The natural world, as Bacon said, was 'in proportion inferior to the soul'. Such a conception excluded that kind and degree of reverence for natural fact which romanticism and science have combined to instil into us. The man who, in his 'feigned history', improved on Nature and painted what might be or ought to be, did not feel that he was retreating from reality into a merely subjective refuge; he was reascending from a world which he had a right to call 'foolish' and asserting his divine origin. Such unambiguous statements of the neo-platonic creed are not, however, very common.
The men of that age were such inveterate syncretists, so much more anxious to reconcile authorities than to draw out their differences, that the Aristotelian and neo-Platonic views are not clearly opposed and compared, but are rather contaminated by each other and by many more influences as well. Aristotle himself was sometimes misinterpreted in a sense which brought him very close to Plotinus. Thus Fracastorius ( 1483-1553) in his Naugerius explains that while other writers give us the naked fact (rem), the poet gives us the form (ideam) clothed in all its beauties 'which Aristotle calls the vniuersal'.
These 'beauties' however are not very relevant to Aristotle's immanent universal--the general character in situations of a given kind, the 'sort of thing that might happen'; they have come in because Fracastorius is really thinking of a Platonic and transcendent form, a reality prior to, and exalted above, Nature. To a degree that many moderns cannot appreciate, the medieval world was theocentric. It was theocentric spatially and temporally--i. e. , in the realm of nature and in the realm of history. Nature was a theophany; it was the visible garment of divinity.
Nature is a book written by the hand of God in which every creature is a word charged with meaning. The ignorant see the forms--the mysterious letters--understanding nothing of their meaning, but the wise pass from the visible to the invisible and in reading nature read the thoughts of God. True knowledge, then, consists not only in the study of things in themselves--the outward forms--but in penetrating to the inner meaning intended by God for our instruction, for in the words of Honorius of Autun, "every creature is a shadow of truth and life. "
This concept of the correspondence between the visible and the invisible, the corporeal and the spiritual, has a long history, but in the later Middle Ages it was vitalized by St. Francis of Assisi and especially by St. Bonaventure in his celebrated doctrine of analogy. When we consider the significant role of the Franciscans in shaping English spirituality and especially in shaping the course of the English lyric, the wonder is that this doctrine of analogy and its role in the symbolic interpretation of the universe inspired so few of the English religious lyrics. But if God spoke to man through nature, he spoke also through history.
For the Christian, all history unites at its focal point: the Incarnation and Redemption; as Male says, "All leads up to Christ as all begins anew in Him". To read the Old Testament is to accept the events which it narrates as historical facts; to read it from the focal point of history is to interpret these facts as prophecies. The concept of a New Testament which abrogated the Old meant that the Old in itself had application only for the Jews and not for the Christians; exegetes, therefore, following the example of St. Paul and indeed of Christ Himself, gave the Old Testament a Christian relevance.
Similarly, profane history was given a Christian reference and was interpreted as reflecting the Old Testament or the New. But the Incarnation was not only the fulfillment of the old dispensation; it began the new. It embodied a set of spiritual values which affect the daily life of the Christian throughout time. It embodied a spiritual reality which was given meaning in the interior life of every Christian. The Incarnation therefore has for the Christian a profundity which transcends its historical reality. Medieval Poets The analogy which the medieval poets saw between the natural and supernatural worlds is reflected in their poems.
The analogies which the Middle Ages saw between the corporeal and the spiritual levels of existence is, as we have been noting, reflected in the imagery which the poets use. If we restrict imagery, as I do here, to include primarily simile, metaphor, allegory, and symbol, the poets wrote many image-less lyrics. And when we examine those that do contain imagery, we often find the images very few and insignificant in the structure of the poem as a whole. Why? Perhaps for three related reasons. First, the song and songlike lyric do not need imagery in this restricted sense to create their characteristic effects.
Imagery, particularly metaphor and symbol, may bear too great an intellectual content for the songlike lyric. It suits better the insight into religious experience which these lyrics do not present. As we have observed, they tend rather to affirm the generally understood forms of religious experience. If they employ images, they find most helpful those which alliterate and those which are thoroughly conventional, for such images will not deflect the poem which comes closest to handling the multiple-image technique the way modern readers know it is Thomas of Hales' love ron (XIII, No. 43).
