Archive for February, 2010
1. Examine the Wife of Bath’s desire for “sovereignty”–autonomy over her self, her marriages, money, etc. What designs do you think Chaucer has on the reader in his depiction of the Wife of Bath? Is she supposed to be outrageously comical? What about her do you think provokes laughter? In other words, should we understand her desire for sovereignty as being funny?
2. Chaucer’s audience would have responded differently to the Wife of Bath than we do today. How might the way you respond to her differ from a fourteenth century audience? You may want to interpret how you think Chaucer’s audience would have responded to her. Within what different cultural contexts do you understand the Wife of Bath? Is there a way to reconcile the gap between a fourteenth century response to her and your own twenty first century perspective?
3. What does the Wife of Bath’s Tale say about her? How does it offer a perspective upon her character that her Prologue lacks? In what ways does her Tale serve as an example about her philosophy toward life at the same time as it offers surprises concerning her character? How does it perhaps offer a reflection upon her feeling in the Prologue when she claims “I have my world enough and time”?
4. Why do you think that the Pardoner is so upfront about the mechanics of his chicanery? If he wants to dupe the pilgrims into buying his phony pardons, why does he expose to them his sham? What might this say about the Pardoner’s character?
5. How is the tale that the Pardoner tells very effective in the context of his Prologue? Consider how his Tale is an exemplum, a sermon in which he uses a story to illustrate the moral. In his case, the moral is that greed is the root of all evil. Why would he deliver a Tale in the form of a sermon that preaches paradoxically against his own behavior? How does the sermon, therefore, serve the ends of his own greed?
Sir Philip Sidney: a nobleman, knight and poet. The Real Renaissance Man.
Sir Philip Sidney is one of the most important Renaissance poets of England. Because of his famous essay, “The Defense of Poesy,” Sidney is also perhaps one of the ten or so most famous authors in British history.
Importantly, Sidney is the one poet we will study who was of nobility. He was a knight in Queen Elizabeth’s court. An adventurous and thrill-seeking knight, he became famous for his involvement in battles and espionage. All of his life he sought heroic action, wanting to be in the thick of things, which made Queen Elizabeth cautious about him. So Sidney was a very well connected courtier, who knew about life of the court and such experiences as courtly love first-hand. Having access to University education, he also was very passionate about literature and learning, and encouraged such famous authors as Spenser.
But Sidney always wanted to be more than a man of letters, and his political and heroic ambitions would often get him in trouble. In 1580, his strong Protsestant convictions made him publicly oppose a projected marriage between Queen Elizabeth and a Catholic duke. The Queen, who loathed meddlers in her affairs, dismissed Sidney from her court. He spent most of the rest of his life retired at Wilton, a family estate overseen by his sister, Mary Herbert, countess of Pembroke, and also a person of letters who admired her brothers writing and literary acumen.
Sidney’s Death in Battle.
Sidney’s life, however, did not end with his nose in books. In 1585, he took up an offer from the queen to serve as governor of Flushing in the Netherlands, where as a knight-errant, he served in many skirmishes against Spain. In a battle in 1586, he was fatally wounded in the thigh after taking off his armor in some sort of chivalric gesture–for another knight? To show how brave he was? History is not sure. His death was a huge event in England, and his funeral almost stopped all activity in London. He was a hero almost of a romantic sort, a brave and adventurous knight, courtier, poet and thinker, he seemed to encapsulate what everyone believed were the virtues of the “Renaissance Man.”
The Sonnet Tradition
Although the sonnet as a poetic form evolved in thirteenth and fourteenth century Italy with poets like Petrarch, it became most famous as the dominant poetic tradition in sixteenth century Renaissance England. Poets like Sidney, Spenser and Shakespeare wrote well-crafted sonnets. But their sonnets were not just separate poems written here and there. They wrote their sonnets in cycles, a lifetime of sonnets combining to form a long narrative. Sonnet cycles were very long: Sidney’s has more than 100 sonnets. Shakespeare’s is 147 sonnets long.
