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Chapter 6 • Grief In Usk, then, you don’t need prophecy, because history tells you all the future’s secrets you need to know. But then (this is the next turn) it does the job so easily that you don’t need history either: the future, like the present, is so brutal and obvious that it can have no secrets. What is coming is more of the same, plus more hopeful and pointless efforts to avoid it. The world in Usk’s chronicle does not have a narrative so much as an invariant drive toward ruin. The image of a world tottering, physically unbalanced, is commonplace: Bishop Despenser, after the 1400 Epiphany Rising, determines to stay on his estate “until the world is better steadied ,” and Chaucer complains that the world, once “stedfast and stable” is now “turned up-so-doun.”1 But the former makes its perturbations sound temporary, the latter makes its permanence sound settled. Usk imagines the instability both chronic and violent: the world pitches forward (as the etymon of “ruin” implies), and everything goes with it. Joan of Kent grieves for Richard’s “ruin”; Richard’s plan for the Shrewsbury parliament , “like the statue of Nebuchadnezzar, at the highest point of its vainglory , toppled [ruit] with all its helpers”; Richard was moving “straight on to his ruin” as he gathered his Cheshire bodyguards, who anyhow proved to be “the greatest cause of that ruin”; Richard raised men from the dust “who were later dragged down in ruin because of their inordinate leap upward”; a plague came “suddenly” in 1400, “falling upon [irruens] souls Grief 83 and carrying them away”; Glendower’s cruelty to churches led eventually to his “ruin”; as it is written that “before ruin, the heart of man is exalted,” the Percies “collapsed into ruin [occasum].”2 “All things press toward their end,” Usk observes at a moment of personal application.3 Such is not a world in which the idea that rulers should be useful can expect to last. The hope that kingly action, vigorous and purposeful, could master the world must ignore its clearest message, that every enterprise ends vainly. The shipwreck of Sir John Arundel’s expedition to France brought a brilliant beginning to sodden anticlimax, destroying “the flower of our country’s youth.”4 This leads Usk to tell how the earl of Pembroke was captured making for the continent with the profits of a war tax; and then how Edward III, invading France, assembled a “great army” ready to sail, waited six months for winds to favor a Channel crossing, and finally gave up, “returning with his army uselessly [inutiliter ].”5 The action was a pointless and crushing contrast to the history it was meant to crown: the king taxed the people, assembled his army, prepared an invasion to repeat the glory of Crécy, and returned with nothing to show but the bustle and loss.6 Arundel’s expedition occurs to the chronicler’s mind because he has already mentioned Bishop Despenser’s failed 1383 crusade to Flanders. That expedition also failed, and the failure was a shuttlecock of faction.7 Usk’s brief, grim account neither accuses nor defends, but merely humiliates. The mission begins as a success— “about nine thousand Flemings, because they supported the schismatic French, he killed in a military assault”—but ends in ironic disaster: “but from those parts he was forced to retire and return home by the power of the French king and his army, once very many of the English had died of diarrhea.”8 In substance the story accords with Despenser’s defense that he was deprived of victory “par l’aventure de Dieux”;9 the facts of Usk’s account draw closer to the bishop’s apologia than most others, but the reversal from the “warlike assault” his army launched to the bowel-flux that disabled it turns accident to abjection. The story of Arundel’s shipwreck speaks of the “sadness” of these pointless deaths. Uselessness is the chronic upshot of action; grief is its 84 Chapter 6 affective remainder, punctuating the narrative with its most familiar formula : pro dolor, “Oh, the pain of it!” The appellants’ reforms angered the king, so that “alas” (pro dolor), only “irritations” followed, and years later (pro dolor), “griefs [dolores] and troubles” afflicted them. Sir John Arundel “alas” (pro dolor), died at sea; tax has grown to plague the English nation, “and so, pro dolor, things go awry”; the accomplished and promising...


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