Let Chaucer Be

TCOD-Bodleian-Library
The latest controversy roiling the breasts of English majors at Yale is their being required to take a survey course called “Major English Poets,” a course of study that forces them to become familiar with the works of Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Donne in the first semester and Milton, Pope, Wordsworth, Eliot, and one other modern poet in the spring. Their beef, according the petition that they’ve delivered to the Department is that “a year spent around a seminar table where the literary contributions of women, people of color, and queer folk are absent actively harms all students, regardless of their identity.” [1]

I heartily disagree, and I’m going to quote at length one of the white men listed above, TS Eliot, from his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent.”

To proceed to a more intelligible exposition of the relation of the poet to the past: he can neither take the past as a lump, an indiscriminate bolus, nor can he form himself wholly on one or two private admirations, nor can he form himself wholly upon one preferred period. The first course is inadmissible, the second is an important experience of youth, and the third is a pleasant and highly desirable supplement. The poet must be very conscious of the main current, which does not at all flow invariably through the most distinguished reputations. He must be quite aware of the obvious fact that art never improves, but that the material of art is never quite the same. He must be aware that the mind of Europe—the mind of his own country—a mind which he learns in time to be much more important than his own private mind—is a mind which changes, and that this change is a development which abandons nothing en route, which does not superannuate either Shakespeare, or Homer, or the rock drawing of the Magdalenian draughtsmen. That this development, refinement perhaps, complication certainly, is not, from the point of view of the artist, any improvement. Perhaps not even an improvement from the point of view of the psychologist or not to the extent which we imagine; perhaps only in the end based upon a complication in economics and machinery. But the difference between the present and the past is that the conscious present is an awareness of the past in a way and to an extent which the past’s awareness of itself cannot show.

And, yes, and that includes Alexander Pope, who may not be “fun” to read but who provides a nearly flawless mirror to the intellectual world of his century.

For people of color, “queer folk,” and women to have an understanding of the works of great artists and the historical contexts of those works strikes me as the opposite of harmful, especially given that I’m fairly sure Yale offers elective courses that feature other great poets like Derek Wolcott, Elizabeth Bishop, Langston Hughes, and Hart Crane.  Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, and Donne in a sense established the traditions of English poetry, the colloquial, rough-hewn verse of Chaucer and Donne pointing the way for the great Walt Whitman, the smoothness of Spenser no doubt influencing the verse of Christina Rossetti.

One student, Ariana Miele, in an op-ed piece for the Yale Daily News wrote, “We read Chaucer, but we are told to view his misogyny with an ‘objective’ lens.”

Certainly, the Middle Ages were misogynistic, and perhaps Chaucer was typical of his age, but he has also given us the Wife of Bath who offers this bit of wisdom to her fellow pilgrims:

By God, if women ever wrote some stories

As clerks have done in all their oratories,

They would have told of men more wickedness

Than all the sons of Adam could redress.

In other words, women in Medieval Europe did not have their voices heard.

Or this from Iago’s wife Emila from Othello explaining to chaste Desdemona why some women betray their husbands:

But I do think it is their husbands’ faults

If wives do fall: say that they slack their duties,

And pour our treasures into foreign laps,

Or else break out in peevish jealousies,

Throwing restraint upon us; or say they strike us,

Or scant our former having in despite;

Why, we have galls, and though we have some grace,

Yet have we some revenge. Let husbands know

Their wives have sense like them: they see and smell

And have their palates both for sweet and sour,

As husbands have. What is it that they do

When they change us for others? Is it sport?

I think it is: and doth affection breed it?

I think it doth: is’t frailty that thus errs?

It is so too: and have not we affections,

Desires for sport, and frailty, as men have?

Then let them use us well: else let them know,

The ills we do, their ills instruct us so.

 

I’ve often said that when parents start running a school, that school’s in trouble. When students start running a university, especially when they’re undergraduates, that university’s in big trouble.


[1] Is it possible to study post-colonialism without understanding colonialism? Might knowledge of pre-colonial and colonial art help students better understand colonialism and post-colonialism?

