Month: November 2016

The Wife of Bath and Katherine Minola (part 1)

Both Geoffrey Chaucer and William Shakespeare dedicated a large portion of their respective bodies of work to stories about marriage and examinations of marriage through those stories. In addition, these two great authors of the English language both evince a tendency to focus upon similar questions surrounding marriage, such as the origins and nature of romantic love, the consequences of spousal unfaithfulness, and the roles of husbands and wives in relation to each other.[1] There are many possibilities for the origins of this similarity of interests between Chaucer and Shakespeare. Marriage and all of its facets, including male-female relations, ἔρως, childbearing, and childrearing, are, after all, ubiquitous aspects of the human condition and always of immediate interest in any historical moment.

In spite of Chaucer’s frequent identification as a “medieval” poet and Shakespeare’s popular designation as a “Renaissance,” or, more recently, “early modern,” poet, it is also not to be overlooked that, as John Spiers writes, “The community that discovers itself in Chaucer is already recognizably the English community of Shakespeare.”[2] The implications and assumptions engendered by the identification of each with his particular historical era aside, the two are separated by only 200 years, a substantial but not exceptionally large amount of time. “If [Shakespeare and his contemporaries] are moderns, Chaucer also is a modern,” continues Spiers,” if Chaucer is mediaeval, they also are mediaeval.”[3] Ultimately, Spiers concludes, “Shakespeare’s English is the complex fulfilment of, or development from, Chaucer’s.”[4] This is true not only of the language itself, but also of the ideas conveyed through that language as well as the style in which they are conveyed.

The influence, direct and indirect, of Chaucer upon Shakespeare is evident in the latter’s treatment of marriage in comparison with that of the former. It is well-established that Shakespeare drew upon Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and other works by Chaucer for the subject matter of his plays. “The Knight’s Tale,” for example, says Helen Cooper, “influenced two earlier plays of Shakespeare’s, Two Gentlemen of Verona and A Midsummer Night’s Dream,”[5] two plays written around the same time as the writing of the Taming of the Shrew.[6] Shakespeare, in addition, continued to draw on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales throughout his career. “A further possible area of influence from the Tales on Shakespeare emerges in the last plays,” continues Cooper.[7] “The theme of women’s endurance of undeserved suffering in Henry VIII, The Winter’s Tale, and Pericles may owe something to the Clerk’s and Man of Law’s Tales.”[8] Given that Shakespeare drew upon at least one of the members of Chaucer’s Marriage Group of Tales for his depictions of suffering women and that he was writing plays influenced by Chaucer at nearly the same time that he was writing the Taming of the Shrew, the similarities between Chaucer’s Wife of Bath and Shakespeare’s Katherine Minola seem unlikely to be merely coincidental. Instead, the character of Katherine Minola and the story of her “taming” present another case of Shakespeare’s borrowings from Chaucer.

[1] For example, Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde examines the origins of romantic love as well as the consequences of unfaithfulness. Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing is an examination of the origins of romantic love with a substantial amount of content that is fascinatingly similar to the story of Troilus and Criseyde, of which Shakespeare wrote his own version in the play Troilus and Cressida.

[2] John Spiers, Chaucer the Maker (London: Faber and Faber, 1972), 15.

[3] Ibid., 16.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Helen Cooper, Oxford Guides to Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 422.

[6] Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, eds., William Shakespeare: A Textual Companion (New York: W. W. Norton, 1997), 109, 118. Wells and Taylor date Two Gentlemen of Verona to 1590–1591, A Midsummer Night’s Dream to 1595, and The Taming of the Shrew to 1590–1591, placing all of the plays within four to five years of each other and making Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Taming of the Shrew coeval.

[7] Cooper, 422.

[8] Ibid.

Defining Humanism

When attempting to define humanism, the most obvious and immediate reference point is undoubtedly the humanists of the Renaissance. It was at this time that the very word “humanist” entered the English language, apparently under the influence of the Italian coinage umanista, meaning “student of human affairs or human nature,” attributed to the Italian poet Lodovicio Ariosto. In this use, says the Online Etymological Dictionary, “the original notion appears to be ‘human’ as opposed to ‘divine,’ that is, a student of the human achievements of the pre-Christian authors and philosophers, as opposed to the theological studies of the divines.” A humanist, then, is one whose interests and studies are focused in the world of the productions of the human mind.

