ANDY GALLOWAY: Welcome, everybody. I'm Andy Galloway, the acting chair of English for a bit longer. The staff have reminded me to tell you to silence cell phones or other devices, and also to please join us after the talk for a reception in the English department lounge upstairs.
The MH Abrams Visiting Professorship was established in 2006 by the late Stephen Weiss, class of 1957, in honor of MH Mike Abrams, the late class of 1916 professor emeritus. Those who've held this position have brought us and our students a feast of lectures and classes from Sandra Gilbert to Ian Balfour and Maureen Quilligan, and many others over the last decade.
And this year, we're very fortunate to host as Abrams Professor Seth Lerer, currently distinguished professor of literature at UC San Diego. Seth received his PhD at Chicago and began, and might well have continued to this day, his academic career at Princeton, rising in just nine years-- a significant number, it seems, in his career-- from assistant to full professor, where he wrote his initial book, Boethius and Dialogue-- Literary Method in the Consolation of Philosophy, which won honorable mention for the John Nicholas Brown Prize for the Medieval Academy.
That book's investigation of the gradual decline of literary dialogue in response to the dwindling of late antique Roman public oratory into more privatized pedagogical literacy suggests, but surely does not predict, the focus of his next major study on the powerful idea of literacy in Anglo-Saxon literature and culture, Literacy and Power in Anglo-Saxon England. This was written at the end of Seth's Princeton period, published just as he arrived at Stanford, where over the next 18 years-- another multiple of nine year segments-- he proceeded from professor of English to professor of English in Comparative Literature and Avalon Foundation Professor of Humanities, the last a position he held for exactly nine years, while writing a succession of books on medieval English language and literature that established him as one of the great scholars in medieval studies, especially on Chaucer and the history of the English language, from his Chaucer and His Readers, imagining the author in late medieval England, which won the Beatrice White Prize from the English Association, to courtly letters in the age of Henry VIII, Literature, Culture, and the Arts of Deceit, to his studies of modern criticism and modern historical philology, Error and the Academic Self-- The Scholarly Imagination, Medieval to Modern, which won the Harry Levin prize from the Comparative Literature Association; and the widely acclaimed, Inventing English-- A Portable History of the Language.
As a shift from Boethius' late antiquity to Anglo-Saxon England suggests, Seth's books have preceded chronologically, progressively tracking later and wider spans of history. His progress through so many periods and focuses is itself one of the great gifts he offers to medieval studies and to the idea of modern philology. As if these spans were not big and varied enough, at the close of his years at Stanford came another major turn with Seth's eloquent and enormously wide study of Children's Literature-- A Reader's History from Aesop to Harry Potter, which won numerous awards, including the National Book Critics Circle Award in criticism in 2008.
By then, he was dean of Arts and Humanities and distinguished professor of literature at UC San Diego, which he relinquished in 2014 to continue as distinguished professor of literature at UC San Diego. As a medievalist, I'm tempted to dwell on the interest, importance, and appealing liveliness of Seth's writings on the wide span of medieval literature and modern medieval scholarship, from Anglo-Saxon literature to the Norse analogs of Beowulf to Eric Auerbach to the history of English, a topic on which he produced some excellent Great Courses tapes, and especially to Chaucer, a dauntingly wide and varied body of work in important ways, following the model of the great 20th century philologists, especially Eric Auerbach.
Though I must omit details, I can mention in this span one of Seth's recurrent themes, the capacity of readers to merge with and become writers. And indeed, the constant if not intrinsic blurring between these categories, the demonstration of sensitive and wide responses to literature as themselves literary makers, as creative and literary artists, offers a constant affirmation in Seth's work of the importance, value, and creativity of the critic and the reader, including, of course, the rhetorically and literarily brilliant critic like himself, but also, as is always visible in his work, the humble scribe, glossier, and participatory reader.
Seth's attention to this is profoundly democratizing. It continually shows how reading and criticism are vitally creative and writerly acts, how acts of participation and insightful responses are themselves central to all creativity. I think we need these reminders, all the more so when the humanities and the English major are sidelined or reductively categorized, perhaps all the more as the principles of democracy seem more vulnerable than we had thought.
In that connection, I'm also tempted to speak of Seth's support of the wider community of medievalists, especially younger medievalist. But rather than delay you yet more, I'll close simply by alerting you to his livelier, even less expected range of the power of creative reading in the recent studies on children's literature. Prime among those, of course, is his acclaimed children's literature, significantly subtitled, "A Reader's History."
What's remarkable about that study is not only the vast and fascinating range of times and places, alerting us to the innumerable roles of readers within and without the stories in texts it considers from antiquity on, particularly his discussions, I think, of 19th and 20th century children's literature and its audiences. Not only that, but also the book's capacity to follow sometimes swiftly the vast tradition down into the 19th century and into our own present, even into his present.
I'll quote just two sentences from Children's Literature, A Reader's History. "When I was four, my father would lull me to sleep with Rumplestiltskin," Seth opens the chapter by writing. "Each night, he would begin with the fair miller's daughter, who could, so her father bragged, spin straw into gold." Now, some might recall that story doesn't end well. The magical Rumplestiltskin appears just in time to give the miller's daughter gold for her straw so she can placate the King, who marries her.
But the magic creature, who withholds his name, is so frustrated that the miller's daughter finally learns his name that he stamps a foot in the ground and rips himself in half by pulling too hard on the other. But Seth picks that example to show the bizarre products of 19th century remaking of folk traditions, and further, how 19th century philologists, our ancestors as literary scholars like the Brothers Grimm, were virtually the arbiters of social life.
All this is too much for an introduction, but I can't resist mentioning finally, finally Seth's more recent contributions to children's literature, such as the stimulating annotations with which he fills the margins of his new edition of Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows. There his annotations in [INAUDIBLE] philological tradition include references to the author's contemporary thought world, such as when Seth cites fantasy [INAUDIBLE] psychoanalytic views to contextualize the story of the maniacal Mr. Toad.
Toad, after his wild ride, angrily refuses to remove his goggles, cap, gaters, and enormous overcoat. "Shan't." See Richard von Krafft-Ebing's Text-book of Insanity, Seth annotates here, on the irascible self-importance of the maniac. So, since Seth shows us that responsive reading is so important a creative and critical act, I introduce you to one of our times great readers, Seth Lerer, speaking on the English lyric, medieval or early modern.
SETH LERER: Thank you, Andy. That was a very thoughtful and full introduction. I'm really grateful for your generosity and for the invitation to serve as the Abrams Visiting Professor this term. I'm grateful to my students, some of whom are here, for providing me with such stimulus in the classroom, and the colleagues, some of whom I've known for a very long time, some of whom I'm just meeting now. My topic is the English lyric. And it's both a great privilege and also a daunting opportunity to talk about the English lyric here at Cornell, whose English department has for more than 50 years been the site of theoretical reflection on the nature of the lyric genre and the challenges to literary practice and classroom pedagogy.
