This is the beginning of my Transformation of Convention in the Medieval European Love Lyric. I hope to shed light on the problem of literary novelty by demonstrating that literary convention is used equally by those who employ recognizable convention and by those who defy, twist, or alter them. The establishment of a convention creates an instant potential for its repetition, but also for its inversion or twisting or omission. Two hundred years of Romantic criticism has obscured the fact that it is through convention and play with reader expectations that the semantic density of the literary text is enhanced.
Though this introduction is almost wholly theoretical, I am posting at the same time an example of the transformation I describe in the discussion of the English folk song “The Three Ravens.”
The dialectic between tradition and innovation in literature is little understood, though it stands at the heart of many critical disputes of the present day and has often been similarly important in past centuries. Very frequently the staging ground for the erection of literary barricades, the consistent centrality of the question is indeed more revealing than many of the positions partisans have taken up around it.
Harold Bloom when he speaks of the "anxiety of influence" as the major generative force as well as the major blocking force in literary production is unusually subtle in recognizing the complementary attraction and repulsion of the past, though the emotional weight which he assigns to either may be more historically or idiosyncratically limited than he admits. Such effective associations, though, are virtually universal when discussing literary convention. Critics, poets, and reading audiences have typically chosen a single alternative, championing either tradition or innovation with a passion that has been fruitful in terms of poetry, practical criticism, and connoisseurship, but which has shed little light finally on the construction of sound principles of literary theory. With sometimes eloquent error or partial vision, readers and writers have devalued one end or the other of the spectrum of conventionality and in doing so have misrepresented the text.
Highly conventional texts are demanded by the audiences for oral and popular genres. Whether one thinks of the preliterate forms of epic poetry or of the mystery or “romance” novel of modern mass culture (not to mention non-literary forms such as African sculpture or Christmas tree decoration), highly conventional adherence to tradition is demanded of the artist. One may trace the theoretical justification for such an insistence in “high art” through critics such as Pope, Arnold, and Curtius.
However, since Romanticism, the impulse to privilege the new has been dominant in educated circles. Writers otherwise as different as Wordsworth, Pound, and Shklovsky have elaborated both theory and practice around this preference.
While the contention has produced a healthy polemicism (it is, after all, the original “battle of the books”) and has formalized a convention of literary history itself manifested in concepts like the canon and the avant-garde, it has led also to distortions. While it has opened the possibility for new modes of reading and writing, it has also created confusion about the very nature of the aesthetic text.
Meanwhile, in critical discussion in general, where theoretical distinctions are often not finely drawn or closely examined, certain elements from each party's attitude may be conjoined in an unselfconscious manner. Thus, a critic may seek initially for sources and influences with the assumption that these provide the credentials for "importance" and the encoding of meaning, and then in direct commentary on the text write as though what really distinguishes a major work is originality, irony, and innovation. Such habits of critical reading can never address such fundamental questions as how to deal with partially conventional ideas and verbal patterns which twist and play upon familiar models without reproducing them; what links exist between convention and genre or convention and literary value; and what, in the end, constitutes a distinctly literary convention.
The mélange of theories and non-theories around the question of the aesthetics of convention has shaped the evaluation of entire genres and periods. For instance, Manly's celebrated essay on “Chaucer and the Rhetoricians” not only determined several generations’ view of the Latin rhetoricians but also did much to set the terms for the appreciation and evaluation of Chaucer’s poetry. The common dismissal of most Middle English romances as poor and derivative work in spite of their demonstrable popularity and cultural significance is only a particularly clear case of the usual treatment accorded oral and popular genres. The prejudice against highly conventional works, though, extends as well to certain highly learned forms such as neo-Latin and Hellenistic poetry.
The taste for convention as a self-justifying value is similarly strangely split between the most vulgar and the most sophisticated. Thus a reader of limericks will insist to the same extent as fanciers of fugues on a predetermined pattern and tone, and the writers of bumper stickers as more constrained than Elizabethan sonneteers in their choice of patterns for their wit.
In the realm of academic scholarship, a commentator may do nothing more than point out analogues, parallels, precedents, and imitations, especially in the more abstruse disciplines such as classics. An unreflecting mixture of attitudes is evident in a fine practical critic such as Peter Dronke when he first dignifies a text with a traditional background in order to obtain it a hearing and then insists on the free and spontaneous play discernible within the apparently highly determined form without sorting out what effects either sort of relation to tradition might have or examining how adherences and departures from audience expectations function and interrelate.
The fact is, of course, that every instance of language and certainly every literary artifact is at once conformist and nonconformist. If an utterance did not conform to prior patterns at all it would be incomprehensible, or — more likely -- it would be interpreted by readers who perceived a pattern of their own invention. The fact that every context
and occasion is different guarantees that there can be no two wholly identical utterances. But this does not eliminate the questions under discussion by putting all verbal texts into a single homogeneous category. Both relatively familiar and relatively unfamiliar language are forms of verbal technology which have been exploited in different ways by their practitioners and consumers. Some of the functions for texts require material closer to one end of the spectrum and some to the other.
