Tag Archives: The Merchant’s Tale

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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Symbolism in A Doll’s House and The Merchant’s Tale

A resource for my Year 13 to download – created during  a class discussion.

symbolism-work

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Compare the symbolic and thematic importance of the Love Garden(Merchant’s Tale) and Helmer’s Dolls’ House in these texts.

planning sheets for Yr 13….

new-doc-2017-01-11-09-46-28_1

 

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The Doll’s House and The Merchant’s Tale

For the new OCR A level examination, these two texts can be run together in the drama and poetry paper.  I am quite excited about this: a 19th century Well Made Play and a Mediaeval poem, albeit a dramatic poem with narrator, hardly seem clear bedfellows.

The questions will take the from of general statements for discussion in the manner of the old A level paper. Alevel sample paper  In this paper I am offering my initial thoughts as a stimulus.  There are few examples of AO2 and my intention is to offer a springboard for my Year 13s to develop their own paths.

It strikes me that The Merchants’ Tale could indeed by a subtitle for Ibsen’s play.  It moves the focus from Nora – usually perceived as the doll and the player with dolls suggested by the title- onto Torvald.  A 19th Century merchant suffering from all that implies:  ludicrous working hours, a need to maintain ‘face’ and a need to sustain a position in society based on a high moral purpose.  Now, Januarie has little moral purpose – he is clearly marrying for sexual gratification and attempting to sidestep the sin of lust in so doing.  But there are similarities.

Both are obsessed with their business – Januarie shows this in his constant use of business lexis when discussing marriage and love, and Torvald in the need to work on December 26th at a job which he has not even started yet.  So both are driven and both enjoy their earning power.  Torvald has made the home lovely and chosen most of the decor of the apartment in a manner which resembles Januarie’s luxurious Italian decoration for the wedding feast.  Both have created a secret garden:  Januarie in reality and Helmer in the apartment.  It is clear that the return to the apartment in Act 3 is solely for sexual gratification (whether Nora agrees or not) much as Januarie builds his garden to allow him to perform the acts which can’t be performed in the home!  Thus the societal requirement of a locus amoenus in which to woo and make love is still alive in the 19th century.  One could even paint Dr. Rank in the colour of the courtly lover.

You should consider this.  Rank loves an untouchable maiden, the wife of a friend.  He is sworn to celibacy and suffers not only from his love-disease but also from the constant proximity of the unattainable.  In Act 2, when he admits his feelings Nora is horrified.  Whereas May seizes the chance for adultery with both hands, Nora ends the discussion with a firm finality.  She will not break her moral code to that degree and is also reluctant to remove herself from the position of control which she currently inhabits.  Whilst the two female protagonists share nothing in the discussion of morality, it is clear that they are consummate actresses who control their husbands even when their husbands do not realise it.  That the outcome is so different is due to Nora’s determination to stop playing roles and to establish her individuality.  Helmer is happy to compromise his moral position regarding Nora’s crime, just as Januarie places his hand on May’s womb, probably containing another man’s child.  Nora is a new woman for the 19th Century.

Elsewhere we see Helmer as a man unable to take advice if it is not in line with his straightforward pronouncements and thus mirroring Januarie’s ignoring of Justinus’ advice.  Where Januarie is flattered by Placebo, we could argue that Helmer enjoys the flattery of Nora who constantly plays the ‘squanderbird-game’, no more so that when she wants money.  She knows her sexual allure and is not afraid to use it to get what she wants.  This suits Helmer who wants to show her off  at the masquerade dancing the tarantella in the costume of a fisher women.  He revels in her beauty and is clearly turned on by this action.  From here it is a small jump to Januarie showing off his lower-born wife at the wedding.  Both men wish to take their rights as a husband when they are alone.  Januarie is not successful and Helmer is interrupted by a string of events.

