Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Hoccleve's Take on Chaucer and Christine De Pizan: Gender, Authorship, and Intertextuality in the Epistre Au Dieu d'Amours, the Letter of Cupid, and the Series

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Hoccleve's Take on Chaucer and Christine De Pizan: Gender, Authorship, and Intertextuality in the Epistre Au Dieu d'Amours, the Letter of Cupid, and the Series

Article excerpt

A SELF-PROCLAIMED PUPIL OF GEOFFREY CHAUCER, the London poet and Privy Seal clerk Thomas Hoccleve (ca. 1367-1426) made his official literary debut in 1402, two years after his masters death, with a loose rendition of Christine de Pizan's Epistre au dieu d'Amours, the first of his poems for which he gives a date. (1) Composed only three years previously, the French original was likewise an important turning point in the career of its author, a pioneering advocate of womens dignity. With its censure of the Roman de la Rose, the Epistre is viewed by some critics as the opening shot of the Querelle de la Rose, the campaign she was to spearhead in 1401-4 against the alleged misogyny and impropriety of the thirteenth-century poem. (2) What little scholarship exists on the Letter of Cupid (3) has mostly debated whether Hoccleve faithfully reproduces Christines vindication. (4) A few studies have argued that he is more concerned with positioning himself as a writer than with developing his subject matter. (5) John Fleming even suggests that Hoccleve makes up for his source's unsophisticated attitude to literary art, manifested in its reluctance to distinguish poets from personas or allegorical personifications. (6) On the whole, scholars have privileged either the role of gender in the Letter or its reflexive poetics. Not enough attention has been paid to the relation between these two aspects of Hoccleve's work. (7)

To understand his recasting of the Epistre, one must first determine the foundation on which the earlier text bases its polemic. Before Christine--or rather her mouthpiece Cupid--proceeds to reverse the slanderous charges made against her gender, she examines the defective social and discursive conditions that enable them. The same flaws, she argues, result in a split between language and reality that causes harm to men as well as women. Christine's fresh analysis, rather than her superlative praise of female "nature" (e.g., 668-76), makes the Epistre a landmark in the history of feminist thought in a way that previous scholarship on the poem has insufficiently recognized. (8) Having filled this gap, I shall argue that Hoccleves translation dismisses or disregards the relevance to male authors of the criticism leveled by its source and therefore reproduces the very cultural habits it targets. (9) His attempt to initiate himself into a distinctly masculine literary coterie that was forming around Chaucer's legacy by imbuing the Letter with irony and ambivalence towards womankind remains trapped in the terms of a discourse more commonplace, and thus less serviceable to aspiring poets, than Hoccleve appears to acknowledge.

The second part of my discussion will consider some key moments in the sequence of poems known to modern readers as the Series (ca. 1419-21). This experimental cycle revolves around the autobiographical speaker's recovery from a mental breakdown and--like the Letter, to which it explicitly harks back--combines questions of authorship and gender. Even as it continues to express contradictory attitudes, the Series acknowledges the hazards of faulty communication and predicates Hoccleves convalescence on his ability to perceive women correctly and himself in relation to them. Hence, on more levels than scholars have realized, it constitutes a palinode to the Letter and a partial retrieval of the values upheld in the Epistre. These developments correspond to an important shift in Hoccleves interaction with the Chaucerian tradition. For all its notorious quirkiness, the Series will emerge from this study as his last, best attempt to carve out a position of authority by engaging his sources in a more complex, original, and ethical manner.

The Epistre does more than simply issue a statement against male chauvinism. Its poetic structure conveys the ideas that it formulates. An overview of this work is necessary to appreciating both what it says about men and women and what Hoccleve then makes of it. …

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