15.02.16, Quinn, Olde Clerkis Speche

Main Article Content

Susan Nakely

The Medieval Review 15.02.16

Quinn, William A.. Olde Clerkis Speche: Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde and the Implications of Authorial Recital. Washington, D.C.:The Catholic University of America Press, 2013. Pp. x, 252. ISBN: 9780813221809 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Susan Nakely
St. Joseph's College, New York
snakley@sjcny.edu

In Olde Clerkis Speche, William Quinn uses close reading to present an enjoyable "hearing" of Geoffrey Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde as late fourteenth-century audiences could have heard Chaucer himself recite that masterwork. Quinn attempts both to bring "the interpretive premise of such authorial recital" to bear on Troilus and Criseyde and to locate Chaucer's "I" as a "real (because still perceptible) presence in the tonal record of his text" (3, 4). In a sense, this dual purpose suggests the bridging of a divide between much late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century literary criticism, because Quinn searches boldly for the author as he lived and breathed his attitudes into his work just as a resolute New Historicist concerned with biography might, while also practicing close reading over the course of the five central chapters (there are eight chapters total) in as sustained and exclusive a fashion as a New Critic would (34). Performance theory and the necessarily multi-disciplinary research it entails might help to knit these endeavor together very nicely. This study, however, considers Chaucer's performance of his own poetry "only in the simplest, most commonplace sense of the term perform" (6). It does not engage with J. L. Austin's speech act theory, Judith Butler's understanding of cultural performativity, or Richard Schechner's sense of dramatic performativity in any sustained way. Instead, Quinn offers eight chapters filled with interesting suggestions about Chaucer's narration, his tone and voice, his composition and revision practice, the order in which he composed major works, extant Troilus and Criseyde manuscripts, Chaucer's role as a translator and mediator between an English audience and classical material, and his attitude toward the main characters and happenings in Troilus and Criseyde. Chapters 1 and 7 consider interpretive frameworks, critical and archival, respectively, while the five intervening thematic chapters interpret the poet's possible recital tone in each of the poem's five books. The final chapter, titled "Postscript", moves beyond Troilus and Criseyde to consider how the previous points might apply Chaucer's oeuvre more widely.

"Presentation Points," examines narration through acts of reading and performative recitation, literate and oral experiences of storytelling. This chapter focuses on the significance of tone and its relationship to authorial intention. It also cites early work on prelection and argues persuasively that we extend our view toward an understanding of it as more than just an early stage of cultural literacy. There is a good deal of engagement with a range of previous criticism that challenges and supports Quinn in the text and notes. Quinn holds that we need to avoid "arbitrarily histrionic reading [that] can grossly distort the tone of Chaucer's text," yet attend to tonal intention both as an act of fidelity to Chaucer and because "the decentralized subjectivity of his narrating 'I'" adds to enjoyment of Troilus and Criseyde (27, 29). The chapter ends with sharp and intriguing, if also extremely literal, readings of Chaucer's "Wordes unto Adam, His Owne Scriveyn" and passages from book three of Troilus and Criseyde, selections that reveal Chaucer's anxieties about both his own authorial intention and that of his sources. I would like to hear more from Quinn regarding these concerns, perhaps in light of Chaucer's failure to cite Boccaccio, preferring to cite Petrarch instead, in works like The Clerk's Tale and even The Monk's Tale's tragedy of Zenobia.

Chapter 2, "Book I, Lively Reading or Deadly Silence?", considers how "Chaucer's own performance vitality in court" may have illuminated ostensibly bland references to speech and tone (37). Quinn takes some of references as clues to Chaucer's "oral delivery" and yet notes that not all of them "need be read as [such] signs" (47). This second chapter emphasizes Chaucer's attention to tone from the start of Troilus and Criseyde forward and considers how Chaucer's narrating tone essentially reads and interprets his legendary character's tones, often responding to long-standing critical queries about Chaucer's representations.

Quinn focuses more closely on Criseyde and Pandarus, two of Troilus and Criseyde's three main characters in his third chapter, "Book II, Echo Chambers." Key observations include that only the three central books of the poem include proems and that "Chaucer spotlights his own role" in each "in Book IV, as writer (13-14, 17); in Book III, as speaker (47); and in Book II, as both" (62). Through this lens of Chaucer's dual role, Quinn examines issues such as Pandarus's insomnia, Criseyde's measured attraction to Troilus, and both characters hesitance. This chapter also includes some very speculative, but socially resonant reflections on how the poet may have interacted with listening audience members.

Troilus features a bit more prominently in chapter 4, "Book III, Pillow Talk and Bedroom Eyes." This chapter makes meaning of recital pace, pronoun use, which moments Chaucer relays through direct quotation and which through narration, the ways a reciter might vary tone when performing dialogue between two characters, and many "tonally charged remarks" that readers often misunderstand "pointless filler" (100). These detailed observations and analyses should inspire literary scholars to consider more carefully and take more seriously similarly specious filler or small talk in other texts, especially (but not exclusively) Chaucer's works.

