Tag Archives: Chaucer

Practice Questions OCR A level

In the absence of past papers and having exhausted my imagination and the titles I can cull from OCR training material, I offer these for the Pre 1900 poetry and drama paper:

1 ‘Seduction is most effectively accomplished through flattery.’

In the light of this view, consider ways in which writers represent seduction. In your answer,

compare one drama text and one poetry text from the above lists. [30]

2 ‘It is rarely good for us to get what we want.’

In the light of this view, consider ways in which writers portray appetites and desires, and theirconsequences. In your answer, compare one drama text and one poetry text from the above lists.

3 ‘Marriage can be a prison, marriage can be a paradise’

In the light of this view, consider ways in which writers portray marriage. In your answer, compare one drama text and one poetry text from the above lists.

4 ‘Literature rarely shows power being used well’.

In the light of this view, consider ways in which writers portray marriage. In your answer, compare one drama text and one poetry text from the above lists.

5 ‘Verbal wit is women’s strongest weapon’

In the light of this view, consider ways in which writers portray women’s use of language. In your answer, compare one drama text and one poetry text from the above lists.

6 ‘Life goes on but literary texts must end’

In the light of this view, consider ways in which writers end their texts. In your answer, compare one drama text and one poetry text from the above lists.

7 ‘Pride goes before a fall: the greater the pride, the greater the fall’.

In the light of this view, consider ways in which writers portray pride. In your answer, compare one drama text and one poetry text from the above lists.

8 ‘Writers, readers and audiences delight in the spectacle of sinfulness’.

In the light of this view, consider ways in which writers portray sinfulness. In your answer, compare one drama text and one poetry text from the above lists.

And this was posted recently by Anton Viesel – a teacher in Northampton:

OCR A Level Paper 1 Section 2 questions Continue reading

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Art as context in A level English Literature

A while ago I wrote a brief post including 3 19th century depictions of women as stimuli for A Doll’s House. In this post I revisit them and add material from Medieval England for my students reading The Merchant’s Tale.

Since both texts present a highly Patriarchal society in which women are still tainted by the ideas of the Fall of Man and Eve’s innate untrustworthiness, I thought that a little more specific material would be helpful.

In Holman Hunt’s The Awakening conscience, a young girl seems to be terror-struck as she stares at the onlooker both seeming to beg for help and to challenge our preconceptions. The male is relaxed and arrogant in the picture – his wife is his plaything and he is oblivious to her anguish.  A better visual metaphor for Act 3 Nora would be hard to find. It would be wrong to assume that society in the mid to late 19th century was utterly accepting of the position of women, It is far too easy to generalise.  In addition to Woolstonecraft and Ibsen’s own writings on the subject, students can consider whether ADH is a proto-feminist text or an exploration of the individual. What this picture gives us is a clear image of social awareness of the position of women at the time.

Likewise, in this picture:

Here we see the fate which awaits Nora or which was suffered by Christine.  Neither are widows, true, but both have lived the life of the single female in a harsh and unforgiving society. I will let the passage next to the portrait do the talking for me. What is certain is that Nora, with no belongings and tainted with disgrace is going to fall prey to all sorts of charlatans and predators with very little way of raising cash to aid her subsistence.  I see this as another interesting piece of context to be placed alongside contemporary writings. Remember, if the art is being created, then there must be sympathy for the plight of the women in the pictures.

In The Merchants Tale we can place May in similar context.

It is too easy to talk of women as second class or property… once again, art can help us here. Whilst there is no doubt that the issues of Eve are valid in a text which is so clearly a parody of the Fall of Man, I am always interested by the apparent compromise or truce offered by the end of the tale. If Januarie’s hand on May’s ‘wombe’ suggests a pregnancy, there is a need to consider whether this might be Damyan’s child. Januarie’s action seems to signal a wish to continue as married despite any adultery – a sense that there is parity in some way between the two characters at this point of the tale.

