03.02.24, Knapp, Bureaucratic Muse

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Howard Kaminsky

The Medieval Review baj9928.0302.024


Knapp, Ethan. The Bureaucratic Muse: Thomas Hoccleve and the Literature of Late Medieval England. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University, 2001. Pp. x, 210. ISBN: 0-271-02135-7.

Reviewed by:
Howard Kaminsky
Florida International University

"The main interest for us in [H]occleve's poems is that they are characteristic of his time" - so William Symington M'Cormick in "Occleve" in the eleventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, agreeing perhaps with Hoccleve's own confession, "Fader Chaucer fayn wolde han me taught, But I was dul and learned lite or naught." Such no doubt is still the opinion among those few non-Hocclevists who have read his poetry at all -- they simply do not get the same delight from the verses of Hoccleve (1367-1426) that they get from those of Chaucer (c. 1343-1400). But to post-modern deconstructive (and feminist) criticism the matter of literary quality is irrelevant or worse; it belongs to the patriarchal paradigm and its self-validating canon. Ethan Knapp practices this sort of criticism and does it extraordinarily well, revealing even to an unsympathetic reader depths and subtleties in Hoccleve's aesthetic that do in fact make his lack of Chaucerian genius seem irrelevant to the literary-historical project.

Hoccleve's life too was lived at a lower level. Chaucer was the son of a rich vintner and made his career at court, holding various public offices, going on diplomatic missions, and working under the aegis of the most noble patrons in the land, producing at least one masterpiece that ranks with those of Dante and Jean de Meun -- so many rich dense worlds of sensuous beauty and super-abundant images ordered in their own way and moving of their own power. Hoccleve had no wealthy family background nor anything like a brilliant career: he became a clerk of the Privy Seal when he was about twenty and continued there until just before his death. His income came from modest annuities granted by the king in lieu of a benefice that he never got, along with fees and gratuities for writing and introducing individual petitions to the Council or the courts. These incomes, of the sort common before the institution of regular salaries, were neither large nor reliable; they could be improved by writing more documents -- not the least of the reasons for the proliferation of superfluous paper-work at the time. The clerks also helped themselves out by joint action, forming syndicates of moneylenders and speculators.

That Hoccleve made poetry out of this is admirable enough. What he poetized were his experiences, desires, disappointments, and opinions, with himself never far from the center, whining, complaining, worrying. All this of course makes him all the more interesting to medievalists like the present reviewer who are historians rather than literary critics -- whether like T. F. Tout they degrade Hoccleve's work into evidence of how the Privy Seal worked, or whether they simply want to recover the vision generated by his subjectivity. Most of us today at any rate try to avoid dismissive judgements like M'Cormick's that attest a failure of the reader's creative imagination rather than of the poet's, which we try by using the instruments apt to reveal the poet's aesthetic project. Here Knapp gives us the key: the experience of financial insecurity in the context of social relations determined by the act of the petition created a crucial historical background for the development of post-Chaucerian depictions of subjectivity. The class experience of financial anxiety provided the impetus and the bureaucratic instrument of the petition provided the form through which Hoccleve transformed the persona he inherited from Chaucer. His social anxiety and extrapoetic literary form came together to produce in Hoccleve an autobiographer as gossip, a clerk bent on turning all the trivia of his existence to the use of a continual, obsessive petition.

This is what Knapp means by "the bureaucratic muse" -- not as one might suppose a Weberian principle of order and functional rationalization but rather something much more complex, also more concrete, generated in the bureaucrat's mentality by the dialectic between the individuality of the petitions he produced and the impersonality and anonymity of the royal reponses which he also wrote. A major poem might begin with Hoccleve sitting in his chamber and brooding about his troubles; then a petitioner comes in to tell Hoccleve to stop brooding and get to work for the prince; his work is the poem. "In sum, if there is a systematic poetics at the heart of Hoccleve's work, its essence lies in the attempt to transmute private anxiety into public discourse," the subjectivity of the one playing against the anonymity of the other. He develops this thesis in typically post-modern deconstructive discourse (typical too in its frequent impenetrability) that by-passes the question of poetic quality and focusses on the paradoxicalities obtained by systematic dialectical negation. The review that follows will try to follow a few threads through the dialectical labyrinth.

