Poe’s “The Importance of the Single Effect in a Prose Tale”

Edgar Allan Poe was the champion of the short story form. As he outlines in his review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s work, the short story is the highest literary form a writer could aspire to:  “Were we called upon, however, to designate that class of composition which next to such a poem as we have suggested, should best fulfill the demands of high genius…we should unhesitatingly speak of the prose tale” (945).

Poe’s praise of the short story draws much on Aristotle’s idea of unity. Aristotle’s Poetics identifies three type of unities: action, time, and space. Summarizing, a story must focus on a single plot happening over the course of no more than 24 hours and be confined to a single space. For Poe, the short story best exemplifies Aristotle’s unities in the following ways:

  1. The short story cannot require more than an hour or two from the reader. If the reader has take a break from reading the story, the overall effect of unity is destroyed. As Poe writes, “But simple cessation in reading would, of itself, be sufficient to destroy the true unity. In the brief tale, however, the author is enabled to carry out the fullness of his intention” (945). The novel, in how long it takes to read, allows the world to intrude on our experience. We become distracted by our mundane lives and so lose the experience of the work as a whole.
  2. The short story writer has an extremely limited space to draw the reader into her story. Compared to the novelists, the short story writer must be skillful enough to ensure that every word, sentence has purpose: “If his very initial sentence tend not to the outbringing of this effect, then he failed in his first step” (946).

I think it is helpful to read Poe’s argument for the short story as the highest literary form in dialogue with Hemingway’s “Iceberg Theory.” Consider the effect that Hemingway was able to achieve by just presenting the brief conversation between the American and Jig in “Hills Like White Elephants.”

Exploring a Diseased Mind

What Poe does in arguing for the short story as being the highest literary form is gives us a lens to understand his own writing. That is, since Poe sees the significance to every word, sentence of a short story, then we as his  reader must unpack the importance of his own words.

So, let’s turn to “The Cask of Amontillado.” I am sure some of you are probably already familiar with the story: Montresor, the narrator, recounts his luring Fortuntato down to his ancestral crypt with the promise of tasting a very rare wine, Amontillado. In enacting his revenge for Fortunato’s having insulted him (more on this soon), Montresor chains his victim to a wall deep in the crypt and then walls him in.

While this may seem like a simple story, Poe presents some urgent questions:

  1. Why does Montresor not explicitly say what insult Fontunato had leveled against him? How does withholding this key piece of information perhaps influence the reader’s perspective of the narrator? Are we meant to become more disturbed by Montresor’s actions given that he does not present a rational motivation?
  2. The second sentence of the story has Montresor refer to his interlocutor: “You, who so well know the nature of my soul, will not suppose, however, that gave utterance to a threat.” Who is the “you” who is so close to Montresor’s heart – the reader? If so, does Montresor attempt to implicate the reader in the murder? Could it be that the horror of Montresor’s actions has caused him to distance himself from them? Is Montresor speaking to himself, driven mad with guilt? (This is a trope that Poe has explored before in “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Raven.”)
  3. Finally, Poe provides a twist at the end of Montresor’s confession (?) – his walling Fortunato up happened 50 years ago! Why recount the story now? Notice that Montresor can recollect such detail after 50 years. What does this say about the effect his actions have had on Montresor?

Poe may actually intend “The Cask” not be so much about the gruesome death Montresor had condemned Fortunato to but rather delving into the psychological effect living with his action has had on the murderer.

 

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“. . . he was a true poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it”

Readers of Paradise Lost have argued this perennial question of Milton’s problematic depiction of Satan. As William Blake so beautifully puts the pro-Satan reading, “Milton was of the Devil’s Party without knowing it.” In The Satanic Epic (2003) Neil Forsythe actually takes this reading, which was popular among such Romantic poets as Byron, Keats, and Percy and Mary Shelley, to another level, arguing that Milton fully intended Satan to be the hero of the poem.  (For those fans of Animal House, you’ll recall that Prof. Jennings [Donald Sutherland] suggests this reading to his class of undergrads, before confessing that he finds Milton to be as dull as they do. Blasphemy, I say!)

The best reading against seeing Milton as writing essentially a satanic epic comes from Stanley Fish’s Surprised by Sin (1967). Essentially Fish’s interpretations boils down to this: the poem lures the reader into admiring Satan only to yank the rug out from under in pointing out that this is only due to the reader’s own sinful state. Or as my friend, Bob Kilker, brilliantly summarized at a party: “The poem has you start to like the character only to say, ‘No, you idiot. He is Satan!’”

It is a shame, I suppose, this film wasn’t released three years ago, during Milton’s quadricentennial. Yes, the boy of Bread Street, nicknamed the “Lady of Christ’s College” by his classmates at Cambridge, turned 400 years young on December 9, 2008.

