‘Lyke Chaucers boye’: Poetry and Penitence in Gascoigne’s Grief of Joye
Kevin Laam. "‘Lyke Chaucers boye’: Poetry and Penitence in Gascoigne’s Grief of Joye". Early Modern Literary Studies 14.1/Special Issue 18 (May, 2008) 8.1-26<URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/14-1/article7.htm>.
1. In The Renaissance Chaucer, Alice Miskimin argues that the cult of Chaucer in Elizabethan England was built on readers’ naïve disregard for the polysemous textures of medieval allegory. According to Miskimin, the rhetorical principle of significatio through which medieval allegorists such as Chaucer were able to weave in and out of multiple fictional personae was subsumed in the Renaissance by the rival principle of decorum, which held allegorical representation to a crippling standard of consistency. Miskimin traces a devolving history through which Chaucer is coaxed to slough off his thorny medieval skin and, in the interest of full disclosure apropos to the Renaissance, to reveal himself as the ‘I’ of his poems. “The study of Chaucer’s reputation in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries,” she writes, “reveals the gradual conflation of his various poetic identities into a composite personality, the synthetic ‘Chaucer’ praised by his publishers (Caxton, Thynne, and finally Speght), and venerated by his imitators” (1).
2. At first blush George Gascoigne might seem
to synthesize Chaucer as crudely as his Elizabethan contemporaries. Gascoigne repeatedly heralds Chaucer as his
“father” and “master”, and gripes that none among his peers has taken
Chaucer’s contrite example to heart:
And the more pitie, that amongst so many toward wittes no one hath bene hitherto encouraged to followe the trace of that worthy and famous Knight Sir Geffrey Chaucer, and after many pretie devises spent in youth, for the obtayning a worthles victorie, might consume and consummate his age in discribing the right pathway to perfect felicitie, with the due preservation of the same (2).
Gascoigne’s most recent editor
notes that this conception of Chaucer was more likely inspired by Troilus and Criseyde than by the
Retraction to The Canterbury Tales,
which did not appear in Thynne’s 1532 edition (3). The Gascoigne-Troilus connection has been
explored at length by M. R. Rohr, who identifies in The Adventures of Master F. J. a “Chaucerian matrix” through which
Gascoigne, under the pseudonym “F.J.”, plays the parts of both the
“protagonist” Troilus and the “detached manager and spectator” Pandarus (4). Within this
matrix, Gascoigne pays his debt to his “master Chaucer” first by identifying
with, then advancing beyond, the Troilus prototype. “The Gascoigne of the period of The Adventures,” argues Rohr, “is a
mature man who looks at his earlier Troilus-like self (and his earlier self in
general) with disenchantment, and who at the same time tries to assert himself
exclusively as a writer” (5).
3. Gascoigne’s writerly aspirations were
frustrated in the short term when his first major collection, A Hundreth Sundrie Flowres (1573),
sparked a scandal at court for its “sundrie wanton speeches and lascivious
phrases” (6) and its amended version, The Posies (1575), failed to calm the fires. Soon after publishing The Posies, he salvaged his literary career by announcing a turn
from courtly jeux d’esprit to satire,
elegy, and moral philosophy (7). The first work he produced during the course
of this late-career reinvention was The
Glasse of Government (1575), a Dutch-influenced prodigal son play whose
starkly antithetical rendering of vice and virtue sought to atone for the moral
equivocations of The Adventures. Gascoigne continued producing works in the
moralist vein until his death in 1577, including The Complaynt of Phylomene, The
Droomme of Doomes day, and A delicate Diet, for daintiemouthde
4. Exceptional among this group of writings was
The Grief of Joye, a poetic
metaphrase of Petrarch’s De remediis
utriusque fortunae that Gascoigne presented to Queen Elizabeth on New
Year’s Day, 1577 (8).
