|The Romance of the Rose and the Birth of Fiction
[There follows a ‘lecture’ version of much of what was said in class, with other information. You might want to read this in conjunction with your notes from class. Other topics not covered in this lecture that were mentioned in class include the reading process: the nature of the reader’s identification with the lover; the sense in which the reading process is and is not “rational,” allowing us to “parse” what is going on inside the dreamer’s “recombinative imagination” and thus come to judgements of which he seems incapable; and the opening of the class, on Dan and Naphtali, about which I have the following notes:
Dan and Naphtali: notion that the imagination should be used schematically as part of the soul’s ascent to God. Dan recombines physical data from the world around to imagine a physical location, hell. Naphtali takes other physical data but builds an image of a spiritual place, heaven. Let’s notice again before we pass on that this a) gives a more positive religious function to the imagination than Augustine allows it, or that Boethius at least explicitly gives it, although it DOES have something in common with Cassian, perhaps; b) that the moment at which the imagination begins to “rise” in this sense is also the moment in which love, as an aspect of the part of the soul called “will,” begins to separate off from Reason and claim power, sometimes hegemony. Love, Leah in Richard’s version of this, links to the senses and passions, to the extent indeed that Richard assumes that spiritual ascent begins in the present, with “proximate pleasures,” and selfish desires and fears, such as fear of God; although in the end Leah proves to be part of the soul. “Soul” and “body” are mixing it up in new ways here, and imagination is in the middle.
Unlike this bit, the rest of what follows is in connected prose!]
1. The Rose’s Reputation: the Romance of the Rose was probably the most influential high-art literary work produced during the European Middle Ages. It survive in more manuscripts than anything else of its kind, including all the works of Chaucer and Dante put together, and was read all over Europe, from Spain to Sicily to Poland to Iceland – a range that reflects the parallel range of French in the Middle Ages, which became the recognized language of aristocratic court culture all over Europe, partly thanks to the Rose. It was widely imitated, effectively creating an entire genre, that of the courtly dream poem, which remained, essentially, the poetic long literary form closely identified with high art, its only competitor the Arthurian romance. Everyone used the form: Chaucer wrote no fewer than four dream poems, The Book of the Duchess, The House of Fame, The Parliament of Fowls and The Legend of Good Women, all of which borrow directly from the Romance of the Rose, and he translated a portion of the poem into Middle English (The Romaunt of the Rose). In using the poem, he built, not only directly on Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun’s achievement, but on a long line of late thirteenth- and fourteenth-century French poets, the most famous of whom was Guillaume de Machaut, who were similarly imitators of the Rose. The famous opening passage of The Canterbury Tales, with its invocation of “Aprille, with his shoures soote,” is also meant to remind readers of the dream poem genre in general, and of the description of May that begins the Rose in particular: “The woods, which are dry all winter long, regain their greeneess; the very earth glories in the dew that waters it, and forgets the poverty in which it has spent the whole winter; this is the time when the earth become so proud that it desires a new dress, and is able to make a dress so lovely that there are a hundred pairs of colours in it”(3-4). Here’s Chaucer’s translation of this passage, which uses the octosyllabic couplets of the original (Handout 1):
That it was May, thus dremed me,
In tyme of love and Iolite,
That al thing gynneth waxen gay,
ffor ther is neither busk nor hay
In May, that it nyl shrouded bene,
And it with newe leves wrene.
These wodes eek recoveren bene
That drie in wynter ben to sene,
And the erth wexith proude with All,
ffor swote dewes that on it fall,
And the pore estat forgette
In which that wynter had it sette,
And than bycometh the ground so proude
That it wole have a newe shroude,
And makith so queynt his robe and faire
That it hath hewes an hundred payre
Of gras and flouris, ynde and pers,
And many hewes ful dyvers.
The appropriation of Nature here to the cause of Art, the atmosphere of expectation, especially bodily expectation, conveyed by the lines, the language of poverty and wealth that eases us into the fiction that nature is somehow all about social class and that spring belongs to the rich, as well as to the young and the beautiful: all these provide essential genre markers to hosts of poets who follow the Rose, even if, like Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales, the genre is there as much to be flouted as to be followed.
