translation of Gower

I’ve been tinkering with a somewhat free translation of Gower’s short Latin poem Ecce patet tensus. I have an article forthcoming about the date and style of this poem. I argue that it is late in Gower’s career, c. 1400. Among Gower’s poems Ecce patet tensus has a certain mystique because it exists in just one manuscript copy, which is possibly incomplete, but it is copied in Gower’s own hand according to Sobecki.

The stanza shape is one that I’ve been gravitating toward for my original poetry. It accommodates the syntax of Gower’s elegiac couplets pretty well. I found I didn’t need punctuation: the line-breaks give sufficient guidance. (There isn’t much punctuation in medieval poetic manuscripts, either, for the same reason.)

Whence the Arrow Flies
by John Gower

see here blind Cupid’s bow lies taut

            and the flying arrow becomes the flame of love

                        love conquers all but wanders blind

            and misses the straight path

he leads his servants / blind lovers

            no one in love can see what is fitting

                        the heart’s eye blinded by the darkness of the flesh

            sinks and reason is unreasoned

love feeds on will which blind lust

            nourishes and provides with every delight

                        the world lies in the shadow beneath his wings

            and all obey his law

crowned love makes the low and the mighty

            equal by law of equality

                        love conquers all that nature creates

            but remains unconquered by all

he shackles and frees / binds and unbinds

            wounds every people but suffers no wound

                        there is no one left to overpower love

            there is no one left to agree terms with him

Samson’s strength / David’s sword—in these

            what is there to praise? or Solomon’s wit

                        oh humanity! which none can abolish

            nor absolve its sins

oh humanity! which inexorably turns

            toward the impossible compulsion

                        oh humanity! composed of two opposite thoughts

            irreconcilable

oh humanity! which finds permanent war

            between soul and body for inner authority

                        Cupid burns through lovers’

            hearts and subjugates them

whoever would restrain the flesh’s flame

            look out for the bow whence the arrow flies

                        no one can escape this innate disease

            unless grace finds a cure

Further reading

Sobecki, Sebastian. “‘Ecce patet tensus’: The Trentham Manuscript, In Praise of Peace, and John Gower’s Autograph Hand.” Speculum 90 (2015): 925-59.

phases and periods

I’ve thought quite a bit about what is entailed in breaking up history into periods. Mostly, I am against periodization, or at least against periodization as a comfortable shearing off of one era from the next. Too often a temporal boundary is simply the enabling condition of scholarly attention, dividing what is to be discussed from what is to be ignored. There is a politics to every gesture of exclusion. We know that life is not lived in self-contained periods, but we imagine for the sake of professional convenience that literary history was. It is important to balance an assessment of change with an assessment of continuity. It is important not to mistake a professional convenience for knowledge about the past.

Increasingly, I am asking the word phase to do some of the work that period used to do. It’s a subtle but significant difference. Whereas periods are marks of temporal punctuation, phases come and go unpredictably. “It’s just a phase.” Phases blend into one another. I like the dynamism of phase when, in the course of analysis, I need to designate some tranche of time. Try it!

Further reading

Weiskott, Eric. “Futures Past: Prophecy, Periodization, and Reinhart Koselleck.” NLH 52 (2021): 169-88.

Chaucer and the avant-garde

I have been working for the past couple of years on a new book that brings together, finally, my disparate interests in premodern English poetry and contemporary American avant-garde poetry. I was a poet before I was a medievalist. I used to be defensive about the non-relation between these interests. I wanted to make sure everyone knew the poetry I was writing and reading wasn’t medievalizing or nostalgic. On the contrary. Having studied with Elizabeth Willis in college, my map of contemporary poetry centered on the kinds of avant-garde poetry made after the confessional poetry movement and after the heyday of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine. There’s no agreed-upon name for this strand of contemporary poetry, the strand most often being reproduced in prestigious MFA programs these days. It is easier to convey what is meant by listing some poets you may have heard of: Ben Lerner, Claudia Rankine, Prageeta Sharma, Juliana Spahr, Willis. They were born in the 1960s and 1970s. Anthony Reed’s term post-lyric, which he applies specifically to Rankine, could apply to all of them. So usefully, Reed stresses that the post– doesn’t mean lyric has been superseded but that it has grown belated and ashamed of itself, like the –racial in post-racial.

This is going to be my longest book! It takes a while to flesh out the critical terms I need to make the leap from the fourteenth century to the twenty-first. Terms like author, lyric, meter, and source.

Two of the last chapters of the book that I’ve been working on lately compare Chaucer to Rankine and to Willis. These are unexpected, difficult pairings. There’s no historical connection in either case. Rankine’s poetry and prose poetry, while conscious of their place in a history of violent race making, are determinedly presentist, so presentist that one page of Citizen underwent gut-wrenching expansion in subsequent printings to include names of further Black people murdered by police in 2014. Willis does think historically but focuses on the pre-Raphaelites, the subject of her dissertation.

Instead, I pursue a formal homology. Chaucer shares with Rankine on one side and with Willis on the other forms of what I am calling apophatic effects. With Rankine (and many other avant-garde poets), Chaucer shares a sense of lyric poetry as missing, absent, already erased, unavailable. That chapter centers on Chaucer’s Death of Blanche the Duchess, the Parliament of Fowls, and the short lyric Fortune, and on Rankine’s 2004-2020 Graywolf Press trilogy Don’t Let Me Be LonelyCitizenJust Us. With Willis, Chaucer shares a propensity to stage moments of unrecognizable allusions, as when the dreamer of the Death of Blanche the Duchess alludes to a never-identified “phisycien” who can “heale” him (39-40). This chapter is still in progress but likely will touch on Chaucer’s House of Fame, Parliament of Fowls, and Fortune again, and on Willis’s last three books, Meteoric Flowers (2006), Address (2011), and Alive: New and Selected Poems (2015). (Chaucer’s dream visions and lyrics I find easier to like than the Canterbury Tales, which makes me weird.)

Juxtaposing Chaucer and the avant-garde is mutually illuminating. Rankine helps me see the whiteness of Chaucer’s lyric subject, and Willis helps me see the radical nature of Chaucer’s spectral citationality. Chaucer in turn grounds avant-garde poetics in a much longer history of verse craft. His example suggests that some paradoxes of poetic making aren’t new.

Further reading

Reed, Anthony. “The Erotics of Mourning in Recent Experimental Black Poetry.The Black Scholar 47 (2017): 23-37.

virtual exhibits

My second monograph, Meter and Modernity in English Verse, 1350-1650, currently appears in three virtual conference exhibits, each carrying a discount code for 40% off:

  1. Shakespeare Association of America (code SHAKES40-FM)
  2. Renaissance Society of America (code RSA40-FM)
  3. Medieval Academy of America (code MAA40-FM)

Some highlights of the book: it’s organized by metrical history rather than clock time; Lord Byron flits in and out of the book; new readings of Langland and Chaucer and their sixteenth- and seventeenth-century reception; a sociopolitical argument about the formation of an “English literary tradition”; George Gascoigne is an unexpected star; some of the first readings of the metrical forms of English political prophecy.