Sunday, September 1, 2013
Between Wyatt and Surrey, George Gascoigne is probably England’s most significant poet. His historical position is unassailable. According to Legouis’ thorough A History of English Literature Gascoigne wrote the first “prose story taken from real life, the first prose comedy, the first tragedy translated from Italian, the first masque, the first regular satire, and the first treatise on English prosody.” He was perhaps only too prolific; he is little-read today. In his pursuit of a career as soldier, courtier, and poet, he never measured up to the high standard Sidney would achieve in each of these realms after him. Though workmanlike with considerable ingenuity and occasional wit, his poetry has only flashes of memorable phrase. His alexandrines and fourteeners sound all but interminable to today’s ears. He is capable of sounding very like the rustics of Midsummer Night’s Dream: “My liking lust, my lucklesse love,” “My secrete partes are so with secret sorrowe soken.” Still, the conceit of his “Lullaby of a Lover” is striking “Full many wanton babes have I,/ Which must be stilled with lullaby.” He is good with proverbial expressions: “every bullet hath a lighting place” “mo the merrier” “castels buylt above in lofty skies,/ Which never yet had good foundation.” Other folk-like materials sound fresh and lively: “There's nobody at home/ But Jumping Joan,/ And father and mother and I.” He can have a spurt of Renaissance freshness: for him, the devil must be killed “with gonshote of beleefe.”
His pioneering poetics, called “Certayne Notes of Instruction Concerning the Making of Verse or Ryme in English” appeared in The Posies in 1575. His terminology and habits of thought are Aristotelian and rhetorical. His ideas arise from induction, not a priori, and seek to account for his own experience in poetry. Gascoigne betrays no belief in inspiration of either the Platonic or the Christian varieties.  Influenced by authors like Castiglione and by his own position, seeking patronage at court, he portrays poetry as a refined accomplishment like skill at arms, horsemanship, or love-making.
Like most pre-modern literary theorists, Gascoigne’s analysis is centered on the use of the conceptual framework and terminology of the rhetorical tradition.  Gascoigne’s rhetorical orientation is evident in his stress on invention and on propriety. To him a work must be both “good” (appealing in concept or content) and “fine” (that is, well-executed or stylish).
In invention the poet can display his “the quick capacity,” a quality that might be equated today with originality. Each work has its own unique character which must be consistently maintained. The reader may relish the wit of the author’s ideas independent of their validity.
The interest in propriety is another rhetorical trait. Meter must be consistent. Each metrical form implies a certain appropriate subject matter. The tradition allows the artist to convey more semantic data when his audience is familiar with a set of conventions and expectations.
Further, Gascoigne, as a writer in an age when Latin composition still made the vernacular seem to many second-rate, insists on the value of natural colloquial language in poetry. Metric stress should correspond to stress in spoken usage ; iambic is the ordinary meter of the English language; words of one syllable are more English than polysyllabics. Obsolete and foreign or learned words are generally undesirable.
Gascoigne says nothing about morality, or instruction. Art is wholly aesthetic; a good poem is “delectable,”  To please readers, authors must avoid trite expressions, avoiding the “uncomely customes of common writers,” and expressing ideas obliquely through tropes, allegory, or allusion, or some other novel presentation. Thus the aesthetic text affords the pleasures of a riddle or crossword. It must be soluble but not obvious, in Gascoigne’s terms “frame your stile to perpiscuity and to be sensible,” neither too obscure nor too “easie.”
His stress is on ingenuity or wit in a context of shared convention. The poet is in fact, quite similar to a skilled raconteur or a clever party guest. Art is a display of well-wrought words, clearly within a tradition, yet defining its own sophistication through moves that cannot be wholly anticipated. This sort of dance of expectations between the writer and the audience requires considerable shared education and culture. Such poetry works most efficiently with the most homogenous readership.
