12.03.18, Yeager, The French Balades

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Conrad van Dyk

The Medieval Review 12.03.18

Yeager, R. F.. John Gower, The French Balades. TEAMS Middle English Text Series. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University, 2011. Pp. viii+182. ISBN: 978-1-58044-155-1.

Reviewed by:
Conrad van Dyk
Concordia University College of Alberta

The French "balades" of John Gower, contemporary of Chaucer, are not read much today, except for a few that have made their way into anthologies. Nevertheless, Gower's finely wrought poems still have the power to charm. For instance, Andrew Motion, the UK's Poet Laureate from 1999 to 2009, uses the envoy of Balade 34 of the Cinkante Balades as the epigraph to his collection The Cinder Path. [1] The lines, with R. F. Yeager's new translation, run as follows:

Ma belle oisel, vers qui mon pensement

S'en vole ades sanz null contretenir,

Pren cest escript, car jeo sai voirement,

U li coers est, le corps falt obeïr.

My beautiful bird, toward whom my thoughts

Fly themselves always, without any opposition,

Take this writing, because I know truthfully,

Where the heart is, the body must follow. [2]

The very same lines might also have functioned as a prescript to Yeager's new TEAMS edition, John Gower: The French Balades, for a variety of reasons. Yeager's scholarly commitment to popularizing Gower (a labour of love) is well-known, the balades are themselves a "belle oisel" worthy of further study, and Yeager's translation is intentionally literal in following "le corps," rather than the spirit or heart of the original. In all of these ways, this new edition should help bring Gower's balades into the classroom (the aim of the Middle English Texts Series), and should provoke increased study of these hidden gems.

Yeager's edition includes Gower's Traitié (a series of 18 ballades on the evils of adultery), the Cinkante Balades (actually 54 balades), a fifteenth-century translation of Gower's Traitié into Middle English by a certain Quixley, and a helpful appendix on Gower's French by Brian Merrilees. The crown jewel is undoubtedly the Cinkante Balades, which survives in just one manuscript (London, British Library, MS Additional 59495). As a collection, the Cinkante Balades has a loose structure, and particularly the middle section remains somewhat amorphous. After a number of dedicatory balades to Henry IV, the first few balades (1-5; Yeager's introduction has 1-4) are said to be about married love (Gower's gloss to balade 5). Then follow balades 6-40, which focus on the topoi of courtly love (love's contraries, pleas for mercy, seasonal references, and so forth). Balades 41-44 relate the beloved's scathing rejection of the lover, after which she seems to accept another lover, and the sequence ends with a few balades that seem more philosophical. In the final balade, the lover pledges his love to the Virgin. Yeager nicely describes the whole ensemble as a "tutelary drama" (50) that ends in a "Troilus moment" (50), and it might indeed not be a bad idea to teach Gower's Cinkante Balades in conjunction with Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde.

Perhaps the most provocative part of Yeager's introduction to the Cinkante Balades is his earlier dating of 1391-93 (Macaulay suggested 1399). If Yeager is correct that Gower also wrote much of the Traitié before 1390--concurrently with the Confessio Amantis--then this must have been an extraordinarily fruitful time. Either way, the influence of the Confessio is felt in both works--most obviously in the Traitié, which borrows most of its exemplary lovers from the Confessio. Together, the two balade collections help us appreciate Gower's mastery of three languages, his ability to balance courtly love and "honest" love (Gower's term), and his commitment to writing a public poetry that both teaches and delights (Gower's proto-humanist aims).

As far as the translation itself is concerned, Yeager seeks to be direct and transparent, and in general he meets those aims. The few tricky passages I will point out in what follows are thus the exception rather than the rule. The Traitié, with its steady enumeration of adulterous lovers, provides few interpretive problems, but the Cinkante Balades often includes difficult phrasing. The inherent ambiguity of some lines is exemplified by the following passage from balade 3: "Mais quant jeo pense que vous serretz moie, / De sa justice amour moun coer enhorte, / En attendant que jeo me reconforte" (5-7). Yeager translates, "But when I think that you will be mine, / My heart exhorts Love for its justice, / Awaiting the time when I shall be comforted." It is unclear whether "amour" (Gower's NS form) or "coer" is the subject of "enhorte," and one might equally translate, "Love by its justice exhorts my heart / So that I am consoled in waiting."

A number of small errors have crept in here and there. For example, in 4* "j'ai tout mon coer assis" should be "I have placed all my heart" (not "I have taken you, my beloved"), in 7 "even further away" should be "even nearer"), and in 9.15, "suspris" means "seized" (from susprendre, and not "sighs"). Aside from such minor slips, at times the translation ascribes a verb to the wrong actor and veers away from the stereotypical behaviour of fin amour. For instance, in Balade 10, Gower writes, "Ne lerrai, dame, que ne vous supplie / Q'avoir porrai vostre ameisté complie" (20-21; compare also 12.11 and 15.13). Yeager has, "Do not permit yourself, lady, not to bend, / So that I may have your full amity." I would suggest, "I will not desist, lady, from entreating you..."

