Form and Fashion in Lancastrian Poems

Here’s the text of the short talk I’m giving as part of a Roundtable discussion (Session 5D) on ‘After Chaucer’ at the New Chaucer Society Congress on Tuesday afternoon.

In the 1380s, authors who all likely knew each other wrote texts exploring good love and bad, courtliness of various kinds, philosophy and ethics, vice and virtue, social order and status.  Gower’s Confessio Amantis, Chaucer’s Troilus and Legend of Good Women, Usk’s Testament of Love and Clanvowe’s Boke of Cupide share much in terms of subject-matter, but they are strikingly different in their form: octosyllabic couplets, rhyme royal, decasyllabic couplets, prose, five-line stanzas.  Their fashionable subject-matter did not demand a particular fashionable form.  Each had their own idea of appropriate form, but they were not in agreement about which form best appealed to readers or patrons.  Cupid, in Chaucer’s Legend, a figure who acts as literary commissioner, tells Chaucer to ‘Make the metres of hem [that is, the stories of virtuous women] as the lest’.  Given that he has already specified subject and approach, this  refers to form: you can versify them any way you like.  Even the God of Love, decked out in finely embroidered silks, isn’t bothered about form.  Form isn’t fashion in Ricardian literature.

One of Chaucer’s legacies, one factor which shapes literary history ‘After Chaucer’, is the idea of fashionable form.  The fifteenth century has its fashionable forms for courtly/Chaucerian verse: couplets and stanzas of seven or eight lines.  It must be said (as you all think immediately of exceptions) that poetry after Chaucer was not homogenous or standardized in its forms – there are very many other formal impulses at play.  And fourteenth-century traditions carry on through the fifteenth century: other fashions were already up and running in English versifiying (notably exactly those that Chaucer the snob makes fun of): tail-rhyme, alliterative long lines, pseudo-ballade; and their fashionability continues.  Yet fashion, I would argue, takes on a greater importance in the shaping of literary history post Chaucer.  I’ll examine four ways in which fashion influences form in fifteenth-century verse: prestige, imitation, refurbishment, and upgrading.

Prestige

Fashionable forms are created as verse-form is linked to prestige.  As well as certain styles being fit for a king, now form could express and encode prestige.  Gower, prefacing his collection of French ballades for Henry IV, tells the new king:  “Since now you have received the crown, / I do you a service different from what I have done before, / Now in balade, where the flower is of poetry”.  Henry’s elevation from duke to king is matched by Gower’s switch from octosyllabic couplets in the Confessio to fixed form ballade in the Cinkante Balades (though in truth both texts weren’t composed for Henry in the first instance).  Nonetheless, Gower here links a form’s prestige and a patron’s status.

When the narrator of Mum and the Sothsegger imagines counselling Henry IV, he opens up a bag of truth-telling documents and texts.  First out of this bag are ‘many a pryvé poyse […] / Yn bokes […] in balade-wise made’.  This may refer to fixed-form ballades like Gower’s, but the term balade was increasingly used in English to mean verse in the sort of stanzas used in French lyrics.  The Mum-poet, writing in alliterative long lines, tells us that poetry for kings is pryvé (which we might translate as ‘recondite’ rather than ‘secret’) and that it is made ‘in balade-wise’.  He imagines a verse-form other than his own which is fit for a king, one which is stanzaic and noted for its difficulty.

Once certain forms were prestigious, they were de rigeur when writing for noble patrons, being used to signal deference and poetic licence.  In the Dialogue, Hoccleve and his friend discuss the literary work which he has promised to Duke Humfrey.  Hoccleve is not sure about the subject matter other than something to cheer the duke’s spirits, but knows the desired form: ‘On swich mateere, by God þat me made, | Wolde I bestowe many a balade’.  In the context of writing a longer work, this refers to ballade stanzas rather than lyrics.  Similarly, when the author of Knyghthode and Bataile, the verse-translation of Vegetius’s De re militari records how he asked John, first Viscount Beaumont to take his translation to Henry VI, Beaumont asks ‘What werk is it?’ and the priest replies ‘Vegetius translate / Into Balade’.  That is enough for the nobleman to enthusiastically take hold of the work, look through it and agree to present it to his sovereign.  Writing in English in balade was not only fashionable but a shorthand for the prestige such poetry guaranteed for both poet and patron.

