Woolf on Chaucer (again)

Because it’s been bugging me ever since I read the essay Aruna told me about.

This example, for me, sums up what’s wrong with Woolf’s approach to Chaucer:

“But there is another and more important reason for the surprising brightness, the still effective merriment of the Canterbury Tales. Chaucer was a poet; but he never flinched from the life that was being lived at the moment before his eyes. A farmyard, with its straw, its dung, its cocks and its hens, is not (we have come to think) a poetic subject; poets seem either to rule out the farmyard entirely or to require that it shall be a farmyard in Thessaly and its pigs of mythological origin. But Chaucer says outright:

Three large sowes hadde she, and namo,
Three kyn, and eek a sheep that highte Malle;

or again,

A yard she hadde, enclosed al aboute
With stikkes, and a drye ditch with-oute.”

Now both of those quotes are from the beginning of the Nun’s Priest’s Tale. But the Nun’s Priest’s Tale is not the everyday story of farmyard folk, it’s a sophisticated piece of literary parody. It’s a fable told in the language of a medieval romance. The chickens are described in terms that would be more suited to Lancelot and Guinevere:

“His coomb was redder than the fyn coral,
And batailled, as it were a castel wal.
His byle was blak, and as the jeet it shoon,
Lyk asure were hise legges and his toon,
His nayles whiter than the lylye flour,
And lyk the burned gold was his colour.
This gentil cok hadde in his governaunce
Sevene hennes, for to doon al his plesaunce,
Whiche were hise sustres and his paramours,
And wonder lyk to hym as of colours;
Of whiche the faireste hewed on hir throte
Was cleped faire damoysele Pertelote.
Curteys she was, discreet, and debonaire
And compaignable, and bar hyrself so faire
Syn thilke day that she was seven nyght oold,
That trewely she hath the herte in hoold
Of Chauntecleer loken in every lith.”

It’s as inappropriate as a Beatrix Potter story retold as a gumshoe thriller. But that’s the point – it’s a joke. Chaucer describes Chaunticleer as though he were a great knight (comparing him to jet and coral and castle walls), and applies classic courtly love vocabulary to Pertelote (fairest, damsel, courteous, debonaire); but at the same time he reminds us that these are chickens –

“This gentle cock had under his rule seven hens, to provide all his delight, which were his sisters and his concubines”


“Courteous she was, discreet and gracious, and companionable, and bore herself so beautifully since that day she was seven nights old…”

Later on the chickens have arguments about dreams, prophecy and medicine, with reference to, amongst other things, Cato, Cenwulf, Scipio, the Book of Daniel, Croesus, the medieval theories of the bodily humours and astrology. In other words, all the panoply of medieval scholasticism; and again, putting it all into the beaks of chickens is a literary joke.

The bulk of the story is told at the level of the chickens – they are full characters in their own little world, as is normal in fables. But Chaucer frames the whole story with bits of description at the human level, in order to emphasise the joke by effectively pulling the camera out to reveal that these courtly lovers and scholars are indeed just chickens in the coop of an aging peasant woman. The first part of that framing, at the very beginning, is where Woolf gets her quote about the sheep called Malle. There’s another similar passage at the end where the fox has just caught Chanticleer and run off with him:

“This sely wydwe, and eek hir doghtres two,
Herden thise hennes crie, and maken wo,
And out at dores stirten they anon,
And seyn the fox toward the grove gon,
And bar upon his bak the cok away;
And cryden, “Out! Harrow and weylaway!
Ha! ha! The fox!” and after hym they ran,
And eek with staves many another man,
Ran Colle, oure dogge, and Talbot, and Gerland,
And Malkyn with a dystaf in hir hand,
Ran cow and calf, and eek the verray hogges,
So fered they fered for berkyng of the dogges,
And shoutyng of the men and wommen eeke,
They ronne so, hem thoughte hir herte breeke;
They yolleden as feends doon in helle,
The dokes cryden as men wolde hem quelle,
The gees for feere flowen over the trees,
Out of the hyve cam the swarm of bees,
So hydous was the noyse, a! benedicitee!
Certes, he Jakke Straw and his meynee
Ne made nevere shoutes half so shille,
Whan that they wolden any Flemyng kille,
As thilke day was maad upon the fox.
Of bras they broghten bemes and of box,
Of horn, of boon, in whiche they blewe and powped,
And therwithal they skriked and they howped,
It seemed as that hevene sholde falle!”