The “Onslaw Portrait”

To commemorate his birthday, numerous books were released, offering new perspectives of the poet who claimed to explain the ways of God to man. In anticipation of the quadricentennial, Laura Lunger Knoppers and Greg M. Semenza edited a collection of essays entitled, Milton in Pop Culture (2006). The topics range from examining PL’s influence on horror films to exploring Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials as a re-imagining of PL.

What I have found really interesting in looking back over the scholarly literature that has come out since then is how our generation looks at Milton. Two excellent biographies have been published since 2008, each giving complementing picture of the English Virgil. Anna Beer’s Milton: Poet, Pamphleteer, and Patriot (2008) situates Milton in the turbulent world of London during the English Civil War, Interregnum, and Restoration.  For Beer, Milton was first and foremost a denizen of London. Milton’s life really was contained to a just a few blocks. As Beer points out,

“Back in 1608, [Milton] had been born in Bread Street; his school, St. Paul’s, was his nearest grammar school, just a few yards from his home; even when he returned from the transformational journey to Italy, he only moved to lodgings in St. Bride’s Churchyard, at the other end of Fleet Street, less than a mile from Bread Street. His first children, and his first pamphlets, were produced in Aldersgate Street, north of St. Paul’s, also the home of the Simmonses, the printing family that had been so important to his writing.” (388)

Beer does touch on such issues as Milton’s complicated marriages (he was three times a husband) and his strained relationship with his daughters, Mary, Anne, and Deborah (while Milton essentially cut them out of his will, they did steal their blind father’s books to sell). However, the thrust of Beer’s biography is directed towards contextualizing in the 1640s pamphleteering and his position as propagandist to the Cromwellian government. Beer rightfully remarks that “John Milton almost single-handedly created the identity of the writer as political activist, of writing as a political vocation” (121). Milton found the times apt for his belief in the power of the writer. In 1642, Parliament abolished the Star Chamber, the state body that censored the presses.  For a piece writing to be published, the king had to grant the printer a license to do so. Now that this was no longer the case, London saw a flood of pamphlets, the modern day equivalent of the blog. This was Milton’s moment: he would go on to write pamphlets promoting ideas like divorce based on irreconcilable differences (The Doctrine and Disciple of Divorce [1643]), the moral necessity of the freedom of the press (Areopagtica [1644] ), and the right of the state to execute a monarch (Eikonoklastes [1649]). Eventually on March 20th, 1649, Milton took up the position of Sectary of Foreign Tongues in Cromwell’s regime, his responsibilities being translating the government’s correspondence and defending the government in print.

In John Milton: A Hero of Our Time (2009), David Hawkes focuses on Milton’s own belief that he was destined for greatness.

 Turning to Milton’s youthful poetry, Hawkes finds a young man essentially writing his own autobiography.  Particularly in “Ad Patrem,” Hawkes argues that the young Milton attempted to convince his father that the investment that he has made in John’s education will return many times over. (At 32 years old, Milton was still shiftless, living in his family’s home and visiting the books sellers at St. Paul’s. By this point, Milton had really only produced one memorable poem “Lycidas,” a eulogy to his dead Cambridge classmate, Edward King, and Comus, a masque performed at Ludlow Castle for the Earl of Bridgewater.) As Hawkes reads the autobiography that Milton constructs for himself, his intellectual legacy – his poems and prose – Milton had already foreseen. While lamenting that fact that “Milton is now read mostly by reluctant undergraduates and studied in detail by their tutors,” Hawkes adroitly demonstrates the relevance that Milton’s writings have for the modern rise of religious fundamentalism and the phenomenon of paperless currency (how money is rapidly losing its materiality and possessing an almost “magical” quality). For one considering delving into Milton’s bio, I would recommend these two biographies: where Beer gives us a Milton who is a product of his time, Hawkes allows Milton to speak to our own.

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John Milton and Thomas Hobbes on the Natural State of Humanity

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Let me set the stage for you -England had been embroiled in civil war for nine years, from the opening battle at Edge Hill in 1642 to the trial/execution of King Charles I in January, 1649.

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The country was divided between those who saw authority resting with the King – Royalists – and those who believed in a consensual form of government  – Parliamentarians; between those who adhered to the Episcopal Church and those who saw Anglicanism as still needing to be purged of it similarities to Roman Catholicism, referred to as Puritans ; and between the emerging mercantile class (Roundheads ), who saw a future in free commerce and the aristocracy, whose prosperity was tied up in their inherited land, (Cavaliers ).

I have to add a caveat here – in now way can a blog post do justice to history or politics of the English Civil Wars.  What I would like to give you in this blog post is a broad-brush-stroke summary of what your textbook refers to as the crisis of authority.

