Category Archives: Poetry

Chaucer, CT, Wife of Bath’s Tale

Index to this series

The Wife of Bath: the type of the difficult woman? She is the opposite or complement of Constance in the Man of Law’s Tale. About to be sent to a barbarous country to wed a man she has never met, Constance laments,

Women are born to thraldom and penance,
And to be under man’s governance.

In her Prologue (which is longer than her Tale), the Wife says of her first three husbands, who were “gode, and riche, and olde” (line 197),

I governed hem so wel, after my lawe,
That ech of hem ful blisful was and fawe
To bringe me gaye thinges fro the fayre. (lines 219–21)

After the fight with her fifth husband in which he deafened her ear,

He yaf me al the brydel in myn hond
To han the governance of hous and lond,
And of his tonge and of his hond also,
And made him brenne his book anon right tho. (line 813–6)

The book was all about “wikked wyves.”

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Chaucer, CT, Man of Law’s Tale

Index to this series

The tale of Chaucer’s Man of Law is a strange fantasy, taking place in the Mediterranean and England, at a time when there are

  • a Muslim sultan in Syria,
  • pagan rulers in England,
  • both an emperor and a pope in Rome.

There does not seem to have been such a time historically. The pope crowned emperors such as Charlemagne, but they didn’t sit in Rome.

The Man of Law names only one male historical figure, who is King Ælla of Northumbria, who died in 867. Several women are named, particularly Constance, who is apparently to be taken as the type of a virtuous Christian woman.

While telling his tale, the Serjeant asserts that our fates are written in the stars, if only we could read them. He also says he learned his tale from a merchant, years ago, and Chaucer will have to versify it. But then Chaucer the poet is having his character called the Serjeant or Man of Law say this in the first place.

The reading has three parts.

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Chaucer, CT, Miller’s and Reeve’s Tales

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When I read the Miller’s Tale for high school, I thought it was supposed to show how titillation was possible through learning (in this case, learning Middle English). We didn’t read the Reeve’s ensuing tale (it was not in the selection that we had).

The two tales are comedies. Chaucer bases them on existing plots, as far as I know, but tries to make them fit his pilgrims. Though the Reeve may derive the lesson, “A gylour shal him-self bigyled be” (line 4321), I see no reason to think Chaucer is trying to teach this or any other lesson. He portrays corruption in the Church, but does not seem to be a Luther in the making.

There are many more tales to come. Meanwhile, I wonder how Chaucer came to describe the mote and beam of Matthew 7:3 as a stalk and a balk; see lines 3919–20.

Before passing to the text itself, I try to summarize, highlighting the comedy.

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Chaucer, CT, Knight’s Tale

Index to this series

I had read the Knight’s Tale in college and written an essay about it, but I could remember little of the Tale itself or the essay.

After obtaining and annotating the text of the Tale as below, I went back to reread my old essay after thirty-six years. It’s better than I feared, and it drew my attention to points that I had missed in the latest reading of the Knight’s Tale itself. But my concerns are somehow different now.

This is what I say now about the Knight’s Tale. It is about the resolution of a love triangle. Palamon and Arcite both love Emily. Arcite wins her, but Palamon ends up with her.

By the anachronistic conceit of the teller of the tale (be he Chaucer or Chaucer’s Knight), Palamon and Arcite are knights in ancient Greece. Theseus arranges for them to fight one another for the hand of Emily. Palamon prays Venus to win Emily or die. Arcite prays Mars to give him victory. Emily prays Diana to leave her single, if possible.

Maidenhead is not allowed. However, Arcite will go to the man who loves her most. Victory is Arcite’s, but then accident takes his life, and Theseus gives Emily to Palamon.

I could keep adding details until I had repeated the whole story told in Chaucer’s verses; but I am not going to do that.

A question raised in our seminar is, What does it mean that Chaucer has a Christian knight tell a story about knights who worship pagan gods?

Palamon and Arcite get what they say they want, literally. Oracles work that way:

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Chaucer, CT, Prologue

Below is a text (in black) of the Prologue of the Canterbury Tales of Geoffrey Chaucer, with

  • my comments in blue (as now),
  • my highlighting in yellow.

The Prologue tells the frame story of a pilgrimage from London to the shrine of the “holy blissful martyr” at Canterbury; along the way, the pilgrims will tell the tales that make up the rest of the collection.

Chaucer was born around 1340; the dramatic date of his Prologue may be 1387. The martyr in Canterbury is Thomas Becket, assassinated in the cathedral there in 1170 by agents of King Henry II of England.

The Black Death was 1346–53.

Reasons to read Chaucer include testing Collingwood’s assertion in the Prologue of Speculum Mentis (1924),

Chaucer and Dante are no shallow optimists, but their tragedies are discords perpetually resolved in the harmony of a celestial music. The fundamental thing in Chaucer is the ‘mery tale’ of human life as a heartening and lovely pageant … The medieval mind feels itself surrounded, beyond the sphere of trial and danger, by a great peace, an infinite happiness.

Those clauses are from this paragraph, elaborating on medieval happiness:

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Hostility and Hospitality

After seventeen weekly posts of readings with my annotations, the Pensées of Pascal join two other works that I have blogged about systematically, chapter by chapter or book by book:

  • R. G. Collingwood, The New Leviathan, or Man, Society, Civilization, and Barbarism (1942);

  • Homer, the Iliad, in George Chapman’s translation.

Do three authors belong together, for any other reason than that I have spent time with each of them?

  • For Pascal, the Torah is history, but the Iliad was written too late to be that, and is just a novel (S 688 / L 436 / B 628). It has no concept of law, he says (S 691 / L 451 / B 620), but later Greeks took this and other things from the Jews. I discussed this in “Judaism for Pascal.” For example, Philo Judaeus thinks that when Heraclitus says, “We live their death and we die their life,” this is the death wrought by eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in Genesis.