The lines quoted by Woolf are, in fact, comic counterpoint to the rest of the Tale. They’re not even representative of the poem they’re in, let alone Chaucer as a whole. In giving the name of the sheep, Chaucer was being deliberately banal for comic effect, because farmyards were no more regarded as a ‘poetic subject’ in the C14th than when Woolf was writing. More typical of the period would be Chaucer’s other great work (other than the Canterbury Tales, that is) – ‘Troilus and Criseyde’, a long chivalric poem about love and honour set in the Trojan War.

So how did Woolf misread the NPT so badly? Because, I would suggest, she had a completely narrow view of the Middle Ages. She seems to have completely bought into the Pre-Raphaelite/William Morris/Merrie England view of the period, which was always somewhere between a romanticisation and an outright lie. Because she has this idea that the period was one of simplicity and directness, she only sees half of what’s going on. Chaucer was, often, a very direct writer – but he could also be ironic, indirect, and nuanced. Much like Shakespeare, who sometimes did metaphysical speculation and sometimes did knob jokes.

  • Post category:Culture

Liverpool in Istanbul

Unbefuckinglievable. In the first half Milan looked so much better that it was hard to believe that the same two teams were playing in the second half. Surely Uefa are going to have to let Liverpool defend the title?

  • Post category:Other

‘Blood and Roses’, ‘Being in Being’, ‘Don Quixote’

some thoughts on Blood and Roses, Being in Being, and Don Quixote

I recently finished Don Quixote (the new Edith Grossman translation). I read about half of it in my teens, before getting sidetracked, and decided that the 400th anniversary was a good time to have another go at it.

DQ is a great idea for a character, and Sancho Panza has his moments as well, and it stands up pretty well for something written in 1605, but… to be honest, I found it repetitive and a bit tedious. It felt like the same joke over and over again, and the characters didn’t develop as much as they could have. It’s also, considering that it’s famous above all as character-based humour, very literary and very rooted in its period. I’m unfamiliar with the romances that it is parodying, and that distances the whole thing. I also found it odd that, in a book which pokes fun at someone for believing in the literal truth of an earlier literary tradition, there are pastoral episodes about nobles going off into the woods to live as shepherds which seem to be treated unironically. It’s a familiar literary convention, of course, from Shakespeare (As You Like It, I think), but I found it hard to tell whether the pastoral episodes really were unironic or if I was just missing the joke. Perhaps it’s better in Spanish.

Being in Being is one of the volumes of Robert Bringhurst’s translations of Haida oral poetry – in this case the collected works of Skaay of the Qquuna Qiighawaay (The Haida are the native inhabitants of Haida Gwaii – i.e. the Queen Charlotte Islands of the Pacific North-West). I find the poems generally quite intirguing, for their insight into the culture and the oddness (or differentness) of the literary conventions, but quite difficult to grapple with. The narrative logic of them wasn’t apparent to me, and even with Bringhurst’s notes and having read the introductory volume (A Story as Sharp as a Knife) I was aware of how much I was missing. I’m sure all sorts of details were supposed to carry some kind of significance that passed me by. There are all sorts of appealing aspects, though, like the way that the characters (most of whom are spirit beings) put on the skin of a person or animal to become that animal; or the way that, if an object is half blue-green and half reddish-brown, that means it will turn eveything upside down (literally or metaphorically) because those are the colours of the mallard, which up-ends to eat.

The stories are quite messy, structurally, very geographically rooted (many of the characters are the spirits attached to particular places in Haida Gwaii), and it seems, quite flexible according to who’s telling them and the occasion. I imagine that they give some idea of what the Greek myths would have been like when they were originally told, but we get them through the filter of hundreds of years of literacy and a couple of millennia of artistic response. As a result, not only do they tend to have a sheen of white marble about them, but they tend to be very tidy, canonical versions with very clear narrative logic. It may be that the assumption – that one early myth-telling tradition will be much like another – is a false one anyway. Perhaps the hunter-gatherers of the Peloponnese had a quite different way of telling stories.

One thing – after having watched Ray Mears making a birch-bark canoe from scratch on TV the other day, I did at least have a clearer idea of things like splitting cedar and tying things with spruce roots. Now if he could just make a program about fishing for halibut and hunting whales from a dug-out canoe using traditional tools.

