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Wednesday, September 1, 2010

William IX: A Study in Transformation of Convention

The curious thing about love in the poetry of William IX is that the personae are sometimes obscene, sometimes tender, sometimes idealizing after the manner of "courtly love." I seek here to make sense of this apparent self-contradiction. The notes, I am afraid, are missing.

The small corpus of cansos by William IX of Acquitaine contains pieces representing a bewildering variety of uses of convention: melodic, rhetorical, and thematic. Since he is the first of the poets of southern France whose vernacular lyrics are extant, he has attracted a great deal of attention, and the extraordinarily broad, to many readers even self-contradictory, range of his work has been interpreted by some as historical anticipation, as though he conveniently provides an epitome of all that is to follow (thus Jeanroy, xviii or Goldin, Lyrics, 5). Others have described the same striking breadth in psychological or psychosocial terms. To Wilhelm he is "the whole medieval man" (59), and to Bond "a strong individualist" who tailored his work to different audiences (11).

While each of these comments doubtless has some validity, they are limited by their overlooking the possibility that the answer lies not in the specific circumstances of the single series of poems, but rather in more general literary characteristics which happen to be highlighted in the scanty and provocative oeuvre of an individual. The constellation of conventional transformation available from William's work may also be viewed as a prototype or paradigm for the nature of conventional transformation in all poetry. His poems are indeed remarkable, but largely because they do in a few pages what is normally found only in a much larger volume of text; that is to say, they economically represent virtually all the possible transformational forms of certain central thematic conventions. Thus, it is hardly surprising that they could be said to contain the future, indeed, with their unusually compact encyclopedic scope, they contain the past as well. (See Dronke, Rise, Ch. 1.)

Jeanroy's conceptual arrangement of the texts from "les pièces badines" to "la pièce du ton le plus grave" (recalling the traditional division of Biblical texts attributed to Solomon from youth to middle to old age), and -- when this criterion is inconclusive -- from the simpler to the more complex forms may be wholly unjustified as evidence for dating, but it admirably serves the present synchronic project. William's constant theme, a theme which is demonstrably present even when seemingly absent, is the investigation of the "other" in the form of woman.

It is upon this thematic progression that Jeanroy filed the texts, and it is nonetheless appropriate for being obvious. One need not, however, assume that the poet was primarily concerned with women in the poet’s lived experience while addressing the topic so insistently. All of the biographical data, including a number of charming anecdotes, are finally irrelevant in addressing the poetry. Apart from the sort of formal play which is the special province of the aesthetic text, many thematic concerns are commonly encoded into comment about women. Among the most likely to occur to William's twentieth century readers are self-description, exploration of the nature of feudalism, of spirituality, or of the Jungian anima.

This claim is far from denying specific referentiality for the texts, though. Rather it cautions against any interpretation which seeks hegemony for a single simple referent. The complexity and ambiguity of William's poems render irredeemably problematic any attempt to return his ideas to the world of lived experience in exhaustive prose paraphrase. What emerges unmistakably from an examination of his use of convention is not an idea or an attitude but a pattern of formal play. Only after recognizing the inherent value of this pattern as an almost musical system can the reader return to the question of the "meaning" of the poems.

According to an ancient and universal convention the qualities of woman elude adequate formulation for the male poet. To represent this mystery, he has recourse to figures of speech, and one of the oldest and most common is the description of the woman as an animal. This may, of course, be honorific even to apotheosis as in the bestial epithets of certain Homeric goddesses or in Diane di Prima's Loba; it may on the other hand be pejorative even to the point of scurrility (as in Semonides or Juvenal). Many examples are not so unequivocally colored by a judgement. More frequent is
the complexity of Catullus 11, the Harley lyric "A waile whit as whalles bone," or Wyatt's sonnet "whoso list to hunt, I know when is an hind."

William's poem 1 "Companho, faray un vers covinen" identifies "his" Agnes and Arsen as "dos cavalhs" in what has always been read as a coarse, masculine," double entendre. The convention is closely paralleled in blues lyrics. The closest to William's conceit is probably Charlie Patton's "Stone Pony Blues," but the same motif appears with great frequency, including in Son House's "Pony Blues" and the widespread "Easy Rider."

It is undeniably true that William's poem, like these songs, exploits the natural association of sexual activity with riding. For the Provencal lord, the arrogant gab is built about the analogy of castle possession and domination. The announcement of the poem as "covinen" may be taken as a straightforward claim that the poem is in fact proper and that the notions that first come to the reader's mind are likely to be correct. There can be no doubt that William is explicitly celebrating male power, his own power being reinforced by state power due to his rank, and demanding the subjugation of desired women verbally, by calling them livestock, that is, mere chattels. He proclaims that he feels "erhueill" toward all. The meaning of the image on this primary level is clear, whether its performance be imagined to have produced giggles, blushes, anger, or self-satisfaction.