The sonnet is a very crafted, and difficult structure. Generally, sonnets are all fourteen lines long, each line in imabic pentameter, and each poet using a particular rhyme scheme that remains consistant through the whole sonnet cycle. The ability to write so many excellent sonnets within such a strenuous structure made the sonnet cycle one of the major Renaissance triumphs. They were seen and admired with the same awe and respect as a symphony, or a cathedral. And it was even more admired in England as an example of their greatness, fostering cultural pride that begins to grow during this time when England is trying to edge forward as a super-power in the world.
Astrophil and Stella
Sidney’s sonnet cycle is Astrophil and Stella. It chronicle’s the poet, a knight named Astrophil, in the middle of an affair of courtly love with a Lady already taken, Stella. We hear the poets thoughts and see his experience as he suffers miserably in his futile attempt to win Stella’s love, a love he desires but a love he also knows he could never realize. So we get all of the mental arguments the Astrophil makes with himself, where he tries to justufy his love, or when he tries to bend the love he feels for Stella into something virtuous.In the end, we get a portrait of a poet in deep anguish, struggling with unrequited love like someone being slowly roasted over coals. Readers have debated for centuries as to whether the portrait of Astrophil is meant to be taken seriously, and that we should have pity for him, or if the portrait is ludicrous, and we are supposed to laugh at him and judge his emotions and actions.
Metaphor: the Heart of a Sonnet: Painting Pictures with Words.
Sidney himself defined metaphors in poems as ideas turned into pictures painted with words. This is a very apt description. When you read each sonnet, look at how Sidney (or any of the other sonneteers) uses a central image, or a couple of images, in each sonnet that he draws through it to its conclusion. Each sonnet is dominated by a scene, or an action, or an event that serves to illustrate a meaning or concept.
The title of the sonnet cycle creates an image that becomes a metaphor. Astrophil means “star gazer,” and Stella means “star.”
For instance, in Sonnet 1, we have the image of a poet with writer’s block, and his muse over his shoulder.
In Sonnet 2, we have the image of Cupid shooting his arrow, surrounded by other martial imagery.
Try to find an image, an action, event, whatever, that Sidney presents in a sonnet and how he uses it in his context, and how he draws it to a conclusion.
Astrophil: an Inner Voice as Figure of Inner Suffering
Although Sidney is writing 200 years before the Romantic revolution, he presents a very inward, self-absorbed narrator in Astrophil and Stella. We read the thoughts and the private emotional life of an individual. This was a pretty daring and new thing in literature. Up until the late 1700s, authors did not write about or express the feelings or inner-life of an individual. In fact, a literature of individuality and concerning the emotions and dreams of an individual would be considered either bad taste or lunacy. Up until the Romantic revolution, literature was not considered a private affair, written about private lives or the feelings of an author. Literature was written about community, nation or civilization, and dealt with the actions of humans within a social world. Usually when something in literature suggests privacy, or the interior workings, dreams or emotions of a character, it does so (like in Shakespeare) in a cautionary or prescriptive way.
The Centrality of REASON / PASSION
It may be hard for us to understand this, since we are essentially heirs of a Romantic revolution. But before the late 1700s, literature that focuses on the individual, or the thoughts and feelings of the author would be considered lunacy or a heresy of sorts. For centuries up through the Renaissance and into Neo-classicism, literature was in the shadow of ancient Greek mimetic and metaphysical notions that literature should and must reflect the healthy dominance of REASON over human PASSION. This strong and prevailing dichotomy in both literature and philosophy cannot be understated. Literature until the Romantic revolution subscribed to the belief that REASON must be in control and dominant over human PASSION. REASON means our ability to think clearly, to rationalize, to be judicious, to act moderately, to be sensible, and to remain an emotionally healthy member of society. PASSION means our emotions, our desires, our dreams, our imagination, our carnal needs, the primal aspects of our human nature.
If you look at any piece of literature since ancient Greek drama, you will see that when a protagonist allows his passions to erode his reason, he and things in the world around him begin to fall apart. Despite the fact that we like to think of Shakespeare as our champion of the imagination, he continually shows in his plays the consequences of excessive imagination on both Reason and society.