It may further be extrapolated from this concentration on the achievements of mankind that the humanist is concerned with providing human answers to human problems. In his book on the World of Humanism, Myron P. Gilmore describes the Renaissance humanists as “an aristocracy of the intellect, the first apostles of the salvation of society by the use of human reason.” The otherworldly orientation of the Middle Ages has certainly been exaggerated. It would, therefore, be an exaggeration to emphasize too greatly the Renaissance humanists’ departure from the earlier, ostensibly more theologically inclined thinkers of the medieval period. There was, however, a definite trend toward a greater faith in the abilities of human reason that is evident in humanist thought. According to Paul Tillich, for example, it was precisely the “detached scholarly attitude toward the contents of the Christian faith” engendered by the Christian humanism of Erasmus which led to his conflict with Martin Luther.

Yet the existence of such a perspective as the “Christian humanism” of Erasmus is evidence that the humanists’ faith in human reason need not necessarily exclude the Christian’s faith in the revelation and workings of God. Writing of his early twentieth century revival of humanism, Irving Babbitt argued that “humanism . . . may . . . work in harmony with traditional religion.” Babbitt reasons that humanism is a supplement to religion, perhaps even a necessary one given the predominance of secularity in the modern age. While “it is an error to hold that humanism can take the place of religion” and “religion indeed may more readily dispense with humanism than humanism with religion,” says Babbitt, humanism serves religion in a number of ways.

Perhaps the most important way in which humanism can act as a supplement to religion is in forming a conduit by which individuals of various faiths can meaningfully interact and cooperate on matters of shared concern. Babbitt notes that “the Catholic Church has . . . been well inspired in rounding out its religious doctrine with the teaching of Aristotle and other masters of the law of measure.” The phrasing Babbitt uses here is perhaps questionable, as the medieval Catholic philosophers were not so much “rounding out” Catholic doctrine with Aristotelian philosophy so much as they were allowing that philosophy to form the non-Christian foundation upon which the Christian faith could build and thereby bring human knowledge to completion. Babbitt is right to assert, however, that because of this addition of Aristotle’s philosophy to the particulars of Catholic doctrine “it follows that the Catholic and the non-Catholic should be able to co-operate on the humanistic level.” For cooperation between two groups to take place, there must be a certain shared foundation of ideas and interests. The “humanistic level,” to use Babbitt’s terminology, acts as that shared foundation for the Catholic and the non-Catholic as well as for the Christian and the non-Christian more generally in its emphasis on the good of mankind and the ability to human action to achieve this end.

T. S. Eliot’s Theory of Poetry (Part 6)

This fitting together of the pieces of experience is, of course, only one of innumerable possible means by which to explain experience as a whole. This is why “there is no competition,” as Eliot wrote in East Coker, among poets. There is no poet who can ultimately outdo the others in such a way as to remove their ability to write new poetry. Although they work with the same set of experiences, the variety of means by which these experiences can be explored, discussed, and unified with other experiences is the inexhaustible source of all poetry. In the same essay, Eliot continues, “The essential is to get upon the stage this precise statement of life which is at the same time a point of view, a world; a world which the author’s mind has subjected to a process of sophistication.” More recently, Arthur Danto has articulated a similar notion, writing in his 1981 book The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, that “it may just be one of the main offices of art less to represent the world than to represent it in such a way as to cause us to view it with a certain attitude and with a special vision.” Each poet, then, lends to his readers a certain lens through which to view the world of experience and through which to understand its phenomena collectively. In so doing, he grants the reader a vision of the world which may be ultimately incorrect and which the reader may ultimately reject or abandon, but which yet provides some special insight.

Eliot concludes his 1950 Harvard lectures on Poetry and Drama with a statement that grants a great deal of insight into his thought on poetry:

It is ultimately the function of art, in imposing a credible order upon ordinary reality, and thereby eliciting some perception of an order in reality, to bring us to a condition of serenity, stillness and reconciliation; and then leave us, as Virgil left Dante, to proceed toward a region where that guide can avail us no farther.

