Thursday, October 23, 2014

Pandemonium

In order "to justify the ways of God to Man," the poet John Milton had to find a way to breathe fresh life and drama into a story known to every school-child: that of the fall of Lucifer, the creation, and the Garden of Eden. And the first step, like that taken by the former angels in their fall from Heaven, was a doozy. His Satan, in fact, chews up the scenery so magnificently that he becomes, in effect, the main character of the poem. And, since he and his devils alone are possessed of both flaws and passion, they easily exceed in interest the dull Archangels, distant and taciturn God, and irritatingly naive Adam.  Book I of the poem gives us Satan and his minions in all their magnificent 'fall foliage' of flame: Moloch, Astoreth, Tammuz, Dagon, Rimmon, and Belial. As with most devils, they originated as Pagan gods, and Milton tells their history aptly, sending readers again and again to their atlas of the Ancient World. Dartmouth College offers an annotated online text which you can read here -- and which has the convenience of direct links to footnotes and external resources that will guide you without (hopefully) interrupting the flow.  Book I ends with the erection of the great palace of Pandemonium (literally, "all demons"), depicted above by the English painter John Martin.  Those who have played Diablo II or III will find themselves right at home!

Milton's craft as a poet is undeniable, and Paradise Lost contains some of the most vivid poetic imagery in the English language.  His announced goal may still be elusive -- but surely he soars "with no middle flight" -- choose some lines or a scene from Book I, and comment on them here.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Sweetest Shakespeare ...


The one work of English verse which endures without the help -- if that is what it is -- of educators and culture mavens, and the long list of people who like to prescribe certain works as 'good for you,' is Shakespeare's little book of sonnets.  Had he never written a play, they would still be remembered.  From their first publication to the present, they have been in people's hands, hearts, and mouths, and I would be willing to wager there are few English speakers alive today, in any corner of the globe, who do not know -- perhaps without realizing it -- a line or two of one of them. Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? Let me not to the marriage of true minds / admit impediments ... Summer's lease hath all too short a date... And the list goes on.

Shakespeare's sonnets were greatly admired even before they were published; as with the informal verses of many other poets of the day, they were circulated in manuscript.  It might be something like the present day, when the poetry or prose of a writer circulates online, via their blogs or those of their friends, before being picked up by a publisher to be "officially" brought out to the public.  It's not even clear whether Shakespeare himself authorized their publication, although the case is better for the sonnets than for the plays. It was, like the early days of the Internet, a wild time for publication, with piracy and bootleg editions rampant.

On a formal level, it is important to distinguish the "Shakespearian" sonnet from its "Petrarchan" precursor (in fact created by Giacomo da Lentini). Both are entirely in iambic pentameter; the  Petrarchan form was made up of an "octave" (two quatrains of four lines) rhyming abba/abba, followed by a closing sestet (cde/cde). The octave was supposed to describe some sort of quandry or problem, which the sestet would, to some degree, answer. It was Spenser, in English, who changed the division of the lines from the octet and sestet to three quatrains and a two-line envoi -- here the three quatrains could develop three takes on a single theme or a series, to which the envoi did not need to offer a clear answer.  And it was this far more elegant division that Shakespeare took up, following it in every one of his sonnets.

The order of the sonnets is uncertain -- neither published version had Shakespeare's explicit sanction -- but there are two broad sequences that readers then and now have discerned: the first are largely addressed to a male friend or lover, urging himself to outwit the passage of time and preserve his beauty by having offspring; the second series seem addressed to a harsh if not cruel "dark lady," a woman who has scorned the poet's attentions.

But these poems only live because we, every time we read them, make them new -- finding meanings suited to our time and place -- and thus our own understandings matter just as much as all of the above. So pick a sonnet -- any sonnet -- and describe what it means to you, and to whom (an envoi is a letter, or an ambassador) you would send it.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Essay #1 Due Monday

Dear 205 students: Due to the cancellation of classes tomorrow, I just wanted to clarify: Essay #1 will now be due on Monday, October 20th. We'll pass over Skelton and Wyatt & Surrey, and go straight for William "Vitamin S" Shakespeare.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Skelton in the Closet

The English poet John Skelton is often given the title "Poet Laureate" -- an honorific only previously bestowed upon Chaucer, long before the title became a tedious government sinecure. He is easily one of the most under-appreciated poets in English, and yet for his breathing of life into what had been, before his career, a moribund realm of English poetry, it's my personal belief that he ought to be recognized as one of the greatest of all poets in all the history of those storied islse.

