|TITLE:||CHAUCER AND THE CONSOLATION OF PROSIMETRUM|
|SOURCE:||The Chaucer Review 43 no4 455-72 2009|
In the De consolatione philosophiae we find an imprisoned Boethius lamenting the cruelty of Fortune, whom he blames for his fall from prominence and power into disgrace and despair. In the midst of his lamentations, he is visited by Lady Philosophy, who will be his physician throughout the rest of the story, meting out philosophical medicine to heal his addled soul. The key to this healing process is that she reminds Boethius of the order that embraces and governs all created phenomena in the universe, causing all events, patterns, and motions. Once Boethius remembers this universal order, he can perceive the truth of divine providence and his own place in the ordered universe.(FN1) In this article I want to suggest that the most powerful "order" in this healing process is the order of time, and that Chaucer recognized and amplified time's centrality in his translation of the De consolatione, the Boece. I will also demonstrate that time's centrality has an aesthetic correlate in Boethius's text: its prosimetric form. Finally, I will argue that Chaucer registered the literary phenomenology of prosimetrum and revisited it in his prose and poetry.
The final book of the Boece most explicitly articulates Philosophy's ideas about temporality, though it begins with her exploring the nature of happenstance and fortune -- what Chaucer calls "hap" and "fortunous bytydynge" (V.pr.1.69, 73).(FN2) She argues that "hap is bytydynge ibrought forth by foolisshe moevynge and by no knyttynge of causes" (V.pr.1.33-34), thus foregrounding a radical incompatibility between causation and chance. From this assertion she immediately goes on to "conferme that hap nis ryght naught in no wise" (V.pr.1.35). Boece responds in confusion, asking, "'How schal it thanne be?' quod I. 'Nys ther thanne nothing that by right may ben clepid other hap or elles aventure of fortune?'" (V.pr.1.56-58). Philosophy then launches into a lengthy demystification of the idea of fortune, in which she reveals that the human experience of "hap" is merely the lack of awareness of the causes that underlie all events and circumstances. Everything, she claims, "hath his propre causes, of whiche causes the cours unforseyn and unwar semeth to han makid hap" (V.pr.1.74-75). Our experience of "hap" is an artifact of our imperfect awareness of causality. If man could understand or perceive all the causes in the universe, she suggests, he would neither believe in nor experience fortune. Man cannot, however, perceive all causality. The only being who has perfect awareness of all causality is God.
This does not mean, however, that human beings are constrained to live as though bound by fortune; quite the contrary, it means that human beings must find a way to trust utterly in God's perfect awareness of all events, in his superhuman vision. It is a tall order -- to have absolute faith in what one cannot see oneself. But there is a tool that makes man's imperfect knowledge of causation easier to bear, and shores him up against the vagaries of seemingly "fortunous" events. That tool is time. Despite the limits of human vision, man can nevertheless grasp the phantasmatic nature of fortune simply by observing time's ordered passage. Philosophy registers this order of temporality by recourse to a grammatical metaphor: "For alle thing that lyveth in tyme, it is present and procedith fro preteritz into futures" (V.pr.6.17-19). No present time emerges ex nihilo; the present arises from the past, and the future arises from the present. This inevitable order of time thus embodies the inevitable truth of causation, the truth that nothing really "happens" in the created world without a necessitating cause coming before it in time. We cannot perceive causality, but we can perceive time, and, in that, we can find consolation.
Since human beings, as part of the created world, exist within this causal temporality, their lives, too, are governed by its order; as Philosophy goes on to say, "alle thing that lyveth in tyme" (V.pr.6.17-18) experience the succession of past into present, and thence into future. Seen from this perspective, to live in time is to live outside the "fortunous betydynges" of "hap," and instead to live within the order of necessary, successive, orderly moments. Moreover, to live in the order of time is to live within the order of divine providence, from which temporal order proceeds. Indeed, in Philosophy's argument, time itself is a manifestation of divine vision: "lat the unfoldynge of temporel ordenaunce, assembled and oonyd in the lokynge of the devyne thought, be cleped purveaunce" (IV.pr.6.73-75). By calling divine providence "the unfolding of temporal order," Philosophy implicitly casts time as an epiphenomenon of providence, as the readiest and steadiest demonstration of the ever-present divine order and divine knowing of causes. She offers Boece, in effect, the consolation of temporality.
Chaucer grasps this lesson, and seeks to amplify it in his translation. He adds a gloss just after Philosophy's assertion that time proceeds from preterit to present to future, explaining to his readers, "(that is to seyn, fro tyme passed into tyme comynge)" (V.pr.6.19-20). By purging Philosophy's explanation of its metaphorics, the gloss simplifies it. The simplification bespeaks both Chaucer's awareness of the centrality of time to Philosophy's consolation and his deep investment in conveying that notion as clearly as possible. Later, lest his readers should fail to understand the specific sensation of temporality, and the way in which it ties in to consolation, Chaucer adds in another gloss, in which he specifies that time moves "by successioun" (V.pr.6.92) from past to present, and into future. The addition of the term "succession" indicates how humanity experiences time: in a series or sequence of moments that follow upon each other. Chaucer's gloss thus strengthens Philosophy's implicit claim that man should take comfort in time, by reminding us how time feels; he takes an abstract idea and concretizes it.