Poetry, like all art, then, provides for the reader a “credible order” by which the many and various phenomena of life can be made sense of, the disparate united into a cohesive whole. In so doing, poetry is able to grant the reader the ability to perceive that reality, in spite of its often chaotic and random appearance, has some underlying unity by which it is bound together. This insight, in turn, provides the terms by which one may make peace with the world. In this case, “world’ includes both the world internal to and external to the reader, including even in the internal worlds of others. The reader is able to establish a peace within and with himself through a greater understanding of the internal worlds of another, namely, the poet, who stands, by extension, for the internal worlds of innumerable others. The isolation of subjective existence does not weigh so heavily upon one who is able to peer, however haltingly, into the internal world of another and there to partake of a shared experience.

T. S. Eliot’s Theory of Poetry (Part 5)

The poet, according to Eliot, enables this “incarnation,” or “union / Of Spheres of existence” to become actual through his ability to make apparent an underlying, if often difficult to discern, order in the world of experience. In his 1940 lecture on “The Poetry of W. B. Yeats,” Eliot praises Yeats as “the poet who, out of intense and personal experience, is able to express a general truth; retaining all the particularity of his experience, to make of it a general system.” Helen Gardner, in her seminal work on the Art of T. S. Eliot, praises Eliot in similar words for having succeeding according to his own standard. She writes, “The effort of every true poet is to unify his experience, and the development of every great poet is the extension of the amount of experience he can order into poetry.” It is through the ordering of the many and disparate phenomena of experience, then, that the poet is able to accomplish his task, according to Eliot’s theory. The mark of a truly great poet is the breadth of experience which he is able to so arrange into a comprehensible pattern.

This does not imply, however, that the poet is to be a dogmatic ideologue who seeks to impose a false order upon experience to substantiate his desires and prejudices. Eliot condemned in unequivocal terms I. A. Richard attempts to create an ideology of poetry in which he hoped to replace the religious feeling with the poetic feeling, for example. Russell Kirk writes of Eliot’s criticism of Richards, “Poetry expresses many things, and it may express religious insights; yet is . . . foolish to say that ‘Poetry teaches us’ certain ultimate truths.” Quoting Eliot, Russell continues,

Any theory which relates poetry very closely to a religious or a social scheme of things aims, probably, to explain poetry by discerning its natural laws; but it is in danger of binding poetry by legislation to be observedand poetry can recognize no such laws.

To attempt to identify poetry and ideology too closely damages both poetry and whatever religious or political ideas it is being wedded to, according to Eliot. Poetry becomes a mere tool for propaganda and the ideas being propagandized are shown to be insufficient to stand on their own merits. As Kirk puts it, “No man is saved by poetry.” Poetry, like the other arts, is the means by which the poet may share his experience; it is not, properly, the means by which to propound an ideology to which one hopes to win new adherents nor is poetry itself an ideology that might stand alone without the need to be supplemented by other forms of thought and expression. This is the crux of Eliot’s criticism of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, of which Eliot, in 1937, wrote “it is a glimpse of a theology that I find in large part repellent, expressed through a mythology which would have better been left in the Book of Genesis, upon which Milton has not improved.” Milton failed, according to Eliot, in large part because he did not know when to be a philosopher or theologian and when to be a poet.

Eliot has himself, of course, been sometimes thought of a theological or philosophical poet. Olney, however, rejects such a label for Eliot, drawing on Eliot’s own theory of poetry to do so. Writing especially of the Four Quartets, the theological themes of which are apparent and have been frequently commented upon, Olney writes that

One might say that pondering is not only the mode but, in a sense, the subject as well of the poem. In any case, the pondering proves to be a circular process that does not issue in an answer but turns in upon itself for substance, and Eliot never, speaking in his own voice, formulates a philosophy or maintains a conclusion.

While the Four Quartets and other of Eliot’s poetry written after his conversion to Christianity may indeed reflect the importance of that event to Eliot’s life and may be written from the perspective of one who has taken on a new faith, none of this poetry is theological in the sense which Eliot attributed to Milton’s poetry. The Four Quartets ponder issues of faith, but they do not cajole the reader into accepting Eliot’s faith.

For an illustration of this point, it is possible to turn to a section of the Dry Salvages which has a particularly religious orientation in its language and imagery. Eliot writes the entirety of the short section IV in the form a prayer addressed to the Virgin Mary. He begins:

Lady, whose shrine stands on the promontory,

Pray for all those who are in ships, those

Whose business has to do with fish, and

Those concerned with every lawful traffic

And those who conduct them.

