 1993, summarized in ‘The Malory Life-Records’, in Archibald and Edwards 1996, 115–30.

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ambush, even attempted murder – he frequently ended up in prison, from which he occasionally succeeded in escaping. Newgate Prison proved to be conducive to his writing.2 Denied a pardon by Edward IV, in the years 1469–1470 he completed his prose re-elaboration of French, Norman and English Arthurian romances. Prisons have engendered dozens of writers and works in several national literatures, but these often make direct reference to their imprisonment; this is, however, not the case with Malory. Unless we gain further evidence in the future, the gulf between the spirit of roguery that characterized his life and the plaintive whisper, the hushed and subdued tone of voice of his writings is blatant and unbridgeable. How could such a work have been written by that Malory? C. S. Lewis spoke of a kind of chivalric coherence, less rigid with respect to French dogmatism, between the man and the work. If this is so, Malory is a premature ‘Newgate’ criminal, a prominent figure in the Augustan and early Victorian tradition.3 Whoever the author may be, critics are unanimous in considering the Morte d’Arthur to be the masterpiece of fifteenth-century English prose (and not only as regards the romance genre, with the partial exception of Sir Gawain). As an opus magnum and landmark it makes its appearance almost an exact century after the date of composition and compilation of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, thus worthily celebrating the centenary. For over four centuries English prose-writers and poets were to draw inspiration from it, on reading the reprints of the first two versions (the first of which dated 1485) edited by Caxton, who had received from the hands of the author the original manuscript, missing to this day. With the exception of immediate posterity, now affiliated to Puritanism (like Ascham, who branded the Morte as an outrageous and obscene chain of episodes of murder and adultery), it was only the eighteenth century that proved to be impervious to Malory’s charm. Therefore the artistic value of a book which had the power to captivate Milton (who also conceived, but subsequently abandoned, the idea of composing an Arthurian epic poem), Spenser, Tennyson, Rossetti, Swinburne, Burne-Jones, and other authors up 2 3

The Scottish King James I’s Kingis Quair was the end-product of a preceding, equally fruitful period of captivity (§ 24.3). Volume 5, § 3, and ‘Newgate novels’ in the Thematic index of the volume.

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to T. E. Lawrence, not to mention hordes of other followers and sympathizers, is certainly self-evident. Southey’s confession, ‘It has been my delight since I was a schoolboy’, could be applied to virtually all these writers. After 1934, which marked the rediscovery of the (or a) manuscript, and a 400-year timespan during which Caxton’s text had clearly stolen the literary scene, a heated philological and textual debate ensued. This merged with a previous predilection for the Arthurian myth on the part of militant modernists, who readily acknowledged the parallel between the decline of King Arthur’s court (above all after the unsuccessful search for the Holy Grail) and the state of the world in the post-war period. This was particularly evident in the case of T.  S. Eliot, who had undertaken academic studies in anthropology and on myth in general, but also on that particular myth. Joyce (probably basing himself on the 1889 edition) had been fully conscious of the fact that Malory’s prose had spearheaded a literary evolution (parallel to Eliot’s view of Chaucer in the realm of poetry), and parodied it in one of the episodes in Ulysses.4 In the period that separates Chaucer and Spenser, Malory is the intermediate author who has elicited the most substantial critical bibliography, even if on the one hand it appears to be polarized by issues regarding the sources and the transmission of the text, while on the other hand, in many of its titles, it appears didactic and paraphrastic. 2. Caxton had received a manuscript from Malory – so he claims in the Preface – and had edited it in an admirable, yet not philologically impeccable, manner. He had restructured the text and above all, apart from the additions and omissions, had maladroitly assigned to it a grammatically and orthographically incorrect title.5 This frequently reprinted version is, as previously stated, the one read by all future English Arthurian authors until eighty-five years ago. The miraculous discovery in 1934 in Winchester of the manuscript of the Morte – although written by a scribe and not by Malory’s own hand – therefore enabled the replacement of H. O. Sommer’s ‘critical’ edition published in three volumes in London in the years 1889–1891, 4 5

However, this passage from Ulysses (in the hospital episode), which is normally considered to have been imitated from Malory, exhibits no typical and stylistic features, apart from the absolute superlative with ‘passing’. As is often remarked by critics, the title given by Malory to his work is unknown.

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as well as of all other previous editions. This was the task accomplished, on the basis of the new-found manuscript, by Eugène Vinaver, a Russian scholar and naturalized French citizen, and a lecturer in English universities. Whereas Caxton had subdivided the work into twenty-one books, Vinaver segmented it into eight books, in accordance with the Winchester manuscript. Nevertheless, Caxton has the priceless merit of having published and consequently preserved for posterity the work of a contemporary author, which would otherwise have been lost and therefore would have been unable to transmit to posterity its extremely fruitful influence. Even nowadays, critics bow to the absolute authority of Vinaver, although the majority regularly – and elegantly – distance themselves from the theories of this illustrious Arthurian scholar, who for his part did not seem to be unduly perturbed by their criticism. His edition bore the revealing title of The Works of Sir Thomas Malory, namely Malory’s various independent Arthurian ‘romances’. From 1963 D. S. Brewer, another ‘super-expert’ on Malory, challenged Vinaver’s edition, proposing the opposite hypothesis of a single book divided into eight parts but interconnected by prolepses and analepses;6 and this, indeed, is now the prevailing theory. 3. All, or almost all, of Malory’s sources have now been identified and are to be found in the French vulgate version of the Arthurian legends, invariably referred to by Malory as his ‘French book’, and in the two Middle English works known as the stanzaic Morte Arthure and the alliterative Morte Arthur.7 The question we need to ask ourselves is why Malory has captivated and bewitched readers throughout the centuries. The answer lies, perhaps, in his narrative vigour, his talent as a born storyteller, his ability as a director and scriptwriter, or rather arranger – an art of no little value, at least in music. Malory’s acumen as an anthologist is shown in his

6 7

‘the hoole book’, in Bennett 1963, 41–63. § 9.2. The only story missing in the sources is that of Gareth, also known as Beaumains. Malory might have had books brought to him from the nearby library of the Greyfriars’ convent. However, Griffith (in the book quoted in n. 1, 172) rejects the hypothesis that the sources he used were available in that library. And, judging from Field’s documentation (book quoted in n. 1), the Malory from Warwickshire had never been to France, either as a soldier or for other reasons.

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compilation – although I shall question the degree of independence with which he performed this task – of a semi-complete compendium, catalogue or repertoire of firmly established Arthurian legends, which had always exerted a certain fascination on popular imagination. His fortune lies in his creation of modern narrative realism – of naturalism itself, even – inasmuch as Malory’s narration is orderly and objective, without digressions or comments on the part of the author, or any type of explicit ideological or moralistic constraints. His narrative, in whatever shape or form, has absolute priority and ‘must go on’. He is thus an exceptionally talented organizer, who knows exactly how to construct a sort of ‘Grand Fugue’, returning to the main issue after various departures and countermelodies. The urge to narrate spurs him on to such an extent, that he overlooks descriptions of time, space and of the seasons. He gives the impression of being obsessed by haste, such is the quantity of minute detail he has to relate. A notable exception is the last chapter in Book XVIII (following Caxton’s numeration), where he describes the temperate month of May as the season that marks the return of man’s vital energies.8 The characters take turns to hold the narrative focus; others are kept in reserve and remain behind the scenes at length, like Guinevere, Mordred, Launcelot, Percival. The narrative is therefore intermixed, skilfully slowed down, or even packed with rather detached and dreary episodes. Technically speaking, this work has been dubbed as an ‘interwoven or polyphonic narrative’.9 These are skills and accomplishments that have the power on the one hand to elevate the ordinary and mundane and, on the other, to tone down the exceptional. Even the key scene of Arthur’s death is sober, and not dwelt upon, but speeded up. This is why the Morte could be most appropriately defined as a two-dimensional tapestry. Moreover, the subject matter becomes fused with the style; evidence of this is provided by the numerous critical studies that focus specifically on it and categorize Malory as a prose poet. As previously mentioned, this is a type of style that is devoid of sophistication, while retaining a certain charm and appeal thanks to its archaic tone; basic and unpretentious but never uncultured, its simplicity is a response 8 9

This reduced level of description is noted by Field 1971, chapter V. C. S. Lewis in Bennett 1963, 13.

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to ‘aureate’ diction which, indeed, it contrasts and destabilizes. In one of the most fundamental and technical works on Malory, P. J. C. Field10 argues that Malory is devoid of any conscious stylistic strategy, and writes instinctively; Field accompanies this view with another hypothesis, namely that Malory’s linguistic and stylistic technique is in line with the English spoken by the cultured bourgeoisie, reflected in that of the Pastons – almost as if to endorse a newly achieved maturity and autonomy of a variety of English whose origins were of popular and parochial extraction.11 It would certainly be true to say that the mark left by Malory’s style is unrelated to lexical creation and coinage, and that the author almost unconsciously incorporates – effortlessly and without show – new words of French origin already in common use. He is by no means an author who looks outside England for inspiration, nor is he a Skelton or a Nashe. Nor does he exploit rhetorical figures more than the average authors of his time. With reference to Malory’s style – as confirmation of its intangible, indefinable and highly ambiguous nature – many incompatible comparisons have been suggested and discussed: some have called into play Perrault and the style of the fairy-tale writers, others maintain that he is the medieval equivalent of Walter Pater,12 others have detected an attempt to alliterate the spoken language. His curt, concise, direct and down-to-earth dialogues even reminded Praz13 of Hemingway! Indeed, Malory’s prose is endowed with the same ‘diaphanous’ quality as that of Pater, who theorized this kind of prose also historically and aesthetically. 4. But what was his aim? In the final analysis, why did Malory – or a Malory – write the Morte? There has been only one answer in this case, too: in order to glorify the world of chivalry and its codes in a later epoch that was now witnessing its sorrowful decline. In an England riven by conflict and discord, the Morte covertly addresses the king and admonishes the English nobility. Arthur is the symbol of a strong king who embodies and 10 11 12 13

Field 1971. For a debate and rebuttal cf. J. Smith, ‘Language and Style in Malory’, in Archibald and Edwards 1996, 97–113. An opinion firmly rejected by C. S. Lewis in Bennett 1963, 24. PSL, 52.

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unites conflicting national sentiments and factions. We are, however, justified in casting doubts on these intents, even if there is a lack of evidence to support an alternative hypothesis. Thus we are still in search – a search justly defined by Lewis as always an ‘elusive’ one – of the intentio operis, as well as the key to understanding to what extent and how this coincides with the intentio auctoris. In other words, Malory’s nostalgic vision of the feudal system and the chivalric code, and the interpretation of this major work as a political allegory and masked appeal for the unity of the English kingdom, now in disarray due to the Wars of the Roses, are not totally convincing. The prominence of the celebratory intent was shared unanimously up to the end of the 1970s but, with the advent of deconstruction, many of these consolidated and unshakable tenets ran the risk of being upturned in favour of new, hitherto unsuspected, interpretations, to the extent of insinuating that what Malory was really doing was a criticism of the world of chivalry itself. He occasionally undermines it, deflates it, exposing the baseness, shortcomings and blatant contradictions to which its adepts are forcefully subjected. He portrays, not thinking and feeling human beings, but automata devoid of any decision-making capacity, who act according to ideals that have been instilled, but not accepted and incorporated. Malory’s control over his subject matter is so absolute that what he seems to be unspooling is a series of scenes from a silent movie. At this point, the hypothesis of another person of the same name as the author of the Morte would seem to regain credibility, because only a hired writer, whose work was assigned and commissioned, could have unfolded such an Apollonian tapestry. Malory makes no attempt to conceal the blindly accepted contradictions in this chivalric code; if anything, he highlights them. 5. Malory’s knights act – they joust, and sometimes engage in duels for fun and for show, whereas on other occasions they kill for real – according to a sort of automatic mechanism, almost a feverish and obsessive determinism. Reason, often a problem-solver in allegorical poems, and an illuminating factor, is now in crisis, in retreat, and powerless, as the knights instinctively rush headlong into the tournament or duel. The characters in Arthurian legend have no time to pause: they are always clad in armour, ready to joust. Dilemmas of an ethical nature – especially when these verge on erotic issues –

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waft over their heads like a gentle breeze or a passing cloud, and they are quite happy to be subject to a dual dispensation. A certain Sangreal ‘vessel’, the cup containing the blood of Christ’s Passion, makes its appearance rather late on the scene. Yet it appears as if by magic, as a kind of enchantment, and is brought by a maiden dressed in pure white robes: after having given restoration to the knight and healed his wound, she then disappears equally miraculously.14 Yet the author’s concluding words are to be interpreted in a dramatic or confessional sense: he invokes prayers for his body and soul, in the hope of being ‘delivered’ (symbolically?), and he appeals to divine power. Malory has a modern-day attitude with regard to sex: he simply excludes it from the dominion of morality. He views extramarital sexual activities as a normal procedure and the same applies to the state of bigamy. The excellence and nobility of Launcelot are ultimately reflected in the stability of his loyalty to Guinevere – that is, the stability of a violation of the moral protocol. Malory abstains from reiterating medieval ideology, as he does not associate events with allegories, and he certainly does not view them in terms of a divine design of reward and retribution: his ethical outlook is solely of this earth. The knight’s defeat is not attributed to spiritual negligence, nor is the search for the Holy Grail a benchmark of true or false chivalry. Concrete reality overrules all kinds of stylizations, parallelisms and externally imposed structures, and the Morte mirrors the nebulous and random nature of everyday life. Malory was writing in the thirty-year period that preceded the end of the century, at a safe distance from all possible backlashes of the Roman de la Rose, which had held sway in England for over two whole centuries after its initial appearance – and, it must be stressed, continued to feature in certain poems by Hawes and Dunbar, as well as in other poems issued and printed even various decades after the Morte. If the allegory in the Roman can be defined as old and jaded – and, in the manner in which it is presented, it certainly is – Malory can be considered an innovator, in the sense that he harks back to a highly

14

The debate among critics regarding Malory’s attitude towards the supernatural element, so predominant in the French sources, has been a lively one: C. S. Lewis (‘The English Prose Morte’, in Bennett 1963, 12) held the somewhat convoluted view that underplaying the supernatural element was tantamount to intensifying it.

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exploited topic that does not particularly lend itself to a precise and clearcut type of allegory. The Arthurian cycle could no longer be resuscitated and revitalized for the allegorical purposes of a contest between virtues and vices, but solely for metaliterary, parodic, symbolic – or even prematurely postmodern – purposes. Malory does not extract any implications from the narrative plot: he simply narrates for the sheer pleasure of telling a story and entertaining; he escapes from time, seeking oblivion in this mare magnum of Arthurian legend. His concept of human behaviour is a simplified but well-defined one: man is loyal, yet villainous; and desire is a flame that lights up and burns, thus automatically leading to carnal union. His adulterers do not beat their breasts in repentance or descend into ‘the dark night of the soul’. Reality consists of saintly principles and diabolical semblances, intermittently good and evil, such as Merlin or Morgan le Fay. § 33. Malory II: ‘Le Morte d’Arthur’ II. The stark kaleidoscope The individual stories contained in the Morte are in part cyclical, because the various would-be knights, having completed the preliminary stages, converge as soon as possible towards the Round Table, and their entire preceding lives are no more than a training ground for their investiture. Once they have obtained this, they embark on a chivalric routine, whereby the knight finds himself operating within a kind of impasse or concentric motion. In other words, he performs the same actions as other knights, of whom he is a duplicate or counterpart. Thus the roles and the identikits of the knights are identical and recurrent from one story to the next. Once this point is reached, the time within the narration comes to a halt, becomes synchronous, or even regresses. Only Arthur ages; at the beginning, he is young and then becomes immediately old within a short space of time. His peculiar lack of appetite is a trait that also featured in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, where he is portrayed as being in the habit of eating only after hearing a heroic tale narrated by his knights. In Malory the careers of each individual knight are simultaneously unfolded in a succession of foreseeable and realistic events; then, perhaps one fine day, there is a dramatic turn, an upsurge, some unannounced, clamorous variant. This has the effect of quickening the rhythm, heightening the tension, and breaking the monotony; for all that, everything can, and indeed will, revert to normal before long. From the opening dialogues, the narration is

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inundated with a never-ending string of names, and we are made to follow minor episodes branching off from the main story, which the readership of the times, nurtured on Arthurian legends, were able to understand and interpret, without any need for further specification of personal details or background events. The incipit is set within an already Christianized dispensation, but sexual instinct, as well as greed and avarice, has by no means been subdued. It is disquieting to witness how the Morte dispenses with the preliminaries and begins with a conspicuous infringement of religious and civil customs: an adultery perpetrated by deceit or by some kind of loophole, and which remains unpunished. Right from the start, there is no punishment on the part of the law, nor has any law been enforced, with regard to adultery. And whoever falls victim to this experience has no alternative but to make the best of a bad situation. All this stems from King Uther’s lustful desire for Igraine. In the meanwhile, Arthur grows up like a sort of Percival – the Wagnerian ‘reine Tor’, and it is no coincidence that Siegfried the Nibelung’s destiny depends on a sword that only he has the power to extract. Arthur is indeed a ‘noble fool’, because his gesture, far from being a ritual and highly solemn one, is performed spontaneously and almost absent-mindedly: given that his brother has forgotten his sword, Arthur sees another sword embedded in a stone and extracts it. Subsequently Arthur, who massacres his enemies and stains the sword with blood and brains, taints himself with the same crime as his father, which thus falls upon him: he desires a woman, being unconscious both of the fact that she is already married and also that she is his sister. And Mordred, their illegitimate son, having succeeded in escaping a kind of ‘slaughter of the innocents’, is destined, in the conclusion of the cycle and of the whole romance, to be the instrument of divine vengeance. This retribution is proof of the fact that Malory is not totally indifferent to religious symbolism. Yet Arthur’s task lies not only in fending off his enemies at home, pacifying the various factions and unifying the country but – with an explicit contemporary reference rooted in historical truth – also in closing the door to the envoys from Rome demanding ‘truage’, that is to say, a tribute. At this point, Sir Balin makes his appearance; he slays the Lady of the Lake, who was the cause of his mother’s execution, and will be doomed in future to kill – with a second sword taken from a damsel – his best friend.

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2. A reconstruction of Malory’s technique can be made starting from the violations of a fixed narrative pattern. His romances deal with the deeds of knights and damsels in distress, challenges, contests and duels, heroic exploits, encounters in the wilderness and woods, flashy armour in various heraldic colours, castles, spells and enchantments, including sudden, unexpected denouements. A knight is unaware of the fact that he is duelling with an ally, who is no other than another Knight of the Round Table, because he is clad in armour from head to foot, or even with a close relative, perhaps a brother. As Caxton had rightly perceived, this flux of events is segmentable, because each micro-episode is a narrative unit in its own right and occupies virtually the same number of pages (and, with the notable exception of the story of Tristram, has the same overall length). Similarly, we witness the alternation of leading actors and extras, or supporting characters. Malory does not exploit the reckless folly of the two brothers Balin and Balan, who mortally wound each other. He makes no distinctions, nor does he create hierarchies; he understates rather than emphasizing. The same narrative space is dedicated to the episode in which Merlin dies buried under a rock as to the one in which the two brothers Balin and Balan kill each other, without feeling troubled or perturbed in any way. Once Merlin, the embodiment of a diabolical or semi-diabolical nature, has been eliminated, then another character is ready to take his place in the likeness of Morgan le Fay, Arthur’s sister. Gawain also falls a prisoner to the senses with Ettard (and in the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight he was put to the test with Bertilak’s wife). Lancelot’s first book narrates his noble and glorious exploits but also the seduction he has to resist on the part of certain enchantresses. In his second book he frees the beautiful Elaine from pain, after having slain a dragon. With a cunning ruse, he is tricked into the lady’s bed, the result of which is the birth of Galahad. The justification for this incident is rather significant: Guinevere – who incidentally is a married woman – reprimands Launcelot, who is on tenterhooks; however, once she is informed of the guile, she considers her lover’s behaviour to be pardonable. The situation is an embarrassing one, because in the next scene – typical of a comedy or of a late twentieth-century farce – Launcelot’s concubine and his lover come face to face. Launcelot, now exposed, is a prey to madness.

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3. Palamedes, a noble and highly sensitive warrior, is a Saracen pagan knight: he storms through battles, disguises himself, is extremely adventurous and, above all, he loves Iseult, but in a gallant manner. One fine day, the hot-blooded knight finally stops wielding his sword to gaze at his image reflected in a well and, in despair, he raises a melodious song of lament, which is heard by the enraged Tristram. The two air their grievances, but Palamedes observes that ‘love is free for all men’, as is common knowledge: in other words, man’s passions are uncontrollable. Every time they meet, Palamedes and Tristram challenge each other, still having a score to settle, and the story of the Saracen ends with his christening. Tristram makes his appearance within the context of a perfectly feudal, or rather federative, system: all the rulers from the bordering regions are part of the federation headed by King Arthur. Tristram defends Cornwall, which has been ordered to pay a tribute, and is then sent to Ireland to heal his wound from a poisoned arrow. Also Mark and Tristram are free-and-easy adulterous lovers of the same woman. Later uncle and nephew are at loggerheads and Mark plots to murder his nephew. In exchange for a favour granted to the king, Iseult’s father, Tristram asks for her hand in marriage, not for himself, but for Mark. The climactic scene of the love potion is thus a highly concise one, and rather typical of Malory’s narrative technique: instead of availing himself of the element of suspense, he opens the episode with a metanarrative caption, ‘to make it short’. When Tristram’s prolonged adultery is exposed, he is about to be put to death, but he manages to flee to Brittany, where he is nursed by another Iseult (le Blaunche Maynes – of the white hands). The love between Tristram and the first Iseult would have been steadfast and invincible, had it not been for an affair between her and a squire of Tristram, who becomes mad with jealousy. The aftermath of the story, with Mark’s furious, though concealed, jealousy, is traced only discontinuously by Malory, until Tristram finally escapes for good with Iseult from Mark’s clutches. Malory suppresses the tragic end to the story; in fact, he terminates it before the heart-rending epilogue which was to be indispensable in every subsequent version. 4. In the story of the quest of the Holy Grail, we might go as far as to say that Malory sings decidedly off-key, insofar as this classical episode does not appear to have aroused the interest or kindled the sensitivity of

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the author. The end-product is thus a washed-out, perfunctory and unexceptional rendering. The symbolic, or decidedly allegorical, framework consists in the restraint imposed on the search and attainment of spiritual life and asceticism, constituted by the threat to chastity, and therefore by lust. Launcelot comes face to face with the Holy Chalice and lies at length in a state of trance, yet, ironically, once he returns to Camelot he resumes his courtship and love-affair with Guinevere. The quest is merely an interlude or a digression. If the composition of the eight books follows a chronological order, Malory is at his best in the last two, which are often extrapolated from the rest and included separately in anthologies. Tennyson was to fully exploit the episode of Elaine, the virgin of Astolat, who dies of unrequited love for Launcelot, as she explains in a letter, while a boat carries her dead body down the Thames to Camelot. The war between Arthur and Launcelot, whose disloyalty has now been unmasked, the death of the two lovers in the monastery, and the death of Arthur, who entrusts Excalibur to the reluctant Bedivere, are scenes that could only have been depicted by a master of synthesis such as Malory.

Part III 

The Sixteenth Century

§ 34. England under the Tudors England was ruled over by five monarchs during the 118 years of the Tudor dynasty. Two of them ruled for many years, one fairly lengthily, and two of them very briefly; none of them were weak or insignificant, as even Edward VI – the boy king – ruled through two iron-fisted regents. Each of these rulers undid what his or her predecessor had accomplished. There was therefore not much continuity and, in one case, a flagrant deviation from the course of action chosen by the earlier monarch. A process of consolidation of the English monarchy was however commenced and was concluded after Elizabeth’s death, endowing the institution with its most identifying marks.1 Under Tudor rule a noteworthy rationalization of national life was introduced, by establishing forms of meticulous control in the most remote areas and making use of local government and decentralized judicial administration.2 It became an absolute but also – paradoxically – a parliamentary monarchy, whereas the great states of France and Spain continued to lean for support on the old Church. The Parliament included an ever-decreasing number of prelates and an increasing number of lay members. From the reign of Henry VII, each county sent two knights to represent the landowners whose value was set at thirty-two shillings. Parliament, however, was summoned only if required and did not operate on a stable basis, inasmuch as current affairs were attended to by the Privy Council. Court life, moreover, returned to turbulence immediately after the presumptive dynastic settlement of 1485, and other, not much smaller

1 2

Henry VIII commissioned the Italian humanist Polydore Vergil to write Historia anglica, the first eulogy of the Tudor regime. Repeated uprisings within the country up to 1580 reveal the general internal instability: in 1486 and 1487 those of the Yorkists and in Cornwall as we shall see; in 1536 the ‘Pilgrimage of Grace’ and in 1549 another anti-Protestant demonstration in Cornwall; in 1549 Kett’s Rebellion in Norfolk, mainly caused by economic grievances; in 1553 in Northumberland, in 1554 the anti-Catholic movement headed by Wyatt, leading to the siege of London; in 1569 in the Northern counties against Mary Stuart. The 1549 uprisings led to a tragic result: 10,000 victims.

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Wars of the Roses erupted, in the shape of plots, counter-plots, conspiracies, overt or covert intrigues and fiery rivalries between the ambitious, highborn families of the court. The whole century was punctuated by summary trials against parties who had been more or less unjustly accused of high treason. Power was so frail that mere suspicion was enough for the suspect to be sentenced to death. Should an initial warning be insufficient, the second time a courtier was caught out going astray, he would lose his head. One of the symbols of the despotic power of the Tudors was the Tower of London, crammed with political prisoners. Numerous writers and other men of culture were beheaded as well, without much ado. Modern consciences wonder how death could be inflicted with such ease and so hastily. The invention of printing led to wider literacy and made the reading habit more democratic, but the boomerang effect of an instrument that could place the very stability of power at risk was perceived almost immediately, so it had to be subject to regulations and even placed under severe censorship. After the dissolution of the English monasteries, Henry VIII caused further damage by destroying vast quantities of manuscripts in their libraries and ipso facto of medieval Latin culture. He not only caused the mass dispersion of about 10,000 monks and nuns, but thereby reduced the recruitment of artists from the monastic or ecclesiastical ranks. On the other hand, he made the court the natural habitat for all artistic activity. Literature became far more secular and the typical sixteenth-century writer was, for 200 years, a member of the court. The despoiled or ruined monasteries became manors, that is, country residences modelled architecturally on Italian villas, as well as, albeit on a more reduced scale, cultural centres. The new living circumstances made educational travelling possible and easier and early style grand tours in both directions started being undertaken – of Europeans visiting England and of English people visiting Europe, transforming a formerly sedentary population into a travelling one, the most travel-prone ever. The suddenly increased literary output owes its existence to a correspondingly sudden need for pleasurable literature, both amusing and educational, by a burgher class and aristocracy that could benefit from Scottish universities such as those of St Andrews and Glasgow, created at the end of the fifteenth century, as well as from those of Oxford and Cambridge. Some classics of continental humanism, such as those by

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Pico della Mirandola, Castiglione, Machiavelli, were translated very shortly after publication.3 2. The Tudor dynasty starts with Owen Tudor, a Welsh gentleman, esquire or ‘steward of the wardrobe’, who had married the widow of Henry V. Proud of their nominal roots, the Tudors laid claim to the restoration of the ancient, legendary kingdom of Arthur.4 The watchful, taciturn, centralizing Henry VII first had to re-establish order in the kingdom, without even being sure that he was the most legitimate pretender to the throne. The country was therefore shaken by turbulence and raids, and the Crown’s officials were constantly being threatened. A lone contingent of bodyguards, in the absence of a regular army, managed to subdue an uprising lead by the Yorkists as early as 1487, and ten years later, in Cornwall, they perpetrated a bloody massacre – according to Thomas More in his Utopia – of the protesters against tax rises. Henry VII was aptly nicknamed the gendarme of England. The Privy Council was, from then on, the strong and indispensible link in the chain of power control. The nobles were excluded and their place was taken by members of the clergy, lawyers and professional diplomats, the younger sons of the newly enriched families. The Council acted as go-between with the Parliament. The Justice of Peace appointed for every shire was a member of an upper, controllable Court, the Star Chamber Court. Such forms of local government ensured a natural and regular close watch on daily life in the villages, enforcing the range of penalties inflicted. With Henry VII there arose a more up-to-date England. Throughout the twenty-four years of his reign reborn humanistic studies forged ahead and diplomats down from Oxford and Cambridge were summoned to court, where English was adopted as the only official language. The secret of the Tudor administrative system, after Henry VII, lay in containing individual taxation and increasing the duties of the local 3 Machiavelli’s Arte della Guerra in 1560–1562 and Istorie fiorentine in 1595. As C. Corti reminds us in RIN, 35, The Prince was translated into English in 1640 and English readers only knew it through the Contre-Machiavel published in 1602 by the French Huguenot Gentillet. This did not prevent the Prince’s theories from being known by reading it in Italian or from hearsay, deriving thereby even greater legendary status. 4 Henry VII’s firstborn son was christened Arthur.

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officials towards self-government. These officials (i.e. the Justices of Peace, the main Shire officials, whose duties were truly very wide) were always unpaid. Henry VIII favoured in turn the rise of landowners so as to levy more taxes from them, but also issued laws in favour of evicted families and forbade or regulated the ‘enclosures’. The pivot of the country’s economy continued to be wool and remained so until 1550, when the wool market slumped, the cultivation of cereals was resumed and the whole productive cycle was all carried out in England, thanks to the expertise of the immigrant Flemish weavers, who soon settled and became anglicized. Finished cloth was sold within the island or exported and exchanged on new markets. The wool hegemony was paid for by the farm labourers, who were evicted by the landowners, so as to create the ‘enclosures’, or land to be used exclusively as pasture for the wool-producing sheep. The ‘false consciousness’ of the well-to-do and of the traders found a curious reason for their course of action, and stated that land that had been cultivated for too long had to ‘rest’ for a few decades, before becoming super-productive again. On a social level, the situation generated a mass of unemployed, evicted farmlabourers who could become a dangerous, frightening, roving horde. This is one of the few shortcomings admitted by the Tudor eulogists. Moreover, after the suppression of the monasteries, the dole or alms distributed by these institutions were also discontinued. A tardy and badly inefficient Poor Law attempted to remedy this state of affairs. 3. Cardinal Wolsey, Henry VIII’s right hand man, was the last prelate to ‘rule’ over England and hold its reins in his clasp.5 He introduced the idea of the balance of powers, the only foreign policy capable of guaranteeing peace and stability for the then small and unarmed English nation. In actual fact, after 1521, Wolsey started getting it wrong and taking ever worse, wide-ranging decisions. He in fact forged an alliance with power5

The son of a cattle-dealer in Ipswich, he founded a college at Oxford as proof of his power. He never became Archbishop of Canterbury, but only of York. Officially he was deputy papal legate (legatus a latere). He died of natural causes, but already in disgrace with the king, or at least no longer on good terms with him – as he had failed to mediate successfully for the king’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon – while travelling from York to London, where Henry almost certainly would have had him killed. He wore a hair-shirt under his robes.

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ful Spain (the Spaniards were, at this point, disliked by the English), when instead it would have been statesmanlike and wise to support France. Under Henry VIII, England was discovering the sea and how to make it pay, or how to make use of the nation’s enviable geographical position, despite the still excessive proximity of the continental shores. Nonetheless, strangely enough, Henry did not take part in the general rush to acquire colonies, although his father had sent Cabot reconnoitering to North America in 1497. Henry’s princely intuition led to the creation of a navy, even without a supporting army; his dry docks produced ships designed according to modern and ingenious constructive principles, initially capable of replacing the oar-driven galleys for long, transoceanic trips and easily transformable into warships by fitting them with cannon. Wolsey short-sightedly did not, on the other hand, realize that England was ready to enter the lists for the dominion of the seas. When Henry changed the course of history and resolved to achieve his ends, notwithstanding the odds against him,6 many indulgent historians claim that at least he did so without unleashing a civil war. And although he shed blood it never amounted to the streams of it that coursed through France, Holland and Germany. In 1509 Henry VIII came to the throne aged eighteen, after the death of his elder brother Arthur. He was eclectic and excelled in the arts and in sports, was an archer, musician and man of letters, before becoming obese, grim and of bull-like heftiness. He was also a devout Catholic and attended more than one Mass daily. His conjugal decisions were taken after the failure of his plans to join England and Spain by marrying Mary, the daughter he had had from Catherine, to the Emperor, and because Catherine could no longer have any surviving sons. The pressure put on the Pope to obtain a ‘counter-edict’, dissolving his marriage to Catherine, was foiled, also thanks to Charles V’s efforts on behalf of his aunt and niece; moreover, the Pope was a hostage in the hands of the Spaniards. Henry therefore turned to Cranmer, to More and to eminent scholars at the continental universities to obtain justifications for his divorce from Catherine. His marriage with Anne Boleyn, which took place after he had been excommunicated, was celebrated in 1533, with Archbishop Cranmer officiating. Wolsey had been replaced by the

6

The Anglican Reformation is dealt with in greater detail in the next section.

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Iago-like Thomas Cromwell, a fervent adherent of Realpolitik. The gross domestic product, during Henry VIII’s reign, increased both because the confiscated abbeys were granted at subvalue prices to the new enriched burghers, as well as to the emerging yeomen and squires. This happened despite the rise of prices due to the currency being devalued to meet the expenses of the war against France. In 1536, Wales was unified and annexed and the shire system and the imposition of Common Law was extended to it; thereafter the Welsh sent their representatives to Parliament. The same policy was extended to Ireland, but much less successfully and bringing in its wake the unrest which has troubled that province to this day. Henry VII had sought to pacify Scotland by offering his daughter in marriage to the King of Scotland, a key event for the Chaucerian literature of that country. A further attempt at appeasement was made by negotiating a marriage between Edward, the son of Henry VIII, and Mary, Queen of Scots. It came to nothing due to the opposition of the Scottish Francophile party. Forced to contradict his previous convictions, above all as regards religious matters, Henry systematically adopted a policy of royal decrees. His reign is full of this kind of rulings, one of them being the establishment of a standard Latin grammar to be employed in schools. 4. When sickly Edward VI died, the royal candidature of Lady Jane Grey, as successor, suddenly came to the fore, inasmuch as she was the greatgranddaughter of Henry VII. However Mary, the daughter of Catherine, did not allow herself to be supplanted, and ruled promising tolerance and a return to order. It was one of the most notorious euphemisms of English history, as Mary, ‘bloody’ par excellence, was responsible for the execution of about 200 priests who refused to abjure. A Protestant list of martyrs, the Book of Martyrs, was compiled by the theologian John Foxe (1516–1587) in 1563. This work was widely acclaimed by the Protestants, as it proved that not only Catholics had suffered conspicuous death tolls.7 Both the Regent Warwick and Lady Jane, too slow to accept Mary’s new policies, were beheaded. Under Mary’s reign, there was a brief, but terri7

Elizabeth would outstrip Mary as regards the number of executions: it has been calculated that she sent four Catholic martyrs to the scaffold a year, as against fifty-six Protestants (or, according to Foxe, ninety) condemned by Mary.

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fying interregnum or Catholic status quo. She married Philip, the son of Emperor Charles V, but the anti-Spanish sentiment had spread so widely that the marriage was unpopular and aroused much ill feeling (the queen announced an imaginary pregnancy that proved to be inexistent). After the death of Mary, Elizabeth, Henry VIII’s and Anne Boleyn’s daughter, was backed by Spain to oppose the claims of Mary, Queen of Scots, purely because of Spain’s enmity against France. This was a fatally badly timed move on the part of Spain, as when Elizabeth first took the throne England was weak and vulnerable. For her part, Elizabeth initially and cleverly led Philip to believe that she would restore Catholicism, a promise she never kept. She also flirted with the Emperor, without ever granting her hand in marriage. In 1559, a new Act of Supremacy was voted by Parliament, ignoring the adverse opinions of the bishops appointed by Mary. In the space of only one year, in fact, England and Scotland became two Protestant monarchies no longer subject to Spain or France. The English succoured Scotland, in the grip of Mary of Guise’s forces, which were evacuated in 1560. The conflict on the seas with the Spaniards has often taken on the traits, as far as the English are concerned, of an allegory: the forces of progress, of modernity – embodied by the enterprising traders and the piratical English sea-captains who were made admirals, imposing the necessary discipline and democracy on their ships and adopting modern and murderously efficient boarding techniques – against the obscurantist and stagnant offshoots of absolutist, feudal, intolerant and persecuting Catholicism. Obviously, the defeat of the Invincible Armada in 1588 marked – to close the allegory – the passing of the sceptre of ‘Queen of the seas’ from Spain to England; even more significantly, it marked the conclusive success of the forces of Protestant Reform over Catholic might.8 The centre of gravity in Europe had irreversibly shifted north. In the mid-sixteenth century, it had seemed

8

The epic battle was fought in the Irish Sea by Medina Sidonia and the Duke of Parma, on one side, and the gasconading pirate Drake, who had circumnavigated the world, on the other. The Spanish defeat boosted national feeling and English identity, which, as from then, was characterized by hostility towards any foreigner, whether Jew, Irishman and above all dark-skinned races, who by then had set foot in England. Black characters started appearing in Marlowe’s and Shakespeare’s plays, and

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that the Catholics – France and above all Spain and Portugal – could achieve supremacy and that England would be irremediably ousted from the colonial booty scramble, whereas North America, which had been underrated by the great Catholic nations, dazzled by the mirage of South American gold, was, in the long run, to become the real prize. 5. When Mary came to the throne she had opened up a dilemma of royal legitimacy. In theory, a woman could rule, but Elizabeth ranked – for English Protestants as well – as a bastard. However, as soon as she was proclaimed queen and during the procession to her coronation, the sovereign, kissing the English Bible that had been forbidden by her halfsister Mary, gave proof of her astounding ability at maintaining an equal distance from all conflicting parties. A precocious age of equipoise came into existence: thus it was during her reign, that the first phalanxes of Puritans were formed. The Elizabethan political system took shape when the queen called into her service trusted councillors, such as the son of a burgher family, William Cecil. The system was supported by the ideology of the Divine Right of Kings, albeit formally and concretely reined in by the forms of controls afforded by Parliament – at least in the matter of taxation. Elizabeth herself encouraged the growth of an adoring personality cult by means of spectacular rituals, and she showed appreciation for poets and artists paying tribute to her in eulogies and apotheoses. She rapidly became adept at juggling and pitting one faction against the other. Strict police surveillance on her favourites introduced a threatening climate that was sharpened by severe penalties, and even the block, for the smallest transgressions. Her courtiers and councillors, like the pamphleteer John Stubbs and the poet and statesman Ralegh, fallen suddenly out of favour, suffered terrible consequences. Private trade prospered, as the way had been opened towards hitherto unimagined markets, like the Americas and the East. It was during her reign that merchant companies were born, capable of outstripping both Flanders and Venice and of establishing a kind of monopoly on world trade. In 1563 the queen issued a Workers’ Statute and confronted the rising prices caused by Henry’s devaluation of the currency, actors with African heritage were on request as skilled performers of native dances or plays within the play, or in the guise of servants and slaves.

