Middle English Word of the Moment

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Dryden his Tale of the Wyf of Bathe

Only one of my courses for this semester is mediaeval: the other is as close as I can get, restoration literature. Which means I actually have to read up and remember what the Rump Parliament did and memorise a new set of names and motivations and get a feel for the time and develop an opinion on Cromwell's motives and, far from least, read a lot of new work by people like Dryden, Pope, Milton, Marvell, Sidney and a certain Earl of Ill-repute.

The only text I've actually acquired so far is not the stipulated edition of Dryden's poems (ed. Hammond and Hopkins), but a much prettier one, which is a very important consideration, the Globe edition published in 1881 by W. D. Christie, still with beautifully tight binding, and containing a lengthy and very Victorian account of his life, complete with repeated assurances that he was a very discerning man because he liked Shakespeare when no one else of his era bothered with him, and repeated moralising judgements on his lifestyle and relationship with his wife. It pleases me very much.

What pleased me more, of course, was the discovery that he had 'translated' some of Chaucer's poems from the Canterbury Tales. So of course I was immediately distracted from questions like "which of these poems are we likely to be studying this semester" to questions like "ooo, what does he do with this line or that line in the tale of madame de Bath?"

The answer tends to be that the actual lines stay the same, but the setting and connotations shift - sometimes quite a way.

For example, he takes Chaucer's 'fairyland' introduction and makes something sanitised and pretty of it, with some very Shakespearean fairies:
The king of elves and little fairy queen
Gambolled on heaths, and danced in every green;
And where the jolly troop had led the round,
The grass unbidden rose, and marked the ground.
Nor darkling did they dance; the silver light
Of Phoebe served to guide their steps aright,
And, with their tripping pleased, prolonged the night. (3-9)
Compare this to Chaucer's simple
Al was this land / fulfild of ffairye
The Elf queene / with hir ioly compaignye
Daunced ful ofte / in many a grene mede [1] (3-5)
Dryden then casts this into nostalgia in returning to the present day:
I speak of ancient times, for now the swain
Returning late may pass the woods in vain,
And never hope to see the nightly train. (16-18)
Despite Chaucer’s “ ther as wont/ to walken was an Elf / Ther walketh now...” form (17-18), he has no palpable sense of loss or regret. He remains more matter-of-fact, stating that one existed and the other exists, while Dryden repeats “in vain” three times in six lines (17-22) and depicts milkmaids[2] sighing over uneaten cream left out for the little folk. Interestingly, the effect of this is resentment against the priests and friars, which translates nicely into an anti-papist sentiment that is, naturally, missing in poor Chaucer’s original.

The other interesting thing in this introduction is the depiction of these little country rituals relating to the fairies:
In vain the dairy now with mints is dress'd,
The dairymaid expects no fairy guest,
To skim the bowls, and after pay the feast.
She sighs and shakes her empty shoes in vain,
No silver penny to reward her pain. (19-23)
I didn’t know about the mints, or that the fairies were meant to leave payment in your shoe (conflation with the fairy cobbler idea?). Perhaps the lack of fairies in Britain today can be directly attributed to the lack of mints.

[1] Sadly, I lack my Riverside, so quotes from the Tale come from
a transcript of the Hengwrt manuscript, because that's more fun to read.
[2] Does the pastoral count as idealistic nostalgic in itself at this point? If Shakespeare was any indication, I’d guess so. Civet is of a baser birth than tar, after all!


Lady D. said...

Sounds like an early adaptation ;-). Mind you, I suppose Shakespeare was the master of those! By the way, I like how you still managed to find something with a touch of the Medieval about it lol!

Ceirseach said...

Yes! I am now reading Milton's Samson Agonistes, which of course goes even farther back than the mediaeval in its sources. -pets it-