(CPP, 135)

While it is possible to read this section of the poem in a strictly theological vein and therefore to perceive it and the poem as a whole as a Christian poem, implying a limited purview and perhaps a limited reading audience as well, such a reading is unnecessary and rather facile. It comes close to being dishonest, in fact, in the ability of such a reading to entirely evade the universally human impulses that run throughout this section and the entirety of the poem from it comes. There really is, after all, a shrine dedicated to Our Lady which stands on a promontory near the Dry Salvages, the rocky islands off the Massachusetts coast from which Eliot took the name and imagery of his poem. And many sailors have died after leaving from the nearby port, passing by the Dry Salvages and the nearby shrine of the Virgin Mary. In the face of great danger, it is a universally human impulse to turn to a higher power for help and for comfort, one reflected in the very presence of that statue Eliot refers to in this poem.

The religious references in Eliot’s poetry are not confined to Christian images and ideas, a point worth emphasizing as it highlights Eliot’s ability to draw the universal and cohesive out of the particular and individual. The Waste Land, for example, combines imagery and allusions taken from Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism. Commenting on the combination of words and ideas taken from the Buddha and St. Augustine in section III (“The Fire Sermon”) of the Waste Land in the notes appended to the poem in its first publication as a book, Eliot wrote, “The collocation of these two representatives of eastern and western asceticism, as the culmination of this part of the poem, is not an accident” (CPP, 53). Section V (“What the Thunder Said”), meanwhile, draws heavily upon the Brihadaranyaka-Upanishad, a Hindu text, for its content and imagery (CPP, 54).

Eliot’s use of Eastern religious ideas and imagery did not end with his conversion to Christianity. Even in the Dry Salvages, with its overtly Christian themes and images of Our Lady and the Incarnation, Eliot refers to the Hindu god Krishna in section III, which begins, “I Sometimes wonder if that is what Krishna meant” (CPP, 133). The rest of the section consists of a meditation which combines the words of Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita with a contemplation of the various dangers that will be faced by the sailors as they head out to sea and the application of this allegory of dangers at sea to human  life more generally. At last, Eliot concludes the section by turning again to Krishna. He cites the message of Krishna’s words to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita in a manner that emphasizes its universality:

So Krishna, as when he admonished Arjuna

On the field of battle.

Not fare well,

But fare forward, voyagers.

(CPP, 135)

Eliot has not inculcated a single religious ideology in the Four Quartets; he has, instead, articulated a vision of life which is wide enough to take into its purview the whole fabric of human experience. Eliot’s later poetry, then, is no more propaganda for Christianity than his earlier poetry was propaganda for disillusionment. Rather, each set of poems is a reflection his internal state at that moment, together forming themselves into a whole, an experience into which he invites the reader to share, not an ideology which he attempts to force the reader to adopt.

The latter is, in fact, an impossibility for the truly great poet as it is the peculiar ability and responsibility of the great poet to be able to create a unity of experience through the exploration of a variety of otherwise apparently unrelated events. In his 1919 essay on Hamlet, the same essay in which he coined the term “objective correlative,” Eliot wrote of the peculiar ability of the poet to bring together a variety of phenomena into a cohesive unity:

When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experiences; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the type-writer or the smell of the cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes.

The poet makes sense of the world of experience in his ability to discover the ways in which various sense impressions may form a unified view of the world as a whole. There is nothing that the poet is allowed to explain away or to relegate to an inferior status. For the poet, all phenomena of experience are of equal and of the utmost importance. Whether it is the philosophy of Spinoza or the smell of the food cooking on the stove, these sense impression must be treated in the manner in which they are received by the sense, as of equal relevance, and that relevance must be found and integrated into the relevance of all other experiences.

In his 1920 essay on “The Possibility of a Poetic Drama,” written half a decade before Eliot himself made an attempt at writing a poetic drama and a decade and a half before he would finish one, Eliot asserts, “Permanent literature is always a presentation of thought, or a presentation of feeling by a statement of events in human action or objects in the external world.” It is, therefore, the phenomena of experience and sense that must be worked up into this poetic whole. The ideologue attempts to explain contemporary phenomena through his ideology. Any given event is to be attributed to the factors highlighted by the ideologue as the source of all such events. The poet, however, works in the opposite direction. He begins with the phenomena and seeks a means by which they may be mutually fitted together.