"What Is Me?": Hoccleve and the Trials of the Urban Self
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c h a p t e r f o u r “What Is Me?” Hoccleve and the Trials of the Urban Self To redeem the past and to transform every “It was” into “Thus would I have it!”—that only do I call redemption! —Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra More than one self per organism is not a good recipe for survival. —Antonio Damasio, The Feeling of What Happens As the Male Regle nears its end, Hoccleve asks, with the willful naiveté that makes his poetry at once enigmatic and endearing, “Ey, what is me πat to myself thus longe / Clappid haue I?”1 Hoccleve is the most strenuously autobiographical poet of early English literature: not until at least Donne, or perhaps even Wordsworth and the high Romantics, do we find his equal in self-observation.2 To the first critics of Hoccleve’s poetry, as to more recent commentators, these self-representations are understood as 84 Patterson-04 9/17/09 3:57 PM Page 84 conventional poses required for thematic reasons. This understanding locates his account of his misbehavior in the Male Regle within a penitential context, establishing a pattern of sin followed by contrition, while it reads his dialogue with the almsman in the Regiment of Princes as both providing a cautionary example of misgovernance to Prince Henry and as motivating the poem’s petition for relief from poverty.3 And Hoccleve’s remarkable account of his madness and the social isolation it forced upon him in his late Complaint has also been interpreted as a penitential exercise , a story of sin and contrition, with the other items that comprise the so-called Series being located within the same moralizing context.4 Other critics, more alert to the literary and psychological complexities inherent in all acts of self-representation, have avoided claiming that Hoccleve’s autobiographical protagonist is simply an everyman adopted to prove a moral point. But they have continued to read his various accounts of himself as essentially strategic, poses adopted depending on the needs of the communicative situation. Here the argument is primarily that Hoccleve wears the mask required of the subordinate who wants his superior audience to listen to his importunities and advice. As John Burrow puts it, “Hoccleve makes a fool of himself to amuse the great man,” a reading that is at one point endorsed by Hoccleve himself, when he admits—in a poem written for Edward, duke of York—that the poem serves as “an owtere of my nycetee / For my good lordes lust and game and play.”5 And in the Male Regle he admits that “who so him shapeth mercy for to craue, / His lesson moot recorde in sundry wyse” (397–98): strategy is evidently never far from Hoccleve’s mind. As James Simpson has said, “Hoccleve the poet is extraordinarily sensitive to the conditions of discursive exchange ,” conditions in which he is presumed by modern critics to be always at a disadvantage.6 In sum, the general consensus can be summarized in Paul Strohm’s dictum: “the medieval (and pre-modern) self is more likely to deploy the self, not as the ultimate center of interest, but as an imaginative exemplification of broader issues.”7 But there are problems with allowing this familiar assumption to dominate our interpretations of Hoccleve’s writing. For one thing, it tends to ignore the urgent specificity, the dogged relentlessness, and the sheer ubiquity of Hoccleve’s self-descriptions; and for another, it presumes that a culture that privileged the universal, that sought to understand particularity by reference to absolutist patterns, made attention to individuality for its own sake impossible.8 Hoccleve’s exasperated and exasperating “What Is Me?” 85 Patterson-04 9/17/09 3:57 PM Page 85 question, “what is me?”—an inescapably blunt formulation that stands symbolically for the persistent self-reflexivity of his writing as a whole9 — is, this essay will argue, the fundamental topic of all of his writing. What we would call his individuality, both his particularity as this specific person and, more important, his own sense of his particularity, both his selfconsciousness and consciousness of self—is at once Hoccleve’s treasure and his pain, at once that which he most insistently displays and that from which he most persistently seeks escape. Hoccleve’s obsessive concern with representing his own inner life is less a strategy directed to some larger literary goal than the goal itself.10 In what follows I shall begin with an...


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Subject Headings

  • Literature and society -- England -- History -- To 1500.
  • England -- Civilization -- 1066-1485.
  • Historical criticism (Literature).
  • English literature -- Middle English, 1100-1500 -- History and criticism.
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