Certainly May, pre-marriage, had a poor future to look out on. She would have little chance of a ‘job’ beyond service and be viewed as tainted with Eve’s untrustworthiness, yet images from Medieval works such as the Lutterell Salter show such women as she brandishing their distaffs (the mark of manual labour – the punishment meted out to Eve- and using it to beat their husbands:

woman-beating-man-distaff-add42130

Whilst this may well be a satirical picture, satire must be rooted in fact to be effective. Women of all degrees ran the household. This puts them in control of their husbands to an extent and also, when wealthy, of servants. Wealthier wives were ladies of leisure for whom hunting and games were diversions widely practised. They gave orders to the servants of the household and developed lives of their own.

women-hunting-rabbits-royal2bvii

Not only that, but certain women, without being Royalty, had enormous power. IN the religious world Abbesses and Mothers Superior would rule over their religious houses and much of the surrounding countryside, dispensing Church Law and establishing women as anything but the subservient gender.  There was not always harmony – Nunneries such as the Abbey at Amesbury in Wiltshire became notorious for licentious behaviour, but it would be wrong to imagine that women were not able to rise to great power (and wealth) in this way.

cistercian-nuns-yatesthompson11

In Chaucer’s England there may well have been memory of the most powerful LAdy to have ruled the Kingdom, Queen Isabella, who together with her lover Roger Mortimore, had deposed her husband, King Edward II, some hundred years earlier. The route tot he throne was not barred to women, even though the adulterous couple would give scope for Eve-based criticism. The point is that there was not a guaranteed opposition to the concept of the storng woman, especially if their husband was ill-perceived.

queen-isabella-procession-harley4379

May is elevated from her poor background and given a wedding with much pomp and glamour, albeit rather hurried and would have been seen as a powerful woman. She is sufficiently powerful and of high status that she can become a focus of courtly desire and although this is a satire – a Fabliau – the relationship must be seen in this light – she calls the tune: She organises the clicket, arranges the assignation and controls Damyan’s ascent of the tree. The humour of the lack of romance in his ensuing action does not detract from her position  – she is the Lady of the house and remains so after the Tale comes to an end.

aristocratic-marriage-harley4418

 

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Oral commentary: Merchant’s Tale lines 945-999

In my endeavour to focus Y12 on AO2, I recorded this today in a lesson. Please take a lesson – it was not pre-prepped and I make no apologies for the rough edges…

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Chaucer: discussion sound file. Lines 943-999. Merchant’s Tale.

A discussion of an essay submitted to consider the presentation of Januarie and May at a turning point in the poem.

The discussion is 35 minutes long and there is a slight corruption of the file at the end of the session. Plenty of interesting stuff here though.

 

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Merchant’s Tale draft essays for comment

The task: Explore the presentation of the character of May in lines 734-774.  Be sure to comment on the typicality of Chaucer’s writing in the extract.

This is an extract from a student essay: I’d love some feedback and suggested marking comment.

This passage comes after it is revealed that Damyan is lusts after May and is one of the first times in which the character of May is properly developed by Chaucer and used as a bathetic, ironic tool within the fabliau and satirizing the common tales of courtly love.

The passage begins with the description of how Januries ‘taketh hire and kisseth ful ofte’. The use of ‘taketh’ is akin to how one may handle a possession and perhaps indicates to the reader that the displays of affection which Januarie show’s by ‘kisseth ful ofte’ is not requited and instead the quote portrays May as an unwilling submissive partner in the relationship reminiscent of the scene earlier in the tale in which she is described as ‘still as stoon’ during the consummation of their marriage and the fact that the garden which acts as an extension of the bedroom for Januarie is described as ‘walled with stoon’ demonstrates that May to an extent, is portrayed as a prisoner within the relationship and this image is recurrent in this passage with the possessive verb of ‘taketh’ which shows that May is handled as a possession. The submissive nature of May within the relationship is further explored within the passage through the use of ‘How that he wroghte, I dar not to yow telle , or whether hire thought it paradys or helle’ in reference to Januare’s love-making.  The ‘how’ is stressed with the trochaic substitution and the sentence encourages the audience’s imagination to run wild whilst implicitly stating that the act which Januarie performed can be likened to rape. Furthermore the reference to May’s ‘paradys or helle’ forms a parallel phrase with the earlier statement in the passage in which Januarie describes how her clothes ‘dide hym  encombraunce’ and how she obeyed with ‘be hire lief or looth’. As both of her thoughts are likely to be the latter in the parallel phrases, Chaucer emphasizes to the reader that May as a character is dominated by Januarie and his demonstrations of affection are not requited by May showing how she is perhaps unwillingly dominated.