MH Abram's own structure and style in the greater romantic lyric of 1965 set a template for discussing not just the romantic lyric but short verse for a range of historical periods, verse that established a first person speaker in a localized landscape, that gave voice to what he called "a fluent vernacular," and that structures that vernacular through patterns of return and repetition. Behind Abram's essay was not only the creation of a canon of particular poems and an argument about authorial fashioning in relationship to a literary past. Behind it was a sense of form's relationship to history.
Abrams aligns lyricism and subjectivity. But he also aligns the practice of analyzing formal, verbal structure with the larger arc of historical and period claim. For me, the pressure point of his essay is the recognition that particular formal structures and generic choices have a dynamic rather than a static relationship to each other. And furthermore, that our own notions of what constitute the lyric need continuously to be historicized.
Not to argue that there is a distinctive trans-historical or transcultural nature of the short poem in the first person, but rather to attend to the ways in which such poem can become bearers of a certain sense of literary history itself. Medieval and early modern poetry has raised critical problems, equally challenging, about how we historicize a set of texts long relegated to intense, formalist, close reading. The medieval lyric has often been left out of the political and institutional narratives generated by three decades of historicist criticism.
And yet the world of the English lyric is a world of material and linguistic culture, the world of the manuscript anthology, the early printed collection, tensions emerging in vernacular poetics, the rise of an official English, and the larger questions of performance and reading, oscillating between public display and private recollection. At stake in historicizing the lyric is not, I think, to generate topical interpretations of poetic origins, but rather to show how form itself is a historical problem. And this is, I think, to some extent, part of what Jonathan Culler is confronting in his most recent book, Theory of the Lyric.
The sense as he puts it, quote, "That a major obstacle to the project of a theory of the lyric is the historicist presumption of much literary criticism today," end quote. As he says, the history of literary forms is unlike social and political history, reversible. That is, that literary forms can take on new life in later periods and that literary history keeps returning in a recursive way to older genres.
Lyric poetry is the site of lyric, excuse me, of generic history. And as Culler points out, such a history often motivates a pedagogic practice, not simply analyzing and teaching poems, but recognizing that the force of so much lyric poetry is the force of the teaching voice. So what I'm trying to get at is that certain developments in the history of lyric and theory and reading, and the relationship of formalism to historicism, are going to motivate a reassessment of a literary period that I'm concerned with, the period between the death of Chaucer and the rise of Sir Thomas Wyatt that's been neglected.
CS Lewis called it the "drab age" of literary history, of prolix Chaucerian allegorists, of oriet golden writers. But the past three decades have seen a profound critical reassessment of this time. Indeed, the whole question of late medieval, of early modern, even of lyric itself, these are terms that have gone under renewed scrutiny. The authors who have provoked this scrutiny include John Lydgate, George Ashby, Stephen Hawes, John Skelton, and Alexander Barclay.
Chair de Leon that remarkable Anglo-English poet, has been increasingly recognized too as a writer of immense subtlety. And Bernard-Henri, still hardly read, remains one of the great oratorical verse makers of any age, though his work was almost exclusively in Latin. The ministrations of the early print shop, the commerce of the bookseller, all of these have enabled us to recover a literary culture, keyed to poetry not just as a social good or an aesthetic object but as a commodity, and of the vernacular as a contested space for cultural belonging and individual identity.
So to reassess late medieval English poetry or poetry in the so-called transitional period is to look backwards as well as forward. The verbal artistry of what we long have thought of as Renaissance or early modern was in many ways not only indebted to but in creative dialogue with earlier medieval forms. There's a great deal that's, quote unquote, "medieval" about such a characteristically Renaissance work as say, Richard Tottel's Songes and Sonettes, what we know as "Tottel's Miscellany," first published in 1557.
It contains a copy of Chaucer's poem, "Truth." It contains poems about Troilus and Cressida. It contains poems that reference characters from the Canterbury Tales. During the Tudor period, the poetry of the Middle English past was being read and copied diligently and sensitively. It was being printed over and over again.
And Chaucer and Gower, in particular, escaped the ministrations of Henry VIII's thought machine, when in the late 1330s, excuse me, in the late 14, 15, I'll get there. In the late-- what day is it? In the lake 1530s and late 50 and early 1540s, Henry VIII demanded that the earlier works of literature, which he deemed to be papist, could not be printed, written, or as he said, ciphered. And yet, Chaucer and Gower escaped them.
With the rise of Mary Tudor and what we might charitably call the Catholic interregnum in the period of the 16th century, these older pre-Reformation authors were printed once again. It's only really with the establishment of Elizabethan Protestant hegemony that much of this earlier poetry finally gets written out, as it were, of earlier literary history. And I have a quotation from Roger Ascham's The Schoolmaster, from 1570.
"In our forefathers' time, when papistry as a standing pool, covered and overflowed all England, few books were read in our tongue, saving certain books of chivalry, as they said, for pastime and pleasure, which as some say, were made in monasteries by idol monks or wanton canons." Now in 1570, writing about idle monks or wanton canons and papistry could not but allude to John Lydgate, the 15th century writer known as the monk of Bury. And the reference to books read for pastime and pleasure could not but evoke the title of Stephen Hawes' best known poem, "The Pastime of Pleasure," published by Wynkyn de Worde in 1509 and reprinted frequently thereafter.
Stephen Hawes in particular was a poet of oreation and allegory. That is, "oreation," a poetics that grounded itself in the development of a highly complex, polysyllabic, Latinate vocabulary that was imagined to be golden or pure or lasting. And then "allegorical," offering up a narrative form of educational and adventurous encounters, each of which brought a fictive character into conversation with a transparently named representative of a mental, social, or intellectual concept like "sapience" or "gluttony."
This tradition of oriet allegorics stands behind a poem long attributed to Sir Thomas Wyatt and preserved in a single copy in the famous Devonshire Manuscript, British Library additional 17492. And this is the poem that I'll be discussing, which begins here and ends there. I will put up a transcription of the text. But I want you to see the manuscript in which it uniquely appears.
It begins with the line, "Absence absenting causeth me to complain." This is a poem that's largely been ignored, unlike the sonnets, lyrics, and ballads that have defined what we think of as Wyatt's unquiet sensibility, poems like "They Flee From Me" or "Mine Own John Poynz" or the Petrarchan translations. This poem lacks what we have come to expect of Thomas Wyatt at his best. Rather than strutting and careful iambs, the verse seems to limp along in uneven stresses.