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which had brought the country almost to bankruptcy. The refugee Mary, Queen of Scots, was the most worrying threat, inasmuch as she harboured remote dynastic prerogatives over the English throne, as a descendant of Margaret, the daughter of Henry VII. As a widow of Francis II of France, she returned to Scotland and unfortunately married the Catholic Lord Darnley and had a son from him, James, who might, in fact – according to hearsay – have been the son of an Italian court musician called Rizzio. Rizzio, having been left by her, was found murdered, perhaps by the queen’s new lover, Bothwell. Mary was in the end deposed from the Scottish throne and after years of imprisonment was beheaded in 1587, as she was accused of being involved in a plot to kill Elizabeth. 6. Antiquated and chauvinistic historians of the Elizabethan age, like Trevelyan, praised, up to a very short time ago, the vision of natural harmony, ardent, complacent patriotism and admirable and unrepeatable concord amongst the social classes. Satisfaction was unanimous, all and everything was provided for and the nobles were unlike the degenerate French nobility of the Revolution. A marked spirit of mutual succour reigned supreme. Energy, vitality, entrepreneurship and the pleasure of indulging in new sports such as bear, bull or dog fights, were palpably everywhere to be encountered. It is sufficient to recall that a certain William Shakespeare came up from the provinces to London around 1590. The population was becoming more and more prosperous and was increasing.9 The national economic situation was booming and English international prestige was definitely mounting. In 1553, the first company was founded to trade with Russia; in 1580, Drake returned to England after a triumphant and wildly adventurous circumnavigation of the globe on his ship, the Golden Hind, which became a national treasure. In 1600, the East India Company was founded. At the beginning of his reign, Henry VIII’s navy consisted of a single ship whilst Elizabeth despatched 150 vessels against the Spaniards. New utensils and domestic comforts appeared. The first horse-drawn carriage started being used and the great long-sword was replaced by the 9

Over 4 million. London’s population when Elizabeth came to the throne was 100,000. It was 200,000 when she died. According to F. Ferrara (MAR, vol. I, 363), it was first 130,000 and then 300,000.

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rapier. Clothes presses were crammed with rich and unusual head-gear and gorgeous dresses made with the most varied cloths, embroidered and fashioned in the most diverse ways.10 In the heart of England, the Thames flowed to London and bore witness to the fact that the roads were not much to speak of, but river transport was preferred by all. The water in the Thames was clean and pure – as Spenser tells us, as William Morris will imagine and as T. S. Eliot will regretfully notice. And on the river paraded the royal pageants. The reverse of this fabled golden-age coin is slavery, the repression of the Irish, persecutions, unemployment and the discontent of the poor. English imperialism was fathered by the expeditions led by Drake (chiefly when he attacked the Spanish ports and fortified strongholds), Frobisher, Hawkins and Ralegh, who brought slaves back to England for the first time. Ireland was one of the rare victims of English callous and insensitive administration. What was garnered was not recompensed by what was restored, not even in cultural terms. Ireland became thereafter a recurrent source of discontent and the pivot for a possible Catholic revival. The Tudor model, as pointed out by C. S. Lewis, was based on a system of compensations and on the increasingly cultured new class of recently enriched people, whilst the youth and children of the smaller landowners, who had been formerly educated by the abbeys and convents, became progressively more ignorant. The unemployed and anyone wishing to make a career for themselves at court flooded into London. Sanitary provisions were scarce, the roads muddy and dirty, contagion and plague epidemics rife. As in Medicean Florence, some of the London districts were identified by the trade or profession that was practised in them, one of the latter being the prostitutes’ activity (Southwark). That there were five prisons in the town provides some inkling of the high level of metropolitan delinquency. A divide separated the densely populated city from the marshy, forested, peripheral areas, infested by bandits, minstrels and vagabonds. Elizabeth possibly knew she was sterile and her flirtations never led to any serious marriage plans. Another explanation for her determined nubile status was 10

Signs of the times, these, marvellously described by the chronicler and eccentrically humorous country parson William Harrison (Description of England, 1577, included in Holinshed’s Chronicles [§ 161.3]).

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that she did not want to marry a foreign monarch or an English nobleman, so as to guarantee the balance of the internal political factions. Towards the end of her reign, she still had power, but it had been undermined by palace intrigues, and one led by the Earl of Essex was foiled in 1601.11 On her deathbed, she is supposed to have indicated James VI of Scotland as her successor. § 35. The English Reformation For decades, if not for a full century, towards the end of the fifteenth century, the discontent of the laity with the deplorable state of religion was palpable all over Europe and thus also in England, both as regards its theory and its practice. Scholars and sages supported a widespread, age-old anticlerical feeling. Some historians opine that anti-clericalism was an independent, impartial ideological trend, shared by Protestants and Catholics alike. The English reforming vanguard are Wyclif and the Lollards – at the end of the fourteenth century – as well as the English translations of the Bible which preceded the Authorised Version, the fruit of the axiom that one could not require people to believe if the written foundation of their belief, based on the history of the people of God, was not comprehensible and needed intermediaries to be understood. All this notwithstanding, Wyclif, as we have seen, did not probably mean to shatter all ties with Rome, nor place himself at the head of a heretical sect, but he merely hoped for reform within the Church itself. Lollardism had held fast and the English Bible was read in secret, and Lollards were sent to the scaffold between 1490 and 1520.1 After 1517, Luther’s theses caused the Lollards to be incorporated and enrolled as Protestants, and Cambridge was the cradle of the new Protestant ideas. One should, at this point, stress once and for all that Protestant is a term that derives from Luther and his supporters’ formal protest at the chiefly Catholic Imperial Diet of Speyer in 1529, which had reiterated the 11

Another plot, led by the Duke of Norfolk and by the Italian banker Ridolfi to implement Pius V’s excommunication Bull and to re-establish Catholicism in England was also foiled. Ever increasing numbers of Catholics were fined by Elizabeth and emigrated to the Continent; and the Jesuits were persecuted.

1

On Pecock see § 29.2.

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ban against Luther; the Reformed were, on the other hand, the followers of Zwingli and Calvin, as opposed to Luther. It was only in the eighteenth century that the historical term Protestant Reform started being used, to signify the Lutheran, Calvinist and Anglican confessions. Even during the early years of the reign of Henry VIII, independent, moderately reforming trends had come into being within the English Church, so that initially the Reformist Catholics were more numerous than the true Protestants. The English Reform is thus no sudden deflagration, but a gradual process that developed over successive stages and progressed through escalating phases interrupted by stagnations. For a short period, under the reign of Mary, the process even went into reverse. Luther, a priest, developed the political doctrine of a Church subject to the State, an idea to which he sought to convert the German princes. Henry VIII was an absolute monarch who placed himself at the head of State and Church. As always, the English simplify things. In Germany the reform commenced with the people, in England change was promoted from on high. 2. The fundamental dates of the English Reformation are the following: 1517, indirectly, by virtue of Luther’s theses at Wittenberg; 1521, when Henry was proclaimed Defensor Fidei by the Pope; 1532, the year of Calvin’s Institutes; 1533, when the English Reform was decreed; 1539, when the English Bible was adopted in the churches (but in the same year the Six Articles were published, in one of which transubstantiation in the Eucharist was solemnly reaffirmed); 1549, when the first edition of the Book of Common Prayer was published, containing the English text of all liturgical functions; 1558, when John Knox imposed a markedly Calvinist imprint on the Scottish Church. Wolsey had caused anti-Roman prejudice to increase, due to the corruption he introduced. After his fall, the clergy that had supported him were fined by Henry, who first reduced and then abolished all the annual dues to the Roman Church. The few prelates who refused to vow allegiance, like More and Fisher, were sent to the scaffold and France and Spain – in Europe – stayed put for sheer political profit. Under Henry VIII the Church system was subjected to a kind of conservative restructuring. The only radical measure was the suppression of the monasteries and the confiscation of all their appurtenances.2 2

The Pilgrimage of Grace (§ 34.2 n. 2) was a Catholic rebellion against the suppression of the monasteries that took place in 1536 and was rapidly quashed. It masked a

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The dreaded decline of knowledge was reflected in the annual number of degrees issuing from the two universities, where there had never before been so few new students enrolling. It was like a veritable annihilation of the scholarly population, due moreover to the fact that, after Henry VIII, the traditional final training of monks no longer took place at Oxford and Cambridge. After Henry’s death, in 1547, Archbishop Cranmer, a Cambridge scholar, and thus a priest, although he took orders after being widowed, cut through a liturgical contention that had been ongoing for decades, by establishing that Mass is not a sacrifice – and no transubstantiation takes place during the service – but is only a commemoration. In the meantime, the two regents of the boy-king Edward VI clamped down on the few Catholic diehards. The councillor behind Mary’s attempted restoration was Cardinal Reginald Pole, who had been one of the first to be persecuted by Henry VIII, because of his opposition to divorce. Under Elizabeth, on the other hand, the Acts of Supremacy were re-confirmed and recusants (those who refused to vow allegiance to the Crown) were hunted down by the pursuivants, or persecutors, led by Richard Topcliffe (and, in Shakespeare’s county, by the infamous Sir Thomas Lucy). Puritans and Jesuits (the latter in disguise or incognito) were like cat and dog or like Scylla and Charybdis. In 1563, the 39 Articles, synthesizing the Anglican Creed, were drafted. Elizabeth was excommunicated by Pope Pius V, who founded the French seminary in Douai, which was intended to foment Catholic resurgence. 3. The term used to define the English political system from Henry VIII onwards is Erastianism (from Thomas Erastus, a Swiss doctor and follower of Zwingli). The head of the State or Sovereign Monarch is also the head of the Church, with no disjunction between the two powers. According to Bertrand Russell,3 the root of theocracy was in St Augustine, who had observed that, due to the weakness of the western emperors, the Church and the Papacy had easily managed to overcome the political powers. In England, however, St Augustine was not totally, but only partly refused or refuted, as the Protestants felt at ease with the Augustinian doctrine foreshadowing predestination. There was strong confrontation as to whether the

3

rebuttal of the Crown’s supremacy, reaffirming feudal authority. Even the sanctuary of Thomas à Becket in Canterbury was sacked and robbed of its relics. HWP, 360.

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Bible should be in the common tongue or in Latin. Quite a few fragments of the liturgy had been translated into the common tongue and used for the benefit of the people. The actual production of a whole Bible in English was the idea of William Tyndale (date of birth uncertain-1536). Tyndale was an Oxford scholar, tutor to the nobility, and controversial preacher. Having aroused hostility at home, he emigrated to Germany to prepare and print his Bible, and smuggle copies of it into England. His New Testament was completed and published in 1525, but Henry VIII, at the time opposed to many of the actions that he would later support, had him arrested and burnt at the stake. Tyndale’s Bible was very clearly Lutheran in character, with regard, too, to the lexical choices, which were queried by Thomas More because of their suspect provenance. In 1535, Miles Coverdale (1488–1568), a bishop, forced into exile too as suspected of heresy, published a complete Bible, with both Testaments translated into English, in Zurich. Various editions were printed and re-edited over the next few years. Other English Bibles were produced up to the end of the century, translated by a variety of translators, paving the way for the classic milestone, James I’s Authorized Version. In such a short timespan there is a complete thumb-nail history of the Bible in English. 4. From the very first translations, the English Bible was to have an incalculable and widespread influence, contributing to the practice of daily reading and memory automatism effects, comparable to the litanies or silent prayers of the Catholic tradition. The reformed religion gradually idealized the home, the family and matrimony as the model status, together with daily practices such as prayers and reading from the Holy Scriptures. It was through the English Bible and the translation of the Psalms (1562) that Tyndale and Cranmer jointly brought about, from the mid-1550s, the birth of a language, English prose, a vehicle that could serve any purpose. A similar function was carried out by Murdoch Nisbet in Scotland, thanks to his separate and manuscript translation of the New Testament. Protestant and, a bit later, Puritan apologists endowed literature with three markedly serviceable formal tools: the treatise, the dialogue and the sermon.4 John 4

See § 157 on the Marprelate Tracts.

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Longland, Henry VIII’s confessor, bore a high-sounding surname that could have been taken for that of Langland; the fieriest preacher was Hugh Latimer (ca. 1485–1555), who hurled anathemas against superstition and lax priestly customs, adopting hammering reiteration, plodding, but sensational anecdotes and gruesomely ironic aphorisms. Refusing to recant, when Mary came to the throne he was burnt at the stake. Other preachers and martyrs died exhorting their tormentors to pile more wood on the fire. The Reform led to the emergence of compilers of the archives and records of the antiquities dismantled in the abbeys, like the so-called ‘John Leland’s Itinerary’,5 as well as the annals by Edward Hall (?-1547), John Stow (ca. 1525–1605), John Speed (1552–1629) and William Camden (1551–1623).6 § 36. English humanism and the Renaissance I: The continental trail The cradle and the scene of English humanism are the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge; and its initiators were a small group of scholars and professors who travelled to Italy, bent on possessing themselves of the fruits of the Platonic Schools and of the circles of cultured classicists working in the various cities of the Italian peninsula, such as Florence, Padua, Bologna and Ferrara. Successful in their quest, they returned home to share their findings with their compatriots. The last decade of the fifteenth century is the starting point for this process, which can be said to have ended around 1520. A first group of scholars had formed before the above said proto-humanists travelled to Italy, as a number of Italian and a few French scholars had been summoned by the English courts and universities to teach the rudiments of the new continental philology. It should be stressed, right from the start, that this neoclassicism was by no means pure and secular, rather it was oriented towards theology and religion and thus unwittingly preparatory towards the great objective of translating the Bible into English, a translation that had to be made directly on the original

5 6

John Leland (1506–1552), Henry VIII’s librarian, devoted six years to the compilation of his Itinerary, which he left unfinished, as he went mad. Stow and Speed, who were tailors by trade, both wrote a history of England; Camden’s, written during Elizabeth’s reign, was originally in Latin.

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sources, philologically discriminative, and without aids or intermediation. Secondly, in contrast to the delay with which England was the recipient of the continental ferments, this English classicism was, all things considered, almost contemporaneous with that of the Continent. The passion for Greek manuscripts had erupted in Europe and in Italy when scholarly Greeks arrived en masse between the Council of Florence (1439) and the fall of Byzantium (1453). These emigrants became an integral part of the Italian communities of the mid- and late fifteenth century, where they were revered and esteemed. One cannot but recall, in this regard, that the imaginary, but plausible Tito Melema, the male protagonist of George Eliot’s Romola, enjoys just such a reputation as a cultured Greek scholar, enshrouded in an unjustifiable legendary halo. 2. In order to investigate the Gospels, Thomas Linacre (ca. 1460–1524) and William Grocyn (ca. 1446–1519) studied Greek. The former, as a guest at the Italian courts, was a pupil, auditor and disputer in juridical chambers, philological academies (Calcondila and Poliziano in Florence) and scientific colleges. He went on to teach Thomas More, was court tutor and a doctor, and translated Galen into English. One of the more eminent cultural mediators was John Colet (ca. 1467–1519), a distinguished Latinist and Oxford-based scholar, deeply read in the Church Fathers and the Pauline Epistles, subsequently dean of St Paul’s and founder of the eponymous school attached to the Cathedral, where Milton was later to study. Colet preached religious reform, but his objective was to reconstruct the Church. He may have been galvanized by Savonarola in Florence; at his own death he was much more inclined to accept Lutheran or anti-Catholic positions than More or other humanists. Hostile to Thomas Aquinas’ tenets, he introduced the historical method of interpreting the Scriptures, repudiating a coldly and strictly philological interpretation. The first headmaster of Colet’s school was John Lyly’s grandfather, William Lyly, whose name is related to the compilation of a Latin grammar which surpassed its rivals and became the classic text-book for countless generations of schoolchildren.1 At the same time, the history of English humanism is inextricably bound 1

A version of this grammar, by W. Bullokar, applied to the English language, was published in 1586.

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to Erasmus of Rotterdam’s scholarly sojourns and visiting professorships.2 Erasmus was to visit his English classical, scholarly friends at Oxford and Cambridge twice, in a spirit of reciprocal enrichment. He was invited a third time by Archbishop John Fisher to Cambridge and held a chair there, as professor, from 1511 to 1514. All the foremost protagonists of the English Reform movement, including Tyndale, Coverdale and Cranmer, considered him their guiding light. In turn, Erasmus praised his humanist friends to the skies, in a somewhat florid fashion. The friend closest to his heart, as we shall see, was Thomas More. In 1499, the thirty-year-old Erasmus had not written much. In 1505 he decided to prolong his stay in England, in order to cultivate the academic humanists he had previously become acquainted with and improve his knowledge of Greek. It was also thanks to these friends that he evolved into a Christian humanist, aware of the need to adopt a new philological approach to the Scriptures, so as to assist the illiterate. 3. Not everyone agrees, as we shall see, that humanism was simply the first step towards an English Renaissance; and it is true that the Elizabethan Renaissance appears, in many ways, to be discontinuous and is a sort of leap onwards after humanism. Philological debates, theological diatribes and political pamphlets are replaced suddenly, towards the last quarter of the century, by a wide and impressive spectrum of lay genres. In searching after the reasons and origins of this miracle, the English Renaissance, we should perhaps have recourse to the imponderable – the will of mother Nature, who allowed so many artistic geniuses to be born in that period, or to the wheel of Fortune.3 The golden centuries of literature normally coincide with political and social pre-conditions and are regulated by the deductive mechanism of cause and effect. In order for them to be founded and formed, the sine qua non is a stable political situation and solid, secure power, capable of benefiting and feeding a similar period of internal order, 2 3

His official name was Geert Geertsz (ca. 1466–1536), but he was known by his friends and admirers as Erasmus, which means ‘the beloved one’. Similarly, ‘an incomprehensible self-contradicting status, or aporia’ is the ‘minor tone’, if not the inexistent tradition, of figurative arts, in the Elizabethan Renaissance, according to C. Corti, in RIN, 402.

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of truce between factions and, above all, with external enemies, producing a widespread awareness of national peace and security. In the case of the Tudor sovereigns, this rule would appear, to say the least, to be somewhat dubious and contradictory, as it would be difficult to think of a more restless or precarious century, in which so many contradictory political and social upheavals took place. Over and above that of a cyclic, organic and most obvious awakening to new life, after a long hibernation, one of the metaphors used to describe the English Elizabethan Renaissance is drawn from mineralogy, used to define the great eras in primordial history; and the colouristic one. If the Middle Ages were the Dark Ages, the Renaissance is an era of dazzling light; a dead period, comparable to the Bronze Age, is followed by a Golden Age. Such metaphors are of relative value. Seventy-five of the 100 years of the sixteenth century belong in England to the Bronze Age and are devoid of any great art, whilst the last twenty-five years mark a definite upward surge. On the other hand, after 1590 English Literature will always be golden, without undergoing any substantial decline or downward slithering, right up to the present, providing a succession of more or less golden eras, except for brief interruptions, such as the Protectorate. 4. The delay with which the English Renaissance moved into action, compared with the continental Renaissances, is another accepted fact. Up to 1579, the sixteenth century, as I have just said, does not produce many fruits, merely offering philological and grammatical works, prose to be found in sermons, homilies or manuals, or science, education and biblical studies.4 The compactness and homogeneity of the English Renaissance is, in itself, a hitherto unsolved mystery, the unravelling of which depends on the point of view taken, once one has first agreed on the constellation of meanings of the term and on the choice of what unit of measurement to adopt. Like ‘Romanticism’ or ‘classicism’, the term ‘Renaissance’ is a category which is both timeless (eternal or cyclical) as well as specific. Many English historians date its commencement from the reign of Henry VII

4

Religion accounts, according to F. Ferrara (MAR, vol. I, 365) for about 40 per cent of the material published throughout the entire Tudor era. About 100 titles of this type were published each year.

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or from the inauguration of printing in England, prudently preferring to settle on 1585 as its conclusive year, although no recognizably outstanding literary event is associated with this date. Others prefer to extend its duration to a good century and a half, placing its conclusion in 1660 and the Restoration. The sixty years after the extinction of the Tudor dynasty, labelled as pre-Baroque or Baroque, have less to do with the early sixteenthcentury Renaissance (despite being an extension of it), but are more of a continuation of it than the Elizabethan Renaissance was of humanism and we shall see its characteristics when we get to it. The boundary dates of the sub-periods can be seen to coincide, with singular precision, with historical watersheds. 1603 closes the sixteenth century, 1714 closes the seventeenth, 1798 brings the eighteenth to an end. Only the third date does not coincide with a change of dynasty at the head of the English state, rather representing a cultural event. Naturally, and this is a customary caveat, some authors straddle two periods, as do certain currents, which herald new trends or continue to uphold past ones or both, in the course of time. 5. The epistemic data of the English Renaissance are common to those of continental Renaissances, though some of them are specifically generated in England. Their merging produces a cultural unity – a system. If one starts from very general considerations, Chaucer is already a Renaissance writer, if one of the identifying aspects of the various Renaissance movements is the idea of spiritual as well as bodily renewal – of a rediscovered pleasure in life. That the world is wider, that deeply embedded ideas or legends that had hitherto been held regarding the geography of the universe, had to be jettisoned, is revealed by new instruments of knowledge. A slow, but inexorable cultural revolution refutes Thomism and Scholasticism, substituting Plato, Cicero and Quintilian with Aristotle. Greek and Hebrew, while not replacing Latin, flank a Latin that is closer to its classical splendour than to medieval Latin, a more adroitly chiselled Latin like the one used in such works as Thomas More’s Utopia and Bacon’s Instauratio Magna (1620). The four main scientific figures of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries – Copernicus, Kepler, Galilei and Newton – and the research they carried out, taught the world of their time that the skies had to be remapped. The great explorers returned from the Americas, their ships groaning with minerals like gold, which in a very short time enriched the exploiters and

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the colonizers. Ingots of ‘New World’ gold were brought to England by Philip II when he sought the hand of the Catholic Mary Tudor. The English sixteenth-century literary system is automatically related – as regards its proportions – to the adoption of printing and the increase of literacy, followed by a growing demand for various types of literature from readers outside the limited court circles. Books were published in ever-growing numbers. All this is true, although poetry – reborn – was still mostly read from handwritten manuscripts in private circles. The very mechanisms of the fruition circuit were still, during Elizabeth’s reign, not those of today; neither, however, were they those of yesteryear. The lack of a regular book sales regime was compounded by the lack of author copyrights. Printing remained the monopoly of the Stationers’ Company until 1557, subjected to the approval either by an archbishop or by the Privy Council. Catholic or Protestant pamphlets could be only published clandestinely by fraudulent printers at great risk, as they were often beheaded. Depending on the importance or type of publication, printers produced quarto or folio formats. The categories of writers were many and as varied as the motivations that drove them, but all in all one cannot, as yet, speak of the literary professional, as all writers depended on patronage. Universities did not school and train only priests and clerical candidates, but also publicists and lay candidates for careers as public servants or bureaucrats. In Italy, the courts had been financing artistic production since the fourteenth century, as did the popes and the Papal curia. In 1341 Petrarch had delivered his oration when he was nominated Poet Laureate. If the identifying feature of English humanism was cosmopolitanism, Elizabethan Renaissance became in a way a separate and autonomous artistic civilization, in which mutual exchanges ceased, leading to the consolidation of insularity and isolationism. 6. Compared with the Middle Ages, the English Elizabethan Renaissance – as it is this, in fact, that we are discussing – was, without doubt and at the very least, an era of high literary density and specialization. Erudition is not subject to discrimination and women take part in the literary composition mania. Literary salons were born.5 Poetry matured 5

This extension of the Elizabethan canon chiefly concerns three female poets, promoted nowadays by feminist critical esteem to primary roles. Aemilia Lanyer (1569–1645), née Bassano, whose Italian, musical, converted Jewish or exiled Protestant family

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first and then drama, but drama would come to be valued more highly. Only inventive prose languished and limped, crawling and suffocated. These are, however, returning cycles, and drama enjoyed its prolonged zenith for seventy years. Drama flourished disregarding the Aristotelian rules approved by Sidney, which demanded spatial and temporal coherence; it then branched out into differing types, such as revenge tragedies, comedies, domestic dramas, interludes with songs and colloquial banter. The aesthetic rules governing drama were affected by a pact between academic taste (and the objective of pleasing the good palates) and the needs of popular entertainment. The momentum given to poetry was provided by the new translations, as in the Middle Ages, but conducted now on a wider choice of classics: Ariosto, the Aeneid, Plutarch, Ovid’s Metamorphoses. One of the most important was the translation of Montaigne by Florio (1603), which instilled a meditative attitude to life and even mental quibbling in the pragmatic English readers.6 All the poetic genres were culti-

6

had settled in England during the reign of Henry VIII, after various amorous incidents was the first female poet to be published in English history. Her Salve Deus Rex Judeorum (1611) is a re-enactment of the Passion in a feminist key, to which one must add a significant ‘Apologia for Eve’. A little descriptive poem of hers, which portrays the countryhouse of Cookham where she had been a guest of the Countess of Cumberland, recalls Jonson’s ‘To Penshurst’ and possibly preceded it. A niece of Sidney, revered by Jonson himself as his inspiring muse and dedicatee of his compositions, Mary Wroth (1587-ca. 1651) published a torrential version, with inverted gender roles, of Sidney’s Arcadias (Urania, in which the protagonist is the writer’s other self, known as Pamphilia), to which was added a collection of over 100 compositions (mostly sonnets), profoundly revisionist albeit not overly original, in the Petrarchan tradition. The Tragedy of Mariam (1613) by Elizabeth Cary (ca. 1585–1639) links up thematically with Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi because of the sacrificial protagonist. Cary was dazzlingly erudite and a savant, but her passionate life, as wife and mother of eleven children, is even more celebrated. Six of her children were directed by her towards Catholicism, to which she had been converted in 1626, paradoxically by reading that Bible of Anglicanism, Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. The translation of the Cortegiano, by Sir Thomas Hoby, was published in 1561; that of Guazzo’s Civile Conversazione by George Pettie in 1586. George Fenton and William Painter translated Italian novellas, chiefly those by Bandello, and Guicciardini’s historical work, partly filtering them through French translations. Du Bartas’s Huguenot religious epic, translated freely by Joshua Sylvester (1563–1618), became very widely known, influencing Milton as well. As regards the classics, the three

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vated by the Elizabethans, from the serious to the comic, tragic, elegiac, lyrical, satirical, pastoral, heroic, and in the most varied prosodic forms. Extremisms also affected the great stylistic debates, for instance between the upholders of Euphuism and of the multiplication of tropes or figurative language, of academic and bombastic style on the one side and of the plain or aphoristic style associated with Seneca’s writings on the other. The Elizabethan Renaissance is the first English historical age to be culturally self-aware. Throughout the century, debates continued regarding the conventions and registers of spoken and written language, especially in metaliterary forms, and with protagonists who exemplify such positions on the stage. One branch of Elizabethan literature and drama elaborates on the awareness of the dominant role of the English language in its fluidity and in the range of its stylistic possibilities. Puttenham and Sidney are the first English literary critics. The theme of madness, and the carnivalesque, which also emerge, are a precocious consequence of an anticlassical trend, or the typical production of antibodies within the very body of classicism. The variety of Renaissance expression is reflected in popular and alternative art forms that appear beneath the disapproving gaze of the Puritans, and emerges in books and almanacs (as in The Cobbler of Canterbury produced in 1590), in folklore, in the May games, and in the ballads on the ever-recurring myths of Robin Hood, Sir Isumbras, or St George. Yuri Lotman’s typological theories have by now become indispensable to the study of every literary civilization or cultural type, in order to identify the centrifugal or centripetal thrusts in each separate case, as all cultural models are ultimately unstable and all, in varying degrees, contaminations of types. In Tudor times, medieval, ‘symbolic’ codes of harmony and hierarchic order7 coexist with successive thrusts that attempt to give value to

7

main Elizabethan undertakings were Chapman’s translations of Homer’s epics (§ 110.1), Arthur Golding’s translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives. Both of the latter became inexhaustible sources of inspiration for the nascent drama. Or the ‘scale of being’, in E. W. Tillyard’s The Elizabethan World Picture, London 1943; this scale can for instance be seen in a famous diagram of the macrocosm and of the microcosm by Robert Fludd (1619).

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concrete, practical, material realities: a universe that – after 1603 – can be more efficiently described as a discordia concors. § 37. English humanism and the Renaissance II: Forms, reception and genetic and historical theories The fortunes of the Elizabethan age1 declined with late seventeenthcentury classicism and in the age of scientism, which chiefly assaulted its drama. Bacon adopted rigorous philosophical arguments to distance himself from an era that was obsessed by words, rather than things, and completely immersed in rhetoric. And, as we shall see, he had hit the nail on the head, at least in diagnosing the situation. His attitude blended in with the post1660 Frenchified neoclassical aesthetics, when the Elizabethan period began to be viewed as an essentially romantic-barbarian era, to use a somewhat later definition. The nadir of Elizabethanism straddles the seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries. But Shakespeare, the barbarian, is saved, as he is adapted and, for that very reason, preserved.2 Having explored the first stage of the reception of the Renaissance phenomenon, the scholar is able to observe that, as regards the fairly varied Elizabethan flowering, all critical appraisals lumped everything together and concentrated exclusively on drama. The ‘golden age’ epithet, which I have called proverbial, soon assumed ironic and slightly contemptuous undertones. During the eighteenth century, two factions confronted each other, the nostalgic Tory faction and the progressive Whig sympathizers. The latter continued, unlike their opponents, to define the typical Elizabethan man (or woman) of letters as a barbarian. Everything is relative as, in actual fact, these men and women of letters stood out in their times by virtue of the vast and refined culture they had amassed. Towards the end of the eighteenth century the balance was broken and taste started veering towards the romantic, Gothic, magical and arcane aspects of the sixteenth century. Scott reconstructed, as if in a ground-plan, Kenilworth, the manor house in which the gorgeous Elizabethan festivities took place, and mimicked the archaic language. The

1 2

Summarized for instance in a vigorous depiction by F. Marenco, in MAR, vol. I, 295–326. This is discussed in greater detail in my Shakespeare volume (§ 2.2).

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Romantic critics poured out praise for the fullness, sense of totality and complexity of the Renaissance. Schlegel lauded its ‘organic form’ while Coleridge dwelt on its ‘correct and natural language’; and Wordsworth stressed its purity and primitive qualities. Shakespeare was valued above any neoclassical author. Ironic dissent regarding the triumphant canonization of the Renaissance were only visible in Peacock’s bizarre essay on the ‘four ages of poetry’. The paean of praise was upheld, however, by De Quincey, Carlyle and Hazlitt. This period also witnessed Taine and Symonds (who both shared the law of artistic evolution, expressed by means of a vegetation metaphor), Matthew Arnold – who first discredited and then readmitted the Elizabethans – and Swinburne. 2. Pro-Renaissance triumphalism oozes from every line in Taine’s long exposé, written during the nineteenth-century positivist period.3 Art reflects factual reality, and imagination models itself on the state of society; so a wealthy society has, as its prerogative, a wealthy art-form. When an empty and sclerotized ideal declines, the old love for pagan values is normally revivified. Where unhappiness rules – said Taine, causing one to recall Marx’s dictums – one turns for comfort to another sphere. The Middle Ages ended at the same time the era of danger at sight, despatched thanks to greater physical safety and to the citizen’s increased personal security. Taine exaggerates and falsifies reality, however, when he evokes a sinful era devoted to the abstract cult of classicism, and most significantly postpones the Reformation to a later chapter, without providing or prefiguring connecting links between the two moments or poles of the sixteenth century. He unhesitatingly defends the Renaissance against the Middle Ages, but he is also a Lutheran and at heart a Puritan who describes Italian corruption and dissolute behaviour at the beginning of the sixteenth century with the same scandal as an Englishman. A moral and historical mechanism ordered that such a disgraceful state of affairs should be put a stop to or that the healthy cells be extracted and tempered by other, equally healthy ones. Taine’s comparison between Dürer and Raphael is too clear-cut, made as it is to underline medieval indifference to the beauty of the body.4 Taine 3 4

TAI, vol. 1, 230ff. A kind of fixation, in Praz, is the distinction between northern Renaissance, which reutilizes Gothic shapes, and continental and southern Renaissance. Northern

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ends by cutting off his nose to spite his face, as Lutheran Reform brought back medieval ideals into fashion, precisely those against which the English Renaissance had risen up. Burckhardt, for his part, called attention to a widespread absence of religious feeling in the Renaissance – which is not the case, at first sight, in the English Renaissance –5 and upheld his thesis of an era of growing individualism, finding that its cause was the overbearing despotism, which although it generated individualistic despots also engendered rebels and resistors who were just as individualistic. The risk was that the cause was being taken for the effect and vice versa, as well as not providing a satisfactory explanation as to why there were so many individualists. Walter Pater used this reasoning to produce his concept of the multi-faceted, versatile Renaissance man. 3. The praise heaped on the Renaissance by the Victorians, by the Decadent movement and by the Edwardians became threadbare and was, over the twentieth century, curtailed, from Modernism onwards. The Victorians did not base their judgements on reasoned and well-founded literary or aesthetic theories. Fairly summary criteria for judgements were originality, the centralization of the subject, a widespread obsession with history, the delusion that the protagonists were living people. An overall view that was very polemical, revisionist, provocative and challenging, and that pitted itself against all the cornerstones normally attributed to the Renaissance, was that of C. S. Lewis’s in about sixty closely printed pages which amount to a small monograph, or pamphlet setting forth a precise and well articulated interpretative proposal.6 It was a tremendous, Occam-like shaving away of repetitive commonplaces and traditional interpretations, and one that naturally, all too often, was too paradoxical not to be attacked. It plunged into the opposite kind of deformation to the

5

6

Renaissance revelled in horror, in putrefying, decaying bodies, which did not relate very well to the ideal of a beautiful, perfect and, above all, living body. Regarding the distorting view of certain scholars who stress the lack of religious feeling during the Renaissance, see the art historian E. Gombrich’s essay, ‘The Renaissance – Period or Movement?’, in Background to the English Renaissance: Introductory Lectures, London 1974, 9–30. Gombrich lays great emphasis, as a matter of fact, on ‘the importance of the religious ingredient’. ELS, 1–65. The whole volume had been compiled from a series of lectures delivered in 1944.

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one into which Taine had fallen, by being too pro-medieval and missing all necessary objectivity. Lewis’s revisionist scrutiny of the basic pivots of the Renaissance movement starts by refuting the fundamental bearing of the heliocentric astronomical theories of Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo, which Lewis states are not in most sixteenth-century writings as important, intrinsic and given for granted as is generally believed. Humanism, he adds, was hostile to science and the Florentine Platonists continued, in fact, to believe in magic and astrology.7 They were moreover superstitious and, in a certain sense, pagan, when they considered the atmosphere peopled by angelic or mildly diabolical presences. Lewis’s second shocking point was that the recent geographical discoveries (which are ‘a record of failures and second bests’) electrified merchants and politicians, but were placidly ignored by the literary world, wherefore references to travels in literature are both rare and haphazard. A lucid analysis is provided, however, for the two key terms, Puritan and humanist, which are nearly always misunderstood or distorted in common parlance. Puritan does not mean ascetic or rigorous, nor does humanist mean the opposite. It must be recalled, with Lewis, that the Puritans originally meant to abolish the institution of episcopacy and remodel the English Church according to Calvin’s instructions addressed to the Church of Geneva, which adhered theologically to justification by faith. The humanists were, on the other hand, the first classical scholars. According to Lewis, this kind of classicism was not the incubator of the great post-1590 literary age. It was the humanists who had dubbed medieval Latin as rude and barbaric. The Middle Ages can even claim first place, compared with the humanists, as regards intrinsic results in the philosophical field. Renaissance Latinists were scholastic and pedantic imitators of a hypothetic Ciceronian style. They posed as cultured men and sought sophistication. Lewis’s final verdict defies diplomacy: there is no expansion or freedom in humanism, which is a philistine and obscurantist movement. He is even more severe concerning the degeneration of classicism in Dryden at the end of the seventeenth century and at the beginning of the eighteenth. Regarding the Puritans, he opines that one is grossly mistaken in thinking that they devoted themselves to mortifying the 7

Gombrich says this too in his essay mentioned in n. 5.

