Academic journal article Papers on Language & Literature

Social Corrections: Hoccleve's la Male Regle and Textual Identity

Academic journal article Papers on Language & Literature

Social Corrections: Hoccleve's la Male Regle and Textual Identity

Article excerpt

Many of Thomas Hoccleve's poetic texts explore the problem of the individual creating or maintaining relationships with others, and particularly an individual who has neither fortune, nor rank, nor patrons to recommend him. His poetry often asks rhetorically how social acceptability appears and how one creates an identity that is socially acceptable. Throughout his poetic career, Hoccleve sought textual models in which to explore his anxiety with social inclusion and the rules that determined this inclusion. He would have used works by both Geoffrey Chaucer (1) and John Gower for literary forms and the practices that would contribute to creating an acceptable social identity. For instance, David Wallace has argued that the creation of Chaucer's Canterbury pilgrim company, a group of characters who agree to follow shared behavioral principles or rules, is "the most powerful instantiation of associational ideology in Chaucer"(2). Gower, too, would have presented poetic arguments for societal unity rather than division, especially in his Confessio Amantis (Pearsall 476). (2) Unlike Chaucer and Gower, Hoccleve focuses on the individual's relationship to the group rather than how groups constitute themselves because the individual's need to be socially accepted often leads to inclusion in a problematic group. (3) Also unlike Chaucer and Gower, Hoccleve uses bureaucratic as well as literary forms for his explorations of social identity. (4)

His early poem, La Male Regie (c. 1405) provides one of his clearest explorations of how a person negotiates his or her position within groups, repenting one set of associations while seeking another. Differentiating between the speaker of La Male Regie and the historical author Hoccleve is tricky. A.C. Spearing cautions us that "[b]ehind the 'I' of a medieval text there may be no narrator or speaker, no represented fictional person," so that the "I" is more of a construct than a character (16). Hoccleve's speaker, as I will refer to him, discovers how his social identity directly affects his health. (5) This speaker calls a "conpaignie"--this one including Thomas Nevil, Lord Furnival, subtreasurer of England (1404-1407) and the ostensible recipient of the speaker's poem--the group that practices the behavioral patterns he must correct because they ruin his fiscal and physical health. He calls the group practicing the behavior that he wants to emulate "freendes." Hoccleve shows in the poem how his speaker mistook "conpaignie" for "freendes" in his search for a society of individuals who would maintain him in health.

In doing so, Hoccleve uses his experience as a Privy Seal Clerk to adapt the bureaucratic form of the appeal to reflect on his speaker's misdeeds and on the person this speaker has become because of them. The poem's speaker indicts his younger self, creating an identity that is a palimpsest: in spite of his attempts to erase his social errors, he can only reconfigure them, leaving them still visible. Yet in this self-reflection the speaker shows that he is not nearly as bad in his social errors as are members of the "conpaignie," primarily because the members of the "conpaignie" focus on their appetites rather than on pursuing mutual love. While Hoccleve's speaker may have been guilty of breaking social rules to focus on his appetites, Hoccleve the poet uses his poem to argue for a textual identity more in keeping with the acceptable practices, or habitus, of "freendes" to have his speaker learn that friendship relies on love and not the satisfaction of appetites. To create this poetic self that is corrected by better social relationships, Hoccleve employs two specific and interrelated concepts: the behavior patterns, or social practices, intrinsic to "conpaignie" and "freendes" and the legal bureaucratic form of the appeal, the latter providing the structural model for the poem. Exploring these contrasting social practices in a bureaucratic form creates the reflective text in which the speaker of La Male Regie indicts his own character, thereby serving as a model for his audience in how to correct a "bad rule. …

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