In the opening to his trial, King Charles I challenges the very authority of the court: “I would know by what power I am called hither.” Charles with this question spoke to the fundamental issue that led to the civil war – does the law rest with the Crown or come from Parliament’s authority? Politically, the Civil Wars were the collision of two distinct ways the English understood their government. The first can be referred to absolute monarchy . This political philosophy assigned all legal authority to the monarch, with Parliament existing to enact the Crown’s will. Here authority was top-down in nature. So, if the King is law, how can the King be placed trial?

Conversely, those who supported Parliament ascribed to a consensual government. From this political perspective, authority rests with Parliament, which represents the will of the people. (People = men who were of the Anglican Church and property owners.) The monarch’s authority is circumscribed by law that Parliament sets forth. Here then is a bottom-up model of authority.

Not to point to fine of a point on the tension between absolute monarchy and consensual government, but the question at the heart of this conflict is whether people are rational beings or animals that most be governed. This question over human nature can be seen by putting in dialogue two key political philosophers of this period – John Milton and Thomas Hobbes.

“No man who knows aught, can be so stupid to deny that all men naturally were born free…”

Following Charles I’s beheading, John Milton took on  key role in the new government as Secretary of Foreign Tongues. Milton was responsible for defending Parliament’s execution of the King to the rest of Europe. The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (1649) sets out Milton’s justification in claiming that the role of kings was not to oppress their subjects with their will but to serve as deputies, maintaining justice. As he writes, “And to him that shall consider well why among free persons, one man by civil right should bear authority and jurisdiction over another, no other end or reason can be imaginable.” Milton hypothesizes that society is based on rational individuals agreeing to empower a person, the king, to ensure all are held up to the law: “It being thus manifest that the power of kings and magistrates is nothing else but what is only derivative, transferred and committed to them in trust from the people.” However, if the king attempts to place himself beyond the law, then those who gave him authority have themselves the authority to execute him. The law exists above the king. Tyranny, for Milton, comes when a king the places himself  above the law.

“And because the condition of man…is a condition of war of every one against every one”

Thomas Hobbes argues a different beginning point for society. In Leviathan (1651), Hobbes lays the foundation for his political theory on the basis that people outside of society will be in a constant state of war with each other. Here without some authority to keep everyone in check we will devolve into a war of all against all. Further, Hobbes suggests that even during those brief periods when one is not actively fighting another we live with the insecurity of being threatened by another:

Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of war, where every man is enemy to every man, the same is consequent to the time wherein men live without other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them withal.

In other words, peace can never exists in Hobbes’ natural state of humanity.

Now to understand how we escape such a condition, two terms are critical to know. First is what Hobbes refers to as our Right of Nature – the power given to us to do all in our power to achieve whatever ends we so desire. Within in Hobbes’ natural state, I have every right to take all my neighbor has. Conversely, my neighbor has no natural impediment to taking all I have. Even though at one moment we may not be attempting to take away from each other, the threat of either doing is always present. Without peace, agriculture, learning, architecture, art, relationships, economy – the basic building blocks of society cannot exist.

To escape this state of war, Hobbes sees only one way. The second critical term in Hobbes’ political philosophy is Liberty. Please understand he defines liberty much differently than we may. For Hobbes, Liberty is what we achieve when we forego our natural right to do all in our power to fulfill our desires. Doing so allows us all to pursue other ends and lead a more social life and reap the benefits. This agreement is Hobbes’ social contract.

Finally, and most importantly, to secure this peace all people in society must “confer all their power and strength upon one man… to submit their wills everyone to his will, and their judgment to his judgement.” The person Hobbes names the sovereign, whose word is the law.

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To return Charles I’s questioning of Parliaments’ right to try him, both Milton and Hobbes would answer this question in drastically opposing ways.

 

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Donne’s Unearthly Lovers

Let me start this blog off by proclaiming how much I love John Donne’s poetry.

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Beyond the beauty of his verse, his poems are just brilliantly intricate. He is able to take love poetry and turn it into an intellectual exercise. This quality of Donne’s poetry, his ability to explore an idea through multiple similes, has been referred to as his wit. One of the best examples of his wit comes through in his poem “Valediction: Forbidding Mourning”

The situation framing the poem is the speaker needing to depart from his beloved for a long period of time. The poem opens with a tableaux of a death bed, and the speaker pointing out how softly death comes:

As virtuous men pass mildly away,
   And whisper to their souls to go,
Whilst some of their sad friends do say
   The breath goes now, and some say, No:
So let us melt, and make no noise,
   No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move;
‘Twere profanation of our joys
   To tell the laity our love. (lns.1-8)

 

As softly as breathe leaves the dying body, the speaker tells his beloved so they must part. The speaker admonishes that if they were to grieve at their parting, they would then show their love to be of a lesser type, one that is carnal or predicated on their bodies:

