Some Approaching-Final-Paper Thoughts Asked and Answered in Spring, 1998

1) Well, I want to do something on "Troilus" [ . . . ] I went to my friend’s senior violin recital last night and there was a young man sitting in the back with headphones on, listening to hard rock. I just don’t understand. Maybe I’ll write about people ignoring each other.

        I’d say you’ve stumbled onto something. The characters in "Troilus" often don’t communicate with complete success, although with great frequency you’ll find them offering each other their "trouthe." Perhaps there’s something about "trouthe" that’s inherently "uncommunicable"? Some of the problem, as Jessica Kem’s presentation help demonstrate, is that they’re all scamming each other. For that matter, isn’t that the situation in the real world, most of the time? I mean something even more troublesome than the usual social lies ("How are you?" "Fine, thanks [though I’m failing chemistry]!"). Perhaps it’s that we’re not entirely in control of our meanings. After T has surrendered his will to the God of Love in Book I, who might be said to be pulling the strings? Then he turns over his case to Pandarus, who tells him what to do. Once he gets into close communication with Criseyde, she’s also influencing what he thinks he knows. But it’s not like P and C are uninfluenced, the so-called "unmoved mover[s]" of this plot. They, too, are subject to the gods, their emotions, their ignorance, and the manipulations of others (hint: don’t forget Calchas is still just on the other side of the city wall!).

        By the by, the "machinery of the gods" which steps in from time to time, also can be found in "Knight’s Tale," which Chaucer borrowed from Boccaccio’s "Teseida," and is one of the attributes of epic (rather than romance). Epic heroes rise to challenges larger than those faced by ordinary heroes because their deeds involve the fates of whole cities or peoples, and their efforts seem to attract the notice of the gods (or of God if they’re "Dante" in the Divina comedia). How might this epic-romance genre conflict affect the reader’s response to the "Troilus"?

2) I think I’m going to write on the civilization / nature contrast in Gawain and the Green Knight.

        Well that nails it down pretty quickly! Much as I want to say "great—I’m dying to read it," part of me worries that it sounds too simple. So (of course) I’m driven to complicate it.

        The decision to see only or mainly a "contrast" suggests that civilization and nature are binary opposites with no overlap. But remember that the Green Knight’s school colors are green and gold. Remember also that he appears twice in this text, first as the big green guy, and second as Bertilak (or Bercilak if you follow the MS’s other spelling of his name), an excellent example of a courtly host if you overlook that little thingee with the wife. The first time, he bears the holly bob in one hand, surely a green bough and sign of nature, but in the other he bears the ax, a piece of courtly military hardware which could be considered "unnatural" unless the court and its inhabitants is only dreaming that it’s separated from nature. It might be argued that the court, itself, is unavoidably subject to nature because they’re "in their first age" or youth—caught in the dance of time and headed toward a "natural" maturation of which Gawain’s strange journey is but a part. Victoria Guerin (The Fall of Kings and Princes) even argues that Mordred’s treason already is prefigured in the tale’s emphases on treachery, but that’s another thesis. (This also got me impishly wondering how a thesis about civilization and nature would work in "Parliament of Foules." But remember that the final paper has to take up (at least in passing) one of the major works we read toward the end of the semester, Malory, either of the "Pearl"-poet’s poems, or the "Troilus.")

3) Medieval poetry as a tool to create empathy (so important to "trouth," Christian society, etc.), by creating courtly empathy and compassion in the reader for the characters, in "Troilus and Criseyde"? Many of Chaucer’s works?

        Complex and abstract, but doable. First, from whence will we derive evidence for the rule this follows about the function of empathy in the construction of "trouth"? In the "Troilus," might we see empathy of a sort functioning when Pandarus shuttles between the lovers-to-be. Also see the first book’s invocation when the Narrator (usually capitalized to emphasize his role as a character in the tale he narrates) says:

"For I, that God of Loves servantz serve,

Ne dar to Love for myn unliklynese,

[ . . . ]

But nathele, if this may don gladnesse

Unto any lovere, and his cause availle

Have he my thonk, and myn be this travaile!

