Some Approaching-Final-Paper Thoughts Asked and Answered in Spring, 1998
1) Well, I want to do something on "Troilus" [ . . . ] I went to my friends senior violin recital last night and there was a young man sitting in the back with headphones on, listening to hard rock. I just dont understand. Maybe Ill write about people ignoring each other.
Id say youve stumbled onto something. The characters in "Troilus" often dont communicate with complete success, although with great frequency youll find them offering each other their "trouthe." Perhaps theres something about "trouthe" thats inherently "uncommunicable"? Some of the problem, as Jessica Kems presentation help demonstrate, is that theyre all scamming each other. For that matter, isnt 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 Im failing chemistry]!"). Perhaps its that were 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, shes also influencing what he thinks he knows. But its 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: dont 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 "Knights Tale," which Chaucer borrowed from Boccaccios "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 theyre "Dante" in the Divina comedia). How might this epic-romance genre conflict affect the readers response to the "Troilus"?
2) I think Im 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 "greatIm dying to read it," part of me worries that it sounds too simple. So (of course) Im 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 Knights 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 MSs 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 its separated from nature. It might be argued that the court, itself, is unavoidably subject to nature because theyre "in their first age" or youthcaught in the dance of time and headed toward a "natural" maturation of which Gawains strange journey is but a part. Victoria Guerin (The Fall of Kings and Princes) even argues that Mordreds treason already is prefigured in the tales emphases on treachery, but thats 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"-poets 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 Chaucers 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 books 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, wouldnt "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 nobodys 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 words use in the authors 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 authors 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. Theyre 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 Vinavers 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, youre 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 authors use of a keyword (like, say, "pyte"?), you can establish parallel instances in which the word was used to set up a case for Chaucers special sense of its significance. And you know I wouldnt 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 Crs lovedo they keep it privatedoes it become public? Im thinking about Art of Courtly Love & the importance of secrecy. I dont know what I have to say about private vs. public but Im 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. Youve already seen a play of private vs. public space (Ts room and Ps 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 Ts 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 whos really tried the modern "direct" route, like singles bars or personal adsyuck!) 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. Thats 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 Maries or the Middle English ones), Malory, the dream visions, "Pearl" or "SGGK," dont 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, dont 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. SorryI was ranting.
5) Hmmm¼ Troilus and Criseyde. It always makes more sense after we discuss it. Im having trouble keeping track of whos speaking all the time, and I think I also need a refresher course in Iliad.
You might be interested to know, though, that Im using some "Pearl" and Chaucer in my Honors Seminar final paper. The class is concerned with the connection between nature, culture, and history, so Im using Medieval, Romantic, and Early American (yes, Hawthorne) works having to do with forest myths / superstition.
I think Ill use "Gawain" for your final paper. Its my favorite so far.
Hmmm¼ is right! A suggestion about tracking the speakerspreread 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 whos 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, dont ignore Masterplots and Cliffs Notes for that kind of basic "who-did-what-to-whom" information (bet you never thought youd hear me recommend Cliffs Notes!) though, of course, we all ought to spend our summers refreshing our memory of the classics. But Im also available for information with a phone call or email. Thats 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 hes 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 grottosfinally, an alternative to Welfare as we know it! Sources available on request.
Using "Gawain" because its your favorite sounds like a safe bet, but dont forswear the possibility that the "Troilus" might open up for you. Hey, theyre both knights, arent 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 meIve had an hour of sleep and really cant think straight!)
Egadhad I had an hour of sleep before class, I wouldnt be able to punctuate, much less "think straight." Come to think of it, people have told me that I dont think "straight," but since the sixties Ive 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? Its the "other side" of daylight and the other "little death." Its where gods and demons talk to medieval people and those people report acting out otherwise impossible encounters with the powers of the universe. Its also true that there are two dreams in the "Troilus," Criseydes (II.918-31) and Troilus (V.1233-43). Cs isnt 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 disbelieveswhat a hoot!). Oh¼ I dont know, maybe this thread isnt going anywhere and I should take a nap. Dont neglect to try again when youre rested.
7) Havent given this paper to much thought yet. I enjoyed SGGK and wouldnt mind writing about it. Maybe an analysis of the contrasting themes of nature & courtly society (sound familiar? [Im not making this up, folks!AS]_ exploring the use of green & gold, other symbols (Gs 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 Gs shield w/Mary puzzled me a bit, but heres 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 Johns 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 havent 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. Shes 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 outtalk 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 Hosts Wifes youthful appearance (though shes surely no virgin!). The poems 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, Im now in full fledged panic about all my final papers. Heres 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 Chaucers stuff. I first thought that "Bok of the Duchess" and "Troilus" would be fun to compare/discuss. This is (literally) as far as Ive 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 youre 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? Its been a while since I had to come up with the locus, but check the notes to the CT General Prologue and youll 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 doesnt 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 youve nailed down your own insight. Some suggestions follow in no particularly good order:
Narrators establish the poets relationship with the audience, or even "construct" the audience (Walter Ong, "The Writers Audience is Always a Fiction" PMLA 77?). This manipulation of the audiences 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 youre doing more than one poem, you might be able to make an argument about "Chaucers development of his skills in creating the Narrator."
Narrators establish the poets relationship with the poets "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, its really that conservative an environmentthink 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). Chaucers 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 Narrators 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 Boccaccios 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 poets relationship with the poems 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 scriptoriums scribes. The poets 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 Chaucers narrators wrap their arms around and nuzzle affectionately? Conversely, what parts do they hold at arms 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 Boccacios Il Filostrato influenced Chaucerhow 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 dont think I would be able to do iteven though I already have some books on itbecause 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, its not a bad idea for a general approach. The key strategy here is, as Ed Wortek says, "FOCUS!" Dont 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 Windeatts edition of the "Troilus"):
a) Chaucer follows Boccaccio nearly word-for-word, translating Italian into English, but cant keep the stanzas the same because hes moving from 8-line stanzas to 7-line stanzas and from couplets to rime royal (ababbcc). So your interest could follow his stanzification (which Words speller hates!) of Boccaccio or his choice of rhyme words which might be thematic.
b) Chaucer follows Boccaccios 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 youll want to wear out your Italian dictionary to make sure youve caught the full sense of the text hes altering. Other times, its a big change, as in the differing ways in which Chaucers and Boccaccios 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. Bs poem is (typically for a courtly poem) dedicated specifically to one lady who is supposed to get a coded message from the events hes 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 Windeatts editions 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 "Knights 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 Bs 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 Bs tale and did he leave anything out as he was inserting it? What did he change to accommodate it? Again, youll find the first clues in the explanatory notes and Windeatt.
Then again, you could just do the "nature vs. court" theme in "Troilus"! (Im kiddingits much harder to do here because its 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.