Dull sublunary lovers’ love
   (Whose soul is sense) cannot admit
Absence, because it doth remove
   Those things which elemented it.
But we by a love so much refined,
   That our selves know not what it is,
Inter-assured of the mind,
   Care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss. (lns. 13-20)

The reference to “dull sublunary lovers’ love” whose soul is all sense are those lovers who are preoccupied with each other’s physical presence. (“Sublunary” here means those existing beneath the moon or earthly.) The type of love that the speaker and his beloved possess exists within their souls. Even going further, the speaker claims he and his beloved share the same soul. Donne’s concept of love here is grounded in the Neoplatonic theory of love.  Neoplatonists saw there being a hierarchy of love, with the love divorced from the body and existing in the mind as being highest form of love we could attain.

Then in the seventh stanza, the lovers become a compass.

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Each lover acts as a leg, with one circling the other, forming this image.

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The genius of this poem lies in how Donne connects all of the different conceits for the lovers. First, the lovers become the heavenly spheres encircling the earth. (Donne ascribed to a Ptolemaic, or Geocentric, cosmology.)

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Then the lovers are transformed into a compass, the one traveling around the other, creating the image above. But what about the image of the lovers as gold beaten into an airy thinness? Well, Donne does connect this metaphor of the lovers to the other two metaphors. Here’s the symbol of gold in alchemy:

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The important takeaway here regarding Donne’s poetry is that love is an intellectual experience, not one defined by the body.

 

 

 

 

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A Priest, a Maypole, and Paganism!

 

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If you are looking for a poet who celebrates sexuality, none can really top Robert Herrick (1591-1674).

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Despite being an Anglican priest, he wrote about giving up drinking and then falling back off the wagon (“His Farewell to Sack,” “The Welcome to Sack”), gawking at a woman from behind (“Upon Julia’s Clothes”), and wet dreams (“The Vine”). However, his poem that is most on my mind right now is “Corinna’s Gone A-Maying.” What Herrick describes is not as innocent as a group of children dancing around the Maypole.

The poem centers on the rites surrounding the first day of May, opening with the call to Corinna to come out a join the festivities. The poem calls on Corinna to dress and take no care for putting on jewelry for the May will deck her in signs of spring.

Get up, get up for shame, the Blooming Morne
Upon her wings presents the god unshorne.
                     See how Aurora throwes her faire
                     Fresh-quilted colours through the aire:
                     Get up, sweet-Slug-a-bed, and see
                     The Dew-bespangling Herbe and Tree. (1-6)

The poem goes on to describe how Corinna’s village has been transformed by spring into a verdant forest. Nature almost seems to reclaim the town with “each street a park/Made green and trimmed with trees; see how/ Devotion gives each house a bough/ Or branch” (lns. 30-33) What is fascinating is how the poem is how glorifies this pagan festival spring and pushes aside Christianity. Corinna is actually told to “be brief in praying” (ln. 27). (Again, this is an Anglican priest writing this poem!)

The fourth stanza presents the sexuality associate with going a-Maying. Young lovers have already become engaged Corinna has gotten out of bed.

And some have wept, and woo’d, and plighted Troth,
And chose their Priest, ere we can cast off sloth (lns. 49-50)

As you textbook glosses, the “green gown” has become so after rolling in the grass in amorous embrace. the final two lines of the stanza glimpses young lovers sneaking into each other’s rooms late at night.

Many a jest told of the Keyes betraying
This night, and Locks pickt, yet w’are not a Maying. (lns. 55-56)

Think the spring festivities Herrick describes as the modern-day equivalent to Burning Man.

Don’t think that the poem was simply just about a priest getting a young girl out for a quickie to celebrate May. You have to understand that Herrick was living through an incredibly turbulent period in English history, a time of the English Civil Wars.

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He was a cavalier , a person who drank, had random sex, led a hedonistic life, and wrote poetry celebrating all of it.

However, being a cavalier was a political choice in a way. In the first few decades of the 16th Century, the Puritans were gaining more power. Now, as I mentioned in an earlier post, the Puritans wanted to purify the English Church, hence get rid of anything that was not strictly mentioned in the Bible. While they had their sights mostly on the institution of bishops, there were other parts of English culture they wanted to get rid of, particularly the May festivals. (The May Festivals had been a significant aspect of English village culture. In 1617, James I’s government issued the Declaration of Sports, that listed May games as the activities that were permitted on Holy Days. His son Charles I reissued it in 1633. Some saw it as a way for Charles to gain control over those Puritan preachers, who resisted his attempts to stress uniformity within the Anglican Church.)Parliament, mainly controlled by the Puritan factions, actually banned May festivals and Christmas in 1644. Yes, the Puritans cancelled Christmas!

