Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
is available for $16.00 from FootHills Publishing, P.O. Box 68, Kanona NY 14856 or see www.foothillspublishing.com.

Tourist Snapshots is available for $8.95 from Randy Fingland, CC Marimbo, P.O. Box 933, Berkeley CA 94701 or see www.ccmarimbo.com.

Dada Poetry: An Introduction was published by Nirala Publications. It may be ordered on Amazon.com for $25 plus shipping. American buyers may order a copy from me for $23 including shipping.

The other books are also available from the author William Seaton. Write seaton@frontiernet.net.

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Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Man with the Golden Arm and a Friend with Six Seeds

Page references to The Man with the Golden Arm are from the 1964 Crest paperback with the Saul Bass arm design on the cover.

In the late sixties I had a filmmaker friend who lived in a broken-down place on N. Paulina in that section of Mayor Daley’s Chicago which was also Nelson Algren’s Chicago. This apartment was decidedly low-rent, with no lock on the building’s side entrance, a pie pan of water on the space heater, and heavy bars over the window that looked out on the alley. Every evening as midnight approached, my friend would head into the forbidding darkness of the neighborhood tavern on the corner and buy himself a six-pack of beer by the promising Christmas-like glow of hypnotic Budweiser lights. He could have paid half the price during the day at a store, but that would have required forethought. Not for him the beaded curtains that were popular among the psychedelic crowd. The filmmaker had painstakingly constructed ceiling to floor chains of thousands of linked beer can pop-tops. The neighborhood is the setting of much of Algren’s work, including the great stories of Neon Wilderness and his best-selling novel, The Man with the Golden Arm. My pleasure in reading Algren’s work is always mingled with thoughts of my friend and his scene.

And I did enjoy visiting there, but I am glad I was not present the morning after my friend bought some pot from the wrong guy and found himself awakened before daylight by the cops who proceeded to tear his place apart, looking for the goods their informer had told them would be there. But they found nothing. They berated my friend, calling him a lazy hippie and scornfully advising him to get a job. He was hip enough at least to know that it would only harm his position to point out to the arresting officers that he would in fact be getting ready for work at that very moment had they not called on him. They tore the stove from the wall and tipped the refrigerator in their irritated zeal, but remained unrewarded until, just before they put Plan B into operation, they came upon a few seeds folded into a paper napkin which had months earlier been placed in the back of a filing cabinet to sprout. The experiment proved a dead end for their own botanical interests, as they were instantly forgotten and had dried by the time the law encountered them, but the half dozen seeds were, in 1969, more than enough for the Chicago Police Department to make a bust.

The jig was up. He asked if he could use the toilet before being taken to the station. The lid of dope he had copped the night before was still in his the pocket of the pants he had been wearing since answering the early morning banging on the door. Knowing he was a perfectly harmless citizen, they had never searched him, even for weapons. He flushed his stuff down the drain and emerged from the bathroom to meet a pair of handcuffs.

Once he had been released on bail, he contacted a dope lawyer who knew how to deal with the local authorities. This man, after shrewdly assessing his client’s financial viability, told him just how much was necessary to put in the fix. The accused agreed to pay up and was glad he had done so when he turned up in court and found a plentiful heap of better quality pot than his budget could afford was to be exhibit A against him. He had no way to know whether the cops had borrowed it from their evidence locker or from one of their own personal stashes.

Moments before the proceedings began, his lawyer turned to him. “This morning they told me it’ll take $1500 more to make this deal work. I can’t do anything about it. Sorry.” “But,” said my hapless friend, “I gave you all I have.” “Nah – you can sign over the bond,” his counselor assured him. It was not for nothing that he had gone to law school. The victim signed and was quite properly exonerated. Another case of Chicago justice, settled to most everybody’s satisfaction, even if the man on the bottom might find himself squeezed just a bit uncomfortably. As Algren puts it in the introduction to Chicago: City on the Make: “and the old earth sighs, heigh-o, the wind and the rain, having made this scene before.” [1]