Harsh Discords and Unpleasing Sharps

a rather unflattering depiction of Pope

a rather unflattering depiction of Alexander Pope

Nowadays, Alexander Pope is so unpopular that the Robin Williams character in Dead Poets Society demanded his students rip Pope’s poems from their texts.   Certainly, the polished closed heroic couplets that flowed from Pope’s quill would make an incongruous soundtrack for what Eliot called “the immense panorama of futility and anarchy that is contemporary history.” Yep, the minuet has given way to slam dancing; fixed poetic forms have followed their cousin the typewriter into obsolescence.

Adieu. Toot-a-loo. Later.

Nevertheless, when it comes to the poetic confluence of sound and sense, very few poets can equal that four-foot six-inch Colossus, Alexander Pope, that satiric terror who immortalized his enemies in his verse.

Here he is on synthesizing sound with image and movement:

Tis not enough no Harshness gives Offence,

The Sound must seem an Echo to the Sense.

Soft is the Strain when Zephyr gently blows,

And the smooth Stream in smoother Numbers flows;

But when loud Surges lash the sounding Shore,

The hoarse, rough Verse shou’d like the Torrent roar.

When Ajax strives, some Rocks’ vast Weight to throw,

The Line too labours, and the Words move slow;

Note how via spondees he slows down the first half of line six, a lesson learned by Frost in his short poem “The Span of Life”:

The old dog barks backwards without getting up.

I can remember when he was a pup.

Not only do the four consecutive stressed beats of old dog barks back echo what a bark sounds like, but their slowness also reinforces the dog’s old age, his sluggishness. On the other hand, the opening anapests of line two suggest the bounding energy of a puppy. Here the sound does indeed “seem an echo to the sense.”

Ultimately, Pope’s dictum demands that when describing ugliness, poets need to make their poems sound ugly, so I thought it might be interesting to check out a few great poets depicting unpleasant images and to see how successful they are in creating dissonance.

Let’s start with Chaucer’s description of the Summoner from “The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales.”

Click the arrow for sound:

A SOMONOUR was ther with us in that place,
That hadde a fyr-reed cherubynnes face,
For saucefleem he was, with eyen narwe.
As hoot he was and lecherous as a sparwe,
With scalled browes blake, and piled berd,
Of his visage children were aferd.
Ther nas quyk-silver, lytarge, ne brymstoon,
Boras, ceruce, ne oille of tartre noon,
Ne oynement, that wolde clense and byte,
That hym myghte helpen of his whelkes white,
Nor of the knobbes sittynge on his chekes.
Wel loved he garleek, oynons, and eek lekes,
And for to drynken strong wyn, reed as blood;
Thanne wolde he speke and crie as he were wood.

Fast-forwarding 200 years, here’s Edmund Spenser’s personification of Gluttony from Canto 3 of Book 1 of The Faerie Queene (I’ve modernized the spelling):

And by his side rode loathsome Gluttony,

Deformed creature, on a filthy swine,

His belly up-blown with luxury

And also with fatness swollen were his eyes

And like a Crane his neck was long and fine

With which he swallowed up excessive feast,

For want whereof poor people did pine;

And all the way, most like a brutish beast,

He spewed up his gorge, that all did him detest.

Although Spenser succeeds in creating disgusting visual images, I’m not so sure he’s completely successful in creating sonic dissonance.  On the other hand, note the dissonance of these lines from Gerard Manley Hopkins describing Industrial England.

And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

Now that’s brilliantly untuneful. Read it out loud. The rhyme toil/soil is deliciously dissonant, and seared/bleared/smeared ranks up there in rankness as well.

I’ll leave you with Master Will piping some appropriately sour notes:

It is the lark that sings so out of tune

Straining harsh discords and unpleasing sharps.

That’s Juliet talking, lying in her bridal bed with Romeo, realizing that the bird singing outside her window is not, as she hoped, the nightingale.

Time to get up, star-crossed lovers, and march off to your doom.

No, that’s too dark of a way to end this post.

A Meditation on the Sound of Indecorous Words

Fellatio is a lovely word,

Operatic, in a way:

“The role of Fellatio will be sung

By Mr. Richard Cabot-Clay.”

*

Sodomy, on the other hand,

Lacks that light Italian ring:

Biblical, confessional,

A cry of pain! a serpent’s sting!