Petrarch’s work consists of 254 dialogues containing Reason’s
instructions to steer a steady course through fortunes both good and bad. In the first book of dialogues, Reason
counsels Joy in the ways of sorrow; in the second, Sorrow is counseled in the
ways of joy. In The Grief of Joye, Gascoigne retains the Stoic themes of De remediis while adapting the dialogic
form of the work into a sequence of songs on four types of grief-in-joy: youth,
beauty, strength, and activity. While it
is scarcely surprising that Gascoigne chose to adapt a text steeped in the
language of Stoic consolation, his ambivalent handling of the subject in The Grief of Joye suggests that the poet
had not altogether thrown off the worldly attachments that he had held as an aspiring
courtier. Gascoigne’s thinly veiled
reportage of the Elizabethan court milieu in The Grief of Joye stands in marked contrast to the generic and
anonymous works that he had published the prior year.
5. I would like to suggest that Gascoigne’s turnabout
from flesh-averse moralism in The Grief
of Joye may be understood as an instance of Chaucerian
self-fashioning. Gascoigne, I will
argue, understood Chaucer’s penitent persona; identified with Chaucer’s
concerns for his legacy; and was savvy enough to merge these Chaucerian
elements into his own poetic gestalt.
Chaucer’s influence appears in the courtly poems that Gascoigne produced
before his reformation, but nowhere is it more evident than in the second song
of The Grief of Joye, which traffics
in the knotty secular fictions that he had publicly renounced after the Posies debacle. This is not to suggest that the poem matches
or even aspires to the delirious ironic heights of The Adventures—but neither is it the work of “lugubrious moralism”
that it has been made out to be (9). Where the poem moralizes, it does so with an
ambivalence that recalls the eleventh-hour lamentations of Chaucer in the Troilus palinode, “Adam Scriveyn,” and
of course, the Retraction. Chaucer’s
fabled writer’s remorse finds expression in the hazy space between personal
confession and allegorical invention; Gascoigne’s, in following his master’s
6. In The
Arte of English Poesie, George Puttenham acknowledges Gascoigne among the
Elizabethan “crew of Courtly makers” whose innovations of the English tongue
deserve to be duly recognized (10). But Chaucer, he holds, ranks above them all;
Puttenham commends him for his learned translations (The Romaunt of the Rose); his pleasant wit and inventions (The Canterbury Tales); and his decorous
meter (Troilus and Criseyde) (11). Notwithstanding
the scope of his contributions to English prosody, Chaucer is commended most
profusely in The Arte for his
rhetorical dexterity. Puttenham’s
exposition of “sententious figures” in Book III of The Arte works from the premise that the poet’s art should be
supported by tropes that stimulate both the ear and the mind (12). Among the most pliable figures that Puttenham
classifies as sententious is hypotyposis,
or the “counterfeit representation” (13). Hypotyposis,
he suggests, fills absence with vivid illustrations that captivate the
imagination; as the “figure of representation,” it demands from the poet a
level of skill proportional to the immediacy and veracity of the thing
The matter and occasion leadeth vs many times to describe and set foorth many things, in such sort as it should appeare they were truly before our eyes though they were not present, which to do it requireth cunning: for nothing can be kindly counterfait or represented in his absence, but by great discretion in the doer. And if the things we couet to describe be not naturall or not veritable, than yet the same axeth more cunning to do it, because to faine a thing that neuer was nor is like to be, proceedeth of a greater wit and sharper inuention than to describe things that be true (14).
The chief counterfeiter according
to this standard is none other than Chaucer, as Puttenham subsequently
compresses three allusions to Chaucer into his discussion of the several
varieties of hypotyposis. Puttenham cites the faithful depictions of
the pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales
to demonstrate Chaucer’s facility with prosopographia,
the figure that represents the attributes of a person who is absent or
departed. He cites the taut allegorical
fictions of The Romaunt of the Rose to
illustrate that Chaucer is equally masterful with prosopopeia, or the attribution of human features to non-existent
persons or insensible things. Lastly,
the evocative descriptions of Saluzzi in the Clerk’s Tale are cited to show
Chaucer’s deft handling of topographia,
the counterfeit of place.
