Monday, September 15, 2014

Chaucer

Every modern language seems to have its vital, foundational literary work: Italian has Dante's Divine Comedy, Spanish has Don Quixote, and English has Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. And yet, like other such works, the writings of Chaucer are more often talked about than read; unlike Shakespeare's, his characters have not so often strutted upon the stage. In the UK, the BBC has done them both as a period puppet piece as well as a modernized version, and in 1972 the great Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini made a memorable film version -- but here in the US there have been no major film or television adaptations, unless you count the somewhat squishy "A Knight's Tale." Still, Chaucer's influence has been deeply felt; his Troylus and Criseyde was one of Shakespeare's sources for his play of the same name; the Wife of Bath's Prologue was translated in 1700 by John Dryden; and in the twentieth century there have been no fewer than seven translations or adaptations into modern English, most recently by Peter Ackroyd (in prose) and Sheila Fisher (in verse).

Yet although it is now more than 600 years old, Chaucer's poetry is strikingly modern, some might even say postmodern. Chaucer plays around with unreliable narrators -- one might say that CT has 29 of these -- and even inserts himself into the narrative (Chaucer's offering, the sing-songy "Tale of Sir Thopas," is rejected by the Knight, who swears that his "drasty rhyming is nat worth a toord" ('your filthy rhyming isn't worth a shit'). Part of the fun in reading Chacuer, of course, is discovering that bathroom humor, pathos, pride, and human stupidity are all at least 600 years old!

It should also be noted that, work of genius though it is, the Canterbury Tales are also incomplete. Chaucer's plan called for two tales from each pilgrim on the road to and back from Canterbury, whereas in the version that he left us, we never actually arrive at Canterbury, and not all of the pilgrims even get one tale, let alone two. Early readers often filled the gaps with tales of their own, including one version -- the "Tale of Beryn" -- in which they actually do reach Canterbury. The exact order of the tales is also unclear, although they are generally organized into seven Fragments, within which the order of tales and characters is at least somewhat consistent from manuscript to manuscript.

We'll start with what's now known widely as the "General Prologue" -- a preface to the Tales as a whole which Chaucer probably composed after some, but far from all, of the tales we know now were completed.  It offers a description of the visage (face), character, and "array" (clothing and equipment) that every pilgrim presented, and as a snapshot of late Medieval England, it's without peer.  Few of the pilgrims get off easy; aside from the Knight (and there's some debate about him), only the Parson and the Plowman -- and perhaps the Clerk -- get off without some harsh words and ironic comments on how they each fall short of the ideal for their class.  You'll notice, too, that by far the largest single block of pilgrims are "clericus" -- that is, religious : the Monk, the Friar, the Prioress (with a second nun and a priest), the Sumnour, the Pardoner, and the Clerk -- such that nearly 1/3 of a group of pilgrims, or any random group on the street, would be in religious orders or jobs!  Today, when the worldwide number of what the Vatican calls "members of the consecrated life" is only about 950,000 -- barely one hundredth of one percent of the present world population of seven billion -- times have certainly changed, and dramatically.  Of all the various clerical occupations, only that of the "Clerk" -- a graduate student at Oxford -- represents a common class today; there are 20.3 million college and university students in the United States today, about 6% of our current population.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Heaney's Beowulf


Could Seamus Heaney be right? Might Beowulf be, in some sense, a postcolonial text intrinsically allied with the Irish literary tradition?  At first glance, the idea seems far-fetched. And yet ...

If we think in terms of postcolonial theory, of poco as a way of reading as much as a body of texts, then there are of course quite a few texts which in their narrative and structure embody the questions of a colonized people struggling to step forth from under domination by a foreign power. Shakespeare's The Tempest is a common text here, as it was in part inspired by the shipwreck of a small colonial flotilla, and the character of Caliban has been seen by many writers and critics as the embodiment of the subjugated or subaltern colonial subject. This view underlies many recent iterations of the Tempest story, such as Aimé Césaire's Une Tempête (A Tempest, 1968), which offers both a radical adaptation and response to Shakespeare's text.