In De consolatione the conceptual centrality of time to consolation has a formal correlate -- an aesthetic manifestation that makes time's successive order feelable. That formal correlate originates in the text's division into two opposed but intimately connected expository forms: the metra or versified portions, and the prosae. composed in continuous, nonmetrical lines of prose. This prosimetric form is crucial to Boethius's temporal consolation because the prosae and metra advance Boethius's spiritual recovery in two very different ways. When Philosophy wants to move into an extended, sequential, ordered explication of logically necessary ideas, she consistently uses prose, advertising it explicitly as the form best suited to the exposition of order. In Chaucer's translation, her explanation reads, "although the noryssynges of dite of musyk deliteth the, thou most suffren and forberen a litel of thilke delit, whil that I weve to the resouns yknyt by ordre" (IV.pr.6.36-39). After this insistence on the importance of "reasons knit together by order," she launches into a prosa. implicitly nominating prose as the formal correlate of the text's thematic investment in the ideas of temporal order and causation. Implicitly, her description also casts the "noryssynges" of music as predominantly sensual and delightful, as a non-rational counterpart to the tightly woven reasonings of prose.
The later phases of Philosophy's consolation expand upon the relationship between prose form and rational order, when Philosophy and Boece spice their prose disputations with rhetorical markers that call attention to the sequencing of logical steps in rational argumentation, markers such as "Thanne folweth it" (III.pr.9.65), "This a consequence" (III.pr.9.69), and "It moot nedly ben so" (III.pr.9.85). These phrases embody logical order that bespeaks the temporal causality intrinsic to argumentation: one point follows another logically, so that each point is necessary, caused by the point that preceded it in time. Prose is a temporal form that works "by successioun"; it is the form of order, sequence, and causation. As such, it pre-forms in the audience -- both Boece and the outside reader -- a receptivity to the ideas about order, cause, sequence and, thence, temporality that will emerge in the final book of Philosophy's consolation.
Although prosaic order is key to Philosophy's consolation, by mimicking and embodying temporality's sensible order and "successioun," prose cannot achieve its full effect without its formal twin: the metrical sections of the text, or "songs," and the aesthetic delight they bring. Although Philosophy initially condemns song, banishing the "rendynge muses of poetes" (I.m.1.4) from Boece's bedside, and calling them "nothyng fructifyenge nor profitable" who merely "destroyen the corn plentyvous of fruytes of resoun" (I.pr.1.56-57), this condemnation does not banish all song from Boethius's side, but only those judged unfruitful. Philosophy's complaint against the poetic muses is against the excessively morose content of their musings, rather than against the metrical form of song per se. In fact, apart from the selective pruning of unfruitful muses, the text develops a theory of how song can actually benefit a suffering soul.
In Book I Philosophy recognizes that she needs to use lighter, gentler medicines to soften up Boece before she can turn to the stronger medicines that will finish the healing process. The "lyghtere medicynes" to which Philosophy refers are her songs. The "more egre medicine" is the stern logic of prose argumentation. As she puts it,
as thou art now feble of thought, myghtyere remedies ne schullen noght yit touchen the. For wyche we wol usen somdel lyghtere medicynes, so that thilke passiouns that ben waxen hard in swellynge by perturbacions flowynge into thy thought, mowen waxen esy and softe to resceyven the strengthe of a more myghty and more egre medicine, by an esyere touchynge. (I.pr.5.70-78)
For Philosophy, song is a sensual agent, which eases and softens a swollen psyche by "esyere touchynge," thus paving the way for the "more myghty" medicine of prose. We see this metalyrical theory articulated in Book II with yet more precision, when, just before launching into song, Philosophy says, "But now is tyme that thou drynke and ataste some softe and delitable thynges, so that whanne thei ben entred withynne the, it mowe maken wey to strengere drynkes of medycines" (II.pr.1.37-41). Here, Philosophy registers that song can penetrate into a person, and that this penetration is a crucial part of the healing process, making way for the stronger philosophical treatments prose brings. Song's sensuality and pleasurability work in conjunction with prose's rigorous logics to bring about Boece's healing. This theorization of song contains a defense of aesthetic pleasure -- that which is "delitable" and "softe" -- as a necessary aspect of philosophical healing and psychological consolation.
Philosophy recurs to a vocabulary of sensual pleasure later in her metalyrical defense, when she offers Boece a refreshing draught of song to ease his weariness at the length of her reasoning:
thou art charged with the weyghte of the questioun, and wery with lengthe of my resoun, and that thou abydest som swetnesse of songe. Tak thanne this drawght, and, whanne thou art wel reffressched and refect, thou schalt be more stedfast to stye into heyere questions or thinges. (IV.pr.6.370-76)
Despite Philosophy's earlier banishment of the poetic muses, it is clear Boece would be nowhere without song, since song's sweetness is what makes harsh order of prose easier to swallow, and song's refreshing and nourishing nature is what makes a person "steadfast" enough to handle the "higher" matters that will be conveyed in prose. In the textual and consoling phenomenology of Philosophy's consolation, aesthetic pleasure is a lynchpin of spiritual transformation, enabling the temporal order of song to have its healing effect on a patient softened by beauty and delight.