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flesh and embraced renunciation and asceticism: they were very sensual and commended sexually consummated matrimony as much as the Catholics praised virginity. And what about Machiavelli? His only importance was his involvement in the creation of the Machiavellian villain, who is not as statistically frequent as the everyday villain. On page 55, Lewis finally denies the plausibility of Renaissance as a term itself (which he, in fact, never uses), as excessively opaque and subject to distortion of meaning. It is of course true that we owe the coining of this term to the Renaissance men themselves and to their prejudiced historical vision. Thereafter, as if adopting a psychological mechanism that he would probably have detested, Lewis sounds suspicious of any reduction of the term Renaissance within a precise framework, capable of defining the global meaning of the word; and leaves his readers with a plethora of open-ended, irresolvable contradictions or aporias, mistrustful of a, or tout court of any, philosophy of history. 4. A form of resistance against the dualistic or Manichaean attitude which viewed the Renaissance as often taking precedence over the Middle Ages has been that of those who not so much place the beginning of the Renaissance earlier, as place the end of the Middle Ages later. Whereas Trevelyan situated the end of the Middle Ages around the Industrial Revolution, Curtius, with Teutonic thoroughness, identified its exclusively literary, figurative and iconic modes (renaming them ‘schemes’) that lead to the same conclusion from another viewpoint. Tillyard’s8 theses in his The Elizabethan World Picture are two: that Elizabethan literature works and signifies against the backdrop of the conflict between order and disorder, and that this order was conceived in a three-fold figurative manner, that is, as a chain, a series of correspondences and a dance.9 However, this view does not clash with that believed in in the Middle Ages: rather it is an elaboration of it, and Tillyard does not suggest any break but points out a continuum. The Middle Ages and the Renaissance are not for him two counterpoised cultural types, as Lotman would argue about thirty years later. Those components form an isotopy, in the sense that they are echoed 8 9

See § 36.6, n. 7. Orchestra by John Davies (§ 71.2) is considered by Tillyard ‘the perfect epitome of the universe seen as a dance’ (111).

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not only by the most eminent Elizabethan literary protagonists, but also by the less well-known and even by the most obscure. It is a continuum that extends, as Tillyard also holds, well beyond the strictly accepted temporal boundaries of the age, well up to the end of the eighteenth century, when the Enlightenment started to rationalize what had been purely produced by the imagination and, finding it ridiculous, refuted it. In his Social History of Art (1951), Arnold Hauser disagreed with Burckhardt’s definition of the Renaissance as the expression of untrammelled, epicurean individualism, which was a definition coined by the Enlightenment and by liberal Romanticism (accompanied by criticisms levelled at Michelet and Pater). He too saw the Renaissance, from his viewpoint, as a continuation of the Middle Ages and stressed the cult of the organic form, of totality, of the refusal of consequentiality, together with a polarization of social motivations and the birth in Italy of a monetary civilization, as founding aspects of this view. Later Marxists, however, situated a watershed in the Renaissance, pointing to a transition from an organic to a fragmentary history, from faith to materialistic acquisitiveness, from man as fulfilled by his work to man alienated by it, or even from God to one’s inner self. In the last fifty or sixty years, the way the Elizabethan era has been received has got out of hand and it is impossible to even attempt some kind of synthesis, as the most varied ideologies and views clash into each other at ever increasing speed. Some other immediately pre- and post-war tendencies were the hyper-sophisticated linguistic and formalistic analysis of sixteenth-century texts heralded by Empson, the New Criticism, formalism, Marxism and structuralism. The postmodern in which we are living has applied all its correlated and well-known grids to the Elizabethan era as well. At present, the English Renaissance seems to be defined as the era of ‘self-awareness’ and of ‘self-fashioning’, as per a very authoritative book by S. Greenblatt.10 Its episteme is seen to be based on the interpenetration of pragmatism and idealism, or on the macrocosm being reflected by the microcosm and therefore on the principle of universal harmony – which is always somewhat precarious, and thus differs very little from the Baroque concept of discordia concors. 10

§ 56.3 n. 3.

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§ 38. English humanism and the Renaissance III: The arts It would be premature to introduce here a discussion of the interrelations, correlations and repercussions between Elizabethan literature, even in its widest temporal context, and the vicissitudes of European visual arts. England received and re-elaborated the classicist literary culture at almost the same time as the rest of continental Europe, but this did not occur in the pictorial or architectural fields. It was excluded from the immediate developments of the Renaissance and late Renaissance, Baroque and Mannerism, all of which evolved on the Continent but not in England, for the very simple reason that there was no English Counter-Reformation to generate such developments. Holbein, from Germany – the first painter, in actual fact the first and only great artist acquired and adopted by the English up to the Restoration – was thirty years old when he came to England in 1526, recommended by Erasmus; but he had to stop painting holy themes, like the family of the Burgermeister of Basle kneeling in front of the Madonna. Painting and sculpture were hit by an identity crisis after the advent of the Reformation and were the victims of a climate of dissuasion due to the stigma of Papist idolatry which was attributed to paintings of holy persons. What was left, however, was the second natural milieu for painting, the palaces of the nobles. Thus Holbein, who was also hired as a decorator and designer of furniture and jewellery, specialized in the kind of ‘analytical’, impassive, coldly observant portraits of prelates, diplomats, merchants and intellectuals (like Thomas More and Erasmus himself ) and members of the royal family, including Henry VIII and his queens, against single colour backgrounds, or crowded with the bric-à-brac associated with the subject’s role in life.1 At Holbein’s death, no English painting school had been born, so no remarkable painter had emerged, nor were any others invited to Elizabeth’s court. The only indigenous painter to emerge from an anonymous state during Elizabeth’s and James I’s reign was Nicholas Hilliard, whose colouristic traits differ markedly and are almost the opposite of Holbein’s because of their less unctuous consistency 1

If Holbein can boast some special pictorial gift, it is in the way he paints the look and eyes of his subject: sometimes the eyes are questioning, absorbed, lost in reflection, sardonic, disbelieving, glassy, spent, or deliberately torpid, astonished, resigned.

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and pigmentation.2 He handles a different palette. And his ovals, cameos and roundels remind one of sketches or drawings, charcoal or watercolour paintings. He too was a portrait painter and could not have been anything else; his human figures are elegant, thread-like silhouettes, dressed in floral or geometrical patterned clothes, like his Young Man among the Roses, a dainty, young, ‘Sydney-like’ dandy, with his right leg gracefully crossed over his left in close-fitting, beige hose, and whose curly head, nonchalantly leaning against the tree, is too small, compared with the rest of his body. Typical sixteenth-century English art is found rather in the surrogate form of friezes, miniatures, traceries in the battlements of university colleges, in the lesser forms of art in clothes design, dress-making and jewellery, fountains or gardens. During Elizabeth’s reign any major edification of new churches did not take place, as the centre of interest was the residence of the well-to-do, and it was there or in the family chapel of the dissenter that daily religious services or functions took place and the Bible read out. Inigo Jones, an inventive and effective director and scene manager for masques from 1615, became the architect and designer of Palladian-style buildings. A magnificent royal palace, modelled on the Escorial or the Louvre, designed in 1638 for Charles I, was, however, never built, as too expensive. 2. As for music, the situation was totally different, music being one of the most important aspects and metaphors of the Elizabethan philosophy of life. The idea of musical harmony applied both vertically – as an image of the relationship between the micro- and macrocosm (the music of the spheres) – as well as horizontally, as it stood for a peaceful order or hierarchy (the Shakespearean ‘degree’) amongst the various social components and institutions. Architecture, too, was inspired, in its own sense, by musical harmony. At Elizabeth’s death English music had rapidly achieved one of its unrepeatable and most absolute historical peaks, and composers and musicians emigrated to the Continent (like Byrd and Dowland) to teach, instead of merely learning and being tributaries.3 One must remember 2 3

The only sculptor we know much about, who specialized chiefly in funeral monuments, was Epiphanius Evesham. A sign of the times, pointing to a temporary decline, was the passing, over the space of two years, of Orlando Gibbons and Byrd, Gibbons dying in 1625, like James I.

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that there were no religious impediments operating for music, as the new reformed liturgy was in English and musicians could and had to set music to it. The profane use of music became a vital part of court entertainment and both Henry VIII and his daughter Elizabeth (who played the virginals very well) were more than just dilettante musicians. The Chapel Royal, which in Henry VIII’s time boasted a choir of more than fifty cantors plus the young boy singers, gave a decisive impulse to the musical life of the nation. With Anglicanism, sung masses were reduced and sung matins and evensong introduced, along with a new hymnal genre that was dubbed anthem, although the composers floundered around between Catholicism and Anglicanism, trusting in their royal patron’s indulgence, which was nearly always granted. A new series of English compositional genres were born, endowed with very diversified formal features: monodic, polyphonic, solos, accompanied and choral, played on instruments, some of which, in the space of a century, were no longer stable parts of orchestras or chamber groups, such as the recorder, the theorbo or the virginals – that is, the predecessor of the clavichord –4 together with the lute and the viola, the latter being the main instrument used in English Renaissance music. Music benefitted secular poetry and vice versa, due to the symbiosis that grew up between great poets and great musicians, which roles were sometimes played by the same person, as in the case of Thomas Campion. Byrd composed three books of profane songs based on Sidney’s texts, and Thomas Morley set a Shakespearean song to music. Madrigals to be sung unaccompanied by instruments spread throughout England while Monteverdi’s madrigal books became famous.5 English opera was to be born officially in 1656 or in 1683, but the music historian E. Blom says more than once that England

4

The cittern, a kind of lute, as small as a ukulele, was found in barbers’ shops, where clients would play it, while waiting to be served (E. Blom, Music in England, Harmondsworth 1942, 41). 5 Blom, op. cit., 47, mentions the publication, in 1588, of fifty-seven Italian madrigals in Musica transalpina by the English publisher Nicholas Yonge. On the diffusion of Monteverdian declamation and recitative towards the beginning of the seventeenth century (and thanks to the possible contribution of Monteverdi’s pupil, Walter Porter), see Blom, op. cit., 57–8.

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could have claimed the prize as the founding nation for opera, if only the theatres had not been monopolized by the playwrights. § 39. More* Humour is not normally the first saintly quality one thinks of, and it is hardly ever what characterizes a martyred saint who ends up on the scaffold, as Thomas More (1477 or 1478–1535 – a Catholic saint after 1935) did. The many biographies written about him by direct witnesses surprisingly depict him as a smiling, witty, somewhat vague, infinitely good-humoured and nonchalantly unconcerned person. More seems to have seen life as a divine joke, in which he knowingly played out his part. That his life had been a comedy or a tragicomedy, was immediately perceived by the anonymous playwright who was the author of Sir Thomas More, written, even if not produced, during the last ten years of the sixteenth century. This play, which is the object of hot debates between scholars and philologists (as one of the *

Complete Works, various editors, 15 vols, New Haven, CT 1963–1997, replaces all preceding editions, ancient and/or modern. Selected Writings, ed. J. Thornton and S. Varenne, New York 2003. The first biography, written by More’s son-in-law, W. Roper (Paris 1626), which started off the cult tribute to the saint’s relics, was judged by Chambers 1935, listed below, as ‘the most perfect little biography in the English language’ (BAUGH, vol. II, 338). It was followed by the Latin biography by T. Stapleton in 1558 (translated into English as The Life and Illustrious Martyrdom of Sir Thomas More, London 1928). R. W. Chambers, Thomas More, London 1935; J. H. Hexter, More’s Utopia: The Biography of an Idea, Princeton, NJ 1952, E. E. Reynolds, Sir Thomas More, London 1965, Thomas More and Erasmus, London 1965, and The Field is Won: The Life and Death of Saint Thomas More, London 1968; Twentieth Century Interpretations of Utopia, ed. W. Nelson, Englewood Cliffs, NJ 1968; A. Fox, Thomas More: History and Providence, New Haven, CT 1983; G. M. Logan, The Meaning of More’s Utopia, Princeton, NJ 1983; R. Marius, Thomas More: A Biography, New York 1984; L. Martz, Thomas More: The Search for the Inner Man, New Haven, CT 1990; P. Ackroyd, The Life of Thomas More, London 1998; J. Guy, Thomas More, London 2000. A large number of early twentieth-century Italian critics showed a foreseeably keen interest in More, such as A. Castelli with two books, Sugli scritti di San Tommaso Moro and San Tommaso Moro e l’umanesimo inglese, both published in Milano 1946. See also Lettere di Tommaso Moro, edited by Castelli and re-edited by F. Rognoni, Milano 2008, with a substantial introduction (9–49) on the most recent directions taken by More’s critics.

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scenes could have been written by Shakespeare)1 does nonetheless justice to the dramatic character, in its strictest dramaturgical sense, of the life of the saint. More could have effectively become a playwright. He had been, like Shakespeare, an actor for some time and a playwright, possessing the necessary talent for it, since, as is said, he had belonged in his boyhood to John Morton, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s circle, where the pupils used to amuse each other by improvising plays. As his first biographer reports, More would join these companies and, without having studied the part, would take the stage and improvise, arousing the onlookers’ admiration. Reaching later adolescence, youth and his early manhood years, More had, perforce, to put this pastime aside. He was Linacre’s and Grocyn’s student at Oxford, then read law in London (he was the son of a lawyer), but also the author of ‘short plays’; and he weighed the possibility of taking orders as a Carthusian monk, but eventually accepted Colet’s advice and married. It is emblematic that – as it were, according to a Restoration comedy – he chose the elder of two sisters, although in love with the younger, so as not to hurt the elder sister’s feelings. He became a member of Parliament in 1504, encouraged Henry VII to adopt policies in favour of dispossessed farmers and overtaxed subjects, and objected to the payment of the dowry of the king’s daughter, who was to be married to the Scottish king, being made by the tax-payers. More’s father was briefly imprisoned at the Tower and Thomas prudently judged it best to withdraw from public life. Henry VIII, however, started to take a liking to him and called him to court, exhorting him to fight against Luther’s and Tyndale’s ‘pestilential sect’. Their friendship was dissolved by More’s intransigent views concerning the independence of the clergy from political power. He renounced his Chancellorship in 1532, and in 1534 was subjected to interrogation at Lambeth Palace regarding the Act of Supremacy, which he refused to sign although his wife begged him to give it his formal assent. He was imprisoned for fifteen months in the Tower of London and was beheaded a few days after the execution 1

Go also to TLS, 27 July 2012, 24–5, and see Volume 2, § 49.1, for Shakespeare’s collaboration as an author. Neither should one forget the play on More written in the twentieth century by Robert Bolt, A Man for all Seasons, an epithet used by one of More’s contemporaries to indicate what I have just said, his changing humours.

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of another martyr, John Fisher. During the last hours of his life he wrote messages to his daughter using pieces of coal on scraps of paper. His death could have been dramatized by a master of macabre humour, evoking the vigils preceding public executions, like Shakespeare. His bantering request, addressed to the executioner, Sir William Kingston, as he clambered onto the swaying scaffold, is legendary: ‘I pray you, I pray you, Mr Lieutenant, see me safe up and for my coming down I can shift for myself ’. 2. Most of More’s works, owing to his own high public offices, are of a theological, historical, polemical or controversial nature. A biography of Pico della Mirandola was translated by him into Latin and into English from the original Italian penned by the nephew of the (adoptive) Florentine. More also compiled a history of Richard III and Henry V, edited an anthology of Greek poets which he translated with William Lyly; above all, if we view things in perspective, he Englished with Erasmus some passages from Lucian’s dialogues. All of these are secondary literary labours, except for the fragmentary (and not unconditionally attributed to him) Richard III. The majority of More’s writings, including his Utopia, are in fact in Latin. This takes us back to our starting point, as More’s works always involve a polyglot, punning, etymologically sourced subtext. More, as well as Erasmus, was exhilarated by the novel possibilities afforded by ancient languages, those of playing with parts and fragments of words, which could be freely detached, separated, recomposed and above all joined together. Before his fortieth year More had already given proof of his eclectic interests and of his ventures into the spheres of eccentric or extravagant literature.2 His Utopia itself is a jest, a fantasy and a semidramatic text, in which More, or one might say one More, envisages another self and, as if he were not himself, watches him taking part in a learned discussion. Erasmus’ most famous work was written in More’s house and moria is the Greek and Latin word for Folly; but More is also Morus, that is, a ‘madman’. Utopia must earn its place in the canon of a History of English Literature, both because of its 2

Among More’s not very many poems there is a lament (in the first person, as if from the grave) of Elizabeth, Henry VII’s consort, and a verse tale ‘of the officer of the judiciary who wanted to become a friar’, the subject of which vaguely reminds one of one of Chaucer’s fabliaux, and, in the versification, closely recalls Skelton.

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literary significance in the immediately successive translation (1551) into English by the London goldsmith Ralph Robynson, as well as because it was an unavoidable step in the spiritual development of the nation; and because it is one of the first ‘banquets of languages’. More was bilingual in the same way that Beckett and James Joyce would be, and this is shown by the edition of Pico’s life, with the original text printed opposite his English translation; only a small detail prevented him, probably, from providing his opus maius with a translation printed opposite. 3 As it was translated by a contemporary, we can at least call it an Anglo-Latin work, in the same way as Beckett’s works are Anglo-French or Franco-English. The life of Richard III was translated by More himself, from Latin into English. I therefore disagree with the purists, who, in a strangely shortsighted fashion, severely dismiss Utopia in a few lines inasmuch as written in Latin, reserving some moderate praise for the history of Richard III – which however, they add, always loses ground when compared with Berners’s or Fisher’s historical works. 3. On More qua creative writer, therefore, literary critics are reticent, while historians decline to delve further into the subject – not only because his complete works are frightening and unmanageable in quantitative terms, and not only because they are weighed down by outdated controversies and mostly in Latin to boot. His English writings themselves fail by common consent – including his Catholic and Anglo-Catholic supporters – owing to intrinsic literary and stylistic defects. He was a multifaceted writer, but – in the words of C. S. Lewis – none of these facets approached perfect expression. Now, the idea of a More impersonating a variety of roles, an actor therefore, and one capable of showing the reader, by means of his written words, different sides and aspects of a polyhedron – and at the same time the alternation of seriousness and jocularity as if in a ‘composite’ or modular art – was put forward over half a century ago in the superb, passionate, very detailed treatment by C. S. Lewis himself in his history of sixteenth-century literature.4 Here Lewis examines More’s 3 4

I refer of course to his death: ELS, 170, holds, however, that he did not want it translated, as he had gradually changed his mind, especially regarding tolerance. ELS, 165–81.

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English works, plus Utopia and part of the Richard III biography, one of whose assets, despite several defects, is for him ‘a sense of tragedy and a sense of humour’. Lewis also observes that Utopia was already considered primarily as a comic text by Erasmus and other contemporaries. If it is an inventive text, if it is fiction, it is not a serious work, nor a serious philosophical treatise. Here we have the first instance of a composite art, as Utopia displays its comic and its serious elements, which, in turn, have to be scrutinized to ascertain their levels of seriousness. Lewis was the first to unearth this subterranean current in the text, the continual and imperceptible oscillations of register, swaying from extreme seriousness to broad facetiousness, and thus switching from the heuristic to the jesting mode. He rightly detects a contradiction in this type of literary statute. Tolerance as a rule of life and as ideological position would cease to be More’s main virtue after Utopia; however the work was written before events urged him to adjust his thought, instilling therein an unexpected turn towards authoritarianism. Utopia is More’s culminating literary achievement, but Lewis shows it to be so by delving punctiliously into the deficiencies of his other polemical and devotional works, in which the writer appears to change personality, so to speak, or, rather, to bring to the fore different aspects of his self – which, however, were not as developed as his humorous vein. One finds that it is always his humorous elements and infiltrations that act as yeast in a rather arid, dull text. It is his ‘merry tales’ and their comical anecdotal interpolations that win one over. Even pure controversy is organized in dramatically structured dialogue form, which includes humorous twists in order to achieve the kind of concrete representation that More was a past master at. He was, as I have already mentioned, an innately theatrical animal. Lewis accurately and punctiliously identifies and extracts the dramatic elements in More’s minor works that emerge, please and make an impression, as in the representation of purgatorial torments (in which he characteristically adopts a serious mien, albeit spiced with terrifying and grotesque comedy). However, Lewis ruthlessly demolishes More’s voluminous apologetic works,5 composed a few months before 5

More falls into the same argumentative trap that he criticized in the first book of Utopia regarding the debate between Hythlodaeus and the other contender: he always

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his death, except for the anecdotes, which are always fresh, as it was in the latter that the writer’s true talent lay. To conclude this premise, one can agree with Lewis that More is one of the many English humorists, even one of the most vulgar, one of those sometimes dubbed ‘cockney humorists’, who delighted in hurling streams of insults; and we are only surprised that Lewis makes no mention of Skelton and only should hint at the Marprelate Tracts and Nashe. 4. Utopia, edited by Erasmus (under the heading of De optimo reipublicae statu deque nova insula Utopia), was published in Latin in Louvain in 1516, seven years after Henry VIII came to the throne. By writing in such an elitist language More, then undersheriff or municipal court judge, was naturally addressing the intelligentsia and the courtly circles. The choice of language arose from desire to persuade and admonish, though the purport of the book was firmly critical towards certain national directives. By the time it was translated into English in 1551, its function had become somewhat bitterly nostalgic. In the meantime, German, French and Italian translations had been published. In 1516 Utopia was the latest in a series of European tutorial or advisory writings (two of the most recent were written by Francesco Patrizi and Giovanni Pontano), addressed to the ruler by his tutor or by his first councillor. It belonged to the category of manuals of manners, of duties, of commandments, compiled and offered to the sovereign since Chaucer’s times. The English name that first comes to mind is that of Hoccleve. Machiavelli’s Prince had added to the series, and provoked other treatises of impassioned dissuasion, two by Elyot and by Erasmus. In More’s case, however, the radical innovation was the use of a language ad usum delphini, or an oratio obliqua. In 1516, or shortly beforehand, the emergency had not yet arisen and More, who was still serene, could indulge in utile dulci miscere (or, as he writes in a note for the first edition, in ‘amusing while instructing’, or in the salutaris and festivus). The diatribe is enclosed in Utopia within a frame and masked by a game, a refined, ‘humanistic’ game, a game that is played with a language that had just been learnt and had been enriched by fanciful and macaronic sums up every single point put forward by the opposing side, so as to confute them more thoroughly.

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neologisms (which it lent itself to), with More as if inviting his learned friends to take pleasure in deciphering them. The Utopian language is supposed to derive from the Persian (the Utopians’ God is called Mithras), but the fact that the Utopians become Greek scholars and study Greek literature proves that the germ has ripened and is the sign of a profitable historical continuum. The inventor of science fiction and of travel accounts to imaginary dream worlds is Lucian of Samosata, and More is certainly familiar with his writings; he imitates Plato’s dialogue format in his discourses, but inserts echoes of the first explorers’ accounts and above all of Vespucci’s four reports. Utopia is obviously a key point, or alpha for all the successive, multifarious and very popular and polyglot literature on the inevitable degeneration of actual societies, despite the purity of the original design. 5. The argumentative contents is the result of a kind of dissimulated mimetic situation. More had been in Antwerp in 1515 on a diplomatic mission, when in the company of a local friend, as he says, he had spotted a wrinkled, bearded Portuguese navigator outside a church. He immediately seeks him out and becomes acquainted with him, and an exchange of opinions ensues. Pressed by More’s questions, the sailor proves to be a scholarly, balanced and provocative philosopher or student of politics. Such a structural device, of a text within a text, will function up to the end of the work, with an oscillation between exhibited mimetic episodes and formalization, that is, between quotations from the mariner in inverted commas and the comments by the initial narrator – More himself. More is reporting another person’s statements, opinions and yarns, inserting fairly non-committal, phatic comments, and rare signs of approval, and exploiting the same kind of play – play on the margins of the problematic reliability of the monologuer – that we shall find in Browning. He does not deliver unmistakable first-person messages, but makes them relative and disputable by means, for instance, of unsophisticated argumentations, or by distancing himself occasionally from a certain statement. The imprudence of sentences such as ‘More thinks that’, ‘More approves’ and others was habitual in critical literature on Utopia up to a short time ago. The work ends in an ‘open’ fashion, with More confessing that he is unable to share everything that Hythlodaeus has stated. Divided into two books, Utopia

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is in the first – which, as written later, was added as a preamble – a document of enormous importance, as historians use it to prove, thanks to a witness like More, the repercussions of the forced eviction of the farming population from the countryside, due to the conversion of arable land into pasture, and the consequent enrichment of the cattle and sheep owners, or producers and weavers of woollen cloth, and the expulsion from the land of farm labourers and hunger-struck farm-hands, who could find no way of procuring food save by stealing. These were harshly punished by penalties that could even include death. Hythlodaeus approves and recommends a first series of tolerant measures by applying a pre-Foucaultian kind of critique.6 Stealing must be prevented, not punished after the crime; and, in any case, penalties should be mild, as the thieving is caused by force majeure. What else are these farm labourers to do, if they are dying of hunger and nobody does anything about it? The first book closes with Hythlodaeus’s bitterly sceptical doubt as to whether any efficient improvements can be implemented, in view of the national monarchies’ policies, to which he adds a passionate plea to the king, begging him to favour and guarantee his subjects’ welfare, instead of behaving like a rapacious bird of prey, tearing the flesh from their bones. At this point, we are already induced to realize that Hythlodaeus is not merely voicing More’s own enlightened, balanced views.7 Those of Hythlodaeus are, in fact, only presented as one of the possible solutions to the problem. He is the detached, disenchanted, frankly 6

7

Some statements are reactionary and not much thought through, while others are prodigious intuitions, giving proof of a social awareness that was only to appear centuries later. More, sounding – here at least – as a morally non-dogmatic Catholic, has Hythlodaeus admit divorce in the case of incompatibility between spouses, suicide in the case of incurable diseases, and religious tolerance. Women are allowed to join the clergy. Not for nothing does Hythlodaeus etymologically mean ‘blusterer’ or ‘fibber’. More the parodist was probably parodied by Joyce in the sixteenth episode of Ulysses. More is like a Stephen to whom a Bloom (Peter Giles) introduces an exotic and eloquent narrator of nautical adventures; in that sixteenth episode Joyce’s Murphy is a fountain of boastful, inaccurate words, as Hythlodaeus’ partly are. The latter is purposely compared to Ulysses in the text, and he knows Greek. Scylla and the Laestrygonians are also mentioned.

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pessimistic outsider, and the object of an implied criticism because he abandons ship during a storm – and does not act, but merely complains and demolishes.8 6. In Utopia the argumentative core is, naturally, the second book, which, with a continuing semblance of diegesis (the post-prandial conversation in the garden), and now in the form not of a dialogue but of a Platonic monologue, recounts Hythlodaeus’ voyage to Utopia. The last words of the first book act as prelude to the second, when the need to abolish private property and bring about equality is blatantly proclaimed. The characteristics of Utopia are those of a restored, renovated, dream-like England. One must remember that nobody, in 1516, could have imagined that English economy would develop on an industrial level. Utopia has an agricultural economy, but the wearisome task of working the fields is not for a person’s whole life, but must be carried out by all citizens in rotation; after a certain time – two years – the farm labourers move to the towns to attend to intellectual activities. Power is in the hands of an elected governor, assisted by a council of wise men who can be deposed only if they are certifiably recognized as tyrants. All posts last for a year only. In all present or future utopias one of the basic principles is that an indestructible and perfect harmony prevails among all the subjects, and that what is described and experimented is Leibniz’s best of all possible worlds. In Utopia and in all future utopian writers this is possible because tasks and duties are harmoniously shared, profit-making and greed are eliminated and a welfare state has been created. One could however object: how far is the sharing of tasks a free and joyous personal choice and how far is it the result of coercion? Moreover, why should an intellectual caste be exempted from manual work? Utopia is a regime that is obliged to remedy the minor disadvantages of autarchy, ensuring demographic balance by colonization. All post-More utopias would agree in condemning the disastrous consequences of adopting a monetary economy, inasmuch as it is recognized as the starting point for the automatic separation of the haves from the have-nots. A key point, after More, was to return to a society 8

He thus masks the dilemma, between the contemplative and the active life, which haunted continental humanism.

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with no currency or circulating coinage. All the various goods, produced daily by families, are brought to the market, at the centre of each of the fifty-five Utopian towns, and are re-distributed, providing each family with their daily requirements without the exchange of monetary payments. By concentrating all the community’s efforts, communal mess-halls are set up and, as regards provisions for the public health, the sick are lovingly cared for in the hospitals. Nobody works for more than six hours a day, which is possible if everybody works and everyone struggles to eradicate idleness; the rest of the day is dedicated to rest and reading. 7. As Hythlodaeus continues to describe this perfect state, we learn more about how the whole organism functions. Justice? There is practically no need for a judicial apparatus, although the penalty for anyone breaking the law of one for all and all for one, is slavery, that is, the deprivation of one’s freedom.9 The criticism one could level at any future Utopia is the precautionary elimination of any possible dissent, as well as of the custom of ignoring the fact that projects elaborated on a theoretical basis are sometimes difficult to put into practice. All Utopias are basically similar and, if anything, strike us because of some of their more fantastical distortions, as in the case of the master of this kind of exploit, Samuel Butler, followed by H. G. Wells, almost four centuries later. One of the most curious and sardonically witty innovations, is the reversal in Utopia of the value of precious metals, such as silver and gold, in favour of iron: nature is supposed to have wisely concealed under the earth, at unreachable depths, what is unusable and of no value. Utopians have thus clearly understood that gold is trinket material or vile metal, and they have used it, as a countermeasure, to make urinals or the chains of slaves. The second, surprising, imaginative variant concerns marriage. More says, or gets Hythlodaeus to say, that all marriages are successful in Utopia, and that, if incompatibility is revealed or matures, divorce is permitted. Before marriage, the custom is for the two future spouses to show themselves to each other, naked, in order to check whether their bodies conceal some kind of malformation

9

The enlightened More cannot quite get to the point of reversing this remnant of a conservative ideology.

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or other trait displeasing to one or the other.10 The closing pages are dedicated to war and religion. Utopia is against war, as a system and offensive means of annexing colonies; war is only admissible for protective ends and as legitimate defence.11 More’s tolerance manages to get Hythlodaeus to say that all religions have a common origin, as they recognize a divine, provident creator, a moral law and some future prize for a virtuous life, in afterlife. The Utopians are not totally unaware of a revealed faith, of which Hythlodaeus has been the carrier and missionary. When he departs, Utopia is in the process of becoming Christian, like many of the colonies, in which Christianity merged with the native religions.12 As a true humanist, dissociating himself from the widespread polemic against the clergy, More imagines a fairly restricted caste of upright, honourable priests.13 At any rate, life’s objective, in Utopia, is ‘honest and decent pleasure’ (which does not exclude the frankly corporal and physiological pleasures, such as evacuating, copulating and scratching oneself ). Any unnecessary privation is ‘extreme folly’. § 40. Conduct books* Nowadays we would not define political treatises, handbooks of rhetoric, or the instructions for the use of any manual or mechanical instrument, 10 11

12 13

The island itself, in very ancient times, used to be part of a continent, but the founder of Utopia had a fifteen mile wide channel dug, to separate Utopia from the mainland forever. The Zapoletes are the Swiss mercenaries, whom Utopians charge with their bloody wars, also involving ethnic cleansing. Money and monetary economy are unknown in Utopia: money, accumulated in neighbouring countries, is set aside to pay mercenaries and to foment wars between evil populations. Utopian priests, therefore, wear copes made out of multi-coloured birds’ feathers. The lawyer’s profession is banned and everybody defends him/herself.

* Elyot’s The Governor, ed. H. H. S. Croft, 2 vols, London 1880, and, with modernized spelling, ed. S. E. Lehmberg, London 1907, 1962. S. E. Lehmberg, Sir Thomas Elyot, Tudor Humanist, Austin, TX 1960; J. M. Major, Sir Thomas Elyot and Renaissance Humanism, Lincoln, NE 1964. Works by Ascham, ed. J. A. Giles, 4 vols, London 1864–1865; English works only, ed. W. Aldis Wright, Cambridge 1904, 1970. Edition with modernized spelling of The Schoolmaster, ed. L. V. Ryan, Charlottesville, VA

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or even a guide to some kind of sport, as literary productions, save in a few isolated and indirect cases. We can and must do it when dealing with sixteenth-century English culture for reasons that are intrinsic to the development of the literary language. When we analyse the literature of this century, the traditional items pertaining to prose production, such as fiction, are absent. And we only find prose employed for instrumental ends. Sixteenth-century treatises, however, gradually build up the vernacular, thanks to which narrative prose itself will flow into action, when Lyly and Nashe will compose their first inventive plots, introducing the short story and the novel in prose (only Malory had previously used prose and not verse to compose his romances). Before 1570, having already considered More, there are four main prose-writers, who all agree as to the inferiority and shortcomings of the English language as an expressive medium, and are animated by the courage to deal unflinchingly with the problem. What they share is that they are all linguists, lexicographers, rhetoricians, educators and pedagogues who reflect in their works in English the search for a modern, flexible, refined means of expression. Elyot is the first to confront a situation that had faced Italian writers over two centuries earlier. Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio also wrote their dissertations and erudite or theoretic treatises in Latin, sometimes using it to write to their learned colleagues, whilst they used the vulgar tongue for poetry and short stories. English writers had to choose between two main alternatives: whether to make English more or less Latinized. In the first case, one injects new words, inasmuch as English is recognized as being insufficient and one stuffs it with Latinisms. In the second, opposite, case, one adopts the basic historical and recurring dodge, dating back to Pecock and being adopted as late as the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by Doughty, of Anglicizing most of the remaining Latin words that had managed to penetrate the English language. A certain confusion as to objectives, or

1967, 1974. L. V. Ryan, Roger Ascham, Stanford, CA 1963; G. Miglior, Roger Ascham. La dottrina umanistica inglese e la sperimentazione nella prosa letteraria intorno alla metà del Cinquecento, Bari 1975. On the fortunes of the literature of the English gentleman in this period, see R. Kelso, The Doctrine of the English Gentleman in the Sixteenth Century, Urbana, IL 1929, 1956.

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simply because of real difficulties in achieving a balance, causes the language that describes these processes to be tortuous and contrary to the proclaimed premises, inasmuch as it was mostly either excessively Latinate or irritatingly artificial. Put simply, by fighting against Euphuism (a style that did not officially exist yet) they were the first to be trapped by it. Absolute purists challenged moderate purists. Sir John Cheke (1514–1557), the first Regius professor of Greek at Cambridge, was Ascham’s tutor at that university. He was preceptor and Secretary of State for an adamantly Protestant Edward VI, and thus suffered under Mary and, after various vicissitudes, was forced to abjure. He nonetheless possessed an unalterable sense of the state’s stability, which overrode all confessional partisan manoeuvring. One of his English works is a treatise in which he opposes any kind of political renewal, as well as a vibrant condemnation of Kett’s uprising in Kent. As a linguistic reformer, and as a grammarian, he achieved fame for having suggested a number of bizarre spellings, dictated by somewhat incomplete purism, and for having designed a new pronunciation system for the Greek language. A rhetorical manual by Sir Thomas Wilson (ca. 1525–1581), published in 1553 and in 1560 and reprinted several times, admits and utilizes certain Latinisms with one hand, whilst he condemns others with the other. He fled the country during Mary’s reign, and was captured in Rome by the Inquisition. 2. The assignment from which the above-mentioned treatises stemmed was that of the preceptor, tutor, counsellor, royal secretary or university professor. The composition of manuals was a habit that England had acquired since Alfred the Great’s time and was also a feature of European medieval literature, but the Elizabethan age was even more pedagogic and teacheroriented. Every sphere of human activity obeyed its own rules, which had to be drawn up and painstakingly explained. Every sphere fell within a hierarchy of diversely praiseworthy occupations. It often occurred that some unrecognized or despised activity would be defined absolutely indispensable, whilst another would be declared less important or even cancelled. In reality, the main objective – from More to Elyot to Ascham – did not change, it was only shifted. More thought that it was necessary to found a perfect community and he imagined it; Elyot and Ascham felt that it was vital to act on the cause and not on the effect and that one had to forge the kind of gentleman or class or caste of gentlemen who should constitute the

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human force of a healthy, regenerated, central or decentralized administration. It was still a Utopia. The axiom everybody shared was: tell me what you read and I’ll tell you who you are. The Elizabethan pedagogues were de-Romanizers, and Ascham delivered the final upper-cut to the knightly tradition (or at least attempted to do so) by basing the educational curriculum purely on classical Greek and Roman literature. Plato had overtaken Aristotle, but it was a wishy-washy kind of Platonism which was reflected in the favourite, maieutic style adopted for philosophical reasoning: a dialogue enabling a person to develop, explore a line of thought and conclude a debate. I have already observed that this kind of prose can be classed as midway between pedagogy and literature. It can, however, be classified as literature when the author expands into illustrative anecdotes, examples or personal memories. The impression of irremediable aridity one might gain from it proves untrue. At least the two main prose writers of this period are rather entertaining, due to certain lovable eccentricities or even for curious and not always innocuous fixations. They resemble each other by being afflicted by bees in their bonnets, and could be defined as Elizabethan eccentrics, much as we shall find Romantic writers with the same kind of idiosyncrasies. 3. The Book Named the Governor1 (1531) by Sir Thomas Elyot (ca. 1490–1546) returned to popularity many centuries later, when the critics of his descendant, T. S. Eliot, pounced on it in search of a quotation they had found in one of the Four Quartets.2 It is a sort of second Utopia, in that it portrays an ideal monarch, an impossible incarnation of the sum total of the most perfect and noble qualities to be encountered in the most enlightened rulers of the ancient past. This treatise thus cautiously

1

2

Or more precisely ‘administrator of the public weal’. An eclectic jurist, who also cultivated his extensive interest in medicine, Elyot was a friend of More’s (in whose dwelling Holbein carried out a number of pencil portrait drawings) and a protégé of Wolsey’s; his career in diplomacy and as an erudite scholar was first hindered and then brought to a grinding halt when the two influential statesmen fell from grace. As a Greek scholar, he was a disciple of Linacre. He translated various works from Greek, composed five Platonic dialogues and a medical treatise, as well as editing the first Latin-English Dictionary in 1538. See Volume 7, § 101.3.