The comparable figure in Beowulf, of course, is Grendel. Like Caliban, Grendel is the lone offspring of a powerful mother, an original inhabitant of the land on which the Shield-Danes built their hall of Heorot. The poem introduces Grendel's hatred of the Danes with the fact that their house was built upon his land. And, although the nominal hero here is the very many who slays Grendel and then his mother, there is room enough for a more sympathetic reading, as was demonstrated by John Gardner in his 1971 novel Grendel. And, with the enormous influence of Seamus Heaney's Irish-ized translation of Beowulf, the position of Ireland as England first colony has been re-framed in implicitly political terms. No less a figure than Professor Seth Lerer, in his essay “On fagne flor: The Postcolonial Beowulf, from Heorot to Heaney,” has taken up this question. Critics may counter, again, that such readings somehow distort the original sense and intent of the poem, but as with any literary text, we need to approach such claims with caution. Any search for the meaning and intent behind Beowulf is beset with difficulties, as it is already a palimpsest of multiple purposes, a warrior poem from a pagan era inscribed within a Christian polemic and rediscovered within the context of linguistic antiquarianism. By whom, and for whom, is such a text today? The postcolonial perspective may well be the answer for our times; the popularity of Heaney's translation will certainly keep this aspect of the poem in readers' minds.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Dawn of English Literature

The land now known as England was originally inhabited by an unknown culture of people, sometimes referred to as "Megalithic" people (a reference to the standing stones they left at, among other places, Stonehenge).  These people were displaced by Celtic tribes, who in their turn were pushed back to the peripheries of the island by three Germanic tribes -- the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes -- who arrived in the fifth century to fill the power vacuum left by the departing Roman colonizers.  We know little of their culture, though, and nothing of their literature, until the moment when they were converted to Christianity -- and literacy -- a couple of centuries later, and some of the earliest texts we know are those used by missionaries to help persuade the Anglo-Saxons of the superiority of Christian belief. In fact, the very oldest written text -- The Dream of the Rood -- survives in part as a runic inscription on a stone cross (shown here).  The Dream is a proselytizing poem -- a poem that sought to convert its readers actively. The main speaker of the poem, in fact, is the Cross itself, which explains why it had to allow Christ to be crucified upon it -- a vital "backstory" for the Saxons, who considered crucifixion to be be the equivalent of "fraecodes gealga" -- the thieves' gallows. The cross, in contrast, represents itself as a faithful thegn (vassal) who only did as his Lord commanded, and was rewarded by having a mini-resurrection of his own, uplifted into the light of heaven, where it was covered with gold and rich gems, a hero's reward.

This mixture of Christian and pagan elements, as we will see, marks Beowulf as well, though there the source is a thoroughly pagan poem, interpolated and redacted by the poet -- who still knew the craft of alliterative verse as well as his (or her) ancestors -- into a Christian epic.  But we can also see the pure flight of Saxon verse in religious lyrics, most famously the hymn ascribed to Caedmon by the Venerable Bede.  Bede gave the poem only in Latin, but some nameless monks in his monastery added the Saxon original, and its fame traveled far and wide in the dominion of the Angles and Saxons.

p.s. When following the link to The Dream of the Rood, please click on "Translation and Original Poem" on the left-side menu; that will display both texts side-by-side.


Monday, September 1, 2014

Welcome to English 205

Welcome to the blog for our section of ENGL 205, British Literature to 1800.  As with any survey course, this one is selective; had we but worlds enough, and time, we could perhaps read a representative selection of literature from this thousand-year stretch, but alas we have only one semester.  So, we shall have to survey the shifting sands of the English canon as best we can -- paying homage alike to well-established monuments and the odd, forgotten Ozymandius – as well as investigating the strange and diverse forces through which canons themselves take shape.  We will begin by looking at the history of English as an academic field, and the cultural histories that have brought the “canon wars” to their current, uneasy truce.  We will read a wide variety of primary texts – poetry, drama, and fiction – from the full chronological range from Beowulf through 1800, along with selected commentaries and supplemental visual materials.  Weekly response essays of one page each will be the basis for our class discussions; there will also be two formal literary essays, a midterm and final on selected texts or themes.

Our textbook will the Norton Anthology of English Literature, Ninth Edition, Volume I.