Chaucer's translational practices recognize the importance of pleasure to Philosophy's comforts. His Boece is extremely careful to maintain the aesthetic richness and delight of the Latin original metra. As Peggy Knapp has argued, the Boece contains some of the most aesthetically rich material of Chaucer's entire corpus, what she calls the greatest instance of Chaucerian "high seriousness." Referring specifically to Chaucer's rendering of Book III, metrum 8, she says: "I cannot read this passage even now, after many years of acquaintance with it, without a thrill I can only describe as delight in beauty."(FN3) Knapp is not alone in her assessment of the text's beauty: a hundred years ago, George Saintsbury praised its ornateness, aureation of lexicon, and rhythmical cadencing, arguing that these traits were of "the greatest importance in the history of our literature."(FN4) A section from the first former metrum of the Boece reads:
For eelde is comyn unwarly uppon me, hasted by the harmes that Y have, and sorwe hath comandid his age to ben in me. Heeris hore arn schad overtymeliche upon myn heved, and the slakke skyn trembleth of myn emptid body. (I.m.1.13-17)
These lines overflow with alliterations that contribute to the drama and intensity of the passage, using sonic repetition to aestheticize semantic relatedness among words: "Heeris hore" appear on Boece's head; "eelde" comes upon Boece "unwarly"; the "harmes" he has "haste[n]" that aging process.(FN5) The alliterative binding also accentuates the vividness of the imagery contained in the passage: that "eelde" sneaks up on him "unwarly" gives the sense that age itself has some villainous agency. "Slakke skyn" trembles on Boece's "emptid body," conveying the sense of a man not only old, but withered and decrepit. The white hairs that are "schad" on his head appear in an untimely way -- the adverbial construction of "overtymeliche" ascribing a certain preternatural eeriness to the white hairs that would, otherwise, be signs of a natural aging process. The luxuriance of sound continues in the second former metrum. in the first sentence of which Chaucer creates another alliterative triplet, this time on the letter d. and combines that with a clausal rhyme between the words depnesse and clernesse: "Allas! How the thought of this man, dreynt in overthrowynge depnesse, dulleth and forleteth his propre clernesse" (I.m.2.1-3). Chaucer devotes a great deal of energy to making the metra beautiful, both in sonic patterning and in imagery.
He does so most programmatically in translating the metrum that contains Boethius's own clearest expression of lyrical phenomenology, as though he recognized the theory of lyricism Boethius held, and sought to enact it. In the third former metrum of the text, which I will include in its entirety, Chaucer produces one of the most outstandingly beautiful and richly ornamented passages in the entire Boece:
Thus, whan that nyght was discussed and chased awey, dirknesses forleten me, and to myn eien repeyred ayen hir firste strengthe. And ryght by ensaumple as the sonne is hydd whan the sterres ben clustred (that is to seyn, whan sterres ben covered with cloudes) by a swyft wynd that hyghte Chorus, and that the firmament stant dirked with wete plowngy cloudes; and that the sterres not apeeren upon hevene, so that the nyght semeth sprad upon erthe: yif than the wynde that hyghte Boreas, isent out of the kaves of the cuntre of Trace, betith this nyght (that is to seyn, chaseth it awey) and discovereth the closed day, than schyneth Phebus ischaken with sodeyn light and smyteth with his beemes in merveylynge eien. (I.m.3.1-16)
In this passage Boece describes his healing from the depths of despair as a sensual event -- a clearing of vision so that he may see the sudden light of Phoebus that smites into his "merveylynge eien" -- and as a pleasurable one. But this phenomenology of psychological healing is also a metapoetic enactment, directed at the reader: the elegance of Chaucer's writing, the rich lexicon, the recurrent alliterative clusters ("sonne" with "sterres," "clustred" with 'covered'), the vivid and unusual descriptions ("wete plowngy cloudes" and the "sodeyn light" of Phoebus), provide the reader the very sensual enjoyment that Boece himself experiences, shepherded by the beauty of Philosophy's singing. Chaucer cultivates a style designed to imitate the experience of aesthetic clarification that Boece undergoes, recreating the "sweet sounds" and "gentle touches" and "soft tastes" that Philosophy ascribes to the workings of song.
But song does not function purely to provide pleasurable gratification; Philosophy's repeated use of the phrase "enter in" (I.pr.4.2 and II.pr.1.39) to describe song's penetrative effect on Boece's mind deserves further attention, suggesting that song has a capacity to pierce into a person's consciousness. This thematization of poetic penetration reflects the narrative functioning of the metra in the overall structure of the text. The metra are independent lyrical interludes that literally pierce into the supervening and continuous order of prose exposition to create a series of disconnected excurses from the main narrative. They do not link up with each other, as the successive prosae do, but instead stand outside of time, spoken in a narratively disembodied voice that seems to look back upon the rest of the narrative from a distance. Indeed, the voice of the former metra often speaks in the past tense, as in "Thus, whan that nyght was discussed and chased awey" (I.m.3.1), whereas Philosophy's conversation with Boece takes place in the present. Sometimes, the voice of the former metra turns from the immediate narrative of Boece's conversation, to address the reader in proverbial generalities or maxims. For instance, a formerly metrical passage, which could as easily be spoken in the voice of the authorial Boece as that of Philosophy, indicating its deracination from the linear and causal progress of what surrounds it, reads, "Whoso it be that is cleer of vertue, sad and wel ordynat of lyvynge, that hath put under fote the proude wierdes, and loketh upryght upon either fortune, he may holden his chere undesconfited" (I.m.4.1-5). This metra and its sentiment are not integral to the narrative flow of the conversation between Philosophy and Boece, but instead operate as a sapiential interjection, or interruption. Narratively, the metra. then, body forth a different temporality -- perhaps better called a supratemporality -- that hovers outside of the orderly, logical, and temporal causality of the prose narration. The metra thus violate the causal and temporal order of the prosae. By that violation, the metra make the causal order of the prose narrative all the more perceptible because, when the narrative resumes its linear and temporally continuous flow, Boece and, through him, the reader are brought back to a consciousness of the continuity of time as something continuous, linear, and successive. So, in Chaucer's narrative of Philosophy's healing, the songs are not useful exclusively for their beauty, but also for their perceptible powers of penetration, which aestheticize time's steady order in the prosae.
