I am rather fond of Stephen Fry, and have enjoyed his books, film and TV work very much, but in one of his books he wrote something that is guaranteed to raise the hackles of many a medievalist. The one in question is The Ode Less Travelled, an introduction to writing poetry. In the chapter on the sonnet, he writes:
His [Petrarch’s] sonnets made their way over to god-fearing medieval England and lay there like gleaming alien technology: dazzling in their sophistication, knowledge, mastery and promise, frightening in their freedom, daring and originality.
Chaucer knew of them and admired them but their humanism, their promotion of personal feeling and open enquiry, the vigour and self-assertion of their individual voice would have made any attempt on his part to write such works, if indeed he had that desire, a kind of heresy or treason. We had to wait two hundred years for the warm winds of the Renaissance truly to cross the channel and thaw us out of our monkish and feudal inertia …
Stephen Fry, The Ode Less Travelled, p. 282.
There is no reason to think that fourteenth-century Italy was any less ‘monkish’ or ‘god-fearing’ than England; and I am a little troubled by the implications of ‘lay there’ and ‘alien’ – the idea that different cultures are so utterly different from one another that they have nothing in common and cannot relate and respond to one another (and never mind the fact that they were united through a single church). A fuller response should probably be left to students of late medieval England; however, I feel I am on pretty solid ground when I note that Chaucer didn’t just admire Petrarch’s sonnets, but actually translated one, and worked it into his narrative poem Troilus and Criseyde:
S’amor non è, che dunque è quel ch’io sento?
Ma s’egli è amor, perdio, che cosa et quale?
Se bona, onde l’effecto aspro mortale?
Se ria, onde sí dolce ogni tormento?
S’a mia voglia ardo, onde ’l pianto e lamento?
S’a mal mio grado, il lamentar che vale?
O viva morte, o dilectoso male,
come puoi tanto in me, s’io no ’l consento?
Et s’io ’l consento, a gran torto mi doglio.
Fra sí contrari vènti in frale barca
mi trovo in alto mar senza governo,
sí lieve di saver, d’error sí carca
ch’i’ medesmo non so quel ch’io mi voglio,
et tremo a mezza state, ardendo il verno.
If no love is, O god, what fele I so?
And if love is, what thing and whiche is he!
If love be good, from whennes* comth my wo? whence
If it be wikke,* a wonder thinketh* me, wicked; seems to
Whenne every torment and adversitee
That cometh of him, may to me savory thinke;
For ay thurst I, the more that I it drinke.
And if that at myn owene lust I brenne,* burn
Fro whennes cometh my wailing and my pleynte?* complaint
If harme agree me, wher-to pleyne I thenne?
I noot,* ne why unwery* that I feynte. know not; unwary
O quike deeth, O swete harm so queynte,
How may of thee in me swich* quantitee, such
But-if that I consente that it be?
And if that I consente, I wrongfully
Compleyne, y-wis; thus possed to and fro,
Al sterelees* with inne a boot* am I steerless; boat
A-mid the see, by-twixen windes two,
That in contrarie stonden ever-mo.
Allas! what is this wonder maladye?
For hete of cold, for cold of hete, I deye.
Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde, I, ll. 400-20
However, I also find Fry’s remarks a little sad and poignant, because there is a late medieval English poem by one of Chaucer’s followers which not only shows great ‘personal feeling’ and ‘individual voice’, but narrates an experience to which Fry himself can probably relate all too well.
Thomas Hoccleve (c. 1348-1430) was a scribe at the Privy Seal, a government office, but outside of work he wrote poetry. One of his poems, the Prologue and Complaint, narrates the experience of a mental breakdown of some kind, and the social isolation experienced after it. You can read a loose translation of most of the poem by Carl James Grindley here.
Aftir that hervest inned* had hise sheves, gathered in
And that the broun sesoun of mihelmesse* Michaelmas
Was come and gan the trees robbe of her leves
That grene hed ben and in lusty freisshenesse,* freshness
And hem into colour of yelownesse
Had died and doun throwen undir foote,
That chaunge sanke into myn herte roote.
Thomas Hoccleve’s Complaint, ll. 1-7
In a kind of reversal of Chaucer’s hopeful springtime opening to the Canterbury Tales, Hoccleve’s poem begins with the coming of autumn, with death and decay spreading from the leaves on the trees down into the very depths of the poet’s soul, sinking into his ‘heart’s root’. The image reminds me of Tennyson’s In memoriam, which opens with the poet’s grief at the death of his best friend:
Old Yew, which graspest at the stones
That name the under-lying dead,
Thy fibres net the dreamless head,
Thy roots are wrapt about the bones …
And gazing on thee, sullen tree,
Sick for thy stubborn hardihood,
I seem to fail from out my blood
And grow incorporate into thee.