In both texts society is challenged.  Ibsen writes a critique of bourgeois complacency and proposes the emergence of a new Existentialist citizen based on the writing of Kierkegaard.  Chaucer holds a mirror to the world and finds it wanting. He has held positions of power in commerce and has seen greedy merchants at first hand, moreover he makes his merchant a Knight – old and lust driven – a dangerous thing to do when the ghost of John of Gaunt hovers over your family.  IN short, neither offer a radical political manifesto for change, but both highlight the faults and fissures in contemporary society for those who wish to see them.

Convinced?  Well, this idea will develop as the new academic year progresses.  Hopefully there will be new writing and plenty of comment.

f comment.

 

 

 

 

 

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Merchant’s Tale: suggested response LL1150-1195

As usual I am not trying to write a prefect answer but to give some food for thought…  This is relevant for students working on the Tale for OCR A level (new spec).  PLEASE feel free to add comments in reply – develop your thinking as much as possible!

 

Consider the depiction of Januarie and May in LL 1150-1198 of the Merchant’s Tale. How are their characters developed here and in what ways is the writing typical of the Tale as a whole?

This passage comes from the very end of the tale, Januarie has had his sight restored by Pluto and May has been given guidance by Proserpina to allow her to give “suffisant answere” to Januarie’s questions about what he has seen in the tree.  In this passage we see Januarie move from his patriarchal position of dominance to take a more “feminine” role in the debate – based on contemporary views of women as intellectually inferior to men.

As the passage opens, Januarie is crying with horror at the sight of May and Damyan making love in his pear tree.  There is irony here since Januarie has built his garden to allow privacy for those acts which are “nat doon abedde”.  He intends this to be a site for his peversions to know no boundaries, but it also allows, ironically, for his own cuckolding – something certainly not done in his own bed.  The strength of his emotion is signified in the 4 cries of pain – “out, help; allas, harrow” and it is hard not to have some pity for the man who, since his blinding, has seemed a more considerate partner than before. At this stage The Merchant begins to stress his relative emasculation – he cries like a “mooder” at the death of her child and refers to May as “stronge” -albeit in the context of her being “stoore” or crude.

Her response develops this sense of a shift in gender balance, something which the scene between Pluto and Proserpina has presaged, with her polite and dignified use of “Sire” and the second person plural “yow” suggesting a distance between the interlocutors.  She begs him to show “pacience and resoun” and stresses the danger to her “soule” which the act he has seen presents. Proserpina promised her and all women the ability to find the right answer to all charges and here she certainly delivers.  May is polite and clear – he defence is based on her teaching and he wish to serve Januarie well.  Following her use of euphemism – ‘to strugle with a man”, Januarie has no response apart from the evidence of his eyes.  His language is coarse – “algate in it wente”, “he swived thee” suggesting a man at the end of his tether.

This is the first section of the Tale in which May has spoken at any length at all, she remains silent during her courting and her feeling s are only expressed in reported speech by the Merchant.  Here she is matching Januarie in all he says and will come to dominate the discussion – again mimicking Proserpina in the earlier section.  Given that the scene is set in Januarie’s love garden (a typical feature of Medieval love-making and the centre of most literature exploring Courtly Love), the idea of Eve in Eden has to be noted here.  Eve/May has been tempted and has fallen for the serpent in the tree and now has to persuade Adam/Januarie to follow her path or to accept her transgression.  Januarie will not suffer damnation as in the Biblical telling of the story, but he will settle for acceptance rather than risking his inheritance and loss of face.  May is able to present totally plausible reasons for the failure of his eyesight to discern the “true” picture of events:  he is simply still “glimsing, and [has] no parfit sighte”.  Januarie accepts this reading of the event and backs off:  “lat al passe out of minde” suggesting an apology for all he has “missaid”, though even at this point he still refers back to the act he witnessed before May concludes the scene with a longer, more considered speech.  This part of the Merchant’s tale is a clear variation on the traditional Fabliau form of scurrilous satire.  Usually the language is coarse and the ideas of Courtly Love are held up to ridicule.  This writing is less coarse than some tales, possibly reflecting the apparent status of the Merchant – there is none of the crudity of the Miller’s Tale, for example.  Still, there is an irony in the escape from utterly evident adultery seen here.  Possibly Chaucer was aware that there was a need in 1399 to avoid writing in a manner too openly satirical and hostile towards the great Knight/adulterer of his day, John of Gaunt – his brother in law once he had married Chaucer’s wife’s sister, with whom he might also have been romantically tangled.  Gaunt was the father of the new King:  Henry IV and there was a need for Chaucer to tread carefully in times of political upheaval.