In De consolatione the metra aestheticize time in a second way as well. Classical meter, after all, makes time sensible by its very structure, being divided into quantitative feet that measure syllabic length. Boethius, well aware of this, addresses songs as proportional and quantitative uses of time in his other major text, De institutione musica. analyzing how music and song combine the temporal quantities of sounds or syllables into rhythmic proportions, producing harmonies, which a hearer then finds aesthetically pleasurable because they resonate with the harmonies that exist in his own soul.(FN6) Boethius does not explicitly address this formal capacity of meter in De consolatione. but he does subtly thematize and aestheticize it in a song in the middle of De consolatione. called "O qui perpetua" (III.m.9). This song describes, in carefully measured and proportioned verse, how God created the world in time, binding his creation by numbers to create universal accord or harmony. It calls God the "perpetual being" who "governs the world by reason," praising how God draws into stability all moving things, leading them forth by example, and how He is the most beautiful of beauties. Then the song turns to laud how God "links the elements together by numbers" and "draws living beings together in consonance" ("Tu numeris elementa ligas," "Connectens animam per consona membra resolvis" [III.m.9]).(FN7) In this, Boethius creates a metalyrical meditation on what he himself is doing on the level of poetics: he is linking the lines of his poem together by proportional numbers, drawing its members together by consonance and rhythmic likeness. For Boethius, the metrical form of the poem aestheticized and thus reinforced its thematic points about God's wondrous nature, which calls into resonant shape the time-bound world.
Meter, then, worked in three ways for Boethius: first, it conferred a sensual "delight"; second, it ruptured and thus highlighted the ongoing temporal order of prose narration; third, it aestheticized time metrically. Chaucer's translation carefully maintains the first two of these workings of meter -- the sensual beauty and the narrative-rupturing phenomenology of Boethian metra. But, in Boece. we encounter an interesting meta-literary problem: Chaucer renders the entire work in prose; the metra are metra in name only. As a result, the final facet of Boethius's prosimetric aestheticization of time -- his use of quantitative meter -- is elided from the Middle English rendering.
In his decision to flatten the verse, Chaucer may be following the all-prose format of Jean de Meun's intermediate French translation.(FN8) Alternatively, he may have produced a prose translation of the text initially, intending to release a revised, reversified edition subsequently -- an intention that was never realized.(FN9) Both of these explanations surely had something to do with Chaucer's decision to render Boethius's text in prose, but the third reason may have lain in his recognition that the very metrical forms Boethius used in his text -- based on temporal quantities and proportionate relationships among the lengths of lines -- were not available to him in English. Indeed, Chaucerian poetry is not based on the temporal duration of metrical feet, quantities of sound, or proportion of syllables; in a classical sense, Chaucerian poetry is non-metrical. Instead, as many scholars have demonstrated, it is accentual-syllabic, allowing for a far greater degree of variability in scansion, stress, syllabic count, and temporal duration than either classical poetry had or Renaissance poetry would have.(FN10) Chaucer may have leveled the metra in the Boece. then, in recognition of his inability to aestheticize time as Boethius had done in Latin. With the formal leveling of the metra, the full literary phenomenology of Boethius's prosimetrum is diminished, despite the aesthetic richness of Chaucer's formerly metrical prose.
But after the Boece Chaucer does not abandon the problem of how verse makes time sensible. In the Canon's Yeoman's Tale Chaucer revisits and reasserts the power of verse alone to recreate the functionality of Boethian prosimetrum. After decades of critical neglect, this tale has been reclassified as a jewel of the Chaucerian canon, even as a metapoetic work that depicts alchemy as a metaphor for poetry, the Yeoman a standin for Chaucer.(FN11) What I want to suggest, however, is that the Yeoman is not so much a stand-in for Chaucer as he is a counterpoint to Boethius. In the Yeoman's performance, we will see a treble combination of aesthetic delight, temporal rupture, and an attention to metrics that qualifies the poem as an ecstatic answer to the prosimetric problematics of Boethius's text.
Chaucer stages the poem as a meditation on the difficulties of establishing a vernacular "metrics" and of translating Latinate metrical practices into English, both expressed in the Yeoman's lamentation about the difficulties of speaking about alchemy. In this lamentation the Yeoman uses the terms "proporcion" and "quantitee" to describe the measurement of alchemical ingredients.