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provided a kind of ‘mirror’ to the monarch Elyot dedicated it to, Henry VIII. It is therefore a strangely abstract manual, and except for the dedication, it never refers to the present, nor does it ever provide actual and contemporary examples, save when Elyot alludes to Henry V’s evolution to maturity from a scapegrace, violent and capricious youth.3 It bears an astonishing resemblance to a manual for spiritual exercises; it dwells in fact on the virtues and practices of self-denial, abstinence, self-control and moderation. St Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises, when one comes to think of it, was written only twenty years later and, on a national level, the explosion of guides to mysticism, which were everywhere to be found throughout the early seventeenth century, was soon to come. A similar ideal gentleman – a concept, shaped by ancient tenets, lay as well as scriptural – was to endure for many generations in English culture. Altogether, the Governor is analytical or, to be precise, repetitive, and therefore excessively lengthy and monotonous. The style is based on the most formal, sustained, Latin prose, stuffed with subordinate clauses, with long paragraphs containing several linked propositions, from which all colloquial traits are banished. It becomes an increasingly imposing heap of medium-long anecdotes, drawn from ancient history, which are supposed to shore up various theoretical axioms. Thus it turns into a kind of predecessor to the mosaic or mass of examples provided by Burton in his Anatomy of Melancholy, which was the result of a similar kind of minute, classical erudition, though inclusive of that of medieval Latin, totally lacking in Elyot’s work. The prose used in the anecdotes is not as rigid and is, indeed, looser, approaching the inventive or semi-inventive one. Its germ is found in a multitude of short anecdotes such as that of Titus and Gisippus, Plautus-like menaechmi4 who stage a small comedy of errors, included to prove the strength of true friendship. 4. The order of the cosmos, as Elyot states at the beginning of the first of his three books, was a divine ‘fiat’. To maintain and respect this order, an orderly state is necessary, which cannot be anything but an enlightened 3 4

It is thought that Shakespeare chiefly based his Henry V on this manual, and on the political considerations that preceded it for the famous speech by Ulysses on ‘degree’. Inspired, in reality, by Decameron, X, 8. Spenser was to echo this episode in the Faerie Queene (IV.10.27).

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monarchy. History is full of examples that teach that monarchy is the most efficient form of government and the most likely to ensure order. The automatic support of any reasoning, for Elyot, is history, and he quotes biblical as well as classical history. He goes on to analyse how a public servant, courtier or bureaucrat should be trained from childhood and adolescence onwards, stating that he must become a complete and perfect gentleman. To achieve this end, he must grow up in a harmonious environment, far from base influences, gradually assimilating the classical canon. As I mentioned, the marriage between Hebraism and Hellenism, which underlies Matthew Arnold’s thought, was already becoming apparent. Elyot advances a specific proposal for every phase of the evolutionary age, but he consistently adopts a didactic tone, as he repeatedly quotes ancient history and every affirmation he makes is supported by succinctly recounted classical instances. Instructions for the formation of a gentleman prescribe a knowledge of languages, of the Greek and Latin canon, and various accomplishments such as the capacity to play some musical instrument and practice the arts. Latin poetry is no more corrupting than a few nettle sprays would be in a grassy meadow. The future bureaucrat, however, must, above all, be well versed in rhetoric and oratory. The decline of history is implicit, for Elyot as for Eliot. The young were not what they had been, anxious to do well and to work for the public good; tutors and educators were mediocre, so Elyot draws up an idealistic prescription for the preparation not of a prince, but of a state bureaucrat, refuting, without any acrimony, Machiavelli’s pragmatic and cynical views. Matthew Arnold was to avoid all mention of the physical activities that were considered by him essential to the formation of a gentleman at Rugby, where his father was headmaster: Elyot advises running, swimming, riding, archery, dancing. The conclusion of the first part of the treatise provides a blatantly expanded report on one of the idiosyncrasies that recur most often in these sixteenth-century tutorial texts. Dancing is studied from the viewpoint of its primitive, anthropological, as well as its highly educational and even ritual values: every movement is analysed to plumb its fantastic and symbolic contents and perspectives. These are the most fascinating pages of the treatise. The second and third parts enumerate the range of requisites essential to a highly placed servant of the state, as well as listing the vices and weaknesses to be avoided.

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5. Toxophilus5 (1545) earned Roger Ascham6 (1515 or 1516–1568) a pension from Henry VIII. It is one of the earliest eccentric English artes. After Ascham, other manuals on typically British manias would be regularly produced. As I mentioned, there were heaps of manuals in Old and Middle English and English, but merely for having thought of this dialogue Ascham deserves applause. However, Toxophilus, which initially enchants the reader because of its ingenuous tone, becomes a bit irritating, repetitive and not sufficiently varied in contents, albeit always written in a lively, colloquial style which imitates the spoken word. One must emphasize, in fact, that it is not a treatise but a dialogue, although erudite, and somewhat pedantic. Which does not prevent Ascham from being much more frank and uninhibited than Elyot, never missing a chance to shoot off along some side-lane, only to converge ever and again upon his fixed target: the antiPapist controversy and the support of ecclesiastic reform, which was rampantly ongoing in England. During the course of the dialogue, Philologus is charged with a vitally strategic, instrumental and provocative role: he has to feign preconceived scepticism towards any remark advanced by Toxophilus, only admitting that he is convinced in order to advance yet another doubt, which will also be gradually dismantled. He thus loses ground, inch by agonizing inch. The objective of the dialogue is to convince the reader that archery is a relaxing activity for the scholar and has in fact been practised since the dawn of civilization, as proved by the list of great archers from Adam onward. Elyot had included archery amongst the pursuits that were to be taught to a trainee nobleman. For the same reason, Ascham provides 5 6

Literally, as if on the model of More’s linguistic tricks, it means The Enthusiastic Archer. Born in York, Ascham studied and later taught Greek at Cambridge and became Elizabeth’s private Greek tutor, after having been Queen Mary’s ‘Latin secretary’. This is a somewhat vague post, and constitutes an enigmatic aspect, as he never abjured his Protestant faith; the appointment was probably due to his conformist attitude. Culture was less strictly persecuted by the various Tudor monarchs, compared with the severity they adopted towards prelates and churchmen. As a court preceptor Ascham managed to pick his way through pitfalls and humiliations. He also suffered from recurring bouts of ague or malarial fever. It seems that he was finally ruined by his addiction to dicing and cock-fights, on which he is supposed to have written a work known only by its title.

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another analysis or utopian view of the Elizabethan gentleman, although his obsession causes him to forget or decidedly dismiss other pursuits, such as music or riding. The didactic objective is precisely what Elyot desired to pursue, by eliminating or being reductive about pernicious, unhealthy, nocturnal, asocial pastimes (such as cards and dice), and promoting healthy ones, such as archery. Archery, as opposed to other activities, is classed as a more desirable and gallant occupation. Further arguments praise the bow as a war weapon, with examples and cases drawn from history, followed by the demonstration that archery is a typically English pursuit, in which Englishmen excel above all other nations. As I said, a game is fun when it is short and one soon has to conclude that the discursive and argumentative range is extremely circumscribed and is soon at a stalemate. It is in fact somewhat arduous to write an encyclopaedia on this subject of 120 closely written pages, even if in dialogue form. Toxophilus, however, is somewhat redeemed by its second part, and becomes attractive again, containing a detailed inventory of materials and an exhaustive description of specific archery techniques. The minute analysis is almost microscopic and slightly maniacal. Historically, this part of Toxophilus is of incalculable value to the English language, not only because it extends and consolidates the sector’s terminology, but also because it channelled the language towards a specific and superior flexibility. Ascham, in other words, establishes the universality of English as the most suitable, economical, and precise language for all uses and the best in the world for classifications, catalogues, definitions, lists, and above all when the constituent parts of a utensil or an intellectual or manual activity have to be dismembered or scrutinized. 6. Ascham’s letters have survived, and the English ones compare favourably with the Paston collection, as they too are much more advanced as regards their linguistic flexibility, although this primacy does not take into account the rather interesting collection of letters by Thomas More. Following a three-year diplomatic mission to Germany, Ascham drew up, in 1553, a concise report on the political situation of Charles V’s empire, or, more precisely, a chronological, pleasantly descriptive calendar, introducing at the same time his fairly insular, viscerally sceptical viewpoint.7 7

Miglior 1975, 111.

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This was to become even more pronounced in his most famous treatise, The Schoolmaster, which was published posthumously, unfinished, by his widow in 1570. The fame and quintessential quality of this book are due to a precocious, vehement objection to the formative aspects of the grand tour in Italy, although Ascham never denied classical culture as essential from an educational viewpoint. The anti-Italian and anti-Papal sentiments that ooze from his writing were to be, from that time, exemplary for an ambivalent disgust towards the Italian and Catholic civilization, manifested while appreciating the Latin language from which Italian was derived and which had been adopted by the Catholic liturgy. Nonetheless, The Schoolmaster is a linguistically and procedurally mature text that does not seem to have been written a century before Dryden’s essays, containing as it does some of the latter’s techniques.8 The language is more accurate, rounded, and less sprightly than that used in Toxophilus, thus more cautious and watchful. The similes are incisive, so that one can rightly say that links to Euphuism9 are extremely rare. One also finds foreshadowings of Matthew Arnold’s educational and inspectoral writings, and many similarities with modern books or essays. Its avant-texte will become familiar. The Schoolmaster is, in fact, introduced by a dedicatory letter by Ascham’s wife as well as by a preface written by the author that frames the treatise by giving a satisfactory description of its genesis. The treatise was occasioned by a reception in the presence of the queen, when various opinions had been voiced as to educational methods and the programmes and objectives of scholastic education. While Elyot never mentions himself and supports his observations by recounting appropriate examples drawn from the classics, Ascham, by contrast, sprinkles little autobiographical cameos throughout his works, thereby initiating a further development, the memoirist and autobiographical genre. The kind of needs that originated The Schoolmaster is similar to those motivating Elyot. Ascham did not want to train a court diplomat or a civil servant, he was addressing the social and moral

8 9

He influenced the style of Dr Johnson (who wrote a life of Ascham), who freely admitted it. See Ryan 1974, xxxv-xxxvi. Miglior 1975, 260–5.

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rectitude of every adult citizen, who, in effect, was synonymous with Elyot’s governor. As in Elyot, the vital nub of any educational programme for a gentleman was to instil the comprehension, the reading, and above all, the speaking of Latin. The Schoolmaster’s initial pages concentrate on explaining the methods whereby this objective can be attained, even by the selftaught. Whoever reads Ascham so many years later, cannot but marvel at how many languages the English of his time could speak, and at the enormous importance they attached to being able to speak Latin. Thanks to a curious overturning of the tables that was to come, Latin for Elizabethan English people was what English is for Latins, or even Italians of today. One could go nowhere at that time without Latin, just as one cannot go anywhere nowadays without speaking English. The Elizabethans wanted to be first in the field in the knowledge of languages in general, which one cannot always say applies to English people today. The two main points in Ascham’s reasoning are that Latin is better carved into the student’s intellect by means of friendly persuasion, rather than by constrictive bombardment, and that the rudiments of a language accumulate better in reflective intelligences, rather than in intuitive ones. An initial glitch in the flow of his discourse occurs when a generally lucid and moderate Ascham starts to reveal some disquiet that steadily increases to a quasi-apocalyptic panic. He was a slightly illogical and, at times, pessimistic conservative, and historical time was flowing, for him too, down a relentless slope. The original stain of sin always threatened to re-emerge in history, and human personalities were psychologically fragile. The danger the nation faced was the ease whereby corruption could infect anyone, given that human infancy and adolescence contained the roots of this infection; enlightened educational practices were supposed to rescue and protect young natures. Ascham’s educational theories are basically, from a negative, as well as from a positive viewpoint, akin to Elyot’s, in that they list the dangers one should keep youth away from. When he dwells on the dangers of corruption, he tells young people to beware of life at court, as a pit of depravity. It is at this point that one finds the best-known and quintessential part of the book, where Ascham, who recalls having stayed only nine days in Italy, launches into a diatribe against the lapsed and excessively uninhibited morals of the nation which has, alas, lost the way to rectitude. Inglese italianato is the term he uses, in

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Italian, which is supposed to indicate the flux of cultural emigrants who travelled to Italy full of moral rectitude but returned morally corrupted. Ascham takes this opportunity to decree some expurgations from the literary canon, in particular poems of chivalry, which he saw as immoral and replete with anarchic eroticism and bloodshed. The second part of the treatise is, however, almost completely lacking in any literary interest whatsoever, as it delves into the most technical educational domain, based on language teaching theories and curricula, and on grading and evaluating the main classical authors. § 41. The ‘Miscellanies’ It is a well-known historical axiom that Petrarch basically exercised a negative influence on Italian poetry, inasmuch as he caused it to be boringly imitative up to the seventeenth century; but that he revitalized English poetry, after the Scottish Chaucerians and a few English poets had resisted continental innovations. This is the aspect to which, as we shall see, George Puttenham calls attention in the first, almost contemporary (1589) overview of sixteenth-century poetic revival. The two main English Petrarchan poets of the early sixteenth century, Wyatt and Surrey (whom one could dub Henrician because both died of natural or violent death before Elizabeth came to the throne), can be said to have Anglicized the sonnet form. Surrey was responsible for inventing and perfecting blank verse, also derived from the Italians. Before this development, Chaucerian verse was the norm, such as the heroic couplet or the rhyme royal, or Skeltonics with reduced syllabic lines and repeated or hammering rhyme. The prosodic variant of the sonnet which caught on in England entailed the abolition of the division between an eight verse stanza made up of two quatrains and a sestet of two tercets, with the introduction of a final rhyming couplet. The need to incisively compress the composition, was, in reality, only disguised in Italian sonnets, and the English realized this and re-adopted it.1 A minor tradition of the sonetto caudato, ending with a pair of hendecasyllable rhyming couplets, existed in Italy, as well, chiefly in burlesque verse produced, for instance, by Cino da Pistoia or Benedetto Varchi, as well as by the Pisan 1

See PMI, 256ff., to which I am indebted for the following observations.

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poets of the thirteenth century. What prevented and excluded the use of final distichs with rhyming couplets was the founding theoretical principle of an alternance between even (octave) and odd elements (tercet), in order to suit the verse form to its musical end-use. The mania for conceits commenced with Guittone d’Arezzo and was stemmed by the Stilnovo poets, only to burgeon once again amongst the Petrarchan poets, who gave rise to the flamboyant period of witty sonnets. This second wave was opposed by Bembo, who propounded a return to Petrarch’s authentic Petrarchism. The use of conceits, however, was rekindled by the Neapolitan Luigi Tansillo, followed by an even more confirmed adoption of this practice which was to last about a century, thanks to Marino’s irresistible influence. Praz thought that the English never knew or recognized Bembo’s reactions to the use of conceits, and were captivated by the flamboyant sonnet form. The ‘poulterer’s measure’,2 as the poet Gascoigne jokingly defined it referring to poulters’ custom of selling eggs by the dozen or in batches of fourteen – depending on their client’s rank or the seller’s mood – is however entirely English. 2. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, poetry prevalently continued to circulate in manuscript form, and was excluded from the printed book market, with the result that it spread more slowly, and in a less controllable manner, to a limited circle of readers. Towards the middle of the century we witness a change. The poetical works of the two most important Henrician poets, Wyatt and Surrey, were printed about twenty years after their death, when Tottel’s Miscellany was gathered together in 1557 (it took its name from the printer and collector of the manuscripts in circulation, Richard Tottel – nine editions were printed in all, some enriched, others curtailed, in the years leading up to 1587).3 Tottel’s, the most renowned, and other anthologies and miscellanies, published up to the end of the century, are proof of the poetical fervour of the twenty years that preceded it; they also made poetry available to parts of the population that had never been reached by it before. The third consideration to be made is that the importance of the minstrel and of oral poetry was on the wane, whilst court poets and court poetry were on the rise. A veritable craze for these

2 3

A metre consisting of lines of twelve and fourteen syllables alternately. Reprinted London 1870, 1921, and Cambridge, MA 1928–1929.

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anthological compilations (to which one might add a similar venture, the Mirror for Magistrates, of which more anon) was a response to the need to celebrate the entrepreneurship and high cultural status of the Elizabethan regime.4 It was a book fair in which England exhibited the variety and fine quality of its poetical merchandise. Ninety-six poems by Wyatt, plus forty by Surrey (although the order in which they were presented was the other way round) were included in Tottel’s, flanked by other works by lesser or less well-known poets, as well as a grand total of 130 ‘unknown authors’. Among the four named and identified poets, besides Wyatt and Surrey, one is the chaplain Nicholas Grimald or Grimoald (1519–1562), a very competent classicist and a Protestant who abjured during Mary’s reign and became a spy. Grimald most definitely hated poetic clichés and his style is knotty, grumpy and apparently clumsy, and could not possibly be taken for anyone else’s. He even seems to write English as if it were an acquired language and uses it with telegraphic, epigrammatic brevity, sometimes suppressing suffixes, endings, articles and even whole parts of discourse. His two Latinizing compositions included in Tottel’s, one of which is on Cicero’s death, are, in fact, translations from two obscure late medieval authors; other, briefer ones dispense moralizing maxims. Superannuated love allegories in Roman de la Rose style (like Cupid’s assault on the heart’s fortress) are provided by the courtier and dignitary Lord Thomas Vaux5 4

5

Beside Tottel’s one should remember A Hundreth Sundrie Flowers (1573), edited by Gascoigne (§ 45); The Paradise of Dainty Devises (1576), compiled by Richard Edwards (1523–1566), who also composed a poem in octaves on lovers’ inconstancy which was possibly read by Shakespeare; A Handful of Pleasant Delights (1566), which included the very popular ballad, ‘Greensleaves’; The Phoenix Nest (1593) by R. S., addressed to nobles and gallants. The Sternhold and Hopkins collection, printed in 1547, consisting of translated excerpts from the Bible and from David’s psalms in the ‘poulterer’s measure’, consolidated the practice of devotional writing in verse. An analysis of the best-known compositions collected in these anthologies will be given in the discussion of their editors. On England’s Helicon (1600) see § 70. One of his funerary ditties was evidently very popular, as it was bowdlerized by one of the grave-diggers in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. This should suffice to perceive the kind of suggestions and stimuli provided by Tottel’s. Some of Lord Vaux’s lyrics were included in Paradise of Dainty Devises; some of them, being love verses, were inspired by Surrey, whilst the others are religious, penitential or voicing a hope in a serene demise. The dramatist Thomas Heywood (§§ 145–6) appears in Tottel’s with only one lyric which repeats one of Wyatt’s more commonplace dictums: that having

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(1510–1556). Other courtier poets were immediately named, or alleged to be authors of the anonymous lyrics in Tottel’s, but none with any absolute certainty: among them was the brilliant and ingenious Sir Francis Bryan and George, brother of Anne Boleyn, the object of much gossip and, like her, beheaded. 6 The genres range from the Petrarchan lyric to the elegy, from funerary tributes to sententious verses, from encomiums to proverbs, in ever varying metres. Alliteration was noticeably adopted, as has often been remarked, due to the recent, first publication of Piers Plowman. § 42. Wyatt* Thomas Wyatt (1503–1542) was the poet who brought to England the sonnet, a form that no English poet before him had ever thought of using,1

6

forged his lady, nature lost the cast. The only composition by Edward Somerset, of whom we lack secure dates of birth and death, is an acrostic. Experts do not pronounce judgement on ‘Phillida was a fair maid’, which was attributed to one or the other and can be said to rival the grace and ingenuous qualities of ‘Robene and Makyne’ by Henryson (§ 25.2).

*

The Works of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey and of Sir Thomas Wyatt, the Elder, ed. G. F. Nott, 2 vols, London 1913, New York 1954; Collected Poems, ed. K. Muir, London 1949 and 1960, and, with P. Thomson, Liverpool 1969; Collected Poems, ed. J. Daalder, Oxford 1975 (this is the edition from which I shall quote; Roman numerals of the poems nearly always coincide with Muir’s 1949 edition). E. M. W. Tillyard, The Poetry of Sir Thomas Wyatt: A Selection and a Study, London 1929, 1949; E. K. Chambers, Sir Thomas Wyatt and Some Collected Studies, London 1933, New York 1965; S. Baldi, La poesia di Sir Thomas Wyatt, il primo petrarchista inglese, Firenze 1953 (a learned study, focusing chiefly on metrics, still highly esteemed), and Sir Thomas Wyatt, Eng. trans., London 1961; K. Muir, Life and Letters of Sir Thomas Wyatt, Liverpool 1963; R. Southall, The Courtly Maker, Oxford 1964; P. Thompson, Sir Thomas Wyatt, and His Background, London 1964, also editor of CRHE, London 1974; M. Domenichelli, Il liuto infranto: formalismo, convenzione e poesia alla corte Tudor, Ravenna 1974; E. Heale, Wyatt, Surrey and Early Tudor Poetry, London 1998; N. Shulman, Graven with Diamonds: The Many Lives of Thomas Wyatt: Courtier, Poet, Assassin, Spy, London 2011; S. Brigden, Thomas Wyatt: The Heart’s Forest, London 2012. Wyatt’s assimilation of Serafino Aquilano is examined in A. Cecchini, Serafino Aquilano e la lirica inglese del ’500, L’Aquila 1935, and above all, in its connections with English Petrarchism, by M. Praz in ‘Petrarca in Inghilterra’, in PMI, 253–76.

1

Except for a sonnet included by Chaucer in his Troilus.

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although it had been widely adopted in Italy and in many parts of the Continent for over three centuries. A conspicuous inverted parallelism seems to link Wyatt to Chaucer. Both were poets and diplomats, tortured by the flame of desire; and both travelled to Italy, one a century and a half after the other, and returned home with the most precious fruits of the season. Chaucer, however, oddly enough, had only brought back Petrarch’s Latin writings, without realizing that a very innovative Petrarch dwelt in his rhymes in Italian.2 However, this historical and ground-breaking merit of Wyatt’s has been dimmed and decidedly obscured, over time, by presumed defects in his art, which has repeatedly been dubbed ‘rugged’, albeit, at times, vigorous. It was alleged, moreover, that he was metrically something of a beginner and that about thirty of his sonnets are free translations from Petrarch (not to mention that another fairly large section of his work – the penitential psalms – were based on Italian models). Wyatt’s claims to originality are therefore considerably lessened. Emblematic conclusions were drawn by two illustrious historians: the sonnet would have been born half a century later even without Wyatt (Praz);3 for his part, C. S. Lewis4 continued to insist on the considerable medieval aspects as well as traces and remnants of the Roman de la Rose in Wyatt, adding that Wyatt had, in fact, damaged English poetry, by introducing the execrable ‘poulterer’s measure’,5 as well as the jangling rhythm of the popular ballad. In this regrettable hatchet job, Lewis plays the part of Benedetto Croce, and, distinguishing poetry from non poetry, finds most of Wyatt’s production belongs to the latter category. The English are notoriously fond of finicky prosodic dissertations, and other Wyatt critics make them the crux of their attacks. Praz – who also attributes a still medieval cast to Wyatt’s poetry, albeit provided with a few timid Renaissance ornamentations, 2 3 4 5

A twenty-five-year-old Wyatt made a seminal trip to Italy in 1527, accompanying a royal emissary. He was certainly in Rome and in Venice; captured by the Spanish troops he escaped, before the ransom was paid. ‘Petrarca in Inghilterra’, listed in the Bibliography. ELS, 223–30. This metre is actually used very sparingly by Wyatt. The cases in which he uses a metre longer than the decasyllable are really very rare. He rather chooses to contract his verses, compressing them into eight or even four syllables, in his songs.

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which make him one of the representatives of a not very well specified northern Renaissance – prefers the more polished, sophisticated Surrey to the tedious, immature Wyatt. Lewis sees him as the father of the early sixteenth-century period, which he pronounces ‘drab’, and concludes his chapter by stating enigmatically that Wyatt was ‘in the ascendant’; later critics have taken him seriously, rating his work higher than Surrey’s. Although I share the idea that Wyatt’s poetry is of very uneven quality,6 accusations of this type must be weighed and countered point by point. To start with, Wyatt’s poetry should not be judged en bloc, but rather in its chronological sequence. This is an arduous operation and can only be achieved by having recourse to internal data, which do in fact reveal a gradually increased refinement of style and expression. Moreover, most of the manuscripts on which we base our analysis were not finished, polished and revised by Wyatt for publication.7 The accusation of plagiarism remains – that is, was he and to what extent was he a simple translator or adapter or, worse still, a plunderer? The argument in his defence calls attention to his technique, as Wyatt did actually modify the prosodic scheme of the sonnet, introducing the English form with three quatrains followed by a rhyming couplet. This places him more in the position of an adapter who has stepped through the fine veil separating pure imitation from the act of re-creation. Wyatt follows his own translating policy, inasmuch as his art is suddenly catapulted into the sphere of refashioning or remaking.8 Whoever is shocked by imitation 6

7

8

Lewis, somewhat traitorously, quotes stanzas, single lines or refrains that are objectively poor or unpoetical, which, after all, one can do with any other great poet, as Lewis himself suggests could be done when reading through Sidney’s work (ELS, 329). Critics are still arguing whether and to what extent Wyatt wrote a kind of rough copy, to be revised, producing lyrics that show an inadequate sense for prosody and stress, especially when he creates discord between the natural accent of the words and the metrical pattern. For a long time it was thought that he still pronounced some words in the French manner, placing the stress on the last syllable. In his defence, critics have, on the other hand, praised his supposed ability in creating meanings and very modern rhythmic changes. The distance between the supposed original and the translation varies, and is greatest in the case of the sonnets drawn from Petrarch: ‘Una candida cerva’, for instance, is unrecognizable in Wyatt’s version (VII), which is more of a remake. The argument

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seems to forget that all literature has always been imitative and that the contents of any work are naturally limited, unlike the form. Summing up, we find in Wyatt the roots of Metaphysical poetry in Donne’s gaunt version, and whoever disparages Wyatt is also denigrating Donne – who, in fact, was not greatly admired by C. S. Lewis. 2. It would be hasty and simplistic to say that Wyatt lacked inventiveness; one could accuse him, perhaps, of being monotonous, but this is compensated for and counterbalanced, at least, by his variety in metre, genre and register. First of all, one has to recognize that he was the author of a considerable poetic output, considering that he was employed by Henry VIII as a diplomat charged with taxing duties. The almost 200 poetic compositions that have reached us are sonnets, or at times shorter and at others longer than the sonnet. They consist of quatrains or stanzas of six, seven or eight lines or of other prosodic forms of variable length: songs, epigrams, rondeaus, satirical verses in Dante’s ‘terza rima’, epistles in verse, paraphrased psalms. His songs were conceived and written to be set to music, and the refrains and other intervening, modulated verses reveal this intent. To use a musical metaphor, variety, one of the aspects that are decisive in judging poetry, was absent in Wyatt, who continues to harp on a single state of mind or dominant thought. His 200 poems are, in a truly musical sense, variations on a theme. Wyatt’s thematic monotony, however, is redeemed or can be redeemed, as in all those cases in which art is the ordered and structured expression of an obsession, or an ‘obsessive metaphor’. His obsession, the first to be recorded in English poetry, is amour fou, forbidden by reason and reined in but not tamed. Important, not to say dominating, in classical literature, this was to become one of the main themes for modern authors. Wyatt, it must be remembered, is a Petrarchan as well as a Petrarchist. Like Surrey, he too was attracted by those Petrarchan sonnets and songs – already so densely packed with conceits – and perhaps even more by the Petrarchists of the last quarter of the fifteenth century, is also very different. Critics have realized that Wyatt removes all mythological references from Petrarch-derived compositions, and always actualizes generic details (see MAR, vol. I, 462), We find a typical instance of this in sonnet XXVIII, where Petrarch’s words: ‘In fra Scilla e Cariddi’ becomes ‘’tween rock and rock’.

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amongst whom Serafino Aquilano emerges so prominently. He possessed an acrobatic and almost postmodern capacity to personalize variations on the basic scheme of Petrarch’s Canzoniere. Inasmuch as the events in his life prompted him towards this, he managed to introduce various resonances into his production. Petrarch’s Laura is Anne Boleyn, an evasive object of the poet’s desire, who, in the end, marries another man, driving her earlier lover into a hopelessly tormented state of mind. This, however, could be exceptionally productive from a poetic point of view. The absolute novelty of Wyatt’s poetry is that it is concentrated on his own self to the exclusion of everything else, in a blazing conflagration of immense, devouring power. One should, however, stress that Wyatt’s poems are no documentation of his life, no confession nor baring of his soul, nor first-hand reaction to the most diverse states of mind. His verses are some of the first instances, in English poetry, of mimetic fiction and stylization: a formalized representation of experience. He never names himself or Anne Boleyn; we are presented with a totally abstract, cruel, duplicitous Lady and a desperate Lover, existing beyond time or space. The verbs used are in the present tense and effusions are almost first hand, but the emotions are re-evoked subsequently, when the poet is on his own and at peace. The mimesis acts by creating studied effects of immediacy, as Hopkins does in his poetry and in his ‘terrible’ sonnets in particular.9 3. It would be a waste of time to try to attribute each single lyric or groups of them to one of the three ladies known to have been loved by Wyatt, capturing his heart and rejecting his passion (his wife, Elizabeth Brooke, whom he left prematurely, as he suspected her of adultery; Anne Boleyn, until she became queen, after Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon; 9

See the colloquial and adversative ‘No, no’ he addresses to his inner self, with which he commences the second stanza of XCI, heralding Hopkins’s ‘No worst’ sonnet; the arrangement of the subject matter is the same, reinforced by involuntarily recurrent expressions. Hopkins sometimes names Wyatt in his letters, but only in connection with prosodic aspects. I shall draw other comparisons further on. Although Wyatt was ignored until the eighteenth century, his influence is proved by the repetition of certain terms or echoes in later poets in very famous lines, such as, to mention only a couple of instances, the ‘bitter taste’ used by Hopkins or ‘my head doth ache’ reprised in Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’.

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and the lady in waiting, Elizabeth Darrell). Other ladies were named or were disguised by mythological names, such as Brunet or Phyllis. The key event of Wyatt’s life, his emotional peak, was his passionate infatuation with the future queen, although what is actually known about the affair is pretty slim. In Wyatt’s thoughts, however, other women, as yet unknown, were amalgamated, to form a single, hypostatic, poetic projection. Wyatt may have courted Anne Boleyn before 1520, as he had got married in that year; or else courted her even after his marriage; or perhaps he courted her after he left his wife in 1526, thus only for a few months. The second alternative – that it was an extra-marital affair – is the more probable. King Henry, moreover, could naturally not avoid being in suspense, as he had a former rival as his trusted councillor. Anne Boleyn came to court in 1522, was married to Henry in 1527, was crowned in 1533 and was executed in 1536. Wyatt’s overt courtship must have been over by 1527, but his covert skirmishes and, at any rate, his bitter regret survived, as well as his unrequited desire. The reason why Wyatt was pardoned, whilst five other suitors and lovers of Anne Boleyn were beheaded,10 was presumably that Henry was certain that no carnal exchanges had taken place between them, at least after Anne had become queen. Henry had formerly been attracted by Mary, Anne’s elder sister, and had had an illegitimate son from her; Anne, moreover, had gained the name, among Charles V’s diplomatic envoys, of ‘une grande putaine’, the kind of reputation that had been extended to her sister Mary as well.11 Handsome, fair and powerfully built as a young man – as witnesses assure us – Wyatt precociously lost most of his hair at an early age and grew a thick beard, which one can see in various contemporary paintings, including one by Holbein. He was born in Kent, the son of one of Henry VII’s followers, and had become wealthy by acquiring land confiscated from the monasteries. He was a student prodigy when up at Cambridge, where he graduated at seventeen. He achieved a rapid career as a man of action and trusted diplomatic envoy for the king, rather than as a humanist and academic. Translator for Catherine of Plutarch’s little 10 11

Released from prison, Wyatt wrote a mournful epicedium for the five beheaded men, whose execution, it was believed, Wyatt witnessed through the bars of his cell. Muir 1963, 27.

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treatise ‘On tranquillity of mind’ (almost prophetic, one could say: it was what he was to desperately seek in later life), and able to adapt his verses to imitate Horace’s satires and epistles, he lacked at least one of the gifts listed by Elyot as essential for a ‘governor’: self-control. He killed a man and got away unpunished; he was, however, consumed even more profoundly by his emotional and erotic impulses.12 Marshal and governor of Calais between 1529 and 1530, ambassador to Spain between 1537 and 1539 as well as in the Flanders, he died because of a ruinously instinctive and fatal gesture, after heroically riding through driving rain to meet Charles V’s ambassador in Dover, thereby contracting pneumonia.13 4. Wyatt’s lyrics are conventionally numbered (by their editors), but were never dated by their author and are mostly undatable. The collective editions were put together by assembling seven manuscript sources plus an eighth printed source (Tottel’s Wyatt selection), the latter having undergone considerable philological editing. They contain a kind of erotic romance, but only in the sense of an account of a journey through a succession of stylized humours or moods. This internal itinerary does not really reveal a story, rather the opposite. Wyatt is trapped in a stalemate and cannot get out, throughout quite a number of poems, and the chronology, as in most later sonnet collections, is unclear.14 An embittered and forsaken poet complains to the lady who has flattered him, accusing her of cunning and cynical duplicity: but she is absent, so cannot answer. He tries to persuade the lady to love him again or perhaps only to pity him. His indignation is either voiced in all its bitterness or disguised. At a certain point, the poet states he will cease to plead or utter provoking threats. This kind of swing is part of his undulating psychic state or its mimesis – indeed of the kind of unrest or disquiet that Surrey, too, would identify as the hallmark of the older poet. Such uneven states of mind are occasionally disregarded

12

‘Therefore I must / Restrain my lust’ (LI). It should however be recalled that his translation from Plutarch was not from the original Greek, but from a Latin version. 13 Baldi 1953, 10. 14 Wyatt’s first biographer tried to divide the lyrics into chapters of a story, with picturesque and romantic titles, connecting presumed internal phases to salient facts in Anne Boleyn’s life.

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to reflect a temporary mood upswing, when Wyatt aims his blows dispassionately or with heat, and jests, apostrophizes, or even brays, as in XXXV. The famous XXXIV strikes home because the diction is more packed, the conceptual margin is reduced and a Catullian song emerges. In LIX, the romance seems to have faded and been tamed and the poet is left gazing at a spent blaze, as he is forced into self-awareness. XIII is, or promises to be, a turning point between inescapable hopelessness and the end of suffering, when the lover discovers that faith in God has healed him and has restored him to light. This pious aspiration, however, does not take the poet’s undulating psyche into account and is retracted. Wyatt can also admonish others not to love and to be careful. The Egerton manuscript, which is semi-autographic, or ‘idiographic’, contains more than half of Wyatt’s corpus; the lyrics in the Devonshire manuscript, the second most extensive, are repetitions or re-editions, and are not a true second tempo of his poetry. They stand out not because of his defiance or indignation, but because of his heartfelt, querulous, impotent begging not to be forsaken. His tone soon becomes firmer, virile, lucid, and solemnly admonishing. It is easier to achieve repentance and the poet ascribes this to his being healed from love. CXVI is an unexpected analysis of the psychology of the lady, beloved but sadistic, as, while he delights in seeing her, she enjoys the pain she causes him. It is an irregular section, containing some absolute gems – such as CXXXV. 5. The essential aspect of Wyatt’s poetry can however be said to be his novel argumentative procedure. His poetry is never narrative, descriptive, depicting landscapes or anecdotal; it is captiously dianoetic. It is tropic, or woven and embroidered with rhetorical figures of speech, and above all, of thought. It is also the first English poetry to be in a way Mallarméan, made up of words placed above the content level, with an inevitable and variable margin of non-motivation. Wyatt bases his compositions on the conceits he has learnt in Italy, but he soon transfers to his own English kind of conceits, at least half a century earlier than any other poet. One can already hear something of Donne’s songs as well as of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Tropes are assembled with imperceptible, but unmistakable phonetic reinforcements that are by no means obstinate or heavy, but effective devices, such as alliterations, echoes, or rimalmezzo. Alliteration was long thought to be in Wyatt a remnant of ancient alliterating poetry and,

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therefore, yet another medieval indicator; whereas it is quite the contrary and is used in a functional, targeted fashion, aimed at reinforcing the meaning or even phonosymbolic, and far from mechanical. Wyatt’s corpus is thus a closed system, indeed a signic cluster, made up of sub-groupings, within which one finds a rigorous interrelationship and a collaboration between linguistic levels. XXXVI stands out, for instance, consisting as it does of enchained stanzas with the same device found in Pearl, the last line of a stanza repeated by the first of the next. The structure of the lyric is strengthened by refrains, anaphoras and epiphoras. Wyatt possesses his own vocabulary, or deceptively poor idiolect; and if one consults the concordance to the poems (which is available) one discovers a string of linked key-words making up the essential conceptual and metaphorical strand running through the collection: the ‘steadfast’, unchanging, yet ‘restless’ and disquieted poet, who addresses his supplications to the ‘double’ or duplicitous lady; anguished by reality’s, but even more, by love’s mutability, he yearns after ‘stability’ (the very word he uses in his penitential psalms). He is plagued by the demon of love’s impermanence. His imaginary universe reproduces this chain of events, by virtue of an extreme compression of his vocabulary and by alternating recurring synonyms in the literal and metaphorical spheres. He is often the drop (gutta) wearing away (cavat) the stone (lapidem) with his tears, sighs and lamentations; no fruit grows on arid stone (CXLVIII). The instruments of expression, charged with the writing and the uttering of the lament – only to cease, due to exhaustion – are the lute15 and the pen. The tropological domain of the lady is just as often that of poisonous, rapacious or fanged animals, like the tiger, the lion, the falcon or the serpent. Wyatt gradually adopts coldly lucid antitheses and

15

The famous ‘Lute song’, included in nearly all anthologies (which vaguely alludes to Diana being hunted by her suitors with bows, the prey being the sadistic goddess who refuses to be captured), is of course based on a contradiction, inasmuch as the lute must cease its lament and is entreated to do so, but disobeys this order, ensuring the continuation of the lyric. Both the lute and the poet are carrying out their last, Herculean task. Nonetheless, this peremptory order takes on a strategic function. The dialogue with the lute re-opens in LXXIV, where the poet again threatens that this will be his last song, which will be followed by death. The poet also proclaims himself close to death in LXX.