  • Pascal and Collingwood both come to terms with a world of contrariety. Collingwood calls it “a Heraclitean world,” alluding to how Plato has Socrates tell Hermogenes in the Cratylus (402a, Loeb translation by Harold North Fowler),

    Heracleitus says, you know, that all things move and nothing remains still, and he likens the universe to the current of a river, saying that you cannot step twice into the same stream.

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The Asıl of the Iliad

Etymologically speaking, the asıl of a thing is its root. The Arabic root of the Turkish word means bitki kökü, “vegetable root,” according to Sevan Nişanyan’s Turkish etymological dictionary.

In the Iliad, why is Achilles so affronted by Agamemnon as to refuse to help the Greeks, even as their attack on Troy is becoming a defensive war, at the wall that they have erected about their own ships? If the answer is to be found through study, then Book IX of the Iliad is what to study.

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Automatia

One day during the Trojan War, Apollo and Athena decide to give the combatants a break. The general conflict is to be replaced with a one-on-one. The Olympians induce Helenus to tell his brother Hector to take on whichever of the Greeks is up for it.

Only Menelaus will accept the challenge at first. His brother Agamemnon makes him withdraw. When none of the other Greeks comes forward, Nestor chides them. After a story of his former prowess, he utters the words that Chapman renders as two couplets:

O that my youth were now as fresh, and all my powers as sound;
Soone should bold Hector be impugn’d: yet you that most are crownd
With fortitude, of all our hoast; euen you, me thinkes are slow,
Not free, and set on fire with lust, t’encounter such a foe.

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Poetry and Mathematics

This reviews some reading and thinking of recent weeks, pertaining more or less to the title subjects, of which it may be worth noting that

  • poetry is from ποιέω “make”;
  • mathematics is from μανθάνω “learn.”

Summary added August 23, 2020: Mathematics may bring out such emotions as poetry does; but in the ideal, a work of mathematics is correct or not, in a sense that everybody will agree on. Here I review work of

  1. Lisa Morrow, writing in Meanjin as an immigrant to Istanbul, like me;
  2. Wendell Berry, in “The Peace of Wild Things,” which things “do not tax their lives with forethought / of grief,” and include the stars;
  3. Randall Jarrell, in The Animal Family;
  4. Mary Midgley, in Evolution as a Religion, on how we see animals;
  5. James Beall, astronomer, poet of the stars, tutor at my college;
  6. Edith Södergran, in “God,” as translated by Nicholas Lawrence in Cordite;
  7. Lukas Moodysson, in Fucking Åmål, where Agnes’s father notices that his daughter is reading Edith Södergran;
  8. Thomas J.J. Altizer, in The Gospel of Christian Atheism, a book that I kept from my father’s collection;
  9. Özge Samancı, in Dare to Disappoint, where the character to be disappointed is the father of the artist, and where Özlem (the artist’s friend and mine) praises the poetry of mathematics;
  10. Fiona Hile, writing, quâ editor of an issue of Cordite featuring poetry of mathematics, about the set theory of Maryanthe Malliaris and Saharon Shelah;
  11. Anupama Pilbrow, a poet writing in Meanjin about studying mathematics;
  12. Robert Pirsig, about students who ask their teacher, “Is this what you want?”
  13. R. G. Collingwood, who in Speculum Mentis analyzes Art, Religion, Science, History, and Philosophy as modes of existence;
  14. Michael Oakeshott, supposedly influenced by Collingwood, but also considered a forefather of “postmodern conservatism,” and analyzing existence into different modes from Collingwood’s, the latter according to the article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy by Terry Nardin, who reports, “to insist on the primacy of any single mode is not only boorish but barbaric”;
  15. Allan Bloom, who suggests, in The Closing of the American Mind, that for Ronald Reagan, for the Soviet Union to be “the evil empire” and to “have different values” from the United States is the same thing;
  16. Galen Strawson, who seems to belie the possibility of different modes of being by saying, “we know exactly what consciousness is,” and also, “The nature of physical stuff is mysterious except insofar as consciousness is itself a form of physical stuff,” when (according to me) consciousness is simply not physical, not in the sense of being studied by physics.

A Twitter friend living here in Istanbul announced (on June 16) her pleasure in having a memoir published in Meanjin.

Meanjin cover, Winter 2020: a bird crushed by a stone heart

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Donne’s Undertaking

I was recently called on to recommend a poem. I chose “The Undertaking” of John Donne. I want to say here why.

  • The poem (quoted below) has a sound that impressed me when first I read it, more than thirty years ago.

  • The poem alludes to ideals:

    • of recognizing what is good for its own sake;

    • of climbing a rung or two on Diotima’s ladder or stairway of love, recounted by Socrates in Plato’s Symposium (211c):

      And the true order of going, or being led by another, to the things of love (τὰ ἐρωτικά), is to begin from the beauties of earth and mount upwards for the sake of that other beauty, using these as steps (οἳ ἐπαναβαθμοί) only, and from one going on to two, and from two to all fair forms (τὰ καλὰ σώματα), and from fair forms to fair practices (τὰ καλὰ ἐπιτηδεύματα), and from fair practices to fair notions (τὰ καλὰ μαθήματα), until from fair notions he arrives at the notion of absolute beauty, and at last knows what the essence of beauty is (ὃ ἔστι καλόν).

  • The sound of Donne’s poem may seduce one into thinking the ideals worthy.

Analytic Geometry and Donne's complete poetry

Two books that were my mother’s

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