The form of the poem, two eleven syllable lines followed by a fourteen syllable line, all of which rhyme, is quite distinctive within William's poetry, appearing in poems II and III as well as in I. The three are linked by tone and content as well as by prosody. The form has been traced by different investigators to popular, sacred, and Arabic models (see Bond's notes for references to the major studies). Which diachronic conjecture is more accurate may never be known. Here it is sufficient to assume that for William's time and place, the form was appropriate for generating the effect he desired. Whether his intention was direct or ironic may be ignored when considering the construction of pattern that he elaborates in the set of poems seen as a group. There can be no question that William employed this meter to mark off this series of poems as a cohesive unit, or -- what is really the same contention -- that they must be read as a unit.

The second of them, William's poem ii ("Compaigno, non puosc mudar qu'eo no m'effrei") maintains meter, theme, and animal convention, but with a significant twist. While the beloved is called merely "lo bon conrei" ( 1. 16), that is, "the fine goods," doubtless with a pun on "con" for cunt, rather in the same manner as poem I, the description is amplified by adding information on the lady's likely reaction to such an approach. The sexism of the original begins then to be complicated by a dialectic. While the first poem had attempted to present itself as a fitting and even decorous pleasantry ("covinen" stressing its social acceptability) while sounding like a brag or gab, this poem is an unmistakable castei or castigation, a genre associated with the clergy and the law.

Just as Marcabrun mounted grand tirades of bitter moralizing on the topic, William takes up the cause of women who are held closely as valuable possessions by their husbands, it is this practice that "disturbs" him according to the first line of the text. Mention of the woman's keepers (1. 3), her bonds (1. 6), and the apparent image of a carter all maintain the original convention deprecating women as property, but the poem goes on to describe the inevitable consequences of such oppression.
Slyly using the same horse imagery as in poem I, William warns the possessive husband that "si non pot aver caval . . . compra palafrei." This line projects the horse image back upon the man with its suggestion that if the woman is successfully prevented from arranging a courtly dalliance with a lover of her own class, she will seek out whoever is available. Though love may remain "degraded" by a bestial affair, here it is the man, acting against the "dreit" and "lei" by unfairly restricting his wife, who thus becomes something less than a fine horse, less even than a poor one, out of the picture and rejected entirely, and by his own doing.

The meter is substantially identical to that of poem I, but since the authorial persona is here that of the learned moralist, rather than the lascivious playboy, the irony of the form has undergone a twist.

In both of these poems, then, the image of the beloved as an animal carries associations of erotic sensuality. Likewise, both include economic semantic elements suggesting the aristocratic expectations that accompany horse ownership and which prescribe certain obligatory forms of behavior is status is to be maintained. However, the satiric horse of the second poem reverses some of the implications of the first by applying the image to the other character, the man, and by capping the claim of the first with the more extravagant claim of the second.

While poem I's use of the horse image could be reductively paraphrased as “1 own women as 1 own horses,” the image of poem II points to something like "the man who tries to control women is lower even than a horse." The original poem's psychological assault has been returned with wit in a form that transforms and consumes the original, in which the initial ideas are assumed, and the discourse rises to a new level. What is constant in the verbal battle is the association of sexual relations with economic power and selfish interests in general, as well as the base, "animal" associations that surround the body and love, though the second text suggests that a richer sort of love exists.

The two uses of the horse image studied thus far might be schematically represented as follows.

poem 1 poem II
man as lord woman as horse
dominates dominates
woman as horse man as less than horse

In William's poem 111 "'iTant ai agutz d'avois conres" the opening line restates the already familiar idea of the woman as the possession of the successful courtier, even us-ing the same punning objectifying word "conres." This poem, however, proceeds rapidly into a series of tightly knotted contradictions.

The first explicit identification of a woman with an animal is in line 5 which equates "cons gardatz" with "gorc ses peis" (an animal image heavy with suggestive connotation even on the isolated level of concrete qualities). The primary thrust of the equation is controlled by the claim that those women who are too closely guarded resemble, not an economically useful animal, but rather the lack of one. Just as the selfish male lover of poem 11 becomes less than a nag, the woman he overzealously seeks to dominate becomes less than a fish pond, a barren place, unproductive and infertile, whose unfructifying moisture mocks at its own failure to fulfill its destiny.

