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17.10.18, Cervone and Smith, eds., Readings in Medieval Textuality

17.10.18, Cervone and Smith, eds., Readings in Medieval Textuality

Whither close reading? Franco Moretti pronounced it dead in 2013, but this volume of essays, honoring a lifelong practitioner, takes a more sanguine view. [1] Twelve chapters present readings and interpretations of fourteenth- and early fifteenth-century English poetry.

The contributions are arranged into four sections of unequal length: "Reading Experience and Experientiality" (Derek Pearsall, Elizabeth Fowler, and Claire M. Waters), "Revisions and Re-visioning of Alliterative Poetry" (Kevin Gustafson and Michael Calabrese), "Subjectivity and the Self" (David Aers and Nicolette Zeeman), and "Reading for Form" (Jill Mann, D. Vance Smith, J. A. Burrow, Ardis Butterfield, and Cristina Maria Cervone).

The volume begins with an unusually detailed exposition and defense of the scholarship of the honorand by the editors, ending with chapter summaries ("A. C. Spearing's Work and Influence"). Cervone and Smith describe Spearing as a New Critic, formalist, and champion of the "formal fluidity" (xv) of Middle English poetic texts. "Work and Influence" is followed by a "Bibliography of A. C. Spearing's Works," 1957-2015, compiled by Peter Baker.

The first section concerns Geoffrey Chaucer's poetry. In "The Wife of Bath's 'Experience': Some Lexicographical Reflections," Pearsall corrects a widespread misinterpretation of the opening line of Chaucer's Wife of Bath's Prologue. When the Wife claims experience of marriage aside from (textual) auctoritee, she means "she's tried marriage, and it's just as bad as the scholars say" (6). Experience here means "the method by which one gains knowledge of the world," as usual in Middle English. Pearsall provides an illuminating discussion of the source for this line in the Roman de la Rose, in which, however, he misidentifies Old French experimentz "experiences" as singular "experience" (p. 8 and n. 19). The essay ends with comparisons to two similar cases of Middle English false friends, like "please" (not yet "like") and passioun "suffering" (not yet "sexual passion"). Certain passages in Chaucer push toward the later meanings.

In "The Proximity of the Virtual: A. C. Spearing's Experientiality (or, Roaming with Palamon and Arcite)," Fowler analyzes the phenomenological play between subjectivity, language, and the built environment in the first half of the Knight's Tale. Two sections address the prison with adjoining garden and Arcite's exile. Framing her reading in terms of Aristotle, Freud, Heidegger, Hitchcock, Merleau-Ponty, and Althusser, Fowler discovers in Chaucer's narrative poetics "the investment of bodily experience in some social formation" (25). The essay succeeds in connecting subjectivity and the environment to poetic language, as in the observation that "the word 'wone' means both 'habit' and 'habitation'" (23). Roaming, with a nod to twenty-first-century mobile technology, is the essay's theoretical object of inquiry as well as the keyword for its close readings.

In "Makyngand Middles in Chaucer's Poetry," Waters describes Chaucer as "a mediatory poet" (33) who expresses a "sense of being in between the new and the old" (32). She reads Chaucer's self-presentation nel mezzo del cammin in Chaucers Wordes unto Adam, His Owne Scriveyn, the Prologue to the Tale of Sir Thopas, and Chaucer's Retraction. The first two texts are connected by the use of rhyme royal, a circumstance that Waters turns to good effect in observations about the mediatory tendencies of this odd-numbered stanza form. She does not engage with A. S. G. Edwards's arguments (to my mind persuasive) that Chaucer did not compose Adam Scriveyn. [2] If Edwards is right, this short poem is even more "belated" (39) than Waters claims, and its self-conscious staging of Chaucerian authorship belongs to the realm of literary reception.

The second section concerns late fourteenth-century alliterative verse. In "Fayre Formez: Vernacular Scriptural Paraphrase and Lay Reading in Cleanness," Gustafson argues that Cleanness aims its penitential morality at a wealthy "lay public" (53; 55), figured within the poem by the guests in the Parable of the Wedding Feast and by the Babylonian kings Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar. Gustafson usefully sets the poem in the context of earlier fourteenth-century vernacular religious verse: Cursor Mundi, the Northern Homily Cycle, Robert Mannyng's Chronicle, and the Prick of Conscience. Whereas those texts worry aloud about the translation of scriptural authority into English, the Cleanness poet's anxieties on the subject are submerged in poetic language and a "complex vision of social order" (56).