Furthermore, the ironic nature of May’s character is explored in this passage as the satirical nature of the tale begins to unravel. The ironic nature of her character is illustrated by the epithet ‘faire fresshe May’ with the alliterative epithet presenting May as wonderful and ‘faire’ however this is ironically undercut by the fact that she later plans to cuckhold Januarie in the passage by having an affair with Damyan. Thus the epithet can be seen not only to be seen as the ironic undercut provided by the Merchant who is aware of what she shall do next but also representing her deception as Januarie certainly holds the opinion that she is ‘faire’ and ‘fresshe’ but perhaps in actual fact she is rotten. The ironic undercut is prevalent later in the passage as Chaucer describes how ‘pitee renneth soone in gentil herte!’ when she reads Damyan’s letter. This is ironic as ‘gentil’ refers to the virtuous actions of a noble woman commonly seen in courtly love however in the particular setting May is anything but noble as bathetically the letter is read and discarded whilst upon the toilet and her supposedly ‘gentil’ heart looks onto Damayan’s ‘lust suffise’. Irony is seen throughout the Merchant’s tale demonstrated by the prologue in which the merchant references women from the Bible in what appears to be a glowing appraisal of women however this is ironically undercut by the infamous actions these women such as ‘Eve’ and ‘Rebekka’ performed – often acts of deceit. In this passage we see May being showered with positives epithets and the praise of having a ‘gentil’ heart however this is undercut by the fact that her ‘gentil heart’ seeks lust and not the typical romantic love shown in a traditional courtly love tale. Whilst on the surface May is presented as ‘faire fresshe’ and having a ‘gentil’ heart in this passage, this passage is perhaps notable for the development of the ironic and satirical purpose of her character.

I like it a lot – plenty of AO2 emerging and a clear understanding of how iambic pentameter works in the trochaic substitution comment. Is there enough explicit ‘typicality’ here?

What of this one?

“IN LINES 943 – 999, HOW ARE THE CHARACTERS OF JANUARIE AND MAY REPRESENTED?” 

   Towards the end of the fabliau, the titular characters of Januarie and May can be seen to develop and change. It is the setting that aids their ever-changing representation, as well as events that have taken place before they enter the “gardyn.” The garden is successful in satirizing that of the Garden of Eden ironically, [considering the acts of debauchery and adultery that occur within it.is it ironic? It is a satire, so I would expect something of this kind. ] Despite the negative connotations of the irony of the garden, Januarie appears to show, maturity, pragmatism and affection towards May, and in contrast she betrays him with the “lechour in the tree,” Damyan. 

   At this point Januarie is as “blynd as a stoon,” and walks into the garden with May in “hand.” It can be argued that Januarie has been ‘metaphorically’blind throughout the whole poem, as he has not recognised the deceptive nature of May and Damyan. Januarie and May enter into, what is called, the “fresshe gardyn.” Considering “fresshe” is frequently tied to the character of May, the irony that Chaucer wishes to create is apparent, as only filthy acts of sexual corruption occur in the garden, at the hand of Januarie or Damyan, or later at the command of May. The idea also makes May assume the role of Eve, and insinuates that she could become impregnated in the garden, but is unclear who. This represents May as an important character, as she is the one who could continue Januarie’s line as he wishes her to, but due to the debauched nature of the garden, it is unclear how this will be achieved.

    While Januarie displays a genuine affection for May in this passage, she can be viewed in the opposite, and therefore negative, light. Januarie initially wanted to marry to ensure that his acts of debauchery were not judged negatively, as they would have been permitted within the “bond” of marriage. However, by declaring that May is the “creature that I best love,” Januarie appears to have cast his old desires aside, and appreciates May’s presence as well as her beauty. Januarie would rather “dyen on a knyf” than “offende” his “deere wife.” The rhyme and iambic stress of the couplet emphasises his strong feelings for May, and makes it clear that he does have genuine affection for her, and doesn’t just view her as a sexual plaything. However, sexual undertones can still be detected with the use of “dyen,” which could be a reference to the orgasm, as well as “knyf,” which on their wedding night was used to label Januarie’s genitalia. This could be perfectly innocent and accidental, but does make the reader consider whether Januarie could ever fully purge his desires. This quote is also relevant to May, as it is she who will wield the ‘knife’ as she is about to stab Januarie in the back, as she is soon to betray him with Damyan up the pear tree. Their roles have appeared to change since their marriage, as it is now May who has the power to inflict such pain on Januarie. She does not escape the label of the adulteress because of this, unlike Januarie who can be seen to change and show his wife genuine affection. [Well written, though I would like you to be clearer about the atypical presentation of Januarie here.]