Though hints of the hunt and the social power of wealth still cling to the image, its new aspect is recalled in intensified and elaborated form in the later lines: "Per un albre c'om hi tailla n'i naison [ho] dos ho treis/ E quam lo bocx es taillatz nais plus espes." (ll. 15-16) Here the almost magic fecundity promised as a reward for participation in life, the proliferation that follows from the enjoyment of the world is stated in a way that has little to do with the specific social circumstances of forestry or fishing or romance in William's time and place. The notion is exceedingly archaic, dating at least from the time of the neolithic “Venuses.” There is no gab of the ego, the talk of possession and taming vanishes before this marvel identified with woman. Rather than prudentially warning husbands that guarding their ladies may bring about results that they would prefer to avoid, this poem states "de con cals es sa lei" (1. 10) in a way more profound than the phrase may predict, and the result is incantatory, charming. The animal and even vegetable life of the forest is here no symbol for fallen human nature (fallen through sin or through realistic portrayal that deflates idealized concepts) but instead the fountain of all earthly energy. To fail to fully participate in love again here diminishes all parties, but the sanctions are defined not in social or psychological terms, but rather as the withdrawal from life itself, an act by definition bad.

The image of the woman as animal has here been answered, not by its return upon the man as in poem II, but with a transcending figure in which the charge of animality is accepted and celebrated and sexuality is affirmed as a mysterious forest very like that in D. H. Lawrence. The original theme of male domination, which had met its answering antithesis in poem II is here transformed, in the poet's constant play with the expectations of his audience: the theme is announced, then reversed, and in poem III it may be said to be inverted (in the sense of the millennial inversions of the Sermon on the Mount), since the identification of nature with woman is accepted, but an opposite value judgement constructed. The apparent descent from man to woman to horse to fish to tree is suddenly revalued even as it is extended.

“Farai un vers de dreit nien” (poem IV) says a great deal about the nature of language and poetry which is not to the point here, but it also continues the development of the themes of the first three texts. Here the poet directly engages the conventions recognizable to the modern reader as definitively courtly. The lover suffers madness, confusion, and physical illness; he is quite at the mercy of his obsession. Here an individual love object is mentioned for the first time and with this new element, the poet must confess the descent into subjectivity and the loss of categorical truth which must follow.
The poet's persona, which had been more than adequately constituted by lands, manors, and subject women, is now helpless before his passion for the beloved. Strangely, it is due to the very fact that the poetic persona now speaks of a specific individual that he cannot focus and is obliged to name his topic as “dreit nien,” and to stammer out contradictions. It is clear that the discourse which had begun on the level of social reality (where the myth of the social lie in nearly every culture requires the illusion of permanence) has moved to the more vulnerable levels of the ego below.

While the beloved controls the whole poem's movement, she is present no more concretely than, say, Jaufre Rudel's “amor de lonh.” She is not identified or even characterized by the images. Animal references persist, but they have been scattered to the margins of the text.

The horse of line 5 may remind the reader of poem I, but it is here no wildly energetic force submitting to the imperious master. Rather it is part of the absurd scene of a mount whose rider is sleeping, unconscious, the ego distracted to the point that social status is irrelevant or undefined. The ant of line 17 indicates nothing but triviality, and the rooster of line 34 is mentioned as the sign of next to nothing. What might have been a proud or ironic image of male swagger here indicates simple nonentity.

Love then, in this poem is so disorienting that despite striving through the whole piece to get a firm grasp of his subject, to define and thus verbally master the beloved, the poet succeeds in describing only his inability to do so. "Amigu' ai ieu, so sai qui s'es." (1. 25) He cannot even see her, much less possess her.

Thus in poem IV the woman is conspicuously absent from the poem's vocabulary of concrete imagery. The very fact that the poet cannot summon up any ready conventional declaration about woman may be said to be the theme of poem IV. This is itself a highly conventional topos, of course, dating back to Ovid and beyond, it is this weakness, this failure, this inability that emphasizes the radical profundity of his love (though it is not to the point here to determine whether the poem is ironic or straightforward). The image that has been seen in the earlier poems in what has been called direct, reversed, and inverted forms is here present by its very absence.

In William's poem V "Farai un vers pos mi sonelh" the sleeping persona reappears, again the image of the ego at a loss, the king dethroned, but the tongue-tied helplessness of the lover before his lady is here recast in comic form. As is appropriate for the comic, low-mimetic mode, the risk at which the lover finds himself in this text is wholly
physical. The “conres” earlier controlled and manipulated here returns with a vengeance as the man's flesh is savaged in an encounter too powerful for him to master.