7. The quick succession of Chaucer allusions that occur beneath the heading of hypotyposis betrays Puttenham’s partiality toward the “sententious” Chaucer, the poet-as-rhetorician. Gascoigne’s short treatise on English prosody, Certayne notes of Instruction concerning the making of verse or ryme in English, holds Chaucer in similar esteem. In Certayne Notes, which first appeared in the 1575 Posies, Gascoigne prefaces his remarks on the importance of invention by paraphrasing the speech of Chaucer’s Parson. The Parson informs his audience that while he cannot recite his tale in the pleasing tones of alliteration, he will deliver pleasure in the plainness of his speech and the truth of his sentiments.
I kan nat geeste ‘rum, ram, ruf,’ by lettre,Gascoigne appropriates the Parson’s words toward radically different ends: cannily taking the Parson as Chaucer’s mouthpiece, Gascoigne states that “it is not inough to roll in pleasant woordes, nor yet to thunder in Rym, Ram, Ruff, by letter (quoth my master Chaucer) nor yet to abounde in apt vocables, or epythetes, unlesse the Invention have in it also aliquid salis” (Works, I. 465). Gascoigne’s “aliquid salis,” his insistence that some wit complement the auricular pleasures of poetic language, substitutes thick layers of invention for the plain speech of the Parson. The rhetoric of courtly love, for instance, he stocks with tropes of secrecy and self-deflection:
Ne, God woot, rym holde I but litel bettre;
And therfore, if yow list – I wol nat glose –
I wol yow telle a myrie tale in prose
To knytte up al this feeste and make an ende. (15)
Likewise if I should disclose my pretence in love, I would eyther make a straunge discourse of some intollerable passion, or finde occasion to pleade by the example of some historie, or discover my disquiet in shadowes per Allegoriam, or use the covertest meane that I could to avoyde the uncomely customes of common writers. (Works,
What Gascoigne describes is an
exercise in sententious figuration. He
supplies the tropical repertoire that Puttenham deems necessary to amplify and
to beautify the language; he measures success by his ability “to avoyde the
uncomely customes of common writers.”
Curiously, it is the Parson’s admission that he cannot “‘rum, ram, ruf,’
by lettre”—his generic turn to, of all things, prose—that Gascoigne uses to affirm the necessity of
invention. Even more curiously,
Gascoigne understands this admission not as the Parson’s failure but rather as
Chaucer’s success; nowhere is the Parson identified by name, let alone
questioned for the soundness of his deliberately irrhetorical appeal.
8. That Gascoigne must go through the unnamed
Parson to get to the sententious Chaucer seems a roundabout line of descent
from pupil to “master”; his extraction of figural variety from anti-figural
speech laces the relationship with additional irony. C. Jan Swearingen’s analysis of
Augustine does not attack the speaker’s manipulation of an audience’s gullibility as singularly as Plato does in the Phaedrus, Gorgias, and Sophist. Instead, he charges the audience with willful allegiance to a self-contradictory set of critical standards, with tastes that demean self and other alike. Audiences titillate themselves; they enjoy seeing if they can be deceived. If they are, they praise the cleverness of the deceiving speaker who has eluded detection (16).
Augustine’s vision of audiences
grown fat on self-delusion portends the bind in which a secular poet such as
Gascoigne finds himself when he fails to deliver the goods. Following the Hundreth Sundrie Flowres controversy, Gascoigne may go the route of
the Parson and disclaim responsibility to deliver pleasure on all rhetorical
fronts—or he may decide with Chaucer to re-enter the fray of courtly makers, in
the hopes that he may yet reach the gaudy heights of his master (17). Gascoigne
warns his protégé in Certayne Notes
that “what Theame soever you do take in hande, if you do handle it but tanquam in oratione perpetua, and never
studie for some depth of devise in the Invention, and some figures also in the
handlyng thereof: it will appeare to the skilfull Reader but a tale of a tubbe”
(Works, I. 465). Like Augustine, Gascoigne is keenly aware of
the social contexts that produce meaning, and almost painfully aware of his
audience’s ability to sniff out the work of a hack—hence his schemes to make
his love appear exotic. Unlike
Augustine, Gascoigne is not concerned for his spectators’ souls but for his own
sense of shame.
