Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Unlikely connections and textual spirals

Today in Chaucer class we were looking at Troilus's apostrophe to Criseyde's empty palace. Troilus is waiting for Criseyde to return from the Greek camp, and goes through the streets of Troy to look at the house once adorned with Criseyde and now empty; the lantern whose light is extinguished; the ring without the ruby; the shrine without the saint.

Than seide he thus, "O paleys desolat,
O hous of houses whilom best i-hight,
O paleys empty and disconsolat,
O thow lanterne of which queynt is the light,
O paleys, whilom day, that now art nyght,
Wel oughtestow to falle and I to dye
Syn she is went that wont was vs to gye.

"O paleis, whilom crowne of houses alle,
Enlumyned with sonne of alle blisse,
O ryng fro which the rubie is out falle,
O cause of wo that cause hast ben of lisse,
3et syn I may no bet, fayn wolde I kisse
Thy colde dores, dorste I for this route;
And far wel shryne, of which the seynt is oute."

Of course we talked about the difficulties of "queynte" here, but for the life of me I could not remember the Greek name for this figure until now, when I've just looked it up in an article I've co-written (!), which quotes Larry Benson discussing "the most beautiful example of paraclausithyron [the poem before the closed door] in our literature". He argues that Chaucer would not have introduced that obscene pun; and that we err if we are always on the lookout for the double entendre.

But instead of being able to remember this word (I got the "claus" bit but not the rest), I could remember most of the lyrics of "I have often walked down this street before/ but the pavement's always stayed beneath my feet before", from My Fair Lady and I'm sorry to say I sang a couple of stanzas, with a little help. I've also been singing this lovely song all afternoon.

So. Yes. Songs are more memorable than Greek rhetorical terms. No surprises there. And no, it's not exactly the same situation, though I can't remember at what point Freddie sings this song. But it was, all the same, one of those historically impure moments that helps us read the medieval text, I think. Are Chaucer's characters medieval? or timeless?

Another lovely circle has been playing in my mind, too.

Last night we watched Tony Richardson's 1970 film of Ned Kelly starring Mick Jagger. I liked this much maligned film very much indeed. I especially liked seeing Jagger singing the Wild Colonial Boy.

And the Waylon Jennings soundtrack has some great Kelly ballads. One of them is called "Blame it on the Kellys" ("I think I'll steal a horse myself and blame it on the Kellys"). This also has a Robin Hood moment: "bread and milk on the windowsill? Blame it on the Kellys".

At the film's end, though, Kelly is staggering down the railway tracks in the morning mist, wearing the iconic armour and long coat, reeling as more and more police climb down the embankment and fire at him. He staggers and keeps going, and I have the irresistible image of John Cleese as the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The film recovers itself, but I'm then driven to think about the resemblance between Kelly and the Knight. I mean: look at them!



It's a pretty distinctive shape for a helmet, and I reckon it's not implausible that the Python team had seen the Jagger film.

These are both lovely examples, I think, of the way medieval studies and medievalism both set up these spirals of reference and allusion.

4 comments:

tenthmedieval said...

Holy Grail references Excalibur so damn much that I'd have no trouble believing that a few other things got lampooned in their spare moments... But though the helmet and the general persistence are Kelly-like, the Black Knight's actual character could stand alone as an Arthurian pastiche I think, so I'd guess the look more than anything else was borrowed.

Stephanie Trigg said...

Excalibur, 1981, follows Holy Grail, 1975, so the referencing is beautifully proleptic — an unexpected reversal of expectations, like Umberto Eco coming after Ellis Peters.

And yes, I'm not arguing that Holy Grail is designed to parody Ned Kelly in any highly motivated way. But I am interested in the way those ahistorical, achronological loops and spirals affect our readings.

Pavlov's Cat said...

What a lovely post. The Jagger clip made me want to go in search of the movie, which I've never seen.

In the spirit of your spirals, here's something far too obscure to be of use to you but that will amuse you, and that I've used in creative writing classes to demonstrate techniques of characterisation -- in this case very telling about no fewer than three different characters -- (and not to mention the meaning of the expression 'cultural capital') from PD James's 'Devices and Desires':

'On the north wall [of Mair's office] hung the only picture; a large oil showing a man with a rifle on a skinny horse, posed in a bleak landscape of sand and scrubland with, in the background, a range of distant mountains. But the man had no head. Instead he was wearing a huge square helmet of black metal with a slit for the eyes. Rickards found the picture disturbingly intimidating. He had a faint memory that he had seen a copy of it, or something very like it, before, and that the artist was Australian. He was irritated to find himself thinking that Adam Dalgliesh would have known what it was and who had painted it.'

Ceirseach said...

From Freddy's point of view there isn't much context: he's just having a bit of a wander outside the house and serenading it. Never much of one for taking action himself, old Freddy. I think we could definitely make a Troilus comparison out of him.

He gets a bit of context in the reprise, when he wandering around serenading the house again and Eliza unexpectedly comes out of it with suitcases and a pout and a determination to flee her exasperating Pygmalion, of course. So technically Freddy's would be a paraclaus-and-open-ithyron.

And Chaucer could definitely introduce obscene puns. The logical extension of "he wouldn't have introduced that" is that he didn't notice the possible double entendre at all, and that I will not believe of a man so slyly conscious of his language.