on liking Chaucer

First, some background. I began reading medieval English poetry the summer after high school (a failed attempt at my parents’ copy of Chaucer). What attracted me initially was the linguistic challenge:

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
. . .

I sensed that Middle English belonged to me as an English speaker, that no one else could claim an upper hand in it except by dint of the same sort of study I was putting in. This was even truer of Old English, the language of Beowulf. There are words in Old English whose meanings are simply unknown. More than dead liturgical languages like Latin or Sanskrit, Old English is a lost language. That appealed to me. At the end of college, I decided to become a medievalist.

This was my preprofessional formation. I linger over it because the issue of who the Middle Ages are for is politically fraught. There has rightly been a movement to decolonize medieval studies, still an overwhelmingly white field. It is Eurocentric by definition, since the sequence ancient-medieval-modern originated in European historiography.

In graduate school, I learned that medieval literature was related to the places in which it was made. Chaucer spoke for London and the royal court. Most other writing in English was “provincial,” a catch-all term and often pejorative. I studied this literature long before setting foot in England, so that my mental map of the country was drawn out of a reading of the literature. I was once challenged at a conference on my definition of “southern” for tenth-century England. My definition conflicted with modern UK regional nomenclature. On reflection, I was glad the issue came up. It’s an issue of different social trajectories in the academy. My own perspective made me receptive to weird, dislocational arguments like that of Nicholas Howe (a Yale PhD from the New York metro area, like me), who theorized that the capital city of early medieval England was Rome.

*

I teach Chaucer every other year to undergraduates, and I have a professional obligation to like him. It’s an obligation that’s taken some years to fulfill. I dutifully published an essay on him in graduate school in the Chaucer Review, connecting the Friar’s Tale to medieval forest bureaucracy—a topic that interested me more than Chaucer, at the time. The essay was intended to prove to potential employers that I could “do” Chaucer. One reader wrote that the historical dimension of the essay was stronger than the literary one. It was probably supposed to be an insult. But it was true.

I found Chaucer’s writing smug. I could feel the author winking at the reader through his characters. His stories were too comfortable being stories. The Canterbury Tales were poetic in form, but their style reminded me of modern novels and reminded me why I did not choose to study modern novels. Chaucer was so urban (at least to this rural reader), but his urbanness was deflected, almost never present on the surface of the work itself. You had to go to grad school to learn about it.

It has taken me years to place Chaucer to my satisfaction. My first book gave him only a cameo appearance. That book was more concerned with bridging the subfields of Old English and Middle English, which parted ways in the nineteenth century. In my second book, I have a trio of chapters that plugs Chaucer back into a literary context that makes sense to me. I realized what I really disliked was the gravitational pull he exerts on late medieval English studies. Instead of seeing Chaucer as (I think) he was, an initially insignificant sliver of his literary world, the field treats him as a benchmark for other writing in English. This remains the case whether he is read as prototypically English or, more recently, as a minor French or Italian writer. The field looks back on Chaucer through fifteenth-century goggles, for it was then that he became a benchmark. I teach Chaucer as an aberration, intentionally deflating students’ expectations about studying “the Father of English Poetry.”

My book puts Chaucer back in his place through the histories of English meters. Chaucer was a great innovator in this area. He invented the iambic pentameter. But Chaucer’s invention had a minimal impact prior to c. 1450. That’s a missed connection of half a century after the poet’s death. I wanted to write scholarship that recovered the weirdness of pentameter prior to that moment of mainstreaming.

Part of my reconciliation to Chaucer involved deeper study of his pre-CanterburyTales writing, the dream visions: the Romaunt of the RoseDeath of Blanche the Duchess,* House of Fame, Parliament of Fowls, and Legend of Good Women. Less commonly taught than the Canterbury Tales, these poems are less novelistic, more ‘medieval.’ The first three are in iambic tetrameter. They show us a Chaucer who has not yet had the pentameter idea.

The other missing piece fell into place when I read William Langland’s Piers Plowman. Langland provides vital context for reading Chaucer. You would almost think the two men belonged to different worlds. Their poems belong to different orders of reality.** Chaucer is a ubiquitous London bureaucrat, Langland a shadowy western cleric. But Langland lived in London, as well. His poem has a doubleness of place that corresponds to a certain flatness I detect in parts of Chaucer. Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrimage is a pretext for stories; for Langland, being in transit is the main thing. The House of Fame, my favorite of Chaucer’s poems, is not coincidentally the work of Chaucer that shows most clearly (we think) the influence of Piers Plowman. Langland, the “provincial” author, provincializes Chaucer. Piers Plowman thematizes that which Chaucer can’t or won’t say about himself.

I’m writing this blog post to record the chain of events that, over time and through many discussions with my students, has generated my take on Chaucer. My book simply unspools this take as achieved knowledge, but perhaps there’s value or interest in the personal backstory.

It’s OK not to like the texts you study or teach. Sometimes there’s something to be learned, about the text or about yourself, from sitting with dislike.

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*Known today under the title The Book of the Duchess. But see Ellis.
**Bourdieu’s field theory has been helping me sort out the relationship between social placement and literary style in my research into early English poetry. The term “social trajectory” is Bourdieu’s.

further reading

Bourdieu, Pierre, and Randal Johnson, ed. The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

Ellis, Steve. “The Death of the Book of the Duchess.” Chaucer Review 29 (1995): 249-58.