Gascoigne insists on this familiar yet refined milieu when he places his essay in an upper-class familiar social context, addressing it to an Italian friend in fulfillment of a personal promise. Thus his formulas of humility – he calls his own ideas “simple” at the outset and concludes saying “I doubt my own ignorance” – reinforce the genteel amateur’s love of art that was part of upper-class identity. Far from defining his profession, Gascoigne’s poems, like those of the other chief poets of his age, are an decorative ornament, a flower of chivalry which, when combined with his other elegant accomplishments and his martial valor, characterize him as one of “the best,” that is to say, an aristocrat. Though his ideas are neither as well-worked-out as Sidney’s nor as original as Dr. Johnson’s, he provides a reliable view of the ideas current in his time and social milieu.
1. I am using the Collected Works of George Gascoigne edited by John W. Cunliffe, a 1969 Greenwood Press reprint of the 1907 Cambridge University Press edition.
2. Some decades after Gascoigne rhetoric received its definitive Elizabethan treatment in George Puttenham’s Art of English Poesie (1589). This topic in general has been too little appreciated. Rhetoric has too often been abandoned to those interested in “public speaking.”
3. The discussion of meter is complicated by the fact that Gascoigne conflates Classical quantitative meters with accentual English ones.
4. He does make a formulaic gesture toward Christianity in his “Advertisement” to the reader that prefaces The Posies.
Most movements for social change are generated among the oppressed and aggrieved: women demonstrated for suffrage and workers for unions. Local homeowners get together to declare “not in my back yard” or to campaign for a stoplight. The student and youth movements of the 1960s are unusual in that those who took up the cause of African-Americans and of the Vietnamese people were relatively privileged members of the crest of the great American middle class, created largely by the labor movement of the thirties and the GI Bill of the forties. As white college students they enjoyed comforts and expectations rather greater than the norm even for their own affluent postwar country.
People speak loosely about “the sixties” as an era of psychedelics and political protest. As a ’67 graduate of the University of Illinois, I can testify that protestors (and dopers) were a marginal group throughout my undergraduate years. When I manned the Students Against the War table in the student union, I could count on arguing with fellow students all day long. My wife was called a dyke for marching in a demonstration against parietal hours for women. I felt I knew all the people in the small coterie involved with leftist protest.
The fact is that when I arrived at the University of Illinois in the fall of 1963 the Old Left groups had vanished. I believe the only progressive group on the Champaign-Urbana campus of tens of thousands of students was the NAACP, to be followed later by a Friends of SNCC chapter. The Free Speech Movement in Berkeley in 1964 inspired Students for Free Speech and Student Committee on Political Expression.
About this time several others and I – I believe it was perhaps six students that one needed to create an official organization – started an Independent Socialist Club. Like the Port Huron authors, we wanted to avoid the historic entanglements of the Stalinists, Trotskyites, and followers of Norman Thomas (who spoke at the U. of I. in the spring of ’65). We could be punctilious if we liked as there were so few of us and we did no organizing, no demonstrations, indeed, no political work at all. Our meetings were as good as private though a few drifters passed through.
Inconsequential as we were, we found we constituted a tempting bait for the very groups of which we had been wary. An older Communist, a YSA rep from miles away, and a local Socialist each in turn asked us to affiliate. Even as a discussion group we meandered. One of our original crew began pushing SWP tapes of Raya Dunayevskaya. Another thought we could best contribute to progress by intensive discussions of What is to be Done?
Mercifully, in the fall of 1965, Students for a Democratic Society organized. At that point SDS was a broad popular front organization with many Democratic Party activists as well as socialists, anarchists, and wholly non-ideological individualists, perhaps even a stray liberal Republican or two. The Independent Socialist Club disbanded after a scant year of existence.
The New Left Movement is often said to have begun with the February 1960 Woolworth’s sit-in in Greensboro and the subsequent founding of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, but until SDS there was no large and inclusive student organization pressing for social justice and peace. Veterans of the Southern Movement, both white and black, were influential leaders in the years that followed as were the “red diaper” babies whose families had been socialist in earlier decades, but each of these groups was small in numbers. The increasingly massive numbers of people willing to stand up against the system arose from the “youth revolution” element which grew exponentially following the Haight-Ashbury Summer of 1967 and the continuing threat of the draft which affected most men (though virtually all those who sought to wiggle out of the military obligation were able to do so).
My second anecdote concerns a friend I will identify only as D-------- K------ as we have been out of touch for some time, and I have not discussed my account with him. It is, however, simple and sketchy enough that I am confident of its accuracy and, I hope, significant enough to warrant telling.