    Januarie can also be seen to be thinking about the future of himself and his family. Januarie is seen to trust May so much that he “chartres a yow leste.” He makes her heir to his estate and promises that this will be complete “sonne reste.” The rhyme and iambic stress of the couplet emphasises the significance and the importance of this action. He asks that she kisses him to seal the “covenant,” and this also can be seen as a small act of affection. Although this seems to be a normal act between a husband and wife, as they share everything, Januarie could be seen to be attempting to buy the loyalty of May with his belongings and wealth. This could be one of the reasons she agreed to marry Januarie, and if Chaucer considered this idea, it inspires pity from the audience for Januarie, as he appears to be so desperate for companionship. He can be seen to be thinking of the future of his belongings and heritage here, as he has assigned them to May. This is just as Justinus warned. At the beginning of the fabliau Januarie noted that a positive feature of marriage is that it could result in an heir for himself, and when listing the reasons why May should be “trewe,” he mentions “myn heritage.” Januarie is also thinking about the future of his family line, and is hoping for a legitimate heir. He acknowledges that if May were unfaithful he would be raising an illegitimate child. [ I’d like to see a little more context emerging.  The AO2 is excellent and well considered…]

    Januarie is also represented as a mature and repentant character. He apologises to May if he seems “jalous,” and encourages her to take no notice of it. Januarie appears to realise that he does not want to lose May, as he is increasingly old and lonely. He later frankly tells her that her “beautee” is unparalleled to the “unlikely elde of me.” The contrast of “beautee” and “me” emphasises the difference in age and appearance of Januarie and May, and insinuates that Januarie does realise that he was wrong in marrying her. The rhyme and emphasis on “beautee” reminds the reader of what attracted May to Januarie, but it is now used in a different context, and not one that is concerned with sexual attraction but more her “compaignye.” This further emphasies the fact that Januarie doesn’t want to lose May, and that perhaps going blind has made him realise this even more, as without her he will have absolutely nothing. He appears to mature, which encourages sympathy for him from the audience, as just when he appears to be genuine, May proceeds to be more deceptive than ever.[ Contextual humour found in old/young marriage plots from drama back to 4C,BC]

 While May is represented as a slowly maturing character, May is represented as the stereotypical conniving adulteress, perhaps because it was Eve who sinned and ate the forbidden fruit first. The Merchant was correct in saying that marriage causes “wepying,” in the prologue, but May’s “wepe” is seen in a much more deceptive light. She is aware that Damyan is present, and further wishes to deceive Januarie. The use of “benyngely” also hints at her deception, as the word is commonly used when she is thinking about Damyan. She notes that her “wyfhod” is like a “tender flour.” This is ironic, as flowers can be cut and destroyed, much like her “honour” and virtue. In a hyperbolic fashion, she claims that if she does “lak” virtue, Januarie should “strepe me and put me in a sak.” This rhyme emphasises her dishonour and lies, and insinuates that she should be thrown into a sack, as she does lack honour. Her declaration that she is no “wenche” is humourous for the audience, as they understand the dramatic irony behind Chaucer’s words. As Januarie is a poor judge of character, and responds well to flattery, as seen in his conversation with Placebo, Januarie believes the deceptions and lies of May. However, one could argue that it would be foolish for her to behave any other way, as she would not want to become a social outcast because of her adultery.

    After insinuating that women are untrue and can be unfaithful, May is represented as offended, and takes considerable action in response. Januarie previously listed the reasons why May should be true to him, which could imply that he is aware of her adultery. May seems offended that he would even allude to such a thing, and claims that “men been evere untrewe.” As men have always been unfaithful, May argues that Januarie has “noon oother countenance,” or reason to accuse her. It would have been more serious for May to become pregnant by Damyan, as the baby would be illegitimate. However, if Januarie was adulterous and fathered a child, the baby would still have his blood, and therefore could be seen as legitimate. This is the reason why it was more serious for a woman to be adulterous, and it is this idea, coupled with Janurie’s desire for an heir that makes him list the reasons why she should be faithful to him, which clearly offends her, and could explain her next actions.

