Governing Metaphors

R. Allen Shoaf

The Medieval Academy of America
April 10, 1999, 8:30 am

    The following is a report on work in progress. The work centers on The Testament of Love by Thomas Usk, which I have been editing and translating off and on for the past nine years. But it also involves the poetry of Chaucer and Dante. I hope this morning to show possible relationships among the works of these three authors that recommend a certain caution in scholarship's generally too easy dismissal of Dante's influence on late 14th-century English literature.

    For the past twenty years I have been collecting examples of the image of the knot in pre-modern literature. During this time, I have found many brilliant examples but none, to my mind, as extraordinary or as far-reaching as Dante's at the end of Paradiso

    Nel suo profondo vidi che s'interna,
legato con amore in un volume,
ciò che per l'universo si squaderna:
    sustanze e accidenti e lor costume
quasi conflati insieme, per tal modo
che ciò ch'i' dico è un semplice lume.
    La forma universal di questo nodo
credo ch'i' vidi ...
In its depth I saw ingathered, bound by love in one single volume, that which is dispersed in leaves throughout the universe: substances and accidents and their relations, as though fused together in such a way that what I tell is but a simple light. The universal form of this knot I believe that I saw... (Singleton transl., p. 377)
Dante privileges the image of the knot in this passage as one of the consummate images of the divine, linking it, as he does so, with the image of the book, "volume," so important to him everywhere in his writings. In particular, his phrasing in these and the surrounding lines admits of construing God himself as a knot. Such a construal, I hope to show, has important ramifications for understanding the relationship between The Testament of Love and Troilus and Criseyde.

    Throughout The Testament, Usk expresses an ongoing concern with governance: sound governance is perhaps the highest political good that he recognizes, and for lack of it, he believes, England, generally, and London, in particular, suffer social and political anarchy. Usk employs many metaphors of governance. Among his favorites are the metaphors of steering a ship, guiding it, and, most important, knitting, as in knitting a knot. The knot itself figures throughout his work, it is generally known, as an image of the highest good, including God himself: thus, for example, in book 2, he writes of the "principal ende, whiche is God, knotte of al goodnesse." This particularly vivid example is nonetheless hardly unique, and a search on "knit" and "knot" in the electronic version of The Testament will yield a large number of very diverse examples. Although many sources and influences can be adduced for the centrality of the knot in The Testament of Love the fact, for example, that Usk was a scrivener and therefore accustomed to flourishing signatures with knots I propose this morning that another possible influence was Usk's knowledge of Dante's Comedy.

    Even on a cursory reading there are unexpected echoes of Dante in Usk. As Virginia Jellech noted 30 years ago, for example, Usk at one point sounds remarkably like the Dante of the Monarchy. In book one of The Testament, Usk writes that

For knowe thynge it is, al men that desyren to comen to the perfyte peace everlastyng must the peace by God commended bothe mayntayne and kepe. This peace by angels voyce was confyrmed, our God entrynge in this worlde. This as for His Testament He left to al His frendes whanne He retourned to the place from whence He came: this His Apostel amonesteth to holden, without whiche man perfytely may have none insyght. Also this God by His comyng made not peace alone betwene hevenly and erthly bodyes, but also amonge us on erthe so He peace confyrmed, that in one heed of love one body we shulde perfourme.

For it is a known fact that all men who desire to come to the perfect peace everlasting must both maintain and keep the peace commended by God. This peace was confirmed by the voice of angels, when our God entered into this world. This for His Testament He left to all His friends when he returned to the place from whence He came: this His Apostle admonishes us to hold and keep, without the which man may surely have no insight. Also this God by His coming made peace not only between heavenly and earthy bodies, but also among us on earth He so confirmed His peace that in one head of love we should act as one body (my modernization).

Monarchia I.iv.3- 5: That is why the message which rang out from on high to the shepherds was not wealth, nor pleasures, nor honours, not long life, nor health, nor strength, nor beauty, but peace; for the heavenly host said: "Glory to God on high, and on earth peace to men of good will." And that is why the Saviour of men used the greeting "Peace be with you", for it was fitting that the supreme Saviour should utter the supreme salutation; and his disciples and Paul chose to preserve this custom in their own greetings (Shaw translation; pp.11-13).