Blood and Roses is a book I’m reading about the Paston family from Norfolk. They are famous in medievalist circles because a large selection of their personal correspondence has survived from the C15th. I have a copy of the selcted letters, but never got very far with it. Helen Castor has used them to produce a more conventional bit of history writing, supplying the context and helping you keep track of all the people (including the three different John Pastons). It’s still quite dry and repetitive – they spend most of their time up to their necks in legal disputes about land ownership – but once I got into it I found it quite involving. They were newly wealthy gentry; William P was a miller’s son made good as a successful lawyer, and the book mainly conerns his son and grandsons. So not exactly toilers in the fields, but still ‘ordinary people’ in that they weren’t important historical figures. It was the time of the Wars of the Roses, of course, and very turbulent. You do get a sense of how all of society – including the law – was tied into a system of patronage and influence, and that influence could be erratic, capricious, subject to political expedience, and corrupt. And of course, in a time of civil war, people could gain and lose influence extremely rapidly. And the Pastons were strong characters whose personalities emerge clearly from their letters.

  • Post category:Culture

categorizing poetry

Some of the po-bloggers have been wrangling the avant-garde again. And, more generally, the (un)usefulness of putting poems/poets into categories.

The Silliman avant garde / School of Quietude dichotomy is just annoying. For the loaded (insulting) terminology, but also because the more he and JC explore it, the more it sounds like a division based on personality type rather than poetics.

But leaving aside such intentionally provocative distinctions, all categories – by period, school, technique, or whatever – can distort history as well as helping us understand it. They exaggerate the similarities within a category and disguise those between categories. They also imply that those features which are typical of a category are also the important features.

For example, Modernism was typified in all the arts by, among other things, formal experimentation and a conscious break with old ways of doing things. But the fact that formal experimentation was typical of Modernism doesn’t mean that Modernism has any exclusive claim to it. There’s a tendency to want to take some earlier experimental writer – GM Hopkins, say, or Arthur Hugh Clough, or Melville – and try and claim them as a proto-modernist, as though their experimentation was itself evidence that they were some kind of precursor. But if Clough, why not Sterne? Milton? Shakespeare? Sir Thomas Wyatt?

It would be interesting to know if the established categories would be re-discovered if we started again from scratch. Let’s take Romanticism. It’s an uncontroversial category which is often seen as the most profound cultural shift since the Renaissance. But, as a thought experiment, if you took a clever but ignorant reader – an undergraduate, probably – and gave them lots of poetry from the mid-C17th to the mid 20th, without any notes, criticism or biographical information, just names and dates of poets and the poems they wrote, would they spot Romanticism? Would the pattern emerge from the data clearly without any need for extra context? Would they pick the same date for it happening? Clearly they would identify trends and shifts in fashion, but would they pick up on this radical discontinuity of thinking and aesthetics which we are told happened at the turn of the C18th/19th? Would it be clear to them that Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley and Keats formed a group, or would they emphasise a continuity that goes ‘Pope, Thomson, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Clare, Browning, Tennyson’ and draw a stronger connection from Blake to Shelley? With Byron lumped in with Ann Radcliffe and Monk Lewis, perhaps.

And is the ‘without context’ clause unfair? If so, why? I know it seems unfair to try and understand writers like Coleridge and Wordsworth without access to what they themselves said they were doing, and the people they said influenced them, but if the influence isn’t detectable in the finished poem, perhaps it’s a red herring.

My guess is that Romanticism would be spottable, though the details might come out slightly differently – but it would be an interesting experiment. And I think less important movements and groupings would turn out to be less distinct and more arbitrary than we appreciate.

  • Post category:Culture

the election campaign

I think the general trend of the polls – a gradual improvement for Labour and the Lib-Dems at the expense of the Tories – has been interesting.

I suspect it’s that people are reacting to a month of seeing both Blair and Howard on TV all the time. There’s just no contest. I know a lot of pundits are saying that Blair is a liability this time, but he still comes across as more sincere, more likeable, and above all more competent than Michael Howard. And the Tory ‘do you trust Blair?’ strategy has backfired, because people have looked at both of them and thought “actually, we may not trust him as much as we used to, but we certainly trust him more than you“.

