Friday, October 10, 2008

Chaucer and love (Friday poetry blogging)

Every year for the last half-dozen or more, I've taught Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde in my honours class. We take four or five two-hour seminars and work through the text. This is my favourite poem, no contest. It never ceases to amaze me, too, that every year I find something in it that takes my breath away.

On Wednesday, we were reading Book III. Early in the book, the lovers have finally met in person and exchanged words, but have not yet consummated their affair. As they wait for Pandarus to arrange this, they see each other and speak a few times, with utmost discretion, so no one will know of their love.

And the narrator says:
But thilke litel that they spake or wroughte,
His wise goost took ay of al swych heede,
It semed hire he wiste what she thoughte
Withouten word, so that it was no nede
To bidde hym ought to doon or ought for-beede;
For which she thought that loue, al come it late,
Of alle joie hadde opned hir the yate. (III. 463-9)
Roughly...
But his thoughtful spirit paid such attention to every detail of the little they said or did, that it seemed to her he knew what she was thinking, without speech, so she had no need to command him to do anything, or to forbid him anything. And accordingly, she felt that love, even though it had come late, had opened to her the gate to complete joy.
This is one of those passages that compresses both the medieval and the timeless. There is something very moving about lovers, so tightly constrained within the conventions of courtly love, under siege conditions, in the layered formality of Chaucer's narrative, experiencing that intimate closeness — that feeling of being known, that words are unnecessary — that is a feature of most representations of Western romantic love.

What does it mean? that we learn how to think about love from Chaucer and the medieval poets? The obvious answer, I guess, is that Chaucer speaks to us across time and space, and that this timelessness is the measure of his greatness and one of the reasons why he has become a canonical poet. But right next to this is the deeply medieval convention of female sovereignty in love. Criseyde experiences this emotional intimacy as taking away the need to organise the details of Troilus's service to her. The notion of service, in love, is in complete opposition to (most) modern understandings of love. The stanza thus enacts the dialectic between romantic and sexual love as (a) mutual and (b) structured by the contradictory hierarchies of courtly convention and gender politics. (We were also looking at Elaine Hansen's critique of David Aers' conditional praise of the mutuality of the sexual encounter to come later in Book III.)

For me, this raises a difficult question: what to do with the notion of timelessness in the canonical text? I'm trained to read historically; and I'm sometimes embarrassed by the claims about the universal timeless greatness of Chaucer (and others), because such claims carry such heavy ideological freight. But there's no doubt that here, cheek by jowl with the medieval idea of courtly service in love, is an invocation of mutual understanding in love that has all the hallmarks of modern humanism. And I guess that's my answer: that it's the dialectic between the medieval and the modern that produces Chaucer's popularity. It's certainly a most blissful text to teach.





1 comment:

Sarah Rees Jones said...

that's strange - the paper I was carrying around Aus with me was about (partly about) T&C and Chaucer's use of love to suppress time (or more specifically History). Still I had fun in M talking about other things too.