Chapter five ("Book IV, Conjunctions") defines its focus more clearly than the other central chapters; though, like the others, it remains quite capacious and surveys the book at hand generously and chronologically. Quinn explains that although Chaucer's narration "does little more than conjoin the text's direct quotations," in reciting, "Chaucer finds all the tonal features of this script's conversations immediately relevant: the longing for presence, the lamenting of absence, the anxieties about transmission, the anticipation of reception, and the frequent disconnect between intention and perception" (116). Highlights include speculation about Chaucer's possible body language (121) during recital and his tonal reflections of sympathy for these classic lovers and their frustrations (129, 132). This chapter includes perhaps a bit more summary than needed, yet also offers important and broadly applicable perspectives on Chaucer as an intermediary between classical and Italian sources and his English audiences.

The sixth chapter, "Book V, Deceptions and Receptions" demonstrates how "Troilus's and Chaucer's own struggle to comprehend the final absence of Criseyde offers a maddening analogy for the frustration of every reader who tries to comprehend the tonal intensions of this text's author in absentia" (138). Chapter 6 makes a strong ending to the central part of Quinn's book, revisiting as it does several points made in earlier chapters and often presenting the most persuasive examples and analyses. By chapter's end, Quinn has demonstrated that Troilus and Criseyde's originality, like that of many Chaucerian works and other Middle English tales, depends on tone. Innovations of plot are rare and problematic in our period, and so originality resides in the attitudes and other nuances that close listening to tone reveals. Quinn's work reminds us of tone's particular value to all medievalist literary critics.

The first of two concluding chapters, "Finishing Touches," searches through Troilus and Criseyde's manuscript evidence records of Chaucer's authorial recital. Here, Quinn surveys three early print editions and sixteen manuscripts of various qualities and levels of completion, which he deems particularly useful. He examines such "evidentiary texts as hostile witnesses to the poem's prior (and too soon forgotten) authorial recital" (175). While some manuscripts appear more relevant than others, Quinn compares details such as the numbers of stanzas printed on each page, ease of reading, use of abbreviations, and annotations. Placing this significant material ahead of the readings or intermittently (and with more engagement with the readings) throughout might have helped bring Quinn's understanding of the manuscript context and tone together more productively.

The final chapter, "Postscript", reiterates a sentiment Quinn expresses at the beginning of the book: "the practical value of my attempt to read Troilus and Criseyde as if it were originally composed by Chaucer for his own recital speaks for itself--or not" (201). Quinn goes on to consider how acceptance "that any Chaucerian text was initially composed for authorial recital and then revised for manuscript circulation" has implications for problems such as "competing conceptions of why his narrating "I" must now be read as such a complicated construct; uncertainty regarding the chronological order of several of his works; the editorial imposition of interpretive prompts, including punctuation; Chaucer's chronic failure to finish his compositions; and...the author's contrasting anticipation of his reading absence while writing The Canterbury Tales" (202). The book closes with interesting reflections on how this recital theory might come to bear on other Chaucerian works such as the The Book of the Duchess and The Legend of Good Women.

Olde Clerkis Speche is interesting and edifying read; however, one major assertion on which the project rests could be problematic without further qualification. "I want to study tone," Quinn affirms early, "and a sensing of tone necessarily presupposes the retrievability of authorial intent, and authorial intent has been decreed a dead issue by many, if not by most, modern theorists" (4). But is this presupposition about retrievable intent actually necessary? Absolute necessity would circumscribe tone within limits that distort the literary process, a process that is never exact and even more abstract when dealing with literary art than with other examples of writing. Literature makes its distinctive meaning as a process over which no one medium, not author, not reader, not reciter, not text itself, has complete control. Retrievability of authorial intent as some sort of clear, necessary, or stable intention obfuscates this complex and unique process, and thus I worry that Quinn's statement oversimplifies current critical skepticism about intent. Tone is one of the most subtle and artistic aspects of literary writing, largely because sensing of tone necessitates only some understanding of attitude. Whether authorial attitudes as resolute as intentions are present in literature is variable to say the least. Indeed, Chaucerians know and love Chaucer's writing for its ever-ironic tone, a matter I wish Quinn had treated more directly. At any rate, even if one disagrees with Quinn's understanding of necessity or of tone's implications, most medievalists will still appreciate his move to find meaning in the apparent rough spots, asides, and flaws we see if we read Chaucer "exclusively in terms of print-based conceptions of reading" (7). Olde Clerkis Speche makes a welcome contribution to Chaucer Studies and could prove helpful to scholars working on Troilus and Criseyde, Chaucer more generally, and tone. Manuscript and book history scholars may find the sixth chapter useful in particular.

Article Details

Section
Reviews
Author Biography

Susan Nakely

St. Joseph's College, New York