9. The two years that lapse between the
appearance of the Posies and The Grief of Joye witness a dramatic
downsizing of Gascoigne’s literary ambitions.
Chastened by the failure of the Posies
to make sufficient amends for the sins of A
Hundreth Sundrie Flowres, Gascoigne turns his hand to moral discourses that
assay little of the rhetorical subterfuge advised in Certayne Notes. In the
dedicatory epistle to The Droomme of
Doomes day, he attributes his change of course, in large part, to flattery
fatigue. Long flanked by companions “who
had sundrie times served me as an Eccho with prayses & common suffrages,
affirming that I deserved a Lawrel Garland,” Gascoigne at last realizes that
“that it is not suffycient for a man to have a high flying Hawke, unlesse he
doe also accustome hir to stoupe such Quarries as are both pleasant and
profitable” (Works, II. 212). The glib didacticism of the metaphor strains
against the poet’s sly suggestion that he can do—and by many accounts, has
done—better than he will show in The
Droomme. And yet the Gascoigne who
compromises artistically thrives professionally: he participates in
entertainments before the queen at Kenilworth and
10. The Grief of Joye, which Gascoigne
claims to have composed during the “Interims
and vacant howres” of his summer at
But if some Englishe woorde, herein seme sweet,
Let Chaucers name, exalted be therefore,/
Yf any verse, doe passe on plesãnt feet,
The praise thereof, redownd to Petrarks lore/ (Works, II., 518)
The passage may be understood, on
the one hand, as an orthodox posture of authorial self-negation, comparable to
Chaucer’s motion to shift praise to Christ for the better parts of the Canterbury Tales (21). Gascoigne deflects credit for any pleasure
one might derive from his poem to the masters of the laurel: Chaucer for his
diction, Petrarch for his prosody. And
yet Gascoigne’s insistent invocation of Chaucer alongside the poet who provides
the actual source material for The Grief
of Joye betrays an allegiance that runs deeper than words. The peculiar nature of that allegiance is
suggested in the poem’s other reference to Petrarch and Chaucer, when Gascoigne
vows “Yn barreyne verse, to doe the best I can,/Lyke Chaucers boye, and Petrarks
jorneyman” (Works II., 517).
11. Petrarch is
every bit the equal to Chaucer in his influence over Gascoigne’s poetics in The Grief of Joye. What distinguishes the two pairings is that
Gascoigne identifies himself as Chaucer’s “boye,” a term that surpasses
“jorneyman” in its semantic possibilities.
In becoming Chaucer’s “boye,” Gascoigne positions himself not only as
Chaucer’s heir and apprentice but also as his scribe, the infamous “Adam
Scriveyn” who cannot be trusted with his master’s text:
Adam scriveyn, if ever it thee befalle
Boece or Troylus for to wryten newe,
Under thy long lokkes thou most have the scalle,
But after my maykyng thow wryte more trewe;
So ofte adaye I mot thy werk renewe,
It to correcte and eke to rubbe and scrape,
And al is thorugh thy negligence and rape. (22)
something of a curiosity in the Chaucerian canon, this short lyric has elicited
vast attention for its insights into Chaucer’s attempts to shape his poetic
Britt Mize, for instance, observes a powerful comic tension that runs
through the poem—the comedy arising from Adam’s association with a long line of
long haired “Chaucerian dandies,” the tension from the speaker’s realization
that “at some point, the capricious undoing of what had originally been done
carefully, perfectly, will not be set right again” (24). According to Mize, Chaucer’s speaker worries
for the time when he will be parted from his manuscripts for good. In the meantime, he is resigned “to rubbe and
scrape,” to undo the damage wrought by hands unfit to handle his legacy.
12. Amid the
proprietary anxieties to which “Adam Scriveyn” gives utterance, the poem lays
open the strength of the position in which Chaucer’s speaker finds
himself. As long as he retains the
service of the inept scribe, he also retains the privilege of revising his own
script; he comes to depend upon the scribal violence—the “negligence and
rape”—that occasion repeated acts of self-reparation. The poem pivots on Chaucer’s ability to
transpose the vagaries of manuscript production onto concerns for his authorial
sovereignty, and then to impersonate those concerns in the figure of the
flighty Adam. In admonishing Adam, the
speaker performs a dramatic monologue in which the reader is compelled to
redress the silence of the addressee with knowing sympathy. The poem begs us neither to hold the poet in esteem
nor the scribe in contempt—merely to respect the fact that the concerns it
articulates are endemic to the project of writing one’s canon.