One could bifurcate the Reason / Passion dichotomy in many different ways: Mind / Body; Thought / Action; Virtue/ Vice.
The Romantic Revolution: the Subversion of Reason / Passion.
In the late 1700s, philosophy and literature underwent the Romantic revolution, which forever changed literature. For the first time, philosophers and poets (such as Coleridge, Wordsworth, Goethe, etc) initiated an attack upon neo-classical precepts concerning Reason, and argued that, in fact, Passion was the route to the intellect, knowledge and virtue. From the 1790s on, for the first time, poets and authors began to write from personal and emotional points-of-view, and began to value (in manifestos, even) the imagination, dreams, emotions, individuality, and poetic freedom. We owe a great deal of our American values of freedom, liberty, individuality and free speech to the Romantic revolution. With our belief in poetry as the expression of feelings, that writers are individuals with private lives, and our inclination to keep journals and diaries, we are very much heirs of the Romantic revolution.
Sidney as a Romantic Revisited.
So it would seem that Sidney, writing from the point of view of an emotionally anguished knight who bears his heart and soul, was a romantic before his time. Yes and no. Yes, the portrait Sidney presents resembles the inner-life spirit of a Romantic. But the figure Astrophil is very much part of a social system as a knight in a court that configures his identity, and he always must balance his thoughts, desires and actions against a society. Too, his self-absorption and his frequent detachment from society would not be read as representing virtue, nor did Sidney probably intend Astrophil to be a virtuous figure. In other words, Astrophil is not meant to be the heroic romantic figure of a troubled and solitary soul emotionally suffering in a dissinterested society. This type of literary figure does not develop until the late 1700s.
Reason / Passion and Virtue / Vice — the Important Dichotomies in Astrophil and Stella.
Notice how central Sidney makes the relationship between Reason and Passion throughout the sonnets. The whole cycle is a drama about Astrophil’s struggle to use Reason in order to discern true and virtuous thought and action from his Passion. Notice how his Passion (desires, dreams, wants, carnal needs) constantly distorts his Reason (his ability to think clearly, be reasonable, be sensible, etc).
Also, notice how hard Astrophil attempts to twist and bend Vice and Virtue, as he attempts to turn his desires for Stella into something virtuous, or when he tries to justify his desire to bed her by turning his cravings into something virtuous. All of his efforts fail, of course, and he always remains stuck trying to bend something in a direction it will simply never go.
As I said in the previous post, Astrophil and Stella is a sonnet sequence written from the point of view of a nobleman in love with a Lady who is already taken. It explores his despair over the unrequited love, and his desparate attempts to both woo her and to rationalize in his mind the virtue of his futile love.
In the first sonnet, Sidney introduces us to the poet / lover, struggling to find the words to put the pain of his love for Stella. He seeks “fit words to paint the blackest face of woe.” In other words, he wants to find the best way with his poetry to show how miserable he is. He hopes that his words of misery “the dear She might take some pleasure of my pain,” and then argues from lines 3 -5 that if she reads his sonnets, she would realize how in love he is, come to pity him, and this pity would somehow turn into love for him. (Notice right away that the poet’s motives and rationalization is not the best.)
From lines 6 – 9, the poet racks his brain, trying to come up with “inventions,” or clever turns of phrase, “Of turning others’ leaves,” meaning looking at other poet’s works to find inspiration. But “words came halting forth.”
Lines 12 – 13, a typical place for an emotional climax in a sonnet, the poet feels so tortured he describes it like giving birth to a child. But then his Muse tells him, “Fool, look in thy heart and write.” The advice of the Muse means that the poet, Astrophil, is beating his brains too much, and the he must turn inward to his heart, or his passions. Right away there is a cautionary ring to this, similar to the Wife of Bath invoking “Experience” as her source in her Prologue. As I said in the previous post, Passion in the Renaissance is a dangerous, untrustworthy human faculty, so to abandon the mind, or Reason, means to forgo ones clear thinking.
