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Practicing Literary Theory in the Middle Ages: Ethics and the Mixed Form in Chaucer, Gower, Usk, and Hoccleve

Practicing Literary Theory in the Middle Ages: Ethics and the Mixed Form in Chaucer, Gower, Usk, and Hoccleve

by Eleanor Johnson

Literary scholars often avoid the category of the aesthetic in discussions of ethics, believing that purely aesthetic judgments can vitiate analyses of a literary work’s sociopolitical heft and meaning. In Practicing Literary Theory in the Middle Ages, Eleanor Johnson reveals that aesthetics—the formal aspects of literary language that make it


Literary scholars often avoid the category of the aesthetic in discussions of ethics, believing that purely aesthetic judgments can vitiate analyses of a literary work’s sociopolitical heft and meaning. In Practicing Literary Theory in the Middle Ages, Eleanor Johnson reveals that aesthetics—the formal aspects of literary language that make it sense-perceptible—are indeed inextricable from ethics in the writing of medieval literature.
Johnson brings a keen formalist eye to bear on the prosimetric form: the mixing of prose with lyrical poetry. This form descends from the writings of the sixth-century Christian philosopher Boethius—specifically his famous prison text, Consolation of Philosophy—to the late medieval English tradition. Johnson argues that Boethius’s text had a broad influence not simply on the thematic and philosophical content of subsequent literary writing, but also on the specific aesthetic construction of several vernacular traditions. She demonstrates the underlying prosimetric structures in a variety of Middle English texts—including Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde and portions of the Canterbury Tales, Thomas Usk’s Testament of Love, John Gower’s Confessio amantis, and Thomas Hoccleve’s autobiographical poetry—and asks how particular formal choices work, how they resonate with medieval literary-theoretical ideas, and how particular poems and prose works mediate the tricky business of modeling ethical transformation for a readership.

Editorial Reviews

Jessica Brantley
“This lucid and insightful study offers a new way of thinking about the necessary relation of form and ethics in late-medieval writing. In Practicing Literary Theory in the Middle Ages, Eleanor Johnson examines the mixed form—notably the combinations of verse and prose that constitute the prosimetrum—from Martianus Capella and Boethius to Chaucer, Usk, Gower, and Hoccleve. For these authors, experiments in form become an active site for ethical engagement, and for mirroring a narrator’s journey in a reader’s. Johnson’s exciting book will be indispensable for those readers interested in reimagining the uses of formalism in medieval literature and medieval literary studies.”
Christopher Cannon
Practicing Literary Theory in the Middle Ages is as daring as it is original, for it not only shows us just how many Middle English texts share a prosimetric structure, but the extent to which their writers understood the ‘mixed form’ as a means for ethical transformation, a way of making literature not only a forum for defining or representing ‘the good,’ but also an instrument that caused readers to feel it, in the deepest, aesthetic sense. Johnson’s close attention to literary style, to rhythm (of both verse and prose), and to form in the broadest sense answers to the general thirst in all literary studies for a return to the text. But the book will be most eye-opening to those who care about the English Middle Ages and its most commonly read texts, as it uses the closest of readings to work back to a wholly new understanding of what the writers of these texts thought literature was for.”
Bruce Holsinger
“This rivetingly original work is the book we’ve all been waiting for. In this relentlessly thematic age, Eleanor Johnson shows us why form still matters, to us and to our comprehension of the literary past, and she does so with bracing intelligence and a fine eye for formal and stylistic detail. Moving from Boethius and his continental legacy into the Middle English tradition, Practicing Literary Theory in the Middle Ages tells a compelling story about the intricate yet transformative effects of prose and poetry as imagined and practiced in a range of works in several languages. Johnson is a kind of literary-critical mechanic, revealing with brilliance and skill how particular formal and rhetorical elements work discretely and together to shape the readerly process—not for its own sake, but for the larger premodern project of personal ethical transformation. The research is first-rate and the arguments original, and the book will have an immediate and lasting effect on the study of medieval literature.”
Choice - A. L. Kaufman
“A sophisticated , revealing study about the ethical imperative present in Middle English texts that are of a mixed form, specifically those works that are ‘prosimetric,’ containing a mixture of prose and verse. . . . Highly recommended.”
Medieval Review
“An engaging and insightful study. Focusing primarily (but not exclusively) on foundational English authors Geoffrey Chaucer, John Gower, Thomas Usk, and Thomas Hoccleve, Johnson brings a careful formalist approach to medieval literary criticism that is ever mindful of the ethical dimensions of reading—not only for medieval audiences, but also for scholars in the present. . . . This multifaceted book is worth reading all the way through for its extraordinary and attentive close readings. . . . It invites readers to carefully consider how crafted literary works achieve their artistic effects, and it models forms of literary criticism that are both rewarding to the intellect and satisfying as aesthetic experience.”
“Johnson is an absolutely brilliant close reader. . . . Provocative and generative, this book will rightly be read, taught, and discussed for years to come.”
"Practicing Literary Theory in the Middle Ages is essential reading for medievalists with critical investments in the Boethian tradition, Middle English poetics, and New Formalism within medieval studies, not to mention all those working with the titular authors whose seminal texts provide the raw material for Johnson’s brilliant study. More technically, the book’s subtitled focus on the Mixed Form points toward the benefits of engaging with prose poetics as well as verse poetics, and will prove tremendously useful for scholars working with Middle English prose texts. Johnson shows persuasively that the literary theory of fourteenth- and fifteenth-century England was a metapoetic mode that inhered within, and was produced in tandem with, formally experimental prometric protrepsis, not in discursive, literal explanation of specific theories and their workings."
Gower Bibliography
"Offers fruitful readings that not only encourage new approaches to literary Boethianism but also restore the importance of form and aesthetics to an understanding of Gowerian ethics."