What sholde I tellen ech proporcion
Of thynges whiche that we werche upon-
As on fyve or sixe ounces, may wel be,
Of silver, or som oother quantitee.
Although these terms are on one level concerned with material measurement, they also refer to the measurement of words, to the unmeetable exigencies of Latinate metrics.(FN12) After all, when the Yeoman laments the hardships of finding proportion and quantity of physical ingredients, he actually laments the futility of talking about measurement. He says, "What sholde I tellen ech proporcion/Of thynges whiche that we werche upon." Moreover, by using the musical and poetical terms proporcion and quantitee to talk about this difficulty, he suggests that enfolding alchemy not just into words, but specifically into metered language is where the difficulty lies. Thus, the Yeoman's complaints thematize the difficulties of versification, where versification is conceptualized as a practice of measuring language into time.
The metalyrical lamentation of the difficulty of measuring the language of alchemy into "proportional" and "quantitative" meter reflects the tale's broader fixation on time and temporality. Indeed, Lee Patterson's analysis of the tale argues that temporality is the Yeoman's fundamental obsession. And we might expect that obsession, given that alchemical theory held that all elements existed in a natural state of gradual improvement over time. Lead tended naturally toward gold -- just very slowly. It was the office of an alchemist to hurry that process along.(FN13) An alchemist's job was thus to obviate the natural and gradual process of time. As Patterson reveals, the Yeoman's verbal practices -- his puns, his obsessive self-interruptions, his haste, his disordered entry into the tale-telling competition -- everywhere reveal him to be possessed of this alchemical mindset, lodged, as it were, in the future, rather than the present.(FN14)
From a Boethian standpoint, the alchemical fixation on the accelerability of the present into the future represents a misunderstanding of temporal order and causation and a misconstruction of the way God gives time to mankind -- in necessary order, or, in Chaucer's phrasing, "by successioun." We should expect someone as estranged from the consoling order of temporality as the Yeoman to be equally estranged from divine comfort. But the Yeoman's verse practices complicate the tale's engagement with Boethian philosophy to suggest that there is a way of violating temporal order that can bring health to the soul. To reveal how his verse alchemic works to heal his soul, I will focus on his entrance into the Tales. as well as on three aspects of his verbal style: first, his tendency to create lists; second, his tendency to allow the syntax of his utterances to overflow lines; and third, the sheer aesthetic richness of his poetic style.
To begin with, as many scholars have noted, the Yeoman erupts into the scene of the tale-telling competition out of nowhere. This is an important observation, but it does not fully expose what Chaucer achieves on a narrative level: the Yeoman does not so much emerge out of nowhere -- we know he was just outside Boughton-on-Blee -- but out of no when. His arrival into the pilgrimage utterly violates the temporal order of the pilgrimage, interrupting the narrative flow of the text. This is not, of course, the first time the order is interrupted, but it is the most conspicuous in that the Yeoman is the sole pilgrim to tell a tale without having been factored into the narrative trajectory from the beginning. In the conspicuous manner of its violation of temporal order, the Yeoman's performance functionally echoes the Boethian metra. coming in from outside of the temporal continuity of the proses. In the Boece. by that action of interruption, the supratemporal and non-contiguous metra render the continuous temporality of the prose sections all the more feelable. Similarly, when the Yeoman crashes the party, we feel his interruption, and become aware of the pilgrimage as a formerly temporally-continuous literary experience. The Yeoman is a metrical or lyrical interlude, piercing into the ears of his hearers from outside of narrative time, intruding into the midst of the temporally ordered and continuous tale-telling competition, and making time all the more sensible by violating it.
But this is not the only means by which the Yeoman's verse makes time sensible: he also does so by stretching the Chaucerian line to its utmost rhythmical flexion. The Yeoman, more than any other Canterbury pilgrim, is a consummate lister, and his lists are of a specific and strange kind. A list, such as one finds in a recipe, is notable for its implicit temporal order: one performs the first action listed first, the second, second, and so on. But the Yeoman's alchemical lists are not logically ordered, and this disorderliness is something of which he is well aware. He says in a preface to a list of alchemical ingredients,
Though I by ordre hem nat reherce kan,
By cause that I am a lewed man,
Yet wol I telle hem as they come to mynde,
Thogh I ne kan nat sette hem in hir kynde.
The Yeoman's lists are jumbles of technical terms. They do not, that is, create logical causality, and instead aestheticize the disorder of the Yeoman's own mind. As such, they work in a manner opposed to the order of Boethian prose. To show what I mean, I will quote one list in its entirety:
As boole armonyak, verdegrees, boras,
And sondry vessels maad of erthe and glas,
Oure urynales and oure descensories,
Violes, crosletz, and sublymatories,
Cucurbites and alambikes eek,
And othere swiche, deere ynough a leek-
Nat nedeth it for to reherce hem alle-
Watres rubifiyng, and boles galle,
Arsenyk, sal armonyak, and brymstoon;
And herbes koude I telle eek many oon,
As egremoyne, valerian, and lunarie,
And othere swiche, if that me liste tarie;
Oure lampes brennyng bothe nyght and day,
To brynge aboute oure purpos, if we may;
Oure fourneys eek of calcinacioun,
And of watres albificacioun;
Unslekked lym, chalk, and gleyre of an ey,
Poudres diverse, asshes, donge, pisse, and cley,
Cered pokkets, sal peter, vitriole,
And diverse fires maad of wode and cole;
Sal tartre, alkaly, and sal preparat,
And combust materes and coagulat;
Cley maad with hors or mannes heer, and oille
Of tartre, alum glas, berme, wort, and argoille,
Resalgar, and oure materes enbibyng,
And eek of oure materes encorporyng,
And of oure silver citrinacioun,
Oure cementyng and fermentacioun,
Oure yngottes, testes, and many mo.
