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22.10.06 Perry/Arn (eds.), Charles d’Orléans’ English Aesthetic

22.10.06 Perry/Arn (eds.), Charles d’Orléans’ English Aesthetic

Charles d’Orléans was born in 1394, replaced his murdered father as Duke of Orléans in 1407, found himself captured at Agincourt in 1415, and spent the next quarter-century in English captivity. Agincourt gave England a number of prominent captives, but for literary criticism a bilingual textual legacy marks Charles out. He wrote fine verse in French, and scholarship has also persuasively attributed to him the Middle English poems gathered in one British Library manuscript, poems now collectively known as Fortunes Stabilnes (henceforth FS). In English studies specifically, this attribution makes Charles an early example of a named exophonic poet. In teaching on premodern lyric within and beyond Europe, students respond to his work with enthusiasm: his French and English verse sequences offer chances to read form and image closely, but also to range across sustained writing and to examine related poems in two tongues.

Charles d’Orléans’ English Aesthetic therefore finds an enthusiastic welcome on the bookshelf. As the title’s terms suggest, the collection focuses on FS, and its essays pursue language, form, and structure, though not without judicious care for Charles’s history and his French writing. The chapters advance research and provide tools and positions for future work. The collection should interest anyone working on form, lyric, or French-English cultural interfaces in the period.

The book begins with a piece by the late J. A. Burrow, exploring the large-scale structure of FS. Burrow highlights the sequence’s use of two parallel dreams to create a balanced structure, and locates moments when Charles might deliberately recall Gower (25-26) and Chaucer (28). Two chapters focusing on fixed forms follow. Elizaveta Strakhov examines Charles’s ballades. His eighty-one English ballades with French equivalents match those equivalents closely in stanza lengths, numbers of stanzas, and even rhyme schemes. Every English ballade with no French equivalent, however, uses one or another distinctly English stanza form, and a majority lack the total through-rhyme that characterizes French ballades. Strakhov newly brings out the remarkable formal precision and the strong sense of different formal traditions at play in Charles’s work. She goes on to cast light on the filiations of FS, linking it to Machaut’s Fonteinne amoureuse and Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess, to show how this formal sense might have developed from his grasp of literary background. Jenni Nuttall, meanwhile, examines Charles’s English roundels. She corrects and expands Rossell Hope Robbins’s past listing of English roundels, and anyone approaching the question of the Middle English roundel in future should consult her findings (83-91). She observes that few English roundels are known from poets other than Charles, and that most examples emerge from linked figures. This point recontextualizes the English roundel as a coterie phenomenon, allowing Nuttall to explore the feast metaphor with which Charles frames his roundel collection.

In a chapter that builds pleasingly on its predecessors, B. S. W. Barootes reads the first string of ballades in FS closely for the “work of mourning”. FS brings together traditions of narrative sequence and dream-vision which had developed in different directions on either side of the Channel; Barootes suggests that Charles differs from French precedents by having lyrics serve the overarching narrative, not vice versa, while also differing from English forerunners in his extensive use of fixed forms. Barootes does read a forward motion through the process or labor of mourning in the sequence, albeit one that is “parabolic or gyral” (120).

In the following chapter, Eric Weiskott explores Charles’s English metre. Some contemporary poets writing after Chaucer, such as Thomas Hoccleve, observed historical final -e in their meter, whether or not they used it in their normal speech. Charles did not. Weiskott adduces evidence that Charles eschewed final -e even in French-derived loanwords which certainly did have a metrically-significant final -e in his own French verse, suggesting that he had a consciously-chosen and distinct English metrical sound-system. Weiskott also argues that the five-beat line counted as more of an independent and deliberate choice in the fifteenth century’s first half than it might seem now, in retrospect, on the other side of several centuries during which five-beat lines stood as the assumed default: at the time, poets used five-beat English lines almost exclusively in the south-east.

Ad Putter takes the metrical torch forward, examining Charles’s English meter and idioms. Putter first outlines some of the salient differences between French and English prosodies with which Charles must have had to grapple, and the particular challenges of idiom acquisition in a second language learned in adulthood. Charles grasped that, unlike in French verse, English five-beat lines had flexible grammatical caesurae rather than predictable metrical ones; he also seems to have observed and adopted Chaucer’s precise use of headless lines and initial metrical inversion not merely for variation’s sake, but in coordination with particular grammatical and syntactical events. Charles’s English sometimes wavers a little, in ways typical of second-language writing, but his verse also often takes colloquial and highly idiomatic tacks, probably because he had an L2 speaker’s alertness to usages that went uninterrogated by first-language speakers. Putter expands and corrects past listings of earliest known usages found in Charles’s work, well showing how he offers a potential source of “things that medieval English people said, but did not write” (161). Charles left, for instance, the first known written evidence for the word eavesdropper and for the idiom to make light of.