Calabrese compares three passages new to the beginning, middle, and end of the C text of William Langland's Piers Plowman ("Langland's Last Words"). The third, from C 20, comes last in narrative sequence but not necessarily, as Calabrese concedes, last in Langland's process of revision. All three passages indict neglectful clergy in direct address and orient the audience toward the end times. Reading these alongside their scriptural sources and related passages from elsewhere in the poem, Calabrese listens for "the voice of the poet himself" (65). Whether or not this is a feasible critical goal, the readings capture the poem's "spirit of apocalyptic reform" (70).

The third section returns to Chaucer and the early pentameter tradition. Aers examines the theology of Troilus's temple soliloquy in Troilus and Criseyde ("Re-reading Troilus in Response to Tony Spearing"). At once autobiographical, historiographical, and philosophical, this essay amounts to a survey of "Chaucer's treatment of major topics in contemporary metaphysics and theology" (93). Aers compares Chaucer the philosopher and theologian to Augustine, Boethius, Dante, Langland, Margery Kempe, and the poet of the Middle English alliterative St. Erkenwald, noting points of contact between Chaucer's thinking and late fourteenth-century English politics.

In "The English Charles: Subjectivity, Texts and Culture," Zeeman identifies conceptual homologies between contemporary theories of subjectivity and the dispersed subjectivity represented in the English lyric poems of Charles d'Orléans, French nobleman and early fifteenth-century political prisoner. A tour de force, the essay locates historical and cultural pressure on the divided 'I' of Charles's love poetry, in which "the polarities of melancholic stasis and nervous agitation crisscross the poem and its subject in several ways" (115). A "Psychoanalytic Postscript" (pp. 113-16) draws comparisons to the thinking of Freud and Melanie Klein on depression.

The fourth section, "Reading for Form," is longer and more heterogeneous. Mann's "The Inescapability of Form" reflects on "the false opposition between historicism and formalism" (120). Mann connects battles between history and form in literary studies to curricular changes at Oxford and Cambridge, in both of which she has had a professional interest. Three compact readings, of Coleridge's "Frost at Midnight," Chaucer's To Rosemounde ("(1) Rosemounde is a little girl, and (2) she is a fat little girl," [130]), and Chaucer's Knight's Tale, exemplify "the possibility of starting from the poem rather than somewhere outside it" (124).

In "Destroyer of Forms: Chaucer's Philomela," Smith argues that Chaucer translates the violence of Tereus on Philomela's body into a deformation of the Ovidian source text. While this poem, from the Legend of Good Women, opens by identifying God as dator formarum "giver of forms" (147; 149; 150), Chaucer pursues "the disappearance of the possibility of formal resolutions" (149). Replete with allusions to the theological and philosophical meanings of forma in Latin book culture, the essay does not historicize its equation of forma with vernacular poetic style. Smith does not mention what has traditionally seemed the most striking formal departure of the Legend of Good Women, its use of pentameter couplets.

Burrow categorizes "Gower's Confessio Amantis and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales as Dits," a late medieval French genre defined as "longish poems of first-person narrative in which the narrating 'I'..., apart from occasional swoons,... remains awake throughout" (157). Comparing John Gower and Chaucer to Guillaume de Machaut and Jean Froissart, Burrow builds a convincing case for grouping major works of the English poets, including Chaucer's Legend of Good Women, with the French poets' dits amoureux. Burrow allows for difference across language traditions. Dits are characterized by the technique of montage, but "whereas what the French dits 'mount' are lyrics, it is stories which are given that formal prominence" in Chaucer and Gower (163).

In "Poems without Form? Maiden in the mor lay Revisited," Butterfield casts a skeptical eye on previous attempts to edit and contextualize this early fourteenth-century lyric poem. In place of the "regularity and correctness" (185) valued by textual critics, she illustrates a phenomenological exploration of the manuscript text. The high point of the essay is a paragraph considering how the short phrase ant the "and the" "makes the song come alive" (190). Butterfield recommends "that we edit the text by printing the transcription as it is" (194). Rejecting the logic of textual criticism absolutely, Butterfield seems to me to mischaracterize that logic when she describes editing as an attempt to "create regularity" (182) and achieve "certainty" (194).