This list has no narrative logic, no order, no reason. It is, in a Boethian sense, anti-prose.
It is also, strangely, anti-meter. As the Yeoman noted earlier, he cannot narrate the "quantitee" or "proporcion" of alchemical ingredients. Here we see Chaucer dramatizing not only the Yeoman's inability to create a regular classical meter but even his struggle to enfold his Latinate lexicon into the confines of a five-stress English line of accentual-syllabic verse. Numerous lines in this jumbled concatenation of ingredients seem to have six stresses, such as "Arsenyk, sal armonyak and brym-stoon," "Cley maad with hors of mannes heer, and oille," or "Of tartre, alum glas, berme, wort, and argoille." In creating this crisis of rhythm, however, the Yeoman makes a reader all the more sensible to the normal order and measure of Chaucer's lines. It may not be quantitative meter, but it is a rhyme patterned to make time feel out of joint by its sheer excessiveness. Whereas Boethius's metra accentuated temporality through their precise and measured deployment of classical quantity and proportion, the Yeoman's verse alchemic highlights the standard rhythmical order of Chaucer's lines precisely by violating it. Through the Yeoman's disorderly lists, Chaucer makes order sensible, and he makes it sensible as a function of rhythm, rather than time.
Chaucer also uses the Yeoman's verse practices to violate the linear temporality of reading itself, through enjambment. The Yeoman's enjambments call attention at once to the nature of time as alchemical -- by which I mean recursive and breakable -- rather than linear and continuous. In answer to Harry Bailly's question as to whether the Canon knows tales, the Yeoman exclaims,
"Who, sire? My lord? Ye, ye, withouten lye,
He kan of murthe and eek of jolitee
Nat but ynough."
Here, the second line indicates that the Canon knows of mirth and jollity, but the clause wraps around to the next line, so that the "nat but ynough" destabilizes the unqualified claim that the Canon "kan of murthe and eek of jolitee." In the very next lines, the Yeoman's enjambments continue:
also, sire, trusteth me,
And ye hym knewe as wel as do I,
Ye wolde wondre how wel and craftily
He koude werke, and that in sondry wise.
He hath take on hym many a greet emprise,
Which were ful hard for any that is heere
To brynge aboute, but they of hym it leere.
On its own, line 606 can be read to mean that the Canon's "many a greet emprise" would be "ful hard for any that is heere," which is to say, that his enterprises would be unfortunate events -- "hard times," as it were -- for anyone present to become embroiled with. The following line, however, disposes of this ominous meaning, and completes the previous line so that it means that anyone would have a hard time bringing about alchemy without the aid of the alchemist himself. Later, when the Yeoman is wrestling with his own verbal addiction to alchemy, and trying to convince himself to stop recounting the details of alchemical practice to the other pilgrims, he creates a temporary syntactic and semantic ambiguity:
For, as I trowe, I have yow toold ynowe
To reyse a feend, al looke he never so rowe.
Reading only the first line, the Yeoman's comment sounds like a simple modesty topos, a narrator's attempt not to talk his audience into boredom: "I've told you enough." With the enjambed clause, "To reyse a feend," the Yeoman's reason for cutting himself off suddenly seems more ominous: he is not simply suffering from logorrhea, but actually endangering his audience with the kinds of things he is saying.
In terms of its implicit awareness of temporality as a poetic constraint, perhaps the most powerful enjambment occurs a few hundred lines earlier, when the Yeoman describes the close proximity of alchemists to the devil:
Though that the feend noght in oure sighte hym shewe,
I trowe he with us be, that ilke shrewe!
In helle, where that he lord is and sire,
Nis ther moore wo, ne moore rancour ne ire.
In this example, line 917 could be read as end-stopped, suggesting simply that the devil is in the real world alongside alchemists: "I trowe he with us be, that ilke shrewe." The next two lines would then mean simply, "In hell, where he is lord and sire, there is no more woe, rancor, or ire than there is (implicitly) in the here and now." A second reading could read through the enjambment, suggesting again that the devil is with the alchemists, but now that all of them are in hell already: "I trowe he with us be, that ilke shrewe, in helle, where that he is lord and sire." A hellish afterlife coincides with the alchemists' actual lived experience, and the damned future is the damned present. Even though the unfolding grammar of the sentence eventually disposes of this second meaning, the lineation of the poem and the division of the sentence among a number of lines creates an ambiguity of grammar and syntax that makes alternate readings temporarily available, even when context ultimately ratchets down on those alternates.