13. As the foil
through whom Chaucer contrives both a sympathetic audience and a mandate for
continued productivity, Adam the scribe comprises a powerful fiction, one whose
utility to the poet seeking to reinvent himself goes without saying. The brilliance of Gascoigne’s use of Adam is
the looseness of the identification. As
“Chaucer’s boye” Gascoigne may alternately represent the heir apparent to
Chaucer or the enfant terrible. He,
like Chaucer, is the master poet whose works have been abused. Like the hapless scribe, he will assuredly
heap similar abuse on Chaucer’s good name: “[F]aults must swarme,” he admits,
“where little skill doth reigne”
(518). Yet perhaps the most powerful
role that Gascoigne inhabits in making himself “Chaucer’s boye” is that of
Chaucer’s reader, the third party who completes the poem’s circuit of exchange.
Unlike many readers, Gascoigne has the requisite sympathy that Chaucer’s
situation demands. He knows the story of
Chaucer and Adam through experience, such that he may insert himself into it
with minimal difficulty. In doing so,
Gascoigne models just the sort of reader that might eventually redeem his own
work from the violence of reckless handlers.
the opening allusion to Chaucer, there is little in the first song of The Grief of Joye to indicate that
Gascoigne’s aspirations for his legacy run beyond the corrective. The song sees Gascoigne return to one of his
enduring preoccupations—his “lusty yowthe”—from the perspective of a man who
has learned that old age will mock and punish youthful joie de vivre. It is not
clear that Gascoigne has learned any of this through experience, however: when
he writes the poem he is in his mid-to-late thirties, years removed from
senescence. “[T]hough I be not olde, yet
trust to me,” he advises, reasoning that one closer to his youth “[m]aie better
serve, to handle youthe aright,/Then crooked age” (Works II., 523). Yet
Gascoigne fails to make up for what he lacks in gravitas with the sort of
revealing self-disclosure that might demonstrate his capacity to empathize: “I
shame to shewe, the deepe deceitfull driftes,/Whiche lovers use” (Works II., 525). Instead he sticks to the formulaically Stoic
script left by Petrarch, thus living down to expectations for moralist writing.
As Richard Helgerson observes of Gascoigne’s later works, “The recital of precept,
much of it translated from the works of Church Fathers, takes the place of
autobiographical poetry and proves his submission to the severest conventional
concedes that The Grief of Joye
presents a “slight relenting” from Gascoigne’s zealous moralizing; I would
suggest that the change is more than slight.
To appreciate the poem’s remarkable lack of contempt for the affairs of
the world in The Grief of Joye, it is
first important to note the structure of the poem. Gascoigne does not treat the four subjects
into which the poem is divided equally.
The first song’s observations on youth and age serve as the organizing
principle for the three remaining subjects: beauty, strength, and
activity. Youth sustains all three of
them, and age defeats them in turn—it is the inevitability of this cycle that
brings out the grief inherent in every joy.
In the third song, for instance, the poet warns that the mythic strength
16. Gascoigne’s fidelity to the Stoic master text notwithstanding, there are strong indications in The Grief of Joye that the poet entertains literary ambitions exceeding his stated business of Petrarchan imitation. As the first song comes to a close, he claims to have scarcely begun the work of developing topics that will substantiate his thesis on youth (26). In the final stanza, he writes:
Of Bewties blaze I have a song to sing/
Of strength lykewise, and Active quallities/
But synce my lute, hath broke the treble string,
Let pawse a whyle, untyll I maie devise,
Some newfownd notes, to chãnt in cherefull wise./
My playnesong tunes, (I feare) to long have bene,
And I wax hoarce, to sing before a Queene. (Works II., 525)
18. The pretext of pitting one’s own Muse against a bevy of assailants plucked from the Queen’s court results in a poem that is, on some level, terrifying in its specificity. Gascoigne repeatedly second-guesses his decision to stock the poem with non-fictional characters, as evidenced by his recurrent fixation on names and naming in the second song. In the twelfth stanza, not long after having commenced his pageant of beautiful ladies, the poet confesses that the art of courtly compliment is vexed by particulars:
But why do I, streyne curtesey to tell,
The proper names, of such as fame deserve?