    Immediately after this, May notices Damyan. She “saugh” him, and with a “cough” and “sygnes”

 45 MINUTES

 he understands that she wants him to get up the tree. May is represented here as a sexually corrupt character, as it is she who is commanding and orchestrating the affair. She is totally in control of Damyan, and takes advantage of Januarie’s vulnerability, which makes her seem even more cruel, especially as he has begun to show genuine affection for her. The speed in which she signals Damyan to get up the tree emphasises the desire that she “longeth” and has for him. The fact that the “fruyt” on the tree are pears also emphases her corruption, as they have the appearance of the scrotum. [Rather an abrupt statement which suggests yourt thoughts rather than an awareness of medieval plant lore.]

Januarie’s insinuation of her adultery could be the reason she speedily signals Damyan, as she may wish to get back at him for his assumptions, as well as the grievances she has also suffered with him, such as their wedding night. Whether this be true or not, it is clear that May is represented as an increasingly sexually corrupt and cruel character.

    Both Januarie and May appear to develop in this passage, and can be seen to change in contrasting ways. Januarie’s growing maturity and acceptance of his own actions allow the reader to sympathise with him more, especially as May appears to be more deceptive than ever as she continues her adulterous affair.

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Chaucer essay presentations: Damyan in 663ff

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Essay seminar: Chaucer and setting for AS

This seminar allowed 2 students to present their recent essays for OCR AS literature. Neither are perfect representations of the AOs, but this was the first time I have tried this as a support exercise with this group.

tom and joe essays

CHAPEAU!

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Love is invariably possessive… an OCR A level essay

Texts: A Doll’s House and The Merchant’s Tale.

Time : 50 minutes

In the light of this view, consider ways in which writers explore power and gender.

The two texts under consideration are written some 55o years apart, yet there are strong similarities in the socio-historical context of both. Whilst it is clear that the medieval feudal system had developed by the middle of the 19th century, the strata of society were still clearly defined. Where Chaucer places Januarie as a ‘Knight’ who will marry a girl found in the market place, chosen for her mixture of youth and sexual proficiency, Ibsen places the Doll’s House at the centre of a bourgeois middle class as rooted in societal convention and the need to establish position, albeit by wealth and rank, just as much as if the play had been written centuries earlier. At the centre of both texts is the issue of the Patriarchal response to marriage and the position of the female in a society which clearly regards wives as possessions and as symbols of their husbands’ good name and status.

In both texts, the wife seems to be regarded as a lower status to that of her husband: Nora is chosen by Helmer as a result of an attraction developed while he helped her father escape prosecution for unspecified financial irregularities and May  is a town girl who becomes ‘feffed in his bond’ as Januarie embarks on what is clearly a business arrangement, well suited to the business mind of the Merchant-narrator.

Januarie is clear that he desires ownership and seeks his wife in the market place, as though purchasing an item of food or clothing. He seems naive and lists reasons for his confusion – not least that some are ‘riche but hadden badde name’- until ultimately he alights on May. Once married she is reduced to the level of his sexual servant. She says very little, is silent through the wedding feast and lies ‘as a stoon’ when he proceeds to labour atop her while making ‘love’. The merchant is allowed to quote her when she comments that Januarie’s love making was not ‘worth a bene’ and Chaucer skillfully undercuts the sense of male power at this point by foreshadowing the climax of the Tale – that a girl who is experienced in such matters will not remain subject to a single, elderly husband.

Where May is subjected to sexual humiliation at the hands of her husband, Nora is no less his plaything, but she has developed a repertoire of flirtatious games with which to keep him at a distance. It is clear that in Helmer’s Doll’s House, Nora is the prime doll.  We learn that Helmer has chosen all the fixtures and fittings of the house and has enough control that Nora needs to even usher away Christine, because Helmer ‘can’t bear to see work’ in the drawing room. True to convention she remains at home, outwardly supportive of her husband and providing him with children.  Ibsen himself noted that her eventual departure could be likened to an ‘insect’ which after delivering offspring to the hive goes away to die. This interpretation would enhance the idea of a controlled and futile existence within love, yet other writers have seen the play as part of the mid 19th century birth of a feminist movement (what male critics would sneeringly refer to as the ‘woman problem’) probably influenced by thinkers like Mary Wollstonecraft, whose writings were having an unsettling effect on the complacent patriarchal bourgeoisie of the time.

