14.04.09, Johnson, Practicing Literary Theory in the Middle Ages

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Jonathan Hsy

The Medieval Review 14.04.09

Johnson, Eleanor. Practicing Literary Theory in the Middle Ages: Ethics and the Mixed Form in Chaucer, Gower, Usk, and Hoccleve. Chicago:University of Chicago Press, 2013. Pp. 264. ISBN: 978-0-226-01584-2.

Reviewed by:

Jonathan Hsy
George Washington University

Eleanor Johnson's Practicing Literary Theory in the Middle Ages is an engaging and insightful study. Focusing primarily (but not exclusively) on foundational English authors Geoffrey Chaucer, John Gower, Thomas Usk, and Thomas Hoccleve, Johnson brings a careful formalist approach to medieval literary criticism that is ever mindful of the ethical dimensions of reading--not only for medieval audiences, but also for scholars in the present. One important question animating this book is how to historicize and describe the dynamic relationship between form and content in literary criticism. What exactly does literature seek to achieve, and how do the structural and stylistic features of a work enable a text's ethical or political goals?

Through detailed and often brilliant close readings, Johnson pursues a few intertwining strands of thought. As suggested by the subtitle's reference to "mixed form," Johnson's book showcases a rich tradition of prosimetrum, or literary works employing both prose and verse. This long trajectory begins in earnest with the Consolation of Philosophy of Boethius and continues through medieval literary works in Latin and vernacular languages (Italian, French, and English). Johnson persuasively shows that the Consolation did not just supply a useful set of philosophical themes for medieval writers. Many authors developed a key aspect of Boethian style--namely, the interplay between expository prose and lyrical verse--to convey the ethical transformations of fictional narrators and to model the intellectual and emotional impact that literature exerts upon its audience. In this book, Johnson presents much more than a sustained formalist analysis of major works within a newly configured Boethian literary tradition. She reveals how medieval writers act as literary theorists in their own right, experimenting with wide-ranging modes of literary expression to produce varied sociopolitical effects. Johnson's chapters trace how medieval writers exploit the rhetorical power of meter, alliteration, and other literary topoi to make complex ideas available to the sense perception of readers. Rather than framing her analysis of literary craft solely through modern modes of theory (insofar as her readings pertain to ethics, cognition, or affect), Johnson investigates how medieval writers theorized on their own terms.

Johnson's introduction elegantly makes case that a close attention to literary form is crucial for understanding how medieval writing can be ethically transformative--for the narrating author as well as the reader. She begins by observing that medieval people understood the pursuit of individual knowledge and fulfillment as an ethical enterprise, and medieval writers adopted varied fictive modes to experiment with how "literature can perform ethical work by virtue of its formal composition" (3). Johnson maintains that literary language exerts the "power to make ideation sensory and hence experiential through form and style" (4). Since prosimetrum conspicuously deploys "the dual action of meter's musical sensuality and prose's ability to be didactic" (6), it works to shape "a veritable practice [Johnson's emphasis] of vernacular literary theory in the late Middle Ages" (4). Johnson's extended literary history of prosimetrum begins with Martianus Capella's De nuptiis but quickly establishes Boethius's Consolation as a major turning point in this tradition. Alternating philosophical prose and lyrical verse, the Consolation dramatizes how "salvific lessons take hold in the mind of a narrator-protagonist-author" (8). Johnson identifies this process by the philosophical term protrepsis, which refers to the strategy of enacting ethics by getting a reader to identify with a protagonist as a model. When Boethius makes prosimetrum into an effective vehicle for ethical learning, he begins a tradition that associates mixed form with protreptic writing. Later vernacular writers, varied in style and language, "all manifest a sustained impulse to explore and question the power of mixed-form literary writing to create protrepsis" (10). Each writer exploits the resources of mixed form to fictively enact ethical transformation.

Chapter 1 offers an extended reading of foundational mixed-form experiments in ethical writing prior to Chaucer. Boethius's Consolation employs prose that "embodies rational thought" alongside meter that "embodies sensuality and pleasure," creating in the process a "dual formal embodiment of reason and sensation in dialogic argumentation and monologic lyric" (19). Johnson astutely frames her analysis of the stylistic effects of the Consolation through Boethius's own theory of music and the cognitive dimensions of meter (33-37). This manipulation of prose and verse to manage ethical and affective dimensions carries over into the Vita Nuova of Dante, who deliberately reinvents the "literary modalities" of Boethius in an amatory context. In Guillaume de Machaut's Remede de Fortune, protrepsis is enacted entirely through its internal variety of verse forms: rhymed couplets perform the function of prose, and stanzaic passages enact the effects of song (49).