In this sonnet, Astrophil gives us a brief account of how he fell in love with Stella. He uses the image of Cupid shooting him with his arrow throughout the poem, and maintains a somewhat martial and wounded tone throughout. Cupid’s shot wounds him, but does not make him fall in love with Stella immediately–He describes falling in love from lines 5 – 8 in terms of a sort of battle in which he unwittingly surrenders. He becomes more of a prisoner of love. “At length to Love’s decrees, I, forced, agreed / Yet with repining at so partial lot.” Falling in love Astrophil presents as something that happens almost out of your control, causing you to suffer “lost liberty,” and being in love turns him into a “slave-borne Muscovite.”
Notice in the last couplets of the Sonnet, lines 11 – 14, how upside down is Astrophil’s world. He claims “I call it praise to suffer tyranny,” meaning he worships being under the cruel leadership of his love for Stella. And he employs “the remnant of my wit” (his last bit of rationality) “To make myself believe that all is well / While with a feeling skill I paint my hell.” He claims he now tries to convince / fool himself that he is fine while in fact falling in love is hell.
The yoking together of extreme terms in the first two sonnets is common throughout Sidney’s sonnets and the sonnet tradition. Notice in Sonnet 1 he talks about how his “pain” might bring Stella “pleasure.” The spring “sunburns” his brain. In Sonnet 2, he “praises” to “suffer tyranny,” and makes himself believe “all is well” while “I paint my hell.” This tradition of oxymoron goes back to the earliest Italian sonnets, in particular, Petrarch’s sonnet sequence concerning his unrequited love for Laura. In these sonnets, she is “firy ice,” and “cruelly kind,” and all sorts of other contradictory things. Petrarch also established the classic use of hyperbole in love sonnets and poems. Hyperbole means exaggerated descriptions or comparisons, like claiming that your tears create floods, or your woeful sighs stir up storms. Shakespeare, in sonnet 130, makes fun of the Petrachan conceit and hyperbole hysterically.
Notice that the first line almost states one of the central themes of the sequence. “A strife is grown between Virtue and Love.” He continues claiming that both Virtue and Love battle to claim Stella. Love beckons “Her eyes, her lips, her all.” But Virtue argues that what is important is Stella’s “virtuous soul, sure heir of heavenly bliss/ Not this fair ourside, which our hearts doth move.” Astrophil, with seeming virtue, says that Love cannot claim these most important inner qualities of Stella. But notice how, in the last couplet, Astrophil, as usual, buckles: “Let Virtue have that Stella’s self; yet, thus/ That Virtue but that body grant us.”
He knows that he must be virtuous, and restrain himself and his longings for her physically. But he constantly wants Virtue to bend to his desires, at the same time.
Astrophil continues the endless debate concerning Virtue and Passion. He wonders how to put Virtue into the context of his immense physical attraction for Stella. The image / conceit in this sonnet is that Stella is the Book of Nature, a common Renaissance conceit. The idea is that a person or a scene is like God’s book that we can read. Astrophil believes one could read Stella’s beauty to “learn of Love.” He argues that her beauty shows only goodness, and overthrows “all vices.” She overthrows vice because of her sweet gift of “reason,” her “inward sun.” And those who see and read in her this beauty of reason will also be moved toward virtue. Notice, though, how Astrophil, in the final lines, claims that her beauty born from her gift of reason “draws the heart to love” and makes Virtue want to him to do good, BUT . . . “ah,” Desire sill cries, “give me some food.”
The sonnet sequence ends with nothing really resolved for Astrophil, because there is no way for him really to resolve his situation. He is in love with someone taken, and who he desires physically. There is no way in which he can twist physical craving into something Virtuous, no matter how hard he tries. He can only spin around in circles in his head.
There are many ways in which scholars have interpreted the sequence as a whole. Many have seen it as Sidney portraying a fallen Renaissance man, a sinner suffering from many different things. Deception: Astrophil continually deceives himself about Stella and his feelings for her. Pride: Astrophil is self-engrossed, full of his own woe, puffed up by his own pain. Despair: a big sin back then. Astrophil has allowed himself to wallow in his feeling of hopelessness.