Nora is undoubtedly a possession, and her response to this is to flirt with Helmer and with Rank – flicking him with her tights in the half light of Act 2 – before dancing the Tarantella to titillate not only her husband, her doomed lover and presumably the guests a the act 3 party. This flirtation is not open to May – her escape from ownership needs to take place in secret – in the ‘privy’ or in Damyan’s bedroom. For May, the eventual brutal sexual encounter in the pear tree is a clear break away from her role as Januarie’s possession, yet the status quo achieved at the end of the poem suggests that although love may not be possessive, it can be achieved through a compromise. Helped by Proserpina, she deflects Januarie’s accusations and as they leave he places a hand upon her ‘wombe’. At this time, heritage and an heir was crucial to the continuation of a family name. Januarie has clearly stated that this is one of the purposes of the marriage. He may be aware that any child is likely to be Damyan’s, critics disagree on the level of sexual competence he can wield at his age – the garden seems to allow him to actually complete the sexual act in a manner not seen in the palace (‘and spedde’) – but it seems by this action that the compromise – he brings up a bastard as his own and May remains his possession – is complete and is possibly a requirement of the time. In the 14th Century, there was no divorce as we understand it and an adulteress would suffer strong penalty. It is in nobody’s interest to draw attention to the deceit and the loss of his power. Chaucer was himself the husband of a woman of higher status, whose position at the court of John of Gaunt has been discussed by terry Jones as likely adultery, would clearly understand the need for such compromise in the Medieval court.

The end of A Doll’s House relies on the failure to find compromise. Helmer is too tied to his 19th century attitude (aren’t I your husband?’ he demands when Nora has the temerity to resist his drunken advances in Act 3) to accommodate any shift and loss of power. A man who cannot bear to be addressed by his Christian Name is not likely to willingly give up his control of his ‘little squanderbird’. Nora will also find herself unable to compromise her ideals which have become cemented by Helmer’s inability to provide the miracle of miracles. As she leaves, it is clear that the love that both of them had for the other is now destroyed. When the play was premiered, the fact that an alternative ending was required to enable major German theatres to stage the play, the societal constraints on women were such that such a desertion could not be countenanced.

In this world, the world so well illustrated by artists like Holman Hunt, a woman was a possession.  That was not up for debate. In the 21st Century Nora’s leaving is a vehicle for expression of the individual and of the feminine. Critics divide – one camp suggests a play establishing the individual as paramount and other supporting the notion of the specifically feminist agenda – yet one thing is certain: Where Lady May achieves some freedom within the confines of marriage, Nora Helmer breaks out of the trap and shows women from the middle of the 19th century that love need not be ‘invariably’ possessive and that although it may seem foolhardy, freedom lies on the other side of the door.

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Merchant’s Tale: setting and garden, a student response.

Not a perfect examination response, but I know that I would not have written with such assurance in the lower 6th. Take a bow Karan.

L783 (“This gentil May”)- 825 (“under a laurer alwey greene”)

Examine the use of setting in this extract and consider the typicality of the extract in terms of the whole tale.

In this extract Chaucer introduces us to Januarie’s grand idea of making a garden for him and May to be alone. The garden is filled with references to the Bible and nature as well as promiscuity and fertility. The setting used is symbolic, and creates a garden that seems to be littered with sin. At this point one must decide whether this is the Merchant simply telling the tale, or perhaps Chaucer giving his opinion on marriage, and the façade associated with its apparent holiness.

Considering Januarie’s garden is designed for the purpose of isolation so he and May can have sex, the repetitive sexual innuendoes and references should come as no surprise. The most obvious case of this is the “welle” in the garden the lies underneath a “laurer alwey grene”. Here, Chaucer uses the idea of a “welle” as a vagina, and a “laurer” as a phallic symbol. The purpose of this garden, therefore, is very clear. Furthermore, the iambic stress falls on “alwey” and emphasises the fact that this garden is not intended for holiness or love, but for lust. The line then crescendos to the “grene” tree, which once more emphasises the idea that this phallic symbol is always erect. In these two lines alone, Chaucer provides a very clear and precise indication as to what this garden was built for- pleasure and lust. One might also link this “fair” garden to the Garden of Eden, which was intended to be “hooly” but instead became sinful. If Januarie’s “gardyn” is accepted as a direct Biblical reference to Eden, then perhaps this could be Chaucer foreshadowing May’s deceit and sin, much like Eve committed sin in the Garden. We see something that is intended to be holy and pure become the opposite earlier in the Tale with the marriage ceremony of January and May. Their so-called “hooly” ceremony has such a build up before the event, only to last just seven lines.

