09.11.26, Wimsatt, Chaucer and the Poems of "Ch"

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George Keiser

The Medieval Review 09.11.26

Wimsatt, James I. (ed.). Chaucer and the Poems of "Ch", Revised Edition. TEAMS, Middle English Texts Series. Kalamazoo, Michigan: Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University, 2009. Pp. viii, 166. ISBN: 978-1-58044-132-2.

Reviewed by:
George Keiser

Having this book available in an inexpensive reprint is cause for gratitude, for it makes easily available an interesting set of Middle French lyrics and information about their possible origins and the manuscript in which they are preserved. For students of Chaucer James Wimsatt provides a useful source for studies of Chaucer's lyrics, as well as the lyrical impulse in Troilus and Criseyde. Originally published in 1982, the book makes a speculative case that a set of Middle French lyrics, each designated with a "Ch" in the unique manuscript copy, might have been among the early works of Geoffrey Chaucer. Though Wimsatt has updated the book in some areas, the evidence for the case is no stronger than it was in 1982.

The set of lyrics, preserved in Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania MS French 15, consists of fifteen works representative of the formes fixes of later medieval court poetry: ten balades, four chansons royal, and one rondel. The manuscript is a collection of 310 lyrics, including 107 by Guillaume de Machuat, 26 by Otto de Granson, and a single work of Eustache Deschamps. It was copied by at least two French scribes late in the fourteenth century and, according to Wimsatt, was assembled "with a deliberate aesthetic intention; the anthologist aimed for pleasing variety" (53). In another speculative argument, Wimsatt proposes that Granson was responsible for assembling the collection, perhaps for presentation to the wife of Charles VI, Queen Isabel of Bavaria.

Wimsatt's treatment of the poems preserved in the Pennsylvania manuscript anticipates the more fully developed and very important treatment of the French lyric mode and its influence on Chaucer in Chaucer and His French Contemporaries: Natural Music in the Fourteenth Century (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991). While this revision of the 1982 version draws upon later research, it still has an integrity of its own and provides an editions of the fifteen "Ch" lyrics, which are otherwise unavailable. No doubt to the disappointment of some, it offers no consideration of psychological dimensions in forme fixe poetry.

In his edition of these lyrics Wimsatt provides for each a graceful, conservative, and satisfactory Modern English translation on the facing page. The translations are very literal and attempt to preserve the rhetorical devices of the original, most obviously anaphora. Without access to the manuscript, it is difficult to judge the accuracy of the transcriptions, though no obvious difficulties appear. Inclusion of a facsimile page from the manuscript would have gone far to allay any concerns of this kind, as well as permitting readers to judge the observations concerning the nature and date of the hand that copied them.

In a surprisingly concise introduction to these poems Wimsatt describes the culture of Edward III's court, emphasizing an increasing awareness of the work of contemporary French poets, particularly Machaut, whose influence on Chaucer was profound. Wimsatt suggests that in the period prior to the full discovery of Machaut by the court, Jean de la Mote, not a well known poet to modern readers, was present there at times during the 1340s and perhaps in the next decade as well and was "a seminal force" in those years (5). Indeed, Wimsatt suggests that La Mote "may well have been the first prominent court poet that young Geoffrey Chaucer met" (6), and he argues that a young Chaucer may have written the "Ch" lyrics under his influence. In Wimsatt's view the powerful influence of Machaut, under whose spell Chaucer eventually fell, followed the arrival at the English court of King Jean le Bon and his entourage, after he became a prisoner of the English at the battle of Poitiers in 1356. From the evidence we have, Chaucer's own connection with the court probably began circa 1356, when he apparently held a minor position in the household of the wife of Edward III's son, Lionel. In short, the argument for Chaucer's authorship of the Ch-poems requires belief that during a small window of time "around 1360" (2) a young Chaucer, still under the influence of La Mote, composed fifteen relatively accomplished French lyrics. It is an argument that strains one's credulity.

The problems of this speculation notwithstanding, Wimsatt's book has significant value for students of French lyric poetry and, of course, the influence of that poetry on Chaucer. In this regard it is important to look at assumptions about the poet and his audience, which inform his analysis throughout the book:

The audience did not concern itself unduly with personal subjects of the poems, with hidden or tacit references to court figures...Nor did the auditors look to the poets for formal or thematic novelty. In the main their interest was in the inventive handling of the given form and material, and in the tact with which the ideals were presented (10).

The implicit corollary of these assumptions is that the poets were writing for each other and exploring the possibilities of the conventions of these highly conventional lyrics. Thus, Wimsatt explores the art of the "Ch" poems in the context of forme fixe lyric poetry, particularly the work of Jean de la Mote, and in relation to Chaucer's lyrics and Troilus and Criseyde, concluding that the "Ch" poems are "not unworthy" of the young Chaucer.

In an appendix to the edition of the "Ch" poems and a subsequent chapter on the relation of Chaucer and the Pennsylvania MS, Wimsatt offers still further exploration of the artistic interrelations of forme fixe poets. The appendix contains two lyrics whose similarities to specific "Ch" poems would seem to imply an inevitable competition among these poets. (Wimsatt also edits a humorous lyric, perhaps a parody.) In the chapter on Chaucer and the Pennsylvania MS Wimsatt explores the more complex relations among other works in the manuscript and their known and potential connection with Chaucer. Specifically, he presents Granson's Cinq Balades, which were the acknowledged origin of Chaucer's "Complaint of Venus," and he bases his edition on the text in the Pennsylvania MS, which is, Wimsatt argues, closest to the version used by Chaucer. Less overtly competitive, the relation between these French and English texts is extremely interesting, as Wimsatt demonstrates more fully in his 1991 book. Pursuing the theme of poets reading poets, he provides texts of two exchanges in which La Mote responds to separate attacks by Philippe de Vitry and Jean Campion, as well as a full text of the well known balade in praise of Chaucer by Eustache Deschamps. Wimsatt uses these texts and a wide array of facts, factoids, and possibilities to weave, with limited success, a web of connections between the manuscript and the poets represented in it and Geoffrey Chaucer.

Finally, Wimsatt provides an account of each of the 310 lyrics in the Pennsylvania MS with its incipit and information concerning the author, lyric form, rhyme and meter, refrain (where there is one), other manuscript copies, and editions. For this revised reprint Wimsatt obviously brought the bibliography up to date, as indicated by the fact that publication dates among the listed items run up to 2000.

By making the texts available and providing an analysis of the context that the Pennsylvania MS represents, this reprint is a very useful work. Still, one might wish for a few further additions in a revised version. As noted above, a facsimile page would be very useful, particularly one illustrating the "Ch" designation. When the book first appeared, codicology was in its infancy, but the lack of a little more detailed codicological information in the reprint is lamentable. One also misses the kind of detailed examination of the texts that we find in Wimsatt's magisterial 1991 Chaucer and His French Contemporaries. That book, however, does not cover the "Ch" poems, causing one to wish that Wimsatt had offered a more detailed examination of them here, at least showing why, beyond the "Ch" designation, we should assume they are the work of a single poet. The explorations of the possible connections between Chaucer and the manuscript are very interesting and informative, but in the end the speculations hang on such a thin thread that one comes away intrigued, but not convinced.

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George Keiser