Posts Tagged ‘Chaucer’

A literary A-Z

March 28, 2011

I am usually very good at sleeping. I can do it pretty much anywhere and for as long as is possible. Even during an unbelievably perilous journey across the Indian Himalayas, crammed into a tiny jeep with nine other people and a driver who stank of booze and drove for 22 hours without taking in anything solid. Head lolling from side to side, I was out for the count, much to the annoyance of the fiancé, who spent the 22 hours clinging on to his seat, eyes wide with terror.

But, the other day, I found myself unable to get off to sleep. For those who suffer from insomnia, it must be an incredibly frustrating, debilitating affliction, but, as it so rarely comes my way, I quite enjoyed the novelty. Rather than fretting about whatever it was that was keeping me awake, I decided to put my mind to better use.

I thought perhaps I’d go through the alphabet for a particular category. Capital cities are a good one, as are rude words (the only way to keep me sane while having a filling at the dentist). But, in the end, I went through the alphabet deciding on my favourite author for each letter.

It was a fascinating exercise. There were some unexpected and very difficult matches, (Virginia Woolf vs Edmund de Waal, for instance) and it also showed up several gaping holes in my reading. It is refreshingly logical, which is something I rarely am about books – it’s easy to gush about favourite books and marvellous authors, but when one has to weigh an author against another one, it becomes a far more measured exercise.

So I thought I’d share the fruits of my insomnia with you, and take you through my literary A-Z, a few letters at a time. I think what I’m doing, in blogging terminology, is introducing a ‘series’. I expect I’ll do it once a month. I hope you like it!


For many people A means Jane Austen. So many – usually very clever, well-read – people, such as P.D. James, absolutely adore Jane Austen. But I think she’s the musical equivalent of Mozart. Evidently a genius, but so twee and twiddly that I can’t bear her. I must be a philistine. I hope that, like tomatoes, it’s a taste I’ll grow into.

But just a slipped final letter away from Austen is Paul Auster. The first Auster I read was The New York Trilogy. I’d just decided to apply to read English at Oxford – as opposed to Biology or Psychology, which had been the original plan – and our English teachers had distributed these lists of books that I suppose they considered to be seminal works that we should have read before our interviews. I read several of the books on there with a feeling that they were good but old. Books like Rasselas and Candide and Gulliver’s Travels – all very clever, all very important, but nothing that sets a seventeen-year-old alight. But then there was The New York Trilogy and – apologies for being a bit Billy Eliot here – it was like electricity. I was so astonished to be reading something so modern, so new, so playful, so dark. And, in the words of my seventeen-year-old self, I thought it was quite ‘cool’. It made me feel incredibly excited about the possibilities of literature, as something that could be so experimental, something that was still evolving, something with a future, not just a past.

I went on a bit of an Auster binge after that, and I remember feeling particularly fond of Mr Vertigo, which is about a boy who learns to fly. And Timbuktu, told from the point of view of Mr Bones, a dog. And then I read Invisible a couple of years ago, which was, characteristically, weird but also brilliant. And, most recently, Sunset Park, which was a slightly disappointing 3 out of 5.

Martin and Kingsley Amis deserve a mention, although I hate the one and never got round to reading the other. I better stick with that first, tremendously excited, reading of The New York Trilogy and say that Paul Auster is King of the As.


The Bs, for me, boil down to Bronte vs. Bowen.

Having recently finished Bowen’s Court by Elizabeth Bowen (see my last post), I am very much under the Bowen spell. I am longing to read more by her – I’d love to see what her novels are like – and, as I said, her voice is so strong and familiar that I felt like I’d made friends with her. I am even beginning to miss her.

But the Brontes. How can anyone compete? Perhaps it’s because the Brontes are usually part of a schoolgirl’s reading, they seem like a rite of passage. I have felt a particular affinity with Wuthering Heights because when I went to Burma, nearly ten years ago, I met this very kind man called ‘Mr Book’, who ran a bookstall, and looked after my friend and me for a few days. He, funnily enough, loved books, and so he decided to call me ‘Emily Bronte’ or ‘Wuthering Heights’.

It’s hard to decide between Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, but I think I’ve got to come down on the side of the latter. It’s such a wonderful book, and one that bears rereading several times. Charlotte Bronte creates such overwhelming empathy for Jane – a sweet, young girl in a big, strange house – that anyone who doesn’t count this among their Top 20 books can scarcely be human!