It seems to look back to the golden language of the 15th century. Rather than developing an argument through sinuous logic, it seems simply to repeat itself. The poet's isolation here builds through iteration, echoing the final phrasing of each quatrain in the words of the next. And while this text is no more or less clear than any other text in the famous Devonshire Manuscript, it's hard to find a published edition of this poem that does not rewrite it, regularize its form or its meter. So here it is, and I am going to read it.
"Absence absenting causeth me to complain. My sorrowful complaints abiding in distress and departing most privy increaseth my pain. Thus live I uncomforted wrapped in all heaviness. In heaviness I am wrapped, devoid of all solace. Neither pastime nor pleasure can revive my dull wit.
My spirits be all taken, and death doth me menace with his fatal knife the thread for to cut. For to cut the thread of this wretched life and shortly bring me out of this case, I see it availeth not. Yet must I be pensive, since fortune from me have turned her face, have turned with countenance contrarious. And clean from her presence, she hath exiled me in sour remaining as a man most dolorous, exempt for all pleasure and worldly felicity.
All worldly felicity now I am private and left in desert most solitary, wandering all about as one without mate. My death approacheth. What remedy, what remedy alas to rejoice, my woeful heart, with sighs suspiring most ruefully? Now welcome, I am ready to depart. Farewell, all pleasure. Welcome, pain and smart."
Absence here is a personification, a kind of embodied condition on par with the personifications of medieval poetry, old age, sorrow, fortune. Here in a bit of repetitive verbal trickery, the poet affirms what absence does. It creates a state of absence. The poem also affirms what fortune does, turns her face away and generates a heaviness and lack of comfort.
The phrase is here, "dull wit," a touchstone of post-Chaucerian self-abnegation, which cannot be revived by pastime nor pleasure, again a verbal collocation, reminding us of Stephen Hawes' courtly allegory. Fortune has in this poem turned her face, quote, "with countenance contrarious," an alliterative paren worthy of John Skelton, whose character, Counterfeit Countenance, in the play, Magnificence, embodies all that is duplicitous about life at the royal court.
But such duplicity has not just a political but a philosophical basis, for it hearkens back to that great source text for Chaucer, for late medieval poetics as well, Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy. There the prisoner had lamented how fortune's clouded, cheating face had changed. The poet's exile from happiness recalls, here the Boethian prisoner's opening condition, while the request for a remedy similarly brings to mind the image of Lady Philosophy as the soul's physician.
The narrator's stage is now dolorous. And if you go to Lit ProQuest or any online source-- This is what I love about the digital world, is I can type in "dolorous." I got 147 citations from Lydgate, John Skelton, and Stephen Hawes. "Dolorous" is the touchstone word of the late 15th century. So there's a pervasive sense here that this is a poem, as it were, in the verbal web of the post-Chaucerian tradition.
Now absence had also emerged as a characteristic term of Chaucerian and post-Chaucerian lament. It shows up as early as the Book of the Duchess, when Queen Alcyone fears the worst when her husband, King Ceyx, doesn't return. His absence filled her with alarm. This sense of abandonment by a lover, a friend, a ruler, a patron inspires the complaints of John Lydgate. And absence appears repeatedly in just about everything he wrote, from devotional work to courtly lyrics to historical epic.
Lydgate writes on the departing of Thomas Chaucer, on the leaving of Chaucer's son to take up an ambassadorship. "His absence ake ye ought to complain, for he absent, farewell your reconfort." Or in the complaint from our Lady of Gloucester in Holland, "A solitary sore complaining, wept for her long absence and cried out on false fortune." Or "15 joys and sorrows of heaviness, one of the most grievous absence, the importable pain."
Absence is everywhere in Lydgate. It's everywhere too in the English poetry of the late 15th century Charles de Leon. It crystallizes the condition of the bereft lover. It collocates with words such as complain, comfort, dull, and heaviness. It stands on the fulcrum of courtly longing, political and epistemological confusion. It bridges the Chaucerian and Boethian conditions.
Charles de Leon says, "Woe, worth is me to be thus an absence. Go dull my complaint, my lady, this report." It's as if these two lines are distilling down the verbal web of the 15th century tradition. But for poets of the 15th century, the greatest absence was not a lover, was not a patron, was not a ruler. It was Chaucer himself.
So much a verse, from John Lydgate through Stephen Hawes, begins with a lament for the death of Chaucer and his absence that it seems a trope of authorship itself. Hardly anybody writing between the years 1400 and 1550 in English could not begin a text without avowing the simple fact that Chaucer is dead. Eventually, Chaucer's contemporary Gower was dead. And then eventually, Lydgate was dead.
So George Ashby, "Masters Chaucer, Gower, and Lydgate, alas of goodness, will, and his [INAUDIBLE], that ever ye should dye and change this life." In the 1510s, Stephen Hawes could begin The Comfort of Lovers, Chaucer, Gower, and Lydgate, "They're dead, their bodies laid in chest," which I take as a kind of troping on the way in which the clerk talks about Petrarch in the prologue to the clerk's talk. "Petrarch is dead and nailed in his chest."
Now these are the conditions of absence, but I think they are also the conditions of Boethian elegy. Much of late medieval English poetry is, I think, elegiac in this way. And I think that when we look at the "Absence Absenting" poem and we think of it in these terms, we can imagine the ways in which the blend of post-Chaucerian and Boethian writing creates this sense of the elegiac, of the lost, and of the dull.
The dullness is not simply that I'm a poor writer or that I'm a poor reader. The dullness is a philosophical condition. Chaucer's Boethian subject matter provided later writers with this sense of dullness, The Consolation of Philosophy begins famously, [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]. Once, I wrote verses flowing with or blossoming with knowledge studio [NON-ENGLISH]. And now I have to begin by writing sad meters." This image of sadness gets translated explicitly into dullness when John Walton translated the Consolation of Philosophy into English first around 1410. He has Lady Philosophy say, "But oot, alas, who dull and death he is."
A wonderful, as I read it aloud actually at this moment, it suddenly occurs to me that Lady Philosophy sounds more like one of Chaucer's fabliaux women then like Lady Philosophy. "Oot, alas, how dull he is," this, strange blend of the colloquial and the philosophical here. And then again, he'll write, "This wretched leaf that is uncomfortable will draw along and tarieth no alas."
And so what I'm getting at here is that the sadness of the Boethian self generates this feeling, not just the dull in the sense of uninteresting or unoriet, but dull in the sense of quite simply dulled. Now complaints of loss did not end with this medieval tradition. Wyatt is a poet of abandonment. Yet even in his most characteristically Wyatt-like, he remains Chaucerian.
And what I'm going to do now is I'm going to give you a reading of one of Wyatt's most famous poems to contrast with "Absence absenting." Eight folios away from "Absence Absenting" in the Devonshire Manuscript, in the same hand, is "they flee from me." And it's worth looking at this poem in this diplomatic edition from the manuscript rather than in a modern one.
