Carol A. N. Martin

title.none: Howes, Chaucer's Gardens (Martin)

identifier.other: baj9928.9808.006 98.08.06

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Carol A. N. Martin, Bowdoin College,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1998

identifier.citation: Howes, Laura L. Chaucer's Gardens and the Language of Convention. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1997. Pp. xi, 142. $39.95. ISBN: ISBN.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 98.08.06

Howes, Laura L. Chaucer's Gardens and the Language of Convention. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1997. Pp. xi, 142. $39.95. ISBN: ISBN.

Reviewed by:

Carol A. N. Martin
Bowdoin College

I began reading Laura L. Howes' Chaucer's Gardens and the Language of Convention during the 1998 Maine mud season. Mud season is that time of year between February and May during which Maine residents do annual penance for the pleasures of the other three quarters of the year. Mud season generally means a bare, grey landscape on the horizon, slush-falls into late April, and sand everywhere. Not clean, white beach sand, but the sand strewn all winter in place of salt to provide traction on ice and packed snow. By March, Maine sidewalks carry as much sand as a bed of carrots--or clams, for that matter. Not that the sand stays on the streets and sidewalks: We track it with us indoors, everywhere. The promise of a book about gardens is as welcome in this season as the daisy in winter was to Froissart's Mercury in the Dit du la Flur de la Margherite.

Howe's study, however, is not so much about gardens, nor even about the language of convention, as about Chaucer's uses of garden topoi. Privations of mud season aside, Howes raises intriguing points. Beginning from the simple premise that inherited topoi are hermeneutical analogues of inherited textual traditions, her method has much in common with intertextual and exegetical studies, adjusting the focus of research which has lost critical favor. She anchors her argument in the considerable corpus of Renaissance scholarship on the topic, observing that medievalists have neglected the topic, while Renaissance scholars have neglected medieval manifestations of it; her study begins to rectify the imbalance. She concludes, in general, that, just as Chaucer was reworking his literary sources in innovative ways, he was retooling his topoi with equal originality. Her prose is generally clear, written at a level comprehensible to intelligent undergraduates. I found some of her passages repetitious, but what might be redundant to someone reading the book straight through will probably be useful summary to scholars consulting individual chapters.

Howes' assessment of previous studies of Chaucer's gardens bears repeating, because she launches with it, however modestly, a useful antidote to the collective nausea which arises among Chaucerians nearly automatically when someone broaches a subject related to exegetical scholarship. Howes could hardly have avoided confronting Robertsonian scholarship, since Robertson's 1951 "The Doctrine of Charity in Medieval Literary Gardens" originated discussion among Chaucerians of the garden topos, and subsequent discussion has been carried on by associates and successors such as Huppe, Kaske, and Heffernan. Howes neither excoriates nor replicates exegetical readings but simply critiques them as they deserve to be critiqued, observing that the articles tend either to focus on only one branch of the topos or to recognize a variety of topoi only to discover that they all amount to an allegory against cupiditas. Without further ado, Howes then scores her point: "But Chaucer knew of, and often worked with, several garden topoi and their various meanings at once, drawing on the breadth of his reading for a single stanza or image" (11). The measured, undefensive character of Howes' disagreement with Robertson encourages hope that perhaps we are beginning to recover from the imbalance of our shunning of Robertsonian topics.

Her own critical perspective on gardens combines Michel de Certeau's theorization of urban walking with classical and biblical emblematic traditions, with records of medieval garden-builders, and with the historical hermeneutics of mnemonic theory. She begins from the figurative in bono/in malo Garden of Love topos known to Chaucer through the French works of Guillaume de Loris, Jean de Meun, Guillaume de Machaut, Jean Froissart, and others, themselves derived from the classical locus amoenus, which was featured especially in epithalamia and love poems and later expanded in early Christian descriptions of the earthly paradise. She compounds with the love gardens the biblical image of the beloved as an enclosed garden in the Song of Solomon and its medieval application to the Virgin Mary. These figurative suggestions she filters through de Certeau's analogy between walking (as a three-fold enunciation of place) and a speech act--as a process of appropriation, as a spatial acting out of place, and as establishment of pragmatic relations among differentiated entities. As Howes points out, walking creates meaning much as Dante's journey creates his Commedia. From this figurative-cultural combination, she then analyzes the function of medieval aristocratic gardens as "a picture of one's wealth and power with the trees, grasses, rivers, rocks, and flowers of nature [used] to project an image of one's position in society onto the land," as "a mirror that illuminates for us how we want to be seen" (1).

Mary Carruthers' The Book of Memory gives a flexibility to Howes' argument which makes the book more than just a new emblem study. She leads readers to consider the rhetorical uses of a topos, not merely as a static emblem but as a site from which to invent, as a storehouse and point of inventive organization for commonplaces. From this inventional function she derives Chaucer's variable significations. For Chaucer, garden description is a demonstration of his "storehouse . . .. Garden descriptions signal his link to his poetic predecessors, but also his difference from them" (21). Hence the connection between gardens and the language of convention.