At other times, the translation slightly alters one's perception of the lover's arguments. Gower writes in Balade 38, "Soubtz ciel n'est oil, maisq'il vous soit voiant, / Qu'il n'ait le coer tantost deinz son recoi / Suspris de vostre amour et suspirant" (8-10), and Yeager translates, "Under heaven there is no man's eye but, should it look at you / (Unless his heart forthwith is hidden away) / He will be seized by your love, and sigh." While Yeager is generally as literal as possible--in Balade 21 he translates "vilenie" four different ways (vulgarity, wickedness, deceit, degradation) to get at the exact meaning--here the second line is an interpretation meant to make sense of Gower's meaning. The second line might equally be rendered "That he will not have his heart [seized by your love] immediately in a secret place." A particularly poignant example of such behaviour comes once more from Troilus and Criseyde, when Troilus shrinks in his "hornes" (1.300) after seeing Criseyde for the first time and thinks "to hiden his desir in muwe" (1.381). [3] The psychology of love might justify quite a literal reading.

Nevertheless, while readers will have their preferences, Yeager generally translates proficiently and clearly. Despite the literal rendering, many passages retain their lively and elegant phrasing, as in the following example: "De la fonteine ensi come l'eaue pure / Tressalt et buile et court aval le prée, / Ensi le coer de moi, jeo vous assure, / Pour vostre amour demeine sa pensée" ("Thus, as the pure water from the fountain / Leaps and bubbles and courses down the meadow, / Thus this heart of mine, I assure you, / For your love experiences its hope" (7.8-11). And if some word-play has been lost in translation (e.g., "volage" in CB 19), Yeager's literal reading more than makes up for it in lucidity.

One of the strongest parts of the book is Yeager's analysis of the Quixley MS, which adds a great deal to what the previous editor, Henry Noble MacCracken, related in 1909. This introduction is so successful that it makes one wonder whether a similar reassessment of Macaulay's editorial practice of Gower's balades (on which Yeager relies extensively, and for good reason), might be productive. In any case, Yeager provides good evidence for ascribing the work to Robert de Quixley, prior of Nostell Priory and prebend of Bramham until 1427. Nostell was an Augustinian priory, and this may explain Quixley's addition of a nineteenth balade in honour of Augustine, the "philosophre" (387; for some reason Quixley's balades are numbered cumulatively).

Also helpful is Yeager's discussion of Quixley's poetics. From a linguistic point of view it is indeed fascinating "how readily so many of Gower's French rhymes could be turned, with a shift of [a] letter here or there, into recognizable English" (154). The fact that Quixley did not translate Gower's Latin glosses suggests that he and his audience likely had reasonable command of Latin, something that Yeager rightly feels suggests his clerical background. It might also be added that Quixley does take the liberty to move material from the glosses into the poems themselves, as when in Balade 14 he notes the death of the child born from the adulterous union of David and Bathsheba.

The endnotes to the various texts are very helpful and some of Yeager's extended glosses on classical allusions and bird lore (plovers, sparrow-hawks, etc.) show impressive scholarship. One difficulty with editing Gower is the breadth of his reading and his inventiveness with sources, and so an editor has a difficult task knowing what to include. For instance, Yeager's gloss to the "Sibille" in Balade 19 references Virgil and Ovid, whereas Masayoshi Itô has pointed out that in the Confessio, Gower views the Sybil as synonymous with Cassandra. [4] Thus, it might also be productive to explore Cassandra's role in the medieval Troy narratives. Yet, while there is room to work out such minor discrepancies, a student edition must keep its notes concise and to the point, and Yeager's notes manage to be comprehensive without being tediously exhaustive.

In a passage that highlights Gower's extensive indebtedness to the Roman de la Rose, the lover of the Cinkante Balades writes that while he can see the flowers in his lady's garden, the entry is closed to him ("l'entrée m'est forclose"; 37.10). While the lover is ultimately unsuccessful, Yeager's excellent edition will do much to open up Gower's balades (the last of Gower's works to be translated into English) to new readers and readings.



1. Andrew Motion, The Cinder Path (London: Faber & Faber, 2009).

2. Yeager's text has a small typo in the fourth line ("let" for "le").

3. Gower would have appreciated this bird imagery, as his balades frequently reference birds of prey. See also R. A. Shoaf, "Troilus and Criseyde: The Falcon in the Mew." Typology and English Medieval Literature, ed. Hugh T. Keenan (New York: AMS, 1992), 149-68.

4. Masayoshi Itô, John Gower: The Medieval Poet (Tokyo: Shinozaki Shorin, 1976), 167-68.

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Author Biography

Conrad van Dyk

Concordia University College of Alberta