18.06.05, Lawton, Voice in Later Medieval English Literature

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Adin Lears

The Medieval Review 18.06.05

Lawton, David. Voice in Later Medieval English Literature: Public Interiorities. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017. pp. 256. ISBN: 978-0-198-792-406 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Adin Lears
SUNY Oswego
adin.lears@oswego.edu

David Lawton's monograph, Voice in Later Medieval English Literature: Public Interiorities offers a "literary history of voice" (11), examining the ways that the subject of voice provides scholars with a variety of useful points of contact with literary works, both medieval and modern. Lawton explores a diverse array of interpretive angles related to voice, (broadly defined), including narrative voice, quotation and re-voicing, metrical and musical voice, and more. With its focus on the Middle Ages, this book addresses a crucial gap in sound studies, where histories of voice such as Steven Connor's Dumbstruck: A Cultural History of Ventriloquism have offered only glancing treatment of medieval sources, focusing instead on ancient and modern examples.

Lawton's contribution to medieval studies is also significant. He argues that medievalists might use the concept of voice as a "counterweight" (4) to the persistent critical emphasis on authority. Examining how medieval texts are compilations of various voices--those of prior authorities that are quoted or adapted or alluded to, as well as those of the medieval poets themselves--helps scholars to think through how authorship, and the authority that accompanies it, is distributed among both writers and readers. This argument, as Lawton acknowledges, owes a debt to Bakhtinian idea of "polyvocality." Lawton's contribution to Bakhtin's influential theory is the idea of "public interiorities": portions of text that have been internalized by a public before being re-voiced by a new author. Lawton suggestively asserts that it is through this dynamic that "an echo is transformed into a voice" (8). The polyvocal literariness of the voice--its potential for meaning(s)--is, for Lawton, its most valuable aspect. He writes: "Though they may seem elusive (and allusive, and illusory), the various potential qualities of voice help frame the uncertainty, the free play, that distinguishes literary discourse, and which it is our job as readers to respect, not to override or routinely disassemble (2)."

The book is structured as "a series of overlapping investigations--as concentric essays on the theme of voice and public interiorities" (11). Even as it does not aim to trace a linear narrative, it nevertheless offers a loose trajectory. The first half of the book lays out a conceptual framework for thinking through the idea of voice (chs. 1-2), then shifts to define the notion of "public interiority" and locate voice in relation to it (chs. 3-4). The second half of the book shifts toward literary history, examining the role of voice in authorial self-perception and self-presentation. Over the course of the book, Lawton offers an evocative and impressionistic series of studies of the voice in a range of late medieval writing by authors like Chaucer, Machaut, Kempe, Langland, Petrarch, Hoccleve, Lydgate, and others. In what follows I'll move chronologically through the book, highlighting what I took from each chapter before I return to speaking more broadly about how I see its place in the current landscape of medieval literary studies.

The book's introduction offers a useful overview of the interdependence of voice and text in several influential strands of literary theory. Lawton begins by outlining the terms of the major dispute about voice in the final decades of the twentieth century: Derrida's "protest against phonocentrism" (2), a critique of the Western tendency to align the spoken word with a kind of inner light or numinous presence that privileges the intention and subjectivity of a single author. Lawton deftly steers clear of this critical imbroglio with his aim to show how historically--including in the medieval religious tradition that is his focus--voice has been understood to be grounded somewhat paradoxically in writing. He goes on to review how this interplay of voice and writing has been an implicit presence in other strands of criticism, including New Criticism's treatment of tone and feminist interest in recovering women's voices.

Chapter one is a conceptual overview of the complex mechanisms of voice in medieval texts and the ways these textual dynamics offer a variety of avenues for scholars to think through questions of literary voice. The chapter begins by sketching treatments of voice in the writings of Paul the apostle, highlighting his construction of an authoritative voice that transcends space to unite an expanding Christendom. It then broadens to offer an overview of medieval definitions of voice, examining the place of vox in medieval theories of grammar and music in relation to the more contemporary theory of scholars like Paul Zumthor and Homi Bhabha. The final section of the chapter gives close readings of several moments in Chaucer's work--from his Boethian lyrics to his early dream poetry, to the Canterbury Tales--highlighting Chaucer's masterful literary play with voices as a means of underscoring the importance of fluidity and multiplicity of literary interpretation. This way of understanding medieval literary voice, Lawton asserts, locates a modernist impulse in the medieval.