Furthermore, because gardens are a component of memory, they "come to represent a poet's distinct experience," fusing their literary and literal, sensory status. As Howes demonstrates, medieval textual and literal gardens did inspire each other at least as early as the twelfth century. Her research into the establishment and maintenance of royal and aristocratic gardens in 12th-14th-century England and France establishes the magnitude of these gardens: records speak of gardens covering nine to twenty acres, or with perimeters of eleven kilometers, each filled with enough seating, trellises, bowers, pavilions, gazebos, labyrinths, hedges, arbors, statuary, deer-shelters, water-devices (fountains, moats, fish-ponds), stone towers, even dining pavilions with fully-equipped kitchens and wine cellars, to arouse a severe attack of envy in Smith and Hawkins. As Howes notes, the use of gardens for leisure activities and repose presupposes the privileged status and wealth of the owners; her point might be usefully supplemented by recalling that monastery gardens frequently supplied altar garlands for church services, sustenance for travelers and the indigent, and medications for a considerable proportion of the population as well as pleasure and inspiration to perambulating monks and nuns in the cloister walk. Howes' ultimate concern with Chaucer's poems confines the parameters of her examination to the more private and luxurious gardens of the aristocracy, and especially to the Garden of Love, earthly paradise, and Song of Solomon tropes. It would be interesting to know why Howes did not discuss the garden of the Resurrection, which featured so hugely in medieval drama--whether she did not have the space to bring in another association, or whether she thought that Chaucer simply did not evoke it. She suggests that Chaucer's treatment of garden topoi record his stances toward the auctoritas of received culture.

Howes' explications of Chaucerian garden topoi span his entire career, devoting space in particular to the Black Knight's park in the Book of the Duchess, the garden of Venus in the Parlement of Foules, several gardens in the Troilus, and several gendered [anti-]paradises in the Canterbury Tales. Rather than elaborate upon all of her readings, which would deny readers their own pleasures of discovery, I shall confine discussion to her treatment of the Book of the Duchess, for that discussion illustrates well both the achievements and the shortcomings of the book. Be it said from the start that the latter may as frequently stem from current publishing policies as from Howes herself.

Contesting Robertson and Huppe's claim that the knight's garden "is a typical earthly paradise whose delights are transitory" and whose shade indicates oblivion, Howes instead locates Chaucer's garden as deriving from the literary paradys d'amours, especially as transmitted through the Romance of the Rose. Her close studies of Chaucer's rearrangement of materials inherited from the Rose support her contention that Chaucer was deliberately constructing his narrator as someone new to or awkward in handling the conventional materials. She might have brought in from her reading of Carruthers a supporting rhetorical rather than tropological or literal explanation for the grove, as the silva of unordered memory out of which a poet composes (Carruthers 62, 247); the grove of the Book of the Duchess does, surely, bear strong resemblance to real aristocratic groves, as Howes argues, but it was also confusing--the whelp and the narrator both got lost in it, and the Black Knight was lost in a figurative sense. On Howes' reading, the narrator is testing his literary heritage by way of a metaphorical topographical appropriation, a la de Certeau. The poem begins slowly, casting about for focus; each finds its real story or subject only after the narrator has entered a garden. Entry into the garden signals a parallel entrance into narrative convention, the common cultural horizon from which principles of coherence derive. In the Book of the Duchess, the narration of the Black Knight becomes the poem's central plot only after the poem's narrator meanders around his own insomnia, past the reading of the book about Alcyone and Ceyx, through a vivid allegorical dream, and down a forest path (along which the trees are all regularly spaced) into the "floury grene," where he happens upon the Black Knight. The paradys d'amours setting allows Chaucer to establish a familiar context of lyric lover's complaints and conventional language.

Howes' argument that the poem only then becomes a "tale" after it enters an ordered garden is convincing, on the whole. She leaves some secondary points unmentioned or underdeveloped, in my opinion--probably, I would guess, not because she's been negligent but because, like most academic publishers, hers was pushing for maximum condensation. Speaking for myself, I would still like a more detailed explication of how the narrator's explicit, pre-garden dream of the Romance of the Rose fits into her scheme, a point which seems fairly pertinent to her argument. I am also a little puzzled that Howes has not pursued further how Chaucer actually treated conventional language in the Book of the Duchess, once his narrator and the Black Knight get into the garden. The poem would seem to offer powerful substantiation of her theory: both characters suffer distress from the confines of literary convention, from which they find relief only in simple, deflationary, and literal language. The Black Knight effuses about his courtship strategies, only to reveal that, when the time came actually to propose, he lost his nerve and brought out only the single word, "Mercy"; he then worries around his memory lapse of exactly what his lady had said in response, until he finally reveals, "she sayde 'Nay' / Al outerly"; the narrator works his audience through more than 1300 lines before he finds the appropriate response, "Is that youre los? By God, hyt ys routhe!" (1310), the "word" (1311) which allows both men to move on past the melancholia of fixed lament and allows the poem to conclude. In short, it seems to me that the book would benefit from developing more fully the analogous treatment Chaucer gives to his garden topoi and to conventional language.

The wish for more development summarizes the primary critique I would raise, in more instances than this one. I suspect that Howes' slightly fuzzy dichotomy between "conventional systems" and "individual behavior" in her discussion of the Troilus results from the pressure to condense. Meant to demonstrate both Chaucer's acknowledgment of the power of convention and his articulation of the loss brought on by submission to convention, the chapter conclusion implies that the everyday processes of Trojan society represent convention, while the love affair between Troilus and Criseyde represent individual choice, yet the courtly love the two protagonists enact is surely as much a conventional cultural system as the political system outside of the garden. In the process of abbreviation, some of the logic behind the argument's evolution may have become elided. Another such instance stopped short of worthwhile theoretical development. Howes' point that the wall in the Parlement of Foules, derived from the Song of Songs hortus conclusus, which "seems to veil and protect an inner realm still unknown to the narrator" (56), could have launched some really interesting retheorization of allegory, had it the space to do so. In summary, I find Howes' points tantalizingly provocative but sometimes disappointingly dissipated by the brevity of their treatment. Robertson's book ran to 503 pages, without illustrations or index; if Howes' publisher had allowed her only half the space to set straight what Robertson had gotten crooked, Howes should have had at least another 25 pages of space to explain her insights more fully. I for one wouldn't mind reading another fifty pages of development of their implications.