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c h a p t e r s e v e n Writing Amorous Wrongs Chaucer and the Order of Complaint “Death is the mother of beauty.” Wallace Stevens’s dictum reminds us of the long-standing, perhaps permanent link between poetry and loss, writing and absence. We write of and out of what we lack, what we imagine to be possible (happiness, understanding), and what we hope, by our writing , to discover or recover: this is what Stevens meant when he described us as “natives of poverty, children of malheur” for whom “the gaiety of language is our seigneur.”1 And if Chaucer seems to us one of the least impoverished, least unhappy of poets, we should remember that he maintained a persistent, intense interest in the kind of writing he and his contemporaries called complaint.2 This was a ubiquitous albeit amorphous medieval form. The voice of lament pervades Germanic and Celtic writing , is shaped by biblical and classical models and rhetorical prescription into the planctus of the learned tradition, and permeates both the affective piety and the sentimental amorousness of the later medieval period. 181 Patterson-07 9/17/09 4:01 PM Page 181 Given the murnung of the Anglo-Saxon scop3 and the englynion of the Welsh bard, the planh of the Provençal poet (Cercamon on Guillaume IX of Aquitaine, Bertran de Born on Henry the young king), the satirist’s “complaint of the times” (Alain de Lille’s De planctu naturae, Rutebeuf’s “Complainte de Guillaume,” Gower’s Vox clamantis), and the planctus Mariae of pious and the complainte d’amour of courtly poets—it sometimes seems as if the Middle Ages must have been awash with tears. Despite its taxonomic skill, medieval scholarship has not yet produced a full-scale account of the complaint.4 Perhaps investigators have been understandably discouraged simply by the varieties of the form and the complexities of its history. Yet there is a deeper problem as well—one clearly recognized and neatly solved in an analogous area by Donald Howard . In his study of the contemptus mundi theme, Howard recognized that an analysis of the topoi of a single generic set, however inclusive or complex , could not adequately describe either the pervasiveness with which the theme permeated medieval writing or the profundity of its effect.5 Consequently, he followed his discussion of the genre itself with characteristically acute readings of three Middle English poems, thus revealing the way the theme shaped these works both directly and by reaction. In effect, Howard showed how in the later Middle Ages the contemptus mundi theme was not merely an element in these poems but constitutive of them, a context so enveloping as to be both invisible and unavoidable, both taken for granted and always at issue. Something of the same is true of the complaint: as I have suggested, it is virtually coextensive with poetry, indeed with writing itself. If language is a form of action that mediates between the subject and the world, then complaint interrogates its relation to these two presences. Can language express the subject? Can it have an effect upon the world? The first question is asked by the emotionalism that complaint takes as its special province , the claim it makes upon the affect of both speaker and audience. Complaint negotiates between feeling and form, asking a question that has been at the center of Western poetics since their inception: is poetry primarily a spontaneous expression of feeling (as the rhetor Ion tells Socrates ) or is it an art (Aristotle’s techne)? Is it the inspired language of the soul (the poet as vates) or a product of civilization at its most exacting (the poeta doctus)? When in 1795 Schiller distinguished between naive and sentimental poetry, rather than initiating a new stage in literary thinking 182 Acts of Recognition Patterson-07 9/17/09 4:01 PM Page 182 he was projecting an age-old debate upon a historical axis. Paradoxically, however, the ahistorical lyricism of the Middle Ages, precisely because of its highly stylized and convention-bound nature, raises this question in larger, more unsettling terms, as Paul Zumthor has shown. Is the speaking subject of the medieval lyric created by its own discourse—a grammatical function, Jakobson’s diegetic shifter—or is s/he a historical being endowed with the selfhood humans have typically taken as their own?6 If the complaint is above all an act of self-expression, is there a self...


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