Some readers see Astrophil as heating up and then burning out on his own emotions by the end. There may be some hope, then, that he can rise from the ashes, and finally see Reason and Truth, the light of God as opposed to the light of truth he deceives himself into seeing in Stella’s eyes.
Other readers have seen the sonnet sequence as actually a comedy. We are supposed to laugh at Astrophil’s bloated sense of himself, his hyperbolic despair, his constant attempts to deceive himself, to twist the truth, to twise philosophy and theology, his attempts to bend things to his own mental advantage.
Some readers have also seen Astrophil and Stella as a sort of mirror for nobleman and courtiers. Guidebooks for courtly behavior were growing popular in England in Sidney’s time. These guidebooks gave rules and advice of conduct, such as proper manners and tasteful speech when in the court, the rules of conduct surrounding courtly love, etc. Some have seen the sonnet sequence as giving guidence by example: in this case, an example of what not to be or what not to do if / when you fall in love with a woman alrady taken or out of your league.
Needless to say, I think there is a lot of humanism in Astrophil and Stella. Even though he is writing it a couple hundred years before literary Romanticism, Sidney explores greatly the despair involved with “falling in love.” Have you ever wondered why we call it “FALLING in love?” Why not “RISING in love?” Evidently, the phrase evokes that feeling Sidney represents of being helpless when we are in love, of having something happen to us out of our control. But that it is also a but dangerous feeling, a bit scary. “Falling” also connotes the Christian sense of fallibility, of stumbling, of, well, sinning. Notice throughout Astrophil and Stella that Love is usually divided from Virtue. Love is generally connected to the carnal, to those cravings that led Adam and Eve to their temptation, fall and shame.
Here is the link to the translation once again. http://www.ronaldecker.com/ct.htm
The Wife of Bath and the Pardoner.
The Wife of Bath and the Pardoner are perhaps the most famous and brilliantly executed characters/tales in The Canterbury Tales. Both of them have had a great influence on literature in that Shakespeare was evidently influenced by them. In his creation of both the life bearing / colorful characters, like Falstaff and Rosalind, he was certainly drawing upon the Wife of Bath. In his creation of nihilistic, dark characters, such as Iago and Edmund, he was certainly influenced by the Pardoner.
The Wife of Bath.
The Wife of Bath has generated tremendous debate in literary and cultural studies. Chaucer depicts her as someone who invites scandal, who seems to live and thrive upon being infamous. In both the General Prologue, and in her own individual Prologue, Chaucer challenges the reader toward how we feel about her, understand her and judge her. She has married five times, has affairs in between marriages, and prides herself on maintaining the driver’s seat with all of her husbands, which she calls sovereignty. She also has views towards marriage and woman’s role in marriage and the world. In many ways, she comes across very much like a proto-feminist.
The Argument for and Against a Feminist Reading.
Reading the Wife of Bath as an early feminist, however, must be balanced alongside of Chaucer’s cultural limitations. Just as thirty people from every single walk of life would not gather together for a pilgrimage in the 1300s, neither would a woman ever have as much liberty in her life as the Wife of Bath. And if she did, she would never turn it into public discourse with such impunity.
Remember that the audience reading The Canterbury Tales would have been white, male nobleman and aristocrats. It is highly unlikely that a woman ever read Chaucer’s works. With this in mind, it is helpful to assess how such an audience would respond to her. It seems highly likely that they would have found her Prologue and Tale hilarious. The audience would probably not consider her to be a realistic depiction. And it might be helpful to consider that Chaucer, aware of his potential audience, would have written her that way.
Judging a Literary Work from our own Contemporary Standpoint.
However, at the same time, the fact that feminism simply did not exist in the 1300s, it does not stop us from seeing the Wife of Bath from a different perspective than that of a white, male, British nobleman.