I nearly forgot Bassani, who wrote The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. I read this while I was on holiday in Italy last summer (see this post on it). At the time, I enjoyed it but I didn’t think it was utterly spectacular. It was only afterwards, that I found I kept on thinking about it, and began to see that really it was a rather subtle masterpiece – Bassani created a lingering poignancy, which still haunts me today.

But, when all’s said and done, no other B can beat Jane Eyre. Charlotte Bronte has to be the winner.


Now C is an embarrassing letter for me. Not in a Lady Chatterley way, but because it shows up so many gaps in my reading. I know, from various friends and colleagues, that the following C-authors are fantastic: Michael Chabon, Raymond Carver, John le Carre, Wilkie Collins, Albert Camus. I can hardly bring myself to admit this, but I haven’t read any of them. No, not even Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Not even Kavalier and Clay. Not even L’Etranger.

I suppose one very useful aspect of this exercise is in showing up the gaps. I must stop making excuses and just get round to reading some of these books!

So, for C, I’ve hopped over to poetry. To Coleridge and to Chaucer and yet another tricky decision. I’m not sure there’s much that’s better than ‘Kubla Khan’. And there’s the great opium story that goes with it. But Chaucer … he’s up there with Shakespeare, I don’t think it would be right to knock him off the top spot.

We read rather a lot of Chaucer at university. Here and here are earlier posts about the dream poems, and everyone knows about The Canterbury Tales, but it’s Troilus and Criseyde that seals the deal for me. It’s magnificent. And the character Pandarus, Criseyde’s uncle, who persuades Criseyde of Troilus’s virtues, gives us the word ‘pander’.

Yes, C has to be Chaucer.

Any disagreements? Any omissions? Let me know … In the meantime, I’ll start weighing up the Ds, Es and Fs.


A literary Valentine’s Day

February 14, 2011

My favourite Valentine’s Day story is that once I was sent a Valentine from someone who then went on to murder someone.

Yes, it’s true.

But I always feel a bit uncomfortable after telling the full story, as though I’m exploiting someone who was clearly a very troubled soul. So, I’m afraid you’ll have to put up with second-best.

In my second year at university we were introduced to Middle English literature. It wasn’t a case of their waiting until we were already firmly in the grasp of the institution before springing this strange not-quite-English language on us. It was because the first year had been taken up with Anglo Saxon. After all the heavily Germanic Old English, Middle English was a walk in the park.

Most of our Middle English course revolved around an enormous blue book of Chaucer. Yes there were The Canterbury Tales – I remember a particularly awkward tutorial when our rather eccentric tutor turned scarlet and giggled about his use of the word ‘queynte’. (No it doesn’t translate as ‘quaint’.)

But as well as The Canterbury Tales, we looked at Chaucer’s dream poems. This was a surprise and a delight. For not only are the poems quite short, they’re also nuts and really quite brilliant.

Now the funny thing about reading Middle English is that I find the voice in my head is forced to sound particularly peculiar, taking on a strange West Country-cum-Irish lilt. After a few hours of sitting at a desk reading all these odd poems to myself I got quite a shock at the following moment in The Parliament of Fowls:

For this was on Seynt Valentynes day

Unlike ‘queynte’, ‘seynt’ does rhyme with quaint. Woah, it was an odd moment. Here I was in this strange dream-world, led by Scipio Africanus, having passed through the temple of Venus and come out into a parliament of birds. And then a mention of Saint Valentine’s Day! Three words which even in my West-Country-cum-Irish voice sounded very anachronistic.

‘Valentine’s Day’ sounds so modern to me. It is tied to pink cards, heart-shaped boxes, red roses with their prices madly inflated. Since working in the bookshop, Valentine’s Day seems particularly commercial. I’m sure I sold more cards yesterday than any other day of the year. (And most of them were pink. Or red.) In the past week or so we’ve shifted several books of love poems, or love stories, or love letters. It feels like a funny sales-filter which privileges books with red or pink covers.

But, funnily enough, I haven’t sold any Chaucer. (Now there is a marketing dream for a publisher. Just give The Parliament of Fowls – plus perhaps another few dream poems – a pretty pink cover, write a blurb saying that it’s the first ever Valentine’s Poem and watch its February sales soar.)

It’s hard to convey quite how odd I felt when coming up against Seynt Valentynes day in The Parliament of Fowls. The world of Chaucer with all its courtly love, and where Southwark is a stopping off place en route to Canterbury rather than the closest tube to the Tate Modern, was a very long time ago. How could this commercial card-fest possibly be rooted in this bizarre occasion where birds come together to choose their mate?