As May explains the issues surrounding Januarie’s clarity of vision, Chaucer allows a variation to the usual iambic pentameter to interrupt the line “But, sire, a man that waketh out of his sleep”.  Here the 11 syllables might suggest the slight disorientation she is describing or merely draw attention to the interpolation of “sire” as a mark of respect.  As she continues, her verse becomes smooth and consistent, suggesting that she is in full control of herself and of her subject matter. She is clear: “ye may wene as yow lest” suggests her greater confidence in this area.  She seems very considerate here and her character gains by this.  It is no glib response that she gives but suggests slightly more care for her husband than seen hitherto.  She may well be laying the ground for continued infidelity, but it is hard to imagine that she rated Damyan’s emotionless love-making (“in he throng”) as much more than the “bene” at which she valued Januarie’s labours.  The passage ends typically for such a passage of advice with a proverb: “he that misconceyveth, he misdemeth”.  Ironically – and this is a tale driven by irony – this is precisely what Januarie did when he opted to listen to the advice of Placebo over Justinus. Januarie is a man who has sought flattery and who has put his desires over his righteousness throughout the Tale.  May’s summary of the event s in the garden, can, therefore, be applied to the whole tale.

 

 

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OCR new AS level: close analysis question – Chaucer

45 minutes to plan and write…

I thought it might be useful to answer the Pre-1900 close analysis question for Chaucer to assist my Yr 12 in answering this part of the new examination.  I do not claim that this is an A grade answer, but am trying to point out the approach that might work well for them when faced with the question.

My first concern is to ensure that I am including detailed a commentary on the actual text and the second is that I am showing clear awareness of the text as a whole in my response.

I will begin by placing the passage (ll 663-699) into context:

The passage in question comes from the middle of the tale, when Januarie, having “labour’d” through his wedding night notices Damyan’s absence from his serving table.  Chaucer’s description of the love making is graphic and longwinded – as is the act itself – Januarie is very pleased with himself, singing loudly when the act has been completed.  Damyan, his squire, has been seen to have fallen in love with May, but Chaucer has not given any detail of his character until this point. 

The question is focused on the depiction of Damyan.  let’s deal with this first:

Damyan, the squire, is a character who displays a common trope of a Medieval tale about courtly love.  This tale in particular is often considered a Fabliau – a satire on the French model – and so it should not surprise the reader if the typical traits of that form of writing – coarseness and irony are found to the fore in his presentation.  Chaucer typically introduces description of a character through the use of the form “This..” and the passage is launched in this way.  A typical courtly lover needs to suffer for his love and also for the love to be carried out over a long period and from afar.  Chaucer here subverts this tradition by presenting Damyan, who in “venus fyr/so brenneth” as needing only to borrow a pen in order to make his love clear.  The idea of “Venus fyr”, with its suggestion of sin and of Hell,  clearly suggests a lustful desire, rather than one built on purer ideals as might suit a “gentil squier”.  This sense is further heightened by the rhyming pattern of the couplet, which links “fyr” with “desyr”.  We know that later in the tale, at the consummation of the relationship between him and the ironically titled “fresshe” May, Damyan will be rough and direct – “in he throng”- and will not show any of the expected reticence of a true courtly lover.  The use of the epithet “gentil” is important in establishing the irony at the centre of the fabliau:  it is the term used throughout the Canterbury Tales to describe the epitome of good behaviour and good manners.  In this passage, the ironic use of it is clear, as Damyan begins to plan his cuckolding of Januarie.