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(Their primary reasoning was two-fold: Christmas has the word “mass” in it [hence, Catholic – a religion the Puritans rejected] and is pagan at its roots, which it is.) Okay, back to Herrick. Well, in writing a poem celebrating a pagan fertility rite, especially what was endorsed by the Episcopal Church, Herrick was participating in a larger social, political, religious fight. Who knew that drinking and living a lascivious life could be so meaningful?

 

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Shakespeare’s Henry V – Creation of a National Hero

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Let’s start by pointing out that Henry V is the last play in Shakespeare’s second Henriad, the tetralogy of plays dealing with four monarch – Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI, and Richard III.  The second Henriad, which includes Richard II, Henry IV part 1 and 2, and Henry V, begins with the King Richard II’s being deposed by Henry Bolingbroke, who will become Henry IV, and is Henry V’s father. Now, Henry IV’s reign is marked by civil war. (Dethroning a sitting monarch does tend to have consequences.)

Hal, as Henry V is called before becoming king, first appears in the plays as a careless, reckless miscreant. He spends his time in taverns, befriending criminals and drunkards, the most famous of which is Sir John Falstaff. Known for his being enormously fat and quick-witted, Falstaff is the comic relief of the plays, always tempting Hal. Because of his adventures with Falstaff, Hal had gained a poor reputation. His misspent youth Henry V mentions in his response to the French ambassador:

And we understand him well,
How he comes o’er us with our wilder days,
Not measuring what use we made of them. (I.ii.416-18)

Eventually, Hal reconciles with his father, apologizing for days neglecting his duties as prince, and helps him to quell the rebellions throughout England. On April 9th, 1413, Hal ascends the throne as King Henry V. Much of the second Henriad, covering 1397-1422, has to deal with national unity. All of this is the history that leads up to the opening of Henry V.

“Turning th’ accomplishment of many years/Into an hourglass”

Shakespeare’s play takes as its subject matter Henry V’s campaign in north France in 1415, ending in 1420 with his marriage and the Treaty of Troyes and foreshadowing his death in 1422 at the age of 35 .

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The play opens with  the Chorus explaining what Shakespeare and his fellow actors are attempting to do – retelling this history through a play. However, the Chorus points out how unfit the theater is for such a monumental task

But pardon, and gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: (Prologue, 9-12)

To help them bring Henry V back to life on their stage, the Chorus asks the audience to cloth them with their imaginations:

O, pardon! since a crooked figure may
Attest in little place a million;
And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,
On your imaginary forces work.
Suppose within the girdle of these walls
Are now confined two mighty monarchies,
Whose high upreared and abutting fronts
The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder:
Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts;
Into a thousand parts divide on man,
And make imaginary puissance;
Think when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i’ the receiving earth; (Prologue, 16-28)

You have to understand that the Renaissance stage was bare-bones – not much in the way of scenery. Shakespeare’s language had to paint the scene in his audience’s mind.

“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers”

What audiences almost always remember about Henry V are his two monologues urging his troops on into battle. The first of these happens at the beginning of Act III at the besiege of Harfleur. His troops, having been beaten back, Henry rallies to charge again:

On, on, you noblest English.
Whose blood is fet from fathers of war-proof!
Fathers that, like so many Alexanders, 1
Have in these parts from morn till even fought
And sheathed their swords for lack of argument:
Dishonour not your mothers; now attest
That those whom you call’d fathers did beget you.(III.i.17-23)

And you, good yeoman,
Whose limbs were made in England, show us here
The mettle of your pasture; let us swear
That you are worth your breeding; which I doubt not;(III.i.25-28)

Notice how he seeks to inspire his troops, by appealing to their sense of national identity, their English-ness.

Again, Henry takes a similar tactic in his monologue in Act IV, famously known as his St. Crispin’s Day speech (IV.iii.18-67), on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt. To set the context for this speech, the English vastly outnumbered by the French, starving, sickness-ridden, and in despair. Even Henry’s commanders see no hope and wishing for those men in England who did not come on the campaign.

In response to his troops loss of heart is to argue that the fewer here will be even more remember for this battle. That all of these men, nobles and commons from all throughout the English kingdom (England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland) , will be united by their part in this battle. That through their shared experience, they will become brothers with each other

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.()

So, Shakespeare’s distinguishes Henry V’s leadership/ bond with his troops in two ways – through his appeal to their shared identity as Englishmen and through their experience as soldiers, which overcomes all divides.  (Take note to how Shakespeare introduces characters who are ruffians, who are Welsh, Scottish, and Irish.)