We later see similar symbolism when Chaucer introduces the idea of a “wyket” and “clyket”. This reference to a key and keyhole is a clear sexual innuendo designed to once again emphasise the garden’s sin and irony. Furthermore, the words “wyket” and “clyket” are a heroic couplet, and are also arguably used to demonstrate Januarie’s obsession with sex, which is why the garden is so important to him. We see this when Chaucer uses exemplar when mentioning “Priapus”, the Roman God of garden and claims that January has made a better garden than Priapus could ever make. Januarie’s obsession with sex may also be shown with the reference of the famous French literature on courtly love, the “Romance of the Rose”, which teaches the reader about the Art of Love and how to please the “Rose” (a common symbol for the vagina). If Chaucer is implying Januarie has read this book, much like he has read “De Coittu” (translating to ‘About Sex’), perhaps it shows his insecurities with regards to his own sexual abilities and belief that this garden will somehow better his sexual performance. However, this reference may just be for ironic purposes or maybe Chaucer demonstrating auctoritas, as it is mentioned in a fabliau text that is designed to mock courtly love.

Chaucer also uses setting effectively when considering the time at which he introduces Januarie’s “fair… gardyn”. Before we are introduced to the idea of a garden, we see May write a “letter” to Damyan about her feelings towards him and then decides to “visite this Damyan”. The juxtaposition between May’s concern with Damyan, and Janurie’s concern with his “fresshe” May is quite ironic and makes it very clear that their marriage is slowly falling apart and is far from “paradys”. We then see Damyan rise “Up..the nexte” morning, with iambic stress falling on “Up” which make have sexual conations of an erection, thus showing his passion and “desyr” for May. Once again we see irony, as if we accept that the stress falls on “Up” to emphasise Damyan’s erection, it becomes even more apparent that Januaries has trouble with sex and must drink “ypocras, clarree and vernage” in order to enhance his sexual feeling and even with these enhancements, May still considers his performance “not worth a bene”. This setting and juxtaposition makes us empathise with Januarie to an extent, and feel sorry for his naivety.

In conclusion, the description of Januarie’s garden demonstrates complete irony between holiness and religion with regards to sin and promiscuity. Furthermore, the countless sexual references and innuendoes clearly show that the garden is a place of pleasure, lust and fertility and is, in truth, unholy. However, the garden also demonstrates something about Januarie’s character. Gardens come about naturally and are not “made” or built. This is arguably a metaphor for May and Januarie’s marriage- that it is not natural, but instead manufactured and fake. Personally, Januarie comes across as a man who doesn’t fully understand beauty, and believes that everything can be manufactured and built to fit his liking.

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Chaucer’s Love Garden: A Merchant’s Tale

Students are usually aware of the narrative form of the poem, one which blends the realistic with the fantastic and the symbolic, yet there is often room for discussion of the symbolic importance of the Love Garden which Januarie builds to allow he and May to perform the acts not done ‘abedde’. Not only does this suggest a certain freedom from societal convention, but we also learn that it is in the garden that Januarie’s love making ‘spedde’. This word has obvious 21st century connotations in terms of speed, but should also be read in the sense of reaching a successful conclusion.  In the marriage chamber he makes excuses for the slow ‘labour’ he will perform. We assume that his singing in bed suggests a successful end to the coitus, albeit with the use of ‘ypocras’ and other herbs and suggestive reading matter, and here we read of him completing the act – the speed connotation may be relevant, as well, but completion is the root meaning of the word.

So, what is it about the garden?

I want to look at both the symbolic Eden reference and also at the symbolism associated with the family and thus with Januarie’s heirs which follows from this.

The garden ‘walled with stoon’ is a clear Eden on earth. The idea of the locus amoenus (intro post) appears as a trope of Courtly love literature and was also an architectural feature of many dwellings of the wealthy and powerful through the 12 and 13 centuries. Essentially a private area in which the lovers could walk without being observed by servants or other hindrances to freedom of action, such gardens were as much a statement of wealth and degree as an attempt to create a little piece of Paradise.

Januarie’s paradise is a limited paradise.  It is bounded by stone presenting a strong and rather cold boundary which cannot be easily crossed and is locked by a ‘wicket’ and ‘clicket’ (itself suggestive of sexual penetration) with Januarie holding the clicket for himself. In the centre is a pear tree, rather than an apple, which will become the focus of the action in the garden at the end of the poem. The garden is already inhabited not by representations of the Christian Divine but by Pluto and Prosepina, the Roman Gods of the underworld.