Chaucer invokes the opening in the Tales to flag things he can’t easily flag any other way: “high art literary poem” and “fiction” – we’ll be coming back to “fiction” in a moment. Other poets, however, say different things through their allusions to the Rose. In The Divine Comedy, Dante places allusions to the poem at key moments at the beginning and ending of his poem. “In the middle of the journey of this life/ I came to myself in a dark wood/ Where the straight way was lost” (Nel mezzo del camin di nostra vita,/ Mi ritrovai nell’ una selva oscura/ dove la diritta via era smarrita), begins the Inferno. Mi ritrovai here, “I came to myself,” could just mean “I found myself, I discovered that I was,” but it’s also a gloomy allusion to the strange ontological shift that takes place at the beginning of dream poems in the tradition of the Rose, in which characters go to sleep, then have a dream which begins with their waking up in bed, in a new order of reality: “I dreamed one night that it was that delightful season, when everything is excited by love, and as I slept, it seemed to me that it was already broad daylight. I rose from my bed at once,” says the Rose (p. 4), marking this shift, before the dreamer goes out, not into a Virgilian selva oscura but a broad, green meadow. Dante, like Chaucer, is here flagging similarities and differences between his project and that of the dream poem: he’s saying “high art”; he’s sort of saying “fiction” (more on this in a couple of weeks); and in his case he’s also saying “love quest,” since the whole of the Comedy is, in one sense, about Dante’s pursuit of Beatrice. That pursuit morphs into the pursuit of divine love, not human, as we reach the end of the Purgatorio, where Dante meets Beatrice once again, in a garden at the top of Mount Purgatory that references the garden of love in the Rose, among other gardens; and the pursuit ends in heaven, towards the end of the Paradiso, when Dante arrives at the heavenly court like the pilgrim at the end of the Romance of the Rose, and sees this court as a rose: a rosa sempiterna or candida rosa (eternal rose, white rose) with the orders of the saved sitting rank by rank in ascending and overlapping circles, like a sequence of partly unfolded petals, as they gaze upwards towards the perfection of humanity, the Virgin Mary, and on beyond her to the vision of God.
Not everyone liked the Rose or used it in these positive ways. In the early fifteenth century, a literary controversy arose in France called the Querelle de la Rose, in which the poem was attacked for irreverence, obscenity, and misogyny by the country’s foremost woman intellectual, Christine de Pizan, helped by the chancellor of the university of Paris, Jean Gerson: their attacks, foreshadowed in one of Chaucer’s poems, in which the God of Love describes the Rose as heresy, raise serious issues about the association of the fictional with the lying or immoral which are quite relevant to our concerns in this course, and which haven’t even now gone away. You may want to attack the poem yourself once we’re done, not necessarily for immorality but perhaps for misogyny, or at least for being endlessly digressive and systematically impossible to pin down.
2. The Birth of Fiction: We know very little about how the Rose came to be: we only know the name of its first author, Guillaume, because he’s mentioned by its second one, Jean de Meun, and the date usually given to the first Rose, around 1225-30, is pretty much a guess, as is the more recent guess that Guillaume, like Jean de Meun, worked in Paris and may have written his poem more for university students – “clerks,” studying in Paris for careers in the church or what we’d now call the civil service – than for the court audiences who later became so identified with the poem. This date, however, places the origins of the poem about half a century after Richard of St. Victor (also writing in Paris, and with the religious part of a not entirely dissimilar audience in mind, weird as that may seem), and about half a century after the earliest poems called romans or romances started being written in northern France, using the octosyllabic couplet.
The earliest romans are historical poems such as the Roman de Troie by Benoit de St.-Maur, or Wace’s Roman de Brut, poems in which the word roman, now used to describe what we term the novel, may not mean much more than “vernacular,” although it already seems to connote verse and narrative as well: thus Roman de Troie means roughly “the story of Troy told in French verse.” These are followed by a body of poetry that still keeps ties to the historical but that prefers the pseudo-history of the Arthurian story to the better established histories of Troy and Rome and that quickly begins to develop new notions of literary form and doctrines of plot and representation that are not wholly unlike those later developed around the novel. The great figure here is Chretien de Troyes, who between about 1180 and 1200 essentially invented the Arthurian romance genre that culminates, for the Middle Ages, in Malory’s Morte d’Arthure and is still with us in an endless sequence of bad movies and one good one, which is, of course, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Chretien’s studies of the knightly protagonist in Erec et Enide, Yvain, and his great, incomplete Percevaus (the ultimate source of Wagner’s opera Parzifal), are some of the subtlest essays in literary characterization before the eighteenth century.
