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  • Afterword: Re-reading, or, When You Were Mine
  • Carolyn Dinshaw

My title alludes to the 1980 song sung by Prince, the genius rock star who died in late April 2016, just as I was beginning to write this afterword. If one question raised by this special issue is “Why the Legend of Good Women now?,” one answer might assert that its concerns are enduring; the poem teaches readers and listeners to reflect on sex, gender, love, loss, and telling tales—lasting themes that Prince famously and nastily took up and worked in many of his songs. The lyrics of “When You Were Mine”— relating the story of romantic loss, voiced by a lover who gave everything but was heartlessly betrayed—sound particularly like a latter-day Legend of Good Women:

When you were mine I gave you all of my money Time after time You done me wrong

The relationship of these lyrics to the Legend of Good Women is in fact deliciously ironic. “When You Were Mine” reads like the revenge of Chaucer’s forlorn women: it is the Legend all over again but this time in reverse. Here, it is Prince/the man who is left behind by a perfidious woman; he not only handed over his money (compare Hypsipyle [1560]), but let her wear his clothes, in an erotically charged transfer of power like [End Page 162] that of Chaucer’s duped royal women (compare 1281–84 [Dido], 1649–50 [Medea]):

Oh girl, when you were mine I used to let you wear all of my clothes You were so fine (so fine) Maybe that’s the reason that it hurt me so

Her actions were unfamiliar, unreal; she surprised him with her shamelessness just as Aeneas, Jason, and all the rest stun their lovers. In a style true to the worst of the worst (Demophon—or is it Theseus? [2399–2400]), she lacked even “the decency / To change the sheets.” But he was caught in love, and is caught still: “I love you more than I did / When you were mine.” Prince is a queen as loyal as Dido.

The lyrics are organized around a straight-up opposition of masculinity to femininity, the wounded guy and the treacherous girl (“I know that you’re going with another guy,” “Oh girl”), but Prince’s falsetto vocals underscore the erotic twists and turns, the threesome in bed (“When he was there / Sleeping in between the two of us”), the girl in guy’s clothes, the complexity of sex and gender, the irrationality of desire (“I love you more”). Tutored by the Legend, whose narrator is outraged again and again by the evil that men do to women but whose legends—as Glenn Burger in this special issue shows— explore (among other things) women’s own ugly feelings and their social consequences, we can see that a narrowly gendered framing belies the chaos of desire and power in human relationships.

“When you were mine.” It’s an open-ended phrase, especially with those deictics “you” and “mine,” adaptable to other scenes of backward-looking reflection. In the process of writing this afterword, I re-read the analysis of the Legend of Good Women in my book Chaucer’s Sexual Poetics, a chapter I wrote thirty years ago. My clothbound copy has a little mildew on it. It was a long time ago that you were mine, indeed—the “you” that is Chaucer’s Sexual Poetics—though considering the multiple agendas that drive a tenure book and many hands that help, you were only partly mine to begin with, and now I tend to remember you in somewhat distanced and sometimes even distorted ways, mine but also part of a larger discursive universe that has since developed, changed, morphed.

That “you” also brings up “me,” of course, as author, the “you” that was me in the 80s, all asymmetrical hair and shoulder pads, developing a feminist [End Page 163] approach to Chaucer that focused in a politicized way all my theoretical strivings theretofore. The Legend of Good Women is uncannily resonant here, because it is itself about Chaucer’s reflecting on the trajectory of his own work as it pertains...


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pp. 162-166
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