This elegant volume fulsomely honours A. C. Spearing, Emeritus Professor at the University of Virginia. It is striking that many of the essays feature not simply a gracious compliment in a first footnote, or an amusing anecdote in an opening paragraph, but instead are constructed around sustained conversation with Spearing and his scholarship. The volume testifies to a generous career of inspiration in many forms, as teacher, supervisor, colleague and friend, in conversation, by letter and in his many important publications. The majority of the essays concern English poetry written in the late fourteenth century, the work of Langland, Gower and the ‘Gawain’-Poet, and most especially Chaucer (8 of the 12 pieces). Whether by accident or design, the various contributions converge and complement each other much more than one might expect in the average Festschrift. Derek Pearsall considers what exactly ‘experience’, the term which begins the Wife of Bath’s Prologue, signifies in later Middle English. From careful scrutiny of this word, Pearsall sets forth into matters of lexicography, lexical and semantic change and editorial glossing practice. His essay demonstrates how rapid sematic change and resulting polysemy makes Middle English such a fertile resource for poets, as newer and older meanings overlap, permitting ambiguity and providing rich seams for authors to mine. David Aers re-reads Troilus and Criseyde in response to a letter sent by Spearing after the publication of Aers’ Community, Gender and Individual Identity in 1988. Prompted by Spearing’s gentle chiding, Aers finds his younger self too ‘unsympathetic’ (p. 88) to Troilus’s philosophising in Book Four, which Aers had caricatured as a kind of thumb-sucking, a fruitless self-soothing of philosophical speculation which embodies Troilus’s inadequacies. In his re-reading, Aers, drawing on St Augustine and Aquinas, suggests that Chaucer may have suspected that the natural reason of even the most virtuous pagan could not find a way out of the questions Troilus poses about free will and causation without the benefit of revealed Christian truth. Several contributions extend Spearing’s studies of the first-person ‘I’ narrator of medieval lyric and narrative, most especially exploring textual subjectivity and autography as well as the dit as a genre. Nicolette Zeeman argues that such a first-person composite is not only ‘a textually and culturally imbricated’ self but also ‘a historically and culturally embedded subject’ (p. 100), aware of and exposing how far selfhood is subject to historical and cultural forces. Taking as her example the sequence of English poems in MS Harley 682 edited by Mary-Jo Arn as Fortunes Stabilnes, Zeeman shows that Charles of Orleans’ first-person is ‘represented as experiencing himself as a being shaped by his time and society’ (p. 103). Michael Calabrese concentrates on Langland’s revisions in the C-text of Piers Plowman, in particular those ‘intrusions’ (p. 65) where an urgent and intense speaker in something approaching propria persona appears as a ‘voice contemplating last things’ (p. 75). Even amid subjectivity which is predominantly textual and discontinuous, Calabrese finds in the C-text an ‘ever-intensifying personal presence’ (p. 79). Elizabeth Fowler also takes up and develops Spearing’s analysis of the subjectivity of writing, ‘not the distinctive consciousness of an identifiable experiencing subject, but the claim to experientiality itself, the experience effect’ (Medieval Autographies¸ pp. 29–30). Fowler’s deeply and wonderfully thought-provoking (but hard to summarize) essay, drawing its examples from the Knight’s Tale, investigates ‘the social qualities of subjectivity and how its shared nature lacks coincidence with individual persons, but still can provoke a sense of recognition for readers’ (p. 18). J. A. Burrow’s contribution reminds us of the autographic characteristics of French dits amoreux, first-person narratives in which the narrator is not necessarily dreaming but nonetheless can encounter allegorical personifications and mythological figures. Burrow argues for Gower’s Confessio Amantis and, perhaps more surprising, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales as English dits. The Tales, in this view, are a kind of dit which presents not inset lyrics but narratives. Seeing the Tales in this way emphasizes and illuminates the peculiarities of the composite authorial self on show: Chaucer as pilgrim, as tale-teller, as the speaker of the Clerk’s lenvoy and, most puzzling, the dual target of the Man of Law’s asides, both inept story-teller and literary celebrity. Spearing is, of course, one of the key figures in the emergence of the literary study of Middle English writing, an approach which values the literary and formal qualities of these texts as well as their philological features and historical significance. Jill Mann’s essay cautions against any ‘false opposition between historicism and formalism’ (p. 120) as she reviews both her own training and the development of literary studies as a discipline. She then reconsiders Chaucer’s lyric ‘To Rosemounde’ to demonstrate how one might draw ‘contextual significance from formal interpretation’ (p. 129) when, as is often the case in medieval literature, precise context is lacking. D. Vance Smith notes how Spearing’s formalism differs from New Criticism, aiming not at taxonomic transferability but ‘the provisional, improvisatory way with which a poet grapples with the intermittent awareness’ (p. 137) of the work as a whole. He then turns to one such moment where ‘form fails to complete its immanent mission’ (p. 137), with an illuminating reading of Chaucer’s Legend of Philomela. Continuing this volume’s demonstration of the importance of form’s context, Ardis Butterfield illustrates its provisionality via the many possible forms of the lyric ‘Maiden in the mor lay’. As with Spearing’s own writing, the most memorable essays in the volume are expert in the art of distinguishing the wood from trees. Such essays articulate their insights with clarity and concision. In short, this volume clusters together good things, like the group of people in the conference bar whose conversation you really want to overhear and then join in with. There are even newly discovered verses apparently by the ‘Gawain’-poet (though perhaps all is not what it seems in this case…). Cristina Maria Cervone and D. Vance Smith are to be congratulated on a very fitting tribute. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press 2018; all rights reserved This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
The Review of English Studies – Oxford University Press
Published: Apr 4, 2018
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