Hoccleve's subjectivity, with its anticipation of modernity, appears in his "Letter of Cupid" (1402), a remarkably prompt translation of Christine de Pisan's "L'Epistre au Dieu d'Amours" (1399) that defended women against the misogyny of Jean de Meun's Roman de la Rose. Knapp reviews scholarly opinions about whether Hoccleve himself sided with Christine or used her for antifeminist satire and proposes a more complex interpretation in which Hoccleve transcends the simple pro and con by creating a authorial persona of his own, making "a space in which to negotiate the distance between the dominant masculine literary traditions...and the emerging identity of the married lay clerk" -- for indeed Hoccleve belonged to the first generation of married Chancery clerks. Insofar as his work takes a position on the issues of gender raised by Christine, it is to subvert the tradition, "emphasizing the fragmented and contradictory nature of the [current] models of textuality and gender." This is the standard feminist solution to the problem of how to make an overwhelmingly masculine cultural tradition say something important about women; like many other such efforts it impresses by its ingenuity even as it fails to convince.

The center of the study is devoted to an intense analysis of Hoccleve's "Regement of Princes" (1411), whose forty-three surviving manuscripts attest not only its poetic qualities but also its relevance to the tensions arising from "the promising and troubled career of the prince [scil., the future Henry V] in the late years of his father's reign." Typically it begins with a long prologue (2,016 lines out of 5,463) lamenting Hoccleve's poverty and anxieties about the payment of his annuity, passing only then into "the first example found in English of...the mirror of princes," in this case a book of advice to Prince Henry that will dispose him to provide Hoccleve with patronage and revenue. Knapp's interest here lies not so much with the history of ideas, in the pre-postmodern sense, as with the function of "writing as a bureaucratic technology used to battle the passage of time and memory" -- a topos that contemporary scholars find endlessly interesting. Such scholars may even understand a discourse in which, e.g., the dialogue form is qualified as "a transitivism offset by specular aggresivity," or in which the Old Man's complaint about his "crookid, feeble lymes olde" "implicitly describes age as a fragmentation of the unitary body into a collection of anatomical fragments, a perspectival fragmentation caused by the awareness of separate disfunctions." This reviewer, however admiring of Knapp's extraordinary power to use the poem's particularities as a springboard into a universe of literary implications, remains stuck in the old-fashioned cognitive project that finds the image of "crooked feeble old limbs" so clear and well-targeted as to make any further hermeneutic counterproductive.

That Hoccleve refers to Chaucer as his master and father, in the same "Regement of Princes" where a paternal role is played by the Old Man who urges Hoccleve to write the poem, is taken by Knapp not as simple exuberance of veneration but as a doubling that destabilizes paternal authority itself. In any case does not the assertion of Chaucer's authority also declare the authority of Hoccleve's text asserting it? And does not his inclusion of a picture of Chaucer in the margin at this point suggest both an honoring of Chaucer and his marginalization? Here the relentless play of self-referential contradictions destabilizes the dominant paternal tradition of literary succession, making space for alternative paradigms. At the same time Hoccleve appears not as a dutiful inferior laborer in Chaucer's vineyard but a voice in his own right -- a voice not of moral idealism but of corrosive irony.

It will be clear even from this review of a few exemplary passages that Knapp's technique of negation, deconstructing assertions by pointing to the evoked presence of what they negate, is to say the least suggestive of considerably more insight than a plainer discourse can manage, insight not only into the play of tropes but into (historical) substance. I instance as a case par excellence his brilliant analysis of the resonances between Hoccleve's dialogue and Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy which inspired it, a uniquely rich discussion culminating in the proposition that "coming from the world of the Privy Seal, with its dependencies of patronage and the mediations of the written petition, Hoccleve chooses to represent himself as having found consolation not in philosophy but in the impossible home of textuality." This suggestive insight would vanish in a puff of smoke if put into pre-postmodern plain language but there is no danger of this here and indeed Knapp pushes the bureaucratic explanation into every Hocclevian problematic. So, e.g. the body of scholarship that construes Hoccleve's "Series" as recording the poet's triumph through poetry over his spell of madness is countered here by the claim that "What Hoccleve presents in the "Series" is not a narrative of recovery and consolation but a sophisticated meditation upon the irresolvable fragmentation of the self and the intricate connections between his poetic project and the specific cultural milieu of the Privy Seal."

Bureaucracy here means not clarity and precision but a kind of Dickensian (Knapp would say Balzackian) incomprehensibility: "In the sum of its theatricality, bureaucracy here is as distant as one might imagine from the force of rationalization that Weber thought it to be. It is the demi-monde, a semi-autonomous cultural space marked by artifice and the diffusion of state power into forms incomprehensible to the outsider." This is the world of Hoccleve's art in contrast to the courtly art of Chaucer: but "Courtly art and bureaucratic art are tied to to each other as statement and counterstatement." At the end of his book Knapp even mentions the name of Kafka as a successor who spoke "the incomprehensible signs of a bureaucratic muse" -- an aegis that may perhaps protect the poet from those still disposed lazily to dismiss him as mediocre.

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Author Biography

Howard Kaminsky

Florida International University