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that Shakespeare’s portrayal of Henry V is one-dimensional, or unequivocal. Throughout the play, Henry threatens or commits acts that are morally questionable at best. Consider his deceiving the traitors (Scroop, Cambridge and Grey) into their death; the hanging of Bardolph, a friend from his youth; his threats to the mayor of Harfleur; his speech absolving himself of his soldiers’ death in battle; and his having his soldiers slay their prisoners. Shakespeare’s nuanced depiction of Henry V is what elevates the play beyond jingoism.

 

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Marie de France

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Marie de France was a 12th Century author who wrote between roughly 1160 and 1215 and is consider the pinnacle of Anglo-Norman literature. We know so little about her life that scholars aren’t quite sure which Marie she is. We know she was French, as her most famous works were written in a dialect of French spoken in Paris at the time. As her works have been found most commonly scattered throughout England, we can assume she most likely lived there as an adult. She attained a high level of education, being both literate and multilingual; based on those facts we can presume she was a fairly prominent figure, potentially an abbess or Henry II’s half-sister. Her works were widely popular throughout England and well known at the court of Henry II.

Having a French author writing in French while living in England would have been a commonplace occurrence in 12th Century England. In 1066, a leader named William the Conqueror (the Duke of Normandy in what is now Northern France) led an army to England and conquered the realm. The invaders installed themselves as the new nobility, with William as King of England, and made the English their servants. French became the language of the nobility in England for centuries after. 

Marie’s most famous work is a series of poems known as the “Lais of Marie de France.” Lais were a form of poetry often used by travelling Breton minstrels. Marie took the form and made it her own, being the first to use the lai for narrative poetry. Her stories are one of the best examples we have of the courtly love tradition, filled with love triangles, adultery, loss, adventure – even, at times, fairies. Marie skirts reality, with strong elements of Celtic folklore woven throughout. Her settings are fully realistic, but her characters are sometimes more supernatural. One lai, Bisclavret, even features a werewolf as a protagonist.

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Courtly love is one of the biggest traditions in medieval European literature. The typical structure of a courtly love story involves a knight seeing a lady at court and then pursuing ever greater feats in an attempt to win her affections. In general, the love the knight feels is ennobling: it causes him to go on adventures, risk life and limb, and generally do what he can to improve his reputation, his position at court, and (usually) the kingdom. The lady typically acts as catalyst for the knight’s actions but has little else to do. The relationships themselves are typically unconsummated.

In Marie’s lais, however, courtly love is a bit more active. Women have a much stronger role. Women in some of her tales are adulterous, usually seeking to get some space from a forced marriage to an abuser or a much older man. Even in the best cases, however, love causes the lovers to suffer. There are very rarely any happy relationships in the way we would think of them today. In Marie’s world, lovers can be loyal to each other, but they will suffer, sometimes die, for that love.

 

 

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Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales

Frame Story:

Chaucer sets up his collection of stories as his chance meeting in tavern Southwark, where in he encounters 29 pilgrims on their way to Canterbury and the shrine to St. Thomas a Beckett, the Archbishop Canterbury (1163-1170) murdered on the orders of King Henry II.

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The catalyst that starts the tales is the barkeep, Barry Bailey, proposing that to occupy their time on they way to Canterbury that each pilgrim tell four tales, two on the way to and two on the way back, and he will choose the best tale. In total, The Canterbury Tales by design should contain 120 tales. However, since Chaucer never finished his master piece, the text that we have is fragmentary and incomplete.

Chaucer was not the first to write such a collection of stories. The literary tradition of an author setting up a bunch of stories by having a series of characters have a story-telling contest started with Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron ( pub. 1353), which may very well have inspired Chaucer to write The Canterbury Tales.

Now, the structure of The Canterbury Tales has each pilgrim introduced with prologue, where she or he comments on the prior tale told, and a tale reflective of themselves. For example, The Canterbury Tales opens with the Knight, the highest in social ranking among the pilgrims, telling of Palamon and Arcites, two imprison knights and cousins, who have fallen in love with the same woman, Emelye. The Knight’s Tale is a romance in the courtly love tradition.

What’s important to understand is that the pilgrims’ tales are all different types of stories. The Canterbury Tales contains fabliaux, parables, fables, and romances. The Canterbury Tales does have consistent order or unifying theme to it. Rather, it is chaotic with each tale being determined by the teller.

The Miller’s Tale

Image result for canterbury tales characters millerChaucer sets up the Miller’s Tale in an interesting way – by actually apologizing for having to retell it. In the prologue to his tale, the Miller drunkenly claims that he must “requite” the knight for his tale and claims that he will tell a ribald tale of cuckoldry involving a carpenter, his wife, and their lodger Nicholas, a lustful clerk. Already, Chaucer is setting up how different of a tale the Miller will tell. The Knight, characteristically, offers a tale of courtly romance. On the other hand, the Miller is going to give to us a fabliau, a story that centers on the common folk and the hijinks of illicit sex.