Three worthie dames, next these I see full well,
Whiche threalten sore, thy carping tongue to carve/
Yf gentle words, for warning maie not serve/
Howardes they be/ but wch dothe shine most bright,
Were needeles (now) in makebate verse to wryte. (Works II., 528)
19. The pattern
is typical of the controlled hermeneutic of the second song, where Gascoigne
lets slip enough detail to “streyne curtesey” but recovers in time to preserve
the stable dialectic of grief and joy.
The term “courtesy” had been used earlier by Gascoigne as a means of
encouraging readers seeking idle pleasure in his works to respect his turn to
serious themes and lofty ambitions: “Of curtesie, yet pardone hym which
clymes,/To purchase praise, although, he fynd but skornes” (Works II., 518). Here in the second song Gascoigne’s concern
is ostensibly for the reputations of others; he implies that it strains
courtesy to match names to pretty faces, as if beauty were incriminating. The term “courtesy” is semantically fraught,
as Catherine Bates explains in an illuminating study on Elizabethan courtship
rhetoric. As a model of communication
premised on the delicate balance of suggestion and restraint, it can denote
exclusive intimacy between the persons privy to its codes, but it can just as
easily be manipulated into a crude cover for contrary codes. Bates traces the progress of “courtesy” in The Adventures of Master F. J. from its
origins in “the courteous qualities of hospitality, grace, and yieldingness”
that initially frame the relationship between F.J. and Elinor to its disfigured
ends in shame, adultery, and rape (29). As far as I can tell, Gascoigne wants nowhere
near such “courtesies” in The Grief of
Joye, and so the act of naming becomes the central mechanism through which
his overtures to the opposite sex are kept under surveillance: beauty always
has a name.
exception to this rule occurs when the poet sights upon a second “troupe of
Dames,” headed by a lady whom Gascoigne identifies by three names: Ferenda Natura,
Livia, and “The Hollow tree.” The
character of Ferenda first appears in Gascoigne’s verse narrative Dan Bartholmew of Bathe, where she plays
the faithless Crisedye to Bartholmew’s lovesick Troilus. The “reporter” who handles narrative duties
in Dan Bartholmew does not scruple to
foist the appellative “Ferenda Natura” upon her: “I can appoint hir well no
better name,/Than this where in dame Nature
bears the blame” (
My Sweetest sowre, my Joy of all my griefe,
My Frendly foe, myne ofte Reviving death,
My first Regreate, my right and last Reliefe,
My frewtfull cropp, and yet my Barreyne heath,
My store and stocke, wch spares & spends my breathe/
My Hope forlorne, my Heyght of all my Happe,
My Love first lulled, in golden fancies lappe. (Works II., 530)
As Jane Hedley has noted, allegoria is Gascoigne’s “master trope”—and his typical preference is for what Puttenham calls “mixed allegory,” which differs from “full allegory” by making certain components of the metaphor explicit to the reader (30). The paradoxes and antitheses to which Ferenda is compared in the twenty-second stanza support the thesis that the speaker states up front: that she is beauty incarnate, the joy of all his grief. But she is allegorized differently in the twenty-fourth and twenty-fifth stanzas. Instead of taking up beauty’s vendetta against the Muse, she lays down her arms and confronts the poet directly.
O Bartholmew, (saithe Shee) where be thy wytts,
And where the skyll, wch wont to guyde thy penn?
Shall world conclude, that fancy comes by fytts?
Wilt thow be founde, as fonde as other menn,
Who dotingly, do dally nowe and then?
