15.11.05, Nicholson and Grenier-Winther, eds. and trans., Oton de Granson, Poems

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Kristen Figg

The Medieval Review 15.11.05

Nicholson, Peter, and Joan Grenier-Winther, eds. and trans. Oton de Granson, Poems. TEAMS Middle English Texts Series. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2015. pp. x, 406. ISBN: 978-1-58044-206-0 (paperback).

Reviewed by:
Kristen Figg
The Ohio State University

As the only contemporary poet that Chaucer mentions by name, the Savoyard knight Oton de Granson holds a special place in Middle English studies. The author of a cluster of five ballades partially translated and adapted by Chaucer in his "Complaint of Venus," Granson is praised by the English author as the "flour of hem that make in France [the flower of those that write poetry in France]" (3, 30). Although this ambiguous phrase most likely refers to the poet's fine reputation as a knight and gentleman (echoing the traditional phrase "flower of chivalry") rather than any expectation that he would be considered the finest of French poets, it does suggest that Chaucer thought highly of him and wanted to honor him by using some of his poetic lines in his own work. Furthermore, the parallels between Granson and Chaucer as the first two poets identifying Saint Valentine's Day as an occasion for the pairing off of lovers, dramatized by an assembly of talking birds, raises intriguing questions about influence and reception. This volume, then, part of the Middle English Text Series intended for use in the classroom, is a useful and appropriate offering for those who wish to gain familiarity with one of Chaucer's contemporaries and understand the "ongoing conversation" (24) between French- and English-language poets in the fourteenth century.

The volume's introduction begins with a short biography, relying largely on the work of Arthur Piaget [1], and then moves quickly into a discussion of manuscripts and other evidence for establishing Granson's canon. Since, as an amateur, Granson did not, like his predecessors Machaut and Froissart, supervise the creation of any authoritative manuscript of his work, this section can do much to familiarize students with the way analysis of textual groupings and patterns of compilation play into editorial decisions to accept attribution of poems that are not labeled with an author's name. Likewise, the sections of the introduction on forms and themes provide useful information about the various formes fixes (rondeau, virelai, ballade) and longer genres, which, as the editors point out, offer "a nearly complete cross-section of French poetry at the end of the fourteenth century" (15). The discussion of conventionality is especially well presented, explaining the psychological power of a kind of poetry that "offered a refuge in a world of artifice deliberately detached from both history and material circumstances, the security of a coded and ritualized behavior" (22). At the same time, the editors urge readers to see the potential for virtuosity and dramatic interest, qualities they illustrate in their commentaries on many of the individual poems (22-29). The possibilities for originality also figure into the next section, which addresses the parallels between Granson and Chaucer, especially their use of the Saint Valentine's Day assembly, where speaking birds choose their mates. Finally, the introduction considers the possible meaning of the acrostic (a device probably borrowed from Machaut) that spells out the name "Isabel" in three of Granson's poems. Comments on the edition and translation, as well as a list of manuscripts, follow.

In order to compile all the poems now thought to be by Granson, the editors had to draw from a number of manuscripts, with no consistent content or order. Thus, they chose to group the poems in this collection by genre, as was done by such contemporaries as Machaut. In addition, they chose to order the poems by length, from shortest to longest, with the ballades also being ordered by length of stanza. As they point out, this arrangement facilitates comparison between and within forms, giving readers an opportunity to consider both the demands of the various fixed forms and their potential for development and subtlety of meaning. Thus, they present here a collection of nine rondels, one vyrelay, fifty-seven balades, and eleven "Other Works," titled variously as "dit," "complainte," "pastourelle," "lay," and so on. The final work presented, the 2501-line Le Livre Messire Ode includes a large body of intercalated lyrics and is in the style of the narrative dit, reminiscent of poems by both Machaut and Chaucer.

As is appropriate for a collection of this type, the editors have attempted to keep the translations as literal as possible, with the hope that readers will be able to access the original French rather than looking only at the English. In general this works well, especially where they have taken pains to preserve the meter, fluidity, and resonances of the original, as in the first stanza of the single virelay:

Unfortunately, their efforts to remain literal are not always so effective. One recurring problem is with the French subjunctive, which, translated word for word, often creates phrasings that sound awkward or even non-English. In Rondeau 6, for example, the opening refrain line Comment seroit que je fusse joieulx? is rendered as "How could it be that I be joyful?" (47); in the tercel's praise of the falcon in "The Saint Valentine's Dream," the claim that Ja ne sera le jour si chault / Que de l'aler plonger ait cure becomes "Never will the day be so hot / That it desire to dive down from its course" (201). Here the clumsiness of the subjunctive is compounded by the use of the pronoun "it" to "preserve the birdiness of both tercel and falcon" (although a tercel is by definition male; see note 107-114, 355), which later leads the translators into confusing lines like "Lest it turn out worse for me / If it could perceive it" (ll. 250-251, 203). Having "perhaps inconsistently" (355) chosen to refer to only the eagle as "she" because the grammatical gender matches the gender of the bird in the narrative, the translators also end up with odd mixtures, like "And the eagle who spoke first / Said, when she had listened to it [the tercel or the story?], / That it had told its story well" (205).