One of the best ways I have ever heard to define a fabliau was as a long extended dirty joke. The genre, originating in France in the 12th-century, deals with a wife cheating on her husband or a young man tricking an unsuspecting young woman into having sex. In many fabliaux, the husband or father-figure will come off as naive and fall prey to a more cunning wife or her lover. A fabliau will contain references to bodily humor and crude language. To that end, the fabliau is more authentic in its depiction of everyday life, which may explain why it was so popular. One could make the argument that fabliaux through humor undercut or defuse the male anxiety of being cuckolded.

One question that readers of The Canterbury Tales have to contend with is why would Chaucer have the Knight’s Tales followed by that of the Miller.

The Wife of Bath

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From her introduction in the General Prologue (lns. 447-478), the Wife of Bath, or Allison, stands out among the pilgrims. First, she is the only one not identified through a profession or clerical position. She is more traveled than most of the other pilgrims, for she has been to Jerusalem three times, Rome, Bologna and Cologne. (Also, take note to how she is journeying alone.) She is described much through much of her sexual life – her having five husbands and “Withouten other compaignye in youthe.” While modern readers may understand may see the Wife of Bath as anticipating the modern empowered woman, Chaucer is responding to a contemporary debate on the spiritual merit of marriage.

Your textbook (pg. 282) refers to St. Jerome’s treatise on marriage (circa 393 CE), in which he condemns marriage as lower spiritual life than virginity. He writes: “My reply is, just because we have such organs below our waist and have the desire to use them in intercourse, that does not mean we are required to use them all the time, or that we cannot choose a higher way of life than engaging in the activities that join us to the animals.” Jerome goes on to argue that wives are needy both sexually and materialistically and trick their husbands into marriage by appearing to be someone they are not.  In her Prologue, the Wife of Bath responds to in general this condemnation of marriage and women. Her argument is that while whose who rail against marriage do so on just bookish authority, she has her own experience to support her claim we were made to “engendure.”

The tale Alisoun tells takes the form of an Arthurian quest. Her story is of knight who having committed rape has a year to find the answer to the question of what all women most desire. Failing this quest would mean the knight’s life. As the time to find an answer draws near, he meets an old, poor woman who claims to know the answer to his quest. Upon returning to the court, the knight gives his answer that what all women most desire is to have sovereignty over their husbands. In recompense for her helping the knight, she demands that he marries her, which he is forced to do. The tale resolves on the knight deciding what type of wife he wants.

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The Fall and Rise of English in England

The Norman Invasion

Last week we explored the earliest form of our language, that of the Anglo-Saxons. Now we are moving ahead to the next period in the development of our language, known as Middle English, and this period starts in 1066 with William the Conqueror.

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The Anglo-Saxons were not a unified people but were rather a bunch of tribes constantly fighting among themselves. Not until William, the Conqueror did what we know as England today have a ruling monarch. William’s conquest of the Anglo-Saxons culminated in the Battle of Hasting in 1066. Through his reign, William brought stability to England, albeit through subjugation of the Anglo-Saxons.

Connecting this back to the history the English language, it is important to remember that William was from Normandy and would have spoken an older form of French.

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English becomes the peasant language

With William’s conquest, French became the language spoken by the ruling class. For the next two centuries, the monarchs and French would have been the language of the nobility.  English, on the other hand, was the language spoken by the peasantry, the majority of the population. You can see this class distinction in English today. Consider the words chicken vs. poultry, cow vs. beef, or pig vs. pork. Notice how the word for the food from the animal is French, while the name of the animal is derived from Old English.

While the monarchs for the next three centuries would identify as French, the Anglo-Normans gradually became culturally distinct and intermarried with the Anglo-Saxon population. In 1204, King John of England, brother to King Richard the Lionheart and the one depicted as the villain in the Robin hood tales, lost the English monarchy’s hold on Normandy. Eventually from 1337 to 1453, England participated in an intermittent war with France to regain their control of Normandy, known as the Hundred Years War. (We are actually going to read about part of the Hundred-Year War in Shakespeare’s Henry V.) By this point, the monarchs of England saw themselves as uniquely English.

It is as this point, roughly the 14th Century, English again becomes the predominant language spoken, although by this point it had changed quite a  lot. In how the language is spoken (phonology), how words are spelled (orthography), and what words exist in the language (lexicology),  English starts to resemble more what we speak today. Here’s sample from the opening lines of The Canterbury Tales by Geoffery Chaucer:

Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote

The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,

And bathed every veyne in swich licour

Of which vertu engendred is the flour,

Though the spelling may be slightly different, most modern-speakers of English can recognize many of the words. (“shoures”=”showers,” “droghte”=”draught,” “perced”=”pierced,” “swich”=”such,” and “licour”=”liquour.”) Also, take note to how these lines of poetry contain words that derive from both Old English (“droghte,” “swich,” “Whan,” and “soote”) and Old French (“engendered,” “veyne,” “licour,” and “perced”).  At this point, English took in many loan words from French.

