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


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.

Saint Kenelm, illustrated

My note, “Saint Kenelm in an Imaginative Illustration,” appears in Notes and Queries. The note concerns a twelfth-century illustration of Kenelm, also featured on the cover of my first book. Here’s the opening:

Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 368 (mid or late twelfth c.) contains one of eight complete surviving copies of the Vita et miracula Sancti Kenelmi (1066–1075). The Vita is the earliest substantial account of the career of Kenelm, whose story would go on to feature in the South English Legendary and later English and Anglo-Latin texts. The narrative recounts Kenelm’s premonitory vision, decapitation, surreptitious burial, and posthumous rediscovery. In the climactic scene, the location of the saint’s murdered body is divulged to the pope in Rome by a dove carrying in its beak ‘a snow-white parchment inscribed with golden letters in English’ (‘niueam menbranam aureis litteris anglice inscriptam’, §10). In Douce 368 and other early manuscripts of the Vita, the English inscription is reported as a rhyming Latin couplet. However, three thirteenth- and fourteenth-century manuscripts gloss the passage with an English alliterative couplet: ‘In Klent Koubeche | Kenelm kunebearn/ liy under yorne | heaved bereved’ (‘In Clent Cow-valley, Kenelm the royal scion lies under a thorn-bush, decapitated’). The English alliterative couplet survives elsewhere in a free-standing late twelfth-century copy. An early eleventh-century application of the epithet cynebearn to Kenelm suggests that the alliterative poem predates the Vita. Like Cædmon’s Hymn, another miraculous English poetic utterance, the alliterative snippet on Kenelm seems to have moved from memory (in the earliest manuscripts) to the margins (in later manuscripts) and finally to the main text (in later redactions of the legend).

The Douce 368 text of the Vita opens on folio 80r with a historiated initial D depicting a resplendent Kenelm crowned and enthroned, a globus cruciger in one hand and a lily in the other. A dove with wings spread and beak open occupies the upper right corner of the illustration, over Kenelm’s shoulder. To the extent that they take notice of such details, scholars offer contradictory interpretations of the function of the dove. A note in a modern hand in the manuscript describes ‘the dove bringing the narrative of his murder’, evidently mistaking Kenelm for the Pope. F. W. Potto Hicks remarks only that ‘the dove refers to the legend of the letter announcing his death being carried to Rome’. Miriam Gill offers, ‘a bird to the right of his head must refer either to his premonitionary dream or to the dove which brought the news of his death to the Pope’. Rosalind Love, in a thorough description of the manuscript, has Kenelm ‘attended by a bird bearing something in its beak—perhaps the letter delivered to the pope in Rome’. Judith Collard sees the dove ‘touching his crown’.

Each of these interpretations captures a partial truth, but I see a possibility to improve on them by more closely connecting the illustration to the narrative of the Vita and by allowing the illustrator more artistic license. […]

The opening of the Vita et miracula Sancti Kenelmi in Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 368 (mid or late twelfth c.). St. Kenelm, enthroned, holds orb and lily; a dove places a crown on his head.

meter as a way of thinking

Yesterday, I gave an invited talk for the MIT Ancient & Medieval Studies Colloquium Series. My gratitude to Arthur Bahr for the invitation. My talk was entitled “Early English Meter as a Way of Thinking.” Here’s the opening frame of the talk:

This paper is about structures of thought that happen to take the form of poetry. So stated, my object of inquiry would seem to be intellectual history, to which poetics is subordinated. However, I will strive to demonstrate that verse form is never incidental to the thinking it performs. Apprehending meter as a way of thinking necessarily involves reimagining thinking itself.

My title echoes Simon Jarvis, who recommends approaching “prosody as cognition.” Jarvis had Alexander Pope and William Wordsworth in mind when he coined that phrase. I seek to test Jarvis’s concept against a different literary archive, exploring the particular kinds of thinking done by and through early English meter. I’ll focus on the second half of the fourteenth century, a stretch of decades that saw a large uptick in the production of literature in English. As we will see, in medieval England meter was a way of thinking about form and balance, translation and vernacularity, and the historicity of literary practice. I’ll present three case studies introducing three kinds of metrical practice: the half-line structure in Middle English alliterative meter, the interplay between Latin and English in Piers Plowman, and final –e in Chaucer’s pentameter.

The protagonists of the three case studies are the three biggest names in Middle English literature: the Gawain poet, William Langland, and Geoffrey Chaucer. The first of these is no name at all but a cypher: the Gawain poet, thought to have composed the four poems in British Library Cotton Nero MS A.X. For this poet, no external evidence for authorship or biography has been identified. William Langland is little more than a floating name in literary history: mentioned in a few contemporary documents, Langland probably belonged to the well-to-do Rokele family. The name ‘Langland’ itself may be a pseudonym. Chaucer, of course, is the Grand Poobah of medieval English literature. Like Gilbert and Sullivan’s character, Chaucer was chronically overemployed; at one time or another he was a clerk, controller of customs, diplomat, esquire, forester, page, and soldier. These three poets have garnered the lion’s share of scholarly attention, and this paper follows suit by placing them at the center of an essay in historical poetics. But I’ll continually emphasize how the metrical practice of a range of contemporary and prior poets shaped the structures of thought informing Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Piers Plowman, and the Canterbury Tales.

My broadest aim this afternoon is to convince you that intellectual history and poetics can inform one another. Indeed, where poetry is concerned, the procedures of the two fields ought to coincide. Medievalists have made significant contributions toward understanding poetry as cognition: I’m thinking especially of the work of Ruth Evans, Alastair Minnis, Fiona Somerset, Nicholas Watson, and others under the banner of what Minnis calls “medieval literary theory.” This research program compares the explicit theories of authority and textuality propounded in Latin by medieval scholars with the often implicit theorization of literature performed by vernacular texts themselves. To date, few medievalists have considered the intellectual significance of English meter, though I am indebted to the work of Thomas Cable, a metrist who has always insisted that the study of meter is about “mental structures.” From the perspective of intellectual history, I propose to enrich the study of medieval literary theory by disaggregating the English literary field by metrical tradition. Alliterative meter does not think the same way pentameter thinks; the difference should matter in any account of medieval literary theory. From the perspective of poetics, I propose to redirect the philological procedures of the highly traditionalist field of metrics toward a phenomenological poetics. If meter lives in the mind, then it is part of the job of a metrist to discover what it is doing up there.