Part of the wonder of literature is the ability to close the gap between a past and our present. There are different, as they are called,, horizons of experience between out current time and the time when a piece of literature was written. No matter how formal and objective one might be, one can only read literature through the eyes of one’s time. We are always trying to discover things in literature that we can identify with our own experience.
Immoral? Or Wonderfully Colorful?
Over the centuries, the Wife of Bath has created great debate. We are faced with an ambivalent situation. The questions posed to us are: Is the Wife of Bath a loathsome, sinful woman who should be morally judged and perhaps condemned to hell? Or is the Wife of Bath an incredible, vivacious creation who we are meant to enjoy and appreciate aesthetically, beyond morality?
Both questions provoke very different interpretations of the Wife of Bath. Like the narrator of the poem who seems to stand aside from the rest of the pilgrims in an ironic pose of moral disinterestedness, Chaucer allows us to respond to and interpret her character.
1. How does the Wife of Bath defend her many marriages and her philandering in the first 60 or so lines of her Prologue?
2. The Wife of Bath invokes “Experience” at the very opening of her Prologue, and refers to the valors of her “experience” throughout the Prologue. Why might such an invocation of Experience as the test of human nature come across suspicious to a fourteenth century audience? Why do you think we should question her absolute reliability upon “experience” as her foundation?
3. What are the characteristics of most of her marriages? What are her husbands like? How does she wear all of her husbands out?
4. What is different about her last husband (now suspiciously dead, too) than her previous four (lines 510 – 550)? What makes him far more challenging for the Wife of Bath?
5. How does the Wife of Bath finally win sovereignty over her final husband (lines 795 – 817)? What does her unequivocal desire for sovereignty in marriage mean (lines 817 – 830)? How do you think we should read it?
6. How is the Wife of Bath’s Tale ironic, considering her character as she presents it in her Prologue?
7. The Wife of Bath’s Tale is in the tradition of an “Arthuriad,” which essentially means a fairytale / romance in the vein of King Arthur, Camelot, and the Knights of the Round Table. How does her Tale, despite the fact that it is ironic, relate pretty perfectly to the Wife of Bath, her experience, and in particular, her notions of female “sovereignty?”
8. What might the Wife of Bath’s Tale (particularly its ending) say about her psychologically? How might she be feeling now in life, particularly since she claims in the Prologue that she has had “world enough and time,” and now only has “chaff” to give when she once had “wheat?”
Other than the Wife of Bath, the Pardoner is perhaps Chaucer’s greatest creation. We do not know exactly who he may have based his characters on, but the Pardoner was a well-known figure in fourteenth century Europe.
What Was a Pardoner?
The Pardoner was preceeded by a Summoner, who would inform an individual that they have been excommunicated from the Church, convicted of heresy, or whatever infraction that would mean your soul would burn in hell for eternity. The Pardoner would follow, and contact the individual, offering him a monetary deal (indulgences) for special prayers and consideration on the part of the Pope.
The Indulgence Scam
Of course, now we know the practice of Indulgence money was the biggest scam in the history of the world, making Bernie Madoff look like a petty theif. In the fourteenth century, most people were vulnerable as God fearing citizens, and did not know any truth other than the Indulgence system. Tens of thousands emptied their life savings.
The Ironic Voice of the Pardoner.
What makes Chaucer’s Pardoner so interesting is that he knows that he is a charlatan. He knows that he is running a scam. In fact, it appears that he does not really have any Papal dispensation whatsoever, and runs a prayer for money operation like a travelling medicine man, a sideshow character.
It is how upfront the Pardoner is about the workings of his business that throws many people. Why is he being so honest and detailed about what a good theif he is? Of course, in an ultimate act of audacity, after telling the pilgrims about his quackery, and delivering a sermon about it, he tries to sell pardons to all the pilgrims!
Is It Satire?
I have often been asked by you all the question as to whether the depiction of the Padoner is Chaucer’s scathing satire against the Roman Catholic Church. There are better minds for whom this area is a specialty, but I would say probably not. It is more than likely that the charcter of the Pardoner is a satire of this particular type of Pardoner who pretends at his job and gets a lot of money, hence, screwing the Church of their cut.
