Chaucer's Gardens and the Language of Convention

Chaucer's Gardens and the Language of Convention

Chaucer's Gardens and the Language of Convention

Chaucer's Gardens and the Language of Convention

Synopsis

Chaucer's Gardens and the Language of Convention examines the extensive literary and cultural sources for Chaucer's gardens, from some of his earliest dream-poems through Troilus and Criseyde and several of The Canterbury Tales. Not only do literary conventions come under scrutiny in the play between narrative context and garden topos, Howes argues, but social conventions, such as marriage and courtship, submit to Chaucer's critical gaze through his narrated garden scenes. Combining new research on actual medieval gardens with source study, close textual analysis, and an investigation into the metaphorical significance of Chaucer's gardens, Howes opens the way to new understanding of Chaucer's outdoor spaces and what they mean. Many scenes previously thought to be set in the open forest or wilderness may instead be in large pleasure gardens and parks, a change in our understanding that has significant repercussions for interpretation of key passages. In addition, rather than focusing on a single garden topos such as the classical locus amoenus or the Christian earthly paradise, Howes considers the confluence of several strands of literary gardens Chaucer knew and thus strives to recapture for the modern reader the array of associations available to Chaucer's early audiences.

Excerpt

Chaucer's adaptation and translation of received narratives, from the French dits amoureux to Boccaccio's Filostrato and many others, has long involved Chaucerians in extensive analyses of changes Chaucer wrought on these narratives and of how he adapted the stories to fit his own culture, time, and motives for storytelling. His use of conventional topoi, however, has not received the same kind of attention, and has most often prompted critics to assert that Chaucer, like all medieval poets, used conventional images throughout his poetry, thereby replicating medieval commonplaces. But even with these smaller units of inherited poetic material--sometimes consisting of just a few lines in a poem--Chaucer also radically transformed what he took from earlier writers, either by modifying the inherited topos itself in a way that draws attention to its obtrusive presence in a text or by placing the received topos into a narrative context that undermines or otherwise challenges its efficacy or its conventional meaning.

Chaucer uses gardens contextually in several ways: as enclosures that delineate insiders from outsiders, as in the Canterbury Tales where men build enclosed gardens for women and women rail against them; as a signal of a potent love convention, as in Troilus and Criseyde, which then allows Chaucer to expose the deficiencies of that same convention; and as markers of a young poet's acquiescence to the poetic convention of his predecessors, as in the Book of the Duchess and the Parliament of Fowls. In all of these cases, Chaucer explores constraints imposed by conventions--both social and literary--and appears to conclude that convention . . .

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