"They flee from me that sometime did me seek with naked foot stocking in my chamber. I've seen the most gentle, tame, and meek that now are wild and do not remember. But sometime, they put themselves in danger to take bread at my hand. And now they range busily seeking continual change.
Thanked be fortune it had been otherwise 20 times better. But once in a special [? infineray, ?] after a pleasant guise when her loose gown from her shoulders did fall, and she may caught in her arms long and small. But there with all sweetly she did me kiss, and softly said, dear heart, how like you this? It was no dream, for I lay broad waking.
But all is turned through my gentleness into a strange fashion of forsaking. And I have leave to part of her goodness and she likewise to use newfanglenesse. But since that I so gently am served, what think you by this that she has deserved?" This is, much like "Absence and Absenting," a poem about distance and distress.
It locates its speaker in the uneasy space between companionship and loneliness. But the unsureness of the locale-- "Has it all been a dream? No, I lay broad waking--" has led modern readers to see this poem is unlike almost anything that's gone before. Some have found in the strange passivity of the narrator a deliberate shift away from 15th century male identities.
Others have found in it a transformation of old Chaucerian idioms, words like "gentlesse" and "newfanglenesse," which are radioactive tracer words, if you like, of the Chaucerian inheritance. Stephen Greenblatt over 35 years ago crystallized these critical perceptions into an aphorism when he wrote, "Petrarch's idealism is not replaced by Wyatt's sense of weariness and emptiness but fulfilled by it." For Greenblatt and the critics in his wake, "They Flee From Me" is Wyatt's, quote, "greatest achievement" because it fulfills the Petrarchan ideal in this way.
Greenblatt wrote famously, "Power over sexuality produces inwardness." Greenblatt distinguishes this from what he calls, quote, "the relatively slight lyrics in the Devonshire Manuscript." And he considers this to be a powerful verse because it offers, and I quote, "a blend of playfulness and danger that marks it as the product of the court," end quote.
Now for all its innovation and achievement in these ways, these flee for me, "They Flee From Me," rather, has, I think, longer legs in the Chaucerian inheritance than we've been taught to think. Yes, the poem shares much with what we have come to expect of the Wyatt canon, a live rhythmical control, attention between sentence endings and line endings, finesse through arresting enjambments, a barely restrained eroticism, and a first person voice consistent with the notion of the poet as an introspector of the self, the chronicler of the unquiet heart.
True, too, many of these expectations have been conditioned by centuries of editorial administration, beginning with Richard Tottel's publication in the 1550s. The meter has been cleaned up. Spelling and grammar has been regularized. Punctuation has been added. "They Flee From Me" in the Devonshire Manuscript, I think, offers a way of seeing this as much an early if like late medieval poem as "Absence Absenting."
The line, "busily seeking continual change" hearkens back to Chaucer's suspicious sense of busyness and change. " Newfangledness", as I'd already mentioned, is a Chaucerian term, and "gentleness." But also little phrases like "her arms is long and small," which is an absolute quotation from "The Merchant's Tale," when we see the old man pick up the woman. "Her middle small, her arm is long."
But the Chaucerian poem that stands behind all of this is Chaucer's poem, "Truth." It was the most popular of Chaucer's lyrics, appearing in 24 different manuscripts throughout the 15th and 16th century and in six printed versions, running from Caxton's Temple of Brass of 1477 to Stowe's addition of 1561. As I mentioned, it also appears in Tottel's Miscellany.
And I'm not going to read the whole poem. But the key point that I want you to see is that opening line, "Flee from the press and dwell with so fastnesse." When Tottel prints the poem, by the way, he titles it, "To Lead a Virtuous Life." And there is no period at the end of his title. There is a comma, as if the title, "To Lead a Virtuous Life," flee from the press.
So this opening injunction instructs readers in Boethian stability. Be happy with what you have, control your temptations, take what you see gracefully. And then further on, don't wrestle with worldly goods. Don't strive as the pot strives against the wall, or you're going to break. Don't kick against sharp objects.
You are a pilgrim. You are a beast who can attain true human spiritual virtue, but recognizing that your home is truly in the heavens. All of these, of course, look back to Boethian idioms, to Lady Philosophy's teaching, to the mythological poetry. But the key term here and the term that I think becomes, if you like, the crowbar that opens up this relationship between Wyatt and Chaucer, is the verb "to flee."
"Flee" appears everywhere in Wyatt. "Fleeth" appears five times, "fled" appears seven times, "fleeing" appears once. I'll give you some examples. "If thou wilt mighty be, flee from the rage." "What valeth truth? Or by it, to take pain? To strive by steadfastness, for to attain how to be just and true and flee from doubleness."
"And from this mind I will not flee." "Now I am proof to them that list to flee such woe and wrongful pain." "Flee, therefore truth," which to me is just such a brilliant distill-- right? Flee from the press, flee, therefore truth. If that full weight the body fail, the soul shall to her flee."
And then of course the opening of the great satire, "Mine own John Poyntz, Since ye delight to know the cause why that homeward I me draw and flee the press of courts whereso they go rather than live in thrall under the awe of lordly looks." These radical departures from desire or deceit or truthfulness all hearken back to the opening of Chaucer's poem, "Truth." Someone is, it would seem, always fleeing or about to flee or having fled in Wyatt's verse.
Chaucer's legacy of philosophical counsel becomes Wyatt's charge for courtly service. That's the key point, that the philosophical Chaucer is in effect transmuted into a public and political Wyatt. If the court is a place of untruth and duplicity, the poet must find a more secure home.
Nowhere do these poet, do these issues show up more than in the John Poyntz poem. This is a poem about relocations and tensions. This is the poem where Wyatt advises his friend to move away from courtly question. And it's shot through with Chaucerian resonance and idiom.
"Pray Sir Thopas for a noble tale and scorn the story that the knight told." That's what a bad reader would do, and that's what a bad courtier would do. And at the end, Wyatt says, "But here I am in Kent and Christendom among the Muses, where I read and rhyme, where if thou list, my Pointz, for to come thou shalt be judge how I do spend my time."
To spend one's time here is not just to take time in reading and writing but actually to make meters. Spending time is making verse. And I want to look at the version of the poem in the Parker manuscript in Corpus Christi College Cambridge, rather than in the modern editorial version of it. Because we see that that last line is "thou shalt be judge how I just dispende my time."
Now in breaking off the horrible tale of Sir Thopas, the host of The Canterbury Tales, Harry Bailey, had accused Chaucer of dispending his time in just this way. "Thou dost not else but despendest tyme. Sir, at a word, thou shalt no longer ryme." To invite John Poyntz to judge how Wyatt now dispends his time is to seek his playful impersonation of the host to Wyatt's inept Chaucer.