*

Cunnilingus could be a caliph,

Thundering across Arabian sands

Seeking long lost treasure troves

Guarded by Jinn in distant lands.

*

Fuck, of course, isn’t exotic.

Its harsh cough can cause vexation.

But when a car door smashes your fingers,

It sure beats fornication.

~Wesley Moore

Geoffrey Chaucer and Lee Bright Make Strange Bedfellows

This summer I’m compiling a “Reader” for the British Literature survey I teach. We figure since we have a millennium-and-a-half of material in the public domain, why not compile our own texts and give them to students “for keeps” so they can annotate passages and eventually carry the books with them to college (if any be so foolish as to major in English).

My man G. Chaucer by far is the most time-consuming to download and format because of footnotes and marginal glosses, but I’ve had fun adding archaic words to my vocabulary, and I’ve started including some Chaucerian locutions in casual conversations.

For example, “How was Chico Feo, Ned?”

“Great. Greg was there, but he was really drunk.”

“Fordrunken, was he?”

Here’s another: Shamefastness. Any idea of what that might mean?[1]

Lee Bright as Bottom

Lee Bright as Bottom

Anyway, I took a break yesterday to take in a bit of the televised flag debate, and, of course, the stealer of the show — the thef of the feste – was Lee Bright, whose surname strikes me as inapt, given as a thinker he seems so [forgive me] inept.  I suspect poor Lee is all too familiar with sardonic puns on his name, and only a churl like I-and-I would stoop to such.

Chaucer might say of Senator Bright, “He [knows] not Cato, for his wit [is] rude,” or to put it much more crudely, we might borrow Thersistes’s description of Agamemnon from Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida: Bright “has not so much brain as ear-wax.”

It appears that Bright’s education is limited to Dorman High School, from which he received a diploma in 1988, but this lack of learning didn’t disqualify him from serving on the school board or being on the Board of Visitors at the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary or from thinking he knows what a high school biology curriculum ought to look like. Not that a college degree insures success or demonstrates intellectual curiosity.  Yeats and Faulkner lacked one, and George W Bush sported two, one from Yale, the other from Harvard.  Nantheless, as Chaucer might say, based on yesterday’s speech, Bright makes W look like Cicero.

Although the speech was supposed to address whether the Confederate flag should continue to fly on the State House grounds, it ended up an inchoate rant, a poisonous, disjointed catalogue of disparate issues expressed in hopelessly entangled syntax.   He began by saying he heard President Obama singing “a religious hymn” then bemoaned in an emotion-choked voice that he had seen the White House “lit in the abomination colors.”  He urged the “Church to rise up.”  Claimed that our nation was founded on “Judeo-Christian principles” and “was under assault by men in black robes who were not elected by you.” He then sputtered that he “would like to see the folks working as, in the positions of dealing with, the marriage certificates not to have to betray their faith or compromise their faith in order to subject themselves to the tyranny of five judges.” He admitted that the Governor had called the special session to deal with “the flag that sits out front” but urged the body instead “to deal with the national sin that we face today.”

“And to sanctify deviant behavior from five judges,” he continued, but left the phrases airborne (and me wondering just what deviant behavior the judges had been engaging in) to shift to the exhortation that “it’s time we made our stand in church.”  Then in a voice choked with emotion, in a sort of half sob he said, “We can rally together and talk about a flag all we want, but the Devil is taking over this land, and we’re not stopping him.”  Then he warned, “If the state’s got to get out of the business of marriage, then let’s get out of the business of marriage because we cannot succumb to what’s being done to the future of this nation.” He offered a concession by admitting that Christ has taught us to “love the homosexual” but that he also “teaches us to stand in the gap against sin” and that “we cannot respect this sin in South Carolina.” He ended the oration by describing the government of the United States of America “a tyrannical government.”

Perhaps some might agree with John, the cuckolded carpenter and champion of anti-intellectualism in the “Miller’s Tale”:

Yea, blessèd be always a lewèd man

That nought but only his beliefè can.[2]

But do we really want him representing us?

[1] Shyness.

[2] ”Blessed is the illiterate man who knows (can) nothing but his belief [in God].”