In this guest post, Sheri Smith, postgraduate researcher at Cardiff University, explains the surprising references to Chaucer’s Griselda and Custance in a late fifteenth-century poem.
Reading Jenni’s post on the fifteenth-century poem ‘Alas quid eligam ignoro’, I was struck by the poet’s invocation of Susannah, Griselda and Custance in a prayer asking for guidance. This seemed an unusual combination of biblical and literary figures which just so happened to bring together two strands of my own research into thirteenth- and fourteenth-century petitionary prayers and Chaucer’s use of prayer in his poetry.
In the poem, the narrator and his friend find themselves at a loss after dismissing the various career options open to them. The poet calls to mind the example of Susannah, who, when forced to choose between consenting to sin and being put to death, was rescued from death by God. With Susannah’s difficult choice to inspire him, the poet then beseeches God for guidance in his own decision-making, invoking his intervention in the lives of St Paul, Griselda and Custance.
I have been chasing up various references to poetic terminology in a little anthology from 1953 called Cambridge Middle English Lyrics, edited by Henry A Person. One of the poems is not very well known, because (as far as I can tell) it has only been printed once in this rather obscure little book. But it deserves to be a little better known, because it is a very entertaining account of the difficulty of choosing a career in the fifteenth century, and of the sort of mind who is better at seeing difficulties than seeing possibilities.
I’m still exploring the envoy (or lenvoy in Middle English), a section of dedication, epilogue, parting words or direct address added to a text. As well as envoys written by poets to their own poems, and by readers to someone else’s poem, I’ve also been reading envoys added by printers to late fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century printed books. There are many more short poems added to early printed books than I had realised, and they are a great source of terms for my poetics glossary. One of the best writers of an envoy was the printer Robert Copland.
Tomorrow I’m off to London to attend the Biennial London Chaucer Conference. I’m speaking on Saturday morning in a session on ‘Literary Technologies’. The title of my short paper is ‘The Techne of Verse-Making: Poetry’s Termes in Middle English’. It discusses verse-technology and verse-terminology in fourteenth and fifteenth century English poetry, looking especially at balades and lenvoys. I look at the ‘Lenvoy de Chaucer’ at the end of the Clerk‘s Tale, at Lydgate’s Fall of Princes, and at The Kingis Quair.
I’ve been exploring the lenvoye this week, both as a form and as a technical term. In medieval French poetry, an envoi is the final stanza of a ballade in which the poem is sent on its way to its audience or addressee. It’s borrowed into late medieval English poetry by Chaucer, and the lenvoye quickly becomes several different things at once. It can be part of a poem in which an author speaks directly to his audience (in contrast to the narrative subjectivity so well described by A C Spearing). It can be a final section of a poem, more elaborate in form than that which precedes it. It can be a place for the author to speak to or about the work as a whole, offering a commentary or conclusion.
Some medieval English playwrights use different types of stanza for different types of characters. In the fifteenth-century morality play Mankind, the personification Mercy begins the play speaking in stanzas which are often called octaves, rhyming ababbcbc (also sometimes called eight-line ballade stanzas, or Monk’s Tale stanzas following their use by Chaucer). This stanza form is often used for moral or educational writing in later Middle English poetry. This is a good fit for Mercy’s character, as he begins the play in priestly guise, reminding the audience to persevere in good works and to avoid sin.
My last post looked at characters sharing lines and stanzas in Middle English cycle plays. These shared lines and stanzas were sometimes ominous or implicative, showing how characters are drawn into evil or collaborate in cruelty. But joining together in the construction of a stanza can also signal joy and celebration in these plays. This post shows you some of these spectacular collaborative stanzas in Middle English drama.
Must look at the drama, must look at the drama. That’s been running through my head and scribbled down in notebooks for as long as I have been working on this poetics project. Drama in medieval England was drama in verse, so it has the potential to be a great source for my book. But I have been very surprised by how purposeful and subtle the use of form is, especially to emphasise key moments in the action. This post (the first of several on form in medieval English drama) shows some of the effects playwrights create with stanzas and rhyme. This is perhaps very obvious to people who research and teach a lot of medieval drama, but it is new and fascinating to me.
Today is ‘Whan That Aprille Day’, a celebration of ‘oold bokes yn sondrye oold tonges’ and languages which are Old, or Middle, or Ancient, or Dead. I’d like to celebrate Charles of Valois, duke of Orleans, who wrote first in one language, French, and then another, English (and later still had his French poems translated into Latin). Charles was taken prisoner at Agincourt in 1415 and was then held captive in England for twenty-five years. During this time he translated some of his French poetry into English, and then wrote more English poetry, creating a long work (edited by Mary-Jo Arn as Fortunes Stabilnes) which combines lyric sequences and narrative sections.