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contradictory terms, placed side by side (fire and ice, mounting and precipitating, being born or living and dying) or, conversely, he makes use of long, detailed comparisons (‘Always whetting my youthly desire / On the cruel whetstone, tempered with fire’, or using economic or nautical metaphors as in XXVIII; the two horns of the antitheses blend into the figure of an oxymoron).16 His rhetorical tools are exceptionally wide-ranging and he also utilizes the palindrome (in L, for instance: what is the word that does not change, whether read forwards or backwards? Anna, is the answer), the acrostic and the polyptoton. In the end, the hyperbole is what he uses most. In this vein, he emerges as the cosmic loser and the most inconsolable of all the afflicted. Which is why Wyatt’s lyrics are ideally nocturnal, pervaded by a terrifying sense of the night of the soul, resembling the kind of atmosphere prevailing in the slightly later theatrical works by Chapman and much later in nihilistic or prostrated poets of the nineteenth century, like Hopkins, Thompson and Thomson B. V. (their codes and metaphorical repertory are interchangeable). It is really astonishing that a poet who composed so many lyrics based on punning17 and on word play should have been dubbed uncouth. XVII is a masterly example of how Wyatt is anything but uncouth, primitive or inexpert: it is a delayed prolepsis, the explanation of which is provided in the penultimate line. XXIII revolves around a single strand, or the tongue-twisting, ‘spite of thy hap, hap hath well happed’. In LXII, fate has ‘happd’, but in the opposite sense, and has been transformed into bad luck. In XCII, ‘hap’ collides, as it were, with ‘happy’. In the eight lines of XLVIII, the opening is a pressing interrogation followed by an extended metaphor of the hunt and the hunter or thief. The twist is introduced in the final four lines. The poet has ‘despoiled’ his loved one’s hand and has robbed it of its glove, with a charade type of pun 16 17

In the two contrasted quatrains in LXXXII, the first states the truth, the second, with ‘And yet’, denies it. In XCI, the lucky in love on the May morning are compared to the unhappy poet, whose Zodiac signs have shed an evil influence on him. For instance: ‘But yet perchance some chance / May chance to change my tune’ (LII). In LXVIII, honey and poison spill from the lady’s kiss, thus providing an oxymoron, with almost epigrammatic brevity. The whole of the first stanza of LXXI brims over with word-plays based on ‘eternum’, ‘determed’, ‘affirmed’ and ‘confirmed’.

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played on ‘love’ and ‘glove’. The seventh line offers a superb chiasm in the metaphorical area of an exchange of thefts: ‘She took from me an heart, and I a glove from her’. CXII is a precociously serial lyric, within a frame that includes a beginning and a refrain, in four stanzas of six trimeters; as in CXXIX and CLIX, admirable examples of poetry chiefly based on monosyllabic words of Anglo-Saxon derivation, rather than Latin, with a few two-syllable and only one tri-syllable and one four-syllable word in a total of thirty lines. Both poems may be recited as a series of explosive emissions, as for instance in ‘Spit then their spit that list to spurn’, a line which provides an idea of Wyatt’s typical phonological creativity. 6. In an abrupt and diatonic mode, but only owing to textual decisions not Wyatt’s own – and as if devastating erotic emotion and the anchor of divine faith were poles apart – one finds the penitential psalms halfway through the corpus, formally translated into English from a prose version by Aretino, but with plenty of personal utterances. They are framed within a stage direction: a desperate David full of repentance because of his adulterous relationship with Bathsheba, takes refuge in a cave, with his harp to expiate his sin, and sings the psalms that follow. The identification and superimposition of David as Wyatt is quite easy, as both are caught in the classical congenital act of lamenting and imploring. Wyatt, like David, had gone through the agony and remorse of an adultery and repents and poses as a penitent. The style of these compositions is different, and based on an opposite manner, being neither analytical nor synthetic, but diffuse, expansive and, at times, lacking poetic elevation. They are, in a sense, selfcontained dramas, as the prologues are repetitive and introduce phases of a story of sin, repentance and divine pardon. God is found to be – as for many future ascetics, and in T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, for instance – the fixed point as opposed to human ‘mutation’, or an English God, the oxymoron of intransigent hardness and benevolent indulgence. The imagery and metaphors are the same as those in Wyatt’s profane poetry, like, for instance, the image of the navigator entering a port after a storm. It is a parable that also evokes Donne’s later production. The pattern seems indeed to have transferred directly to Donne, a poet and a carnal lover also becoming the author of penitential poetry. If furthermore David is a monarch and his kingdom is threatened by instability, we are redirected

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to Wyatt’s dominating opposition. The three satirical poems written when Wyatt had retired from public life are easier to date. With them Wyatt claims the birth-right of a genre that will be practised more systematically by Donne and, half a century later, by Joseph Hall. The first of these poems revolves around a condemnation of transience and praises ‘steadfastness’. The second reprises the fable of the two little mice told by Henryson,18 and is the only narrative instance in Wyatt’s oeuvre. The third is an increasingly ironic and sarcastic description directed against the cynical status-seekers infesting the court. All three of them imply a precarious, undulating concept of the psyche, whereby even at the height of enjoyment and inebriation of the senses, or spiritual peace, a kind of dissatisfaction may insinuatingly creep in. § 43. Surrey* Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (1517–1547), has been, throughout the five centuries that divide us from him, fairly neglected, after a very brief period of notoriety and fame following his death; which is why there were, up to fairly recently, very few biographies, monographs or even critical essays dedicated to him. His indisputable claim to fame is that he perfected the English sonnet form and established blank verse in England, by using it, with excellent results, in a partial translation of the Aeneid. A number 18

§ 25.3.

*

The Works of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey and of Sir Thomas Wyatt, the Elder, ed. G. F. Nott, 2 vols, London 1815–1816, New York 1965 (historical edition, in which the editor dismissed Geraldine’s romance, of which more below, in his introduction, but took it into account, when reordering the works and giving appropriate titles to the lyrics); Poems, ed. F. M Padelford, Seattle, WA 1928; a selection is edited by E. Jones, Oxford 1964. The edition of Surrey’s poetical works, together with others by his contemporaries, edited by D. Bell, London 1854, does not have much scholarly value, but is provided with an ample commentary in the footnotes, where the editor implacably challenges Nott and the outline provided on the said Geraldine’s romance. E. Casady, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, New York 1938, 1966, 1975; A. Cattaneo, L’ideale umanistico, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, Bari 1991; E. Heale, Wyatt, Surrey and Early Tudor Poetry, London 1998; W. R. Sessions, Henry Howard, The Poet Earl of Surrey: A Life, Oxford 1999.

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of sonnets were written by him in the Petrarchan tradition, forming a canzoniere that is less conceptual, less vigorous and therefore more anonymous than Wyatt’s.1 The contemporaries of the two poets often referred to them as a pair, as if they were master and follower, and this gave rise to a number of other misapprehensions. Wyatt and Surrey could almost have been father and son, because one was fourteen years older than the other. Wyatt was not a follower of Surrey and probably never even knew him. If anything, it would have been the other way around. At any rate, Surrey was at once rated a better poet than Wyatt, and an indication of this is the fact that, although younger than Wyatt, he was mentioned in Tottel’s as the symbolic figure of his age, ahead of the older Wyatt. This judgement, as I stated à propos of Wyatt, continued to predominate up to the late nineteenth century, when it was overturned in Wyatt’s favour. Any critical appraisal of Surrey has almost exclusively concentrated on prosody. Cultured English readers chose to turn a blind eye to his evident immaturity as a poet proper, and having initiated the usual erudite academic discussion regarding his metre, blandly ignored all the poet’s defects, by virtue of his merits as a versifier and translator.2 Translation is or

1 2

Surrey uses puns very rarely; nor does he employ insistent or hammering alliteration, so he cannot really be considered a ‘linguistic’ poet. Surrey’s translation of Virgil’s second and fourth cantos is from many points of view sumptuous: fluid, harmonious, mainly thanks to a good quantity of enjambments; it partly follows, without slavishly imitating it, Gavin Douglas’s translation (§ 25.1; see the exhaustive discussion in Cattaneo 1991, 294–317), which Surrey was able to consult in manuscript. The battle fought by Surrey was the same, in scale, that Italian translators from the English have to confront: to respect the syllabic quantity of the original, without doubling or triplicating the number of lines or increasing the syllabic measure. Baldini therefore praises the translation’s concision and its respect for the Virgilian spirit, and compares Surrey’s translation favourably with the almost contemporary translation into Italian by Annibal Caro (BAL, 361–3). C. S. Lewis is more cautious and judges Surrey’s translation as second-rate, although provided with a scattering of good lines (ELS, 234). Blank verse, which obviously appeared to be the English prosodic form closest to the non-rhyming Latin hexameter, was perhaps suggested and imitated by Surrey from Italian forerunners, namely Cardinal Ippolito de’ Medici’s and Liburnio’s 1534 translations of Virgil. Some occasional lexical choices seem to have been borrowed from them. Luigi Alamanni’s free verse works

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can be a refined art, not a simple instrument of service, and Surrey is still regarded today as an Edward FitzGerald of the sixteenth century, incapable of great original poetry but an excellent translator.3 Wyatt and Surrey’s names should also not be used together as they belong to two diverging evolutionary trends in English poetry. Surrey looks forward, not towards the Elizabethan and metaphysical use of conceits, but to Augustan sobriety. They resemble each other in that they transpose the real lady or ladies they loved into a romantic idealization, a simulacrum or icon of her or them. Wyatt is phatic and apostrophizing, passionately and obstinately besieging his lady-love, whereas Surrey meditates, remembers, reflects and sadly and calmly analyses. 2. Writers who came after Surrey, on the other hand, constructed, elaborated and re-proposed, contaminating it, a lesser myth of Surrey, which critics have struggled hard to repulse and discredit most unhesitatingly. A glamorous aura surrounded the undeniably and precociously talented, fascinating poet and courtier, a double definition based on reality, fancy and legend. Surrey’s life was certainly tumultuous, always in the thick of events. A violent death struck him most unfairly when he was only thirty years old and an even more radiant future seemed about to be his lot. Recalling his death one tends to forget his almost unique, or at least rare, precocious talents and that many of his exploits as a courtier, soldier or poet were performed before he came of age. Everything in him was at least ten years early, if one compares him with the norm. The scion of an influential family, of firmly established Catholic and conservative traditions, in 1524 he had received the title of Earl of Surrey from his father, when he was only seven years old. Suffice it to say, regarding the consideration

3

might also have been known and read by Surrey at the court of Francis I. Scholars are uncertain as to when Surrey’s Aeneid can be dated, as the poet could have worked on it when he was a prisoner (between the early 1530s and the mid-1540s), as James I of Scotland and Malory did in the case of their main works. Surrey’s translation was posthumously published in 1557. Surrey’s translation of the first five chapters of the Ecclesiastes in the ‘poulterer’s measure’ is midway between a literal translation and a reinterpretation. Surrey emulates Wyatt by translating a number of David’s psalms within a framework.

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in which Surrey was held by Henry VIII, that he was the intimate and inseparable friend of the king’s bastard son (from a nobleman’s daughter), Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond, who married Surrey’s sister and thus became his brother in law, dying prematurely, however, of consumption in 1536. Well before his eighteenth birthday, Surrey had galloped through his diplomatic, and above all, military training, hotly following in his father’s footsteps, as one of Henry’s counsellors and plenipotentiaries. At the age of sixteen (after the pro-Spanish faction had vainly tried to get him married to Mary, Henry and Catherine’s daughter and future queen), he was already formally married to Lady Frances De Vere, who only lived with him as his wife after 1535. Surrey’s military career began in 1536, beside his father, during the repression of the Pilgrimage of Grace, and was to be tragically concluded ten years later, after a bewildering succession of events. Surrey was to pay for his direct and courageous behaviour several times by being imprisoned.4 He was slandered by the brother of the future queen, Jane Seymour, and accused of sympathizing with the rebels. Imprisoned for the first time in 1537, in 1543 he was tried for having eaten meat during Lent and having smashed house-windows in London with a crossbow or a sling. He had done it, as he claimed in a ‘satire’ composed in prison, because of a sudden mystical, prophetic visionary seizure, urged to wake and redeem the somnolent city from its sinful existence.5 After being released from prison, between 1543 and 1546 he was a Field Marshal and Lieutenant General of the English forces against the French during various phases of the invasion. Recalled home, after a minor mishap he fell into disgrace, as the king believed in the hearsay that the Howards, and therefore Surrey too personally, were planning a coup d’état, to take advantage of the future

4 5

At court, he was generally called a vain fool (Casady 1938, 3). It seems incomprehensible that the critics, except for rare exceptions, should take this satire, that commences thus: ‘London! Hast thou accused me’, as a parody, completely disregarding the fact that his supposed support for the Reform would have been in total contrast with the Catholic faith of Surrey’s family. One is inclined to suppose, in effect, that his heated visionary and penitential vein is a kind of reflection of the systolic/diastolic rhythm of blatant defiance, followed by heartfelt repentance, that is, as we shall see further on, the distinguishing mark of Surrey’s poetic output.

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king Edward VI’s fairly tenuous grip on power. One should also mention that his own sister witnessed against him during the trial that condemned him to be beheaded. 3. In the age of Henry VIII, chivalry was all the rage and Surrey repeatedly distinguished himself in the feigned warfare which aroused such enthusiasm, represented by jousting and court rites and festivals. He not only took part in tourneys for sport, but was also a daring, courageous captain in all the battlefields of Europe. During his less active moments, he managed to compose lyrically delicate or heartfelt nostalgic poetry. His fame as a courtier and many-sided soldier-poet was eclipsed only towards the end of the sixteenth century, when a new star, Sidney, possessing many of his special qualities, appeared on the scene. Nonetheless, Surrey’s renown never ceased to bewitch those who yearned after chivalry and the myth of the fabled, idealized, unattainable lady, unrequited passion and all the trappings of medieval chivalry. It is indisputable that Surrey’s poetry deals with the same central theme that one finds in Wyatt. There may have been an Anne Boleyn for Surrey too, as he actually (at least on one occasion, on others hypothetically, while some readers think that he did so in every case) composed all his love poetry for a lady named Geraldine. Whenever one tries to discover objectively convincing biographical facts, one is left with the impression that some kind of Geraldine – an alias, perhaps – really did exist in his life, but that, if so, the fact probably is that a twenty-year-old Surrey conceived an infatuation at first sight with a young girl who was only nine or ten years old at the time.6 Surrey was, at any rate, less practised than Wyatt, whose verse conveys the torments of an agonizing, ungovernable, erotic frustration, whereas Surrey’s reveals a superficial, conventional, youthful attraction. The connection between textual phenomenology and biographical events is less apparent in Surrey and, in effect, is basically irrelevant – and Nott’s edition, that gave so much credit to this theory, is mostly disregarded today. I have myself supported the thesis that there is, 6

The only sonnet by Surrey that is most simple and most easy, and almost totally paratactic – ‘From Tuscane came my lady’s worthy race’, in which the poet recounts explicitly how he fell in love – provides, as it were, genealogical and personal data about Geraldine. The young girl was later to be given in marriage to a nobleman, who was forty-five years older than herself.

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in fact, a special type of romance in Wyatt’s poetry, but this hypothesis does not work at all, or only in a very embryonic manner, for Surrey. Another matter altogether is the moderate suspension of disbelief that seduced poets and writers from time to time for some 300 years, and that made them give credit to the legend of the poet Surrey, who travelled to Europe in order to duel with anyone daring to doubt the peerless enchantment and the virtues of his lady (or invented lady). Was Geraldine an alias, like Wyatt’s Brunet or Phillys? In reality, her name was Lady Elizabeth Fitzgerald, whose Irish family might have had and actually boasted Tuscan and Florentine origins. She was one of Princess Mary’s ladies-in-waiting. Towards the end of the century, Thomas Nashe incorporated this titbit (which was later to be defined a colossal leg-pull and a great piece of bluster), in his Unfortunate Traveller. Nashe was closely followed by Drayton in his heroic epistles. Eighteenth-century distaste for chivalric romances smothered the whole story for a while, but the absolute proof of Surrey’s romantic resurrection lies in Nott’s 1815–1816 edition itself, in which Nott, if one disregards his philological aberrations, arranged and established the text linking the whole collection of Surrey’s poems to a secret guideline inspired by the romance of Geraldine. It is, perhaps, no coincidence that Geraldine is the name, accompanied by an unmistakable wink, both of Coleridge’s ‘witch’ in Christabel and of the protagonist in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s ‘Lady Geraldine’s Courtship’. The Geraldine legend still had a follower in 1897: to wit, the influential critic William John Courthope; after which, disenchantment set in. 4. If one superimposes biographical events on the texts, one gets a surprise: the former are as rash and hasty as the latter were measured, coolly detached, never written spontaneously or in the heat of the moment. On the other hand, from now on the alternation between profane and sacred increasingly marks English poetry. Firmly established in Wyatt, further back in Chaucer and Gower, it will reappear in Donne; and it is synchronic, an oscillation between one mood or the other, or decidedly successive and alternative. At least three of these poets close their career in a sacred vein, writing penitential poetry, in one case from a prison, in another awaiting execution. If one attempts to analyse this accord, one concludes that mid- or late sixteenth-century poetry revolves around the impossibility of actually living up to the ideal of the gentleman or courtier, for whom self-control

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and abstinence are paramount. This is in other words the gentleman that the educational writings of the time, like Elyot’s and Ascham’s, were attempting to forge, with as much force as that employed by human waywardness in disregarding them. Surrey’s poetry, from one end to the other, vibrates to a similar, grieving, anguished penitential chord. Wyatt remonstrates, implores for his love to be reciprocated or remembered by his elusive ladylove, whilst Surrey begs Love to set him free, as if love were an illness he desires to be freed from.7 Petrarch is virtually rewritten and the sonnets derived from him become Surrey’s true offspring. ‘Love that doth reign and live within my thought’8 interprets this paradox on a very discriminating and self-analysing level: the poet has perceived on one side his conventional subjection to personified Love, who has taken possession of his inner self, but is also admonished by the lady in stern and angry terms to tame his ‘hot desire’ and embrace modesty, deposing all arrogance, which nonetheless causes him to recognize his unavoidable state of servitude to Love. Yet in Surrey’s connotations Love casts baleful, Lucifer-like flickerings (the first in a long series in English poetry), when he plants his banner in front of the lover as a symbol of his blatant victory, only to retire, defeated, ‘His purpose lost’.9 Surrey just as freely translates Petrarch’s ‘Or che ’l cielo e la terra e ’l vento tace’, proving his ability to formalize his idiolect by using recurring terms and syntagmas,10 though he readmits – symptomatically, and echoing the Petrarchan original – his ‘uncontrollable’ desire and his condition of ‘doubt’.11 Petrarch is always gentler, whereas Surrey exploits and underlines the latent dramatic contrasts, highlighting divergences. In his translation of Petrarch’s sonnet on Zephyr who ‘’l bel tempo rimena’ he keeps back until the last line the adversative that in Petrarch occurs at the

7 8 9 10 11

Regarding his much desired healing from the sickness of love, see especially the lament ‘When Summer took in hand the winter to assail’. Petrarch: ‘Amor che nel pensier mio vive e regna’. With an obvious pre-Miltonic ring. ‘doubtful hope’ recurs, for instance, both in the sonnet ‘Love that doth reign …’, and in the dramatic monologue ‘O happy dames’. Line 5, ‘Calm is the sea’, reappears as ‘The sea is calm’ in ‘Dover Beach’ by Arnold, a ‘seascape’ containing other terms from Surrey’s lyric.

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beginning of the sestet. This sonnet reveals and confirms another aspect of Surrey’s vein: his secret and then gradually more explicit pleasure in composing little word-paintings, his proclivity to enumeration, the frequency with which a fairly persistent and static frame of mind is reflected by or collides with some external, stylized or miniaturized scenario. This frame of mind may be also exemplified by an anecdote or by an objective correlative, without the aid either of simile or explicit antitheses.12 For this very reason Surrey often infringes the tight formal scheme of the sonnet, and several of his lyrics are in longer measures. Which, however, never makes him a wordy or confused poet, and never prevents him from foreshadowing that kind of elegance and equilibrium that make him, as I said, a forerunner of the Augustans. From one standpoint his word-pictures are imagistic and an end in themselves; from another, however, they tend to be superficial, pretty forgettable and far from inspiring. 5. Surrey’s classic love-lyric is really based on and consists of a succession of commonplaces without any vital sap. His imagery is also hackneyed, although he manages, every now and then, to pen a few, fine, isolated lines. The general trend is pretty flat and monotonous. It is thus with pleasurable surprise that one witnesses him abandoning this kind of conventional lyrical composition and embarking on stylistic innovations that, although unrecognized at the time, were to affect English poetry only a little less than the adoption of blank verse. In at least a couple of lyrics Surrey experimented with dramatic monologues, shifting his focus from his own anguish, as a grieving and rejected lover, to the heartache of a woman, yearning for her husband’s return from the wars. The dialogued eclogue ‘In winters’s just return’, albeit only an isolated example, could be ideally situated between

12

The remarkable chiaroscuro sonnet on the self-destructive misdeeds of King Sardanapalus, engulfed by sloth and vice, annihilated by paralysis, but capable of rescuing himself by committing suicide, has been read as an identikit of Henry VIII at the end of his life. In search of its probable genesis – that is, why Surrey wrote such a different and such a powerful sonnet, his darkest and most evocative – one could cautiously and innocuously pursue a kind of Freudian approach: Surrey’s theme is the containment of uncontrolled desire, or rather of ‘abject desire’, the dangers of incontinence and the descent into orgiastic bestiality.

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Barclay and Spenser. It is a tragic eclogue, as the rejected shepherd kills himself and is pathetically buried next to Troilus’ tomb. The three sonnets on Wyatt’s death seem to have been composed in sober Drydenish diction. The ode on Wyatt’s death is perhaps Surrey’s most well-known composition, but seems to be a rather cold, late example of that epideictic genre, governed by precise conventions, that had prospered in the Latin Middle Ages. It is true that Wyatt was ‘steadfast’, but educational objectives and strenuous patriotic devotion do not appear to be prominent in his poetry. That Surrey should emphasize this betrays, yet again, a Renaissance-like pursuit of self-control and harmony. That many, or at least, some of Surrey’s lyrics should be read e contrario, is confirmed by the epigram in octosyllabic quatrains translated from Martial, praising moderation and, most especially, chastity, or the control of one’s senses. The most admired of Surrey’s eclogues is the one he wrote when imprisoned in Windsor, where he compares the carefree diversions and radiant sensations of the past with his altered circumstances. But even this succession of (excessively) rapid flashes fails to make his verse memorable or enthralling. Without being entirely bad, it is only graced by very modest inventive gifts. This impassioned, fluid, rhapsodic, exuberantly ardent and memory-crowded eclogue reveals a youthful, urgent desire, both difficult to control, and at times complacent or timorous: some of these revealing traits, threaded together, convey the subterranean idea of the explosion of the senses. § 44. The ‘Mirror for Magistrates’ This voluminous anthology,1 to use a euphemism, which, in its last and most complete edition (1610) in three parts, after an unbelievably complicated editorial history, comprised some 1500 printed pages, was first compiled in 1563. It is yet another exploit of the Elizabethan cultural system and an editorial undertaking, the result of which, however, did not quite measure up to the effort required and the aspirations from which it sprang. The megalomaniac idea (the project commenced, at least formally,

1

The term ‘magistrate’ has the same meaning as Elyot’s ‘governor’, that is, someone endowed with great public responsibility, as BAUGH notices in vol. II, 398 n. 1. The standard complete edition is the one edited by J. Haslewood, 3 vols, London 1815.

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under Mary’s reign) was the brainchild of two learned antiquarians who became its coordinators, hiring a team of poets, none of the first water, and a number of dilettantes, in order to compile a series of ‘tragedies’ in the medieval and Chaucerian tradition, which were to demonstrate the influence of fortune, the transient nature of fame and earthly success and the inexorability of death. The glorious protagonists of history were supposed to be the narrators, lamenting their ultimate fall in exemplary fashion, in order to admonish a society that despite the advent of the Reformation was anything but chaste and was proving greedily acquisitive and powerhungry. Thus summarized, the Mirror seems dangerously belated, and it is difficult to share the frequent enthusiastic opinions that define it the first instance of modern literature, rather than one of the many surviving examples of medieval production. It was part of a long chain, the first link of which, in post-classical times, was Boccaccio’s De Casibus. Chaucer had concisely included a series of lightening sketches on historical disasters in one of his Canterbury Tales. Lydgate had composed The Fall of Princes drawing on a French intermediary. After the first edition, the scope of the investigation, which had only covered the last 150 years of English history, was immeasurably extended. 1085 BC was established as the terminus a quo, the present being the end point. No geographical limits were set. Which makes the Mirror the classic, unoriginal compilation of the Middle Ages, derived and based on a number of sources, pivoting on a well-oiled mechanism and motivated by blatantly educational and persuasive intentions. ‘Wooden’ is the adjective that springs to mind, as most suited to its metre. The somewhat uncouth purpose of the project can be discerned in the title: to teach the instability of fortunes and of fortune, to punish vice, to offer examples of virtue. No educational poetry is perforce destined to failure – of course not! – but out of the ninety-eight tragedies (linked to each other in the Mirror by prose passages, again in Chaucer’s wake), extremely few are worth reading and only a couple or so have been judged defensible by some historical readers, and rise above anonymity. One of the latter is the tale of Jane Shore – the incomparably beautiful mistress of Edward IV, who nearly managed to captivate the judge at her trial for conspiracy – composed by Thomas Churchyard (ca. 1520–1604), who was a pupil of Surrey’s at court, then soldier of fortune on various battlefields, after which he was an occasionally gifted hack writer. Another tale, on the

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death of Edward IV himself, claims to have been directly collected viva voce from Skelton. 2. The rehabilitation of the Mirror is due to four main reasons. It can be classified as a Renaissance work rather than medieval, as, despite its homiletic purposes, the knowledge of history as a master of life is required in the formation of a court dignitary. Secondly, its tragedies are embryonic dramatic monologues, uttered by the illustrious dead themselves, thus creating, for the first time, a kind of genre that was to be much used and, in a sense, patented by Browning’s much later work. Thirdly, in practically record time this immense collection was ransacked by much greater poets and playwrights, and Shakespeare himself delved into it, to find inspiration for some of his characters, such as Macbeth, Iago or King Lear. To end with a truly intrinsic merit, the Mirror does not only include the ‘Duke of Buckingham’s Complaint’,2 which, in itself, does not rate much above the average, but also a second poetic sample by its author, Thomas Sackville3 (ca. 1536–1608), an ‘Induction’ or introduction to the complaint itself in seventy-nine rhyme royal stanzas which is, albeit an isolated case, a miraculous pinnacle of English poetry of the time. It is a kind of dreamlike vision of how the poet, one blustery, lugubrious, winter night, meets Sorrow. Sorrow guides him to an infernal lake, so that he may see the transient nature of all human endeavour and add his own to the Mirror’s warnings. The prosodic ingredients and the allegorical backdrop are by no means novel, but Sackville deftly blends them together, transmitting a highly popular poetic genre to posterity. His verse is regular, classically solemn and measured, the iambic metre very marked, thanks to the hammering, ringing alliteration; both components mingle, with excessively 2 3

Condemned and beheaded for high treason in 1521. Son of the Lord Chancellor of the Exchequer, he obtained a degree at Oxford, was a Law scholar, and his prodigality and youthful love of luxury became legendary. As from the early 1560s he was one of the highest placed officials of the Crown, as well as being one of the most valued statesmen of his generation. He was Elizabeth’s ambassador in Europe, Lord Buckhurst in 1567, Earl of Dorset in 1604. He also enjoyed James I’s trust when the latter came to the throne. He died during a Council session. Having co-authored Gorboduc with Norton (§ 88), he was torn away from his purely literary pursuits by his political ambition.

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overcharged imagery. Sackville is obviously aware of Chaucer’s Hous of Fame and Langland’s Piers Plowman. Nonetheless, he introduces a novel element by imitating Dante. In an era of widespread, dominant Petrarchism, Petrarch is put aside and Sackville’s allegory, just as overtly, paraphrases the Divine Comedy’s initial lines: no more soft, extenuated, honeyed atmospheres as provided by the poet from Arezzo; all is powerful, spectacular hallucination, a visual and aural kaleidoscope. This is the starting point, or renewed starting point – after Hoccleve – for the precise variant of the over-used expedient of a sortie into a fresh, dewy May morning, that was so often adopted after the Roman de la Rose. It is an upside-down cliché, because Sackville transforms it into a nightmare. Up to Thomson’s mid-nineteenthcentury City of Dreadful Night, there will be an uninterrupted succession of poems organized around terrifying and spectral meetings in the course of sleepless nights, crowded with frightful, apocalyptic scenarios of monsters, ruins and deserted wastelands. Only thirty years later, Macbeth was to be based on a warrior leader’s encounter with three witches on a heath, in a work which will be an extension of the Mirror tragedy. Sorrow, who guides the pilgrim, makes her way with the poet through such an impenetrable, dark and desolate wood, that he is instinctively tempted to turn back (see Dante’s ‘fui più volte volto’ [‘that oft-times, / With purpose to retrace my steps, I turned’]). The contamination between the texts is proved by the way Sackville continually accentuates the visual aspects, with an abundance of plastic and sensory details, which he continues to pour into his verse. The cavern, through which one approaches the lake, stinks, and the allegorical statues around the banks of the lake (which is, however, called the Acheron) are Revenge, Remorse, Famine, etc., the whole amounting to a Dantesque exploit of plasticity and illusionism. Moreover, as the ghostly shades approach, he utters heart-rending, mournful lays in the Dantesque mode. Charon ferries the two pilgrims to the other shore and after Cerberus has been silenced, a summary, excessively rapid inventory of great war-leaders (Hannibal, Caesar, Xerxes) is offered, in which their most identifying deeds are presented, only to be swallowed up by oblivion. The inventory also lists whole kingdoms, razed to the ground after much splendour. A Protestant, Sackville hints at a virtuous life being rewarded by Paradise, but he does not believe in Purgatory.

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§ 45. Gascoigne* In order to place George Gascoigne (1534–1577) some critics have employed the ruse of calling him the greatest court poet of Queen Elizabeth’s youth. This is not a particularly flattering definition, as it does not even cover twenty years, a period in which there were not many great poets in activity. Aside from this not very complimentary classification, he was and is the object of a disconcertingly wide range of extreme and diverging opinions. His supporters praise, whilst his detractors execrate, his eclecticism, and no agreement exists as to the works that are supposed to prove his greatness. The first divergences emerge from his life. Son of a nobleman, he earned the reputation of a scamp, for his fairly thuggish behaviour at university; he contracted debts ending up in jail, after which his father disinherited him. He had nonetheless given proof of a somewhat erratic talent both as a poet and as a playwright. He was voted into Parliament very young by his county and married a widow, the mother of the poet Nicholas Breton. Having contracted further debts, he had to flee the country and fought as a captain in the Netherlands, where he was captured by the Spanish. After the payment of his ransom, he spent the last five intense years of his life organizing masques and plays in honour of the queen at her castles of Kenilworth and Woodstock. For snobbish reasons or because of some inner persuasion, he did not consider himself as a poet or literary personality, proclaiming himself a soldier in defence of divine truth. His coat of arms exhibited a pile of books paired with a blunderbuss. A contemporary print, however, portrays him kneeling devoutly and proudly before his Queen, offering her his services. His true character is somewhat of an enigma. From what has been stated above, one might be able to argue that he was a dreamer and an outdated idealist; or was he unthinkingly impetuous and so lacking in self-esteem and willpower as to risk being trapped by pathological fits of what could be defined as insanity? The latter hypotheses could be plausible, if one considers how many professions he undertook, only to abandon *

Works, ed. J. W. Cunliffe, 2 vols, Cambridge 1907–1910; A Hundred Sundrie Flowres, ed. G. W Pigman III, Oxford 2000 (text of 1573). C. T. Prouty, George Gascoigne: Elizabethan Courtier, Soldier and Poet, New York 1942, 1966; G. Austen, George Gascoigne, Woodbridge 2008.

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them when he found them unsatisfactory. Could one call him a maudit? He certainly recalls certain later human wrecks, or famous empty husks in literature. Like them, he followed a rhythm of highs and lows and, after having slithered into the abyss, would bitterly beat his breast. During the last years of his life his humour blackened, as witnessed even by the titles of the works he engaged upon. One of the latter was a translation, a ‘Drum of Judgement’. Other eccentrics dedicated funerary tributes to him after his death, but he was soon basically forgotten. He was nonetheless to be revaluated as a kind of meteoric outsider – one of the unclassifiable, titillating, slightly scandalous, out of the ordinary literary figures, the authors of unfashionable anecdotes,1 whose tastes were casual and extemporaneous (like Stephen Hawes’s were), and capable of attracting partial critics like Mario Praz. The latter did in fact recognize that Gascoigne possessed occasional flashes of genius, but then cut his appraisal short, by defining Gascoigne’s as the umpteenth case of Italian infatuation, however quenched by a strategic withdrawal. 2. It has been difficult, as I mentioned, to choose the right emphasis and to find the key work in such a rich and disordered bibliography as Gascoigne’s. Saintsbury predictably devoted three-quarters of his short discussion on him to a short treatise on the prosody of English verse.2 C. S. Lewis also considered it ‘very important’ for its emphasis on ‘invention’, an intuition very similar to that deviation from the common language that is specific to poetry in relation to any other form of communication – and a very surprising intuition, we may add, in an age like the early Elizabethan in which imitation was the undisputed practice. Critics less partial to prosody choose instead other fulcrums in the writer’s work. Roughly in order of appearance, Gascoigne was in fact a playwright or more precisely a remaker, a novelist, a translator (of a story by Bandello), an anthologizer, an erotic, allegorical and satirical poet, a pamphleteer

1

2

Philomene, from Ovid, was started by Gascoigne during a horseback ride in 1562; interrupted by a shower, the composition was completed fourteen years later, merging the Ovidian reminiscence with the medieval topos of the vision during a dream (BAUGH, vol. II, 406). Certain Notes of Instruction, also known as Certain Notes or Instructions (1576).

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and polemist, a war journalist. The bulk of such a multifaceted work is enclosed in A Hundred Sundry Flowers (1573), republished as the poems of Gascoigne alone in 1575 and divided into three picturesquely and bizarrely entitled sections (‘flowers’, ‘herbs’ and ‘weeds’).3 From the very subtitle, incidentally, the wordiness which Shakespeare would inexorably brand in his early comedies stands out. Indeed, if there is one thing in which Gascoigne really excels before the advent of the euphuists this is the art of the colourful title, always embroidered and reinforced with alliterations. There is no doubt that in all those competences listed above Gascoigne boasts a primogeniture which is a prominent title of merit; that is to say, he first planted the English flag in the territories of drama and narrative and critical prose. The actual results are uneven. At thirty, in 1566, he actually adapted in prose Ariosto’s I suppositi at Gray’s Inn.4 A Jocasta in blank verse was poorly drawn from an Italian version of the Aeschylean drama. Gascoigne’s major achievement, neither poetic nor dramatic, is the long prose novella The Adventures of Master F. J. (1573), the pioneering story, in part epistolary, of a liaison, and conducted, as in the libertine eighteenth century, without a pinch of moralism.5 A Hundred Sundry Flowers exuded scents of scandal, but I have already mentioned that the supposed authors were marked with acronyms or periphrases to avoid being recognized and to cover the identity of Gascoigne himself. In the anthology Gascoigne mimics Wyatt lamenting female inconstancy, but with a self-ironic vein; a resigned and sorrowful lullaby, with obvious

3 4

5

There is now a general consensus that, in the first edition, Gascoigne played the public the trick of inventing fake alias for the seventy-nine compositions he said were not his out of the 100 included; and that therefore all the anthology is his. The vicissitudes of Erostrato disguised as a servant to better woo Polimnestra (Polynesta in Gascoigne) resemble those in Sidney’s Arcadia. At the same time the denouement of Dulipo’s servant as the son of the lawyer Cleandro (stolen at the siege of Otranto by the Turks) is a precedent for The Comedy of Errors and other romances by Shakespeare. Ariosto’s first version of the play is from 1509, and in prose, and this is the basis of Gascoigne’s remake. Incorrigible, Gascoigne published the following year an expurgated version, presenting it as a translation from the Italian. C. S. Lewis, in 1954 (ELS, 269), was still searching for the elusive ‘Bartello’, the author from whom Gascoigne claimed to have taken it.