But really it was just the first of many odd clashes of symmetry that assailed me as I continued to study English. Such as thinking about Shakespeare’s Fool and then watching Fellini’s La Strada, or – and some might see this as a sign of pre-Finals madness – watching an episode of Friends and thinking that really it’s very similar to Virginia Woolf’s The Waves.

It started off my very studenty feeling that ‘Everything’s connected man. It’s all so Roland Barthes. It’s all so intertextual.’

I think I’ve nearly grown out of it. I’ve definitely grown out of calling everything ‘liminal’. Thanks for those who put up with me during that particularly trying time. But, for those of you who, like me, still get a geeky thrill from moments of intertextuality, Valentine’s Day and Valentines (as in love letters) are also mentioned by:

Shakespeare in Hamlet (Ophelia says it)

John Donne in his Epithalamion

Elizabeth Gaskell in Mr Harrison’s Confessions

Edgar Allan Poe in A Valentine (title gives it away rather)

I’m sure there are more.

So have a very happy Valentine’s Day. And if you’re at a loss for something to do. Well, one can always do worse than read a bit of Chaucer.

(Sorry, I warned you this was only second-best.)

Dreams and poetry

April 16, 2010

Last night I went to sleep feeling quite anxious. I knew I had to write my blog today and couldn’t think of anything to at all to write about. I soon fell asleep, but the worries must have crept into my sleeping brain, as I had rather a peculiar dream. I dreamt that I would solve the problem of having nothing to blog about by writing a poem and posting it on the blog. However, the only way I could compose the poem was by separating a huge lump of cooked spinach into little rectangular clumps on my plate. The size of each clump represented the length of the line of poetry. It wasvery important to make several clumps of spinach exactly the same size or else the lines wouldn’t scan properly – they would have too few or too many syllables.

I woke up and, I have to admit, it took a little while to get over the disappointment of not having a poem perfectly formed in my head. I even had a cursory glance in the fridge to see if there were a bag of spinach hiding in there, which might coax some verse out of my subconscious. Then I remembered I’d had some spinach for lunch – that must have been where that bit of the dream came from – and I realised that it was really just an anxiety dream.

So no, this wasn’t a Coleridgean ‘Kubla Khan’ moment. Or a Keatsean ‘Sleep and Poetry’. Never mind.

But then, Coleridge, Keats or anyone else back then wouldn’t have just dismissed it as a Freudian ‘anxiety dream’. I expect if they’d dreamt about arranging spinach into a poem they would have awoken and written something wonderful – even just a fragment of it. (In Xanadu did Kubla Khan, a splendid spinach patch decree … ) Freud and therapy and the dismissing of such moments of creative inspiration into ‘anxiety’ or ‘penis envy’ or something similarly disappointing weren’t on the scene at all. 

The earliest dream poems that I know are Chaucer’s. He certainly didn’t put dreams down to anything Freudian. In fact at the beginning of ‘The House of Fame’ he writes:

For hyt is wonder, be the roode,

To my wyt, what causeth swevenes

 He goes on to list all sorts of possible reasons for dreams (or ‘swevenes’), from ‘folkys complexions’ (the balance of people’s bodily humours) to ‘dysordynaunce / Of naturel acustumaunce’ (a disordered routine), or lovers ‘That hopen over-muche or dreden/That purely her impressions/ Causeth hem avisions’ (who hope too much or are afraid that their powerful emotions cause their visions).

I suppose, in poetry, this last explanation can often be the right one. Think of Keats’s ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’. The ‘knight-at arms, / Alone and palely loitering’ falls in love with a beautiful fairy who takes him to ‘her elfin grot’:



And there she lullèd me asleep

And there I dreamed – Ah! woe betide! –

The latest dream I ever dreamt

On the cold hill side.

I saw pale kings and princes too

Pale warriors, death-pale where they all;

They cried – ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci

Thee hath in thrall!’

I saw their starved lips in the gloam,

With horrid warning gapèd wide,

And I awoke and found me here,

On the cold hill’s side.

And this is why I sojourn here

Alone and palely loitering,

Though the sedge is withered from the lake

And no birds sing.

What a warning to an obsessed lover! Once under the spell of a beautiful lady, you are as good as dead. ‘No birds sing.’ Not even Keats’s nightingale (‘light-wingèd Dryad of the trees’) is there to keep the poor pale love-lorn knight company.

Well, I’m pretty sure my dream about writing a poem in spinach wasn’t a warning about falling in love. And sadly it wasn’t really a moment of inspiration – there is no green-tinged poem to follow.

But at least it gave me something to write about. And it meant I spent all morning happily reading poetry. So there’s not much to complain about at all.