The Pardoner’s Tale: An Exemplum, and an Ironic One.
The Pardoner’s Tale is what is known as an exemplum. These are sermons that convey a moral message by telling a story. The story becomes an example. So the Pardoner’s Tale uses the story of the three friends who find the pot of gold as an example of cupidity, or “greed is the root of all evil.”
You probably notice right off the bat the irony of the Pardoner’s Tale. He tells it as a sermon about how greed is the root of all evil, and yet, he is the most greedy and direputable of all characters.
The Canterbury Tales marks a “paradigm shift” in literature. What I mean be paradigm shift is those moments, events or creations in history that mark a development and / or turning point in the way in which we literally see the world. There have been many different paradigm shifts in literature in the past 2,500 years.
Paradigm Shifts and the Course of History
In the general course of history, many thinkers believe there have been three or four major paradigm shifts that have altered the way in which we see and understand the world.
1) Monotheism: the Judaic concept of a single God. Some argue that this begins the birth of individuality.
2) The Copernican Revolution: the joint effort by Copernicus and Galileo that eventually proved, by the seventeenth century, that the Earth was not the center of the universe.
3) Darwinism: the Theory of Evolution that partly proved that humans were not singular creations, but evolved from lower life forms. In other words, just as the Earth is no longer the center of the universe, the human is not the center of existence.
4) Freudianism and the psychoanalytic revolution: The Theory of the Unconcsious partly proved that we are divided within and at odds with ourselves. In other words, just as we are no longer the center of existence, we are also not in control of our own selves.
5) Atomic Age. In the early 1950s, for the first time in human existence, we have the ability to destroy the earth.
Paradigm Shifts and the Course of Literary History
Literature has its own history that is partly self-contained, and partly engaged in the shifts in world history.
Critics tend to veer between two extremes: 1) Literature has its own self-contained history and paradigm shifts. 2) Literature is inextricably bound to history. Usually, like me, one believes that literature has a combination of #1 and #2.
One thing that the Pardigm Shifts in world history shows is that, over the past several thousand years, humanity moves further away from mythological or monolithic beliefs, “world-visions” that see things in terms of the human in relationship to a cosmos.
Literature, too, has developed up until today in this direction. Northrop Frye, a marvelous literary critic, famously claimed that the history of literature reflects “the dying of the gods.”
Major Stages in Literature.
Epic / Myth. The earliest literature — Homer, Gilgamesh, The Bible — is “epic” literature. Ancient literature tends to be concerned with depicting and explaining the birth / creation of the entire world, and the sweeping events that lead to the present condition. It is a literature that attempts to explain the existence and the reason for everything.
In epic and mythological literature, the human and God / gods is direct. God or the gods have a “character” role in the action. In many ways, the plot of epic literature depends upon and is controlled by the forces of God or gods. Epic literature, therefore, leans toward the providential, the fated, the fixed, the predestined. Epic literature is also always concerned with origins. Where did we come from? How? Where are we going?
High Mimetic. Ancient Greek drama in particular represents a shift away from the Epic / Mythological stage in literature. The “high mimetic,” or high representation, begins to draw its focus to the human more than the epic. The human becomes more of a character and less of a god or a supernatural presence. There is still a direct relationship between human and God or gods, but the relationship become more severed, distorted. The protagonist of high mimetic literature tends to be a powerful person, someone who is fairly close to having supernatural power, a dominant personage. The protagonists of high mimetic drama are not yet characters who exist on a “normal” level of human existence.
Romance. The medieval development of the Romance begins to mingle the high mimetic with a more “low” mimetic literature. The protagonists (usually a figure like a Knight, a leader, a nobleman) is still the larger than life character, not quite a god, but not quite human either. But the fallibility of the protagonists becomes more prominent. Too, the world of the Romance is interfused with the supernatural. There remains a connection between God, gods or supernatural elements and humans. The world-vision of the Romance remains one in which the world is charged with the presence of God.
