Sunday, June 12, 2011

A History of English Poetry, Chapter Two: The Big Lie

Histories of English literature generally begin with a whopping lie. They say that English literature begins in the 7th Century, or thereabouts, it flowers in the great Old English elegiac poems – The Wanderer, The Seafarer – and culminates in Beowulf, the great national epic, the first masterwork of English. Or maybe it flowers with Beowulf and culminates in the elegies -- people still quarrel about the dates of these things. But that's the general idea.

The only trouble with this is that it is wholly untrue. There is no linguist in the world who would identify Old English as the same language as English, if she met them without knowing their historical relationship. Old English is no more English than Latin is French. The two languages are not mutually intelligible. You could make a much stronger case for Dutch being the same language as English than you can for Old English: its grammar and vocabulary are much closer.

Well, giving up that position, you could retreat to this: it may not be the same language, exactly, but it's the same literature. Middle English literature grew out of Old English literature: there's an organic relationship between the two.

But in fact there is no literary relationship. The Middle English poets, so far as we know, were utterly ignorant of Old English. There is no evidence in the whole corpus of Middle English literature of a single reference to Beowulf or any other Old English poem. Old English literature did not grow into Middle English literature. It was completely destroyed by the Norman conquest. It was as dead, by the year 1300, as Hittite or Akkadian. The first important English poet who could read any Old English – and he certainly didn't read Beowulf – was Milton, in the 17th Century. You could speculate that there was a living ballad tradition, which both the sophisticated Old English poets, with their utterly different metrics, and the Middle English poets, with their French verse-forms, were familiar, although the Old English poets never mentioned it and Chaucer mocks the ballads with devastating parodies – but we could speculate all kinds of things. Perhaps they all studied message-in-a-bottle Chinese poetry too, without ever mentioning it. This is not the stuff of literary history.

There is a historical linguistic relationship. The West Saxon dialect of Beowulf is a sort of linguistic uncle (not father) to the Middle English of Chaucer's London. Old English did grow into Middle English, and if you believe that a literature mystically transmits its national soul, by way of the blood of language – and people after all have believed much sillier things -- then you can say that Beowulf begot the Canterbury Tales. But that's the only demonstrable relationship there is. The only thing they have in common beyond that is that they were written on the same island.

The truth of the matter is that the tradition of English poetry begins in the 14th Century, with Chaucer and Gower. And their mentors were not the Beowulf-poet and his ilk: they were above all the Latin poets that they studied in school. Chaucer himself lists them off in the envoy to Troilus – his greatest work, in his own estimation and mine, and the one on which he staked his reputation:
Go, litel book, go litel myn tragedie,
Ther god thy maker yet, er that he dye,
So sende might to make in som comedie!
But litel book, no making thou nenvye,
But subgit be to alle poesye;
And kis the steppes, wher-as thou seest pace
Virgile, Ovyde, Omer, Lucan, and Stace.
Virgil, Ovid, Homer, Lucan, and Statius. Now, if you've had a modern literary education, you go along just fine with Virgil, Ovid, and Homer. Sure. We read 'em too. But at the end of the line we get a little shaky. Lucan? Maybe we've heard of him. Wrote about the civil war between Julius Caesar and Pompey, right? Fell afoul of Nero? Right, got it. Not that we've read him, but at least we have him placed. But Stace? Who's Stace? Someone who was just brought in because his name rhymed with pace?

No, Stace in fact is Statius, who wrote the Latin silver-age epic, the Thebaid. Chaucer refers to him a lot, in fact; he clearly read him closely and thought highly of him. We have never heard of him, and rightly so: his poetic merits are meager. But he was in Chaucer's pantheon of poets. Chaucer was daring to hope to rank with him.

This passage is just as interesting for the people it doesn't mention. (You will notice not a peep about any balladeer or Old English poet). Chaucer was fluent in French as well as Latin. He translated a fair amount of French poetry, and in fact adopted most of his English verse-forms from it. He may or may not have known Italian, but he knew either the originals or translations of Dante and Boccaccio: he probably borrowed more from Boccaccio than from any other writer. But he declines to mention any of them. He knows them, he's willing to use them, but he has no intention of kissing their footsteps. Earlier on he's mentioned precisely one English poet – his friend and contemporary Gower. The two of them intend, together, to put English poetry on the map.*

For all the apparent humility of this stanza, the gist is not humble at all. His tragedy, he's asserting, is on the same staircase as the great poems of antiquity. Chaucer is well known for his charming self-deprecation, poking fun at his waistline and his bumbling in love, but as a poet he takes himself dead seriously. He knows how good he is. And he knows that he is creating a new national literature. If you read the Hous of Fame and the Prologue to the Legend of Good Women you can see him hammering it out. But this is really the clearest statement. He's written a great tragedy, and now he must write a great comedy. He was to spend the last years of his career taking running starts at a great comedy, groping this way and that in the Canterbury Tales, not quite grasping that it was precisely the mismatchedness, the out-of-control-ness, the centrifugal force of the Tales that would be his lasting contribution to world literature. No sooner did he mount a narrator than the narrator ran away with him: and those runaway narratives, those careening voices, are what we really read Chaucer for: the drunken Miller interrupting the Knight, the wife of Bath justifying her marital strategies, the Pardoner explaining his cons. Chaucer never finished it, and he even tried to take it back, but actually he'd succeeded beyond his dreams.