Cervone explores "collective subjectivity" (196; 197; 198; 209) in a medium-length Chaucerian lyric poem ("'I' and 'We' in Chaucer's Complaint unto Pity"). Reading Chaucer "the way we read Langland" (197), she reveals the poem's "metaphysical documentary poetics" (196). Cervone is incisive on the "mise-en-abîme" (199; 200; 208) of a bill of complaint, which the 'I' composes, fails to deliver to Pity, and subsumes in the poem itself. The bill, like other facets of the poem's allegory, conflates individual and social experience. Cervone argues that the two actions taken by the 'I' on the bill are ambiguous. The 'I' held it still "kept silent about it" or "continued [bringing] it persistently" (207) and put it up "laid it aside" or "presented it formally" (209). The second case for ambiguity rests on surer ground than the first.

A fifth section, "Epilogue," offers acclaim and amusements: "Two Appreciations of A. C. Spearing" (Baker and Fowler) and "Announcing a Literary Find Apparently Related to the Gawain-poet" (Cervone [and Spearing]).

Unifying the collection is formalism as critical practice or methodological adversary. The title of the final section of argued essays, "Reading for Form," implies that the other essays do not concern form. In fact, they examine linguistic form (Pearsall), narrative form (Calabrese, Fowler, Gustafson, Zeeman), and verse form (Waters). Only Aers's essay might be considered aformal, though at one point it recognizes "the formal differences between what Chaucer calls 'tragedye' and 'comedye'" (93). Within "Reading for Form," Smith and Butterfield pitch their arguments against a naïve formalism, which they associate with "New Criticism" (136; 137; 170). Surely Mann is correct that this idea of mechanistic formalism is not an adequate description of midcentury scholarship but "something that was created retrospectively, in opposition to a 'new historicism' which is conceived as its competitor" (124). Smith's caricature of formalism (an "organicism of the work as a thing whose shape is there from the beginning immanently," 137) underwrites his claim that "form is the failure of form" (146) in Ovid's and Chaucer's Philomela narratives. A more capacious formalism unties this paradox: for effects of "misprision, catastrophe and failure" (146) to hit home in the first place, literary form must have already succeeded in some sense. Likewise, what would textual form have to be in order for Maiden in the mor lay, a rhyming song instanced in one manuscript (in however convoluted a fashion) and mentioned in two others, not to have it? Butterfield must posit a transcendental "wholeness" in order to oppose it to the materiality of a scribal text "in its actual written state" (194).

The word "medieval" in the title of the book corresponds to an older Oxbridge periodization whereby "medieval" contrasts with "Anglo-Saxon," as opposed to the more usual subdivision of premodern English literature into "Old English" and "Middle English," which together comprise "medieval" literature. As in David Wallace's Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature and the titles of most of Spearing's own books, the ambiguity is unfortunate. [3] Use of "medieval" in the Oxbridge sense camouflages the Old/Middle disciplinary divide, reducing nine centuries to two or three. Indeed, Readings in Medieval Textuality carries the reduction much further than this. Ten of the twelve essays concern four poets writing in the 1360s, 1370s, and 1380s: the Gawain poet, Langland, Gower, and Chaucer.

This book is hardly alone in excluding pre-1300 English literature or focusing on canonical authors. But its various arguments could use earlier English literature, whether for support or for a friendly challenge. The topics of the two essays on alliterative verse--vernacular theology (Gustafson) and authorial self-fashioning (Calabrese)--apply equally well to, say, Cynewulf's Elene, an early alliterative verse rendition of the legend of St. Helena by an author who signs his name within the text. Butterfield would not have lamented that "editing is rarely brought into questions of form" (176) if she had read the sometimes acrimonious debates about the meter, language, and editing of Old English poems, almost all of which, like Maiden in the mor lay, survive in only one manuscript copy.

Ultimately, the value of the book lies not in any singularity of approach but in individual moments of detailed interpretation. The book is full of such moments. I've tried to convey some of them above. It is a difficult collection to summarize, but its interpretive pluralism shows that the report of the death of close reading was an exaggeration.

-------- Notes:

1. Franco Moretti, Distant Reading(London: Verso, 2013).

2. A. S. G. Edwards, "Chaucer and 'Adam Scriveyn,'" Medium Ævum 81 (2012): 135-38.

3. A. C. Spearing, Criticism and Medieval Poetry (London: Arnold, 1964), Medieval Dream-Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976), Medieval to Renaissance in English Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), Readings in Medieval Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), The Medieval Poet as Voyeur: Looking and Listening in Medieval Love-Narratives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), Textual Subjectivity: The Encoding of Subjectivity in Medieval Narratives and Lyrics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), and Medieval Autographies: The "I" of the Text (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2012), and The Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature, ed. David Wallace (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).