 

But ye loveres, that bathen in gladnese,

If any drope of pyte in yow be,

Remembreth you on passed hevynese

That ye han felt, and on the adversite

Of othere folk, and thynketh how that ye

Han felt that Love dorste yow displese,

Or ye han wonne hym with to gret an ese.

 

And preith for hem that ben in the cas

Of Troilus . . .

Actually, wouldn’t "pyte" be the correct Middle English term for what you are describing? Try a glance through the Chaucer concordance under "pyte" and see how frequently and where he uses it.

        In case nobody’s ever explained the use of a concordance to all you folks, here goes. Major writers develop their own idiosyncratic patterns of usage, patterns which sometimes are said to drive changes in the vocabularies of their later readers (e.g., "to purify the language of the tribe"). Concordances are lists of all words the writer is known to have used, listed in alphabetical order, with each word followed by all instances of the word’s use in the author’s corpus of published works (also listed alphabetically by the works’ first keywords in the title or abbreviation).

        "What madman would do this?," you ask. There really are people out there with the patience for this kind of long, detailed project, but there also are concordance-writing programs out there (e.g., QUIK) which do the job for us once the author’s works have been digitized. But the hand-made concordances usually are more accurate and have fewer irritating false-hits due to transcription errors by scanners and typisssstts. They’re also hard to do with an author whose MSS contain variant spellings of the same words, but the emergence of a standard edition (like the Riverside Chaucer or Vinaver’s Malory) usually means that an editor has decided to go with one spelling for each word. You start with a huge pile of 3x5 cards and a big stack of standard editions, and before you know it, you’re eighty years old. (Or you get your grad students to do it.)

        "So how and why would I use a concordance?," you ask with admirable persistance. Well, when your whole argument turns upon the author’s use of a keyword (like, say, "pyte"?), you can establish parallel instances in which the word was used to set up a case for Chaucer’s special sense of its significance. And you know I wouldn’t be telling you how to do this were there no chance that he did consider it a special word, eh?

4) Private space vs. public space. Private thouhts vs. pubic thoughts. This may apply to Tr and Cr’s love—do they keep it private—does it become public? I’m thinking about Art of Courtly Love & the importance of secrecy.  I don’t know what I have to say about private vs. public but I’m trying to pay attention to it as I read.

        Haaaaaayyeeaagh! Samurai Scholar! Keep watching and by Book IV the private vs. public will be all over your notes. You’ve already seen a play of private vs. public space (T’s room and P’s friendly intrusion into it, the public space of the temple where C jostles with the crowd for her place, the private realization T conceals with public raillery, the private closet into which C retreats to read T’s private letter which P has thrust into her private bosom in public while daring her "Now cast it awey anon, / That folk may seen and guaren on us tweye" [1156-7]). The lovers have to meet publicly unless they want to risk public exposure of a private meeting, so P arranges the dinner at Deiphobos’ house where they can "happen to bump into each other and say a few words." (Sure it sounds complicated, but have you ever known somebody who’s really tried the modern "direct" route, like singles bars or personal ads—yuck!) As you suspect, part of the second "sorwe" of Troilus will involve the need to "go public" in order to save the relationship.

        On another note, all of you should do what this student is doing, and on several parallel potential topics. That’s the way to gradually master a text, and to begin relating it to others (before you start cramming for the final!). As you spot things that ring a bell re: the Breton lais (either Marie’s or the Middle English ones), Malory, the dream visions, "Pearl" or "SGGK," don’t just say "hmmm" and read on. Make a note of it, preferably both in the text and in a separate section of your journal (you do keep a journal, don’t you? OK, a sheet of paper you bubble-gum to the wall above your bed?) so you can assemble these topic-related associations when you need them. Gardeners call it compost, the "Pearl" called it "mok and molle," but out of it beauty arises. Sorry—I was ranting.

5) Hmmm Troilus and Criseyde. It always makes more sense after we discuss it. I’m having trouble keeping track of who’s speaking all the time, and I think I also need a refresher course in Iliad.