Here’s how these lines of verse sound:

 

Three points I want to make about how Middle English was spoken. First, Middle English had many different dialects – the English of London was not pronounced the same as that in the Midlands. (Chaucer writers in a London dialect.) Also, the way vowels sounded is different than the way we say them today. For example, the “y” in “every” today has a long “e” sound, whereas in Middle English it had a long “a” sound.  Another example is in the pronunciation of “shoures,” Middle English for “showers.” Today we say the vowel in this word with the same sound as in “bow.” In Middle English, this word would have a vowel sound similar to the long “o” in “boot.” Historian of the English language refer to this change in how vowels sound as the Great Vowel Shift.

These opening lines to Geoffrey Chaucer’s General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales embody the English language’s evolution at this point.

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Meet the Anglo-Saxons

WHO ARE THE ANGLO-SAXONS?

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First, you must understand that England is a land that has been conquered many times over. The earliest culture to inhabit that island were the Celts, who first came to the British Isle during the Bronze Age. The Romans colonized the island and some of the Celtic tribes, with their rule lasting from 43 ca. to roughly the fifth century. The literature we begin the course with comes from the peoples who would push the Celts into the western parts of Britain, the Anglo-Saxons.

Christianizing of Pagan Warriors

The Anglo-Saxons were a Germanic peoples, coming from Saxony and Anglia, or modern-day Germany and Denmark.

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The Angle-Saxons brought with them an entirely different culture the native Celts, referred to by the Romans as the Britons. The Britons had readily adopted Roman civilization and, most importantly, Christianity. The Anglo-Saxons were pagans, which meant they did not have a conception of an afterlife. However, Christianity does make its way into Anglo-Saxon literature, which is mainly due to Anglo-Saxon being an oral culture. In 597, St. Augustine came to Kent as a missionary to Christianize the Anglo-Saxons.

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With the Christianizing of the Anglo-Saxons, much of their oral poems are written down by Benedictine monks. A fascinating aspect of Anglo-Saxon poetry is the integrating of Christian beliefs and Anglo-Saxon warrior ethic. (When defining the Anglo-Saxon Warrior ethic, the idea primarily focused on the pledge made by a lord’s retainer to defend and, if necessary, die in battle for his lord. This ethic valued violence, strength, and worldly exploits over passivity and spirituality.) The dream poem, “The Dream of the Rood,” shows this integration as the Rood, or the Cross, recounts Christ’s Crucifixion.

Further, with Anglo-Saxons came the first origins of the English Language, known as Old English. Here’s a sample of what Old English looks like:

Oft him anhaga           are gebideð

metudes miltse,           þeah þe he modcearig

geond lagulade            longe sceolde

hreran mid hondum    hrimcealde sæ

wadan wræclastas.      Wyrd bið ful aræd!

These are the opening lines to “The Wanderer,” which translates to “Often the solitary man finds grace for himself the mercy of the lord, although he, sorry-hearted, must for a long time row along the waterways, along the ice-cold sea, tread the paths of exile.” Also, here’s a Youtube clip of what this version of English may have sounded like:

If this language looks and sounds foreign appears, that is because the English Language has evolved so much over nearly 1400 years.

“longing for a hall    and a lord of rings” – The Comitatus

In surveying Anglo-Saxon culture, the social structure of the comitatus, the pledge of allegiance between the a thegn, or thane, and his warlord. The Anglo-Saxons were not united under one king but were really a bunch of competing tribes. These tribes were based on the loyalty between the thegn  and the warlord. John M. Hill outlines the tenets of this loyalty

between retainer and warlord, as especially enacted by the exchange of gifts for services and services for gifts; revenge obligation regarding injury or death, on behalf of kinsmen as well as for one’s lord; and fame-assuring battle courage, especially in a successful outcome – battlefield victory – seems impossible.

This symbol of loyalty between the thegn and the warlord appears as the warlord bestowing a ring to his thegn. (In the prologue to Beowulf, Hrothgar is noted for giving out rings to his warriors.) Now one of the worst acts a thegn could do was to betray his pledge, or be an oath-breaker. Doing so would make one an outcast with no home. (This sorrow of being without a lord comes through in “The Wanderer.” Here the speaker describes his “longing for a hall and a lord of rings” (ln. 25).) As you read “The Wanderer” and the excerpt from Beowulf, keep an eye out for how the importance of oaths being kept comes across. You could be nothing worse in the Anglo-Saxon culture than an “oath-breaker.”

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