Behind this line now lies the Chaucerian movement of failed poetry, a moment of radical mistaking of poetic intention and performance. Such a moment is the comic foil for the satire to John Poyntz, but it's the foil for many other early Tudor poets. For whether we flee the press or flee truth or watch those flee from us, we remain in a condition of departure or absence.
They flee from me. Such a line could be voiced about unrequited lovers, dismissive or dismissed courtiers, or the muses that have left us by our all too Boethian bedside. Absence is a condition. Fleeing is an action. What Chaucer did in "Truth" was to provide a later courtly readership and writership with a new trope of departure.
The 15th century condition of absence is precisely that. It is a condition. It is the state of loss or longing left by the lover's departure, Chaucer's death, the distance of the friend or patron. It is a state of being. And so much of the 15th century reflection on that state of being, I believe, contributes to the static quality of much of its verse.
The reason why we have, as modern readers, such trouble dealing with the almost lithic immobility of so much 15th century verse is, I think, largely because it is a verse reflecting on the stasis, the absence. Fleeing is a verb of action. It is the result of will or agency. It signals a change in condition.
Its power in the poems written in the wake of Chaucer's "Truth" lies in the ways in which it crystallizes people making and doing things. It requires not the static lament of the dull but the active responses of the alert. If that dullness was the Boethian condition, the alertness is the condition that Lady Philosophy advises.
Wake up, look up, grow up. This man is with lithurgy arrested. That's John Walton's translation. He is arrested, he is frozen in lethargy. And so Lady Philosophy advises action. Absence and fleeing, I'm suggesting, are the two poles of post-Chaucerian poetic voices, whose words may leave the reader with lament or enjoin us into movement.
Wyatt is both the most canonical and most sophisticated of the poets to negotiate these tensions, but he's not alone. I've long been a reader and, I've long been a critic fascinated by the poetry of Stephen Hawes, whose work was published by Wynken de Worde in 1509 through 1517 and whose comfort of lovers explores the imbalance between loss and fulfillment in a dream vision.
In language resonant with Wyatt's "Absence Absenting," Hawes' "Comfort of Lovers" bridges Chaucer's world of Boethian advice with the Tudor world of courtly service. "Comfort yourself and muse not so alone," his poems counsel. Hawes states, "Climb not so fast, yet suddenly ye slide." Hawes offers as a verbal fulcrum on which Chaucer and Wyatt balance.
And the fact that Wynken de Worde brought out his clutch of poems, the "Comfort of Lovers", "The Pastime of Pleasure," "The Example of Virtue," and other poems attributed or in the Hawes orbit in 1509, the year of Henry VIII's ascension, make very clear that this is part of a larger project of patronage seeking, of preferment seeking. That Hawes, who had been a relatively minor courtier in the world of Henry VII, is now using the new resources of print and the old language of Chaucerian self-presentation to create a place possibly for himself as a new laureate. But he didn't get it.
"My body hath but little rest." "Many one writest thouthe yet comfort hath he none." "Beware the snares and nets." "Though many a one unhappily do rage they shall have sorrow that shut me in a cage." These kinds of terms, this kind of language is to my mind a poetry of the unquiet heart, as much as anything by Wyatt.
And Greenblatt's influential formulations about power and inwardness and courtly performance could be applicable to this as to any sustained verse of the first decades of the 16th century. I'm not arguing that Stephen Hawes is a kind of proto-Wyatt. I'm not arguing that Wyatt's "Absence Absenting" is an act of poetic regression back to the world of Stephen Hawes.
The point is that all of these texts constitute a poetry of courtly counsel in a period of competing and contested literary voices. Now the Devonshire Manuscript, whose facsimiles and texts I've shown you, is but the most famous of a set of commonplace [INAUDIBLE], personal anthologies that were assembled in the 1520s, '30s, and '40s by Tudor readers fascinated with applying earlier English literature to contemporary personal amorous or political contexts.
Another fascinating example is the work by Humphrey Welles, a Staffordshire lawyer and antiquarian and most likely a Catholic recusant after the Reformation, who brought together a whole range of quotations and selections from 15th century poetry. But what he does is not simply offer selections. He creates personalized centos of poetry.
He will take stanzas and lines and rearrange them into new poems. And a minor industry of philologists has grown up, seeking to identify, not just in Welles' work but in the work of other contemporaries, how they took things that looked like new poems and made them out of old poems. In fact, one of the fascinating things, just as an side, of the revisions of the index of Middle English verse has been the recognition that many things that people thought were actually original, freestanding poems are really these centos of other texts made up of other lines.
And so it's this process of reading as writing and writing as reading, which Andy so graciously talked about and, as characteristic of my work in his introduction. This is what's going on in this kind of manuscript assembly and in this kind of culture. Every act of reading prompts another act of writing.
Now like me, Humphrey Welles was fascinated by the work of Stephen Hawes. And in his manuscript, now in the Bodleian, he takes stanzas from "The Pastime of Pleasure," a passage in which the figure of Sapiens gets a letter to a, rather, writes a letter to the poet lover. And what Welles does is he takes these stanzas and he recasts them to make freestanding, amorous, verse letters.
In the process, what he does is he takes this long, narrative, allegorical poem, and he effectively reads it as a series of individuated lyric outbursts. He certainly had tuition in this, for Chaucer's own "Troilus and Criseyde" breaks its narrative when Troilus sings songs. And throughout the 15th and early 16th century, scribes and readers took from Chaucer, from Lydgate, and from Gower, and from other writers long sections, and distilled them down into lyric outbursts.
So let's see what he does with this. So I've given you here two quotations. First, I'm giving you Humphrey Welles' version. "To you, sweetheart, this bill is presented by your true love whose heart in duress. You have fast fettered not to be absented from your person with "mortal heaviness, his heart and service. With all gentleness, he to you oweth as to be obedient for to fulfill your sweet commandment."
And this is what Hawes' text would have been in its printed version from Wynken de Worde. "In our court there is a bill presented by Grand Amour, whose heart in duress you fast have fettered, not to be absented from your person with mortal heaviness. His heart and service with all gentleness he to you oweth as to be obedient for to fulfill your sweet commandment."
So what we see here is the transformation of a courtly allegory into an amorous lyric. And one way of describing this activity would be to say that it's the characteristic mark of the commonplace bookmaker, reading for use. But another, more literary way of approaching the selection, is to say that this is what happens when a reader of the 1530s and '40s goes back to the poetry of the earlier 16th century through the lens of already knowing the world of Wyatt and Surrey, a reconsideration of old allegorical instruction with an eye for inwardness.
And from that inwardness comes the vocabulary of absence and constraint, of heaviness and gentleness, of owing and obedience. Such is the language of that poem with which I began, "Absence Absenting." And I want to stress from a philological point of view that odd, strange, or old fashioned though this poetry may seem to us in its manuscript context, the distinction that we make, historically and linguistically, between Middle English and modern English would not have been a historical distinction at this time.