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Ethics and the Mixed Form in Chaucer, Gower, Usk, and Hoccleve



Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago
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ISBN: 978-0-226-01584-2



Formal Experiments with Ethical Writing: Prosimetrum and Protrepsis

If the evolution of the mixed-form topos of protreptic writing has a prime mover, as I have suggested, it is Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy. Part of what makes this work a particularly important initiator of the literary history that Practicing Literary Theory in the Middle Ages will tell is that it carefully teaches its readers how it should be read and experienced. The Consolation practices the literary principles that it theorizes, and it theorizes them explicitly as it practices them. It is thus a work of literary theory-in-practice. Throughout, the Consolation treats prose as the form that embodies rational thought and meter as the form that embodies sensuality and pleasure. Also throughout, prose is where dialogue—the back-and-forth Socratic conversation between Philosophy and Boethius—takes place. Meter, on the other hand, is where monologic lyricism occurs, where a single speaker—either Boethius or Philosophy—sings a song. The dual formal embodiment of reason and sensation in dialogic argumentation and monologic lyric is central to the ethically transformative function of the Consolation, as is made explicit by Philosophy's own statements throughout her conversation with Boethius. Repeatedly, she signals to him why she deploys the twinned forms of prose and meter when she does. In so doing, she foregrounds how meter works in a productive synergy with prose—how meter and prose are in fact mutually necessary to ethical reeducation, via their alternating action of logical dialogue and lyricism. In this foregrounding of the mutual necessity of prose and meter, Philosophy goes far deeper into the ethically transformative logic of the mixed form than did Martianus or his commentators.