This is but one of several examples that I plan to analyze at greater length on another occasion, but for present purposes, it is perhaps the most useful example I can cite. It suggests a connection between Dante and Usk that I can imagine being addressed by Middle English scholars in one of two ways: either it is accidental, some will argue, and to be explained by a common source or common belief, or it is coincidental, others will object, and no serious scholar will pay any attention to it.

    Over this latter response I would like to linger for a moment. For, obviously, it is a way of governing metaphors, namely the metaphors by which scholars construct and reconstruct the past. Moreover, the metaphor of governance, the governing metaphor, implicit in this response is ultimately that of policy the policing of scholarship by a policy of positivity that excludes the allegedly coincidental and trivial and possibly frivolous as above all that which cannot be proven. Such policy is the best honesty, so the argument runs, because it cleans up and regiments the wild notions of the young or theoretical or not yet safely tenured. The honestum here, of course, is the decorum or decoration of "legitimate, scientific research," which rigorously cordons itself off from anything that does not aspire to the positivity of science. Such a governing metaphor harbors as its agenda a practice ultimately exclusionary or, to remove the mask of politeness, censorious. Such a governing metaphor censors propositions and hypotheses that do not sustain currently fashionable ideology and methodology.

    The problem with such censorship, as indeed with all censorship, is that it promotes the illusion of a naturalness that supposedly is the unmarked marker of all that is good and true, as if the good and true, having to be approached, like all other ideas, through language, were somehow relieved from the dialogical constructedness of language. We can see the pernicious effects of such an illusion if we remember what happened when such censorship was visible in its least disguise, or the naked power of the Lords Appellant, who decided not only what was true but also who lived and died it is reported that 30 strokes of the ax were delivered in the beheading of Thomas Usk.

    Given the ever-present possibility of violence in censorship, I continue to be concerned about the price constructions of the truth cost. That is to say, I'm interested in governing metaphors with different governing metaphors. Thus, for example, I would like to remain alive to the metaphor in "evidence," or the dominance of that which is seen, "videre." Since we must depend on what we see, we ought to remember, I think, that sight is the most easily deceived of the senses. Throughout my career, thus, for example, I've heard it argued that Dante was little known in England in the 14th century except for the mentions in Chaucer. Notice how this is constructed. There is evidence, in Chaucer, quite a bit, in fact, but we do our damnedest not to see it.

    My case today, then, is really the simple one, that we look at what is in front of us. It is true that I cannot prove that Usk read Dante at least, not yet. But I can prove that Usk knew Chaucer and that Chaucer read Dante. Further, I believe now, after nine years of work, that Stephen Medcalf and John Leyerle are right that book 3 of The Testament was written substantially later than the first two books, perhaps near the very end of Usk's life. I now also entertain the hypothesis that parts of The Testament, especially book 2, were written, or at least conceived, in a time somewhat happier for Usk, when his relationship with Chaucer might have been relatively untroubled by politics. I imagine them during this time exchanging notes, as almost certainly Chaucer gave Usk portions of Troilus and Criseyde to copy (Jack Bennett is, I think, right about this). And, though I also imagine a certain caution on Chaucer's part, I still think it at least possible that Chaucer, bright as he was, could see the talent, limited as it may have been, beneath the restlessness of Usk's ambition. But, I must admit, I think now, too, that history is not only much darker than we appreciate but also far more opaque. Much is missing that will never be recovered. And some hypotheses will be less robust than others, always. Let me conclude, then, with one that I now consider both robust and reasonable.