They provide a context for this paradise. Pluto raped his wife, having lain in wait for her on the slopes of Etna, an echo of Januarie’s rather bathetic mirror in the market place and subsequent brutal and unfeeling wedding night. Potential blasphemy would prevent Chaucer writing in indelicate terms about God and Scripture, but her ewe see a symbolic allusion to this garden not as Eden, but as a kind of anti-Eden – one built on male force, lust (since Januarie is ‘Venus’ knight’) and a total mistrust of women. Here alone is there an echo of the patriarchal misogyny of Genesis.

Once Januarie is ‘soddeynly’ blinded, he has a problem.  He does not trust May and seeks never to leave her side, indeed he goes further and ‘hadde an hand upon hire everemo’.  She, on the other hand, after some months of sexual frustration finally manages to deceive him: to steal the clicket and obtain a duplicate through the offices of Damyan – ‘the lechour in the tree’. Just as in the Biblical paradise, the serpent is already in situ. All this is perfectly to clear to  a student of the Pastoral genre – even in Paradise lurks death: et in arcadia ego.  There is no need for Chaucer to digress about the state of the garden or to provide a quasi-Miltonian debate about gardening and gender roles, instead the action moves directly to the tree.

The tree stands at the centre of the garden, a garden ruled not by God, but by pagan Gods of the underworld and death whose fairies use the space as their playground. Nothing good will come of this. They ‘maken melodye’ in a garden more beautiful than even Priapus could build. Given that the conventional image of Priapus is that of a Satyr-like figure with an immense erection, the sexual connotations of the purpose of the garden seem obvious. download (2) Priapus (from a fresco in Pompeii)

Once ‘fresshe May’ has the clicket, the rest is easy. Damyan at first hides under a bush, presenting a stock Satan-as-serpent image and then climbs into the pear tree itself. The choice of tree is significant, having a clearer sense of lewdness than other fruits. Possibly due to their pendulous shape, somewhat scrotal in appearance, pears were seen as a somewhat lascivious fruit and the choice of this tree again increases the sense of the garden as a setting for lustful congress rather than for any manifestation of Courtly Love. It is Januarie who sets up the visit to the garden and is completely deceived in his blindness. May, just as Eve in the biblical model, is quick to deceive him, suggesting her innocence and her claim to be ‘no wenche’, as she says that she craves fruit. Indeed she ‘moot die’ if she does not get a pear – ‘die’ having the same orgasmic connotation that students are used to from the study of Shakespeare. She finally conquers Januarie who stoops to let her climb onto his back, thus establishing her as the dominant figure at this stage.  The action is swift and utterly without emotion -‘in he throng’- and the satirical image of Eden is now complete.

However the Tree itself can be further discussed.

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When May mounts Januarie to climb into the tree, he is quick to agree to her somewhat bizarre wish. May suggests that he ‘The pyrie inwith [his] armes for to take’ which suggests the image of Januarie embracing the trunk of the tree – the ‘stock’ – as she climbs up.

Given that the image of an apple tree was a common model for the depiction of family trees in Medieval and later painting s and documents, the image is again clear. Januarie is desperate to have an heir, a branch from his stock – to use the biblical term. Here we see him symbolically guarding his heritage from the interlopers who have already, cuckoo-like, destroyed his blood-line. Early in the tale he likens himself to a tree -a laurel – which ‘blosmeth er that fruit ywoxen be’. The link to the tree in the garden is clear. If we accept this idea, that the lovers are tainting the blood-line in this way, then we can further suggest that at the end of the tale, as he ‘hire wombe… stroketh full softe’, he is settling for a compromise. The children will not be his offspring, but he can acknowledge them, safeguard his heritage and keep May as his plaything. She has everything to lose from being uncovered as a wanton cuckolder at this time, so she will not complain.

The message of marriage is one of compromise and not forgiveness. Women will always cheat and, thanks to Proserpina, will always get away with it…  That seems a suitable attitude for a man whose wife  lived apart from him, possibly as the Mistress of John of Gaunt and from whom he was estranged for much of his later life. Chaucer could not divorce her and benefited from Gaunt’s stipend for much of his life.

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