So I was thinking of my friend the filmmaker and his markedly funky corner of a great city when I reread The Man with the Golden Arm, charmed as always by Algren’s vision of the lower depths. Even after living there for years, my friend might have been considered “slumming” [2] as he had arrived from an affluent suburb by way of university. (As a matter of fact, even Algren lived as a child further out in the considerably more respectable Albany Park neighborhood after his family had moved from the South Side.) And the cast of The Man with the Golden Arm is uniformly demimondaine, lumpen or criminal. They are decidedly low-mimetic, always behaving in ways even more selfish and short-sighted than the reader. Algren has been rightly criticized for repeating the lines he likes. Quite apart from his cannibalizing Somebody in Boots for Walk on the Wild Side, he repeats formulae, phrases, and personalities from one text to another. Often the characters are flat, yet they retain their power because that very hopeless sameness is his own individual brand of the stuff of despair that characterizes his vision. In hell everyone keeps going through the same useless motions. There is no escape.

Algren’s stock has suffered since he won the National Book Award for the novel in 1950. Leslie Fiedler attacked him as the Last of the Proletarian Writers retailing vulgar leftist conventions long after their vogue had ended. [3] In fact, a disciple of Zhdanov would, of course, have shrunk from portraying such degraded types as petty con men, shoplifters, and junkies at all. In Algren’s book, there is never the slightest doubt that everything is rigged for the benefit of those on top, but there is also no glimmer of a way out from under for characters who offer little indeed that seems remotely redemptive. The human dilemma of absurd and helpless actors in a circular script suggests far more of Existentialism than of Marxism.

There is certainly an economic critique in his sweeping accusation “All had gone stale for these disinherited.” He locates their deficiency precisely in “the great, secret, and special American guilt of owning nothing, nothing at all, in the land where ownership and virtue are one.” (22) Still, the fault seems more human than class-based when Frankie Machine laments that “all you businessmen [are] cheatin’ the people so fast ‘n hard there’s nothin’ left for an honest hustler to steal.” (114) In his private musings Bednar the police captain considers himself as guilty as the criminals and strives not to feel sympathy for them. (314-5) The greed and self-deception of the down-and-out illustrate not deviance and pathology but common humanity. In the end, as Frankie muses “Everybody’s a habitual in his heart. I’m no worse’n anyone else.” (293) This commonality, however, is based on a blind self-interest in a world where “Ain’t nobody on anyone’s side no more. You’re the oney one on your side, and I’m the oney one on mine.” So bleak is the prospect that “under one moon or another, he knew not one man on the side of men.” (305) A “half-crazed” priest in a police lineup declares a contrary line, “we are all members of one another,” but no one can even make any sense of his words. (314) In a temporary fit of anxiety or insight Antek may say “I’m not cryin’ for my own trouble. . . I’m cryin’ for everybody’s,” but Frankie knows the mood will pass. “He’ll be back behind his bar Monday morning.” (171) Moral responsibility can never be fruitfully traced in this tragic world. How can an individual be guilty when “we all got caught in it, one way or another”? (342) There can be no distinctions when “everyone’s chickens would be coming home to roost soon enough.” (114)

To Algren we are all in the same spot as the “single gander” who stood gawking between its legs at a cord that forever held it fast” in front of Piechota’s Poultry (246), clueless and waiting for slaughter. Algren is eloquent with his animal images, but always with the same implication. Among others one might count Rumdum the drunken dog, the deaf-and-dumb cat (248), the cockroach overturned in the water bucket, (26) and the caged monkeys who can only cast baleful glances from the imprisonment above the bar and yearn for their lost Congo (321). [4] But even their lost eyes cannot compare with the fierce intimacy of the monkey on Frankie’s back.

