Thursday, March 30, 2017

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, March 22, 2017

The Shepheards Calendar

The annals of literature are filled with dead forms and genres, but none of them is probably deader than the Pastoral. Once, along with Epic and Tragic verse, it stood among the prime modes of literary composition, but today it seems a strange and distant prospect, one whose very atmosphere -- although curiously unfamiliar -- seems at the same time already stale. And yet, for Edmund Spencer, it was precisely with this genre that he sought to resuscitate the moribund body of English verse, and breathe new life into a national literature.

The formula is simple: to move away from the City and its attendant troubles, back into an imaginary green world, populated with shepherds and shepherdesses, the former playing upon their oaten reeds and singing love calls, the latter wandering about fetchingly, replying with fleeting hints of "no" or "yes" before dashing off to still more distant pastures. As with the poetry of the medieval troubadours or the fleeting lovers on Keats's Grecian vase, love among these figures was generally unconsummated, desire eternally deferred, and the conventions of a progressive plot -- indeed, of any plot at all beyond romance in general -- were as though unknown.

Spencer's model was Virgil's Eclogues; as with many Renaissance writers, having a classical model was the shortest route to respectability. Within that model, though, Spencer took considerable freedoms, treating the bucolic settings as scenes for miniature dramas of his own. Two of his characters -- the fair Rosalind and her suitor Colin Clout (the latter borrowing his name from Skelton's poem) fairly outgrew the page, bestowing their names and histories on many successor characters, including Shakepeare's Rosalind in As You Like It. In other hands, such a poetic cycle might seem a piffle, but Spencer uses them to stake no less a ground than that of English poetry itself. In this, he is aided and abetted by one "E.K." (possibly a disguise for Spencer himself), who situates the verses that follow within both the classical world of Virgil and the vernacular realms of Chaucer.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

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 isles.

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.


Wednesday, March 15, 2017

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, March 13, 2017

The Old Haunts of Margery Kempe

Just yesterday evening, I had the delight of visiting St. Margaret's church in King's Lynn, where some six centuries past, Margery Kempe worshipped. It looks much the the same now as it must have then, although some of the gothic arches are leaning a bit, like the Tower of Pisa, and the sanctuary is now dominated by a nineteenth-century baptismal font and altarpiece. It seemed to me as though I could still her her loud crying, as well as the shusshing of her neighbors in the adjoining pews, echoing in these ancient stones. Margery is a bit of a tourist draw these days -- there's an exhibit of her life at the nearby town museum, and the church itself has a small plaque and a page on its website that recounts her life. From there, I was reminded that William Sawtre, the very first accused Lollard to have been burned at the stake under Henry IV's statute, was once vicar there.

I was guided about King's Lynn by a friend who lives in the neighboring town of Downham Market; one can see that it was once an active merchant port, with many narrow cobbled streets that lead to the waterfront. I was also able to see, though not go inside, the Guildhall, where John Kempe would have had a seat at the dais, and which sponsored many medieval mystery plays (which Margery notes that she attended). Part of the Hall is now an arts centre, where contemporary plays are put on. The rest of the modern town has an area of relatively posh shops (the coast of Norfolk being popular with affluent families), but there's also a fair share of poverty; the industrial revolution largely passed King's Lynn by, and for many folk in the region, farming is still the principal employment.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

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 for a celibate life and 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 Shewings 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" (I give the original first, and then Eliot's paraphrase):
After this the Lord browte to my mynd the longyng that I had to Hym aforn. And I saw that nothyng letted me but synne, and so I beheld generally in us al. And methowte, if synne had not a ben, we should al a ben clene and like to our Lord as He made us. And thus, in my foly, aforn this tyme, often I wondrid whiby the gret forseyng wysdam of God the begynyng of synne was not lettid. For than, thowte me, al shuld a be wele. This steryng was mikel to forsakyn, and nevertheless mornyng and sorow I made therefor without reason and discretion. But Jesus, that in this vision enformid me of all that me nedyth, answerid by this word, and seyd: Synne is behovabil, but al shal be wel, and al shal be wel, and al manner of thyng shal be wele.

====•==== 
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 as 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?  The folk trio of Bock, Muir, and Trickett set the anchoress's words to music in their "Julian of Norwich," and Nick Cave wrote a song about "Christina the Astonishing" -- so perhaps these figures still speak to us today.  Do they to you?