Blair is just so much more mediatic (as Florentino P

  • Post category:Other

the difference between reptiles and amphibians

[EDIT: People keep finding this site by Googling ‘the difference between reptiles and amphibians’ This is the basic answer:

Amphibians are frogs, toads, newts, salamanders and caecilians.

Reptiles are snakes, tortoises, turtles, lizards, crocodiles, alligators and a few other oddities. Dinosaurs were reptiles.

Reptiles are more fully adapted to life on land than amphibians. The biggest difference is that amphibians typically need to return to the water to breed, because their eggs need to be kept wet. Reptile eggs have a tough outer shell that prevents them from drying up.

Amphibians [with a few minor exceptions] have a larval stage (i.e. tadpoles/polliwogs) when they breathe underwater through gills; when they become adult, they develop lungs and need to come to the air to breathe. Reptiles have lungs from the moment they leave the egg.

As a further adaptation to life on land, reptiles have scales. Amphibians have smooth skins, and many species need a fairly damp environment so they don’t lose too much water through their skin, although some are adapted to much dryer conditions.

Mammals and birds are evolved from reptiles. Reptiles are evolved from amphibians. correction: amphibians and reptiles evolved separately from an early tetrapod ancestor. Amphibians are evolved from fish.

I hope that helps, Google-people. END OF EDIT]

The first in an occasional series of things which are ‘Something Every Educated Person Should Know’.

When I was at university, as someone interested in science but doing a degree in English, I was frequently annoyed by the wilful ignorance of both academics and students on scientific topics. And I mean wilful – they took a coy, self-deprecating pride in not knowing about ‘those kind of things’. I just think there’s no excuse for taking pride in your ignorance about anything, whether it’s the Britney Spears back-catalogue, Slovakian dialling codes or the second law of thermodynamics.

Anyway, that’s when I started fantasising about writing a book called What Every Educated Person Should Know, which would just lay down the minimum that anyone ought to know who thinks of themselves as educated. Most of the things I thought of then were scientific; I can’t believe it doesn’t bother people that their understanding of how the universe works is often three hundred years out of date. But it would also cover literature, art, geography, politics and general knowledge of all kinds (I don’t claim to know everything, btw – a musician’s list of SEEPSKs would certainly catch me out – this is just a venue for my irritability).

So, SEEPSK #1. One of the presenters on Today this morning had to correct himself after a flood of emails about his reference to a salamander as a reptile. I think it was Edward Stourton, educated at Ampleforth and Trinity College Cambridge, and the man doesn’t know a reptile from an amphibian. Aargh!

Ivory-billed Woodpecker

I didn’t blog this last week, but before it gets any further into the past – how fabulous that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker is still with us. It brightened my morning more than any piece of news I can remember for a long time. And I’m not even American, I just know about the IBW from my US bird guide. Short of them finding a previously unknown colony of Slender-billed Curlews, Great Auks or Moas, it’s hard to imagine a more cheerful thing. So hurrah.

  • Post category:Nature

dreadful tories

The Tories are being unbelievably crap.

In the days Before Blair, I probably would have been a natural soft Tory, if I was old enough to vote. I voted for the first time in 1997. I probably would have voted Labour whoever the leader was, because the Conservative party had completely self-destructed at that point, but Blair taking Labour to the right certainly made it easier.

But if you’d told me then that by 2005, the Tories would still be in such a state that I wouldn’t even consider voting for them, I’m not sure I would have believed you. Picking Hague was daft*, and picking IDS was so suicidal that even Michael Howard, one of the most unpopular politicians of the past 20 years, looked like an improvement. But Howard has looked incredibly awkward and artificial during the campaign. He might almost have done better to be the old nasty Howard rather than trying to present himself as soft and fluffy – at least that way he had some presence.

And the policies! What kind of party, choosing only five priorities for a campaign, includes school discipline and cleaner hospitals? Yes those things are important, but they’re not exactly a visionary manifesto for a new national government. And then there’s the paranoid yammering about immigration, which just serves to alienate people like me, and reinforce the party’s extremist image. And the final two issues – more police and lower taxes – aren’t exactly staggeringly insightful either. The whole package just shouts out nasty-minded paranoia, band-wagon jumping, and knee-jerk bar-room politics. And if I wanted that I could vote for Veritas. Or Respect.

