17.10.28, Nelson, Lyric Tactics

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Dan Birkholz

The Medieval Review 17.10.28

Nelson, Ingrid. Lyric Tactics: Poetry, Genre, and Practice in Later Medieval England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016. pp. viii, 214.
Reviewed by:
Dan Birkholz
University of Texas at Austin
birkholz@austin.utexas.edu

Books on medieval English lyric don't come along very often, at least not in recent decades. So it counts as a double bonus that this one, a first monograph by an astute critic, is so consistently excellent. Chief among this volume's virtues are its clarity of undertaking; its sophistication on theoretical as well as literary-historical fronts; and its sheer professional craftedness. The book is finely honed on every level. It has lean sentences, coherent paragraphs, and excellent textual-analysis set pieces. Its subsections and individual chapters are tight; its chapter progression is inventive; and its scholarly foundations are solid. What people say about a proper short story comes to mind: every detail necessary, every word in its place; nothing extraneous, nothing indulgent, nothing shaggy. If Ingrid Nelson can boil her topic down to just two words--"lyric tactics," on which distillation more in a moment--let me try, too. Were I similarly restricted to only a pair of descriptors, I'd choose these: economical and compelling. This is an important, sure-handed, even formidable study, one that scholars of all sorts--not just theoretically-inclined literary medievalists, and not just lyric specialists--will find themselves depending on immedately, and then building on profitably for years to come.

Nelson's central claim--around which, clockwork-fashion, every move in her symphonic production rotates--is that "in later medieval England, the lyric genre is defined as much by its cultural practices as by its poetic forms" (4; emph. orig.). Put another way, Lyric Tactics "defines the medievel lyric genre as much by what it does (its cultural work) as by what it is (its formal features)" (6; emph. orig.). As Nelson's steel-trap introduction (that's a compliment) proposes theoretically, and four absorbing chapters elaborate and instantiate textually, medieval lyric practices can be characterized above all by their tactical nature. Nelson deploys the term "tactical" in the specific sense laid out by Michel de Certeau, who, in The Practice of Everyday Life (1984), distiguishes between "the strategic and tactical uses of institutional forms" (12). As Nelson explains: "Both of these terms refer to modes of relation...A strategic relation to [institutional forms and standards] follows their prescribed usage. By contrast, a tactical relation to these forms is ad hoc and improvisatory, often involving unauthorized hybridization, recombination, or merging of discrete forms or categories" (60). Medieval lyric poems have often been disparaged for their (purportedly excessive) conventionality, which is to say, their reliance on verbal formulae and formal/thematic "topoi" (i.e., rhetorical commonplaces, or "cross-textual motifs") (15). However, as Nelson argues (with the brush-clearing help of Ardis Butterfield, Nicolette Zeeman, and Jessica Brantley, among others), it is precisely through their local marshalling and creative recombination of conventional figures that medieval lyric texts display the tactical essence of their operative nature.

"Lyric tactics," then--as manifested in the context of late medieval English manuscript culture--"refer to the practices by which lyrics are composed, modified, performed, transmittted, and cirulculated among institutional forms of textuality" (12). That sounds rather a lot to take on, by way of impinging factors, for a subfield so expansive and overgrown as this. There are good practical and institutional reasons for why so few scholars do more than dabble in the deep forests of insular lyric; or for that matter, why "the last influential book-length study" on the subject (by Rosemary Woolf) "appeared in 1968" (4). But Nelson steers an expert, brisk, and rewarding course through the generic thickets.

As a monograph that (a touch ironically...) seems anything but"ad hoc" or "unauthorized" itself, Lyric Tactics is driven by clear, carefully justified, and expressly theoretical objectives. But to my mind, maybe the most impressive component of Nelson's approach lies in her commitment to working, as it were, from the inside out. Throughout, the book proves scrupulous about providing detailed textual analyses, of not just a pleasing variety of lyrics (most notably, from Harley MS 2253 [c.1340]; from the commonplace book of Friar William Herebert (d.1333); and from within Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde and Legend of Good Women), but also of other, materially connected or formally related texts (e.g., dialogue, devotion, chronicle; practical and preaching texts; collections of exempla; and most frequently of all, Latin rhetorical treatises). These close readings (though Nelson eschews the term, for its associations with decontextualized analysis, in favor of a "'lateral' reading" redolent of historical poetics [14, 160]) are well-chosen and impeccably executed. More to the point, though, Nelson's textual performances are designed, individually and in the aggretive, to "elaborate how [an] implicit genre theory takes shape when poetic forms are understood within the context of their practices" (15). Lyric Tactics convinces, in other words, by showing how the texts it examines present "an implicit lyric theory" (60; 62), one "emerg[ing] out of practice" (139). Literary scholars would do well to attend to Nelson's thesis, if we wish to understand the workings of this slippery genre during an era that, if approached according to later standards, can seem alternately simplistic and inchoate.