You might be interested to know, though, that I’m using some "Pearl" and Chaucer in my Honors Seminar final paper. The class is concerned with the connection between nature, culture, and history, so I’m using Medieval, Romantic, and Early American (yes, Hawthorne) works having to do with forest myths / superstition.

I think I’ll use "Gawain" for your final paper. It’s my favorite so far.

        Hmmm is right! A suggestion about tracking the speakers—preread with a pen and underscore the speech identifiers (e.g., "quod Pandare" or "she lough, and seyde") before you read. That will set up some "guardrails" for your reading to alert you to the shifts in discourse. It also might support an interesting analysis of who’s dominating the discussion! Rick Pringle did a study of Goucher classrooms when we went co-ed, sitting in the classes and noting the gender of those who spoke re: frequency and duration, who initiated lines of discussion, who followed up on them, who interrupted whom, etc. That kind of discourse analysis can be used to support conclusions about the flow of power in the scene, the success or failure of speakers’ agendas, etc.

        Re: classical allusion, don’t ignore Masterplots and Cliff’s Notes for that kind of basic "who-did-what-to-whom" information (bet you never thought you’d hear me recommend Cliff’s Notes!) though, of course, we all ought to spend our summers refreshing our memory of the classics. But I’m also available for information with a phone call or email. That’s what they pay me for, and I actually enjoy talking about this stuff. Make my day!

        Re: the Honors Seminar paper, I hope Bardaglio knows what he’s getting into! Keep in mind that Emerson went to England and met Coleridge, and that, after the French Revolution turned ugly and scared the pants off the liberals, there was a great wave of nostalgic (and creatively inaccurate) "medievalism" which swept England: castle building, mock tournaments, poems about "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" and "The Eve of St. Agnes" and "The Defense of Guenivere," reprints of Malory, and the actual hiring of unemployed fellows to be "Hermits" in medieval grottos—finally, an alternative to Welfare as we know it! Sources available on request.

        Using "Gawain" because it’s your favorite sounds like a safe bet, but don’t forswear the possibility that the "Troilus" might open up for you. Hey, they’re both knights, aren’t they?

6) I would like to write about "Pearl" or "Sir Gawain" but I feel very uninspired and really have no ideas at this point. (Please forgive me—I’ve had an hour of sleep and really can’t think straight!)

        Egad—had I had an hour of sleep before class, I wouldn’t be able to punctuate, much less "think straight." Come to think of it, people have told me that I don’t think "straight," but since the ‘sixties I’ve always taken that as a compliment.

        I know this is unlikely to (ahem) awaken your enthusiasm, but "Pearl," "BoD," and "Foules" all involve some pretty profound sleep episodes, and "BoD" even involves insomnia. What is sleep? It’s the "other side" of daylight and the other "little death." It’s where gods and demons talk to medieval people and those people report acting out otherwise impossible encounters with the powers of the universe. It’s also true that there are two dreams in the "Troilus," Criseyde’s (II.918-31) and Troilus’ (V.1233-43). C’s isn’t interpreted (though it is echoed in the "letter cramming" scene), but Troilus does take his dream to the local Trojan soothsayer (Cassandra, who of course tells him the truth which he disbelieves—what a hoot!). Oh I don’t know, maybe this thread isn’t going anywhere and I should take a nap. Don’t neglect to try again when you’re rested.

7) Haven’t given this paper to much thought yet. I enjoyed SGGK and wouldn’t mind writing about it. Maybe an analysis of the contrasting themes of nature & courtly society (sound familiar? [I’m not making this up, folks!—AS]_ exploring the use of green & gold, other symbols (G’s shield w/Mary), etc. There may be a possibility of tying this paper in w/ my 1st [on "Bisclavret"’s use of animal/human dialectic].