This is specifically a mental illness: whether using a metaphor, or expressing his understanding of how his condition was literally caused, Hoccleve compares this to poison, ‘the grevous venim / That had enfectid and wildid my brain’ (ll. 234-5). However, the main subject of the poem is not the illness itself: Hoccleve records that he did recover, and had been well for a good five years by the time at which the poem is narrated. Instead, the Complaint is mostly concerned with the second wave of suffering, following his recovery, caused by the reactions of the people around him.
For, though that my wit were hoom* come agein, home
Men wolde it not so undirstonde or take.
With me to dele* hadden they disdein … deal
Complaint, ll. 64-6
People did not want to associate with him, not even his own friends, who had previously gone on pilgrimages to pray for his recovery. He would go into Westminster Hall, and into the crowds of London, and notice how those who used to be sociable with him (‘hem that weren wonte for me to calle / To companie’, ll. 75-6) would suddenly stop smiling and become pale when they saw him; and his own face would become hot for sorrow and fear (ll. 74, 88-9). But he knew that, if he tried to speak up for himself, nobody would bother listening to him: ‘What so that evere I shulde answere or seie, / They wolden not han holde it worth a leke’ (ll. 142-3). So he worked hard to put on a happy face, even to the point of sitting in front of a mirror in solitude, trying to figure out the best facial expression to adopt in order to look acceptable; yet all the time, he was secretly trembling for fear.
Many a saute* made I to this mirrour, attack
Thinking: ‘if that I looke in this manere* manner
Amonge folk as I nowe do, noon errour
Of suspecte look may in my face appere.
This countinaunce, I am sure, and this chere,
If I it forthe use, is no thing reprevable
To hem that han conceitis* resonable.’ ideas
Complaint, ll. 162-8.
(For more on this passage, see Stephanie Trigg’s TEDx talk ‘What Does Normal Look Like?’)
Hoccleve then turns to arguing that nobody’s appearances match their inner reality – men who appear wise aren’t necessarily so (ll. 239-45) – and deciding not to care what other people think (ll. 302-8), where Grindley’s translation ends. The final hundred lines of the poem give a philosophical and religious interpretation of his experiences, in which he reads a book which convinces him to accept his misfortunes as part of life and an opportunity to repent of his sins; he ends by thanking God for both prosperity and adversity.
Yet the story doesn’t end there. In another poem, the ‘Dialogue with a Friend’, Hoccleve tells how, as soon as he had finished writing his poem, he heard a knock on the door. It was a friend, to whom Hoccleve reads his poem. But this friend is worried: has he published it? He should not, he says: he should keep this matter to himself. After all, it’s all over now, and people have forgotten: he should just let it go, and not talk about it, for his own reputation’s sake.
‘Nay, Thomas, war!* Do not so. be careful
If thou be wys* of that mater, ho. aware
Reherse thou it not ne it awake.
Kepe al that cloos,* for thin honours sake. secret
‘Howe it stood with thee leide is al aslepe.
Men han forgete it; it is out of mynde.’
Dialogue with a Friend, ll. 25-30.
Hoccleve is horrified. He hasn’t forgotten any of this; it may as well have been yesterday. He is not a murderer, nor an extortioner, nor has he fought against the Christian faith: if he had done these things, then it would be foolish to seek to re-enter the company of those he used to know, because he would have done something wrong by his own free will. But his illness was given to him by God and then taken away again; he didn’t choose it. So why shouldn’t he tell the world about it? (ll. 64-84)
What is notable about these poems is that Hoccleve is looking back a full five years after his recovery (Complaint, ll. 50-6), but after all this time what hurts the most are the reactions of other people, particularly that of his friend, who discourages him from talking publicly about his illness. Stephen Fry, with whom I began this blogpost, spoke so eloquently about his own experiences in his 2006 documentary The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive: I would like to think that if he and Hoccleve could ever have met, they would have had a lot to talk about together.
[Updated 01/11/2018 to add yew image]
Stephen Fry, The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within (London: Arrow Books, 2007).
Bernard O’Donoghue, ed., Thomas Hoccleve: Selected Poems (Manchester: Carcanet, 1982).