I have just said that Lyric Tactics compels because it proceeds from inside out, but Nelson is equally adept at approaching the genre we call medieval lyric from the outside in. She distills the work of difficult thinkers in critical theory with magisterial ease, and displays a rare talent for effective summary. Also wisely, the book reviews "the highly mediated apparatus of modern genre making" by which "medieval lyrics have entered modern literary criticism"--noting how "for a medieval person, there was no such thing as a lyric"--in order to show how our assessments of them have been "informed as much by post-Romantic aesthethic expectations of lyric poetry as by the philological methods central to medieval studies" (18-19). The gist of Nelson's (persuasive) thesis claim and her characterization of medieval lyric's formal operations I have described already. The book's extra-subfield payoff, because she remains "cognizant of the provocative and fraught history" of her key term, is that Nelson is able to place the poems she features "in the long history of the lyric genre and [to suggest] how lyric tactics might offer an alternate literary history in which the medieval lyric is paradigmatic rather than marginal" (6).

What remains is to gesture to the topical matter and argumentative substance of Nelson's four chapters, though so absorbed have I been by the task of reproducing her core claims, and their original contribution to what Butterfield aptly calls "the new medieval lyric studies" (back cover), that little space remains to detail the local movements and textual-material settings of each. In support of her two-pronged argument "that tactical practice defines the genre of lyric in medieval England" (89), and that "lyric tactics determined aspects of manuscript compilation and layout as well as poetic forms and rhetoric" (88), Nelson splits her study into neatly proportional halves. The first of these treats understudied lyric poems--with Anglo-French exemplars featured as often as Middle English ones--that survive, uniquely, in multi-genre compilations from the first half of the fourteenth century. As it happens, both manuscripts--BL Harley 2253, a.k.a. the Harley Manuscript, and BL Additional 46919, Fr. William Herebert's commonplace book--hail from provincial Herefordshire. Less coincidental is that both chapters attend to material, performative, and compilatory factors in their analysis, with an erudition and ambition that one hopes will be become standard for the subfield.

Thus in Chapter 1 ("The Voices of Harley 2253" [31-58]), along the way to describing how the rhetorical tactics of lyric voice "[integrate] text and performance" (43) and "how [such] tactics inform the compilation and layout of lyric and non-lyric texts" throughout the Harley Manuscript (44), Nelson has occasion to observe there "there is a hole in the parchment at the top of folio 81r" which the scribe uses "to subtly influence the performance of the text" (52). (I oughtn't linger, but the formal-materialist payoff is too good to resist: "in every line that has a 'the' [you] in the middle, the scribe copies 'the' on the right side of the hole," thereby "convey[ing] materially the pain of the lovers' separation" and "influenc[ing] the voice of performance" [52-53]). Because "voice is where sound meets language" (35), as Nelson proposes in a lucid formulation that I expect to be often cited, "the voice of the medieval lyric 'I'" (43) proves "inherently tactical, articulating relationships between writing and performance and between a subject's interiority and his exernal world" (35). Even without its provocative theoretical framings, the rich cache of lyric readings on offer in this chapter (poems in Anglo-French and in Middle English, totally obscure ones and old favorites) would tag it as one of the finest essays on Harley 2253 in recent memory.

Chapter 2 ("Enchanting Songs and Rhyming Doctrine in William Herebert's Hymns" [59-87]) explores how, "because of its tactical nature, the genre of lyric could prove intractable" to medieval fraternal orders' "strategic aims," insofar as "the improvisatory practices central to medieval lyic language, performance, and reception may appear antithetical to the communication of a stable and consistent moral message" (60). Nelson's pleasingly counterintuitive claim here is that, in order to convey doctrine, Friar William Herebert "uses tactics" as a way "to draw on song's emotional and popular appeal" (ibid.). The upshot is that, in MS Additional 46919's hymn translations, lyric tactics are ironically "pressed into the service of strategic aims--expressing normative morality--even as they undergird the popular features of song that make it an effective pastoral instrument" (60; emph. added).