Skelton was known for his signature two-foot lines, sometimes jokingly referred to as "Skeltonics" -- and deservedly so.  It remains a native rhythm of the language, and there are many more recent poets -- rapper Chuck D among them -- whose rhythms trace a similar line.  Compare for instance this stanza from "Vppon a deedmans hed":
Your ugly token
My mind hath broken.
For I have discussed
We are but dust,
And die we must,
From worldly lust.
To this from Public Enemy's Swindler's Lust:
Back it up
Vultures of culture
A dollar a rhyme
but we barely get a dime
Uh huh check it out!
If you don't own the master
Then the master own you
Who you trust
from Swindler's Lust?
From the back of the bus
Neither one of us
Control the fate of our soul
In Swindler's Lust …
The shortened beat of these lines -- and it's curious to note that "lust" is a rhyme-word in both -- makes for an ideal satirical meter.


Thursday, October 2, 2014

English and Heresy


The traditional tale of the ascendance of English into all its national glory in the wake of Chaucer's great work is -- alas -- far from the whole story. Not only did the substance and structure of English change after his death, but the language itself came under attack from the authorities of both Church and State. With the 1401 act De Hæretico Comburendo ("on the burning of Heretics"), the new King Henry IV, who had grown up hearing Chaucer himself declaim his verse, and whose personal copy of Troylus and Criseyde survives to this day, signed a bill which made the possession of heretical books -- and, by implication, any and all books written in English -- a crime punishable by burning at the stake, a practice heitherto unknown in England. Indeed, the reach of this new law was so broad that, although John Wycliffe, whose advocacy of an English version of the Bible gave his name to its earliest translations, was himself burned at the stake -- even though he had, by that time, been dead for many years; the authorities simply had him exhumed and burned his bones, tossing the ashes in the river Swift (see illustration above).

That Chaucer's own books could be, by this statute, made suspect, is confirmed by the arrest of one John Baron of Agmondesham for the possession of English texts, including a "boke of the Tales of Caunterburie," in 1464. But it was not only him; in the early years of the fifteenth century, nearly a hundred people across Britain were burned at the stake as "relapsed" heretics (it was a two-strikes-you're-out system). Many were women who had taken up the cause of the English scriptures, only to be arrested and forced to confess, among them Hawisa Moone and Margery Baxter. The Lollards believed that women, too, could be preachers of the Gospel, another strike against them in the eyes of the Church. But there were also men of strong views, including a Buckimghamshire blacksmith who swore he could "make as good a sacrament with my tongs upon my anvil as any priest upon his altar." The blacksmith was among those executed.

The ban on any translation of the Bible into English was extended by the Constitutions of Archbishop Arundel, and lasted until Henry VIII finally permitted -- indeed commanded -- the use of the English Bible in 1539. Ironically, much of the New Testament in this volume was based on the translation of William Tyndale -- a man burnt at the stake on orders from Henry himself. And despite the hope that the availability of Scripture would ease the tensions of the theological debate, they continued unabated; in 1542 Parliament passed a statute attempting to restrict who could read, and who could interpret, the English Bible -- and women (except noblewomen) were specifically excluded.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich

That Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich -- two of the earliest known women writers in English, in a century where the vast majority of women knew nothing of books -- should have met one another is perhaps to be expected.  What is more remarkable, though, are the differences between them; Julian was an "anchoress," a sequestered woman who lived a holy life without ever leaving her monastic cell; Margery was a woman of the world, much more like the Wife of Bath, with children as well as a husband who took a rather dim view of her suddenly professing, in the middle way of life, her desire to live celibate and take up self-made religious vows. Margery herself, as it happened, was illiterate -- but for a woman of means who could hire men both to read books to her, and to take down her own experiences, this was no obstacle.