The next three chapters of the book recursively address different facets of Chaucer's oeuvre. Chapter 2 explores what Johnson aptly terms the "aesthetic sentence" across the prose Boece and verse Troilus and Criseyde. Throughout this chapter, "sentence" suggests both its modern connotation of a "grammatically complete utterance" as well as its Middle English meaning of "intent" more broadly. While it surprising that Chaucer evacuates verse from his own translation of the Consolation, Johnson demonstrates that the "wrought artistry" of Chaucer's Middle English (60) is actively conversant with medieval Latin theories of prose that create formal rhythms structured by "clausules" or "units of sense of syntax" rather than meter (64). Chaucer, in other words, crafts a patterned prose that is functionally as artful as meter. Johnson's turn to the use of rime royal stanzas in Troilus is similarly revealing. It shows how Chaucer "force[s] metrical and rhythmical units to coincide with syntax, using stanzas as boundaries or bumpers for sense," and verse structure consequently lends form to "units of thought" (80). While readers might quibble with Johnson's closing claim that the Boece and Troilus should be read as a "single, unified stylistic project," the chapter skillfully unpacks how Chaucer's prose and verse operate, and it proves that both modes of expression "renders meaning aesthetically available" to readers (91).

Chapter 3 examines how Troilus develops protreptic themes from the Consolation through the formal and affective operations of tragedy. Of particular interest here are Johnson's readings of song erupting in persuasive moments in the story and the narrator's many "affect-shepherding" excurses that serve to align the audience with the heroine or the hero (109). Chapter 4 turns to the "philosophy of language" in the Canterbury Tales. Starting with the bifurcation of Chaucer's voice across the verse Thopas and prose Melibee, Johnson finds the writer's "gesture" toward prosimetrum underlying "the work's larger literary-theoretical ambition to explore how and whether aesthetic experience can be ethically transformative" (122). In this view, the "overly wrought...sensory experience" of Thopas (129) conspicuously and necessarily contrasts with the dialogic argumentation of Melibee (132). Other contrasting pairs, such as linear and orderly Second Nun's Tale and the discontinuous and ruptured Canon's Yeoman's Tale, likewise participate in a Consolation-like "stylistic and formal toggling between continuity and interruption" (139).

The remaining chapters examine English authors Usk, Gower, and Hoccleve. Chapter 4 discusses Usk's Testament of Love and Gower's Confessio Amantis, revealing how both exhibit a "self- awareness...inextricably tied to a political agenda" (166). For each poet, a "protreptic frame" allows the writer to adopt "a mask**a genre-based persona" through which "a sociopolitical critique" with "potentially incendiary political ends" can be launched (166). Johnson persuasively shows how Usk and Gower each blur the perceived functions of prose and verse. Usk, for instance, creates his "most intricate rhythms" and effects great "emotional intensity" through a "conspicuously songful mode of prose" (177). Johnson's reading of the interplay between Latin glosses and Middle English verse in Gower's Confessio further demonstrates how prosimetrum can enacts a formal and linguistic code-switching. Since Gower's Latin prose glosses reveal the "complexity and alterity" of Middle English verses and render the Middle English as a new kind of "Latin" with its own density and need for critical unpacking, the Confessio breaks down a rigid binary between Latin and the vernacular and the work as whole might even suggest a spectrum of linguistic modes at play (191). Chapter 5 turns to Hoccleve, examining how both prosimetrum and protrepsis facilitate new forms of autobiographical writing in the Series. Particularly revealing--in contrast with Chaucer--is Hoccleve's tendency to prioritize form over content, with thoughts often overrunning breaks across lines or stanzas (220). A brief conclusion offers some exploratory thoughts on why such wide experiments in mixed-form protretpic writing flourished in late- medieval England, and it ends by observing that the "criticality of the mixed-form paradigm for protreptic writing facilitates a synergistic construction of a vernacular literary theory that explores the relation of aesthetics to ethical learning" (236).

This review only touches upon major themes of this study and cannot do justice to the nuance of its arguments. Since many of the themes of this book so tightly interwoven, there can be a recursive quality to some of the chapters (e.g., an argument presented in one chapter might be repeated through a slightly different phrasing somewhere else). Nonetheless, this multifaceted book is worth reading all the way through for its extraordinary and attentive close readings. It is refreshing to find Usk and Gower so thoroughly resituated within the artistic milieu of Boethian mixed-form writing, and the sustained reframing of the Consolation as a stylistic and aesthetic model (not just a set of philosophical themes or topics) is truly compelling. This book admirably addresses a wide range of major authors, and it is testament to Johnson's work that I find myself asking how a sustained investigation of mixed form (and language-mixing) might open up new understandings of protrepsis in other works such as William Langland's Piers Plowman, the major non-English works by Gower that also contain prose glosses (i.e., Vox Clamantis and Mirour de l'Omme), or even the other formally-contrasting pairs throughout Chaucer's work (such as the Physician's Tale and Pardoner's Tale, or the Squire's Tale and Franklin's Tale). This book ultimately offers readers much more than an expanded view of prosimetrum, protrepsis, and Boethian literary tradition. It invites readers to carefully consider how crafted literary works achieve their artistic effects, and it models forms of literary criticism that are both rewarding to the intellect and satisfying as aesthetic experience.

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Jonathan Hsy

George Washington University