The threat of the power of the woman is embodied in the cat, a frequent source of obscene slang in antiquity as well as today as reference to The Maculate Muse or Eric Partridge will demonstrate. The claws of the cat make it a formidable incarnation of the vagina dentata nightmare fear in a fabliau-type anecdote which for all its light joking represents the fierce wildness of sensuality so vividly as to suggest sado-masochism.

The usage of the poem in part resembles that of poem II in which the horse image was reversed. Here, too, the man is subject to the bestial (the cat) and wholly inferior to the animal in terms of control of his environment, but here it is not his own failings that are central, but the animal's power. He acquiesces to the two women and their cat as though he cannot resist, it is precisely as though he is in the power of a pair of witches and their familiar. The miraculous power of nature so striking in poem III here reappears in a very sinister form for all the high-spirited wit.

A briefer account of the remaining lyrics of William IX will suffice to indicate how they fit into this unfolding pattern. In poem VI there is no imagery which corresponds to the series thus far defined, instead the use of language derived from gambling games suggests a view of love as a contest in a way closely related to the familiar battle imagery of love.

In poem VII the first of a fully developed subclass of nature images appears. This poem opens with a reverdie introduction that seems at first to be a diminution of the marvelous forest of poem III, here rendered in a more decorative way. It seems more "conventional" in the pejorative sense because the topos is so commonplace and because it is elaborated here at far greater length than would have been necessary to suggest the idea of human love as a spark in the dynamo of nature. The code seems uneconomical and overdetermined, too "amplified," in the rhetorician's sense.

But the reader who continues to poem VIII must wonder whether this "simple," conventional version is not merely the preparation for a surprise. In this text, the nature introduction reappears, but in reversed form. Rather than feeling the warmth of spring and thus turning to thoughts of love, the poet laments the end of warmth, recognizes the coming of winter, and feels at once the chills of the literal cold and of his rejection as a lover.

In poem IX the image of vegetable nature resolves the contradictions the poet had earlier generated by turning darkness into light (1. 12) and illness into health (1. 35) in a cycle which is said to be uniquely capable of renewing the flesh (1. 35 "la earn renovellar").

Poem X provides the most amplified version of the idea of the world energy seen in non-human nature, an extension of the simpler form seen in poem VII.

Finally, in poem Xl nature is virtually absent as the poet takes leave of worldly life. The only suggestion of the corporeal is what is left behind, the husks and shells of used-up life, the vestiges of pleasure and luxury, the lordly-furs to which the poet bids adieu in the haunting last lines.

A summary catalogue of the array of possibilities for conventional transformation which have been adduced in William's work would have perhaps six items. First, the basic convention may be stated, though what is "basic" may be far from evident. Second, the convention may be reversed; the audience's expectations may be turned backward. This may involve a reversal between two individuals, as in poem II, or, as in the case of the two nature introductions, simply a denial of the anticipated implication of the convention. Thirdly, the convention may be "inverted" by accepting its terms and then revaluing them in a novel way. A similar effect results when the basic proposition is presented along with its opposite, or by otherwise retaining the terms of the argument while radically criticizing its original meaning. A fourth possibility is that the convention may be significant in its absence is the context would create expectations for it in the competent reader but it does not appear, it may be explicitly said to be absent; it may appear only in decidedly marginal details, or it may not be mentioned at all. Finally, a fifth and sixth form of transformation of convention are characterized by the expansion by the addition of new information to the system or diminution if meaning is retained but is referred to only elliptically.

Not all of these will occur in a given text, of course, or even a given body of texts, and not all have been equally evident in William's poems, but they form an adequate working inventory of possibilities to analyze the operations of convention in other texts. For William's work the implications of this view of convention are rich and suggest a range of questions of practical criticism, of interpretation, and of literary theory.

The apparent inconsistency of William's work is seen now as an extraordinary completeness. Critics who seek to establish a historical or psychological basis for this scope will not appreciate the poet's achievement in constructing a lyric encyclopedia of attitudes, aiming for a special sort of sublimity available only to the all-inclusive. Far from indicating frivolity and muddle-headedness, this encyclopedic tendency is common among many poetic works in other genres accepted in the traditional canon of greatness such as the epic and the anatomy. The reader wishing to understand William's work as a structural field of related attitudes and impulses need not reconcile contradiction nor relegate works which seem to interfere with a given thesis to a secondary rank (e.g. "merely facetious"). The reader must rather pursue the patterns themselves in the spirit of Socrates' acceptance of comedy and tragedy as equally sublime forms of drama, and trace the oppositions they describe to define not what love is, but in what terms its problem may be stated. Poetry's peculiarity as a form of linguistic technology is just this resistance to paraphrase, this embrace of inconsistency, ambiguity, and mystery.