Building from this treatment of medieval modernism, in chapter two Lawton identifies a "modernist Orphean aesthetic" (56) in Chaucer and Machaut. For Lawton, Chaucer and other medieval poets alight on the myth of Orpheus and "reinvent it as an aesthetic programme--of separation, fragmentation, and division held in suspension by the art, the over-voice, of the poet" (54). This unity in fragmentation gives the poet's voice a profound social effect: to offer itself to the public for interpretation.

In chapter three Lawton lays out his theory of public interiorities in detail. Much of the chapter works to define public interiorities through a medievalist revision of Jurgen Habermas's notion of the public sphere. Drawing on work by Brian Stock, Lawton argues that "interpretive communities" (68) constituted something like medieval "prototypes" (68) for Habermas's Enlightenment public sphere, which offers a context for understanding public interiorities or "communities of voice" (69). He goes on to examine how this notion helps to understand the idea of "common voice" so pervasive at the turn of the fifteenth century. In this he offers a useful corrective to scholarly treatments of voice that over-emphasize the speaking subject, noting "[t]he very notion of public interiorities shifts the focus to readers and to their social complicity in shared ideas" (78). This shift away from the wholly constituted speaking (and listening) subject allows Lawton to make what I take to be one of his most important contributions: his move to re-orient critical notions of "childish" literacy, which includes attention to inarticulacy and what he calls the "chthonic" voice (61,62, 76). Lawton works to revise scholarly readings of "infantilism, [and] meaningless repetition" (81) in Chaucer's Prioress's Tale as well as The Book of Margery Kempe arguing that "[w]e badly need a reading... in which 'childish' is not swept up into "infantile'" (82). He makes a powerful case for the validity and importance of the echoic or ventriloquial voice of lay prayer. While prayer voiced and revoiced might seem like "empty" repetition of words without attention to meaning, such ritual is what enables the laity to make the language of prayer their own. As Lawton reminds us, "[v]oice, like the vernacular, acquires its meaning slowly" (82).

Lawton again takes up the issue of lay voice in chapter four. The chapter argues that Archbishop Thomas Arundel's Constitutions show a suspicion toward the voice in writing, reading aloud, preaching, and teaching and that the effect of Arundel's censorship is evident in the ways that many writers in the fifteenth-century amplify and multiply the number of voices in their own poetry. The vernacular re-voicing of the Psalms are, again, a focal point for Lawton as he argues that fifteenth-century writers make use of the Psalms "to explore and extend vernacular voice" (95). By focusing on the voice in English vernacular writing of the fifteenth century, Lawton offers an alternative to the scholarly emphasis on the propaganda and oppression of the time, arguing that the fifteenth century produces some extraordinary achievements in the field of mixed voice, and does so consciously (101).

Chapter five examines the role of voice in confession, arguing that the act of confession rests on a crucial interplay of voice and memory. Drawing on Mary Carruthers's influential account of the creativity assigned to memory in medieval theories of cognition, Lawton argues that the dynamic interplay of voice and memory is a core element of what it means to be a poet in medieval literature. In making this point, Lawton highlights how the Confessions of Augustine are a crucial point of intellectual background for Langland's Piers Plowman, showing how both works emphasize the process of listening to an inner voice in conversation with the polyphonic clamor of voices in the world. With this, Lawton brings questions of voice into the ongoing critical conversations regarding the authorial persona of Piers Plowman and the poem's persistent interest in its own failures. Lawton seeks to articulate the differences between Augustine and Langland by reading Augustine next to Petrarch. He examines how Petrarch's Secretum pays extensive homage to Augustine, but ultimately diverges from his perspective by asserting, that "the will, or Petrarch's will, should or might hold back from asceticism (123). In this, Lawton (following others) reads a quintessential humanist gesture, which allows him to make the case for "a Renaissance humanist Langland" (123). Here, in my view, Lawton's treatment of Augustine leans a bit too hard on the saint's asceticism and ultimate emphasis on the spiritual over the worldly. Augustine is quite ambivalent about human existence in the world, in time, and in the body. We might consider passages in Confessions book ten, where Augustine reflects on the importance of vocal beauty in liturgical music; or indeed, we might be mindful of the dazzling sensory effects of Augustine's own voice as it is expressed in his prose. Ultimately Augustine sees the body--including the embodied expression and perception of voice--paradoxically, as a source of salvation as well as sin. To acknowledge Augustine's Renaissance humanism would be a striking orientational shift for scholars: one that fits Lawton's purpose in troubling the boundaries of periodization.