Human life is reflected in the “lonely beat” of “the last fly of autumn” who is trapped “in hustlers’ territory with one conviction to go.” (105) By the end of the novel such insects reappear in Sophie’s madhouse vision. “The wind is blowing the flies away. God had forgotten us all.” (354) Ego washes away: “They don’t remember people around here any more.” (25)
The world is a “neon carnival” (104) in which dope or drink or the illusion of love can sustain one for a time. In desperation people strive to avoid feeling through intoxication; the New Years Eve party at Antek’s is wild and diverting (170 ff.), but only for a time could the denizens of Division Street avoid the sobering conviction that 1947 would be “a long, long year.” (175) The world is a game of cards and the best option is to get into the game and play a hand with spirit because there is no opting out, and no one winds in the end except the house. “The cards kept the everlasting darkness off, the cards lent everlasting hope. The cards meant any man in the world might win back his long-lost life, gone somewhere far away.” (130)
Every incident of human life might be entered into Sophie’s Scrapbook of Fatal Accidence. (39, 254) We are indeed in a vale of tears, and Algren invokes religious imagery repeatedly, ironic usages finally coalescing with straightforward ones. In prison Frankie attends mass regularly and identifies with Christ’s suffering showing particular devotion to the Station of the Cross depicting Christ’s falling. (224) Later on the street he sees the wind stirring a lost kite and notes that “the frail cross of the kite’s frame hung as piteously as his own heart had hung.” (263) Heroin is “God’s medicine,” (30, 90) and the police interrogation room is “the only house of true worship.” (290)

So I would say Algren’s concerns are philosophical or spiritual rather than social or psychological. His low-life characters simply find themselves in an environment where it is hard to avoid looking reality in the face. Lacking the comforts of bourgeois life, they must work harder to maintain any illusion at all. Frankie may imagine himself the next Gene Krupa and Sophie picture herself singing with an all-girl band (255), but these are last pathetic wisps of straw at which they clutch as they daily confront their own ignominy, powerlessness, and mortality. The reader is drawn to their portraits by the uncompromising power of that bleak vision. Perhaps my friend on N. Paulina and I were seeking the scent of a world where simply to survive is heroic. Even if we occupied just such a world already ineluctably, we may have needed a whiff or two of stench to make the point.

When I attended the University of Iowa in 1971 where Algren had taught in the middle sixties, I heard that he was more attentive to poker games than to the Writers Workshop, but that, for all his enthusiasm and presumed street smarts, he invariably lost. Perhaps he had to teach himself the same old lesson he never tired of teaching the rest of us losers: we’re all in the same boat and the water in the hold is only getting deeper. Though it is patently untrue that “just junkies know how everything is,” (278) [5] they may in fact hold fewer illusions. And the same may be true for their chroniclers.

1. p. 10.

2. Use of the word slumming to describe visiting poor neighborhoods as a recreation dates from 1884 according to the OED. The phenomenon deserves attention as one of the distinctly modern forms of ironic aesthetic appreciation along with kitsch and camp.

3. Leslie Fiedler, “The Noble Savages of Skid Row,” The Reporter. July 12, 1956. Fiedler also called Algren the “bard of the stumblebums.” Around the same time, Algren was also publicly attacked by a young Norman Podhoretz in a June 2, 1956 article for the The New Yorker entitled “The Man with the Golden Beef.” Both critics were responding to the publication of Walk on the Wild Side.

4. On the same page is a reference to the “Negro streets.” Is this the source of Ginsberg’s line in the opening of Howl?

5. In fact, according to his Paris Review interview, Frankie Machine had not originally been a junkie. Algren’s agent admired the book but said it needed a “peg.” Algren claims in the same interview that the lives of ordinary people without “big scenes” would make “an awfully good book.” However, he notes that these typical citizens might hustle a bit on the street and use just a bit of heroin “to keep from getting sick.” They don’t sound so different from the cast he used.

Hitchhiking in France

I don’t know if there was ever a golden age of hitchhiking, but I do know that it was challenging in Europe even forty years ago. When Patricia and I arrived in Luxembourg in the fall of 1970 on Icelandic Airlines, often in those days the cheapest transatlantic flight, we barely caught our breath, so eager were we to plunge into the uncertainties of the road. Ignoring the considerable charm of the small country where we had landed, the very morning after our arrival we stationed ourselves on what we, though mapless, figured might be a road that would eventually lead toward Paris, put out our thumbs, and waited for our adventure to begin. The adventure was not, however, at all swift to meet us. After several hours had passed, Patricia contrived to cut my hair with the surpassingly dull scissors attachment on our old multi-tool knife. We waited. The sun climbed. In spite of her craftsmanship, the poor tool with which she had worked may well have made my appearance more alarming yet. At any rate, we found ourselves waiting still. The sun had passed its meridian by the time some Algerians picked us up and, when they heard how long we had been by the side of the road, commented, “People are afraid of Charlie Manson.” (His trial had been sensational news a few months earlier.) This initial ride was our first taste of the great-hearted North African hospitality we were to enjoy so much in the months to come. The next morning I shaved. We kept moving, albeit in fits and starts.