Low Mimetic. As the Renaissance (1400 – 1660) progresses, literature becomes represented by the “low mimetic.” In low mimetic literature, there no (or very little) direct connection between the human and God / gods. Usually if there is a supernatural element, it comes in the form of convention or hallucination. The low mimetic represents protagonists as human beings, on a level that most humans can identify. The protagonist might be a powerful, larger than life, heroic character, but he / she is not so in a godly or supernatural sense. As low mimetic develops, in fact, we become much more aware of protagonists whose actions fall beneath our own.
Ironic Mode / Modern Literature. In roughly the past few centuries, literature falls into the “ironic mode.” Generally, the worldview represents a complete divorce between human and God/gods/cosmos. Or, in many cases, literature emphasizes the absence of any cosmic force, such as God. In ironic literature, protagonists are frequently personages beneath us. Often times protagonists and action in the ironic mode is absurd, meaningless or chaotic. The vision of the world is now completely removed from the cohesive, epic / mythological vision of a complete world.
What is pronounced about the development of literature over the course of history is what Frye calls the “dying of the gods.” Or the gradual distance that grows between human and God, or the human and a cosmic or supernatural world. In fact, the birth and development of literary realism, upon which the novel grew as a genre, develops from this divorce and distance between a concrete and supernatural world, the emphasis upon what we can understand.
Some thinkers, like Frye and Joseph Campbell, believe that this few thousand year development is a “cycle” which will repeat again. In other words, ironic literature will tranisition back into epic literature, and the cycle will begin once again. There is some credence, I believe, to this theory. Since the Atomic age in the past fifty or so years, there is a genre growing of apocalyptic literature. There is literature and movies fascinated with the end of the world or the end of an age in which civilization must begin anew. We see this in many forms: as a nuclear holocaust, and the post holocaust world that must rebuilt; a world in which the machine takes over the human, and the human must begin again; a world destroyed by nature because of our harm, and we must adapt to nature and begin again; a world in which technology and a virtual world consumes us, and we must adapt or rebel, ie, begin again.
Where does The Canterbury Tales Fit In to All of This?
I claimed that one should not confuse Chaucer’s narrative poem for realism. The notion of literary realism is the product of an eighteenth century publishing industry and the advance in science that caused people to see the world beyond supernaturalism or superstition.
But, we see a very significant shift in both how the world is seen socially, and how an author / storyteller presents that world.
The Significance of the Narrative Voice and the Presentation and Depiction of Character
Notice first in the General Prologue how there is a distinct narrative voice, bluntly represented by an “I.”
Notice how that “I” makes a self-conscious effort to inform us that he wants to tell us the story, and he wants to tell it straight, with no unnecessary embellishments.
Notice that the “I” emphasizes that he is going to tell us the story in the common vernacular of the English language, not in the formal language of Latin or French.
Notice how the narrator begin his story about a religious event, a pilgrimage, in a “tavern.” Notice that everyone, all walks of life and social status gather in that one place, and join together on the pilgrimage.
Notice how the narrator does not treat any of his depictions of the pilgrims with any higher or lower value. Each one is presented on a level playing field, from the virtuous Knight down to the sinister Pardoner.
The Shift to a More Level Representational Playing Field.
All of these things reveal a significant shift in the presentation and representation of literature. The narrator of The Canterbury Tales brings himself down to the level of both the reader and the characters he represents. The narrator neither stands above the story with a godly “ominscience,” nor does he present the protagonists as “gods” or supernatural characters.
Final Warning Against Assuming that The Canterbury Tales is Like Modern Realism.
Although this is a marked development toward realism, again, it is not literary realism in the sense that it was developed in the eighteenth century. The Canterbury Tales still owes to the tradition of the Romance, like Sir Gawain, but Chaucer’s shift in narrative voice, and the presentation of an encyclopedia of all walks of life on a level playing field incepts the more “humanistic” literature that would become the hallmark of the Renaissance, particuarly with Shakespeare’s development of human character.