Go weep with Proserpina…

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.

In one particular case, we don’t have a poet addressing his own work, but rather another voice addressing someone else’s book.  This brilliant little lenvoye (scroll down for a text and translation) was written in the second half of the fifteenth century by one ‘Greneacres’, about whom we know nothing, and seems to have been added to two copies of John Lydgate’s Fall of Princes.  It picks up on and expands details in the final concluding section of Lydgate’s poem, especially the idea that some of the princes whose falls are described dwell ‘With Proserpyna perpetuelly’ (IX.3463).  Lydgate tells his finished poem that its clothing should be black to match its sombre subject matter: ‘Blak be thi weede of compleynt and moornyng’ (IX.3621).

Souls in the River Lethe, MS Douce 134 (French, c. 1450-70)

Greenacres’s lenvoye likewise tells the book that its binding and fastenings should sombrely correspond to its solemn contents, the stories of the falls of great men, and also to John Lydgate’s own black Benedictine habit.  Greenacres then tells it to go weep with Proserpina by the River Lethe and appeals to her that she take the book into her service.  This is a kind of anti-lenvoye: the poem isn’t directed towards the muses on Mount Helicon, or towards a patron, or towards the great procession of authors passing by that Chaucer conjures up at the end of Troilus, but towards the shores of Lethe, the waters in which souls forget their lives as they enter the underworld.

The book, and Lydgate and Boccaccio (who wrote the Latin text on which Lydgate’s French source is based) too, should join Proserpina, ‘queen of the endless lamentation’ as Dante calls her and for Chaucer ‘quene…of the derke pyne’.  This extra voice, permitted via the form of the lenvoye, contributes an interesting and perhaps unexpected response to Lydgate’s poem.  Though the work is famously didactic, preserving the collective memory of moral lessons from history, here Greenacres sees the poem as defined, inside and out, by sorrow.  Moreover, this sorrow befits it to serve Proserpina, noted for her endless suffering, who paradoxically dwells near the river of forgetfulness.  A book of exempla to teach us about vice is also a book of sorrow and forgetting.

Blake be thy bondes and thy wede alsoo,
Thou sorowfull book of matier disespeired,
In tokne of thyn inward mortal woo,
Which is so badde it may not be enpeired.
Thou owest nat outward to be feired,
That inward hast so many a rufull clause:
Such be thyn habite of colour as thi cause.

[Let your fastenings and also your bindings be black, you sorrowful book of despairing subject matter, so as to symbolize your inward grievous woe, which is so dreadful it cannot be conveyed.  It is not fitting that your exterior be made beautiful, when your interior has so many piteous clauses: let your habit/clothing/outward form be the same colour as your own concerns.]

No cloth of tyssewe ne veluet crymesyne,
But lik thi monke, moornyng vnder his hood,
Go weile and wepe with wofull Proserpyne,
And lat thi teeres multeplie the flood
Of blak Lythey vnder the bareyn wood,
Where-as goddesse hath hir hermytage,—
Helpe hir to wepe, and she wyll geve the wage.

[Not tissue-cloth (i.e. silk cloth with gold and silver threads] nor crimson velvet, but like your monk, mourning under his hood, go wail and weep with woeful Proserpina, and let your tears increase the flood of black Lethe beneath the leafless forest, where that goddess has her hermitage, —help her to cry and she will reward you.]

Noblesse of Ioye sith thou maist nat approche,
This blak goddesse I councell the tobeie.
Compleyne with hir vnder the craggy roche,
With wepyng soules vpon the said Lythey,
Sith thou of sorowe art instrument and keye,—
So harpe and synge there, as thou may be herde;
For euery Ioie is of thi name afferd.

[Since you cannot approach the heights of joy, I advise you to obey this black goddess.  Lament with her under the craggy rock, with the weeping souls upon the said River Lethe, since you are the agent and way-opener of sorrow, — so harp and sing there, where you are permitted to be heard, because every joy is afraid of your name.]

Pryncesse of woo and wepyng, Proserpyne,
Whiche herborowest sorow euen at thyn hert[e] roote,
Admytte this Bochas for a man of thyne;
And though his habite blakker be than soote,
Yitt was it maked of thi monkes boote,
That him translated in Englissh of Latyne:
Therfore now take him for a man of thyne.

[Princess of woe and weeping, Proserpina, you who gives lodgings to sorrow deep in your heart, accept this Boccaccio [i.e. Lydgate’s version of Boccaccio] as your own servant, and, even though his [Lydgate’s] habit is blacker than soot, yet this book was made out of your monk’s boot*, that which he translated from Latin into English, now therefore take him as your own servant.]

* I owe this translation to Alex Gillespie’s translation in her discussion of this poem in an article in Mediaevalia 20 (2001), 153–78.  As she explains, the ‘monk’s boot in the last stanza is probably leather, and seems to refer back to the first line […] The black bonds of a book, its leather “habit” must be its cover’ (p. 159).

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