In the junior year of his studies at a prestigious private university K------, who had considerable personal charm, a gift for rabble-rousing, and a highly developed sense of the ridiculous, moved to establish a DuBois Club on his campus. The DuBois Clubs were in fact essentially the youth group of the American Communist Party, as the Young Communist League had been (and would again be – the old name came back in 1984). Universities often found such groups unpalatable, particularly schools with endowments that count on the continuing patronage of wealthy alumni. Many in higher education doubtless feared publicity arising from even the smallest of revolutionary contingents and tried to ban such clubs.
The membership of a DuBois Club might have been little larger and its impact little greater than my Independent Socialist Club had it been permitted, but it was not. Virtually all the students agreed that this decision was undemocratic, and they rallied energetically against it. My friend K------ had the opportunity to exercise his considerable abilities as a debater, entertainer, and wit in an ongoing series of demonstrations that attracted ever-increasing crowds. The celebrity he won in this cause led to his election as student body president the following year (1967-8). I doubt that the DuBois Club ever had a real meeting. K------‘s psychic jiu-jitsu had caused the university administration to defeat itself and elevate him to prominence. As a result of their bungling and the movement of history, the critical mass of participants for truly disruptive sit-ins and rallies had arrived. Though most of the students were simply believers in what K------ might have called bourgeois democracy, that alone was enough to set them on his side against the powers that be.
A revealing sequel occurred the following spring. As K------ tells it, he was delivering a rousing anti-war speech on campus when he was interrupted by cries of “Talk is bullshit!” We want action, not talk!” and eventually, “To the ROTC Building!” He was left standing at the podium with a mere remnant of his audience. When those who had left destroyed the ROTC Building, he was charged with having incited a riot, though the claim was sufficiently absurd that it was later dropped.
These experiences suggest, first, the simple truth that political protests of the sixties occurred, for the most part, during the last few years of that decade (and the first months of 1970). When students did become active, they were often moved by non-political motives. When political, their values were generally not radical and, indeed, rarely went beyond the guarantees of the Bill of Rights. The most dramatic actions were generally not the result of traditional labor union-style organizing and careful planning, but rather were spontaneous, sharing as much of the character of post-football disorders as of sit-down strikes. When the draft no longer threatened most young men, they ceased protesting. There were from the start dedicated advocates for social justice who sought to question America’s foreign and domestic policies and to suggest radical alternatives, but their numbers were never great. Both those who would trivialize the movement of the sixties and those who would idealize it might well recall these home truths.
Though every inhabited area of the earth has produced indigenous narratives, storytellers have also enthusiastically borrowed the narratives of others as well, altering freely to their own taste. While Celtic lore contributed significantly to the European inventory of plotlines as did Classical and Biblical sources, many stories in European languages derive ultimately from much further afield. Narratives from South Asia often reached Europe after having passed through a series of intermediary translation into Persian, Arabic, and a variety of other languages.
One of the most extraordinary instances of this cultural dissemination is the Panchatantra which, according to its translator Ryder, contains “the most widely known stories in the world,” . Compiled from older sources in the third century BCE and reaching something like its current form perhaps five hundred years later, this work was enlarged and translated from Sanskrit to Pahlevi by the scholar Sir Thomas North called Berozias. The book subsequently appeared in versions in Syriac, Arabic, Hebrew, Latin, then Spanish, and from Spanish into a broad range of other languages including a dozen European tongues as well as Turkish, Malay, and other unlikely tongues. It is therefore a veritable literary palimpsest in which the exotic and the familiar collide. Every story tells its own tale of significant reflections and refractions. 
The most widespread English version on this cosmopolitan family tree is North’s The Moral Philosophy of Doni, a translation of an Italian rendering, itself translated from Spanish from a Latin version which derived from a Hebrew one, a translation of the Arabic of Al-Moqaffa, bringing one back to only a few removes from the original. Apart from this complexity, the text also employs frame-stories sufficiently elaborately that at times one is reading stories within stories, five or six removes from the initial narration.