Grady, Frank. “Chaucer Reading Langland: The House of Fame.” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 18 (1996): 3–23.

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.

phonology and literary history

This past weekend, I presented a paper at the Medieval Academy of America Annual Meeting in Boston. My paper, “Metrical Phonology and Literary History in the Age of Chaucer,” introduces three English metrical traditions–alliterative meter, tetrameter, pentameter–and points to some phonological evidence for cross-pollination between them in the fourteenth century. Here’s the opening frame:

At the end of Book V of Troilus and Criseyde, Chaucer apostrophizes the poem:

And for ther is so gret diversite
In Englissh and in writyng of oure tonge,
So prey I God that non myswrite the,
Ne the mysmetre for defaute of tonge.

(1793-96)

This passage has attracted significant attention as a testament to linguistic, metrical, and textual variation in medieval England. The apostrophe appears to substantiate conclusions that medievalists are ready to accept anyway: that Chaucer’s language, meter, and texts were in flux around him, and that Chaucer was exquisitely aware of this situation. In the standard interpretation, the speaker of the passage is a lot like a modern editor, worried about language change, metrical decay, and scribal error.

In this paper I’d like to suggest a different cultural context for Chaucer’s hand-wringing: the mediated interaction between language and meter in fourteenth-century English verse. ‘Metrical phonology’ is my term for the linguistic forms that meter encodes. Think, for example, of the variation between monosyllabic and disyllabic scansions of the word heaven in Elizabethan poetry. I will argue that metrical phonology should be understood in terms of the larger historical formation in which it is embedded: the poetic tradition. In the fourteenth century, there were three major metrical options for poets working in English: the alliterative meter, the tetrameter, and the pentameter. The alliterative meter had been in continuous use since at least the eighth century. The tetrameter entered the English literary field in the mid thirteenth century. Chaucer invented the pentameter on the basis of French and Italian models in the 1380s: Troilus and Criseyde is his first substantial work in this new verse form. The three major Middle English meters thus had different histories. Yet these histories also inflected one another. Study of metrical phonology calls for triangulation between historical and comparative analysis. That’s what I’ll try to provide.

By mapping Middle English metrical phonologies, it becomes possible to attain some critical distance from the Troilus and Criseyde passage. Through apostrophe, Chaucer hints at the complexity of fourteenth-century vernacular poetics. However, writing before English became an academic subject, Chaucer necessarily expresses his position in literary culture symptomatically rather than analytically. Attention to the historicity of metrical phonology helps us understand what Chaucer meant by the neologism ‘mismeter’ but also how meter could appear to Chaucer as a poetic problem in the first place.

Somerset and Watson, Truth and Tales

My review of Truth and Tales: Cultural Mobility and Medieval Media, ed. Fiona Somerset and Nicholas Watson (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2015), appears in Arthuriana. Here’s the opening of the review:

This collection, dedicated to Richard Firth Green, grew out of the fourth annual meeting of the Canada Chaucer Seminar (Toronto, April 2012). The volume’s fourteen essays move across and between the large topics of popular culture, orality and literacy, and media studies, with a primary focus on medieval English literature and culture.

The contributions are organized into three central sections: ‘Repetition and Continuity: The Claims of History’ (Thomas Hahn, Stephen Yeager, M. J. Toswell, and Fiona Somerset), ‘Cultural Divides and Their Common Ground’ (Alastair Minnis, Michael Johnston, Lisa J. Kiser, and Barbara A. Hanawalt), and ‘New Media and the Literate Laity’ (Nicholas Watson, Robyn Malo, Kathleen E. Kennedy, and Michael Van Dussen). These are bookended by two single-essay sections entitled ‘The Truth of Tales 1’ (Green) and ‘The Truth of Tales 2’ (Andrew Taylor). Intersecting the editors’ chronological/methodological groupings, one can discover various subconversations about, e.g., vernacular theology (Toswell, Minnis, Watson, and Malo), merchants and their books (Johnston, Malo, and Kennedy), the way in which literature encodes human-animal relations (Somerset and Kiser), and London law (Hanawalt and Kennedy).

[…]

Of especial interest to readers of Arthuriana is Somerset’s essay on Lawman’s Brut. […]

NCS 2016 cfp: Chaucer’s Langland

A call for papers for a roundtable at the 2016 New Chaucer Society conference in London (July 10-15). Co-organized by Stephanie Batkie and myself. Submit abstracts using this interface.

Chaucer’s Langland

Many scholars have discerned evidence of the influence of Piers Plowman on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. What is the literary-historical significance of this “obligatory conjunction” between two major Middle English poems? This session seeks to enrich the current critical discussion about the cultural and literary resonance of Langland’s alliterative poem for Chaucer and his audience. Possible topics for short position papers include Chaucer’s perceptions of the alliterative meter; the nature of Chaucer’s access to manuscripts of Piers Plowman; Chaucer and Langland as London poets; Piers Plowman as a pre-Ricardian poem; and the overlapping literary genres of the two poetic projects, especially dialogue and estates satire.