        So after reading the response to 2, above, what else can you get out of me? Your mention of G’s shield w/Mary puzzled me a bit, but here’s my take on it. Church doctrine uses "nature" in interesting ways. Nature is, after Genesis, "fallen and corrupt." We see that in the nasty way humans are begotten, their sad and deluded lives, and their horrible deaths. The Incarnation and Eschaton (envisioned in John’s Apocolypse or Revelation) are nothing less than the creation of a "second Nature," perfected and incorruptible. The wedding to which the Pearl-maiden goes will heal the awful breach between God and the soul as she merges with the infinite and boundless ("grete enough"), and the fate of the rest of fallen nature is not pretty. Check John on this, and/or Medieval MS illustrations of the last days’ torments for those unfortunates who haven’t been to confession. So Mary is part of the system by which, says the Church, God has redeemed (as in released from the prison of the flesh) humanity. She’s a "pure vessel" whose virgin conception and delivery of Jesus is specifically described in "Pearl" as being like light passing through clear glass. Mary never ages, but is bodily transfigured and carried into heaven. She is forever the young and pure virgin (Wife of Bath, eat your heart out—talk about an impossible standard for body image!). She is the queen of the queens, of which the Pearl-maiden is one.

        SGGK, by contrast, is motivated from behind the scenes by "Morgan the goddes," an aged woman whose physical vulnerability to the effects of aging are dwelt upon in some detail, and are contrasted to the Host’s Wife’s youthful appearance (though she’s surely no virgin!). The poem’s view of nature is full of references to the discomforts it brings and the dangerous animals its wastelands harbor. (Listening, 5?) So maybe the two poems are like companion pieces, showing two sides of the same value system or something?

8) So, I’m now in full fledged panic about all my final papers. Here’s what I was thinking today in the shower. [again, I must protest I do not make this stuff up!—AS] I think a good hard paper to do would be one on comparing the narrators in some of Chaucer’s stuff. I first thought that "Bok of the Duchess" and "Troilus" would be fun to compare/discuss. This is (literally) as far as I’ve gotten with this idea. This weekend will see me in the library hunting up some articles. Where can I go with this idea? Is it too broad? Has this topic been beaten to death already?

My brain is not coming up with any more topic ideas right now. Mayeb a jam session with you would help. Monday afternoon? Tuesday afternoon? Maybe something to do with minor characters. Ugh.

        Ah, the senior brain in its last gasp of inspiration. Truly an instructive spectacle. But seriously, I sympathize and you’re not at all crazy for thinking the Narrator-idea has got legs. "Chaucer the Pilgrim," as the narrator of CT has been called, was the brainstorm of E. T. Donaldson (Speaking of Chaucer? It’s been a while since I had to come up with the locus, but check the notes to the CT General Prologue and you’ll see it mentioned). The narrators of the dream visions have (as you suspected) generated a raft of critical literature just slightly smaller than all the movie reviews of Titanic. However, that surely doesn’t mean that there are no more ways to approach the problem. But stay the heck out of the library (or at least the flooded basement and the MLA bibliography) until you’ve nailed down your own insight. Some suggestions follow in no particularly good order:

        Narrators establish the poet’s relationship with the audience, or even "construct" the audience (Walter Ong, "The Writer’s Audience is Always a Fiction" PMLA ’77?). This manipulation of the audience’s stance or interpretation of the text, itself, can be accomplished in prohemia or forwards, narrative intrusions, or palinodes or interpretive-end-notes (usually reversing the thrust of the main text). The "Troilus" is rife with examples of all these things, as are both dream visions by Chaucer. Remember the dream visions usually are considered to be early work (1360s-1370s) vs. the "Troilus" which bears the marks of his Italian journeys and some decidedly "middle aged" ideas about life and love. Benson thinks "Foules" might be as late as 1380, though. So if you’re doing more than one poem, you might be able to make an argument about "Chaucer’s development of his skills in creating the Narrator."