    If Chaucer finished Troilus and Criseyde some time in 1385, or maybe late 1384, with revisions into and through 1385, when, as I now think, Usk had been working on parts of The Testament but had not yet finished it, Chaucer may have been discussing the work with him when he wrote, midway book 5 of the Troilus,

But God it wot, er fully monthes two,
She [Criseyde] was ful fer fro that entencioun!
For bothe Troilus and Troie town
Shal knotteles thorughout hire herte slide;
For she wol take a purpos for t'abyde.
5.766-70 (emphasis added)
I propose for your consideration this morning that our policy and police actions not blind us to the possibility of seeing in this extraordinary image the hand not only of Chaucer nor only of Dante but also of Thomas Usk, who, although he is not a great writer, is a far better writer than practically anyone in the 20th century has been willing to admit, so good a writer, I believe, that Chaucer did not disdain to remember the extraordinary figurativity with which he, Usk, had endowed the knot when he, Chaucer, came to describe Troilus and Troy sliding knotless (and Godless?) through the "slydynge corage" of Criseyde.

    Late in book 3 of The Testament, when he did finally write that book, Usk, in a famous passage, celebrated the life and work of Chaucer:

myne owne trewe servaunt the noble philosophical poete in Englissh whiche evermore hym besyeth and travayleth right sore my name to encrease, wherfore al that wyllen me good owe to do him worshyp and reverence bothe, trewly, his better ne his pere in schole of my rules coude I never fynde; he ... in a treatise that he made of my servant Troylus, hath this mater touched, and at the ful this questyon assoyled. Certaynly his noble sayenges can I not amende: In goodnes of gentyl manlyche speche without any maner of nycitè of starieres ymagynacion in wytte and in good reason of sentence he passeth al other makers.

the noble philosophical poet in English[, Chaucer], who evermore occupies himself and works very hard to augment my name [Love], wherefore all who [bear me] good will ought to do him honor and reverence both truly, I could never find his better nor his peer in the school of my rules he," she continued, "in a treatise that he made of my servant Troilus, has touched on this matter and has solved this question completely. Certainly, I cannot amend his noble sayings. In goodness of manly speech, without any manner of coyness[,] of the story-maker's imagination he surpasses all other makers in wit and in good[ly] reason of sentence [and meaning] (my modernization).

This passage bristles with cruces, as does The Testament generally. It is an excellent test case for what we think we can see. Thus, for example, previous editors agree that "starieres" is an error for "storiers"; and, as the latest editor of the work, I do not dissent but I caution against a hasty dismissal of the possible pun, "star" (as in, perhaps, "lodestar," for guiding a ship, since the spelling "star" can be found in the late fourteenth century). Moreover, the syntax of the last sentence is maddening: should it read, "In goodnes of gentyl manlyche speche, without any maner of nycitè of starieres ymagynacion in wytte and in good reason of sentence, he passeth al other makers";  or should it read, "In goodnes of gentyl manlyche speche, without any maner of nycitè, of starieres ymagynacion in wytte and in good reason of sentence he passeth al other makers"? Thynne's punctuation admits of either construction (Thynne's punctuation frequently responds to ambiguity in Usk's prose this way); and so it is no help but no hindrance either, it should be added. In the midst of such error and ambiguity, what are we to do? Call in the police?

    I do not think that is our only option. We might, instead, following Keats' advice, practice a certain negative capability and recognize in the vexed punctuation an opportunity, occasioned by doubt, to reflect on our calling. If we punctuate according to the first option, Chaucer is not tainted with "nycitè of starieres ymagynacion" but "all other makers surpasses in wit and in good[ly] reason of sentence"; if we follow the second option for punctuation, Chaucer is not tainted with "nycitè" but "surpasses all other makers of the storier's imagination in wit and in good[ly] reason of sentence." You can see, I think, the point I wish to make: one punctuation condemns the storier's imagination, the other does not; one punctuation segregates the storier's imagination from wit and reason of sentence, the other does not; one punctuation serves the ideology of positivity (gets rid, in effect, of the imagination), the other does not. In the police academy, of course, we know which punctuation wins  (even though in my ongoing searches through various ME works I have found very few instances of "nycitè" with a genitive complement   it is almost always absolute). But we are the Medieval Academy and, presumably, we are about something more than winning. Presumably, unless we discover the truth, we will not decapitate the witness. Presumably, ours is not the policy, the governing metaphor, of the Lords Appellant. Presumably.

March 8 - April 7, 1999