Chapter six extends Lawton's discussion of Piers Plowman to make the claim that scholarly attention to voice can enable a greater tolerance for interpretative difference and "open reading" (139). Lawton shows how Langland's personification allows him to turn a monologue--essentially the poet debating with himself--into a dialogue that allows for multiple perspectives and voices. For Lawton, current critical attention to authority in medieval studies works against acknowledging such openness. He turns to Lydgate as a virtuosic example of such polyvocality. In Lydgate, Lawton finds a poet who is "more, not less multivocal, than his precursors" (146).

Multiplicity and voice is again the focus of chapter seven, which argues that the overarching subject of the Canterbury Tales is voice. For Lawton, fragment V, which includes The Squire's Tale and The Franklin's Tale foregrounds questions of alterity through voice in a variety of ways. The narrative voice of The Squire's Tale draws from thirteenth and fourteenth-century accounts of friars traveling in Tartary, ultimately narrating a cultural translation that domesticates rather than emphasizes the foreignness of the Tartars. Similarly, with its Breton lay framework, The Franklin's Tale picks up this interest in alterity, "mak[ing] the point that the otherness at which readers will have been marveling once existed, though on a distant historical axis, much closer to home" (170). Lawton concludes the chapter by usefully highlighting the tension between the vocal multiplicity of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and its preoccupation with taming the voice--and circumscribing its meaning--expressed in pastoral rhetoric on sins of the tongue.

Chapter eight turns to examine how the interpretive potential of voice exists in relation to image. Lawton shows how Hoccleve's poetic deference to Chaucer builds a "portrait of Chaucer's voice" (194). He then moves on to the Hoccleve-adjacent fifteenth-century translation of Deguileville's Pilgrimage of the Soul, arguing that the images of these manuscripts behave like voice by presenting riddles to the reader: by "amplify[ing], not resolv[ing]" (200) the possibilities of interpretation. Lawton then turns to a different form of image--the drama of personification allegory--examining the socio-linguistic range of voices in Mankind. In his view, the vocal range in the play, from Latinate high style to bawdy vernacular, "reads like an allegorical image of vernacular poetry" (208). Thus, the play's commentary on the vernacular signals a parodic self-consciousness in "the spirit of modernity" (208), which has historically been overlooked because of prevailing critical aesthetics that demand an authenticity of voice.

As this overview suggests, one of the greatest strengths of this book is Lawton's persistent impulse to put pressure on periodization. His analysis contains frequent readings of modern authors like Proust and Wordsworth next to medieval poets like Chaucer and Langland, or the fin-du-siècle play César-Antichrist next to the medieval morality play Mankind. The most prominent manifestation of Lawton's impulse to trouble periodization (and perhaps the most significant for medieval literary historians) is to highlight the virtuosic contributions of literary voice by fifteenth-century poets, whose writing scholars have long dismissed as empty repetition of Chaucer.

Theoretically speaking, Lawton's treatment of voice also chimes with the recent turn toward the "posthuman" in medieval studies, especially work that has focused on the ways that voice has historically been a litmus of humanity and/or the rational subject. Several of Lawton's discussions lay the foundation for more work on this subject. His discussion of Paul's "imperfect univocity" (15)--an acknowledgment of sexual, cultural, and other differences--before "sweeping them impatiently aside" is one. So too are his treatments of the "chthonic" voice discussed above, and his account of the ways that feminine glossolalia was often juxtaposed and subordinated to male preaching. These moments strike me as places where theories of the posthuman might productively intersect with attention to the voice.

In this review I have tried to do justice to Lawton's imaginative and wide-ranging feat of scholarship with this book. As Lawton freely admits, voice resists being pinned down or defined, "for it is not a determinate order of signs like figures or tropes but a volatile series of suggestions or cues that move between theme and address, between text and reader" (2). This conceptual (and verbal and vocal) ambiguity comes through in some of Lawton's arguments, which occasionally leave an impression that 'voice' is a moving target. At times I found it difficult to follow the swirls and eddies of Lawton's own voice as he moved fluidly among conceptual, historical, and literary topics. But I enjoyed the experience. Overall, this book makes a convincing case for the vital importance of voice to literary history, even as it maintains the elusive strangeness and multiplicity inherent in the ways we understand voice. It is a pleasure to listen.

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