Some days later we selected a spot near the Cité Universitaire in Paris, heading, we hoped, toward the land of the troubadours and Châteauneuf-du-Pape. As in Morocco, Amsterdam, and Ibiza, we felt as though we were working through the itinerary of the hip version of a Cook’s Tour. Every utility pole in the area was covered by the comments of travelers like ourselves, not infrequently lamenting the lack of a ride. One said “What kind of a shithole is this?” though another counseled “When you feel down think where you are and where others are. Love and peace, Jane, Miranda, and Sher September 1970.” Many of our predecessors had, it seems, enjoyed ample leisure to linger in Paris and philosophize a bit before departing, and yet they had all eventually moved on, and we did as well, pausing in Lyons for a few days before heading further south.

Hitchhiking puts more than the traveler’s schedule at risk. Part of its charm is marginality. In America and elsewhere, while it may be tolerated, it invariably attracts suspicion. From our post on the on-ramp of the autoroute, we saw the cops coming. Though we dropped our thumbs out of respect, the gesture was useless. We were apprehended, questioned, and driven to the local station where the officers diverted themselves, going through our backpacks thoroughly, inspecting each item and then passing it around their circle. They took the most curious interest in our belongings. The excuse may have been to search for cannabis or weapons or poached truffles, but they seemed to be simply passing the time of day on a slow afternoon. I am afraid their rewards were few. One was delighted to come upon some condoms which he held in the air, brightening the entire mood and attracting a flurry of witty comments. Finding a recorder, a gendarme asked Patricia to play, and she managed to pipe out a creditable version of the Marseillaise. We now had the officers on our side, but not until all were thoroughly bored did they issue a ticket, assess a fine, and kindly drive us back to the on-ramp to continue awaiting a ride.

It was by then deep into the afternoon and we were pleased when, after a relatively short interval, a dark and gleaming luxury car, as though just arriving out of a dream, pulled to the side and the inviting door opened. We were not only on our way; we were in a factory-fresh Mercedes, just purchased by our driver, a small middle-aged Greek business owner with the pencil moustache of a leading man of the twenties or a villain of the thirties. To break in the new engine, he had decided to drive from his home in Germany to Spain and back. He was accompanied by an employee, the pleasant and strapping young fellow who had waved us in. The worker’s family lived in Barcelona, and the pair meant to stop there before turning around and heading back.
We appreciated the car’s fine suspension system as we cruised through southern France. The entire side of an outbuilding set among vines was painted with the visage of Louis Pasteur along with his enthusiastic recommendation of wine as not only the “healthiest” but also the most “health-giving” of drinks. Our sightseeing was punctuated by increasing outbursts of imperial irritability from our driver who exercised the last full measure of capitalist privilege, while the younger man was quietly compliant and submissive, patient as well, as the day wore on.

Among our host’s displays of ill-temper, he fulminated now and then against the hippies. In the fall of 1970 none were more aware than we that the crest in the masses now considering themselves in some way counter-cultural had coincided with a strength in the dollar, modest airfares, and a re-imagining of the old post-university Grand Tour, resulting in what must have struck Europeans as unseemly crowds of shabby semi-indigent young American tourists with backpacks. (Later, when we took a ferry to Ibiza, our cheap seats were in a large lounge where a Franco government channel played for hours on the television, warning the righteous Catholic Spaniards about the corruption that dissolute young addicts were bringing to their country. Patricia and I stood to the side while the other passengers, a working class bunch returning home for the Christmas holidays after working on the mainland, seemed to stare sullenly at the screen, glancing now and then at the American suspects before their eyes.)

Like the Falangists, the Greek could not stand hippies. His vituperation didn’t settle down for a good ten minutes after passing another hitchhiking couple. I wondered why he had consented to pick us up (even more or less shorn) and decided that it must have been to acquire two new subordinates whose place in the divine order was beneath even his workers who, after all, had at least some connection to his own interests. Secure in the knowledge that his new underlings were not quite of the filthy sort that would soil his leather upholstery, he could proceed down the road in his new car, comfortably provided with cushions of every sort of superiority.