Can light conceipt (in thy mynd) reasone chase,
From thate which proofe, hathe often put in place. (Works II., 530)
Ferenda reveals the speaker as the
titular hero of Dan Bartholmew, who
apparently has learned little since she plunged him from triumphant joys into
abject sorrows. At the beginning of that
poem he is described as one who has learned “good rules to bridle fantasie”—but
also as one so vulnerable to beauty’s charms “[t]hat at the last he quite
forgat his bookes,/And fastned fansie with the fairest lookes” (
21. In the
twenty-fifth stanza, Ferenda delivers the harshest blow by not using force with the Muse.
Ferenda simply “turnes her face, and weepes wth woofull
cheare” (Works II., 531), ceasing to
yield her visage as ammunition for beauty’s assault on the Muse. In refusing to indulge the martial conceit
through which the poet has been able to make beauty at once the object of a
courtly spectacle and a cautionary fable, Ferenda brings the poem to a virtual
standstill. She foils the poet’s ploy to
paint the Muse and the ladies of the court as foes; her tears of “woofull
cheare” cement the détente of grief and joy in her own person. The poet, outed as “Bartholmew”, in turn must
announce that he is not the impartial observer that he has pretended to
be. On the contrary, he has stoked the
feud to provide cover for his still passionate love for Ferenda. As he is soon forced to confess, “I played wth
some, theire pacience for to prove,/But Livia
(in earnest) had my love” (Works II.,
true-to-life identity of Ferenda has confounded scholars, with perennial
speculation that she represents Gascoigne’s wife, Elizabeth Bacon Bretton (31) —but she is figured so diversely in Dan Bartholmew and The Grief of Joye that it seems to me counterintuitive to try to
solve the mystery of her identity. The
surfeit of names she is given reflects more powerfully on the motivations of
the poet who is determined to keep her identity a secret. Initially he deploys her to expose his own
trickery; she reveals that he has instigated the war on the Muse for no greater
purpose than to create visual pageantry.
Once the poet is held to task for his obsequious ways, he may then make
amends by letting the truth about beauty be known. For the remainder of the second song, the
poet ceases to play beauty’s advocate—the Muse speaks her mind, and the ladies
are appeased. Ironically, his turn away
from the idle enjoyments of physical beauty is prompted by the most devastating
beauty of all: Ferenda. She so outpaces
her courtly companions that the poet can scarcely summarize her beauty in a
name. The greatest courtesy he can
afford Ferenda is to name her without giving her away—that is, to acknowledge
her distinction among the throng of courtly beauties while keeping her actual
identity close to the vest.
23. The poet’s
protective gestures inevitably veer toward the darker side of courtesy—the side
where unspoken truth is used to license unspeakable aberrations from that
truth. Following the twenty-eighth
stanza of the second song, where Ferenda’s praises are sung once more, she is
never again mentioned. She quietly
disappears from the poem amid a third wave of attacks on the Muse, and does not
return even when the situation is pacified.
Presumably she has paid a pivotal role in ending the war on the Muse,
but she plays no visible role in brokering the peace. It may simply be the case that Ferenda’s work
is done, that the poet has learned his lesson.
It may also be that he makes her disappear. To absent her from the poem exempts her from
the logic that beauty withers with age, and enables the poet to draw a wedge
between the Stoic beliefs he has been compelled to profess and the fantasy he
harbors of an ageless, all-joyous Ferenda.
24. It is this
ambivalent brand of moralism in The Grief
of Joye that ultimately links Gascoigne to Chaucer. At the behest of a self-identified “Cressides heire” (Works I. 126), Gascoigne’s speaker accepts the challenge to put his
errant ways behind him, but the mode of retraction—arch, evasive,
meandering—leaves his motives in doubt.
Chaucer’s retractions invite the same scrutiny, largely because of how
much they seek to retract. To take
Chaucer’s Retraction at his word, one must believe that the poet disowns all of
his works but Boece and a few
devotional pieces; to read Troilus correctly,
one must trust that the belated triumph of divine love forgives the sins of
description that the poem commits at length.