The latter half of Nelson's study, in order to underline the utility of considering the fourteenth century "in its entirety" as "an identifiable and distinct epoch in the history of English lyric" and to demonstrate "how tactics persist as lyric forms change" (27), trains its focus on the "inset lyrics" in certain of Chaucer's narrative poems (88). Chaucer is featured on grounds that of all late-century poets, he is "the one to whom lyrics seem most important" (89). If "tactics are above all modes of relations" (27), what Nelson examines in her book's second half are the "relations" of lyric texts not to "the manuscript page, or to a compilation," as in Chapters 1 and 2, but instead to "longer or distinct literary forms" and rhetorical practices (27), this time with an eye to elucidating "the literary and generic relations that bring the features of the lyric genre into clearer focus" (88). To be clear, Nelson does "not argue for the direct influence of earlier English lyrics on Chaucer's poetry," and is fully cognizant that by the 1380s, "the lyric landscape of England had shifted considerably" (92). She suggests persuasively, however, that "a tactical approach to lyric sources and conventions remains the central feature of English lyric even as its forms and influences change" (91). Proposing a vision of Chaucer "as a transitional figure in the history of English lyric" (27), Nelson argues that his well-known "adaptation of [classical and continental] influences" turns out to be importantly "informed by tactical practices" (90), for such practices "enable [him] to explore the political and ethical implications of the lyric genre by at once aligning it with and differentiating it from the other literary traditions" (90).

Chapter 3 ("Lyric Negotiations: Continental Forms and Troilus and Criseyde" [88-116]) argues for the centrality of the poem's "inset lyrics" (Antigone's song in particular) to Troilus and Criseyde's "literary ambition and affective content" (90). But Nelson also specifies that "as for earlier English poets and anthologists, practice is at the centre of Chaucer's understanding of the lyric genre and its cultural work" (90). In place of the recourse to the material side that marked Chapters 1 and 2, in Chapters 3 and 4 we get much reading of medieval rhetorical tradition. Nelson's analysis of Troilus first explores "the conflicting models of lyric put forward by the setting and text of Antigone's song," and then uses "the stakes established in this scene to interpret the poem's other lyric interludes" (93), namely the cantici Troili [songs of Troilus]. Since for Nelson, Chaucer views lyrics "less as isolated and totalized than as relational" (99), the "tactical forms and agents of Antigone's song" (107), especially its "use of proverbs," give "particular insight into how lyric tactics suggest a form of participatory negotiation" (104) that Nelson shows ultimately to be political as well as poetic (108).

Chapter 4 ("Form and Ethics in Handlyng Synne and the Legend of Good Women" [117-47]) considers the special "relationship between lyric and exemplum" in the fourteenth century, teasing out the implications of this relation "for medieval modes of ethical thought and practice" (118). Like Robert Mannyng of Brunne before him (whose compendium of narrative exempla dates to 1303), Geoffrey Chaucer, in his Legend of Good Women, "critiques exemplary ethics by means of lyric" (120). Both Mannyng and Chaucer "use lyric conventions," that is to say, "to challenge the accretive logic of an ethics based on exemplary forms," offering instead "an ethics that is non-linear, circumstantial, and improvisatory: in short, tactical" (118). The one form inherently critiques the other because "the presence of lyric within exemplum suspends [the latter's] drive toward closure" (119), replacing it with a tactical lyric practice that, thanks to its "formal and material fluidity" and "plural and flexible" nature, "can [better] respond to a subject's contingent circumstances" (119).

As my inability to resist delving deeply into the specifics of her claims should communicate, Ingrid Nelson's work is not only learned, convincing, and precise, but intense and absorbing. I look forward to seeing how other literary medievalists incorporate its implications into their own work on genre, materiality, performance, rhetoric--really, the list of subfield discourses that will need to take stock of Lyric Tactics goes on, despite the comparative efficiency of its undertaking (compared with those baggy, field-defining anthologies and field-surveys of yore). With lean and mean scholarship like this to help push the conversation, maybe it is not expecting too much, to hope that medieval lyric may once again command the major market share it once enjoyed.

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