At this stage of the poem, the Merchant is keen to present Damyan in a manner that maintains the illusion of a lover, however,  he wears the letter he writes “leyde (it) at his herte”, and he writes in the manner of a “compleint”: the common form of lover’s letter written to the unattainable love of his life.  Once he keeps to his bed, Chaucer allows the reader to see him through the eyes of Januarie, for whom he is “gentil”.  This idea is enhanced through the use of the tricolon towards the end of the passage:  “wys, discreet and … secree…”.  That Januarie should so misjudge his squire should not surprise the reader – he has shown poor judgement throughout the story when ignoring Justinus and choosing a young wife, and Chaucer uses the enjambement of this line to strike his clear point:  “…as secree/as any man I woot of his degree”.  The message is clear – the Merchant (and therefore Chaucer) is suggesting that most squires are essentially untrustworthy.  Chaucer writes in rhymed couplets throughout and here the rhyme has evident purpose – to link men of this kind with secrets and a level of untrustworthiness.  The irony here, so typical of this tale, is that Januarie’s estimation of Damyan, based no doubt in his service of Januarie in business, allows the reader to see the three essential requirements of the cockolder.  This irony is further strengthened when he is described as “manly and servisable” at the end of the passage.  Whatever January thinks he is praising here, the Merchant is showing Damyan as the opposite of a man who needs to take “ypocras” and read “de Coitu” prior to his lovemaking, no doubt because of his extreme age and who will certainly be able to “service” May who has rated Januarie’s attempts as not “worth a beene”.  The fact that his lovemaking is so physically perfunctory merely adds to the ironic humour here:  Damyan is  far from being “gentil” or “servisable” to either Januarie or May.  Januarie’s marriage has been based on a lustful desire rather than on “hooly sacrament” and here we see an ironic suggestion that the affair with Damyan is driven by the same desire.  In a Fabliau, the high status code of courtly love should be debased.  This passage introduces the clear intention of Damyan to possess May for purely sexual pleasure.

Having spent some time discussing Damyan, I want to be sure I am addressing the idea of typicality….

In the middle of the passage there is a digression typical of this tale.  Whether it is Chaucer or Chaucer’s narrator the Merchant who wishes to show off his knowledge of astrology is not certain , but the device is used in various places thought the tale as a means of allowing time to pass in the narrative.  Here the moon is said to have “gliden” between Taurus and Cancer whilst Damyan has kept to his bed.  The reader is also told the May is bedridden for the same length of time  “as custume is”.  Chaucer is telling the reader here that the wedding took place at the conjunction of Mars and Venus – not a propitious time for Januarie, since we assume that Damyan, being young and strong is a better model for the God of War than he.  May has already been linked indirectly with Venus in the description of “Venus fyr”.  At this point the link is inescapable.

The nature of Damyan’s treachery is made clear in the description of Januarie’s sadness and concern for his faithful “squier”.   Januarie has shown awareness of the well being of another f0r the first time in the tale – he will do so again at the moment of deception by indulging May’s longing for the surely sexualised “smal peres grene” –   the irony is that he is so wrong in his assumption of Damyan’s virtue.  just as at the end of the tale when he wishes he had a “knave/that koud climbe”, he completely misjudges Damyan’s character and his pity is misplaced.  At this point in the tale, May’s treachery has not yet been seen, but her swift willingness to dupe her husband, whilst remaining “fresshe” in terms of her epithets is another example of the irony established throughout this tale.

I suggest you round it off with a conclusion which re-establishes the passage within the context of the whole:

The passage comes at the midpoint of the tale.  Until this point the focus has been on Januarie and on the nature of marriage.  May has been a silent participant in Januarie’s plans.  The passage looks both forward and backward within the tale to allow the central ironies to be established and to further explore the sense of male ownership of women in this tale.  May’s role as a woman clearly capable of breaking the mould of woman-as-victim is yet to be made clear.

I hope this serves as an example of how the passage selected can be linked to the tale as a whole and how the task requires close reading of the passage to present detailed discussion of language.

OCR publish support material which can be found here: http://www.ocr.org.uk/Images/281463-shakespeare-and-poetry-pre-1900-candidate-style-answers.pdf   be sure to use it wisely.

 

 

 

 

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