Good academic monographs are often praised as thought-provoking, carefully argued, well-researched, and persuasive; great ones are further lauded as paradigm shifting or celebrated for posing a concerted challenge to the field. David Lawton’s Voice in Later Medieval English Literature: Public Interiorities is certainly the former, and in the fullness of time, it will very likely be recognized as the latter. But it is also, and most immediately, an exquisite piece of writing, a meditation on voice in late medieval vernacular culture that is as engaging as it is intellectually necessary and as gripping as it is broad ranging. I struggle to think of many books of the past decade from which I have learned so much, and I cannot think of one that I have so thoroughly enjoyed from beginning to end. As a piece of scholarship, Voice in Later Medieval English Literature does pose a concerted challenge to the field, asking us to recognize voice as ‘among the most productive terms we have for understanding literature’ and, more forcefully, proposing that we place ‘a greater focus on voice as a counterweight to one of the dominant terms of medieval literary studies over the past generation, authority’ (p. 4). Equally important, it positions late medieval conceptions of voice within a continuous history reaching back to classical and biblical texts and forward into the modern and postmodern eras, a sweeping and synthetic project that largely obviates the period divisions with which we commonly delineate our fields of study. Despite its title, this is not a book for scholars of later medieval literature alone; it is a book for all scholars interested in the interplay of speech, text, author, reader, and voice—in literature itself. Voice is an ambiguous concept in the context of a written tradition, and Lawton exploits this ambiguity effectively in his opening definitional chapter, ‘Voices in the World’. Beginning with the apostle Paul, for whom ‘it is voice alone that portends the eternal, speaking for and as the soul’ (p. 15), Lawton articulates a series of shifting and overlapping conceptions of voice through an impressive range of auctors, medieval and non-medieval alike: Chaucer, whose ‘proclivity for multiplicity and polyphony’ (p. 19) stands opposite the unitary, hortative voice of Paul; Aristotle, for whom voice emerges as ‘both a signature, “I,” singularity, and a clear marker of difference, “not I,” multiplicity’ (p. 22); Priscian and Margery Kempe; Marcel Proust and Homi Bhabha; Virgil, Nabokov, and Machaut. At its best, this crucial opening chapter—and more broadly the first half of the book—not only defines but models voice, unfolding organically as a kind of heightened conversation. The chapter ends with a necessary admission that ‘the definition of voice cannot be simple’ (p. 41); however, it effectively maps the difficult terrain the remaining chapters of the study traverse. In concert with ‘voice’, Lawton develops the outwardly paradoxical term ‘public interiorities’, a concept that becomes, more than voice alone, the central conceit organizing his study. Like voice, the term is one whose full meaning materializes within the concentric circles radiating from a deceptively simple initial idea: ‘Public interiorities are pieces of language—as speech or text—which already exist before they are revoiced by a new user’ (p. 8); they are literary, theoretical, religious, or mythological voices consciously appropriated, reproduced, and spoken into a prismatic variety of contexts, made anew by their subsequent speakers. Particularly in the English fourteenth and fifteenth centuries—which witnessed a novel vernacular culture emerge from the volatile collision of disparate texts, authorities, and languages—such public interiorities offer a heuristic not only for reading late medieval literature but for understanding the ideological and conceptual work that voice does across both time and genre. In Chapter 2, for instance, Lawton considers how Chaucer revoices Guillaume de Machaut to interrogate the Orphic schemata inherent in public interiorities, while in Chapter 4 he explores how Chaucer’s own Boethian voice is itself appropriated and repurposed by writers working in the shadow of Archbishop Arundel’s 1409 Constitutions. Such excurses, while nominally grounded in specific literary and cultural figures, serve to define, extend, and nuance the interplay of voice and public interiorities on a wide scale. Starting in Chapter 5, Lawton refocuses his theoretical lens on individual case studies, revealing how the insights of voice and public interiorities can inform readings of key texts from the late Middle Ages. Piers Plowman, a poem that Lawton rightly describes as ‘possessed by voice’ (p. 103), looms large here, particularly in Chapter 5, ‘Voice as Confession’ and Chapter 6, ‘Rhythms of Dialogue’. The former chapter analyses Langland’s aggressively polyphonic work in the mingled contexts of prayer, penance, and confession, formal modes that constitute ‘a supreme and intricate work of medieval voice’ (p. 108) and that, taken together, allow Lawton to explore with renewed vigour issues of authorship and agency that have long animated ‘Piers’ scholarship. The latter chapter considers how Langland develops his narrative and poetic voices between the twinned figures of Nature and Fortune before shifting to the development of Lydgate’s complex laureate voice in the Fall of Princes. Chapter 7 focuses on The Canterbury Tales, particularly the linked tales of Fragment V, to explore how Chaucer’s final work engages ‘a world full of marvels and diversity, of belief and unbelief, that must be traversed by a surveying—a speaking or reading—subject: a voice for the world to explore’ (p. 180). In some ways the most expected chapter (The Canterbury Tales is nothing if not a collection of voices and public interiorities), Chapter 7 also marks the ethical core of Voice in Later Medieval Literature, expanding powerfully upon the ideological stakes of both Chaucer’s dazzling project and the contemporary critical responses that it has engendered. Finally, Chapter 8 ‘Traditions of Voice’ turns to familiar territory for Lawton, the still-overlooked literature of the fifteenth century and its constructive relationship to the voices of its fourteenth-century predecessors. Elegantly conceived, carefully researched, deeply learned, and beautifully written, Voice in Later Medieval English Literature is an imposing work of criticism from an estimable scholar. It is necessary reading for those interested in the literature, culture, and history of the European Middle Ages. © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press 2017; all rights reserved
The Review of English Studies – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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