To move toward a more precise definition of these mechanisms is the object of this study, but some outlines of the uses of the two extremes are well-known. The concept of verbal economy as used by Lord and Parry could be applied as well to eighteenth century nature poetry, say, though this genre is certainly not oral. (See Alfred Lord, The Singer of Tales, Chapter 4.) Nonetheless, if formulae and repeated phrases reoccur with lesser frequency in James Thomson than in the epic texts, they are considerably more common than in some other genres. Pattern-shattering individualist visions have gained greater currency since the eighteenth century, and today every poet is expected to speak with a unique voice. Even this recent emphasis on self-conscious rebellion, however is rendered problematic as the gestures of surrealism rapidly become clichés, and the new theory which had arisen on the cutting edge of critical thought degenerates or matures into a predictable reflex (the received, “right” reading).
The theory and practice of literature in the European Middle Ages provides particularly useful material for the investigation of the problem of convention. Although the frequently expressed respect for “auctoritas” is consistent with the assumption that medieval literature is predominantly stereotyped and thus most often of little literary value (a claim made with audacious irony by Eco in The Role of the Reader). it has also long been a received idea that modern lyric poetry may be traced back through the dolce stil novisti and the Minnesänger to the troubadours. Medieval vernacular love poetry is surely one of the most highly conventional bodies of texts imaginable with its limited lyrical and melodic repertoire and its frequently recurring dramatic scenarios and sentiments. Even the idea of romantic love which is sometimes described as an invention of the Old Occitanian poets has been amply shown by Lewis and Dronke and others to have world-wide distribution as well as classical and Christian antecedents in the European cultural sphere.
Nevertheless, there is also a strain of radical formal experimentation through its history which attracted Pound to Arnaut and Walther von der Vogelweide and which led Paul Blackburn to translate the Provençal verse into emphatically colloquial and loosely structured American idiom, indeed, the poets themselves often speak of singing “a new song” or of the need to say something never before said and all but inaccessible to language. It is the contention of this study that the conservative and revolutionary elements of early vernacular lyric poetry are not simultaneously present by chance. Rather, each enables the other.
The apparent contradiction is mediated by the peculiar nature of literary intertextuality. The relations between a given poetic line and other lines that resemble it (which may come either before or after it in time) are invariably productive of meaning, resulting in a greater capacity for information in each phrase as the words bear not only their immediate “literal” meaning, but also their meaning in relation to other similar passages. The significance the text would convey in isolation (in practice an impossibility) is compounded and enriched by its connections with other words, sentiments, movements, and eras. Such intertextuality is inevitably present, but it is even more prominent when poets learn from the masters of a previous generation, from canonical texts digested in school, or from a particular model adopted by the young artist.
A strong tradition, then, cannot fail to make the semantic code denser, more conflicted, and ambiguous, more interesting and poetically “true.” It “thickens the plot,” and the verbal play that results is a highly important aspect of poetic practice, often recognized and elucidated in specific passages, but rarely investigated in theory. As well as foregrounding the formal aspects of poetic language (as, in the simplest case, certain locutions will immediately signal the competent audience that a given text is, in fact, poetry), intertextuality allows for the expression of content which would otherwise be inexpressible. Were this not the case, literature would be indistinguishable from non-aesthetic texts in terms of semantic efficiency, and it would be justifiable only as entertainment. The creation of meaning that is not susceptible to prose paraphrase has characteristics of a game, but the object is neither simple mystification nor ornamentation. Rather, it is the only means of formulating specifically literary statements whose unique capabilities justify literature's claim to cognitive utility.
This is, of course, far from an original view. Indeed, if it is substantially correct, it could not be wholly original, any more than the figures of the poets. Concepts very close to those suggested above are prescribed in the major works of the leading literary theoreticians around the time of the first European vernacular love lyrics to have survived. These were the Latin rhetoricians, notably Geoffrey of Vinsauf, Matthew of Vendome, and John of Garland. Though sometimes maligned as authors of recipe-books for hacks, as guides for those whose poetry aspired only to be acceptable, they were, in fact, quite conscious that to genuinely cultivate the tradition it was necessary to prescribe both tradition and innovation. Their techniques for thus increasing the efficiency of the verbal code include the catalogues of tropes and recommended descriptive and narrative practices derived from respected ancient authorities, but, at the same time, they advised using these with changes, tricks, deviations, with the end in view of “rejuvenating” language (though the term is Geoffrey’s, the concept is common to all three). Even in the lists of tropes, which seemed to grow with each compilation and which became truly unwieldy by the Renaissance, even there, where the charge of empty decoration is most close to valid, they were attempting the systematization of poetry's technical toolchest. For the most part, their strategies required words to bear new shades of meaning and old formulae were turned to new uses.
A closer examination of their work will establish the basis for an accurate understanding of the nature of convention in the Middle Ages, an understanding that will elucidate many of the questions commonly debated in critical discussion today. The practice they suggest is fully realized in the work of writers such as William IX and the early Minnesänger. It is no less evident in the medieval practice of prosody, in the use of such tropes as hyperbole, and in such topoi as the Natureingang. A rudimentary scheme of possible variations on the reverdie, for instance, might include these:
Spring is here, and I am in love.
Spring is here, and my love is even grander than nature.
Spring is here, yet I am loveless.
It is winter, yet my love keeps me warm.
It is winter, but I am chilled by lovelessness.
In fact, these formulae are highly simplified. The medieval poems provide all these options and a good many more with subtle elaborations, allusions, and contradictions, and the literary lineage continues through Eliot’s cruel April to the present. Each of those employing a convention do so not to replicate an earlier author, but to add a new layer of meaning to the palimpsest of language and to further refine the representation in words of human consciousness.