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sexual innuendos, remained popular, as well as a delicate, feminine poem, of evident Skeltonian memory, on a sparrow named Philip. The satire The Glass of Government (1575), a drama of the didactic genre of ‘the prodigal son’,6 and The Steel Glass (1576) in verse – the latter highly esteemed by many Gascoigne enthusiasts, but clumsy and heavy in its development – contain tones of repentance for the youthful past and attack the hypocrisy of the gallant world, of which Gascoigne had been a member. § 46. Other minor poets To Sackville and Gascoigne is generally attributed, therefore, a little merit, that of having filled a void in the void, the short time section between the 1540s and the 1570s and between Surrey and Sidney. Three or four are in that time span the independent poets working outside the anthologies or the miscellanies. Thomas Tusser (ca. 1525–1580) belongs to the timeless breed of British eccentrics without even an ounce of the Italianate. A bizarre, professional musician, and a country-producer of barley, in 1557 he published a handbook of domestic and rural economy that reached some ten editions by the end of the century and retained some popularity even after. The maxims therein collected are predictable and commonsensical, but often also whimsical, and complicated and idiosyncratic in their prosody of anapaestic quatrains, thus contradicting in practice the appearance of a pedestrian manual addressed to the uneducated. Barnaby Googe (1540–1594), having made a name as a translator of minor Latin works, took inspiration from Barclay and other pastoral poets for his collection of eight ‘Protestant’ eclogues (1563), to which was added an allegorical poem on Cupid ‘conquered’ (a kind of response to that of Lord Vaux in Tottel’s); both works herald Spenser while not failing to insist on the exhausting and alienating effects of love. George Turberville (ca. 1540–1610), he too a translator of Ovid and of Mantuan’s eclogues, published in 1567 a collection of epitaphs and epigrams in a faded Wyattian vein, though striking a new and imaginative note with a further series of stories about ‘speaking animals’ and of medieval ballads. Thomas Howell (personal details unknown) is almost the last sixteenth-century poet to verify the bad reputation of the 6

§ 87.2.

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‘poulterer’s measure’ (or rather the misuse of it by mediocre poets), and, at that date, a tired repetition of platitudes. § 47. Elizabethan Catholic poets Educated at Oxford, Edmund Campion (1541–1581) took Anglican orders but, soon wavering, he fled to Douai; he then became a Jesuit in Rome in 1573, returned home as a missionary to evangelize the central counties, and wrote the ‘ten reasons’ against Anglicanism, a pamphlet that intensified the manhunt for Catholics by royal officials. Caught by a spy, he was brought to London where he was interrogated by the queen in person, to whom he proclaimed himself a loyal subject, resisting temptations and blackmail. After a summary trial he was beheaded at Tyburn with two other Catholic martyrs, Sherwin and Bryant. Campion had previously left Oxford for Dublin on a mission similar to that of Hopkins 300 years later, which was to teach in a Catholic University in Ireland, set up in 1570 with identical, that is, slim, tangible results. A judgement of Campion given by Hopkins himself applies to him a paradigm that corresponded to one of his own, frequently stated autobiographical hankerings: Campion had been a brilliant and promising intellectual, a ‘star’ whose radiant light – for various environmental and personal circumstances – dimmed and was finally extinguished. With the same metaphor Hopkins described the parable of another Oxonian, Duns Scotus. At the same time, Hopkins vicariously idealized in Campion, and yearned for himself, the mystical and ecstatic experience of martyrdom, which he openly cherished in the nun of the ‘Deutschland’, or in St Winefred and other figures of saintly men and women. On Campion Hopkins intended in fact to write an ode of which no fragment is extant. In a letter to Dixon dated 18811 he mentions Campion’s History of Ireland, written ‘in hiding’, just like his heart in ‘The Windhover’. He added that he was the most vigorous mind, the most eloquent linguist, and the most combative theologian, not only of England but of the whole of Europe: ‘But his eloquence died on the air, his genius was quenched in his blood after one year’s employment in his 1

The Correspondence of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Richard Watson Dixon, London 1970, 94.

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country’. These words echo, again, Hopkins’s well-known epitaph on Duns Scotus.2 That History by Campion, written in 1571 and incorporated in 1587 by Holinshed,3 constructs a parallel but antithetical vision to Spenser’s Veue of which it is contemporary; and like it, it builds on the observation of the uses and customs of the Irish. 2. In the same letter quoted above, Hopkins also mentions Robert Southwell (1561–1595), another Jesuit priest and martyr, however calling him ‘a minor poet but still a poet’, a limiting judgement that lets us guess that his preference, and explicitly as a poet tout court, went to Campion, although no one can guess on what evidence. Hopkins’s coldness, the only line he devotes to Southwell compared to the two enthusiastic pages on Campion, and his further silence in his correspondence about the former, can be hardly explained straightaway. Southwell, like Hopkins, hungered for martyrdom, and, like Hopkins, he published no poetry in his lifetime, and he foreshadows a good thirty years earlier the flamboyant, continental Baroque of a Catholic stamp, as well as its only English representative poet, Crashaw. In his poetry Southwell comes therefore very close to the amazing, reckless and, at certain stages, intoxicated rhetoric of the author of the ‘Deutschland’. Hopkins, in short, could well find in him a kindred soul and someone, like him, ‘disanchor’d from a blissful shore’.4 Born into a Norfolk family of ancient Catholic traditions, Southwell, therefore not a convert, was sent to study in France in the Douai seminary, while a royal edict of 1584 forbade Catholic priests to extend their residence on English soil for over forty days, thus condemning Southwell to a clandestine life. He then held the post of prefect of studies at the English College in Rome, where he easily became acquainted with the Italian poetry of the Counter-Reformation. In 1586 he returned home to assist in apostolic works and to administer the sacraments, protected by families of aristocrats of the old faith. Sentenced to detention in a fetid cell, he was hanged, beheaded and quartered. His homiletic works already circulated in 2 3 4

See Volume 6, § 202.4. § 161.3. This is the first line of ‘The Prodigal Chyld’s Soule Wracke’, one of Southwell’s finest dramatic monologues.

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manuscript and were so widespread that one, Mary Magdalen’s Tears,5 in prose, was parodied by Nashe. His countrymen sought later to make amends for the barbaric and unspeakable shame of his martyrdom with long-time admiration,6 and preserving at least in anthologies the phantasmagoric ‘The Burning Babe’.7 Southwell’s major poetic work is, however, Saint Peter’s Complaint (1595, in 132 six-line stanzas), a free paraphrase of a poem by Luigi Tansillo, ‘Lagrime di San Pietro’, who offset with that work earlier licentious poems that had been placed on the Index. Southwell wrote this in prison in a veiled polemic against the very latest mythological poems, their vogue and their pagan aesthetics, such as Venus and Adonis by Shakespeare, which was challenged on its own ground and adopted the same metre and decorative forms. The Complaint sings the mercy of God, who forgave Peter who had denied Jesus, and thus Peter himself who, repenting and rehabilitated, became the founder of the Church of Christ. The autobiographical and personal resonance is pretty subtle. Peter exemplifies sinful human weakness only redeemed by Grace, but Southwell was not only, or not at all looking for an example, but precisely overtaking Peter with

5

6

7

The tears of the penitent or redeemed man are ubiquitous in Southwell: those of repenting Peter, those of Magdalene, those of Jesus himself in the vision described in ‘The Burning Babe’ (see below, n. 7). The latter poem closes a series of sacred lyrics of a prevailing gnomic or hymnal nature, where the pun between the death that is life and the life that is death crops up almost at every turn. Moeoniae, a collection of 1595, just posthumous, splits into single lyrics the scenes of the birth, marriage and motherhood of the Virgin and of other Gospel episodes. A modern recent edition is Collected Poems, ed. P. Davidson and A. Sweeney, Manchester 2007. The state of Southwell’s studies and editions is discussed in a review in TLS, 2 March 2007, 28. Southwell and Hopkins share the same scholar and biographer, Christopher Devlin. Jonson, like others after him, expressed his admiration for this poem, although composed in sixteen lines in the proverbially irritating ‘poulterer’s measure’. The polyvalent fire in which the ‘Babe’ is wrapped is a metaphor for the Passion which is also evoked by the tears that try to put out the fire; it is the flame of divine love and Christ incarnate for the benefit of Man, who refuses him; it is that of the furnace where the sins of mankind will burn. But, with a sudden twist, the fire will make room for the bloodshed, and for the blood that will wash away the stains of the sinners. Birth, Passion and Redemption already overlap in this Christmas hallucination.

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his own imminent martyrdom, and happily overcoming tortures which recalled those of Christ; he was aware of proceeding in the footsteps of the first martyr, Christ Himself. Here is perhaps the reason why Hopkins’s ‘Deutschland’, which resembles the Complaint in its figurative technique and its formal stamp, reverses Southwell’s argumentative plan. In Hopkins the heroic nun is the image of Peter, but of that Peter who was the rock on which the Church was to be founded, not the disciple who had denied Jesus. Southwell’s decasyllabic iambic regularity contrasts of course with Hopkins’s eight-line stanza of varied and ‘sprung’ prosody;8 but within the litanic and synonymic strings the same daring and hidden metaphors find room, the same insistent questions, the same antitheses and the same contrasts, including that foundational one in Hopkins, that death is life, and that Peter denying Jesus chose death believing he was saving his life. And yet the Catholic God forgives, and God’s forgiveness is, in Southwell and in Hopkins, a meeting between extremes, the extremes of maximum purity and maximum impurity. Hopkins too will not miss the opportunity to lament the religious division triggered by the Reformation. Southwell was in fact in jail because of the secession provoked by Luther – born, as Hopkins would remember, in the same village as Sister Gertrude, the nun exiled for the same reasons for which Southwell was convicted (‘Banned by the land of their birth’). Hopkins’s variant is explicit: ‘The Simon Peter of a soul’. In Hopkins’s ode this is inevitably followed by a reference to the Tarpeian rock, alluding to the name of Peter and to the stone.9 3. Henry Constable (1562–1613) lacks some marks of the identikit heading this section. His family was from Yorkshire and of ancient Catholic traditions, but Henry probably kept secret or ambiguous his Catholic leanings and became a favourite of Queen Elizabeth, who employed him, as a courtier, in military expeditions in France; but he made no mystery of his faith in the early 1590s and had to live in exile in France. On the death of the queen, back in England he acted as an intermediary between the Pope and the new monarch James I to convince him to return to the Roman fold and use greater tolerance towards Catholics. Arrested as a Catholic recusant 8 9

For all references to Hopkins’s poem see Volume 6, §§ 197–9. Peter’s plight is then, ultimately, that of the ‘terrible’ sonnets, of the night of the soul.

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and sent to the Tower, he escaped martyrdom and died a natural death in Belgium, where he had gone from Paris to dispute with a Protestant. Three pastoral rondos and a version of the story of Venus and Adonis in rhyming couplets, included in Helicon, were attributed to Constable since they were signed H. C. But Constable’s contemporary fame as a profane poet is due to the songbook Diana, in itself yet another, although elegant and professional, embroidery on worn-out imagery and a series of well-known and obvious conceits (fire and ice, life and death, the darting eyes). Nevertheless the title is not only that of the fortunate romance by Montemayor that had inspired Sidney, but indicates and points, in the guise of a paronomasia, to the divine nature of the woman who is sung and to the religious worship that is bestowed on her. The most continuous image that depicts her is that of the sun, not yet with the inevitable pun with the ‘Sun’. Except that in a sonnet Constable rhapsodizes on the seven deadly sins of the lover, which are the evidence of his unyielding loyalty, which results in the oxymoron of the heart ‘damn’d in love’s sweet fire’. The nineteenth sonnet eventually brings to light sacred allusions, hints at a free state and anticipates the reconversion of the sacred metaphor to its literal value. In this unusual sonnet the heart, like that of the Virgin, is pierced by five arrows shot by the woman; however, the wounds become the wounds of St Francis, making the poet a martyr of love. As a Catholic, Constable wrote seventeen explicitly ‘holy’ sonnets that are meditations on the mysteries of the Trinity and the Incarnation. Compared to Southwell, he celebrates the repentance of St Peter and St Paul, expressly remembering that the former ‘at a mayden’s voyce amazed stoode’. The last sonnets in this ‘corona’ hinge on figures of repentant sinners, therefore also on Mary Magdalene. § 48. Sidney* I: The diagnostician and healer of infected man Many biographies of Sir Philip Sidney (1554–1586) have been written since the earliest in 1610 (but published in 1652), the work of his 1

*

Complete Works, ed. A. Feuillerat, 4 vols, Cambridge 1912–1926; separate edns: Arcadia (Old), ed. J. Robertson, Oxford 1973, ed. K. Duncan-Jones, Oxford 1985; (New) ed. V. Skretkowicz, Oxford 1987; (1593 version) ed. M. Evans, Harmondsworth 1977. The Poems, ed. W. A. Ringler, Oxford 1962; Miscellaneous Prose of Sir Philip Sidney, ed. K. Duncan-Jones and J. Van Dorsten, Oxford 1973; The Correspondence of Sir

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contemporary, Fulke Greville,1 a devoted friend from the time they were both pupils at Shrewsbury college. The demand for accounts of his life was Philip Sidney, ed. R. Kuin, 2 vols, Oxford 2012. An excellent anthology with notes is Sir Philip Sidney, ed. K. Duncan-Jones, Oxford 1990. Astrophil and Stella, with book-length introduction, text and commentary, ed. V. Gentili, Bari 1965. Life. F. Greville, Life of Sidney, London 1652, and, ed. N. Smith, Oxford 1907; M. Wallace, The Life of Sir Philip Sidney, Cambridge 1915; M. Wilson, Sir Philip Sidney, London 1931, 1950; J. Buxton, Sir Philip Sidney and the English Renaissance, London 1954; J. M. Osborn, Young Philip Sidney, 1572–1577, New Haven, CT and London 1972; K. Duncan-Jones, Sir Philip Sidney: Courtier Poet, New Haven, CT and London 1991; A. Stewart, Philip Sidney: A Double Life, London 2000. Criticism. J. A. Symonds, Sir Philip Sidney, New York 1886; R. W. Zandvoort, Sidney’s Arcadia: A Comparison of the Two Versions, Amsterdam 1929; K. O. Myrick, Sir Philip Sidney as a Literary Craftsman, Cambridge, MA 1935, Lincoln, NE 1965; M. Praz, ‘Sidney’s Original Arcadia’ in Ricerche anglo-italiane, Roma 1944, 63–78 (1st edn 1927); A. Biagi, Sir Philip Sidney, Napoli 1958; K. Muir, Sir Philip Sidney, London 1960; R. L. Montgomery, Symmetry and Sense; The Poetry of Sir Philip Sidney, Austin, TX 1961; W. T. Davis and R. Lanham, Sidney’s Arcadia, New Haven, CT 1965; D. Kalstone, Sidney’s Poetry: Contexts and Interpretations, Cambridge, MA 1965; N. L. Rudenstine, Sidney’s Poetic Development, Cambridge, MA 1967; R. Howell, Sir Philip Sidney: The Shepherd Knight, London 1968; F. Marenco, Arcadia puritana. L’uso della tradizione nella prima ‘Arcadia’ di Sir Philip Sidney, Bari 1968 (an interpretation of Arcadia as an ‘allegory of man’s life after the Fall’ [218]); R. Kimbrough, Sir Philip Sidney, New York 1971; J. G. Nichols, The Poetry of Philip Sidney: An Interpretation in the Context of His Life and Times, Liverpool 1974; D. Connell, Sir Philip Sidney: The Maker’s Mind, Oxford 1977; A. C. Hamilton, Sir Philip Sidney: A Study of His Life and Work, Cambridge 1977 (an excellent general introduction); A. D. Weiner, Sir Philip Sidney and the Poetics of Protestantism: A Study of Contexts, Minneapolis, MN 1978; R. C. McCoy, Sir Philip Sidney: Rebellion in Arcadia, Brighton 1979; Sir Philip Sidney: An Anthology of Modern Criticism, ed. D. Kay, Oxford 1987; S. K. Heninger, Sidney and Spenser: The Poet as Maker, University Park, PA 1989; Sir Philip Sidney’s Achievements, ed. M. J. B. Allen et al., New York 1990; A. Hager, Dazzling Images: The Masks of Sir Philip Sidney, Newark, DE and London 1991; J. Rees, Sir Philip Sidney and Arcadia, London 1991; CRHE, ed. M. Garrett, London 1996; B. Worden, The Sound of Virtue: Sir Philip Sidney’s ‘Arcadia’ and Elizabethan Politics, New Haven, CT 1996; E. Berry, The Making of Sir Philip Sidney, Toronto 1998; G. Alexander, Writing after Sidney: The Literary Response to Sir Philip Sidney 1586–1640, Oxford 2007. 1

§ 55.

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fed by the spectacular evangelizing utopias and the amazing deeds in which he had been involved during his brief lifetime. As Thomas More had been the saint of old, papist England, and the scapegoat of Henry VIII’s monarchy, Sidney was the martyr of the Elizabethan one. In 1586 England proudly presented to the world this prodigious son of hers. Sidney was the most complete personification, in the eyes of his contemporaries, of the perfect courtier as described in the conduct books, and of a Messianic ideal moulded and invoked for more than half a century: a polyhedral man, cultivating art with feigned, deliberate snobbery – not with a full-time involvement2 to be sure, but, to an equally certain extent, with a flaunted amateurism which in fact hid a deeply embedded professionalism. At the same time, as a child Sidney had started to pluck the choicest flowers of Renaissance culture, especially Reformation culture, preparing himself in the best way possible to serve queen and Crown, and to form the most perfect synthesis between the man of thought and the man of action. It is true that, when he had ended this preparation, in 1575 Sidney was eventually under-used (we will have to seek the reasons for this); but death left him only a scant decade to wait and try himself.3 In 1586 his funeral in London, attended by huge crowds, sumptuous and solemn as never before, nearly made his father-in-law Sir Francis Walsingham bankrupt. They were a response to what had been – or seemed to be – a romantic, heroic example of contempt for danger. He died in fact hardly thirty-two years old, in a military action which was insignificant in itself but had for him great symbolic value.4 Made governor of Vlissingen, a bulwark the Orange had granted the English in exchange for their military help against the Spanish, he was wounded during a skirmish by a musket shot in his thigh, for he had taken off his greaves to emulate another warrior; the legend is that he

2 3 4

None of Sidney’s three main works (five, including the Arcadias) was printed during his life. His knighthood, awarded in 1583, was largely motivated by political expediency. Obviously Sidney is one of the first poets ‘killed in action’ in their prime, fighting for a just human cause, and subsequently made myths of, especially by England’s national conscience, until the ‘war poets’ generation of World War I (Volume 7, §§ 61–8).

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had given his water allowance to a soldier ‘who needed it more’. He died repenting of his vanities and asking that his Arcadia be burnt: two more facts that require explanation. Spenser was one of those who soon after wrote elegies and dirges (nearly 200 of them) for the dead poet. 2. One passage from the Defence of Poesy can be said to enclose the key to the life and work of Sidney: creation is still troubled, he says, by ‘that first accursed fall of Adam, since our erected wit maketh us know what perfection is, and yet our infected will keepeth us from reaching unto it’. The concordance of Sidney’s writings testifies to an obsessive recurrence of the terms ‘infected’ and ‘infection’, especially in the way they surface in harmless metaphors and even idioms. Tirelessly, one could say, from his first to last page, Sidney’s aim is to stage, and possibly show the victory in the strife between the original infections inherited from the post-lapsarian condition, and the will power that should, indeed can, heal them. At the same time aseptic gnosis must give room to praxis, as in all forms of voluntarism. For Sidney, Man’s genuine reform and his regeneration stem from an enlightened, non-dogmatic Protestantism, which therefore tries to get rid of the many oppressive hypostases and of the demands of an ineluctable quietism; he therefore proposes feasible, concrete measures, the fruits of a missionary utopia. He was forced to hide his enormous talents, as I said, under a bushel: queen and court either were unaware of them, or deliberately pushed him aside. This is symptomatic, since Sidney was anything but a Machiavellian, despised political opportunism, and was, instead, rather naïve. He committed indeed at least one diplomatic blunder at the time of the marriage proposal made to the queen by a Catholic French duke, and he had to leave the court, not before having challenged Lord de Vere,5 the 5

The lyrics of the turbulent Edward de Vere (1550–1604), seventeenth Earl of Oxford, Cecil’s son-in-law and very dear to the queen despite his Catholic leanings, were mainly printed in the 1576 Paradise of Dainty Devises (§ 41.2 n. 4). Obvious ideological reasons made Sidney arbitrarily brand him, though without naming him, in his Defence of Poesy. Being also a playwright and impresario, in more recent times (1920) de Vere was preposterously deemed to be the real author of Shakespeare’s plays. Like Dyer (see below n. 8), de Vere, whose surviving lyrics are no more than twenty-two (see the edition by W. M. Looney, London 1921), owes his fame to one which was particularly catchy (hence set to music by Byrd), entitled ‘Woman’s Changeableness’,

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leader of the English Catholics, to a duel, and written a bold letter of dissent. Exile from public life was the fortunate pre-condition to his writing. Sidney dreamed of a cosmos brought back to its first promises, lawfully enjoying the prerogatives lavished on man by the original act of Creation. The prominent stages of his life tie in with these objectives, as well as with these dissensions. At Shrewsbury school Sidney’s teacher was, pour cause, a great Calvinist pedagogue, and he was thus brought up on the catechism of the Geneva reformer. His life was an adjustment, though not a rebuttal, of such early experience. Departing in 1572 at the age of seventeen for a European grand tour, in Paris he witnessed the night of St Bartholomew, and his anti-Catholicism was further intensified by his acquaintance with the Burgundian Huguenot Hubert Languet. This humanist was one of the many putative fathers6 that, having sensed his dazzling talents, prophesied a splendid future for him and reminded him daily of his ‘great expectations’.7 Sidney, however, wished to be the master of his own life. Back home, he did actually yearn to engage in public life; in particular he began to think of founding (and being himself its leader?) a Protestant league against Spanish Catholicism, with the queen’s moderate support. He sought to quench his frustration in plans to colonize and explore the universe, populated and unpopulated. But Elizabeth forbade him, one year before he died, to leave with Drake for Virginia. The circumstances of his death may appear at this point to have been seconded and wilfully planned. Sidney died, indeed, of gangrene, that is, of infection, persuaded he had not sufficiently pleaded the reasons for Man to be cured of the real gangrene, the soul’s moral infection; even, perhaps, that he had been unable to cure himself.

6

7

in itself commenting a commonplace, female appeal that bamboozles unresisting men. Others also reveal however a vein of pleasant, witty introspection. Sidney’s father, Lord Henry, for three terms the Viceroy of Ireland, ended his career as ‘president of the Welsh marches’. On his mother’s side Sidney was the nephew of two of the queen’s most influential counsellors and statesmen, one of them the Earl of Leicester. Sonnet 21 in Certain Sonnets. As Duncan-Jones 1990, xvii, notices, Dickens cleverly adopted this expression for the title of his Great Expectations, centring on the passion of one Philip (nicknamed Pip) for one [E]stella.

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3. Debunking biographers have corrected and revised, but not demolished, the portrait of the fabulously upright and immaculate Renaissance gentleman, and of his tragic heroism. We must not mistake Sidney for a pious, ascetic bigot forever occupied with his ideals. His wholly pure and heroic detachment is the reverse side of the force with which the world and its passions impinge on Sidney the man and on his alter egos in his works. Sidney was anything but an angel or a stigmatized saint; he felt in himself man’s weakness and his yielding to passions, vices, even turpitudes, and accepted them with equanimity, or scourged and urged himself to conquer them. He was daily prone to spasms of melancholy, depression and distrust that Languet exhorted him to subdue. He was touchy, and also foppish, overly smart in dressing, and therefore ‘vain’. In a way no character was wittier, shrewder and more malicious than he, as the Arcadias show, especially the first, which is an apotheosis of caprice and mischievous fancy, as well as the sonnets and his very candid letters, where he can use and measure out seriousness, humour, parody, comedy and farce – but also send to the devil, curse and insult the addressee. The fictionality of literature finds its first adept in Sidney. In the Arcadias the unrequited lover’s complaint and his pain – the frustrated pathos of the sonnets to Stella – undergo the action of a controlled objectivity and a humour that relativizes them; estrangement always lurks between the lines. Sidney did not objectify himself only as Astrophel. Philisides in the Arcadia is also a Greek anagram of Sidney, who at the end of the eclogues of Book IV formulates a coherent anamnesis, thus a short masked autobiography. At the same time the effusive, and almost subjective and unchecked poet of Astrophel and Stella is the one writing as a critic of poetry, hence a critical judge of his own too. The Defence extends the motif of regeneration to English poetry, which Spenser in founding the Areopagus had tried to set in motion.8 Indeed, English

8

Of the coterie also Edward Dyer (ca. 1543–1607), knighted in 1596, had been part. An Oxonian, rumoured to be a Rosicrucian and an adept in alchemy, he came to court with Leicester’s recommendation and was instantly employed by the queen in European diplomatic missions. Sidney showed his esteem by leaving half of his books to him and half to Fulke Greville, and Dyer helped carry his bier at the funeral. As a poet Dyer was praised by Puttenham for his ‘sweet’, perhaps even sugary elegies,

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poetry was not infected: it simply had never been born. Practically, Sidney is the first poet after Chaucer whose work can be divided into single individual items and single genres. It is also an exceptionally coherent oeuvre where everything is interrelated, rich in cross-references surfacing at a linguistic, lexical, symbolic, figurative, logical and argumentative level. He invites us to think of what his future career might have been, like other authors prematurely dead, great not for what they promised but for what they had already done: Shelley, Keats, Rimbaud, Leopardi, all of whom older than he when they died, save Keats. We may wonder, in other words, what Sidney would have become had he not died so young, and having written already two masterpieces at an age when most writers are usually busy attending to their apprenticeship. Everything leads us to assert that Sidney is a Surrey on a higher, far higher scale: of noble lineage, precocious, with a literary and heroic calling, dying a young, tragic death, the main fountain of his poetry springing from the romance of this life. But Surrey is no theoretician, nor does he produce a really organic poetic collection or even an Arcadia: he is a timid Protestant, perhaps deep in his heart an old Catholic, as much as Sidney is a confirmed enemy to the Pope and to Spain. Vice versa, an abyss has been seen between Sidney and Spenser. This contrast was partly agreed upon on the basis of the ‘new’ Arcadia, over the nearly four centuries when the lost, ‘old’ one was unknown; but it was also the fruit of a superficial, obtuse reading of that text, only intent on discovering, as if through Croce’s alembic, traces of the old codes of the graceless poets of the previous generation, and the first signs of a new stylistic revival. Sidney’s little, symbolic dishonour until lately was that of not deserving a chapter for himself in the handbooks, and that, just like other minor authors, of being discussed in surveys dealing with the history of the sonnet, Elizabethan prose and treatises on poetry. These were the kind of handbooks that surprisingly devoted a whole chapter to Gascoigne.9

9

largely now lost, singing his love for Phyllis and Amaryllis; one of those certainly by him is the lyric, foreshadowing Browning’s optimism, beginning with the line ‘My mind to me a kingdom is’. Since his glorification after death, Sidney’s only nineteenth-century supporter, symptomatically criticized (especially by Hazlitt) or overlooked, had been Charles Lamb.

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§ 49. Sidney II: ‘The Lady of May’ and other youthful lyrics Sidney’s beginnings all belong to the pastoral genre; they are eclogues in various metres behind the mask of a Philisides, an alter ego that, besides being an anagram of his name, also alludes to him as a ‘star-lover’; Sidney is therefore from the first an Astrophel. The woman he loves and sings of is one Mira, whose Latin etymon points to the fact that she ‘looks’, and dazzles, but also blinds and destroys by means of Sidney’s erogenous source par excellence, the eyes, black eyes already. Mira is a name that does not only, or perhaps not at all, mean ‘wonderful’10 but also secretly alludes, as I shall suppose without quite believing it, to Mary, of which it is an umpteenth anagram: his sister Mary, that is, as though the poet were incestuously in love with her.11 The few lyrics he wrote as a teenager display another camouflage: he has in mind and gives a reading of the present, contemporary scene, of the historical-political calendar and of his own person, in terms and along the lines of a parallel action, and calls England Samothea, a Greek region – and this parallelism will be exploited in the Arcadias. 2. The Lady of May is a masque in verse and prose offered to Queen Elizabeth in 1578 or 1579, and structured as a contest, which the queen in the fiction is asked to decide, between a shepherd Espilus and a hunter Therion for the hand of a little rustic queen. It is the precocious foreshadowing of a simple, somewhat confused and artless show put on for an aristocratic clique, and it openly looks ahead to the artisans’ recital in A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream. The two suitors sing their worth to win the contest, before their partisans’ choruses are heard. It is a very brief and schematic text, only remarkable because it contains the unnecessary interventions of a Master Rombus, the first appearance of the pedant who along with the

10 11

Apparently the censures eventually elicited by the second and third Arcadia were long passively echoed cliché-like in the twentieth century, critics being unable to verify them ex novo on the old Arcadia. Twenty years after its publication in 1926, T. S. Eliot, in The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (1944), said its reading was an experience of ‘monumental monotony’. With this judgement, which in a blander form could also be applied to Malory, Virginia Woolf did not agree. This suggestion can be found in Duncan-Jones 1990, 333. The suspicion was put forward in Aubrey’s Brief Lives, as mentioned in Gentili 1965, 66 n. 51.

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related satire and farce will occupy so much space in the first, middle and late plays by Shakespeare. Sidney exceeds in fact the measure with cloying tirades crammed with macaronic Latin names, logical and rhetorical medieval clauses, extravagant coinages and jests reinforced by insistent alliterations. It is a minor tour de force, a pastiche; at the same time Sidney works in the area of stylistic and linguistic experiment, showing from the start that he was at least a dramatist in nuce. His sensibility to idiolects and spoken varieties will demand curbing after this sparkling beginning. Since the times of Skelton and Dunbar no such peppery repartees, verbal shots and recklessly lively argy-bargy had been heard. 3. Certain Sonnets is not Sidney’s title, but one given later to a collection he really or presumably compiled between 1577 and 1581 to gather together poems excluded from Astrophel and Stella. Thus it lacks the latter’s compactness, and is an exercise-book – here and there a hotchpotch – containing a majority of sonnets, not all of them love-sonnets, together with some other that are descriptive, and some light and occasional, with lyrics, ballads, lullabies, songs and compositions in different prosodies, besides adaptations and mere translations. Yet the poet will not throw them all away, but re-use some lines or ideas or even whole lyrics in the Arcadias. Sidney still echoes the Petrarchan cliché of the hard and cruel lady, also sung by Wyatt, with his old and trite conceits harking back to Serafino Aquilano. But the lady’s eyes shoot deadly arrows, being thus set within the poet’s imaginary universe. Sidney’s classic oppositions and dilemmas between senses and reason, the motif of love as an ‘infection’,12 and certain rhyming automatisms, are also announced. Sonnet 21 is the closest Sidney comes to the exasperated atmospheres of Astrophel and Stella, for the poet turns his own eyes from the dazzling and blinding ones of the woman and chooses to shut himself in darkness like the mole; then he thinks it over and imitates the fly, ‘Pleased with the light that his small corse doth burn’, and ponders whether it is better to live and die like a blind mole or a burnt fly. What is most remarkable is the criss-crossing of voices,

12

Sonnet 18 is pre-Romantic, as it sees ‘engraved’ in nature – rocks, woods, hills, caves, vales, fields, brooks – symbols and mirrorings of pain, and in fact ends with the line ‘Infected minds infect each thing they see’.

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and also of registers reflecting different moods. Four sonnets, decidedly anti-lyrical and bathetic, deplore the toothache that disfigures the lady’s lovely face. Others are too discursive, argumentative or prosaic, neither swift nor dense in their developments, nor imaginative. The final chord is stagnant frustration, conquered only in some apostrophes to himself, where he reacts to his entanglement and abandons love.13 § 50. Sidney III: ‘Astrophel and Stella’ Written around 1582, without question after 1581 although incorporating and adapting already existing compositions, the sonnets constituting Astrophel (or Astrophil) and Stella14 (108 together with eleven songs) were printed as a collection in 1591 in an unauthorized edition, followed in 1598 by an authorised one. For the third time in rapid succession an English poet pours into his poems an autobiographical, sentimental romance, where real events are grafted onto the Petrarchist tradition, acquiring stylized nuances and metamorphoses typical of so-called poetic license.15 Sidney had known Penelope Devereux from a very tender age, like Surrey his Geraldine; she had been promised to him but had married another man, and Sidney himself had married another woman, loved less, a second best. The collection was prompted by regret for a love he had considered lukewarm and superficial, and whose depth had been revealed to him only after he had lost it, so that sonnet 33 confesses it would have been better for Sidney to have loved Penelope from the start, or to have never seen her. Stella in real life was no saint, and indeed she eventually separated from her husband; during her marriage she had a lover – further evidence of 13

14 15

Sonnet 32, the last but one poem of the collection, forecasts in its imagery and afflatus the pained but trusting farewell to the world of future Victorians like Christina Rossetti and Hopkins (the latter especially in ‘Heaven-Haven’ and ‘The Habit of Perfection’). On the alternative Astrophel/Astrophil see Hamilton 1977, 181 n. 36, recalling that the ‘phil’ suffix functions if taken alone, as it contains the first syllable of Philip, whereas Astrophel is to be preferred owing to the assonance with Stella. Hints and flashes of Sidney’s biography are in sonnet 27 (he is proud and disdainful of the chattering courtiers); in 51 and especially in 53 Sidney is the knight valiant in tournaments, incited by Stella’s light-sparking eyes. At the end of the songbook Sidney once more confesses his revengeful, harsh temper.

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how biography is transfigured in Astrophel and Stella. This plot, anything but original, was subjected, thanks to Sidney’s ability to look at experience in perspective, to an ingenious formalization. Onomastics, etymology, puns and even charades had already timidly emerged in him; here too he resorted to the astrological wordplay of a ‘star’ loved by ‘the man loving a star’ and all stars, fusing Greek and Latin etymons. Penelope Devereux had married a Lord Rich, whose name lent itself to further embroidery in the semantic field of economics. The fact that Sidney assembled in a collection about 100 sonnets somewhat defines his very poetics. Thomas Watson (1555–1592) represents an intermediate stage in the history of the English sonnet, having published in 1582 one Hecatompathia or ‘passionate century of love’ giving a new voice to the Petrarchist vein. But, with one exception, these were rather pseudo-sonnets, bearing the strange name of ‘quatorzines’. Sidney therefore swept aside Watson as a pioneer of the string of sonnets linked in a collection. Other sonneteers will be treated apart in this work: in Sidney’s wake, before the end of the century there are minor poets like Constable, Lodge, Barnes and Giles Fletcher. Outwardly, in this decade de oro, Petrarch’s sonnet blended with the influence of the two Frenchmen Du Bellay and Ronsard, who began to question Petrarchism. The component parts remained the same, however, like the repertory of situations, themes, tropes and conceits. There was thus the risk of belated imitation. Invention was the asymptotic objective, as it would inevitably play with the stereotype of impossible love. In short, Sidney wondered why he should write the umpteenth collection of this kind, which meant and implied – supposing one should write coolly and reject the lie of wishing to seem to write on the spur of the moment – a vain, idle, useless enterprise, at least for monogamous social conventions. From Dante and Petrarch on, rather, the rule, not the exception, had been to sing of courtly love or ‘the allegory of love’, necessarily dreaming of robbing a husband of his lawful wife, having being struck with love for her at a fleeting casual encounter. Sidney had no way, or one in a thousand, of achieving the physical-spiritual love of a now-married Penelope. All his poetic expense is an imaginary reconstruction of a vain courtship, but as though it were still possible, even lawfully possible, to achieve the enjoyment of that love – as though all his supplications might gain cumulative strength, whereas the more he addresses her, the more he realizes that his hypothetical, re-imagined love

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will not be rewarded. In the first sonnet Sidney seems to wonder how a verbal enunciation can help him not only to be listened to, not only to please and interest the deaf or indifferent woman (and climax immediately looms as one of his favourite tropes); not only – this was Wyatt’s single aim – to obtain ‘pity’, but also ‘grace’: to be loved in return, whether spiritually or physically he does not specify. So this songbook, like others, conceals its purpose, and wishes or would wish for the woman to yield to the lover’s embrace; or to have yielded. On the other hand, very soon Sidney tackles the problem of all great poetry: he seems aware of the exhaustion of a poetic genre which for decades had repeated the same concepts, or rather the same conceits issuing from the brain, not the heart. So he admits he is seeking the ‘right’ words – in rhetorical terms, ‘invention’. The poet must not ‘invent’ in Giambattista Marino’s sense of the term, but find new, fresh, spring-water words fit to surprise the listener and catch the attention (‘fine’ inventions, that is). The ‘feet’ of other poets are a witty synecdoche for their verses, from whose pages the now dry intellect of the poet might perhaps draw a fresh trickle of water. Therefore the first sonnet describes a poet trying to learn poetry, seeking it fresh in the poems of others; but that freshness is already squeezed dry. The sonnet’s ending establishes a rule or a utopian aim: the poet would like to get rid of his earlier, stale poetry and find a new source of inspiration, so as to sing that his own love is unique; and the muse suggests to the poet, fretting and gnawing his pen, that he seek invention within his own heart, not outside, in imitation. In metadiscursive terms this first sonnet intimates the rejection of imitation; the poet proudly claims he has mastered invention just as he is writing, and is aware of having composed an example of inventive poetry.16 2. Astrophel and Stella’s poetry is therefore, by definition and intent, metadiscursive. Its sonnets in every single instance should impress one as new and genuine rather than repetitive. But this is more easily said than done. Sidney’s rhetoric tries to be anti-rhetorical and declares this loudly in sonnet 3, where Stella is beauty and, above all, nature, which can only be copied; other poets ennoble ‘new-found tropes with problems old’. Sonnet

16

PMI, 264, gives a list of Sidney’s Petrarchan borrowings, but generously concludes (265) that ‘Sidney is not a servile imitator’.