This is a tale that not only indulges in temporal play, but allows that play to colonize the poem. It is a tale invested in showing how verse can aestheticize time, precisely by violating its continuity. It does so narratively, when the Yeoman bursts in on the tale-telling competition, rhythmically, by creating so many barely-scannable lines, and semantically, by enjambing so many of them. For the Yeoman, material alchemy may be beyond reach, but verse alchemic, in all its time-bending glory, is perfectly doable.
Not only does the Yeoman create a poem designed to aestheticize time, but also one simply aesthetically replete, loaded with sonic and rhythmical beauty. Jane Hilberry has discussed the tale's aesthetic richness. suggesting that the language of science, with its latinate vocabulary, becomes an ideal testing ground for lyrical poetry.(FN15) I would add to Hilberry's assessment by pointing out that the Yeoman's inability or refusal to sequence his alchemical ingredients, his refusal, in effect, to create a linear narrative out of his knowledge, calls attention to each individual line as, in itself, an achievement of sound: to enfold an enormity of exotic-sounding jargon into a densely packed set of lines serves to highlight the virtuosity of poetic composition itself, rather than the particularity of the ideas contained in the lines. The Yeoman's listing poetry is, in that sense, only serving an aesthetic purpose, and is precisely not serving a rational or cognitive one. In this, the Yeoman's performance reproduces another function of Boethian verse, namely, to provide pure sensory delight.
Moreover, recurring to my own observations about the Yeoman's overflowing syntax, I would argue that his use of enjambment augments the pleasure in reading the poem: as one moves through the Yeoman's often complex lines, one experiences, over and over, the frisson of realizing that his meanings are always in excess of what they seem. This superabundant richness of his language casts his tale as a metapoetic aria against necessity or order -- the fundamental motives behind Boethian prose -- as writerly imperatives. As the Yeoman says, "Nat nedeth it for to reherce hem alle" (VIII 796). There is no need, no narrative necessity, to rehearse the alchemical ingredients. In the context of the non-necessary nature of his lists, the Yeoman's choice to make them anyway suggests that something other than narrative logic motivates his listing, something, perhaps, like desire or pleasure. The Yeoman's frantic listing, that is, embodies a poetics born purely of desire and linguistic obsession, rather than commitment to the communication of knowledge. So, in the end, I want to suggest that the Canon's Yeoman's Prologue and Tale do in alchemic verse what Boethius had done in prosimetrum: recreate the functionality of prosimetrum as a twin aestheticization of time and production of sensory pleasure.
Chaucer encourages us to read the poem as a response to Boethius by appending a contemplative and transformative end to the Yeoman's verbal alchemy. Indeed, Bruce Grenberg has argued that the Yeoman the-matizes the opposition between worldly wealth and the search for God that had also preoccupied Boece. and that the end of the tale should be read as the Yeoman's turn away from materiality and toward God, much as Boethius's conversation with Philosophy ultimately leads him away from an overvaluation of the material world and toward an appropriate valuation of God and divine providence.(FN16) This assessment of the text's final narrative maneuvers is borne out in its last ten lines:
Thanne conclude I thus, sith that God of hevene
Ne wil nat that the philosophres nevene
How that a man shal come unto this stoon,
I rede, as for the beste, lete it goon.
For whoso maketh God his adversarie,
As for to werken any thyng in contrarie
Of his wil, certes, never shal he thryve,
Thogh that he multiplie terme of his lyve.
And there a poynt, for ended is my tale.
God sende every trewe man boote of his bale!
Apparently, verse alchemic, complete with its ability to bend time and fly in the face of order, is as apt a vehicle for transformation as the twinned form of prose and song had been for Boece. On a narrative level, through his troubled temporality and disorderly beauty, the Yeoman manages to bring himself into a higher state of consciousness, a state of contemplation of God, rather than an obsessive dwelling on fortune. On a meta-critical level, through the Yeoman's verse alchemic, Chaucer writes his own consolation, though it seems to be a consolation of poetry, rather than one of prosimetrum.
University of California Berkeley Berkeley, California (email@example.com)
1. Many scholars of Boethius, as well as of medieval aesthetic theory, have noted the centrality of the idea of order to Boethius's consolation, arguing that all perceptible orders in the universe are manifestations of divine beauty; see Umberto Eco, Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages (New Haven, 1986), 31-32. Others have argued that order itself -- the idea of a divine intention behind all perceptible structures -- is at the heart of Philosophy's consolation; see Seth Lerer, Boethius and Dialogue (Princeton, 1985), 209; and Elaine Scarry, "The Well-Rounded Sphere: The Metaphysical Structure of the Consolation of Philosophy," in Caroline Eckhardt, ed., Essays in the Numerical Criticism of Medieval Literature (London, 1980), 91-140, at 122. See also Richard Dwyer, Boethian Fictions: Narratives in the Medieval Tradition (Cambridge, Mass., 1976), 22; and John Marenbon, Boethius (Oxford, 2003), 148, who identifies the representation of "natural order" as one of the key steps in the philosophical reeducation of Boethius.
2. This and all subsequent citations of Chaucer are drawn from The Riverside Chaucer. ed. Larry D. Benson, 3rd edn. (Boston, 1987).
3. Peggy Knapp, "Aesthetic Attention and the Chaucerian Text," Chaucer Review 39 (2005): 241-58, at 244.
4. See George Saintsbury, "Chaucer," in A. W. Ward and A. R., Waller, eds., The Cambridge History of English Literature, Vol. 2: The End of the Middle Ages (New York, 1907), 179-224, at 213.