Chaucer himself avers that this is much to ask: he cites Troilus first among the “translacions
and enditynges of worldly vanitees” that he wants purged from his canon of
works, as if convinced that the poem’s adulterous preoccupations were beyond
25. Among the
myriad penitent gestures through which Chaucer and Gascoigne attend to their
legacies in their poetry, the common denominator is the sense that experience
demands nothing less than honest reflection.
Even the severest of their rebukes acknowledge that youth retains a high
tolerance for error. Chaucer’s Troilus
is among the best examples: he remains hemmed in by earthly vanities until his
death, acquiring a proper disdain for earth only when he transcends it. As the poem draws to a close, his successors
are hastened toward the same realization:
O yonge, fresshe folkes, he or she,
In which that love up growth with youre age,
Repeyreth hom fro worldly vanyte,
And of youre herte up casteth the visage
To thilke God that after his ymage
Yow made, and thynketh al nys but a faire,
This world that passeth soone as floures faire. (33)
The exhortation is predictably steeped in the spirit of contemptus mundi, but almost unconsciously reverts to carpe diem at the stanza’s end, as the poem directs “yonge, fresshe folkes” to such experience as can only be had during their short time on earth. Gascoigne’s poem likewise hints that a penchant for idle attractions is not the shame of youth but the very definition. In The Grief of Joye, when pressed to explain why earthly beauty should not be seen as God’s most prized handiwork, the poet responds in terms that are stern but knowing:
Not I allone, but noombers infinyte,
Of toward yowthes, have roone theire race awrye,
By glañce and gasing, at things apposite,
Which helde them fast, and would not let thẽ flye,
To perfect poyntes, wch placed are on heighe/
Thes whites and markes, wch glister here by lowe,
Are shootes (for shyft) but for a baser bowe./ (Works II., 534)
sentiment recalls not only the Troilus palinode but also Gascoigne’s own “Woodmanship” poem, in which he treats his
poor marksmanship as a metaphor for his history of professional shortcomings:
“He shootes awrie almost at every marke” (Works
I., 348). In The Grief of Joye the purview of the metaphor is expanded from
personal experience to universal truth; the poet is joined in failure by
“toward yowthes” in “noombers infinyte”.
He holds up a mirror to the foibles of youth and, gratefully, sees more
than the solitary image of himself.
26. With this
gesture of commiseration, Gascoigne acknowledges that his plight is nothing
unique: it is the lot of the courtly aspirant to be undone by his basest
inclinations. Yet he simultaneously
refuses to give the sundry embarrassments that dot his courtly career the final
word on his legacy as a poet. Given the
discrepancy between Gascoigne’s claims to have reformed himself and the
contrary indications that persist in his work—The Grief of Joye in particular—it is not surprising that the poet
continues to be dogged over questions of sincerity. While these questions have been iterated with
progressively greater sophistication and awareness, it is unlikely that they
will soon be exhausted (34). In the final, incomplete stanza of The Grief of Joye, Gascoigne leaves the
door open on his future literary prospects:
I can rehearce yett many myschieves mo,
And sundry greeves, that &c. &c. (Works II., 557)
The last published lines in Gascoigne’s poetic canon point two possible ways. Literally, it seems that the poet has been silenced prematurely and that, in keeping with the promise of the dedicatory epistle, he plans to resume the task of adapting of De remediis as circumstances permit. The other possibility is that the future is wider open, that in the dual et cetera he reserves the right to rehearse his final reformation indefinitely. In neglecting the particulars Gascoigne is his own Adam Scriveyn; in seizing the opportunity left by that neglect, he is his own master Chaucer. And in showing that the poet must shape his legacy by unsettling it, Gascoigne is unmistakably Chaucer’s boy.
1 Alice S. Miskimin, The Renaissance Chaucer (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1975), 90. See also John M. Steadman, The Lamb and the Elephant: Ideal Imitation and the Context of Renaissance Allegory (San Marino, Ca.: The Huntington Library, 1974).
10 See George Puttenham, The Arte of English Poesie (Kent, Oh.: Kent State University Press, 1970), 75. Gascoigne is credited specifically “for a good meeter and for a plentifull vayne” (77).
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Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.
© 2008-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).