24 September 2013

This is the Hous that Fame Built

In some ways, I think that the hardest thing about blogging for a class and on an academic subject is tone. This week, I'm going to try to geek out over now, before I've said anything of real substance. This is, I'm a bit ashamed to admit, the first time I've read Hous of Fame. I knew the basic premise, of course, and have heard about it plenty of times ... but I'd never actually read it before. My marginalia is chockablock with exclamation points, hearts and smilies, and, at one point, a barely-legible "this is crazypants!". Really, my goal in this blog post is to organize these completely un-critical thoughts into some sort of cogent thought about what is happening in this poem, particularly Book 2.

Of course, this is the cognition and identity show, so we all know what I'm going to write about. In particular, I want to focus on lines 555–566:

Til at the laste he to me spak
In mannes vois and sayde, "Awak!"
And be nat agast so, for shame!"
And called me by my name,
And, for I sholde the bet abreyde
Me mette "Awak" to me he seyde
Right in the same vois and stevene
That useth oon I coude nevene;
And with that vois, soth for to seyne,
My minde cam to me ageyne,
For it was goodly seyd to me,
So nas it never wont to be.

So. Let's provide a little context, shall we? Chaucer (the narrator, but considering that the eagle calls him "Geffrey" in line 728, we can probably assume that Chaucer and the narrator are even more closely linked in this poem than perhaps in other dream visions, where the connection between author and narrator can be a bit more blurry) is already asleep long before the lines began; he falls asleep on the tenth of December, when "...as I slept, me mette I was / Within a temple y-mad of glas" (119–20). After a long description of the engravings at the Temple of Venus (which mirror the paintings outside the courtyard in the Romaunt of the Rose—which was originally what I planned to write about this week), an eagle arrives overhead. Then, the narrative is disrupted again for the invocation of the second book. Finally, the eagle snatches poor Geffrey up only a few lines into Book 2, and he speaks the lines quoted above only about 20 lines after the beginning of the first book.

So when the eagle tells him to wake up, does he remain sleeping? When the narrator then dreams the invocation to walk up being spoken into his ear again, is he sleeping within his dream? Is he actually awake? After the speech, spoken by a voice "Right in the same stevene / That useth oon I coulde name," (According to the notes in the Norton, this may refer to Chaucer's wife), he awakens ... into his dream.

Speaking of the line between waking and sleep, I am blurring it far too much at present to be able to write any more coherently on the subject. I do want to develop this idea further; however, a practical application of the dream vision is not a helpful means to those ends. I will post more details in the morning.

Next week, stay tuned for an old favorite: (more) eagles, and dreamers, and Nature—oh, my! After that, there may be cookies.

16 September 2013

Multivalent Realities in The Book of the Duchess and Romaunt de la Rose

Well, with a title like that, my post is clearly not going to live up to Megg's absolutely amazing post on BDSM and homoeroticism in Roman de la Rose. In fact, that post kind of made me want to drop the notes I'd been writing on the bridge between dreaming and waking to write about medieval smut and double entendre, but ... alas. We do what we know best.*

That being said, it's no secret that I have a lot of interest in emotion and cognition, and the way dreams are represented or used in medieval literature has been a growing part of this interest. In particular, I am interested two major aspects of dreams in Chaucer's literature: first, the way dreams are acting as a sort of medium through which the dreamer comes upon some new source of knowledge, and second, the different forms of reality that emerge for the dreamer (and by extension, the reader or listener) through this medium.

Chaucer's Romaunt of the Rose is a more complicated and yet also very interesting text for these purposes because it is a translation; to truly break any ground in this area would require a much closer familiarity with the French exemplar Roman de la Rose than my time has allowed me to develop of late. However, if in fact there were any noticeable differences in the way Chaucer and Lorris or de Meun deal with cognition and dreaming—well, that would be amazing, but I can't speculate on it just yet. (On the other hand, some of the things that the Romaunt got me started thinking about are even more interesting in some of Chaucer's original poems, so I'm also rooting for it being a formulaic translation when it comes to these issues)

The very beginning of the romance offers us a glimpse into the role of dreams:

"Many men sayn that in sweveninges
There nys but fables and lesynges;
But men may some sweven[es] sen
Whiche hardely that false ne ben,
But afterward ben apparaunt.
And whoso saith or weneth it be
A jape, or elles nycete,
To wene that dremes after falle,
Let whoso lyste a fol me calle." (1–5, 11–14)

Additionally, Macrobius and his Somnium Scipionis are again brought up (more on Macrobius later in the semester, I'm sure). Much like in the introduction to The Book of the Duchess, the act of entering upon the dream is both very direct and somewhat muddled. Unlike Duchess, the Narrator isn't preoccupied with his (in)ability to sleep; in addition, he does not enter the dream in the pseudo-waking state of others.

However, within both this dream and the dream in Duchess, there are additional layers of reality within the dream. The walled enclosure of the garden in the dream provides almost a second layer of the dream; as he moves from a serene natural dreamscape to the setting of the romantic drama, he must enter a sort of cloister, guarded by portraits of (horrible) women and a (also female) sort of gatekeeper. (As a note, I am very interested to look at the diction used to describe the women in the portraits and see how it is different from and similar to representations of Fortune in Duchesse.

This idea is completely confused at this point in time, and as a result I am not able to write in very much depth just yet. Keep an eye out for another post later this week that expands upon these ideas and maybe even draws upon Macrobius.

*That last sentence was shamelessly stolen from Megg's lips. Because it was too perfect to go to waste.