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6 voices his rejection of conventional tropism, conceits, mythological and pastoral imagery, but uses, if only to name them, the linguistic materials he wants to get rid of. Yet even this sonnet turns upon his poetry excelling that of others as to sincerity and truthfulness. Sonnet 15 again criticizes mechanical expressions derived from handbooks and dictionaries: whoever finds himself in Stella’s presence coins a new language. Here Sidney more explicitly repels the tradition of ‘poor Petrarch’. The next sonnet expresses boundless hubris at the ‘others’ who have talked of their loves’ flame. Sonnet 54’s incipit, which echoes that of Cavalcanti’s famous ballatetta, confirms that Astrophel does not love like others, vaunting their love with false but rich emphasis: the sonnet praises instead the deep heart-felt loves of the dumb (‘Dumb swans, not chattering pies, do lovers prove’). A paradox lies at the heart of sonnet 55, where the poet states his decision to quit all rhetorical embellishments and adopt a figureless language; only Stella’s name, by just being uttered, produces higher eloquence. 3. In its only partly linear and progressive organization Astrophel and Stella follows certain leitmotifs. It subsists and propagates itself by the illusion and contradiction of amour fou, asserted and analysed as early as sonnet 2. In retrospect, tyrannical love has prevailed, with a touch of regret for lost liberty. In the sextet the poet admits as best he can that controlled fiction in which one lives in loving without hope, when one ‘makes [one] self believe’ that one lives in a never-so-blessed state, rather than in a hell. The unredeemed dilemma between reason and sense is one of those motifs; being in love is cyclically revisited, in the form of Cupid’s rather careful and clever operations. Stella’s apotheosis as starry model of virtue is celebrated, as well as the unequalled power of Astrophel’s passion, coming not from the mouth but from a far deeper source, the heart. As in Petrarch, the eleven songs in prosodies different from the sonnet – interpolated according to another, independent numerical progression – contribute to give the sense of a differing texture. Some of them are wonderful, other passable, but most are conventional, sugary, too long, a true violation of the commandment of freshness. Astrophel’s discreet, veiled image as a shepherd is a forecast of the atmosphere of the Arcadias. The finest of these songs is the tenth, brimming with Sehnsucht, and showing that absence has not changed but enhanced Astrophel and Stella’s unison. Here Stella is like a deceased Laura, although Stella was very much alive when Sidney was writing; but she had become a Lady whom her lover could not attain. If we look at the tenses,

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and at the prevalence of the present tense, Sidney’s sonnets are mimetic and dramatic; some of them strike us with the exasperated theatricality of their inner debate and conflict. In 47 the poet asks himself fervid questions and urges himself to his freedom; he even prays that the enchantment blinding and enthralling him will explode in a thousand pieces. In the sonnets where the poet spurs himself to conquer torpidity and overcome apathy we seem to hear Hopkins, who will significantly revive the use of climax. But Stella’s mere presence is sufficient to dispel every hope and aspiration: the chains are drawn even tighter. The romance is such because SidneyAstrophel, through the classic suspension of disbelief, manages to imagine and fancy that the stalemate might end, that Stella’s stony immobility might crack and be reversed. 67, staging an excited interior debate, quivers with the feeling that something real may soon happen. 69 seems to imply some satisfaction, even consummation of love, but it is only conditional. The sonnets that follow retain this sense of triumphant intoxication, though veiled by a very subtle regret: for desire has lessened and submitted to spiritualization; and indeed the last line of 71 relentlessly demands: ‘Give me some food’. The same hymn to spiritual love next echoes in 72, but desire balks and protests – indeed, overflows into sleep and dream, scarcely checked on awakening, in the song inserted between 72 and 73. In this brief sub-romance, therefore, Stella comes back angry and sullen. The thread abruptly breaks with the poet again extolling the sweetness inspired in him not by the muses, but by her lips. The climactic moment of the envisaged rape dissolves in some cloying conventional digressions on jealousy or the intoxicating kisses, with a touch of avant lettre Marinism and a hint of the metaphysical Herbert in the list of defining epithets (79). But the narrative does not end, and the lover becomes wittier, less obscure, happier, renewing the attack to obtain at least a kiss. 82 is perhaps Sidney’s most piquant sonnet: the loved one’s lips are like cherries, but cherries being bitten and thereby perhaps alluding to woman’s nipples; the cherry tree also evokes Adam’s sexual sin, as a nymph actually guards the tree in an orchard.17 The poet is at the same time Satan stealing into the orchard and

17

The metaphor of lips like cherries appears in Campion’s song (§ 67) known as ‘Cherry Ripe’, with the same sexual ambiguity, especially alluding, in Campion, not so much to the nipples as the vagina, whose entrance is guarded by threatening angels.

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Satan chased away. The coda of the collection, read according to the biographical romance, is rather vague and non-committal. The ensuing sonnets are more and more temporizing (such as those on Stella’s street and home), and the series of inserted songs looking forward to an imagined embrace is extended. This promising moment turns into grave disappointment, hinting that the lover is once more repelled by the woman, who, angry and sullen, invites him to be chaste (86); this disagreement becomes the refrain of a number of songs which, one after another, invoke a cosmic revenge on the ungrateful, hard-hearted woman. The closing note is on the pain of final separation (87 and following). In the time of absence, however, the lover keeps his immutable faith and inner sense of Stella’s presence. Yet it is a rather troubled, indeed a perturbed vigil, producing Sidney’s own ‘terrible’ sonnets, obscure, anguished, scarcely relieved by others more evocative, hymnal, proclaiming that only love urges him to write; or by phenomenological ones in a lower key, witty like 92, where the poet wants to hear news of the woman and know her minute daily occupations. 4. Throughout Astrophel and Stella Sidney beseeches his lady to grant him ‘grace’. This may mean compassion, or it may be a euphemism for more material results. When Astrophel is pessimistic and low-spirited, grace means a swifter annihilation (48). Sidney’s most celebrated sonnet, 31, is a passionate address to the moon concerning the laws of love up in the sky, a way of speaking of Stella’s ungratefulness, and his unreciprocated love. The semantic gamut of the term ‘grace’ is broad and variable. Grace is invoked once again in 56, a far more explicit sonnet expressing impatience, quivering impatience for her visit to him, if only to feel his ardent desire. But the outcome might be worse, for Stella, once present, will be obliged to implode her burning desire. A kind of grace is achieved in 57: transfixed with her lover’s pain, Stella sweetens it by singing.18 Even more clearly, in 63 the poet says he has asked ‘that thing, which ever she denies’; 18

Probably the worst, most bathetic sonnet is 59, where the poet envies the dog Stella loves more than he, although he serves her far more diligently; so that he would like to become a ‘witless thing’ like the dog. Similar, but quite successfully expressing his exasperated wit, is 83 on Philip the sparrow (named after Skelton’s), envied because he is always so close to the lady, and therefore threatened with death.

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although the ending wittily minimizes this request: ‘in one speech two negatives affirm’ (Stella has formulated her denial with a ‘No, no’). The insoluble opposition at the base of Astrophel and Stella lies in the fact that Astrophel is a sensual male and Stella a chaste, spiritual woman; it is the conflict between reason recommending to check or even despise carnal love and the senses feeling its keen pangs. Before Stella even personified Virtue must bow (4). But immediately after, she becomes (5) a body that lures and prevents the pursuit of heavenly realities. Intermittently the idea arises that in the last analysis Astrophel’s love is impure, although protected by the lie of courtly love. Sonnets 8 and 9 exalt Stella’s virtue and chastity for chasing away mischievous, malicious Cupid. And yet the poet indulges in making small, very similar sketches of the petulant deeds of Cupid, love’s intermediary, a true go-between for the two of them. In 12 Cupid supposes he has conquered Stella, but that is impossible. Her house (9) is described in sexually allusive terms, its door having a ‘lock of pearl’. The allegorical personification of Reason (10), as in one of the Certain Sonnets, argues that reason must admit love is good, but only on condition it is faithful, enduring and chaste, which is no sin. This is a syllogism that suddenly (18) antagonizes Astrophel, making him declare: I shall be ruined, and also damned, but I love and will love. In 19, mimetic and therefore in the present tense, Astrophel admits he is not capable of a spiritual, Platonic love, because he looks at the heavens but stumbles, falling into a symbolic ditch. Cupid, or sensual love, has pricked and wounded him; witness his seeming to have read Plato ‘for nought’ (21). Other men’s hearty advice does not find the right soil, and all intentions crumble before his infatuation with Stella. No. 34 is a confession of being in a muddle owing to Stella’s great powers. It is a dialogue between mental and inner entities, a monologue or soliloquy. Will it help to disburden oneself by speaking? Is there any catharsis? Sonnet 42 shows a process of purification, whereby Love or Cupid, so to speak, enters Stella and re-emerges purified. Line 3 affirms that Stella’s eyes offer themselves to love’s conquest, but love is conquered by them, and in those eyes Venus (l. 4) learns chastity.19 This unfinished diatribe is 19

Stella’s beauty and overpowering charm centre on her eyes, which in homage to the symbolic nature of her name flash beams of light. There are therefore countless

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completed in 52, where love and virtue compete for Stella, whose looks arouse the senses, but whose inner life is synonymous with virtue. In 61 to love means to worship a saint, that is to say, to learn how to tame desires. Here the final remonstrance is meaningful: oh no, Cupid, do your part, for one cannot love by ceasing to love – again playing on the ambivalence of ‘love’, both sensual and spiritual desire. The idea is clarified in the next sonnet 62: Stella is the locus of ‘true love’, to be distinguished from ‘vain love’, sensual love. The sonnet hopes for and authorizes a love which is not blind but sedate, mastered, lucid; but even in this case the poet sings a hymn to the other, carnal, love. As we have seen, Astrophel at times accepts and checks himself, and at others reacts and cries out. In the first case there is the fluent language of apotheosis. In 35 even the hypostases of moderation sin by excess before the unlimited that is Stella. Reason itself (mentioned in sonnet 10, cited above) goes mad by being compelled to blow on the burning coals of passion for Stella. Cupid is forced to become the sworn page of chastity. § 51. Sidney IV: The ‘Old Arcadia’ I. The neoclassical polish and the oblivion of reality In comparison to Sidney’s other works, the most exacting and representative one, and the richest in implications and suggestions, is not the sonnet collection Astrophel and Stella, but the Arcadia, despite the fact that its author, partly out of coquetry, partly for a more obscure reason I shall try to explain, called it a ‘delightful book’, a ‘trifle’, and ‘triflingly handled’; and indeed on his death-bed he demanded it be burnt. Behind this screen was a need to forget, to distance himself from a reality which had now become distressing and had to be exorcised by yielding to enchantment. The idea of a pastoral romance came to Sidney from the sources and achievements of a century-old genre introduced in Europe by Jacopo Sannazaro, from sonnets celebrating Stella’s eyes. Penelope’s and Stella’s eyes were and are black, but Sidney explains how they can radiate light with the ‘conceit’ that her eyes are black because if their splendour were entire and not diminished and veiled it would dazzle instead of pleasing. But black has also another effect, demonstrating that ethereal beauty is fully alive and does not fade against a black background.

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which Sidney copied (patently) the title, and the verse-prose alternation, but – in this early version – little else that can be clearly defined. Guarini’s Pastor fido is really too late to have deeply influenced or inspired it, for it was drafted in 1581, published in 1589 and staged in 1590. From both predecessors Sidney took suggestions but never obsequiously followed them, for the many adventures in the plot are all or mostly his own inventions. Even Tasso’s Aminta, which Sidney may have known,20 did not exert any influence on him.21 Sidney’s area is therefore that of the fantastic variation, a subdivision of genre used here in the precise meaning the term will acquire much later. He rejects the tragic-pathetic pastoral fulcrum of the coy shepherdess finally conquered and of the yearning shepherd, though he keeps it as a marginal element; and the play of imagination is as free as ever. In other words, Sidney distilled and transfused into the Arcadian pastoral canvas – indeed finding it an ideal vehicle – the cultural arch-system of his time and its episteme, a mix of moral, political, and also personal autobiographical issues, just as the chivalric genre had done, and was still shortly to do again with Spenser. Sidney’s supposed delay, and his lingering on an obsolete subgenre, is brought into question by the fact that the pastoral tradition was still cultivated, not to say dominant, in the first decades of the seventeenth century, Guarini being set to music by Monteverdi in his books of madrigals. 2. Written in his Wilton retirement between 1577 and 1580, in five books dedicated to his sister and other friends, the first or ‘old’ Arcadia I shall deal with in this section remained in manuscript form until 1926, and was printed in Feuillerat’s edition of Sidney’s complete works. For centuries this romance had been read instead, ipso facto, in the form it had taken in 1593, revised and edited by the poet’s sister, the Countess of Pembroke. For Sidney had begun to write an entirely new version of the first one, but by his death he had only reached the first stages of Book 20 Buxton 1954, 48. 21 From classical, and especially Plautine and Terentian comedy, Sidney derived the foolish and braggart slave, the old king in love, the two protagonists who are almost menaechmi, the two chaste sisters, and the youths’ tricks and devices to circumvent their segregation.

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III; it was his sister who threaded together the three re-written books with the pre-existing two and made the necessary adjustments. Thus textual critics and philologists are faced with three drafts and three texts: the first and ‘old’ Arcadia, the first two and a half books of the second 1590 edition, and the third, grafting the first two books and half of the third, re-written, onto the remnant of the previous work, slightly revised. The two drafts, old and new, must therefore be considered two distinct, autonomous texts. Altogether they number nearly 1,000 closely printed pages. A true demon of digression and reinvention seized Sidney in the transition from first to second draft, since the two and a half books of the second are already longer than the five of the first. Neither one nor the other version, however, have been highly esteemed over time, and are frequently considered archaeological finds for specialists, less and less fit for the wider public; so that Astrophel and Stella is constantly Sidney’s most accessible and mentioned work. The Arcadia, seen as a three-headed (and macrotextual) whole, makes indeed arduous and very tiresome reading today, not only owing to the Elizabethan spelling of the original edition (not reproduced in modern ones), but due to its excessively formal and artificial diction and its dilatory narrative rhythm, although occasionally relieved by witty quirks and unforeseen pleasantries, including, at times, improbable and unlikely effects and even elements of the fairy-tale. The detail may not mean much, but the Arcadia was written for and dedicated to a group of ‘gentle ladies’, one in particular, Sidney’s sister, to whose loving instigation it owed its existence. In being meant to please this little gynaecium, it reminds us of the framework of Boccaccio’s masterpiece, and was probably intended to be read aloud in instalments. Sidney sent his sister page after page as he was writing them. 3. The raison d’être of the Arcadia lies, as I mentioned, in the adaptation of the pastoral romance model and its capacity to impel English literature forward, from that moment on. In itself it is a pastoral fable in the Renaissance mode, but already impregnated with neoclassical composure, dignity and polish. Natural descriptions, from the very first chapter-heading, represent an apotheosis of ekphrasis, evoking, even verbally depicting, those clear, noble, solemn, occasionally faded, never dynamic, highly conventional landscapes which we see in slightly later paintings, antithetical to

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the quivering, pre-Romantic picturesque – the paintings of a Poussin and a Lorrain. This landscape, made of common and conventional pictorial components, is moulded by Sidney into a homologous ordered prose, sedate and cadenced, never romantically ruffled or dishevelled. The super partes narrator speaks in supremely elegant, polished paragraphs; his tightly controlled characters express themselves in careful speeches, so self-conscious that they can compose spotless sonnets, madrigals, or long compositions in rhyming verse, in which they stylize and objectify their own emotional states. Hence the occasional impression that this is a pre-Metastasian opera libretto, especially when prose eloquence brims over and melts into fluent repetitive lines, as common as Sidney’s diction is dense and synthetic in the sonnets. It is, I think, not too much to assert that Arcadia is a linguistic and, above all, a stylistic work. Sidney is a supreme prose-writer who, in 1,000 pages, hardly ever composes a period less than impeccable in style, syntax, and choice of words. It is a florid, convoluted, markedly hypotactic prose, rich in parentheses and asides, quite unlike Lyly’s balanced economy, and above all devoid of excessive alliteration.22 Arcadia is, more precisely, a polyphonic whole where every social class finds its idiolect: nobles, burghers, illiterates and shepherds. These groups alternate prose and verse; but the most patent difference, in each of the five parts, is between the narration of the main plot, and the appended eclogues, partly inserted with a mimetic aim, in the form of the shepherds’ games and pastimes offered to the Duke of Arcadia and his guests. Another difference is between the epos of conflicts in the basin of the lower Mediterranean, the pathos of the loves of young and middle-aged characters, and the humour, often pleasantly farcical, of the clown Dametas and his family’s doings. In the final book we hear the registers of legal rhetoric, with the usual, classical diatribes. The eclogues given in mimetic form, and the revealing division of the whole into five ‘acts’, therefore make the Arcadia not just a semi-poetic, but also a semi-dramatic 22

Ben Jonson judged him a master of language (quoted in ELS, 341), and Crashaw daily read his ‘showers of sweet speeches’ (quoted in Praz 1944, 65). Much later Virginia Woolf, ‘The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia’ (TCR, Second Series, 40–50) again praised a linguistic, self-pleasing delight even able to daze the reader. But for her Sidney’s book was one to be taken from the shelf and put back after reading a single passage.

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work. Owing to the ample and overwrought endings of these ‘acts’, or kinds of interludes and games, the reader who may at first have classified Sidney as the second sonneteer of late sixteenth-century England would be gradually and inexorably obliged to change his opinion. The charge of lack of variety addressed to end-of-century poets who used only rhyme royal and the poulterer’s measure is meaningless if applied to one of the finest metricians in the whole of English literature. The four interludes as such do not offer many examples of sublime poetry, but Sidney experiments with an astonishing variety of classical, therefore quantitative, and syllabic metres, and consequently of stanzaic forms (like octave and tercet); with him English prosody takes so many steps forward as to equal, if not exceed, continental metrics. 4. Chronologically Arcadia comes at the beginning of the highest phase of the Elizabethan literary period, offering a model which at first was not imitated, but was subsequently adopted with excellent results. It appeared when drama was about to blossom and soon to address the same issues as Arcadia. Elizabethan drama from 1590 onwards – the dates of the Arcadias – is in fact a re-visitation of English history with persuasive and dissuasive indications concerning the system and exercise of power, as well as a symbolic view of the universe and of Man. The same could be said of Sidney. Shakespeare appears to draw on Arcadia in his last phase when, in his discourse on power and the phenomenology of passions, he reconsiders the conventions and situations of pastoral romance through the medium of drama. There are myriad anticipations of this in Sidney, some of which I shall try to point out in my analysis. The Arcadia, therefore, can be seen as the point of arrival of a literature that is both utopian and militant, both direct and indirect, beginning with More and moving on to Elyot, Ascham and the other conduct-book writers: the analysis, that is, of court-power and the example the court can give the nation, and of the courtier’s prerogatives and perils; the examination of the present situation and at the same time the vision of a different, ideal state.23 There is no real, clear-cut divergence

23

In almost all such cases the humanist writer plays with onomastics: as in More and Ascham, so also in Sidney we must inquire into and always keep in mind the GreekLatin etymology of all characters’ names.

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between Sidney’s Arcadia and More’s Utopia. Arcadia in Sidney and in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century tradition is far from the actual geographical and historical reality: it is as fabulous and imaginary a country as Utopia. Faint-hearted Basilius, like Prospero, leaves his power in the hands of a substitute, fleeing from its constraints to the heart of the country and to a guilty or necessary retirement. The atemporal utopian regimen is less conspicuous but is still there. How do the Arcadians really live? Why has time stopped, if only in the sense that no seasonal change seems to exist, it never rains, and the two youths never grow a beard?24 Sidney does something very like More in the earliest phases of his tale, that is he idealizes England as an Arcadian, peaceful, well-ruled country. But rather than describing it meticulously, he chooses to embark on a fable-like romance. In practice his Mediterranean basin contains weak, envious kings in a coalition against Macedonia. Metaphorically, Europe wanted wise kings and ‘regents’ such as Euarchus, able to ensure a justice made of rigour and forgiveness. At the same time Sidney’s anthropology does not change: in Arcadia there is an opposition between within and without, intimacy and exteriority, but there is also a vertical division between a lower region, savage or natural, and a higher one, celestial and divine. Man, here as in Vico, must think and then act, action being the unavoidable conclusion of thought; man is a social animal, and when overwhelming passion alienates him from social life, that passion becomes unwholesome. Significantly, Sidney was obsessed, even when near death, by the fact that man could achieve faith by reason, without revelation, as is proved by his interest in specific works he meant to translate. All these are indeed firm principles, but they are suspended, because Sidney likes most of all to play, and playing is pretending; he dismisses his philosophy and behaves as if it did not exist. The speech in which Musidorus tries to dissuade Pyrocles from the passion he has just conceived for Philoclea suggests that poets, and poetry itself, favour solitude and Sehnsucht, and exalt love and its ‘infection’. The metaphors, conceits and rhetorical emphases to be found in Astrophel apply to Pyrocles, but are ironically inverted, and shown up as stridently empty. Critics have there-

24 Some evidence that a beard begins sprouting on Pyrocles’ chin is noticed on the morning of his trial.

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fore tried from the start to discover whether Arcadia is an Apollonian and totally hypothetical experiment on the grounds and the combined materials of pastoral romance, or a series of astute transpositions. Sidney puts on the mask of the shepherd Philisides, making a patent anagram of his name, but there appear to be no further clues. Does he divide himself into all or many of his main characters, embodying in them one part of himself but not the others? The psychogenesis of Arcadia has often been based on abstruse and acrobatic inferences, some of which I shall consider below. Such a web of conducting threads, and of political, anthropological and biographical discourses, during the course of the sixteenth century moves from the genre of the heuristic prose treatise to the fantastic and utopian tale, to pastoral romance and especially to romantic drama. § 52. Sidney V: The ‘Old Arcadia’ II. Malice, humour and political allegory in the pastoral canvas In Arcadia the narrative voice often adopts Ariosto’s habit of quitting a certain event in the story at the crucial point to switch to another; once the new one is finished, Sidney warns he is going back to the previous character to continue the tale. The structuring principle is binary: two sisters, daughters to the Duke of Arcadia, love two cousins, but with complications and misunderstandings since one of the princes, disguised as an Amazon, is coveted by the duke who takes him for a female, and by the duchess who suspects he is male, while their daughter feels some unknown emotion grow and reverberate in herself. The romance consists of five books or so-called acts, in other words as a kind of dramatic action, a not inapt metaphor as I said: a drama sui generis, with a perfectly omniscient external narrator, but where the characters enjoy total freedom to speak and even more to embroider and trill, especially when this verbal freedom takes the form of a finished verse composition; or when, mimetically, games and little shows take place, making the text resemble a kind of musical. Sidney maliciously dedicates the romance to his sister by an evident denegation (‘this child which I am loath to father’); and this sort of shame will be protected by the fact of being addressed to a single, indulgent woman reader. Besides his sister, Sidney often apostrophizes a bevy of ‘fair ladies’. Owing to the adoption of such a fancied, delightful artifice he can afford to roam

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where angels fear to tread, and enjoy trespassing on hypothetical borders. The feeling exuding from the dedication to the sister, seven years younger and seventeen years old at the time, is excessive and slightly ambiguous, and the constant apostrophizing of only women emanates a somewhat wearily feminine delicacy. Such ambiguity is enhanced by Prince Pyrocles’ disguise in female garb. Sidney’s biography could have been translated in the Arcadia in the form of an unrecognizable re-elaboration of the quartet made of Penelope-Stella and Frances Walsingham on the one hand, and Sidney and his rival Lord Rich on the other; but in the romance the two women are sisters and the two lovers are in no way rivals. The narrative, however, is not sparing of prurient and titillating details, only possible in the area of a restricted society game: such are the nakedness, hinted at or glimpsed, of the dishevelled beauties and the sensual and sexual thrills of the lovers. Except for the two princes, all characters ignore Pyrocles’ disguise, and women kiss women and husbands mistresses. At least on one occasion Sidney cuts short an event about to become ticklish and delicate – for instance when Gynecia in the cave presses as if in a vice Philoclea, who chooses to submit with good grace. Book III presents two scenes interrupted at the acme of suspense: Gynecia and Pyrocles are alone in the cave, and Gynecia yearns for sexual satisfaction, but the tale deviates towards Musidorus and Pamela, fugitives and attacked in the wood.25 Pyrocles has devised his disguise as an Amazon in order to approach Philoclea, feeling that a man yielding to love is transformed into a woman, following the example of Hercules spinning by Omphales’ side. In this case Sidney wavers between empathy and disapproval. The hero overcome by love becomes a weak, sentimental girl, though to make up for it Pyrocles adopts the most masculine of feminine disguises, that of an Amazon; but Sidney does not conceal the paradigm of irresponsible emasculation against the preservation of active virility. It is also meaningful – like a sort of gender chiasmus, or even an index, at the level of the signifier, of a fatal exchange of values – that Pyrocles is given a name, Cleophila, which is like a metathesis or charade of Philoclea’s. The 25

The concluding lyric of Book III sings one after another Philoclea’s body-parts, maliciously omitting, however, the pubic area. Sidney’s taking such liberties reflects the bland morality of a still pagan society.

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Amazon’s disguise tickles the fancy of today’s critics of gender and transvestism, who may find in Sidney a pioneer. Pyrocles is always mentioned by Sidney, explicitly, with the female pronoun ‘she’, and Philoclea feels a somewhat suspect attraction towards the person she believes a woman, with a very slight hint at lesbianism. 2. Basilius seeks refuge in the pastoral heart of Arcadia to escape a curse, but active conspirators steal into his refuge. It might be the allegory of Renaissance harmony threatened by chaos as well as a prelude to the Shakespearean kings quitting their duties, and of the re-creation of a fairer utopian society in a forest, in preparation for a triumphal reintegration. But Sidney seems to respond that the sovereign must keep his place, be up to his responsibilities and courageously face his destiny. The crucial point is right from the start the timidity of Basilius, who in his eagerness to know the future mistakes the oracle’s response or fears it too much. A prolepsis warns us that his wife Gynecia too will succumb to the fury of her urges. The Shakespearean play that most interacts with this canvas of Sidney’s is, surprisingly, Macbeth. Basilius listens to the oracle like Macbeth to the witches; and he believes a danger is prophesied to him, rather than a great prize and a future solemn advancement; but, like Macbeth, he creates the circumstances through which the oracle’s sentence can be fulfilled.26 Hence he leaves the reins of political power in the hands of a deputy, asking that the latter defend the frontiers. It is a political retirement dictated by fear. His deputy Philanax defines this as an absurd and irrational gesture, and exhorts the duke to trust that human virtues can defeat destiny, it being foolish to prevent what may never happen. Pyrocles suddenly falls in love with Philoclea on seeing her portrait during his return to Thessaly after various adventures in Asia Minor. At first one is immediately reminded of Palamon and Arcite in Chaucer’s tale. The dissension between the ‘two noble kinsmen’, however, does not come from being possible rivals in love for the same woman.27 Musidorus is simply trying to cure his totally unwilling cousin of his infatuation; but he himself becomes a prey to the same

26 Hamilton 1977, 57 (but the comparison with Macbeth is mine). 27 Two shepherds, Strephon and Klaius, fight over the same woman but without clashing, being aware she is not attainable (in the eclogues of Book IV).

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infatuation, falling in love with Pamela at first sight. With the arrival of Dametas the comic vein seems to take over. The theme is again fear, but this time wrapped in braggadocio and boasts. This easily angered clown is thought a wise man by the equally stupid duke who, making him head of the shepherds, gives indirect proof of the foolishness Sidney imputes to him. An irresistible foretaste of the quid-pro-quos of Shakespeare’s early plays lies in the sketch of the sighing lovers and the practical but obtuse constables. And indeed a ‘comedy of errors’ slowly forms, with expressionist, exaggerated and grotesque comic effects. Soon after Musidorus re-enters the scene, mawkishly sweet and dressed as a shepherd, and admits he has ‘recanted’. 3. While the courtship slowly goes on, by dint of misunderstandings and stratagems (mother and daughter harshly competing for the same ‘man’, and the duke asking his daughter to act as go-between for him), a popular uprising is easily quashed. Games and pastoral songs testify, if only under the veil of a fairy-tale, to the civilizing and pacifying action of the two cousins. With Book III, denouements come nearer. Musidorus, now under the name Dorus, makes a dupe of Calandrinesque Dametas, to clear the way for eloping with Pamela. A successful sketch is that of the preparations of the middle-aged couple, each ignorant of the other’s aim, stealing out to their love meetings, with Pyrocles or Cleophila as the case may be. After luring them out of the lodge, Pyrocles-Cleophila goes there prepared to enjoy Philoclea. Book IV seems an enactment of a biblical paradigm: sexual transgressions and unchecked impulses provoke chaos, in Gynecia and in Pyrocles. And the fugitives Musidorus and Pamela are sent back to Arcadia. The sinner’s conscience is his first means to repent. Actually the first phases provide the usual effect of caricature, being centred on the coarse mistakes of Dametas, bludgeoned by his wife who believes him an adulterer, whereas Mopsa, their daughter, deliriously laments ‘husbands all kings’. Basilius apparently is the only one who does not know that Cleophila is really a male, and having drunk a love-potion is believed to be dead. As for Pyrocles, to save Philoclea’s honour he wants to kill himself, but his beloved prevents him. The final Book shows how an assembly is organized to name a successor for the deceased monarch, with the object of restoring order and keeping away whoever is ambitious, violent and an enemy to peace. All have already confessed and repented in the tribunal of their consciences, but

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law cannot help but condemn the guilty ones to be beheaded. The defendants’ pleas are a variant in the polyphonic spectrum of the romance. When Euarchus, the Macedonian king, with a coup de théâtre, is informed that he has condemned his own son and nephew, Sidney prophetically stages the son’s supplication to his father that he spare the nephew, thus asking to die for another. But Basilius wakes up, with the umpteenth forecast of what will not happen in Romeo and Juliet. And all ends well. 4. The eclogues concluding each book gradually make up a distinct subtext, suspending the leading thread and introducing a separate world. The narrator hopes this is not a ‘tedious digression’, for he sees the risk and the criticism likely to arise. This once more takes for granted the application of Ariosto’s aesthetics of parallel plots, allowing the transition from one to the other cousin, from the facts of Dametas to those of the duke and of the shepherds, on the principle that insisting too long on the same thread may cause delight to diminish, while shifting to a different one can renew it. In the eclogues readers must adopt the same suspension of disbelief as in the Astrophel collection. Songs are sung in the same sighing, lamenting, decorative language, in the knowledge that even if it is partly true it is still a game, and a projection into conventions and mythologies. After the first competition in the eclogues, a shepherd tells the story of Erona, another slanders Cupid, and an old shepherd persuades a lover to stop loving. In their turn the eclogues contain inset stories, tales within tales, so as to satisfy an unending thirst for storytelling. § 53. Sidney VI: The ‘New Arcadia’. The toning down of the pastoral and the emphasis on the heroic Of English famous works re-made in triple versions, only Joyce’s Portrait will be remembered, for even Hamlet was probably re-written by Shakespeare only once. Incidentally, Sidney is the only great prose writer, and author in general, that Joyce (and the critics with him) never cites, nor recognizably parodies in the pastiche of the fourteenth episode of Ulysses.28

28 And yet Sidney, like Joyce, doubles, triples and multiplies the same real character in various imaginary hypostases, as we shall see. Pre-Joycean is also, in passing from the first to the second draft, the capacity to adapt and expand quite naturally the

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Other great English works (or not English, like Faust) were continued (like the Roman de la Rose) more than radically revised, and in order to find analogies with the three Arcadias one has to move away from literature and make a comparison with certain of Bruckner’s symphonies. In the year 1926, when the first and old Arcadia came to light, a clamorous reversal in critical views took place (one of the most impressive in the century, maybe), posing the quaestio of which was, at least of the two almost completed, the version having more importance and greater beauty. The critics that suffered most were those who had formed their ideas on the new Arcadia, and some put them quickly into question. At any rate, it became obligatory, and philologically a necessity, after 1926 to go back to the old and then on to the new. But this was not for everyone. C. S. Lewis, for example, indifferent to ‘textual criticism’, in 1954 symptomatically defined the first Arcadia as suppressed and repudiated,29 and took the new as his reference text, stressing how greatly it had matured; in his case the ‘old’ Arcadia was literally such. After him, and together with him, for some time only the second or third Arcadia were taken into consideration, and the first confined to an appendix. Today, on the contrary, the autonomy of the two versions is re-established, and the first is no longer subsidiary. One thing is certain, however. The new Arcadia did enjoy an enormous fortune,30 but this very success bored and even irked later generations so much as to render it a proverbial archaeological exhibit, or the famous book that everyone speaks of but no one has wholly read. 2. Fulke Greville and Sidney’s sister, the Countess of Pembroke, took care to send to the press a work that in 1593 fitted the role that Sidney

deeds, previously just sketched, of one or more characters. Joyce’s silence on Sidney (his name does not appear in the letters) is all the more surprising if one thinks they share the acquaintance – personal for Sidney, purely literary for Joyce – with Giordano Bruno. What is more, Sidney’s father, from 1556 to 1578 ably administered Ireland on behalf of the queen, dourly repressing every spark of disorder or rebellion against English power. Sidney defended his father’s government of Ireland with an open letter to the queen in 1577. 29 Between the two versions stands chronologically Astrophel and Stella. Strangely, Lewis does not confute Praz 1944, whose ideas on the two Arcadias contrast with his. 30 Documented by Gentili 1965, 88–91 n. 6.

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was assuming, that of an upright and heroic state-servant. In re-writing it Sidney toned down strong scenes, limited or suppressed malicious and prurient allusions,31 and made the political metaphor or allegory more explicit by enhancing the figure of Euarchus as the ideal prince. The two young men, Pyrocles (re-named Zelmane) and Musidorus, were changed tout court into heroes, and the princesses into wise, mature and pious women, an evolution promoted through the new character of the duke’s evil sister-in-law Cecropia, who keeps the two girls prisoners and shuts up Pyrocles in a castle.32 Not only was the core of the plot thus enriched and complicated, but the narrative thread is continuously suspended by the introduction of collateral subplots, bringing the number of characters to about 100, and, compared to the exasperatingly static first Arcadia, making the work extremely dynamic. The new Arcadia’s aesthetics modified the balance of the old one, stressing, rather than the pursuit of delight, the didactic aim. The danger or dread that delight might lead to evil is the reason, or one reason, why the dying Sidney asked for Arcadia to be burnt.33 The abundant, overflowing interpolated vicissitudes describe a corrupt, degenerate, morally weakened but perfectible cosmos. Book I opens now with the story of Argalus and Parthenia, an instance of constancy taken to extreme limits, and victorious after various and nearly insuperable challenges and trials; the story of Amphialus and Helen, constant but not one for the other, exemplifies cases of discordant infatuations, of love as a tragic, maddening, rather than uniting passion. At first Sidney seems to be inspired by the overpowering but flat, factual and adventurous plots of a Chrétien, as well as to imitate Malory as if he had just read him. The new narrative structure is based on a division no longer into acts but 31 32

33

Not quite systematically: see for instance the scene of Philoclea bathing, spied on by Zelmane, in chapter 11 of Book II. ‘in the midst of a great lake, upon a high rock, where partly by Art, but principally by Nature, it was by all men esteemed impregnable’. The imprisonment of the beloved, who rejects the repeated assaults of her suitor (or of aunt Cecropia in her stead) creates a hot-house atmosphere that Richardson will echo. Sidney’s Pamela already disdains to oppose ‘humility to offence’. Richardson’s choice of the same name for his protagonist is deemed deliberate by both Sidney’s and Richardson’s critics. See Hamilton 1977, 171 and 202–3 n. 28.