Sir Thomas North is a master stylist and rhetorician best known for his version of Plutarch (for which he worked from a French translation).  His prose, at times colloquial and natural, more often hypotactic and architectural, is regularly mellifluous and seasoned with obsolete, obscure, foreign, and half-Anglicized words, selected for the pleasure they give the cognoscenti. At times these learned usages appear side by side with vernacular, even slang, expressions.
The title is altogether a misnomer, as moral philosophy is rather an excuse than the central point of the stories. They are told as entertainment, and the themes vary from moral to strategic to romantic. What sententiae do emerge are often ironic or conflicted. When the text is like wisdom literature it is ordinarily prudential rather than prescriptive, describing gambits that will work in the real world as opposed to idealistic principles.
Beginning with classic folk-tales, nearly all of which boast numerous analogues in Stith Thompson’s Motif-Index, the complex history of transmission these stories have undergone and the framing patterns into which they have been ingeniously fitted make interpretation unusually subtle. Further, the inclusion of wood-cut illustrations, sometimes not created for the purpose of illustrating the story, contributes yet another layer of significance that enriches and alters what came before. A few brief examples of the issues raised by the first of these factors alone will provide some sense of the rich semiotic density of North’s text.
In the dramatic image of the human being suspended over the abyss from the Mahabharata (see my essay on the appearance of this image in Barlaam and Ioasaph). Though facing imminent death, the person enjoys the indulgence of honey that happens to be dripping nearby. In the Mahabharata the honey’s appeal is illusory or puerile, a simple function of the veil of maya; “though sweet to all creatures [it can], however, attract children only.” This Hindu attitude is echoed by a Christian one in Barlaam where it is the “deceptive” sweetness of the delights of this world that distract the individual from thoughts of eternity. Ignoring for a moment the unbearably harsh terms of existence, the human consciousness can experience a brief respite during which he can forget “quite in what terms of life he [and all the rest of us] stood,” until “sorrow struck him on the neck.” In North’s version,  the implication is altogether secular and yet at the same time even more sympathetic to suffering humanity. In the Moral Philosophy the honey is almost a merciful balm which “retaineth us and suffereth us not to know the dangers and troubles of this most miserable world and of our thrall and troubled life.” Though its basic distracting character reappears, here it functions not as a fraud to divert the person from more productive thoughts, but rather as a palliative to an otherwise intolerable life.
Details are highlighted by their appearance and disappearance in successive versions of these stories, gaining additional suggestive power from the fact that some writer has felt the text improved by adding or removing them. For instance, in North’s “The Fox’s Tale of the Paragon of India and the Crab”  the crab is romantically motivated; she questions the bird’s motives to protect “a Tench that she loved well,” whereas in the Sanskrit source, the crab acts when she sees heaps of discarded bones from previous meals. There is no question of interspecies affection in India. Is North’s addition a remote reflection of the poetry of amour courtois?
In the story of “The Ape Meddling in That He had no Skill” , the monkey pays the price for his presumption when his leg is caught in the log, and he is summarily dispatched by the wood-cutter, a “churlish clown,” who “pash[es] his brains a-pieces” with a bat. In the far briefer telling of the Panchatantra, the simian catches his privates in the cleft of the log, and this is considered enough of a punch-line. What happened next the reader does not learn.
And so it goes. This book in its first incarnation was an encyclopedia of narrative purporting to some system, seeking to cover all significant situations of life through metaphoric fables. The successive transformations of the text through several millennia, across thousands of miles of widely varying languages and cultures, has only refined it and enhanced its inclusiveness. One of the most subtle and intricately coded books we have, I am delighted to say, is made up of stories most of which would delight any sensible three-year-old.
1. p. 3 in the University of Chicago edition. Ryder goes on to say that, were the book called “the best collection of stories in the world, the assertion could hardly be disproved.”
2. This remarkable history led Theodor Benfey to compose one of the pioneering works of comparative literature in his 1859 edition.
3. He also translated Guevara's Reloj de Principes. North’s elegant periods influenced Lyly and other practitioners of Euphuism. Shakespeare’a debt to North’s Plutarch for his plays set in ancient Rome extends beyond information to copying phrases verbatim.
4. p, 241 “An Allegory of the World.”
5. p. 294 in Moral Philosophy, corresponding to Panchantantra I, 8.
6. p. 253.