Thus, in the larger question of the definition of courtly love (still a living issue since many critics continue to assume the old paradigm based on Andreas Capellanus despite the patent variety among so-called courtly texts), the same maneuver may be applied to the whole cultural phenomenon. The old notion of a chivalric ideal of romance, and the answering claim of a demystifying physical sense of sensuality are properly seen as complementary. Neither the old textbooks which focused on Chaucer's "Knight's Tale" nor the new which omits it in favor of the Miller's will do; the student must be given both.
This attitude by no means denies the evolution of the concept of love through history. It merely resists claiming absolute novelty and hegemony for a single and repeating set of linguistic and behavioral conventions. In a similar way, the recurrent discussions of irony in medieval literature in which some scholars see innovative defamiliarizing twists where others see only replication of past models must be reconsidered if irony is no more "critical" of received ideas than its lack.

The formal play of conceptual elements, what Found called logopoeia then comes into its own as a fundamental poetic technique. In the Middle Ages melodies in poems were often admired as much as the words, but this new sense of conceptual play reminds the reader that there are melodies in ideas, too. Logopoeia as an essential element of poetic practice is no more linked to referentiality than prosodic patterns are. The poems concepts constitute an intellectual melody upon which the author may work variations for their formal value alone, as in the sonnet sequences of the Elizabethans or the psalms of the ancient Hebrews where a wide variety of moods are melodiously concatenated. Thus William is willing to entertain a full range of concepts of women in part simply to elaborate the widest inventory of choices and to delight in manipulating the expectations of his audience, tugging and teasing the competent reader.

This idea of the poem as an exercise demonstrating all the logical permutations of an idea suggests how it may be relished in an abstract way just as a fugue proceeds through variations and inversions or artistic works such as the mandalas of Tantric Buddhism display beneficent and malevolent aspects of deity side by side in a symmetrical but ambiguous arrangement.
Referentiality, though, is never wholly lost. The cognitive value of the mandalas and of William's poetry is recoverable, but only according to the unique requirements of aesthetic interpretation, it is the peculiar task of artistic structures of the word to articulate oppositions, tensions, problematic contradictions of the sort than Levi-Strauss found to underlie myth. Clearly the "truth" about love lies more in the relation between the sexes, in the paradoxical ambiguities ("bittersweet" in Sappho's word) than in any single mood or definition.

In the specific case of William's poetry, the crucial problems are quite clear. The alignment of one sex with social dominance produces certain tensions immediately. In any society, though, love and the aggressive desire to possess is balanced by the fear of injury or loss and the vulnerability of the need to be loved. The question is ultimately whether to be engaged or detached from the world in general, and single-minded choices, though they may accurately reflect the bent of some individual sensibilities, may not produce the finest poetry. The structure of state power in French territories, the ego less than firmly ensconced on its throne within the skull, the risk that always accompanies aspiration, the pain that sets- off pleasure -- these themes and more are evoked in William's texts in a distinctly poetic way. This aesthetic exposition is more precise than other discourses because it is more conflicted and ambiguous, because the poet delivers a whole panoply of possibilities. The role of convention is to compress and complicate the statement of the issues so that entire realms of idées reçues may be summed up and overturned in a single half-line of verse.

The phenomenon described above, far from being peculiar to William is universal in literature and may be demonstrated wherever sufficient data are available. It may be produced also by reader's reactions as in Blake's finding Satan to be the ironic hero of Paradise Lost or in de Man's tour de force of critical reading Blindness and Insight.

In the case of medieval European lyrics, one symptom of the dynamic principle of the transformation of convention (rather than the static construction of convention) is the problematic status of courtly love. The debate over whether such a code was dominant either poetically or socially may be resolved by the suggestion that simultaneous and opposed conventions emerged in a dialectic, complementary fashion as evidenced by William's work.

[The essay goes on to examine the earliest German Minnesang and to outline the same sort of structure of convention and its transformation.]

1 comment:

  1. Sir;

    My interest in William's Work is much less insightful than yours. What I'm hoping is that you can steer me to a decent translation (I can handle French, but Occitan is way beyond me) of the poem in which he names a lover "Dangereuse." It appears she's a (much too) remote ancestor of mine, and I'd like to be able to quote him about her in a book I have in it mind to write. Many thanks.
    Ted [DOT] Daniels [AT] gmail.com