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Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Courtly Love in Romance of the Rose



The thirteenth century allegory Romance of the Rose was immensely popular. Over three hundred manuscripts exist, and other authors frequently allude to the poem. A reading of this poem cannot fail to bear on the most fundamental discussions of the nature of courtly love, still in dispute after almost a millennium. The combination of sensual, spiritual, aesthetic, social, and political ideals produces a fascinating play of tensions in the poem, as indeed in lived experience.
To limit the scope of this consideration, I will discuss only the first 4058 lines, those by Guillaume de Lorris. [1] This decision is, I know, reductive. The poem, including the more than 17,000 lines added by Jean de Meun, was read as a single work for hundreds of years and I believe that produces the best results, just as it does with the Bible (and Huizinga called the Romance the “breviary of the aristocracy”).

The physical, erotic element is central. Unlike Jaufre Rudel’s love from afar or the dolce stil novisti, physical consummation is the explicit goal. At the conclusion of his part of the poem, Guillaume’s speaker makes love to the rose and expects her to be available in future despite their temporary separation. (anonymous conclusion, l. 34) Initially he had been attracted by her scent (VII, 48) and, when the companions of Mirth abandon their dance, it is to make love “beneath the secret-keeping boughs” (V, 11). How could it be otherwise when, as the poet says,


. . .there’s no better paradise on earth
than any place where lover finds a maid
responding freely to his heart’s desire.
(V, 16-18)


Even the artificial convention of love’s entering by the eyes accurately conveys the role of visual stimuli in people’s eroticism and the wounding by love’s dart implies a real life passivity and a “bittersweet” experience. (VIII, 10) This realistic biological focus provides the libidinous energy to support the elaborate structure of courtly love.

Though contemplation of Ultimate Reality may seem far removed from sex, the two have been linked in many cultures. One reads in Frazer of traditional people having ceremonial intercourse on their fields to ensure their fertility. Daoist and Tantric adepts have sought to integrate the physical here-and-now with the eternal. For Plato the beloved leads naturally to the Perfect. Even in Christianity, with its deep suspicion of the body, the rhetoric of St. Bernard on the Song of Songs and of the Victorines, the poetry of Mechthild von Magdeburg and St. John of the Cross, to mention only a few names, all indicate deep and significant links between sexuality and worship. Indeed the whole approach of the devotional sensibility to the divine is susceptible to expression in the imagery of human love.

The relationship may vary. The physical can present a comic or bathetic debunking of the pretensions of the holy. For Chaucer’s Prioress “amor vincit omnia,” yet for all the pious anti-Semitism of her tale, she is clearly no exemplar of the religious life. The love imagery may simply be the best worldly analogy for the devotional emotion of some devotees as in Hildegard of Bingen’s “Columba aspexit.” In such medieval lyrics as “Maiden in the mor lay” the two are so intimately commingled that critics debate whether the poems are secular or religious.

Section XVI, in which Franchise and Pity intercede for the lover, features much religious terminology. They plead his case “for God’s love.” (6) When Danger (who had herself earlier sworn by Christ, XIII, 74) relents, he is “raised from Hell to Paradise” (72) as Fair Welcome leads in a recitation of the rosary. (74) Far from satire, the poet here emphasizes his case with the strongest language possible, rather like one saying his lover is most beautiful in the world or that their relationship is a unique marvel. The psychological reality may be that one feels such conviction at times, but these hyperboles are cultivated figures of speech as well, admired as elegant and artistic.

In fact aesthetic criteria enter here no less than in the cast of unpleasant allegorical figures outside the wall. Obdurate rejection of the lover would be culpable “discourtesy” (50), a violation of taste and a lapse from the standards of one’s class. Danger is scolded, not for causing pain or doing wrong, but because “You dishonour but yourself .” (9)
In a clever dodge of the moral implications of love, the lover’s particular infatuation in the Romance of the Rose arises not from the extraordinary qualities of the rose, but rather from a charm, rather like that in Tristan and Iseult. The lover is thus helpless, bound after a glance in the marvelous Mirror Perilous. [2] While this may convey the potent sense of compulsion felt by a lover, it also frees him from any responsibility for his actions.