Early on and explicitly, the Consolation cultivates a tension between prose and poetry—a tension that shows poetry in a decidedly negative light. The Consolation opens with a meter, a versified lamentation that Boethius is forced to sing by poetic muses ("poeticas Musas") who, like vultures, circle around him while he lies imprisoned, prone and vulnerable, on his sickbed. In response to his lamentation, Philosophy, styling herself as his spiritual doctor, makes her first appearance. She decries the poetic muses, claiming they do not promote his healing but merely deepen his pains with their sweet venom: "quae dolores eius non modo nullis remediis fouerent, uerum dulcibus insuper alerent uenenis" (by no means do they support those in sorrow by any remedies but instead always foster sorrow by venomous sweetnesses). The poetic poisoning, Philosophy explains, has soured Boethius's affect and thus blocked him from access to rational thought: "Hae sunt enim quae infructuosis affectuum spinis uberem fructibus rationis segetem necant hominumque mentes assuefaciunt morbo, non liberant." (These [muses] are they who injure the fruitful harvest of reason with the fruitless spines of affects. They get men's minds used to illness; they do not liberate them.) Since rational thought will be key in healing Boethius's addled soul, without further ado she banishes these poetic muses from Boethius's cell—and from the Consolation—permanently. Adding extra force to Philosophy's condemnation of the poetic muses, throughout her initial diagnosis of Boethius and her banishment of the muses, she has addressed Boethius in prose, suggesting in form what is implied in content: that the discursive form of rational healing is prose and that poetry is unhealthy and self-indulgent.

This joint valorization of prose and condemnation of poetry, however, quickly grows complicated. Philosophy's first attempt to reason with the desperate Boethius takes place in prose, but that attempt is a conspicuous failure. Seeing the ineffectiveness of her prose discourse, she switches to a metrical song—a surprising move for one who has just banished the "poetic muses" from her ward's bedside. After she sings this first song to Boethius, she asks a question that reveals the essential function of song and meter in Boethius's process of philosophical learning: "Sentisne, inquit, haec, atque animo illabuntur tuo?" ("Do you feel these things," she said, "and do they penetrate into your soul?"). Philosophy's diction suggests that she sees her song as a penetrative agent ("illabuntur") that Boethius can feel or sense ("sentisne"). This characterization first reveals that Philosophy's healing song acts by penetration; song is useful when prose cannot—quite literally—get through to Boethius. Its piercing action breaks through the affective wall of his sorrows. Second, by evoking "sense," Philosophy's characterization suggests that meter penetrates by producing aesthetic experience—that which can be felt sensually, or perceived by the senses. Evidently, Philosophy needs to use the sensual penetration of metrical song in order to initiate the process of Boethius's philosophical transformation from despair to hope.

Once Philosophy has "pierced" into Boethius via song, however, she immediately recurs to prose, in which she conducts the rational argumentation that is meant to draw Boethius out of his despair. But it is still too soon for her to rely on the rational argumentation that her prose discourse embodies, so she switches once again into song. To explain why she does so, she deploys a medical metaphor that casts song as a poultice or compress that can ease Boethius's psychological pain:

Sed quoniam plurimus tibi affectuum tumultus incubuit diuersumque te dolor ira maeror distrahunt, uti nunc mentis es, nondum te ualidiora remedia contingunt. Itaque lenioribus paulisper utemur, ut quae in tumorem perturbationibus influentibus induruerunt ad acrioris uim medicaminis recipiendam tactu blandiore mollescant.

[But since this multiplicity of tumultuous affects overwhelms you—sorrow, ire, and mourning tear you up—since you are now weak of spirit, stronger remedies cannot yet touch you. So let us briefly use gentler medicines, so that these affects that have hardened in you into a cyst may be softened by a milder touch, until the power of your illness will bear a harsher remedy.]

With this proffer of gentler medicines, Philosophy breaks into a metrical song. Thus, early on, the Consolation encourages a reader to see meter as a necessary means of penetrating into one's psyche via one's body, through the action of sensuality and palliation. This gentle palliation paves the way for the "stronger remedy" of rational argumentation in prose. In Philosophy's explicit theory of how prosimetrum has transformative efficacy, meter evidently helps prose do its rational work by easing the patient into readiness for ethical restructuring.