Certainly, it's not until Richard Tottel in the 1550s edits and respells this poetry that there is an awareness. It's not until 1559 when John Hart in his Orthographie recognizes changes in spelling and grammar. Indeed, one could even argue, it's not until Thomas Speght in his 1598 edition of Chaucer glosses the, quote, "hard words" that there's a cultural awareness of linguistic archaism.
You can see that in Spenser, for example, in "The Faerie Queene." So what I'm getting at is that during this period of time, the relationship between Middle and modern English is linguistically, as well as culturally and literarily and even aesthetically, far more blurry than we might want to imagine. The relationship between the Wyatt that we want in our classroom, "They Flee From Me," and the one we don't want, "Absence Absenting," is a relationship not of the poet on good and bad days.
It's rather a relationship. There's good Wyatt and there's bad Wyatt. I would suggest that this is about the poet trying out different voices. "Absence Absenting" might be thought of as much as a ventriloquism of 15th century poetry as "Whoso List to Hunt" may be understood as a ventriloquism of 14th century Petrarchanism.
Such an approach moves us away from the teleologies of medieval to Renaissance. We can see how a variety of voices could coexist on the page, whether that page was handwritten or printed. It's important to engage, as I'm suggesting, with this period as a period of multiple media and multiple forms, script and print, old Chaucerianism, new Petrarchism, Boethius and his legacies, absence and fleeing.
They all contribute to the lively insecurities of these literary decades. And so there is a sense, if I could return to some of the theoretical moves of my beginning, that the idea of the lyric at this time is an idea of retrospection and experimentation. It's an issue of self-consciously historicizing the voice, whether that historicization comes in the form of an older Chaucerian or a Petrarchan lover or an absent figure. It's a way of distinguishing between absence and fleeting as the job of lyric poetry, that is to record a condition and state or to record a dynamic and a movement.
The kinds of things that I've learned from the work of Abrams and the work of Culler have suggested to me that we can look back at the history of lyric in a particular moment such as this and recognize not that we should read it for its topical or its historical allusions. But we should read it for its formal self-consciousness. And in the end, I think form is the most historical thing of all.
And as we see readers and writers experimenting with these forms, I want to help us to expose how the literary past informs a political present and how the writing and reading of poetry went on with old books on the table and familiar words with new pens. I think I'll stop there. Thank you very much for your attention today.
SETH LERER: Do we have time for some questions?
ANDY GALLOWAY: Invite you to moderate your questions, if you wish, or I can--
SETH LERER: I'll be happy to call on anyone. Yes.
AUDIENCE: I'm wondering in response to your terrific talk and the ground that you covered and the historicization of it and the drama of it, one dimension that I'm wondering about is the dimension of the readership and how you would, what are, who [INAUDIBLE], where's the diversity of readership? And how are they responding to this kind of experimentation?
SETH LERER: Mmhm.
SETH LERER: Right.
AUDIENCE: Are they, are they readers who themselves are already immersed in this discourse? Are they young people? Are they young courtiers and young students even?
SETH LERER: Mmhm.
AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE] --word that might be.
SETH LERER: Right.
AUDIENCE: So in short, I'm just wondering, that dimension--
SETH LERER: Exactly.
AUDIENCE: That is there and what's your sense of that language?
SETH LERER: I think that's an important question because the readership is highly dynamic and changing over this period of time. And it is so for several reasons. One is that the poetry of the manuscript world that I'm talking about is a poetry of very limited, highly self-conscious readers. It's a poetry of people associated with the court, of the upper aristocracy, and also of men and women.
And we know pretty securely that the Devonshire Manuscript in particular, as well as other manuscripts, were read by and may have even been contributed to by women. We recognize different hands, we recognize different penmanships and different scripts. So what we have is a body of poetry that is very much what we might call a "coterie body of poetry" because it works according to highly structured codes and rituals.
And these codes and rituals exist, I would suggest, to not just simply entertain or aesthetically please, but to reinforce the sense of social belonging among that coterie. So the act of reading and the act of writing, these are themselves acts of social belonging, social rituals that constitute, if you like, the sense of association or the sense of affinity with a group. Now it would be unfair to say that overnight, print and print culture changed and democratize that.
But it would be not unfair to say that print made possible a different way of accessing this activity and imitating or ventriloquizing it. So one of the things that I find fascinating about the Welles manuscript, and one of the things I find fascinating about aspects of many other manuscripts, is the ways in which we can tell at the editorial and textual level that readers are copying printed texts into manuscripts. And they are doing so not simply for purposes of pleasure or memorization.
They're doing so to, as it were, reinscribe themselves into the social acts of coterie poetics. So in the act of copying something out and creating an anthology or creating a commonplace book, the reader's now, like Welles, increasingly peripheral to the court. He's a Staffordshire lawyer. He's both removed geographically and socially from the inner circle. It's a way of participating in this shared ritual.
And it's through that act of creative reading that I see the acts of creative writing as socially motivated. So the issue about audience is very important, as you raise, because it not only tells us who's doing the reading. It tells us, I think, that the reading is itself a dynamic social ritual, a social process that both defines the group and enables others, if you like, to mime belonging in that group.
Just as earlier in the 14th and 15th centuries, aspirant members of the lower aristocracy or the gentry or the rising commercial classes would commission beautiful manuscripts of poetry or devotion in order to make their libraries look like those of the higher classes. So the acts of copying and reading for really, for several centuries during this period of time are acts of social movement. And I think that many years ago-- I can't remember his first name, Saunders, JR Sounders, JS Saunders-- wrote a famous article called "The Stigma of Print," in which he wanted to argue that for this coterie aristocratic world, showing up in print was somehow less than something.
And I think that's only half the story. Because the other half of the story is the way in which those things that do get into print get reinscribed as texts as part of social belonging. Does that speak to the kind of question you were thinking of?
AUDIENCE: I am thinking of the dimensions of participation by writers and inscribers.
SETH LERER: Exactly, yes.
AUDIENCE: And why carrying a reinscription book--
SETH LERER: That's what I'm getting at. And so that's what I want to make clear is that reading in this world is not just reading. And it's bound up in rewriting and recreating in this creative dialogue. Thank you. Other thoughts, questions, responses? Yes, Laura. It's Laura, isn't it?
AUDIENCE: Yes, that's me. Thank you. I'm hoping this is an opportunity for you to address a topic that I've become more and more interested in, which is innovation.
SETH LERER: Innovation.
AUDIENCE: Yes. And you've been emphasizing reverse ability--
SETH LERER: Yes.
AUDIENCE: Reiteration, return, retrospection, [INAUDIBLE] and intertextuality, ventriloquism. And I do see you've pointed, though, towards, all of those don't sound innovative.