It occurred to me that I might experience a crisis at the border. In my passport picture I had long hair and a beard. It seemed more likely than not that the border official would comment on the change in my appearance, perhaps even question my identity. Should our volatile host he see the picture what effect might it have? (Just to overdetermine the case, in addition to my mane, I sported in the picture a necklace and a handmade Paisley vest.) Might we find ourselves stranded in the middle of the night at some chilly high pass in the Pyrenees?

As it happened, the border guards hardly glanced at our passports and we glided through into Catalonia, but the boss’s irascibility had been increasing along with his fatigue. He told the Spaniard he had to keep talking to keep the driver awake. If he couldn’t think of anything to say, he should sing. Even this stimulation proved insufficient. Suddenly he decided he had had enough. Pulling abruptly to the side of the road, he announced that we would sleep there, though we were within an hour of Barcelona. There was no discussion. We tried to settle down.

Within a very few minutes we heard snores arising from the Greek, plangent roars that seemed to strive toward greater volume with each breath. Peeking back toward our rear seat, the Spaniard saw our eyes were open. He grinned. His eyes jumped from his employer to us and sparkled merrily. He began grimacing satirically. He could be browbeaten all day, but now it was the boss who looked ridiculous. He began pulling faces, then mimicking the snores with comic exaggeration. We gratified him with obvious amusement, making common cause against the rich man, the rich man who quite abruptly came to, realized he was being made a figure of fun, and, without a word, started the car again.

He drove silently into the dark city. Though he had been offering us the hospitality of his worker’s house all day, telling us we would have some brandy, some snacks, a special bottle of wine, now those notions had vanished. He pulled to a curb in a neighborhood darker than a film noir.

“Out! Out now!” he ordered. We obeyed, trying to exchange a warm parting look on the Spaniard to show that we were on his side, though we were relieved to be leaving his boss’s company. The Greek screeched away, and we pondered our situation. We had no idea whether we were near the city center or in the suburbs. There were few lights and less traffic in a neighborhood of large old buildings divided into flats around inner courtyards. Unsure what our next move should be, we considered our options. Unexpectedly, the Greek’s car came hurtling down the street and slowed as it cruised by us. It did not stop. We walked a way at random, looking for some sign of an open business or at least another human from whom one could ask directions. The Greek came creeping by again, unwilling either to abandon us or to aid us.

As he sped around the corner, I recalled another traveler’s saying that in Spain there still were night watchmen who patrolled such precincts, carrying the huge eighteenth century keys that opened the massive, ornately carved street doors. One could summon such a person, I had been told, by clapping. So I clapped and heard the sound echo somewhere far back in the darkness. I clapped again, only half-heartedly, when I was gratified at the sight of an ancient approaching watchman, wearing what looked like robes of woolen blankets, who kindly directed us to a railroad station, always a reliable location for cheap hotels. Our route lay through the produce market, where now, an hour before daylight, the workers were setting up for the day’s trade. Their faces seemed like caricatures, lit by many small kerosene lanterns, and they were drawn to us like flies to discarded candy as we stumbled by the spectacle and exchanged a few words, but the produce was an apparition of perfection. By the time we arrived at the Park Hotel where a desk clerk was still awake the sun was coming up and I found it difficult to appreciate the comfort of a bed due to my annoyance at paying for a night which was already virtually over.

Chance had whisked us swiftly through southern France. Tomorrow we would visit Gaudí’s Park Guell and recall Orwell’s descriptions of factional fighting between the building on the Ramblas; we would eat calamari alla romana and discover a few days later that condoms were illegal (though available) in Spain where Franco still was to linger another few years. Our utter stranding while hitchhiking in Algeria was months in the future as was our fortunate falling in with a genial crew when they gave us a ride in Austria. We would have Christmas in Ibiza, spend six weeks in the cafes of Fez, and suffer losses by theft, doubtless to our fellow Americans, at the Amsterdam Youth Hostel where people puffed chillums openly and Jimi Henrix played through the speakers. But we could guess none of that nor did we try. We lay in a cheap Spanish hotel – secure in youth -- welcoming the approach of an obscure future.