Margery's experience was not unlike that of many contemporary women from the middle, and sometimes upper, classes.  Like Mechthild of Magdeburg, Christina Mirabilis, Hadewijch of Antwerp, and Catherine of Siena -- all of whose lives she had heard read aloud to her -- Margery wanted to do more with her life than simply to be called "Madame" and be first in line at the offertory.  She'd had her children, tried her hand at business, and was ready for something entirely new.  In her Book, which survives only in one copy, she described how, when her confessor would not hear her about a matter of great anxiety, she suffered a sort of breakdown, trying to injure herself until restrained, and eventually falling into a weeks-long stupor (note that in her Book, she never uses her name, but only calls herself "this creature"):
And, whan sche had long ben labowrd in thes and many other temptacyons that men wend sche schuld nevyr a skapyd ne levyd, than on a tym, as sche lay aloone and hir kepars wer fro hir, owyr mercyful Lord Crist Jhesu, evyr to be trostyd, worshypd be hys name, nevyr forsakyng hys servawnt in tyme of nede, aperyd to hys creatur, whych had forsakyn hym, in lyknesse of a man, most semly, most bewtyuows, and most amyable that evyr mygth be seen wyth mannys eye, clad in a mantyl of purpyl sylke, syttyng upon hir beddys syde, lokyng upon hir wyth so blyssyd a chere that sche was strengthyd in alle hir spyritys, seyd to hir thes wordys: "Dowtyr, why hast thow forsakyn me, and I forsoke nevyr the?" And anoon, as he had seyd thes wordys, sche saw veryly how the eyr openyd as brygth as ony levyn, and he stey up into the eyr, not rygth hastyli and qwykly, but fayr and esly that sche mygth wel beholdyn hym in the eyr tyl it was closyd ageyn. And anoon the creature was stabelyd in hir wyttys and in hir reson as wel as evyr sche was beforn, and preyd hir husbond as so soon as he cam to hir that sche mygth have the keys of the botery to takyn hir mete and drynke as sche had don beforn.
Having recovered her "wyttys," and recalling her great vision of Christ, she soon informed her husband that she would no longer lie "in comown"with him, and asking his permission to take up a lay religious life.  After much cajoling, he relented, and Margery soon took to wearing a habit of her own designing, all of white.  In church, she would suddenly burst out weeping, to the great annoyance of her fellow parishioners -- but as she explained, it was only out of sympathy for Christ's great mercy.

We'll read of her many travels this week, including a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, as well as a perilous time when she went to see Archibiship Arundel -- the very man who had promulgated the banning of the Bible in English! -- to seek his permission to carry on her religious life. He might very easily have had her arrested, as were many other religious women who identified as "Lollards" -- some of whom were burnt at the stake.  Instead, for reasons divine or otherwise, he granted her request.

Perhaps it was natural for Margery to seek spiritual sisters -- but, though in the Netherlands the Beguine movement welcomed lay women, there was no such lay order in England.  So she went to see Julian, and the two spoke "privily" (privately); no record is known of what they discussed.  Julian, who had at a young age been beset by visions, which she called "showings," never spoke or allowed any writings about them to circulate during her lifetime.  Two versions of her "Showings" are extant, one a good deal longer than the other, which suggests some possible revision later in her life.  She espoused a number of novel ideas, including that of Jesus as Mother, and was perhaps best known for her lines, echoed by the great poet T.S. Eliot in "Little Gidding":

Whatever we inherit from the fortunate

We have taken from the defeated

What they had to leave us—a symbol:
A symbol perfected in death.

And all shall be well and

All manner of thing shall be well

By the purification of the motive

In the ground of our beseeching.

And yet, lovely those those lines -- and Julian's Showings -- are, it's hard to imagine what kind of life would be available to women today who, based on visions of a personal relationship with Christ, wished to lead a life as public religious figures. The film Household Saints -- extra points to anyone who watches it and writes a response -- suggests one possibility; but are there others?  Nick Cave wrote a song about "Christina the Astonishing" -- so perhaps these figures still speak to us today.  Do they to you?

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Wife of Bath

Of all of Chaucer's Canterbury pilgrims, the "sely" Wife of Bath -- Alisoun, by name -- has been, from the very start, the most vivid and memorable. Her passion, her "wandering by the way," and her battles with each of the five husbands she had "at chirche door" are the stuff of legend.

And, as with other Canterbury pilgrims, the variants in Chaucer's manuscript reveal rich and complex possibilities that are lost in a standardized text or translation.  For instance, the Wife of Bath's Prologue famously begins:
Experience, though noon auctoritee
Were in this world, is right y-nough for me ...

Except that, in many manuscripts, it doesn't. In the Corpus Christi manuscript -- one of the oldest and finest known -- it runs this way:

Experiment though noon Auctoritee
Were in this world, is ryght ynough for me ...             (folio 100r)

What difference does that make?  An enormous one, both then and now, as the renowned British author Jeanette Winterson has noted:
I was trying to get away from the received idea that women always write about ‘experience’ – the compass of what they know – while men write wide and bold – the big canvas, the experiment with form. Henry James did no good when he said that Jane Austen wrote on four inches of ivory – i.e. tiny observant minutiae. Much the same was said of Emily Dickinson and Virginia Woolf. Those things made me angry. In any case, why could there not be experience and experiment? Why could there not be the observed and the imagined? Why should a woman be limited by anything or anybody? Why should a woman not be ambitious for literature? Ambitious for herself?
So, if you were editing the text of the Wife of Bath's Prologue, which word would you choose?  And why?