The poem divides readily into halves, and its images reflect a general thematic content of nature vs. grace. The introduction sets up the raison d'etre for the poem; the good Friar seems to be enjoying a little joke. Apparently some young lady who dedicated herself to God's service (in a general sense) requested Friar Thomas to compose for her a poem containing advice on taking a second true lover (other than God, presumably). Having thus set up the circumstances, the text proceeds with the ron. In the first part (lines 9-88) the speaker contemplates the transitoriness of this world with its joys and gifts.
Trust in such ephemeral love, he warns, and you place your trust wrongfully. Moreover, a true lover cannot be found in this world; truth in love lasts forever, not just until death, and this world is by nature transitory. When the medieval poet uses wit, he may merely ornament an inherently valuable subject much as he may employ an elaborate sound structure; or he may heighten his audience's emotional response to the truth; or he may actually deepen his audience's understanding of the religious mystery.
The poetry of wit in Middle English comprises a larger corpus than most commentators have realized. These are some of the reflections of the supernatural as it appears in the natural world. Superstition, however, is in constant traffic with another world than that of mortals. This otherworld is not necessarily heaven, nor the land of the dead; nor is it specifically fairyland In pagan times the sacred well was the home of the god, the source of fertility. Hence the mention of water, be it the sea, a river, a spring, or a well, may be significant.
Trees, mountains, and caves were also entrances to the otherworld. Such natural disappearances as death by drowning were journeys by water to the otherworld; getting lost in the forest or in a cave was another sort of passage. King Arthur (according to another version of his death), Der Alte Barbarossa, Thomas of Erceldoune, and the Pied Piper with his horde of children vanished in this way. The many stories of strange journeys through the forest may have helped to form the conception of Robin Hood's domain, which could be reached only by the initiated.
At a time when English lyric poetry was still colored by an earlier pessimism, and by medieval preoccupation with mortality and the sense of sin, the carol made its appearance. With its light-heartedness, its modern touch, its reflection of natural emotions and its pervading rhythm, its popularity is not surprising. Its later history is soon told. Until the time of the Commonwealth there must have been much honest guileless carol singing, but the Puritans suppressed it as a pagan practice, along with the Maypole and the Morris dance and Christmas.
Recent collectors have found few really ancient carols, though there are some which in their moral tone show an effort to adapt their earlier gaiety to a graver pace, and thus pass muster with the Puritans. There are many allusions to the tomb, to falling from glory, to the pangs of death and hell, in carols meant originally to wish you joy at the New Year. The carol is another instance of song revived and strengthened by oral tradition, showing the endless revolutions of folk poetry and dance, from ancient ritual through the secular and back to the religious again.
The Franciscans unwittingly caused a wheel to come full-circle when they restored to sacred uses the song of a once religious expression, the circle-dance. As ancient as the ring-dance is the chanted story, told by the professional storyteller since earliest times. "In the infancy of society every author is necessarily a poet, because language itself is poetry," says Shelley, 16 and all simple people speak a language very close to poetry when, in repeating a story again and again, with a sense of its importance for narrator and listeners, they stereotype its phrases and rhythms more and more.
The character of some ballad tunes recovered from tradition often points to a beginning in chanted speech. Arthur Stories Some of the medieval English Arthur stories keep the earlier tendency to dwell on fighting rather than on loving. The glamour of the Celtic fairyland which gave these stories birth, and the courtliness of chivalry in which they had been dressed by the French, generally appealed less to the English poets. And beside these negative traits we may discern certain positive English characteristics that persist in our literature.
Tristram, huntsman, harper, lover of the fair Iseult, is in this north-English romance a ruder figure, the nearer perhaps to the simplicity of the original Celtic folktale, but the further from the French courtly lover. The English Tristram, like the English Percival (page 135 ), is more Germanic, a wild, strong youth, a fighting man. And the manner of telling the story is rapid, sometimes too abrupt for clearness, never elaborate. Perhaps this story was oral. At any rate, the English poet has compressed the romance within a little over three thousand short lines.
His conciseness, however, is not the artistic selection of a few incidents for presentation in detail. It is not the artistic conciseness of the finished French and Latin short romances (page 95 ), or of the later English Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (page 154 ), but simply the telling of all the incidents more briefly. But again there is more art in the verse. The eleven-verse stanza has, first, eight three-stress verses riming alternately, then a single-stress verse on a third rime, and finally two three-stress verses on the second and third rimes respectively.
