Greg Stone

title.none: Holmes, Assembling the Lyric Self (Greg Stone)

identifier.other: baj9928.0011.007 00.11.07

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Greg Stone, Louisiana State University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2000

identifier.citation: Holmes, Olivia. Assembling the Lyric Self: Authorship from Troubadour Song to Italian Poetry Book. Medieval Cultures Vol. 21. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000. Pp. 1, 245. 34.95. ISBN: 0-816-63344-4.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 00.11.07

Holmes, Olivia. Assembling the Lyric Self: Authorship from Troubadour Song to Italian Poetry Book. Medieval Cultures Vol. 21. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000. Pp. 1, 245. 34.95. ISBN: 0-816-63344-4.

Reviewed by:

Greg Stone
Louisiana State University

Olivia Holmes' Assembling the Lyric Self: Authorship from Troubadour Song to the Italian Poetry Book is a fairly straightforward demonstration, documented in tremendous detail, of a fairly limited "thesis": that certain manuscript anthologies of medieval vernacular lyric, from the time of the first troubadour chansonniers through Petrarch's composition of his Canzoniere, exhibit arranged narrative sequences of an author's poems -- sequences that function as "macrotexts" that tell an implied story of the life of an implied author.

Holmes treats several authors, ranging from some who are indispensable to her project, such as Uc de Saint Circ, Guiraut Riquier, Guittone d'Arezzo, Dante, and Petrarch, to other little-known early Italian poets such as Monte Andrea and Nicolo` de' Rossi. There is much to be admired in Holmes' scholarship, particularly her philological diligence and her scrupulous loyalty to the manuscripts; and there is much information that will prove valuable for scholars of medieval vernacular lyric and, especially, of early Italian lyric.

One can hardly dispute Holmes' point, nor would one wish to, for the phenomenon that she describes -- that the sequential order of lyrics in medieval songbooks was sometimes motivated by narrative impulses -- is a fact of literary history that has been known to specialists for some time.

Of course, the next step after establishing a fact of literary history is to venture an explanation. It is on this level that the book is, in my view, surprisingly timorous. For Holmes' does not offer much more than a tautological "this happened because it happened." Her view, repeated throughout, is that the emergence of narrativity in the arrangement of manuscript songbooks was purely and simply an automatic by-product of late medieval literary culture's transition from being a predominantly oral to a written one: "Written transmission congealed both the order of the component parts of individual poems and the sequence from poem to poem. This made possible the lyric representation of historical time, for it is a characteristic of reading to interpret juxtaposed elements as implying a temporal sequence." Holmes speaks of the lyric anthology's impulse toward narrative as "inevitable" (37) and "natural" (149), and says, regarding any of literature's various formal possibilities, "if it can be done, it will be done" (45).

Although a purely mechanistic explanation may have its attractions, chief of which is its simplicity, it will not stand up to much scrutiny. If the phenomenon in question is truly "natural" and "inevitable," then it must necessarily happen in every time and place in which a predominately oral lyric tradition is transformed into a predominantly written one. But surely there are instances in world literary history when (to borrow Holmes' phrase), "it could have been done but was not." What is specific about Italy in the 13th and 14th centuries that makes it a privileged locus for the rise of narrativity in a lyric context? Why was Petrarch "more concerned with the representation of the author's historical self than his immediate predecessors were"? The only way to answer such questions is to ascribe some causes -- ideological, historical, literary historical, philosophical or otherwise -- that are more than simply mechanistic. For if literary history is a formally-powered machine, then it will always and everywhere give us the same products.

I am not going to offer any alterative explanations here, since I have had my say on the issue elsewhere, in my The Death of the Troubadour: The Late Medieval Resistance to the Renaissance (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994). Though I do not expect that Holmes should agree with any of that book's claims; I do, however, feel justified in finding fault with her for showing no indication of even having read it. I say this only because, although it has substantially different aims and methods, it is perhaps the one book that treats, generally speaking, the same object of study as does Assembling the Lyric Self.