SETH LERER: Mmhm.
AUDIENCE: It's not like you're doing something over again.
SETH LERER: Mmhm.
AUDIENCE: On the other hand, I do hear you talk-- I do, you just did-- speaking of creative reading--
SETH LERER: Yes.
AUDIENCE: And even reflection, retrospection, He and experiment.
SETH LERER: Mmhm.
AUDIENCE: So I wanted to get all the way from there for those modes of creativity that you're alluding to and the experimentation that you're pointing toward. I wanted to get all the way to innovation--
SETH LERER: Yes.
AUDIENCE: Is there something distinctively new in the context of reader issues?
SETH LERER: Yes, I think that's really important. And let me let me approach it by going back to this issue of repetition that I've been talking about. One of the things that I think is clear about repetition in a poem like "Absence Absenting," or in ballads or in refrains or in the kind of literary history I'm offering here, is that every act of repetition is not simply repeating, that the act of saying the, even the same thing again is an act of restating it in a new way, whether it's in a new medium or a new stanza or something like that. So there is, I'm not arguing for a kind of static, lithic quality here.
I'm arguing for a sense in which there is this creative reading, but it is incremental. The issue of innovation to me implies that there is a certain break at work here. And this is summed up, this is really crystallized in Chaucer's fascination with the word "newfangleness," the way in which the word "newfangleness" in Chaucer's poetry is invariably associated with things that are bad, with the world upside down, with an attention to worldly goods rather than to spiritual things, with an attention to fashion or fad or mode, rather than to things that are stable or secure.
And it is that embedded critique of "newfangleness," which in some ways both impedes but may eventually provoke innovation. In other words, because you have a poetics that's so grounded in this vocabulary that at least rhetorically is supposed to reject anything innovative, the question of how you innovate needs to be negotiated in a very careful way. And I think that part of the issue with Wyatt is that it's very, it's very easy to read him and teach him as an innovator because we attend to those things that had not been done before.
But those things are being done, I'm suggesting, in a very carefully calibrated context of understanding that you must make an argument for "newfangleness" without rejecting social hierarchy and control. So the, if you like, the knife edge that Wyatt walks-- and he does this far more than Surrey or his contemporaries, I think. The self-consciousness that he walks is this recognition that any act of innovation, whether it's formal or whether it's prosodic or whether it's thematic, whatever, has to be very carefully framed with this older vocabulary.
So I think that it's only with Tottel's Miscellany in 1557 when Richard Tottel collects all of this stuff from manuscript, and prints it, and presents it as explicitly and innovative break with the past, and expresses that act of innovation as having a new social purpose. And in Tottel's preface, he says that in small parcels-- that's his phrase for lyric poetry-- the reader will get profit and pleasure. So "Pastime and Pleasure" were the old, was the old collocation, which imagined a world of courtly or monastic reading and experience that was keyed to entertainment or delocation or moral education.
Tottel is creating a commodity. He is interested in having people buy it. And he's very conscious of the way in which profit carries with it both the moral and the economic sense. So I'm circling around to suggest that one of the ways of thinking about innovation in this period is to ask questions about how poetry moves into a, how poetry moves socially and commercially. What happens when works that were coterie works for a particular sense of social belonging become works to be bought by members not of that group so that they can ape or imitate their idioms?
Tottel's Miscellany was as much a textbook, a handbook of how to write, as it was a collection. And the famous moment in Shakespeare's, I forget, with slender, which is the play with slender? I'm, help me out, people. Merry, is it Merry Wives of Windsor? Let's say it's Merry Wives of Windsor.
When he says, I'd rather, I'd rather my book of songs and sonnets than 40 shillings. See, he wants to write love poetry. And he knows that what he needs is a textbook of how to write this poetry. So innovation here for me is less an issue of formal intervention than it is a shift of how this poetry is used to do different kinds of things.
And once you come up with a notion that the purchasing of literature can improve you, then you are in a different world than Chaucerian newfangleness. Does that make sense as a way of responding to what you were thinking about?
AUDIENCE: Yes, yes, very much.
SETH LERER: And I think, that's what I'm trying to get at, that I think it's a much more, personally I think this is a much more textured way of thinking about literary history than just saying, one day Wyatt and Surrey woke up. And they wrote Petrarchan sonnets. And the Renaissance happened.
And they went on boats. And they found sugar and coffee. And we all started doing, see, that's what I'm getting at is this profound shift in the social function of the same texts that becomes the moment of literary innovation. Do you have time for--
ANDY GALLOWAY: Oh yeah.
SETH LERER: For another? How long can we go?
ANDY GALLOWAY: Probably a couple more questions perhaps.
SETH LERER: OK, two more, yes, Samantha.
AUDIENCE: Thank you so much for this wonderful talk. And I'm so struck by this example, just the first two lines--
SETH LERER: Yes.
AUDIENCE: Seem different. And everything after that seemed more or less the same. And I'm thinking of one of the most famous centos that I know is the "Probestion."
SETH LERER: Yes, yes, yes.
AUDIENCE: And how, this was in the first couple of centuries AD. And she takes all Virgilian lines--
SETH LERER: Right.
AUDIENCE: And leaves them intact and totally reconfigures them so that it becomes a poem about Christ.
SETH LERER: Yes.
AUDIENCE: And that to me strikes me as a very different kind of move, right?
SETH LERER: That's exactly right.
AUDIENCE: On the one hand, it's completely reconfigured so that you take, remove from one context and totally transport it into another.
SETH LERER: Mmhm.
AUDIENCE: But also the purpose that it serves, I think, is a kind of game of recognition--
SETH LERER: Nice.
AUDIENCE: Among those who know.
SETH LERER: Mmhm.
AUDIENCE: And they can then say, I know this line come from this part--
SETH LERER: Yes, yes.
AUDIENCE: And this part comes from here. But when you have a poem that's more or less, I'd be very interested in the private and the public and what happens when this becomes a love letter, and how much of this cento aesthetic is something that you see in more extreme forms--
SETH LERER: Mmhm.
AUDIENCE: Than what we're just seeing here--
SETH LERER: Yes.
AUDIENCE: On this, in this example.
SETH LERER: Right, right, I think you're exactly right. And I could spend a lot more time talking about this, manuscripts and then compile it. But the key point is this, that this is a manuscript that's very much about making the public private. It's a manuscript that it's very much about taking these courtly allegories that are scenes of public presentation.
Hawes, "In our court, there is a bill presented by Grand Amour into a moment of profound domestic pride, amorous privacy. To you sweetheart, this bill is presented by your true love." OK, so there's always a sense of removal here. But the other thing about Welles and the other thing about the centos is that, as I say, I could go on and on.