09 September 2013

A Lak of Boethius

The "Boethian Ballads"(generally comprised of Fortune, Trouthe, Gentilesse, and Lak of Steadfastnesse—hereafter LoS) are so called because of their subject matter, generally thought to coincide not only with Chaucer's interest in Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy, but with the time during which he was actively translating the work into his Middle English Boece. However, while some of the poems, such as Trouthe, experiment directly with ideas from the Consolation, LoS's Boethian ideas are more circumspect.

In Chaucer's Boece Book II, Prosa 6, 29–38: "O, ye erthliche bestes, considere ye nat over whiche thyng that it semeth that ye hand power? Now yif thou saye a mows among othere mysz that challanged to hymself-ward ryght and and power over all othere mysz, how gret scorn woldestow han of it! (Glosa. So fareth it by men [that the wikkid men have power over the wikkid men; that is to seye], the body hath power over the body.)" Chaucer uses this rhetoric to great effect in Trouthe, in which he uses a pun on Sir Philip de la Vache to compare the typical foibles of humans with the more "natural" activities of animals. Further, the refrain in this poem, "And trouthe thee shal delivere, it is no drede" focuses on a very typical Boethian view.

In contrast, John Scattergood argues in his article "Social and Political Issues in Chaucer: An Approach to Lak of Stedfastnesse," Chaucer is using the complaint poem genre to address specific political issues occurring at the time of its composition (in the case of LoS, he argues that he is referring to the political upheavals of c. 1387). While there are certainly some aspects of Boethianism in LoS, the refrain "That al is lost for lak of stedfastnesse" seems more focused on individual actions than the mutability of life. In this case, Chaucer's direct address to (purportedly) King Richard II is necessarily reducing the important of the Consolation of this poem—while the undertones of the poem remain focused on the fickleness of life, an invocation to or support of action on the part of the king does not allow for the same sort of inevitability which appears in his other poems.

Why, though, does any of this matter? While the influences of Boethius on Chaucer (and many other medieval writers) are important to consider, it is equally important to not become hamstrung by such associations. It may be useful to think of Chaucer's poems in groupings such as the "Boethian Ballads", but rethinking the different ways in which Chaucer is using Boethian rhetoric creates new readings of his individual poems, as well.

02 September 2013

Truth and fiction in the Dream Vision

My next few posts will likely be a sort of smorgasbord of partly-formed ideas I have about The Book of the Duchess. There are many things about this poem that captivate me, and I am fairly certain that my larger project later in the semester will involve this poem, but I'm not yet certain which aspect will be my main focus.

While dreams and visions are by no means rare in earlier writing, the "dream vision" is a real preoccupation of both Middle English poets and contemporary scholars. Several times in The Book of the Duchess, the narrator makes mention of the Somnium Scipionis and Macrobius's treatise on dream interpretation based on the Somnium. In addition to Macrobius, Gregory the Great's Homilies on Ezekiel and the Somniale Danielis are all common medieval sources of dream theory. However, these medieval theorists don't seem to spend much time analyzing the paradox of the dream vision, nor do they focus on the liminal space between waking and dreaming. As we discussed in class, is Alcyone awake when Morpheus comes in, in the guise of her dead husband, and tells her to wake up? Is the narrator awake or asleep when he is "waked / With smale foules a grete hepe / That had affrayed me out of my slepe / Thurgh noyse and swetness of hir songe;" (294–97). Contemporary writing rarely focuses on how dreams begin and end—and our focus on any dream, whether our own or a literary dream, is usually the plot and development rather than the entrée and exit—yet the dream visions of The Book of the Duchess and many (most? all?) other Middle English poetry revolve around the act of waking into the dream.

As I've recently been writing about affect and realism in Anglo-Saxon dreams and visions, I find this preoccuptation curious. It seems almost that in order to enter this new world of the dream, the dreamer has to pass through a liminal space between the waking world and the dreaming world through the physical acts of falling asleep and waking up. There is an authenticity created by the act of waking which allows the dreamer (or in a more practical sense, the reader) to accept the truth of the dream or vision.

What, then, might this tell us about Chaucer's role as narrator in The Book of the Duchess? Chaucer has to walk a narrow path here. In writing a poem about the death of a (exceedingly powerful) patron's beloved wife, the dual truth and fiction of the dream vision offers him a venue in which he can write a tribute to her and still engage with greater issues of grief, love, narrativity, and authenticity.

That trewely I that made this blog...

A full fourteen months after my last post, I sorely doubt that anyone is following my poor, sad, lonely blog any longer. A lot of things have happened in the last year—I moved across the country to start graduate school; I finished my first year of graduate school and passed my exams; I became simultaneously sorely in need of cooking therapy, and pathetically short of time in which to do it. In addition, almost every aspect of my move away from Southern California was positive, but the loss of always-availabile fresh local produce has been a difficult one.

Enter the fall semester 2013. Among other things, I am taking a class on Chaucer, and one of the class assignments is to maintain an ongoing blog through which we can explore ideas which may not get adequate airtime in class, and also to see what others in the class may be thinking about and working on. This seemed like an ideal time to try to breathe some life into this blog again, in time for birthday cakes, Hallowe'en cookies, and Thanksgiving side-dishes. As a result, I can't promise that there won't be recipes scattered in here for the remainder of the semester, but the main focus of this space for the next four months will be discussing some of Chaucer's many poems.

Coming soon: The Book of the Duchess. Dreams, liminality, gender, and adaptation—it's like this thing was written for me.