Richard Ingham turns to Charles’s verbs, drawing on modern research into adult second language acquisition, evidence from the Middle English Dictionary, and English verse comparanda. Ingham shows that while Charles’s penchant for inverted verb groups mirrors practice among other Middle English poets, his struggles with precise subcategorizations of open-class verbs show not (or not just) the influence of French, but also problems also attested in modern studies of the challenges facing adult language-learners, further strengthening the case for Charles’s authorship. Ingham closes with some speculative but fruitful comments on possible insular French influence via the English that Charles encountered. Jeremy J. Smith, meanwhile, establishes that Charles’s overall English lexicon is narrower than, but in other ways similar to, those of Chaucer and Lydgate; points out the frequently figurative and imaginative uses of words in FS which have made it into the Oxford English Dictionary; and explores what, if anything, scholarship might determine about Charles’s spoken English voice, sifting through the layers of scribal language in the manuscript of FS.On this last point, Smith suggests that Charles had picked up flexible, diatopically varied items from time spent in different parts of the country, items which he perhaps ranged through deliberately to achieve rhyme, a task harder in English than in French. The chapter includes a summary of Charles’s presence in the Oxford English Dictionary in an appendix. These four chapters leave one greatly impressed by Charles’s prosodic skill and proficient grasp of literary Middle English. But Charles’s gift for and interest in language were conditions for his English poetry’s existence, so it should perhaps be no surprise that the poetry reveals these qualities.

Andrea Denny-Brown sustains the attention to Charles’s language, but tackles a different literary-critical question: aureation. Attending both to actual aureate lexis and to metadiscursive comments on language in Charles and in John Lydgate, Denny-Brown sketches a suggestive “agon” between the two. Lydgate, she finds, recommends Latinity to lovers and love poets in tandem with a redirection of devotion into orthodox Christian channels; the prominent love poet Charles, meanwhile, jokingly associates Latinity with unserious and flighty lovers. Each attitude answers the other, and the two poets moved in related circles; were Charles and Lydgate sometimes writing to or indeed at each other? The possibility remains unproven, but certainly intrigues.

The state of the manuscript evidence for Charles’s English writings receives a thorough, incisive survey from Simon Horobin. Mary-Jo Arn has previously examined the main surviving witness, London, British Library, MS Harley 682 (“H”) for similarities and connections to the main witness to Charles’s French verse, Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France, MS fr. 25458 (“O”). Horobin builds on this work by placing H and the fragmentary Oxford-Cambridge copy of Charles’s English poems alongside comparanda from southern English book production in the fifteenth century. Taken as a whole, his study tempers some of Arn’s past arguments for the closeness of H to O and to Charles himself: Horobin suggests that H’s style and grade might instead indicate commercial production for a broader, less- or non-aristocratic audience, hinting at wider circulation for Charles’s work, of the sort also enjoyed by Chaucer in the same period. Horobin’s chapter will serve as an important touchstone for whoever works on these fascinating books next.

To wrap the book up, Philip Knox tackles a question that hangs over the project as a whole: how coherent and unified is FS, anyway? Despite the phrase’s comforting Middle English orthography, and although it does come from Charles’s writing, the poems of H only took on the (editorial) title “Fortunes Stabilnes” in 1994. Tying the problem of the work’s unity to the problem of the unity of the speaking “I,” Knox surveys the relationships between FS and some generic concepts--autobiography, dit, sequence, montage--and then tracks the balance of linear and cyclical movements across the various sections of Charles’s English writing. In this part, the chapter pleasingly complements the chapters from Burrow and Barootes. In closing, Knox draws out a contrast between the overall effects of reading H and reading O: O, which as it goes on incorporates poetry by others, becomes a whole that captures a community or network, while H attempts a whole that might represent the lone, exiled self, yet is forever pointing outwards to the real network of others who interacted with Charles during his long English sojourn. At the book’s end, a selective bibliography of work on FS and on related French works from 2007 onward gives readers a useful snapshot of the field, and a springboard for further writing.

Though FS provides the core topic, the contributors work well across early French and early English, and attend carefully to cross-Channel currents. In the same breaths, though, they observe English and French specificities. Or, perhaps, regional specificities: thinking about Horobin’s account of the manuscript page and Weiskott’s remarks on the geographical specificity of the post-Chaucerian five-beat line, one might place Charles as a poet both more regional and more transnational than national (a characterization that perhaps applies to many premodern writings). Duke, captive, writer of amour courtois, atypical Francophone botherer with the tongue of a peripheral, insular place, Charles d’Orléans is not a point of contact with the ordinary, everyday, instructional-religious fifteenth-century Middle English verse-world. For that, we can turn to writers such as a rather different poem-sequencer, John Audelay. But Charles is a very good poet, and that is worth something, perhaps quite a lot.

Charles d’Orléans’ English Aesthetic enjoyably and usefully advances our knowledge. The book offers new findings and new arguments, but I have also seen ambitious undergraduates draw on it when working their way into Charles’s poetry. Instruction and research do not always join up so well; the editors and chapter authors should pat themselves on their backs.