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books, these too divided into numbered chapters preceded by synthetic résumés. Book II goes back to adventures and feats of the two princes before their arrival in Arcadia, showing them ready to enter the field in defence of justice, honesty and virtue, in a compressed sequel of events. The inset story of the blind King Leonatus of Paphlagonia (the name too is Shakespearean) bears glimpses of the Gloucester plot in Shakespeare’s King Lear. The two maidens imprisoned by the hag, their aunt, victoriously resist in various periods of labour. The style is uniformly faster, drier, less sinuous and exaggerated, and is so in any case compared to the first version, perhaps owing to the acquired awareness of the so-called anti-Ciceronian diatribe, tending to render prose language less ornate and more natural.34 § 54. Sidney VII: ‘The Defence of Poesy’ The opening paragraph of The Defence of Poesy, also known as An Apology for Poetry, is famous for being the most misplaced and unexpected in even a brief orthodox treatise of poetics. But it is symptomatic. Sidney surprises his reader by starting with his personal recollection of one John Pietro Pugliano, superintendent to the imperial stables in Italy, a passionate admirer of equestrian prowess and of knightly ideals. Such had been his interlocutor’s emphasis, Sidney confesses, ‘that if I had not been a piece of a logician […] he would have persuaded me to have wished myself a horse’. Nearly all of Sidney’s writings, as we have seen, have, like this, a witty, humorous, onomastic genesis, and in this way he justified the nomen omen (‘phil’-‘ip’) of his Christian name. The Pugliano anecdote, however, is introduced to demonstrate how much people tend to plead the goodness of their professions with ‘weak arguments’, but support them by ‘strong affection’. It is an understatement or a sprezzatura, since Sidney is warning us that he is about to start a committed apology as an amateur: he is ‘a piece of a logician’, not a logician according to the rules, and he has not chosen the poet’s calling, but, as he admits, ‘slipped’ into that role. The extemporaneous work, in fact, was not published immediately, nor was 34 Praz 1944, on the contrary, compares several passages of the two versions to document, in the new Arcadia, a decided increase in euphuistic, manneristic and even purple conceits.

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it destined to be. It is hard to date it exactly. It is later than 1579 and was probably drafted between 1581 and 1583, and first printed in 1595; the title was not clearly indicated by its author, and so the treatise was always cited in both ways. Had Sidney revised it for an official publication he would have produced a more ordered and concise, less repetitive work. It is instead one of the first in English where improvisation and the lack of a plan have an important, deliberate role. It bears the marks of informality and immediacy, it is drafted in the language of friendly conversation, with sudden interjections, asides, bold and candid images and metaphors like those we have seen above. It follows the rules of argumentative discourse but never too faithfully, indeed varies and transgresses them. There is no difference in tone with what Sidney argues in his other works; indeed it bears witness to the unity of his inspiration (images and figures of thought and words blending with one another),35 and, once more, to the interdependence of his three main works and of his abilities. 2. Possibly prompted by Puritan-minded Stephen Gosson’s attack (1579) against poetry, or better against theatre and players – and, ironically, dedicated to Sidney himself – Sidney saw in this precedent only an opportunity and a pretext. He invents or exaggerates his contemporaries’ hostility to poetry, non-existent at least in the iconoclastic force he evokes it with, so as to justify his apology. The supposed enemies of poetry are not identified or named, and his target are the Platonists who after all have historically misunderstood the real meaning of the Greek philosopher’s excommunication of poets, lumping together all he said. Plato himself had learned from the poets and had discredited them; but in his time the poets’ fame was greater than the philosophers’, everywhere chased or banished. Applying the motto corruptio optimi pessima, Sidney finds that Plato did attack the over-use, not the use of poetry, that is, the bad poetry produced in his time, which led the young especially to despise the idea of the god-figure. For Plato poetry is the skin or the crust, philosophy the flesh beneath. Its enchantment softens savagery in all ancient primitive societies, when bards and oracles communicated divine knowledge by means of 35

The beautiful image of sonnet 19 in Astrophel and Stella, of the poet who looking up at the stars falls into a ditch, is repeated verbatim.

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verse. Sidney’s Defence is therefore considered by many a very precocious anticipation of the Romantic aesthetics of poetry as a form of imaginative knowledge, a calling coming from above (orator fit, poeta nascitur), and a holy fury. Echoes of Aristotle, Minturnus and Scaliger are regularly stressed by critics, without realizing that similar ideas almost literally coincide with Longinus’ Peri hypsous and with the doctrine of ‘divine fury’ of Sidney’s friend and admirer Giordano Bruno.36 If Elizabeth’s reign also marks the incubatory period of experimental philosophy, it is possible that by an acute premonition Sidney foresaw in 1581 a lurking scientism about to discredit poetry and undermine its power to advance knowledge. We cannot help being reminded that three and a half centuries later Macaulay was to begin a famous essay on Milton with the assumption, condensed in a splendid antithesis, that ‘as civilization advances, poetry almost necessarily declines’.37 Matthew Arnold would also echo Sidney in considering poetry as the joint parturition of, and vehicle for, expression both by Hellenism and Hebraism. These two great synchronic civilizations agreed in dispensing knowledge in poetic form, the Greek indeed with ‘charming sweetness’. Then it was Roman civilization that took upon itself to stress the etymological equivalence between the poet as vates and prophecy as vaticinium. But it is the root of the term ‘poet’, Greek poiein, that leads Sidney to make the poet-creator a homologue and counterpart of the Creator: he is a poet who has the gift of invention, and recreates nature, improving or renewing it. But in so doing, does he falsify? Quite the contrary, because he has a strong idea of Man’s at least potential excellence, and expresses it 36 Such genesis is indeed ascribed to other theoreticians, but it is paraphrased with synonyms, and confirmed, throughout the Defence. Sidney openly believes the poet to be a divine deputy, although he doubts it in sonnet 74 of Astrophel and Stella. Longinus’ treatise, circulated among the humanists thirty years before Sidney wrote (first edition Robortello, Padua 1554, followed the year after by Manutius’, Venice: Sidney might then have come across it during his Italian tour), has not been discussed as a possible source or similar treatise by any of the poet’s critics. Gentili 1965, 25–6 and 114, just comes close to it; Heninger 1989, 530 n. 150, excludes it. Praz in PMI equally sees very scant traces of Bruno in Sidney. On the possible intermediary function played by the Greek scholar Henry Estienne, Manutius’ collaborator, see Buxton 1954, 56ff. 37 Volume 4, § 37.2 for a discussion of the essay.

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in so life-like a way as to persuade its receiver to follow the example. It is in this very arduous passage that, as anticipated, a synthetic, theological no less than anthropological explanation, is given of the way the poet violates the law of original sin, or is miraculously immune to it. This happens by virtue of a conscious creative capacity, of a wakeful intellect able to conceive ideas and to create by semi-divine or supernatural powers, unlike those stained by sin. Poetry therefore prompts and urges unattainable perfection, which is to say it helps us to rise from the dark underworld of the body to the enjoyment of the divine essence. 3. There are ancillary sciences, but they must converge towards a practice and succeed in proposing it, not remain abstract and far from reality: and in this poetry is superior to historiography and philosophy. Moral philosophers know, and tell us, what is virtue and what is vice; historians narrate the experiences of previous ages. The jurist in turn only tries to prevent some from harming others, without sowing good seeds in the soul. Now philosophy is too hard and severe in its proceedings, and requires the whole life of those who try to possess its truths. And historiography is too bound to the particular, and unable to make it part of a general design. Poetry alone unites the particular and the universal, example and law. Being a ‘speaking picture’ it gives the vicarious experience of a thing, whereas philosophy only uses abstract words; it does so by insight and hence instantaneously. The two foreseeable objections to this assertion are thus answered: the philosopher’s circle is confined to the learned, while mankind at large turns to poetry, popular and universal. Sidney’s most romantic foresight lies in postulating not a history moving ever forward to stages of intellectual growth, but one that can and must regress to still childlike ages and habits of mind. Poetry founds its primacy above all other sciences and arts on its discourse to men, who need fables, fine myths and instructive delights – which is also the secret aesthetics of the Arcadias.38 The second objection is that poetry conceals foul and evil deeds, while history is photographic 38

Hence the frequent equation of the reader and the child at play, who can easily forget what he is doing if he hears a fine fairy-tale, or swallow a bitter medicine if coated with sugar.

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and objective. The historian does not distinguish one fact from another, and the reader imagines they can be repeated without a guide; the poet proposes a reasonable example, and chooses or invents others, magnanimous and probable. History in short is too objective and does not help to distinguish good from evil! When Sidney, to be consistent, must assert that poetry unfailingly applies poetic justice, his demonstrative edifice is about to collapse out of manifest untruth, poetry being incapable of reflecting life in all its complexity. He then appeals to the principle of selection, and finds a way out by stating that poetry does not lie: the poet affirms nothing but only invents, or better imagines, and offers a virtual reality, favouring the suspension of disbelief and speaking by allegory or figuratively; art is good, but the artist is not necessarily good, for he can also be immoral. 4. In its most intrinsic and documentary value as a discourse on the historical techniques of poetry, and as a militant survey of the national scene, the Defence combines a generous democratic stance with a series of firm preclusions. It does not enunciate a hierarchy of genres, provided they operate towards a joint purpose; with judgement worthy of Solomon himself, it approves both prosodic systems, the quantitative unrhymed (classical) and the syllabic rhymed (medieval). For Sidney art is always intentional, it communicates a message and persuades. The comic genre is justified in that it constitutes and provides a foil to the virtuous man. Heroic poetry spurs us to virtuous acts even when unpolished. To lament the recent scarcity of great poets in England (a mother of excellent minds, but a step-mother to poets) and the necessity for a reaction, Sidney traces a brief history of poetry from Chaucer on, allotting sober, occasional praise to Surrey and Spenser by using Goethe’s future parameter: let one translate poetry into prose and see what remains. Sidney’s contemporaries, as the poet proudly stresses, had already a wonderfully flexible and pliant linguistic medium at their disposal. On the subject of drama, already in full swing in his time, Sidney grants a famous, but by many deplored, approval of the Aristotelian unities, by means of a parodic passage on the supposed absurdities deriving from their transgression on the stage. He had in hand the recipe for a good theatre, provided a nuntius gave a compact version of antecedents and the hero began his action in medias res. Shakespeare, for instance, will treasure it, apart from his transgression of the unities.

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§ 55. Greville Sidney’s biography by Fulke Greville, also known as Lord Brooke (1554–1628),1 is the literary work immediately associated with his name, although it does not answer today’s requirements for the genre. It says little specifically or deeply relating to its subject, and dwells longer on the political and cultural context and atmosphere of Elizabethan England. Written in a non-euphuistic, Latinate prose, in ample and meandering periods, it was originally meant as a dedication to Sidney of his own works, in order to underscore the vital importance of his acquaintance for him. But this biography is only one of the writings of an independent author, not prolific as his long life might suggest, but slow, cautious, demure in publishing, who managed – as not many others do – to free himself from his friend’s paralysing shadow.2 Aside from the play Mustapha, printed in a kind of pirated edition, and from occasional appearances in anthologies, nothing by him was published or meant to be in his life; and even that biography, as I mentioned, appeared after he died – a tragic death, for he was stabbed by a servant who killed himself soon after, apparently because he thought himself slighted in his master’s last will. As I shall repeat when introducing Ralegh, the Elizabethan courtier wrote with professional seriousness and commitment, but as a hobby; and Greville, after taking part in some skirmishes, gradually rose to an enviable position as diplomat and statesman. He unfailingly served the queen, was one of the many pups their mistress held by the leash, who now and then barked for more attention, and were punished for some time. She forbade him to travel to the Continent and on the seas more than he actually did. A member of Parliament, then treasurer to the navy, then Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1614 to 1622,

1 2

Complete Works, ed. A. B. Grosart, 4 vols, London 1870; Poems and Dramas, ed. G. Bullough, 2 vols, London 1939; Caelica, ed. U. Ellis-Fermor, Newtown 1936 (very hard to find). In his native Warwickshire castle Greville treasured Sidney’s poetic manuscripts, and together with his sister edited the new Arcadia. The implications, always hinted at, of a homoerotic relationship between Sidney and Greville (who never married, so the apostrophes to various women in Caelica must be intended as merely conventional), have been dealt with by the biographers of our time.

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he was made a baronet in 1614 and a lord in 1621 by James I. Able to cope in every circumstance, he never was, as far as we know, a prisoner in the Tower. Genial and sociable as a young man, age made him something of a misanthrope. 2. There is no agreement on the order of merit of Greville’s tripartite production. Some put Caelica at the top, some the philosophical poems, some even his Senecan dramas (besides Mustapha an Alaham), on the strength of choruses echoing Greek tragedy in their motionless liturgy. Doubt surrounding Greville grew after Lamb coolly ruled that intellectualism and lack of dynamism were his vices. In Caelica (posthumous, 1633) Greville addresses three or four feminine hypostases, among whom a Cynthia possibly suggested to him by Ralegh, hence Queen Elizabeth. It can therefore be inferred that the others too were faces of the same fiction.3 It is a discontinuous songbook, containing youthful lyrics later revised and brought up to the taste and idiolect of the age; were it not so, they would be surprisingly before their time. Formally only one third of the 109 lyrics are sonnets, sui generis ones too; the prosodic variety is remarkable, and there are lyrics of eight as well as others of more than 100 lines. Love, by definition not reciprocated, is the centre of a reflection on the mutability of human things. Gradually the collection becomes more sententious, even sombre, darkened by the thought of Doomsday and God’s frowning face. In other words, never was love poetry less erotic. Each single poem freezes the mimesis and turns into elaborated, captious, and therefore intricate and tasteless argument – an early, faraway hint of an age of obscurity and hermeticism, even of symbolism. That is why Caelica’s typical poem is not narrative, but neither is it superficially and obstinately conceited, and its melody is broken and rugged, and the rhythm itself is anything but smooth. The rhymes themselves are contrived, by no means facile, as for instance in Spenser. Greville devotes particular care to the making of unexpected final couplets, already affecting the elliptical mode of Augustan wit. One has to wade through one fourth of the whole (until no. 22) before coming across some kind of anecdote (a rustic laments his betrayal), and a transition from 3

Myra’s and Caelica’s lover becomes, towards the end of the songbook (see no. 76), a Philocell, somehow an etymological equivalent of Astrophil.

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convoluted hypotaxis to paratactical lines without enjambments. A sudden surprise is for example the trespass into the fabliau type (nos 23, 37, 50, the last even risqué, imitating Chaucer). The last third contains meditations that more and more silence love and passion, coldly stating the nightmare of a cosmos in the grip of the devil.4 3. Greville’s philosophical verse treatises, bitterly sceptical (on knowledge, fame, honour, wars, monarchy, in a between-the-lines dialogue with Bacon’s speculations) revive, behind a mask, the old genre of the conduct books from Elyot’s time. They teach how a functioning monarchy is formed and supported. Their theme is statecraft, the doctrine of the state and the art of governing.5 They have been thought to be the choruses of too abstract and lengthy dramas, extrapolated from those and made independent. The recurring criticism made of them is that such an arid subject matter would have fitted prose better. The priests’ chorus at the end of Mustapha deplores the Fall, or rather mankind going adrift, in so lucid and impassive terms that Aldous Huxley derived from it the epigraph of his novel Point Counter Point: ‘Oh wearisome condition of Humanity! Born under one law, to another bound, / Vainly begot and yet forbidden vanity, / Created sick, commanded to be sound: / What meaneth Nature by these diverse laws? / Passion and reason self-division cause’. All well-read English people know by heart these lines which gather all of Greville in a nutshell. The gamut of references to sources that are not only Bacon but also pantheistic philosophies6 and vaguely proto-existentialist ones have made Greville a cult author, prized by mid-twentieth-century writers on alienation or on the incurable split between reason and instinct (the very theme of Huxley’s novel),7 but never really popular.8 Often from his emblem the 4 5 6 7 8

No. 44 contrasts the golden age with that of brass, which is above all ‘beauty grown sick, nature corrupt and nought’. Praz (PSL, 78 n. 1, and especially PMI, 104) compiles the very long list of Greville’s borrowings from Machiavelli, referring us to N. Orsini, Fulke Greville fra il mondo e Dio, Milano-Messina 1941. In 1584 Greville entertained as his guest Giordano Bruno, who Italianized him as Folco Grivello (PMI, 9). Volume 8, § 33.8–10. Relatively recent poetic anthologies have been edited by J. Rees, N. Powell and, especially, by the poet Thom Gunn (Selected Poems of Fulke Greville, London 1968).

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last Latin line has been erased, the most symptomatic in qualifying him: Greville was there defined as ‘trophaeum peccati’. § 56. Spenser* I: The most poetic of English poets This heading, in itself an insipid tautology, corresponds nevertheless to the definition William Hazlitt gave in 1818 of Edmund Spenser (1551–1599), 1

*

Poetical Works, ed. J. C. Smith and E. De Selincourt, 3 vols, Oxford 1909–1910, and, in one vol., 1912, 1979; Works: A Variorum Edition, ed. E. A. Greenlaw et al., 11 vols, Baltimore, MD 1932–1957; Poetical Works, ed. A. C. Hamilton, London 1977. The Faerie Queene, ed. T. P. Roche, Jr, and C. P. O’Donnell, Jr, Harmondsworth 1978, 1987, with a useful commentary. Anthologies edited by F. Kermode, London 1965; by D. Brooks-Davies, London 1995. Selected Letters and Other Papers, ed. C. Burlinson and A. Zurcher, Oxford 2009 (the first vol. of a projected new, complete, six-volume edition). Life. A. C. Judson, The Life of Edmund Spenser, Baltimore, MD 1945; G. F. Waller, Edmund Spenser: A Literary Life, Basingstoke 1994; A. Hadfield, Edmund Spenser: A Life, Oxford 2012. Criticism. W. L. Renwick, Edmund Spenser: An Essay on Renaissance Poetry, London 1925; E. Legouis, Edmund Spenser, New York 1927; V. Jones, A Spenser Handbook, New York 1930; E. Greenlaw, Studies in Spenser’s Historical Allegory, London 1932; C. B. Millican, Spenser and the Table Round, Cambridge, MA 1932; B. E. C. Davis, Edmund Spenser: A Critical Study, Cambridge 1933; J. Spens, Spenser’s ‘Faerie Queene’: An Interpretation, London 1934; I. E. Rathbone, The Meaning of Spenser’s Fairyland, New York 1937; J. W. Bennett, The Evolution of the ‘Faerie Queene’, Chicago 1942 and 1960; L. Bradner, Edmund Spenser and the Faerie Queene, Chicago 1948; W. K. Whitaker, The Religious Basis of Edmund Spenser’s Thought, Palo Alto, CA 1950; R. Ellrodt, Neoplatonism in the Poetry of Spenser, Genève 1960; M. P. Parker, The Allegory of the ‘Faerie Queene’, Oxford 1960; A. C. Hamilton, The Structure of Allegory in the ‘Faerie Queene’, Oxford 1961, and, as editor, The Spenser Encyclopedia, London 1990; G. Hough, A Preface to the ‘Faerie Queene’, London 1962; W. Nelson, The Poetry of Edmund Spenser, New York and London 1963; A. Fowler, Spenser and the Number of Times, London 1964, and Edmund Spenser, ed. I. Scott-Kilvert, London 1977; K. Williams, Spenser’s World of Glass, London 1965; D. S. Cheney, Spenser’s Image of Nature, New Haven, CT and London 1966; P. J. Alpers, The Poetry of ‘The Faerie Queene’, Princeton, NJ 1967; C. S. Lewis, Spenser’s Images of Life, ed. A. Fowler, Cambridge 1967; Spenser: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. H. Berger, Englewood Cliffs, NJ 1968; M. Evans, Spenser’s Anatomy of Heroism: A Commentary on the ‘Faerie Queene’, Cambridge 1970; CRHE, ed. R. M. Cummings, London 1971, 1995;

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a definition not only quite exact for the tradition preceding Hazlitt, but also true and prophetic for a long time afterwards. Spenser was a master for a certain category of English poets, to whom he was guardian angel, inspirer and reference point: by and large that timeless family of ‘romantic’ poets, endlessly driven to escape from the everyday, from social responsibilities, from the consideration of material things, and to envision, from a state of entranced, nostalgic yearning, ancient worlds made of fictional, but always noisy and furious fights for reasons of honour, in defence of courtly love and of the chivalric spirit itself. This family of Spenserians also includes all imaginative poets, lovers of fables and linguistic archaisms, anxious to re-live ancient mythology and its wonderful, metamorphic tapestry, full of improbable and unbelievable vicissitudes. It includes all Arcadian minds aspiring to take refuge in pastoral peace. Such a large family of great poets is composed not only, or even not at all, of the so-called ‘Spenserians’ who clearly emulate Spenser himself. Unexpectedly, Milton will follow in his footsteps after a few generations; and, not by chance passing over the

F. Kermode, Renaissance Essays: Shakespeare, Spenser, Donne, London 1971, 1973, 1–83 and passim; J. B. Bender, Spenser and Literary Pictorialism, Princeton, NJ 1972; A. B. Giamatti, Play of Double Senses: Spenser’s ‘Faerie Queene’, Englewood Cliffs, NJ 1975; I. G. MacCaffrey, Spenser’s Allegory: The Anatomy of Imagination, Princeton, NJ 1976; J. Nohrnberg, The Analogy of ‘The Faerie Queene’, Princeton, NJ 1976; D. R. Shore, Spenser and the Poetics of Pastoral, Kingston and Montreal 1985; Edmund Spenser, ed. H. Bloom, New York 1986; J. D. Bernard, Ceremonies of Innocence: Pastoralism in the Poetry of Edmund Spenser, Cambridge 1989; K. Heninger, Jr, Sidney and Spenser: The Poet as Maker, University Park, PA 1989; R. Rambuss, Spenser’s Secret Career, Cambridge 1993; P. J. Cook, Spenser and the Epic Tradition, Aldershot 1996; A. Hadfield, Edmund Spenser’s Irish Experience: Wilde Fruit and Salvage Soyl, Oxford 1997; W. A. Oram, Edmund Spenser, New York 1997; The Cambridge Companion to Spenser, ed. A. Hadfield, Cambridge 2001; B. Van Es, Spenser’s Form of History, Oxford 2002, and, as editor, A Critical Companion to Spenser Studies, London 2005; The Oxford Handbook of Edmund Spenser, ed. R. A. McCabe, Oxford 2001 (this last, colossal contribution to Spenser criticism, of about 1,000 pages, is coordinated by an Irish scholar, and is a prelude to the new Oxford University Press edition of Spenser’s works, mentioned above). After 1980 the present bibliography is quite desultory and incomplete, due both to the exceeding increase of titles and to the high number of rather repetitive studies on the topics indicated at the end of this § 56.

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whole, unimaginative eighteenth century, the pre-Romantic and Romantic poets, adepts of ancient folk traditions, and the post-Romantics like the Victorians and the Decadents, would look back to him: a James Thomson with his ‘castle of indolence’, Coleridge and Keats, the early Hopkins,1 the Pre-Raphaelites and above all Morris, and chiefly and deeply Tennyson. But his penetration does not end here, and after a few decades Spenser is again the cynosure of English philologists turned into creative writers at the beginning of the twentieth century, who prize his dream-like fantasies, the great visionary and fabulous contests between Good and Evil, and the obsolete, dusty varnish of his poetical language. So it is not strange if Spenser’s greatest twentieth-century specialist is C. S. Lewis, the creator of the Chronicles of Narnia. It was therefore upon these critics, friends to Spenser, and poets or creative authors on their own, that it was incumbent to point out that Spenser’s poetry was no mere voluptuous indulging in the contemplations of an endless, various, many-coloured bi-dimensional tapestry, and that behind it there was a system of values: that Spenser did have a message, did expound an articulate allegory or even a philosophy. This philosophy was invoked and recalled at a moment when England saw its century-old political, cultural, and most of all linguistic prestige threatened or actually diminished: for Spenser, they remembered as if disorientated, called Chaucer a ‘source of uncorrupted English’, voicing again either the or a primordial myth, and the dream of a last survival of national values avowed for eternity, immune to any ‘mutabilitie’, a ghost that Spenser himself exorcised. 1

As will be said infra it is rather instructive to make a parallel between Spenser and Hopkins (who debuted with a Keatsian ‘A Vision of the Mermaids’), especially in view of the exile to which the Victorian poet was also ‘condemned’, and of the ideas, or ‘racist’ prejudices, of both. The editor of Hadfield 2001, who announces and summarizes (1–12) one of the essays included in his book, and specifically on the influence of Spenser (by P. Alpers, 252–71), only refers in a footnote (10 n. 5) to Hopkins’s biographer B. Begonzi (sic for Bergonzi); there are however no other mentions of the Victorian poet in the volume. Another English exile in Ireland, a contemporary of Spenser, and antithetical to him, because a co-religionist of Hopkins (in fact a fellow Jesuit), was Edmund Campion (on whom and on his ideas on Ireland, see. § 47.1).

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2. Lamb sided with Hazlitt, calling Spenser, with another famous apothegm, a ‘poets’ poet’; yet in both cases it was implied that in English literature there was and had been a second and antithetical family of poets and men of letters who had been insensitive, deaf or even hostile to Spenser. The first historical objection was epitomized in Ben Jonson’s frank, universally known boutade: ‘Spenser, in affecting the ancients, writ no language’. His current London language was mixed with borrowings from the linguistic communities he had lived in, especially in the North and in Ireland; but on this basic vernacular he grafted earlier, exquisitely literary idioms, and he openly defines himself an imitator of Chaucer. Jonson, aware of the failures of the Scottish and especially of the English Chaucerians, saw in this linguistic experiment an artificial and unrealistic element. But the dramatic drop of interest in Spenser, in terms of the general readership and even with the common, cultured reader, was in the end the result of the mammoth size of his work (monotonous and sleep-inducing, as was said), and of a type of imagination that might please and attract today, were it less based on a fabric too heavily woven with medieval and allegorical implications. Indeed, the dimensions of his oeuvre make Spenser one of the most inexhaustible verse machines in English literature. The nearly 37,000 lines of The Faerie Queene, the greatest and longest single chivalric major poem in English, can hardly fit the size of a standard volume; nevertheless, they are only a half of the poem Spenser had in pectore, a poem therefore incomplete, although carefully revised and perfectly finished in the state in which it has come down to us. Spenser died at the age of fortyseven, but left, not only his magnum opus but also a rich corpus of shorter works. In contrast, academic studies of Spenser have never known any signs of flagging and are at present more and more flourishing. Spenser’s work contains seeds destined to later discovery and fortune. In Italy Praz was one of the first to enter the field and relocate Spenser not so much in the history of European poetic allegory as, by a mix of anticipation and insight, in its changes of taste and artistic sensibilities. Spenser belongs to that form of Baroque that still believes in mythology, which he does not yet quite reject but clings to as if confident it can discipline faith and paganism. He represents the subspecies of Baroque called Mannerism; more precisely he tends towards the ‘picturesque’, that art form which

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associates pure beauty with discordant, even cacophonic elements, or to ugliness itself. He is also a father of the neo-Gothic with his persecuted maidens imprisoned in a castle or dungeon, always an object of lust and of a perennially delayed aggression at the hands of an impotent man. At the end of the nineteenth century Yeats had seen Spenser pre-eminently as the greatest enemy of the Irish, and lamented the poet’s absolute inability to understand Ireland and its ethnicity. This might have been a modernist view, or a new opening for Spenser criticism: the discovery in Spenser, that is, of an early displaced and uprooted writer, an exiled forefather long separated from his natural humus, who could constitute a precedent and a correlative for Joyce and Eliot, or more closely for Hopkins. In his sonnet ‘To seem the stranger’ Hopkins seems literally to quote Spenser, this Spenser as a citizen of nowhere, when in the second quatrain he appeals to faraway England, ‘whose honour O all my heart woos / Wife to my creating thought’ (which echoes Spenser’s salutation to London in ‘Prothalamion’, ‘my most kindly Nurse / That to me gaue this Lifes natiue sourse’). Spenser reacts to the exile’s sense of alienation not by incommunicability, schizophrenia, or the modernist’s elephantine psyche, but by the sadistic imagination sated and placated in its thirst for blood and the senses, and in the deformed figures of dwarfs, monsters or dragons. In my opinion the map of Spenser’s psyche as a patient has still to be defined, possibly starting from his obsessive metaphors. 3. Spenser’s Irish exile after 1580 (even if biographers still wonder whether, to Spenser who accepted it and the authorities who imposed it, it was meant as a punishment or a reward) has been at the centre of Spenser criticism in the last half-century. To a certain extent, every author acknowledged as great has recently been re-read with the instruments of poststructuralism, with the haste, if not the chaotic frenzy, of one suddenly leaving behind naïve impressionistic criticism in favour of new methodologies, but without having first assimilated and digested linguistics, formalism and structuralism. With regard to Spenser, gender criticism has explored his ‘sexual politics’ starting from the piquant detail of his possible homosexuality, sleeping as he did at Westminster in the same bed as Harvey. Feminism has tried to ascertain if Spenser was misogynous or sympathized with women, especially if warriors and Amazon-like. Postcolonial criticism

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has dominated the field with close re-readings of the Veue of the Present State of Ireland,2 a text far more benign, democratic and open to possibilities than Yeats and his followers had supposed. The next step was claiming that all of Spenser is political and that the Veue is more or less the central, basic axis of the poet’s corpus. So a new identity, that of a colonial poet, has been forged for Spenser.3 In my opinion this poststructuralist Spenser constitutes a particularly arbitrary and falsifying operation, presupposing, or taking for granted, that in any poet under examination questions are traceable that have become central and dominant only many centuries later.4 To shift the centre of gravity onto Ireland is perhaps for the English an obligatory, politically correct choice, which is to say a form of historical compensation: but to anyone who is not English this move is far less acceptable, and seems exaggerated and forced. The Cambridge Companion to Spenser of 2001 is a case in point. It is authored by a well-knit working team sharing the same ideas on what counts in literary events and using the

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Written in 1595, but published in 1633, this pamphlet, in dialogue form, takes a pre-Cromwellian position, suggesting, as a measure to ensure internal order, a stern repression of the recurrent uprisings that, at the end of the century, harassed the Elizabethan government. Spenser dons the mask of Irenius answering Eudoxus’ questions: few remember that this could therefore be a parody of Ascham’s Toxophilus. Praz repeatedly saw Machiavelli’s principles and directions applied here (see for instance PMI, 162 n. 1); therefore D. J. Baker, ‘Historical Contexts: Britain and Europe’, in Hadfield 2001, 51–2, pushes on an open door. At the back of this book, and of the re-reading of Spenser I am now discussing, is S. Greenblatt’s Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare, Chicago 1980, 157–92, containing the provocative thesis that Spenser was basically a ‘poet of imperial expansion’, and that The Faerie Queene is a colonialist epic. Spenser is therefore a kind of revelatory testing ground for the recent trends of Anglo-American criticism. Ideological scaffoldings and last-minute theoretical constructions are applied from the outside to this and that writer in the belief that this author, though remote in time, should, even better if unconsciously, have shared or announced them. The writer thus becomes the support for a series of ‘discourses’ in most cases quite alien to him, and the repository of never-intended allusions or innuendos. This new practice can be seen as a form of compensation or historical nemesis, since great pre-war British critics (also of Spenser, like C. S. Lewis) had given fascinating, authoritative and judicial readings, but quite by instinct, and from critically unequipped and even merrily jejune positions.

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same critical jargon: its authors quote one another, having tacitly got rid of the early twentieth-century tutelary gods of Spenser’s criticism (Lewis, Kermode), and totally changed all reference points. The crucial essays of this Companion either ignore or relegate to the background questions once thought general, preliminary, or decidedly foundational, such as that of allegory or of the relationship of Spenser’s poem with its sources or with the visual arts. Significantly the first essay in this book, after the two introductory ones, deals with the Veue, favouring relevance over chronology and elevating this to the rank of keynote work.5 The main outcome and discovery of poststructuralist and postcolonial Spenser is the existence of a really ‘continuous’ political allegory, beneath and inside the kaleidoscope of The Faerie Queene and of Spenser’s other works, written by an author who was conscious that the real decider in Elizabethan politics was Ireland, rather than the role of England in the European theatre, as had always been thought. This quite modifies the perspective evinced by the works and the dates of their publications, and by the relative moods they illustrate: Spenser publishes, if he does not write, as his last or penultimate work, the four ‘hymns’, offering a positive, optimistic, finalistic view of the cosmos, offsetting the possible pessimism of the second triad (with appendix) of the Faerie Queene books. § 57. Spenser II: ‘The Shepheardes Calender’. 1579: The fateful year Born in London, the son of a tailor related to a great and well-to-do northern family, Spenser attended as a needy student the school newly founded by Richard Mulcaster (ca. 1530–1611), an exceptionally learned humanist, known for his support of the scholarly study of English.6 At the age of seventeen he was able, thanks to a scholarship, to attend Pembroke College, Cambridge, as a sizar (that is, entitled to his board in exchange for small services); there he studied Greek, rhetoric, logic, philosophy, mathematics and astronomy. Before going to university he had already pub5 6

It is worth remembering that C. S. Lewis (LEW, 321) could lightly ‘neglect entirely [the] political allegory’ of The Faerie Queene, that is, not consider what has become the fulcrum of present-day readings. On this figure see the portrait in ELS, 348–50, cursorily describing his euphuistic style, eccentric ideas and literary tastes.

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lished translations from Petrarch and Joachim Du Bellay in a pamphlet of anti-Catholic propaganda by a Flemish expatriate. At Cambridge he became friends with Gabriel Harvey, a learned Puritan with whom he discussed ways to graft quantitative Latin metre onto English verse, a recurring dream of sixteenth-century poets.7 His aim was to model his career, consciously, on that of Virgil: from pastoral to heroic poet, chivalric-Arthurian in his case; and thence, or at the same time, in The Faerie Queene, to an encomiastic poet of the Elizabethan monarchy, after an interlude of Aesopian poetic fables, and with a coda of nuptial poetry. Spenser’s brimming poetic gift was able to flourish owing to a social role that was slightly different from his predecessors’. The Faerie Queene and Spenser’s other works were published during his lifetime, not left to their fate, and Spenser is one of the first English poets who, aware of the publishing market, made a shrewd choice as to suitable times, subjects and genres, and personally edited his works for publication. The modern literary profession had been born, even if, soon after, the Elizabethan dramatic age seemed to belie this, with authors falling back for the moment on almost total carelessness or indifference with regard to the destiny, preservation and even marketability of their works. Spenser was free to carry on the profession of the poet because, while he was a civil servant and a Crown official, his tasks were less conspicuous and more sedentary, and left him much more leisure than his predecessors. He was no clergyman, no university professor, no soldier, especially not a full-time courtier. He was not made a knight. Unlike Wyatt, Surrey or Sidney, he did not go to the Continent on a classical grand tour of his own, also because Italian masterpieces were already easy to come by in England. 2. In 1579, having set aside the idea to take holy orders, Spenser shared with Harvey (and with another man of whom only his initials E. K. are known, perhaps an Edward Kirke) a room in Westminster; in the same year The Shepheardes Calender was published. Thanks to this work, 1579 7

See § 48.3 and n. 8 on his friendship with Sidney and his later participation in the Areopagus. At Cambridge Abraham Fraunce (1587–1633) was among those who attended the debates on classicist prosody. Fraunce was to translate Tasso’s Aminta and is the author of English poems in hexameters, though not quite unrhymed (on him as critic see § 84.1).

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has come to represent something of a zero hour for English poetry. This is confirmed and reinforced by the fact that Spenser openly declared himself a pupil and follower of Chaucer, but Chaucer grafted onto the literary and intellectual culture of the following two centuries. This culture had absorbed, and digested with prodigious haste, Petrarch’s poetry which Chaucer barely knew, Italian humanism and the Renaissance, and above all the sudden breakthrough represented by the Reformation. The unprecedented novelty of this little work can be immediately perceived because it is a conscious form of parody. English poetical language attains and achieves, and demonstrates, its coming of age, and every term is weighed, and can be used, from the viewpoint of the history of the English language: a layer and a stage of Middle English could now be imitated, alternated or mixed with contemporary literary English, with the assurance that the cognoscenti would automatically recognize the experiment, although the larger public of even well-read readers could not. E. K.’s preface already shows and emphasizes that the common English language, deviating from its ancient purity, was becoming a receptacle, if not a crucible, of French and Italian borrowings. Significantly, the Calender, already in 1579, needed a philologist and a lexicographer to comment on and explain its obsolete, old-fashioned terms. Here is one more aspect of its novelty. Formally, the Calender has an editor, the author of a preface, and an annotator, all in a single person, although he signs himself E. K., and we do not know if he is the above-mentioned Kirke, or the poet himself feigning to split into two distinct persons. We moderns can but favour this second, pre-Borgesian hypothesis, of the editor being the author himself who becomes ex post his own critic, able to speak in an unrecognizable falsetto and an antithetic register.8 Moreover, the Calender is a text that today we would call a multimedial manufacture, being indeed structured as a calendar, a new genre which, according to its metaphor (since then incorporated into literary terminol8

A few notes that explain mythological facts or past historical events, like those of the Wars of the Roses (fourth eclogue) show that exemplary clarity, coexisting with swiftness, which is typical of the author of the Faerie Queene. E. K. is very well-read in mythology, anthropology, history, geography and naturally linguistics, foreshadowing Robert Graves’s The White Goddess.

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ogy), is a verbal para-text, to be leafed through, consulted, kept at hand, not strictly to be read. The fore-texts, too, give it this hybrid character. Each eclogue is preceded by a xylography (unsigned), of which the verbal text is the commentary (plus, in a corner at the top, the month’s zodiacal sign); at the end a couplet or a single line is the shepherd-speaker’s motto. The last part of the polymorphous text is composed of glosses and philological notes. Yet, to take a step back, a preliminary letter by E. K. represents what is perhaps the first preface to a literary work in English, a habit engendered ex novo. Here is the foundation of the aesthetics of archaism, even of the pleasing cacophony of the new and the old, not unlike that of the later picturesque genre that set contemporary scenes against a background of ruins. The editorship extends to providing short introductions for every eclogue, thus beginning to create at least the idea of a novel, or the embryo of an autobiographical, self-controlled and stylized romance: the story of Colin, the author’s personification, and of coy Rosalind, alternating with digressions co