Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Monuments, memorials, & legacy

During my nine days in London this summer in and around the inestimable NCS Congress, I was strongly reminded that memorials, especially graves, are everywhere.  This realization is not, if you’ll forgive the pun, ground-breaking. Earth is old, and the people who have lived on it have long been concerned about how they will be remembered.  I think I noticed it afresh in part because of the turn my research has been taking: I have been caught up in thinking about memorials and collective memory in Middle English literature over the past year as I reconsider how the dissertation-that-was is slowly morphing into the book-to-be.  

And so: memorials.  I spent part of a day on a pilgrimage of sorts to Southwark Cathedral.  If you haven’t visited, you should – Southwark is a beautiful church, and Karen and I were lucky enough to be there while the organist was practicing.  We explored the church and the gardens and the neighboring market all morning, then returned on Sunday to attend services there.  The point of the trip, though, was to visit an old friend by the name of John Gower, the poet who has been a companion, a comfort, and an occasional aggravation to me since my first semester in graduate school.  (As a sidenote: some of my earliest conference presentations were on Gower’s works, and I spent several months writing a chapter on Gower’s Visio Angliae that never made it into my dissertation.  I find his work beautiful, compelling, powerful, and frustrating, and I return to it often: in fact, this upcoming year, I am working with my first independent study student, who is working on Gower’s Confessio Amantis.)

photo of the author in front of the tomb of John Gower, with three major works serving as pillow for the poet.
Selfie with John Gower: a photo I think many of us working in Middle English literature have taken.

Gower’s tomb is obviously invested in legacy, and it entwines literary and literal afterlives. Gower’s massive pillow, here obscured by my head, is made of his three major works, their names given in Latin.  The inscription again emphasizes Gower’s poetic work: he is described first as a celebrated English poet (“anglorum poeta celeberrimus”) and then as benefactor to the building that houses his tomb.  It seems to me that John Gower gets legacy.  The tomb is trying to do for Gower what the opening lines of the Confessio Amantis seek to do for the work in question, that is, they put Gower’s work into the context of a broader canon: 

 Of hem that writen ous tofore
The bokes duelle, and we therfore
Ben tawht of that was write tho:
Forthi good is that we also
In oure tyme among ous hiere
Do wryte of newe som matiere,
Essampled of these olde wyse,
So that it myhte in such a wyse,
Whan we ben dede and elleswhere,
Beleve to the worldes eere
In tyme comende after this. (Confessio Amantis, Prol.1-11)

The “newe” thing in the reader’s hands thus fits into a perfect lineage: it emerges from old writings, then moves forward to inform “tyme comende.”

Yet what is obscured by this memorial?  Well, to begin with, the rest of Gower’s work: his short Latin and French poetry and the English “In Praise of Peace” go unmemorialized, much as they often go unread.  (Not that there are hordes of medievalists reading the Vox Clamantis or the Speculum Meditantis – unfortunately, I say, but that is perhaps a post for another time.)  The monument to Gower’s work is thus partial, incomplete.  It doesn’t capture the poet’s whole literary corpus – only the works that are themselves monumental.  In fact, it doesn’t contain the poet’s physical corpus, either: the literary present tense means that Gower is always off doing something in the many articles and books written about his literary work.

A monument is a physical construction of history, but it can only be partial.  Monuments require a context, a story: inscriptions are meant to help, but they only take us so far.  Some Middle English literary monuments try to be complete: lengthy inscriptions capture an episode, a prophesy, some nugget of the story.  The past gives the present much-needed context: in Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, the grave of Sir Patryse, who dies an untimely death through a poisoned fruit, reads: “Here lyeth sir Patryse of Irelonde, slayne by Sir Pynell le Saveaige that enpoysynde appelis to have slayne Sir Gawayne, and by myssefortune sir Patryse ete one of the applis, and than suddeynly he braste.” Thus, the inscription memorializes Sir Patrick himself, but it also preserves the circumstances of his death.  Further, it emphasizes Guinevere’s innocence in that death for the future readers, since the tomb also includes a description of the trial by combat that proved she was not complicit in the murder (Malory, Works 621, lines 12-20).  While Patryse’s memorial seems to feature quite a lengthy text, other literary monuments prove inaccessible: the “roynyshe” golden writing in St. Erkenwald troubles those gathered at St. Paul’s Cathedral precisely because it cannot be read, though all the physical signs suggest the person this tomb memorializes is important and should be known.  While Sir Patryse’s grave tells the story of his death (if not many details of his life), the judge’s tomb in Erkenwald’s needs a narrative – the writing needs miraculous, posthumous glossing by the very figure it is meant to memorialize.

These monuments, it seems to me, are entangled with writing itself as a medium.  The paradox and the power of the memorial is the same as that of writing: it can’t capture everything.  As the burned manuscript means the medieval document is lost forever, so the misplaced notebook, the to-do list we accidentally wash, and the hard drive crash remind us that "writing it down" is no guarantee of survival. At the same time, sometimes writing preserves too much: debates about Gower’s recensions of the Confessio Amantis are ongoing, and we cannot know which one(s) Gower wanted in circulation. 

While at NCS, I heard R. F. Yeager’s presentation on Gower’s afterlife in Reformation England.  He opened the talk by comparing Gower’s monument to Chaucer’s, and he pointed out that Gower didn’t fare so well: the tomb is now restored, but evidently poor Gower had his nose broken off at one point, among other damages.  Perhaps not so celebrated, then. (Access, too, is an interesting question: As M. W. Bychowski noted in her Facebook reflections post-conference, you can see Gower for free, but visiting Chaucer is a somewhat more costly enterprise.)  Gower’s work long suffered a similar fate: extracts from the Confessio first appeared in the ninth of the Norton Anthology of British Literature, published in 2012.  And yet, this summer I visited Gower’s restored monument, and next year I hope to return to the UK to join colleagues and friends for the fourth International John Gower Society conference, to be held in conjunction with the Early Book Society conference at Durham University.  

Preservation – of books, of reputations, even of monuments – is always at the mercy of other’s judgments and interests, no matter how well we plan for it.