To understand how Philosophy can both banish the "poetic muses" and yet rely on meter's gentle medicinal properties, it is important to remember that in her initial banishment of the "poetic muses," Philosophy does not banish meter per se; she does not, that is, banish the form that poetry is usually written in. Instead, she specifically banishes the poeticas musas—whom she seems to understand as a dangerous subtype of metrical utterance that works exclusively by amplifying negative affect. What she seems to find most objectionable in "poetry" is how it encourages indulgence in self-pity, which in turn contributes to false and deceptive beliefs. Poetry, for her, seems to be a designation of content, rather than a designation of form: the poetry Philosophy banishes, in effect, is tragic fiction—false, sorrow-inducing, antiphilosophical lamentation, not metrical song writ large. Apart from this affectively negative mode of song, Philosophy recognizes an ongoing and undeniable utility to song in both working and representing Boethius's transformation.

Even so, the Consolation also acknowledges that meter's transformative powers have their limits. Upon hearing a meter Philosophy has sung to ease his heart, Boethius again recognizes song's saving powers, but he now also laments that some sorrows lie too deep for song's aesthetic reach:

Speciosa quidem ista sunt, inquam, oblitaque rhetoricae ac musicae melle dulcedinis tum tantum, cum audiuntur, oblectant, sed miseris malorum altior sensus est; itaque cum haec auribus insonare desierint insitus animum maeror praegrauat.

[These are beautiful utterances, I said, and are anointed with the honey sweetness of rhetoric and musicso that, when they are heard, they please. But for the wretched there is a deeper sense of misfortunes. And therefore when these pleasing things cease to sound in their ears, this deep-set sorrow wearies the spirit.]

Boethius recognizes that song brings pleasure while sung, but he insists that once the sweetness and beauty of the words have departed from the senses, one is left with one's agonies. Sensual pleasure is thus depicted as a necessary but limited tool for psychological transformation. With these assertions Philosophy agrees outright, saying that the sweetness of song is not a full remedy for Boethius's psychological ills, but insisting that it is nevertheless a critical part of his healing process, since it draws off his excessive sorrows.

[H]aec enim nondum morbi tui remedia, sed adhuc contumacis aduersum curationem doloris fomenta quaedam sunt; nam quae in profundum sese penetrent cum tempestiuum fuerit admouebo.

[For these things are not yet remedies for your illness, but they are certain poultices for your sorrow, which is stubborn toward your cure. When the time comes, I will give you something that will get deep inside you.]

Song works sensually and pleasurably, to produce affective change in a hearer. That affective change—the removal of sorrow and introduction of pleasure—is necessary to the work of rational reeducation. Only after the senses are eased by pleasure can the real work of philosophical reasoning take place. That philosophical reasoning then takes place in prose. Prose is thus cast as the vehicle of serious philosophical interrogation in the Consolation, the intellectual substance to which the meter acts merely as sensory facilitator. Song is again cast as a necessary prerequisite to the "stronger medicines" Philosophy will administer later on in prose.

But the relation of prose to meter grows yet more nuanced as the Consolation continues. In book 4, Philosophy both reveals the true nature of prose argumentation and also deepens a sense of why meter is a necessary adjunct to it:

Sed uideo te iam dudum et pondere quaestionis oneratum et rationis prolixitate fatigatum aliquam carminis exspectare dulcedinem; accipe igitur haustum quo refectus firmior in ulteriora contendas.

[But now I see that you are pressed down by the heaviness of my questioning and that you are fatigued by the prolixity of my reasoning and that you await the sweetness of song; take this draft that will refresh you and make you abler to wrestle with later matters.]