Figures of Love in Lydgate’s Temple of Glas

Brackets contain footnotes; numbers in parentheses refer to line numbers in John Norton Smith’s Oxford Press edition of Lydgate’s Poems.

John Lydgate’s Temple of Glas sketches a definition of love in a leisurely, discursive manner. Talking about love, especially complaining about love, seems far more important than love itself. The precise circumstances of the characters, including the dreamer/narrator remain elusive, and the plentiful use of flores rhetoricae (rhetorical flowers or figures), while they clearly mark the text as literary, often strike the modern reader more as obstacles than aids to understanding. Further, Lydgate is a leading practitioner (though by no means the first or last) of aureate diction, the use of words of Latin (or French) rather than Germanic origin (the sort once called Saxon). [1] Apart from the transformation in readers’ reception of poetic devices that once seemed elegant and artful yet which may now strike many as artificial and distracting, Lydgate’s mere volume of work is daunting. He wrote almost a hundred and fifty thousand lines, perhaps the largest oeuvre of any English poet.

One might expect scholarly influences in Lydgate who was educated at Bury St. Edmund’s where he is later thought to have founded a school of rhetoric for lay nobles. His learning impressed his own era, and his reputation remained high for several generations after his death. Stephen Hawes in The Pastime of Pleasure (1509) praises him as an “experte in poetry” and a “floure of eloquence” whose “termes eloquent” and “clowdy figures” are the very glories of his work. Fifty years later he is to John Bale the greatest writer of the age for his erudition and eloquence [2], yet he was already becoming a specialized taste. The straightforward and colloquial Skelton says in “Phillip Sparrowe” that he has difficulty finding “the sentence of [Lydgate’s] mynde” “he wryteth too haute.” [3]

Many readers have commented that much of the story is obscure. The relations between the dreamer and the male and female figures he observes are never clarified, nor do many specific details of their frustrations emerge. From the opening lines describing the speaker’s mood of depression, Lydgate lingers on the subjective, the lovers’ feelings rather than specific narrative events. Indeed, the powerful love-longing the characters experience is very closely paired with the impediments they encounter. Only when the blinding sun of desire is temporarily dimmed can the speaker really observe his surroundings. For the most part, the work proceeds through allusion and indirection. To J. Allen Mitchell, the work is “enigmatic” [4] For Schick, Lydgate’s poetry was at its best when most conventional. He admires the “vitiated” and “overwrought” initial description of the lady. [5]

When the dreamer first enters Venus’ temple, a remarkable transparent structure, “like ise ifrore,” “clere as eny crystal,” (20, 22) he observes on every wall, the “faire image” of celebrated lovers (45) “lifli” and “wonder fresh,” though “with compleynt” and “doleful chere.” (51-2) None is represented in an attitude of satisfaction and, though they decorate the Temple of Venus, several have little to do with romantic love. Nonetheless, standing at the opening of the poems, just after the dreamer’s passing through the mysterious wicket, this series of allusive portraits introduces and epitomizes his theme. Though they seem to be purely decorative and adventitious, their constellation in fact defines the topic of love in a precise if complex way. In a set piece of a hundred lines which seems to impede development since nothing happens, Lydgate provides a rich symbolic presentation of love in which the courtly plays only a limited part.

The figures themselves could be called courtly, though, in the sense that they provide prestigious ornamentation, catering to an educated elite, demonstrating the author’s mastery of his poetic craft (in which tropes, the “flowers of rhetoric,” play so great a part) as well as his familiarity with Classical literature. Of the twenty-two famous lovers depicted in the temple, eighteen derive from Classical Greece and Rome, lending the authority of both their sheer antiquity and the suggestive intertextuality of their associations with the poems of the ancients.

As artworks they signify beauty and link to a long tradition of ekphrasis. [6] Venus herself is represented anadyomene, rising from the sea, her initial appearance in the poem corresponding to her origin in myth. This is the first of many of the goddess’ transformations in Lydgate’s poems, but it is already conflicted, linking associations of danger and distress and the fear of pre-creation chaos with moist sexuality and pleasure. (53) [7]

Though called “sondri louers” (46) comparable to suitors before a court of love such as Eleanor of Aquitaine was said to have held in Poitiers, their situations are various indeed. Immediately following the list of lovers represented on the temple’s walls, one learns that they represent a great many others. Indeed, the temple precincts are said to be crowded with thousands of people who have come to present appeals to Venus (143–246). Behind this host is, of course, the poem’s readers and humanity in general, whose pains of love may be assumed to be mirrored in the Classical images.