        Narrators establish the poet’s relationship with the poet’s "auctors" or sources, an uneasy struggle for authority in which the more the Medieval poet "wins" for independent invention the more the work is suspect because a novelty rather than a tried and true piece of time-tested wisdom. Yes, it’s really that conservative an environment—think of what "new" things time has brought them: the Great Schism with two or three popes excommunicating each other; the plagues; the Hundred Years War; the Peasants Revolt and the jaqueries; and the crossbow (which the pope tried to ban as an ungodly and immoral advantage in battle with which a peasant could kill a king). Chaucer’s dream vision narrators use Big Time classical texts as the (ouch!) pretexts for the visions. How? They also might be satirized just a bit by the strange adventures which apparently result from the Narrator’s reading in them. The Narrator in "Troilus" invents some guy named "Lollius" upon whom he rests all the authority for this text, but the desultory critical squabbling over "Lollius"’ identity has not disguised the fact that GC is weaving together Boccaccio’s narrative with all sorts of other writers’ work. Where and when does the Narrator refer to his "auctor" and what might that pattern tell us? (also see 9 below)

        Narrators establish the poet’s relationship with the poem’s matter, especially its moral significance and its beauty. The poem, if not a biblical tale, must be justified in some way or it risks destruction at the hands of the scriptorium’s scribes. The poet’s defense of his creation can be traced in the ways the narrators "embrace" their subjects, becoming involve in praising or otherwise evoking their best qualities. What parts of the poems do Chaucer’s narrators wrap their arms around and nuzzle affectionately? Conversely, what parts do they hold at arm’s length, pinching their figurative noses as if presented with a skunked dog (and I know whereof I type!).

9) What seems interesting to me is to compare how much Boccacio’s Il Filostrato influenced Chaucer—how much source did he take from F for the "Troilus." A question for you: Do you think that this will be too much work? I don’t think I would be able to do it—even though I already have some books on it—because I have four other English classes.

        Well to compare a 5704-line poem with an 8239-line poem would be a bit of a stretch, even if you had only three other English classes, but seriously, it’s not a bad idea for a general approach. The key strategy here is, as Ed Wortek says, "FOCUS!" Don’t try to do any big chunk of text for its own sake. Decide upon a reason why it matters whether GC took a part of "Troilus" from Boccaccio and think through the consequences of these possible scenarios (which you would test by checking Windeatt’s edition of the "Troilus"):

a) Chaucer follows Boccaccio nearly word-for-word, translating Italian into English, but can’t keep the stanzas the same because he’s moving from 8-line stanzas to 7-line stanzas and from couplets to rime royal (ababbcc). So your interest could follow his stanzification (which Word’s speller hates!) of Boccaccio or his choice of rhyme words which might be thematic.

b) Chaucer follows Boccaccio’s general outline, but "Englishes" the scene in some crucial ways, either by omitting or by adding words and phrases. Sometimes these changes are fairly subtle, so you’ll want to wear out your Italian dictionary to make sure you’ve caught the full sense of the text he’s altering. Other times, it’s a big change, as in the differing ways in which Chaucer’s and Boccaccio’s heroine receive the news that Troilus/Troilio loves her. To echo my comments to 8, above, the narrators of the two poems set up vastly different relationships with the material and the intended audience. B’s poem is (typically for a courtly poem) dedicated specifically to one lady who is supposed to get a coded message from the events he’s describing and from whom the narrator wants a return to affectionate relations. Big change? Follow this in the explanatory notes where the editor is always careful to tell you when Chaucer has pulled something big, or in Windeatt’s edition’s notes where the little details are covered more thoroughly.

c) Chaucer ignores Boccaccio entirely and substitutes something from another source which scholars have identified, most notoriously the soul-flight which "Teseide"’s Arcita gets (and which "Knight’s Tale"’s Arcite is denied, poor guy) and which is given here to Troilus (whereas Troilio gets bupkis). Again, big change? Why did he insert this material between B’s scenes and did he leave anything out while doing so? What would have been the consequence of doing it the way B did it? Again, check those explanatory notes before or after you read a section to make sure you know what GC is borrowing and what he is adding.

d) Chaucer ignores Boccaccio entirely and substitutes something he seems to have invented himself (e.g., the two dinner parties). Again, why plug this into B’s tale and did he leave anything out as he was inserting it? What did he change to accommodate it? Again, you’ll find the first clues in the explanatory notes and Windeatt.

Then again, you could just do the "nature vs. court" theme in "Troilus"! (I’m kidding—it’s much harder to do here because it’s set in a city under siege and all the little birdies are about the only animals in the poem except for those smuggled into it in dreams.)

Write again soon, folks.

--a.