Philosophy again represents song as the space for pleasure, delight, and sweetness; but now, that sweetness is used less to lighten Boethius's sorrows than to lighten what seems to be the innate burden of prose, where heavy, wordy reasoning and onerous interrogations take place. Song's sweetness evidently is useful not simply as a preparation for prose but also as a reprieve from it. Thus, although meter is repeatedly suggested to have slightly less power in producing true and salvific new understanding in Boethius than prose, it is nevertheless clear that Boethius's transformation can dispense with the songful delight of meter no more easily than with the heavy and sometimes onerous rational argumentation of prose. By this point, The Consolation of Philosophy appears as a metapoetic work, a work of literary theory-in-practice, foregrounding the formal conditions by which it pursues its ethically transformative, protreptic end and outlining distinct and seemingly innate functionalities for both prose and meter.

This explicit theory of how the mixed form achieves its transformative function is apparent to and made explicit by medieval commentators. William of Conches explains that song serves to draw off negative affect and introduce positive affect, while prose is the appropriate space for heavier, more linear, organized logical argumentation: "In prosa igitur Boetius utitur ratione ad consolationem, in metro interponit delectationem, ut dolor remoueatur" (Therefore, in prose Boethius uses reason for consolation; in meter he interposes delight, to remove sorrow). William's commentary notes that Boe thian song has a sensual and palliative effect, which then paves the way for the rational argument of prose. William thus registers that the form of Boethius's writing is inseparable from its consoling function, though he also apparently realizes that prose is the more powerful form—what produces the actual "consolationem"—while song is useful merely in removing unwanted affective blockages out of the way. It is through this twin form that the ethical renewal of the Consolation takes place. In the Consolation of Philosophy, prosimetrum becomes the form of philosophy, the form of comfort, the form necessary to produce Boethius's psychological transformation. In its crossing of prose and metrical forms, it is construed by commentators as the aesthetic correlative of ethical transformation—being a crossing of forms, quite literally, a trans-formation.


But the affective and rational transformation programmed into Boethian prosimetrum is not the whole story of how his formal choices undergird the ethical transformation that his work models. Having laid out the skeleton of Boe thian metapoetics, I will now demonstrate how prose and meter are styled differently at a local scale to create discrete aesthetic effects and, thence, to initiate soul-transforming understanding in Boethius. As I have noted, throughout the Consolation, prose is the form of dialogue, while meter is the form of monologue. I use these terms literally: where there is prose, there are two voices, both Boethius and Philosophy, which are in conversation with each other. Where there is meter, there is a single voice, either Boethius or Philosophy, which sings a lyrical song that erupts out of the dialogic narrative. The dialogic proses pit Philosophy's Socratic questioning against Boethius's responses: they show Boethius's understandings and his misunderstandings, and they show Philosophy's measured and rational responses to them. In the ongoing conversation between teacher and student, the proses advance propositions, consider possible consequences and alternative understandings, formulate and reformulate questions, and eventually arrive at logical conclusions. Throughout the Consolation, then, dialogic prose is the form of rational argumentation. Precisely how the proses are formally designed to render rational argumentation persuasive for Boethius and, by extension, for the reader is what we must next address.

As discussed above, Boethius represents meter as the form appropriate to the affective and sweetly sensual pleasure of protreptic transformation, while he represents prose as the form appropriate to its hard, rational work. To be sure, meter's capacity to afford aesthetic pleasure and engender positive affect is a necessary adjunct to the rational argumentation of prose. But to read the meters as the only "aesthetic" passages of the work, because they are explicitly characterized as "sweet" and "delightful" to the senses, is to overlook the fact that the prose passages, too, are "aesthetic"—designed by their style to be sense-perceptible. In a question she asks Boethius immediately after a prose explication of universal order, Philosophy reveals that prose, like meter, creates feeling or sensation: "Tum illa: Cum haec, inquit, ita sentias ..." (Then she said, Since you sense these things ...). She asserts not that he understands intellectually but instead that he can feel—can perceive in his senses—the truths she expresses in prose. Prose, like meter, is theorized as a verbal mode of engaging with sensation.

Excerpted from PRACTICING LITERARY THEORY IN THE MIDDLE AGES by ELEANOR JOHNSON. Copyright © 2013 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Meet the Author

Eleanor Johnson is assistant professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University.

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