Of course it’s normal for the Tories to be to the right of the Labour party. But a mainstream politic party has to have a foothold in the centre, for people like me. Democracy is no fun if the choice offered isn’t a genuine one.


*I actually think William Hague has a good chance of being PM some time a few years hence and doing a good job of it, but it was a stupid decision at the time.

  • Post category:Other

post-match analysis

Thankfully, without Alan Hansen telling me my linebreaks are diabolical.

Overall, I’m pretty pleased. I copped out and wrote chaff – limericks, haiku, doggerel, whatever – more than I wanted (six or seven times, in fact). But there were several things I produced which I actually liked. The bathyscaphe sonnet and the Essex poem probably stand out as the ones which feel most successful.

Other than just producing some poetry, I had two main aims going into this – to write some formal poetry, including at least one sonnet, and to try and stretch myself stylistically. Both were only semi-successful. I did write four formal poems, even discounting the double dactyls and so on, including what I think is my first ever Italian sonnet. But I didn’t exactly produce reams of good formal poetry. I had to wrestle for hours to produce two eight-line poems (House and Crow), both of which I would have liked to be longer but just ground to a halt. ‘long is the albatross…’ is quite successful, but technically a fiddle. Only the sonnet was really pleasing.

On the stylistic side, I think that the exercise of trying to write something differently from usual was valuable, but I never felt I made any kind of mental breakthrough; it felt very artificial (which it was, of course) and the results turned out to be either less different than I intended, or just not very good.

I think the most interesting aspect of the whole exercise is the way it gives you an insight into your own work. The need to take the line of least resistance to produce a poem in time means it becomes very clear what you find easy and what you find difficult. You also find shortcuts – ways to produce something quickly which is superficially effective but perhaps not what you really would have wanted to do if you had more time. For example, I wrote several poems (the albatross one, This Poem is Not a Pipe, and the foody one) which are basically lists of separate images, rather than an attempt to evoke a place or scene. That’s what I meant when I said the albatross one was a bit of a fiddle – it makes finding rhymes a lot easier if the images don’t have to be related. I also found myself resorting to bits of phrasing or rhetorical flourishes chosen because they sounded good, rather than because they were what I really think is ‘true’. The clearest example is This Poem is Not a Pipe, which hints at some kind of metaphysical profundity or metaphor or symbolism. Actually, it’s just phrase-making. I came up with a kind of post-facto justification to do with the Magritte reference in the title, but when I was writing it, I was just picking things which sounded good.

So what have I learnt about my own poetry? Well, on the positive side, I find concision and clarity quite easy. I’m pretty happy about my use of sound, as well, and I was pleased by the number of strong images I came up with. And I was intrigued by the emergence of a voice in some of the poems which is lighter, more collquial, less sonically and syntactically dense than my work tends to be but still felt quite controlled and effective. I’m thinking mainly of the Essex poem, the gas poem, and Poetry in Motion. I wouldn’t want to write all my poems like that, but having produced them basically because of time pressure, I can see some virtues to them.

Negatives – people are really hard. There’s a great temptation to produce poems full of things instead, but real poetry is about people, and people are hard. Have I ever written a poem which features people interacting in a fully realised place? I can’t think of one. The Whistler poem was an attempt to do something of the sort, but even though W’s wife was unconscious on the sofa, it still felt like wrestling mud trying to write it.

More generally, nice though clarity and concision are, there are times when I would like to be able to do something more ambiguous, more stream-of-consciousness. I find that very difficult. In fact I find it difficult just breaking out of the habit of conventional grammar in a productive way.

I also notice a lack of metaphor in my work, in a line-by-line descriptive sense. And while I think that metaphor is overrated as a poetic technique by beginners, and good clear literal description is often better, a really good metaphor is a thing of beauty, and perhaps I need to consciously reach for them more often.

And I tend to produce a moment in time, then stop. The challenge would be something more narrative, or just longer – although napowrimo may not be the best time to try that.

I should probably avoid drawing too many detailed conclusions on the basis of a rather artificial situation, but I did find it interesting.

  • Post category:Napowrimo

#30 – ‘Inspiration’


In the garden
playing Mario vs. Donkey Kong
I became aware the bee-hum
was louder, harder, more urgent
I could feel it in my teeth
and I looked up to see the sky
was thick with noise and swirling,
but before I got into the house
the swarm passed.

  • Post category:Napowrimo