Most indeed lament an unrequited affection, often with the most severe consequences. Fully seven of the characters die, their passion proving literally lethal. [8] Dido. Medea, Ariadne, and Phyllis were jilted, while Thisbe and Canacee encounter other obstacles. Most striking in deviance from any concept of romantic love are the victims of rape: the Sabine women, Lucretia, Daphne, Europa, Alkmene, and, most powerfully, Philomena. The authority of Venus for Lydgate extends even to aggressive and violent acts.

As for fulfillment in love, five faithful wives are mentioned, but of those five, Alcestis and Lucretia die, while Griselda is subjected to monstrous fraud. Penelope is the only real icon of marital satisfaction, while Philology is a special case which requires separate consideration. Iseult and Helen are adulterers, highly admired though tragic heroines of extra-marital love of the sort celebrated (and then condemned) by Andreas Capellanus. Only Penelope projects a remnant of a possibility of a happy marriage.

Philology, placed last among the figures, also suggests harmonious stability, but she is far too much an abstraction to be taken for anyone’s lived experience. Her appearance to cap Lydgate’s list implies the elusiveness, if not the impossibility, of a wholly successful love affair. In Martianus Capella’s De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii Mercury is refused by Wisdom, Divination, and the Soul before successfully courting Philology. Though final knowledge, the future, and an essential ego may escape us, we have still books, we have still words. Though they prove only a mirror, a mirror is a marvelous tool. Since the reader encounters Philology while consuming Lydgate’s text, the case is made. Author and audience are at one. The fittest love is love of words, philology.

The only figure after that of Philology is Canacee. By this reference, Lydgates reinforces his point about reading, nodding, as he does on other occasions, to his debt to Master Chaucer, thus including modern as well as ancient literature and learning in his purview. Not only has Philology been “istellified” (136) for her “sapience.” She has also managed to capture the author as well as the reader in a self-reflective mirror. Love may be obscure in its origins and direction, it may prove unmanageable or shipwreck in a storm or suffer attack from pirates. The celibate monk Lydgate points in the end to the faithful wife Philology as the most worthy lover of all.

1. Orwell objected to such language in modern times in his “Politics and the English Language,” saying Latinate words are characteristic of “bad writers.” Even today learned authors, even in the sciences, and even when technical terms are not counted, far outpace popular ones in their use of words of Greek and Latin derivation. Theophrastus in On Diction uses the term hellenismos, later in Latin called latinitas, to mean correctness. Of course the classical authors were writing in Greek and Latin. Thus a more direct equivalent in English would have been the use of Germanic words descended from Old English. A good survey is available in John Cooper Mendenhall’s Aureate Terms: A Study in Literary Diction of the Fifteenth Century.

Appreciators of literary vituperation will relish Joseph Ritson’s devastating 1802 attack on Lydgate in his Bibliographica Poetica, calling him a “voluminous, prosaick, and driveling monk” whose “stupid and fatiguing productions ... by no means deserve the name of poetry ... are neither worth collecting ... nor even worthy of preservation.”

2. In the Scriptorum Illustrium Majoris Brytannie Quam nunc Angliam et Scotiam Vocant: Catalogus.

3. ll. 804 ff. It is plain that even in Skelton’s time Lydgate’s meaning was obscured by his style.

4. Mitchell edited the poem for the Medieval Institute edition.

5. Page cxxxv, Early English Text Society edition. Still, Schick considered the poems’ poetic value as a whole to be “very small, almost nil,” (xiv)

6. Books two and three of the Greek Anthology, for instance, are made up of ekphrastic poems. The Homeric description of the Shield of Achilles (Iliad, XVIII), Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” and “In the Spouter Inn” of Moby Dick are other examples.

7. She appears also as one of the lovers. (126-8)

8. Dido, Adonis, Iseult, Thisbe, Phyllis, Polyxena, and Lucretia.