All these English developments--epic handling, stanza, love of nature rather than love of woman, are marked in Sir Perceval of Galles. Here the old story of exile and return keeps its primitive character. The English Percival, brought up by his mother in the wildwood, is almost as much the fair, strong barbarian as the Norse Sigurd. There is little care for courtesies; there is hardly a detail of love-making, in spite of the fact that love is the main motive of the original; there is no trace of the Grail legend which made later versions of the Percival story mystical.
This Percival is a thoroughly real epic hero, rejoicing in fight, simply humorous, closely akin in conception to Havelok. In form the romance is like Sir Tristrem, summary in much the same manner, but with rather more skill in planning and with far more direct and vigorous phrase. Learning as well as folk culture found an early retreat in the valleys of Tweed, Teviot, and Tyne, whose monasteries became the homes of scholars and missionaries from the Celtic churches of the Hebrides and the Anglo-Saxon churches of Northumbria.
Thus a Scottish school of learned poetry arose, which continued to yield verse in times when England was barren of poetic harvest. This was especially true in the fifteenth century. The interactions of learned and folk poetry are never long quiescent, and in Lowland Scotland the native and scholarly streams constantly replenished one another. The shepherds of The Complaynt of Scotland ( 1549) who have given us a list of contemporary dances, tales, and songs are not wholly rustic.
The Thomas Rymer of "True Thomas" who figures largely in both legend and record toward the end of the twelfth century illustrates these mingled elements. Thomas was a courtly poet, but "Rymer," as Aubrey tells us, is the sobriquet of a popular singer. 40 Thomas' rhymed romance tells of his sojourn in Fairyland and his resulting power to foretell events. He was a sort of Scottish Merlin, retained at court to prophesy for the king. In and about his home, Erceldoune (now Earlston), legend is rife as to his magic powers.
It was at the Eildon Tree on Huntley Bank near Erceldoune that he trysted with the Fairy Queen. Scott liked to claim that Huntley Bank was on his property at Abbotsford. Thomas did not die a mortal death. Obedient to the summons of fairy fauns and does, he followed them one day into the forest and disappeared from men; and there, or under the Eildon Hills with Arthur, he still lives. True Thomas' traffic was with the otherworld, like that of many a ballad hero, and the borderer's dominating sense of another world and more than natural influences over his life has given us some of the finest ballads.
Nature's influence on the imagination and temperament of a people, so consciously cultivated by the Romanticists, was an unconscious force in the poetic tradition of the borderers, who were always aware of the austerity and violence of the physical world. To retell Troy in terms of medieval life was a settled literary habit. Whether or not this is less true than the laborious classicism of the Renaissance, it is at least consistent. The romances make Hector and Diomed dukes or knights in feudal society, as Italians continued to paint the Blessed Virgin in Italian costume against an Italian background.
So for both Boccaccio and Chaucer the setting of the Trojan lovers is neither Homer's nor Vergil's; it is medieval high society cultivating the fiction of courtly love. Chaucer makes this setting not only ampler than Boccaccio's, but more active. For since he is bent on putting courtly love to the test of real life, he keeps that life before us in details of daily habit which at the same time reveal the characters. Setting, character, plot, are all woven together. Speech and gesture, tone and manner, are sharpened in this scene not merely to brighten the social comedy, but by interaction to advance the story.
For that onward movement of Troilus and Criseyde, at once leisurely and constant, is the development of character. It makes impulse stir habit, and mood reveal motive, in order to lead through decision after decision to the inevitable issue of character. Thus has been transformed a Troy story already old.
Chaucer, as well as Boccaccio, knew the episode as it was scattered in seven different passages through Benoit de Sainte-More Roman de Troie, and as it was told again in Latin prose by Guido delle Colonne. n Boccaccio in his Filostrato n had made out of them a new story of love at first sight, wooing, winning, loss, and heartbreak at the desertion. Fatal passion leads his Troilus through rapture to ruin. That love should be irrevocable was the code. Change of love was outlawed. Yet real life showed passion not only shifting, but essentially transitory. As if recognizing in Boccaccio's presentation of passion something truer than the romantic code of courtly love, and at the same time discerning deeper springs of character, Chaucer made the Filostrato over.