The aesthetic and the social meanings of courtly love are closely linked. Refinement and sophistication became important signifiers of high social position, a position they retain to some extent yet today. The earliest narratives about King Arthur focus almost exclusively on the king’s strength and martial valor, whereas the later ones dwell on the love-exploits of Galahad and Lancelot.

Skill at love became another indicator of nobility (and treatment of women still provided the measure of the gentleman in Victorian times), but it was hardly the sole aristocratic skill. When King Mark’s huntsman first encounters Tristan in the woods, he shows them a more elegant way of butchering their prey, and then prescribes a ceremonious protocol for transporting it, impressing everyone including the king with his accomplished taste. From the quasi-martial tourneys, sports, and hunting to poetry, music, and wit, the courtly man sought to master each so that he might practice each with grace and ease. [3]

The cultivated man, just like the man of sensibility in the eighteenth century (who survives today in etiolated form as the “sensitive” man) was necessarily a man of property. In fact, his aesthetic and cultural acquisitions imply wealth and may at least partly compensate for its lack. Tristan himself seemed a lost wanderer, but gained acceptance because of his sophistication. The same quality, however, made him a lover, and thus a threat to his patron the king.

The first section of the Romance describes the ugly figures on the outside of the garden wall (which express in negative the glories within). Many are conventional moral failings such as hatred, anger, and covetousness, but others are purely aesthetic. Old Age, for instance, appears as hideous and apparently demented (II, 142 ff.), inspiring a wholly pagan riff on Time. Poverty is there as well, and the poet curses “the hour in which poor men are conceived” without any regard for their role in producing the wealth that supports the genteel.

He does, however, recognize the essential characteristic of the ruling class when the dreamer is admitted to the exclusive garden by Idleness (III, 40), and in Part VIII (11 ff.) Love approaches the dreamer as a feudal vassal, reproducing even in the realm of desire the structures of society and thus reinforcing them.

Surely, then, the most reasonable and productive concept of courtly love is pluralistic, recognizing a group of characteristics that may be selected and used by different writers over a number of centuries and over an entire continent (and beyond) [4] in a variety of ways and yet share enough elements to justify the common term. The continua I have suggested -- sensual, spiritual, aesthetic, and social -- may be useful for distinguishing one use of the concept from another while maintaining at the same time a clear view of the significant shared elements. Works that tend toward the encyclopedic (such as the entire Romance of the Rose, the Canterbury Tales, Confessio Amantis, the corpus of troubadour poetry or of romances) will be likely to vary considerably, even to the point of self-contradiction.

In the Romance of the Rose the outright opponent of Love is Reason (XIV) which might imply an element of arbitrariness to all of those definitive social values for the upper class of the Middle Ages. One’s love, one’s god, one’s taste, one’s place in the structure of society – all of these perhaps would be equally liable to the assault of Reason, but the poet makes the human choice, rejecting logic for the endlessly absorbing pastime of elaborating the relations between men and women.



1. Some critics would have it that Guillaume’s section is less problematized than Jean’s. My partial reading here will make it clear that I cannot agree.

2. The incestuous father in EmarĂ© is similarly under a spell. For a more extreme version of the Mirror Perilous, see Borges’ “Aleph.”

3. Castiglione’s The Courtier provides a full curriculum “to practice in all things a certain sprezzatura [nonchalance], so as to conceal all art and make whatever is done or said appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it.” 32

4. The partially Arab origins of Europeans’ courtly love has been demonstrated by Nykl and others. Beyond that rich evidence exists in Persian and Indian poetry, in Li Shang Yin, and elsewhere. Peter Dronke provides a nice collection of passages in Medieval Latin and the Rise of the European Love-Lyric. See also Discourses of Power, Grammar, and Rhetoric in the Middle Ages by Carol Poster and Richard J. Utz

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