At times, of course, there are lines that are truly difficult to translate, either because of convoluted syntax or possible scribal error, and the apparatus at the back of the book offers considerable help. Individual poems are accompanied by both textual notes (providing manuscript sources and variants) and explanatory notes, which introduce the poems by setting them in their context and identifying unusual features, pointing out helpfully for students, for example, that Ballade 16 is one of five with a female speaker, that Dangier and the other personifications in Ballade 21 are staples of the fourteenth-century lyric originating in Le Roman de la rose, and that Ballade 47 is likely to have been written in response to Granson's experience of exile. For Le Lay de desir en complainte, the note to line 62 offers a subtle reading of the wordplay on the word “lay” itself, showing how it can mean a type of poem, a layman, or an ugly (modern French laid) man. Sometimes, however, the editors offer no comment on passages that need to be untangled, leaving readers to puzzle out the logic for themselves:

Since this passage is immediately preceded by a line translated "I constantly find it [desire] on my back" (Toutdiz le treuve sur mon dos), one wonders whether the speaker shifted from horse to rider. This translation, syntactically awkward and possibly faulty, at the least demands some defense in the notes, an aid that is often, but not always, provided.

Although the introduction is generally accurate, there are here too some claims that need to be qualified, as well as a few errors that should be corrected by those using the book in the classroom. First, perhaps as a result of their desire to emphasize Granson's importance, the editors seem to forget that Jean Froissart had served in the English court, writing poetry in French (before turning to his Chronicles) from 1363 to 1369, the decade immediately before Granson's arrival. This fact would seem to refute their claim in the opening paragraph that "as one who moved in both a French-speaking and English-speaking world, [Granson] occupies a unique place in the literary culture of his time" (1); it would be much more useful--and more correct--to place Granson in the context of his predecessor. [2] Likewise, in trying to show Granson's potential for originality, they repeat a claim attributed to Ian Laurie that Granson should get "some credit for popularizing, if not inventing," such innovations as "the 8-line stanza rhyming ABABBCBC in the ballade and also the 5-line stanza in the rondeau" (19). The editors seem unaware of two facts: first, that Froissart, a much better known and more prestigious writer, had already used the same 8-line stanza in ten of his forty ballades; and second (in spite of their references to Daniel Poirion's ground-breaking work on lyrics), that technically, the traditional rondeau was not a form organized according to musical stanzas, but rather a form that established a refrain (in this case, an unusual 5-line refrain AABBA), assigned a distinct single musical line to each rhyme (A = melody 1, B = melody 2), and then followed the refrain with a variable pattern of new lines and full or partial repetitions of the refrain (usually not clearly indicated in manuscripts). No matter what the length of the refrain, the first melodic line always corresponded with the A rhyme and the second melodic line with B, and both the rhymes and their corresponding musical lines could be repeated in various groupings. Thus, when the editors discuss their decision about how to expand the repetitions of the refrain in the rondeau at lines 591ff. in Le Livre de Messire Ode (note p. 359-360), their concern that a "resulting 6-line stanza could not have been sung to the same melody as the other stanzas" fails to recognize the fact that the rondeau by definition has no stanza-length melody and that the continual change in the sequence of melodic lines is part of the charm and beauty of the form.

That said, Granson was not primarily a writer of rondeaux, and students interested in his many ballades, his eight poems that mention Saint Valentine, and the pattern of influence between Granson and Chaucer will find not only thoughtfully edited versions of the texts in question, but ample discussion, notes, and bibliographical references to guide them on to further exploration. Granson is well worth the effort of studying alongside Chaucer, and this edition will do much to help students understand Chaucer's place in a complex literary environment heavily influenced by French traditions.



1. Arthur Piaget, ed. Oton de Grandson: sa vie et ses poésies (Lausanne: Payot, 1941). This source (referred to in note 3), while thorough, is too old to incorporate recent scholarship, so instructors using this text may also wish to direct students to the more current works also cited in the introduction, particularly Ardis Butterfield's excellent study The Familiar Enemy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), which is insightful in both its interpretation of Granson's life and his relations with Chaucer and other poets of his day.

2. For Froissart, this volume cites only a nineteenth-century edition of Froissart's Oeuvres and Anthime Fourrier's modern edition of L'Espinette amoureuse (1962) although modern editions of all of Froissart's lyric and narrative poetry have been made available in recent years. Readers looking for poems with English translations should consult Laurence De Looze, ed. and trans., La Prison amoureuse = The Prison of love (New York: Garland, 1994), and Kristen Figg, ed. and trans., Jean Froissart: An Anthology of Narrative and Lyric Poetry (New York: Routledge, 2001).

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