5. In this use of alliteration to underscore semantically linked terms, Chaucer's prose style resembles Aelfric's rhythmical prose style, in which "each modifier is bound in place by alliteration and a rhythmic symmetry of some kind, [so that] it seems necessary and just" (Anne Middleton, "Aelfric's Answerable Style: The Rhetoric of Alliterative Prose," Mediaeval Studies 4 : 83-91, at 88).
6. For a lucid overview of this theory of music as consisting in the measurement of time and creation of rhythmical proportion, see Richard L. Crocker, "Musica Rhythmica and Musica Metrica in Antique and Medieval Theory," Journal of Music Theory 2 (1958): 2-23; see also Eco, Art and Beauty. 31-33. The perception of musical harmony is simultaneously aesthetically pleasurable and ethically fortifying, because in the regularity and measurement of music one hears, in effect, the harmony of the universe and the harmony of the self with the universe reflected in the harmonies of the sounds. As Boethius puts it, "Quia non potest dubitari quin nostrae animae et corporis status, eisdem quodammodo proportionibus videatur esse compositus, quibus harmonicas modulationes posterior disputatio conjungi copularique monstrabit. Inde est enim quod infantes quoque cantilena dulcis oblectat" (It cannot be doubted that the status of our soul and body seems to be composed, in a certain manner, of the same proportions with which the following discussion will show harmonious modulations are yoked and joined together. For this is also the reason that a sweet song pleases infants; Boethius, De institutione musica. I.1 [PL 63:1171]). See also De institutione musica. I.7, I.10, I.11, and I.15-19, for an ongoing discussion of the ways in which musical proportion reflects the proportionality of universal order and goodness, including the goodness of the soul.
7. From Boethius, Philosophiae Consolatio. ed. Ludwig Bieler (Turnhout, 1957), 52.
8. It is widely believed that Chaucer used Jean de Meun's translation of De consolatione into Old French as a crib; Jean's translation was also entirely in prose. There is thus reason to believe Chaucer might initially have derived his impetus for rendering the entire text in prose from Jean's intermediate translation. For a presentation of the Latin text and Jean's text, see Tim William Machan, ed., with the assistance of A. J. Minnis, Sources of the Boece (Athens, Ga., 2005), 26-223.
9. See Tim William Machan, Techniques of Translation: Chaucer's Boece (Norman, Okla., 1985), 124.
10. See Morris Halle and Samuel Keyser, "Chaucer and the Study of Prosody," College English 28 (1966): 187-214; Samuel Keyser, "The Linguistic Basis of English Prosody," in D. Reibel and Sanford Schane, eds., Modern English Studies (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1969); and W. K. Wimsatt, "The Rule and the Norm," College English 31 (1970): 774-88.
11. See David Raybin's claim that the Yeoman is an "alchemist-artist," and that his story embodies "an exaltation of artistic striving -- that is, human striving in its ultimate expression," particularly in the Prima pars of the story ("'And Pave It Al of Silver and of Gold': The Humane Artistry of the Canon's Yeoman's Tale," in Susanna Greer Fein, David Raybin, and Peter C. Braeger, eds., Rebels and Rivals: The Contestive Spirit in the Canterbury Tales (Kalamazoo, Mich., 1991, 189-212.) For discussions of the socio-historical meaning of alchemy, see esp. Britton Harwood, "Chaucer and the Silence of History: Situating the Canon's Yeoman's Tale." PMLA 102 (1987): 338-50; and Lee Patterson, "Perpetual Motion: Alchemy and the Technology of the Self," in his Temporal Circumstances: Form and History in the Canterbury Tales (New York, 2006), 159-76.
12. For instances of the discussion of quantity as a term of metrical and musical arts, see Boethius, De institutione musica. I.6 (PL 63:1174D-1175A): "Et quoniam gravitas et acumen in quantitate consistunt, ea maxime videbuntur servare naturam concinentiae, quae discretae proprietatem quantitatis poterunt custodire. Nam cum sit alia quidem discreta quantitas. alia vero continua, ea quae discreta est in minimo quidem finita est, sed in infinitum per majora procedit" (And since weight and sharpness consist in quantity. those things which can preserve the quality of discrete quantity will seem most of all to preserve the nature of the harmony. For although one quantity is indeed discrete and another continuous, that which is discrete is on the smallest scale finite but progresses through the addition of more finite quantities to infinity; my emphasis). See also MED. s.v. quantitee. For instances of proportion as a term of Latin musical and metrical theory, see Boethius, De institutione musica. I.1 (quoted above in note 6).
13. Patterson, "Perpetual Motion," 172-73.
14. Patterson, "Perpetual Motion," 160-64.
15. Jane Hilberry analyzes the sonic play -- the repetitions of liquid letters (l and r) in close succession -- that characterizes the tale and distinguishes it from other tales ("'And in Oure Madnesse Everemoore We Rave': Technical Language in the Canon's Yeoman's Tale." Chaucer Review 21 : 435-43).
16. See Bruce Grenberg, "The Canon's Yeoman's Tale: Boethian Wisdom and the Alchemists," Chaucer Review 1 (1966): 37-54.