Imitation and hybridity

The fashionability and prestige associations of a form could provoke imitation, even by those not well adept in the more stylish mode.  The Storie of Asneth is a fifteenth-century translation of the life of Aseneth, mentioned twice in Genesis as wife of the Old Testament Joseph.  Heather Reid has made a very credible case that the work was undertaken for Elizabeth, Countess of Warwick, daughter of Sir Thomas Berkeley (a figure known for his patronage of Trevisa and other translators).  Elizabeth seems to have followed her father in sponsoring translation, but she preferred verse to prose, commissioning John Walton to translate Boethius’s De Consolatione into stanzaic verse in 1410.  While one generation found prose desirable, a younger generation preferred verse.  If she did commission Asneth too, she imposed her views on form on another translator, one who was likely more used to writing in other forms.  As you can see from the sample stanza, the poet adopts the rhyme royal rhyme scheme but in lines longer than ten syllables, lines which can be scanned as fourteeners often with a break after eight syllables.

Refurbishment

The fashionability of one verse style might make a text look old-fashioned, requiring refurbishment.  The Liber Proverbiorum is an English verse-translation of a collection of early fourteenth-century Anglo-Norman proverbs by Nicole de Bozon.  The Liber was completed before 1449 and was commissioned, via an intermediary, by a queen of England.  This might be Joan of Navarre, Catherine of Valois or Margaret of Anjou.  These three women would have no difficulty reading the original French quatrains, so this text was commissioned not for content but to refurbish its form.  As the translator addresses his queen, we see that rather than the usual translator claims about word-for-word or sense-for-sense accuracy, here form takes precedence.  The translator reminds his patron that the French is in quatrains and the English is in rhyme royal.  If rhyme royal is the chosen form, and we might guess that it is the form she desires or the form which the translator knows to be fashionable, then he has to add material to create the stanzas, he accepts the need for padding and filler.  This is because the queen has requested not so much a new text, but a familiar text in a new fashion.  If this were commissioned by a teenage Margaret, she was being educated not just in proverbial wisdom but in fashionable up-to-the-minute English verse form.

Upgrading

Just as things come into fashion, so they become ubiquitous and drop out of fashion.  Humfrey of Gloucester, over his lifetime, must have seen these fashionable forms go from unusual to everyday.  As rhyme royal and eight-line stanzaic writing became commonplace, poets had to upgrade their versification to attract the interest and approval of patrons.  So formal elaboration increases in addresses to patrons in the fifteenth century: such address makes use of refrains, through-rhyming (i.e. the use of the same rhymes in multiple stanzas), and stanza-linking by rhyme.  The author of the Middle English verse-translation of Palladius’s De re rustica flatteringly reports that Humfrey was so widely read and remembered so many literary texts that ‘Oon nouelte vnnethe is hym to profre’.  It’s almost impossible to offer him something new, something that looks of the moment, à la mode.  So the Palladius translator upgrades English verse by reference to Latin arts of poetry.  In his prologue, he decorates his eight-line stanzas with internal rhyming modelled on internally rhymed Latin dactylic hexameter, as well as concatenating the first and last words of stanzas.  The Palladius translator had read a fourteenth-century Latin poetic treatise, the Laborintus, written by Everhard the German, and had seen the list of internal rhyme patterns it contained.  He thus imitated these patterns in English to offer the duke a novelty.  What is more, the presentation manuscript picks out these internal rhymes in different coloured inks.  The translator and scribe jointly create a high-fashion visual and verbal object, something novel, fresh-looking, unprecedented.

Fashion in Lancastrian form is thus not static, not always returning back to the same Chaucerian models, but dynamic, driven by processes of prestige association, imitation and cross-fertilization, refurbishment and upgrading.  The literary history of poetry after Chaucer is shaped by novelty and fashion alongside content and meaning.

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