* Yes, I've read Langland. No, I don't think his poetry is important, either in itself or as part of the English tradition.


Zhoen said...

Funny how often great writers do not value their work that history most remembers. Especially if it is comedic or written for children.

Sarsparilla said...

Oh god how I loathe Piers the Plowman.
And I agree about Troilus and Criseyde.

Dave said...

I think you've said some of this before, here and there (how would I know it otherwise?) but it's good to get it all together, as part of a coherent and wonderfully contrarian overview. Eagerly awaiting the next installment...

Dave said...

[copying a comment over from Facebook] Also, if England has to have a national epic, I say let it be the Robin Hood cycle. Beowulf is not only in Anglo-Saxon, but it's about the Geats, whoever the hell they were, and the Arthurian legends were Celtic.

Lucy said...

This is such wonderful stuff. I wish you'd been around writing this years ago, but as it is, you're sending me back to many books I'm so glad I didn't get rid of. Reading Troilus was one of those falling-in-love events, and I'll read it again before long.

Harry said...

I don't disagree with the basic point; there was clearly a huge amount of social as well as linguistic change in the at least 350-odd years between Beowulf and Troilus and Criseyde, and Chaucer clearly owes far more to classical and continental European models than he does to anything from pre-Norman England.

I just slightly wonder whether the dramatic discontinuity is partially an artefact created by a patchy historical record. We don't have much Anglo-Saxon poetry — pretty much the entire corpus comes from a handful of surviving manuscripts — and we don't have that much from between the Norman conquest and Chaucer. Who knows how much stuff we've lost.

You can look at the Gawain poet, for example, who is contemporary with Chaucer and who is writing in a version of Anglo-Saxon metre. He (or, I suppose, she) had zero influence on the development of English literature, because the poems survive in one manuscript that was not widely known; but it shows some kind of continuity, and it shows how fragile the evidence is, since that manuscript might not have survived.

And Anglo-Saxon writing isn't all Beowulf and The Seafarer. The Anglo-Saxons were part of a wider European culture as well; Alfred the Great and Chaucer both translated Boethius. Modern readers tend to be most interested in the most distinctively Anglo-Saxon poems which, pretty much by definition, are the ones which are least similar to the later stuff. And if you compare Beowulf, which was archaic when it was written down in the early C11th, to Troilus and Criseyde, which is the most sophisticated of late C14th literature, the difference is stark. But if, instead, you compare those long Anglo-Saxon biblical narratives like Judith or Daniel to, say, a bit of narrative poetry by Gower, it's entirely possible to believe that one might develop organically into the other over a period of 350 years.

I always thought, for example, that The Song of Roland reads like a transitional poem between the two periods; it has the high fatalistic seriousness of the Anglo-Saxon and something of the flowery chivalric style of the late medieval. If the Song of Roland had been written in C12th England instead of France, suddenly it would look like there was a much more natural continuity between Anglo-Saxon literary culture and high medievalism.

Anyway, I don't really disagree. I'm only suggesting a hypothetical, speculative continuity rather than one I have proper evidence for.

Dale said...

Harry, you're absolutely right in most of your points. The most interesting is, that it's not nearly such a jump from Daniel to Gower. I think it may look truer than it is, though. They don't really have much more in common than a short line with four beats. Gower's basically writing an English form of French octosyllabics.

I'm skeptical about verse forms "evolving." You just don't find intermediate forms. A poet doesn't sit down writing a poem in Old Germanic meter and then find that a simpler accentual meter is creeping in. There's nothing really "between" the two, not that makes poetic sense. If there's an evolution, it will be in the poet's head, not on the page. One day he or she might be fiddling around and just find the going easier in a different meter.

The Gawain-Poet is the exception here, as in practically everything. You don't go folk to get your evolution, you go way upscale. The GP can do either kind of poetry, apparently, and if I'd been teaching poetry in the 14th Century I would have introduced Pearl or Gawain by saying, "now, don't try this at home, kids, you'll only hurt yourselves."

Annotated Margins said...

Same mind, same country, same karma... just an entirely different language. "Sir Patrick Spens" is one of my favorites. Old English is the only foreign language I know how to speak and read.

tjpfau said...

Catching up.

"Yes" again. I've heard and made the argument that we live in the third Roman Empire and if the first was good at anything, it was adopting "what works" and laying claim to it.

I suspect that willingness to steal and adapt holds the subtle continuities claimed in our present versions of literary history.

I'll think about that.

Julia said...

I'm late to the debate, having been sent here by Lucy.
A wonderful post Dale, thank you