But see, Welles is a recusant in the first years of the Protestant Reformation. And one of the fascinating things about his manuscript, one of the fascinating things about Catholicism at this time, is the way that it's not just a matter of belief, but it's a matter of textuality. So a great example of this is in 1542, one of the acts of supremacy, whatever it was that Henry VIII had signed through, was that it became a crime to write, print, or copy-- those are the words-- the word "pope."
And so what people did was they went back to their books and manuscripts and they crossed out or erased the word pope. So in Welles' book, whenever there's something that's explicitly Catholic or mentions the pope, it's crossed out. I've seen-- this is an aside-- but I've seen books of hours that were held and used by English families during the arc of the 16th century.
And you can see in these books of hours in the calendars when there is the date of birth of a particular saint or a particular person who happened to be a pope that the word "pope" is scratched out. So and this was part of the, this was part of the [INAUDIBLE] thought machine, if you like. This is the world of GR Evan's policy police.
So in this world, inwardness in not some Greenblattian, psychologizing reading. Inwardness and privacy are profoundly political and social acts. And so the notion of writing, if you like, the notion of taking a public literature and making it increasily private is part of a larger move of what to do with this legacy of medieval literature in a period when it becomes quite simply sedicious to read and write it.
And this is the tip of the iceberg. You see what I mean? This is something which, on its own, well, it's represented with a particular formal or aesthetic trick.
But it really does emblematize this larger question of how private reading changes dramatically. And one could make an argument more globally that one of the reasons why the poetry of Wyatt and Surrey and the Henry VIII group became so popular in the Elizabethan world is precisely because it dramatized that sense of inwardness and privacy from which people could construct new models of private reading. Do you see what I'm getting at?
And that's that book there. So I'm really glad that you brought attention to this. But it is the sense that what matters here is the privatization of public document. That's what, and I bet you caught that. That's what's going on in this [INAUDIBLE]. I think we have time for one more question.
ANDY GALLOWAY: From here.
AUDIENCE: Thanks, Seth. I really enjoyed your--
SETH LERER: Thank you.
AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE] I'm wholly persuaded too. But one of the things that struck was your [INAUDIBLE] formulas. And [INAUDIBLE] say too much about it. But what, many of the poems that you put up and showed us--
SETH LERER: Sure.
AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE] over and over.
SETH LERER: Mmhm.
SETH LERER: Exactly.
AUDIENCE: Chaucerian, Lydgate form up to absence.
SETH LERER: Right.
AUDIENCE: But one of the, it really brings [INAUDIBLE] your remark about [INAUDIBLE] selling and how--
SETH LERER: Yeah.
AUDIENCE: That very useful reminder, which is something I've studied quite a bit too, is that a useful reminder of just how full of other forms besides the ones we tend to go--
SETH LERER: Exactly.
AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE] sonnets--
SETH LERER: Mmhm. Precisely.
AUDIENCE: Talking about [INAUDIBLE] verse [INAUDIBLE]. That's why Surrey wrote it. And one of the things you can mark is you look at, for example, Surrey's sonnet form. And it took, it's often touted as this major break--
SETH LERER: Yes.
AUDIENCE: It really has the introduction to time and form.
SETH LERER: Sure.
AUDIENCE: But if you think about it, in the context of [INAUDIBLE], which is filled with poems that have [INAUDIBLE]
SETH LERER: Right.
AUDIENCE: And poems and rhyming couplets. One is the [INAUDIBLE] but a leading traditional English verse form.
SETH LERER: Right, right, I think that's wonderful. And I'm glad you brought me back to this because, I think, I'll respond in several ways. One is, so much of our sense of literary history, both at the narrative and the pedagogic level, is key to privileging a small number of forms as representative of Poetry with a capital P or lyric quality.
And what's very clear is that during this period, there are many, many competing forms-- there are many, many forms of prosody that don't necessarily sort themselves out in this way-- and that each of these forms signals something about voice and something about status that is really lost to us in so many ways. So one of the things I was talking about with my graduate class in medieval lyric today was the way in which the simple fact that a poem is in rhyme royal stanzas is itself an announcement of a particular social relationship between the voice of the poet and the reader, the fact that it has an envoy, a whole range of things even before you get to the reading of the text.
But the form is itself the bearer of historical and social meaning. And the interesting thing then about this period of time is that there are many different forms competing for these expressions of social meaning. And eventually, a couple of them sort themselves out.
So in a sense, the creation of the sonnet as the constitutive form of lyric subjectivity in modern English writing is very much a construction of a later 16th century relationship among writers, printers, booksellers, courtier-- It's part of a network. It's not simply that the sonnet is in itself the best thing for blah blah blah or in a kind of Vendlerian sense that, well, anyone can read a sonnet.
And by reading it, we, we shouldn't read it for its, we shouldn't engage in its social or its biographical or its institutional, it's this free standing thing. This is a highly self-consciously created act, not just a thing. So I think you're exactly right.
And one of the things that strikes me in looking at the ways in which you see these early texts in manuscripts or in printed books is the way in which their visual organization on the page is really not what we would expect, and that our editorial ministrations are making earlier historical texts look like familiar things. So in the class that we're doing, when we looked at the Harley lyrics, the medieval lyrics in the Harley Manuscript, some of them are written out as prose. Some of them are written in long lines. Some of them are written in short lines.
Modern editions, efface all of that visual information. That must bear some kind of meaning. It's not purely contingent. And it's that visual organization that, at least to me, is as much a matter of, if you like, the social sense of form as the idea that, well, they're really stanzaic or they're a repeater, whatever it is.
So I'm a big advocate for, not, I'm not a big advocate for unediting. I'm a big advocate for a different kind of editing, for an editing that recognizes that form is as much a matter of visual organization on the page as anything else and that the social world or the, if you like, that the historicity of form in "They Flee from Me," the visual organization of this page bears a certain kind of meaning and a certain relationship to reader and writer that is different from the way in which the poem gets edited and printed.
So it's not as if the manuscript is a kind of improper or corrupted or imperfect representation of an idealized poem out there. This is the poem. So again to get back to what you're saying, it's this competition and interplay of different formal structures that creates this sense of social belonging and voice that I think we've lost. Does that speak to the kind of thing you're getting at? Great. Well, I think we need to wrap it up and go have the reception. Thank you all.
We've received your request
You will be notified by email when the transcript and captions are available. The process may take up to 5 business days. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions about this request.
Recent scholarship and criticism have renewed our understanding the place of lyric poetry in literary history. In this talk given Oct. 20, 2016, Seth Lerer explores the relationship among the medieval and early modern traditions of the lyric in English to argue for the latter's creative readings of the former and for a revised sense of periodization that sees continuities of language, social function, and authorial identity in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century England. Lerer is a Distinguished Professor of Literature and former Dean of Arts and Humanities at the University of California in San Diego.