Chretien’s poems belong in a space between history and fiction, built on stories and characters in which he and his readers may have reposed some historical belief, and linking this gesture at history with the moral truth shown (often falteringly) by the protagonists, but also often flagging the made-up character of the situations, identifying fiction with personal confusion, bad love affairs, growing up, and above all humour in a way we also see in the Rose. It’s the Rose, possibly three decades after Chretien’s death, that takes another important step towards fiction, by detaching the narrative from the realm of public history altogether, reattaching it to the poet’s supposed personal history, then telling that history prophetically and allegorically, in the form of a dream. I’m going to defer the question “why” for a few minutes, but all these moves are apparently aimed at the ambiguation of the narrative and all it contains: that is, at detaching anything the poem says from any necessary connection with the “true,” and thus also from any responsibility it might otherwise have to decide anything. History in the middle ages is partly a moral genre, about the “truth” of the past in so far as the past records “true,” that is morally instructive, stories of “true” and inversely false behavior. Historians thus divide the past into true and false, supposedly instructing readers in the “lessons of the past” along the homiletic lines these opposing terms suggest. Guillaume’s rethinking of the roman so that it has, literally, nothing to do with the historical suggests that the avoidance of this model of moral narrative is an important part of is purpose.
3. Dreams: All the same, the opening of the Rose ostensibly flags itself as “true” too. Here, again, is Chaucer’s verse version of what you have in prose at the very beginning of the text (Handout 2):
Many men sayn that in sweveninges [dreams]
There nys but fables and lesynges [lies]
But men may some swevene sene
Whiche hardely that false ne bene. [can scarcely be called false]
This maye I drawe to warraunt [summon in evidence]
An authour that hight Macrobes [Macrobius]
That halte nat dremes false ne lees [didn’t regard, lies]
But undoth us the avysioun [expounds the dream]
That whilom mette kyng Cypioun. [that Scipio once dreamed]
And who so saith or weneth it be
A jape or else nicete
To wene that dremes after fal
Lette who so lyste a fole me cal [whoever wants]
For this trowe I and say for me [believe]
That dremes signifiaunce be [give signs]
Of good and harme to many wightes [people]
That dremen in her slepe anyghtes
Ful many thynges covertly [obscurely/privately]
That fallen after al openly.
The Rose begins, then, by drawing to our attention its status as a dream, and linking itself, via a claim for the truth of dreams, to Macrobius’s Commentary on the Dream of Scipio, a fifth century work (we were going to look at and did not) which provides one of the more positive templates for analysis of the dream available to later medieval thinkers. On the Handout (Passage 3, key sentences bolded), you have the crucial passage of Macrobius’s Commentary on which Guillaume is reflecting here, with its attempt to distinguish between useful kinds of dream – the somnium, the oraculum and the visio from the visum and the insomnium – and its categorization of these three useful types into enigmatic, oracular, and prophetic, the last two being distinguished only by the fact that prophetic dreams are oracular ones that actually come true. Scipio’s dream, which you may remember involves an intervention by his grandfather, who takes him to heaven and shows him the earth, while also explaining to him the cosmos – is clearly oraculum and visio, and Guillaume refers to it correctly as an avisioun. Macrobius also insists that it is a somnium, an enigmatic dream, and Guillaume refers correctly to this dream type too in the last line but one of the Handout 2 passage, with its use of the word “covertly” (couverte), which means at once “secretly” and “obscurely.”
What kind of dream is the Rose? According to Handout, passage 4, it’s a visio too, although the lesser kind of visio Macrobius calls “personal” as distinct from “social,” “public” and “universal”:
Within my twenty yere of age
What that love taketh his corage
Of yonge folke, I wente soone
To bedde as I was wonte to done
And faste I slepte, and in slepyng
Me metter suche a swevening [I dreamed such a dream]
That lyked me wonders wele
But in that sweven is never a dele
That it nys afterwarde befal [that it did not happen afterwards]
Right as this dreme wol tel us al.
That word couverte/“covertly” from the second passage on the Handout also flags an important feature of the poem that’s beginning: its use of allegory, as a “boy meet girl” story in which the girl’s beauty or desirability is represented as a flower, while her other characteristics become people, thorns, hedges, and so forth. Whatever else this is, clearly it’s a somnium. But what about the “useless” types of dreams Macrobius mentions, the insomnium and the visum? The very first two lines remind us of these types by alluding to the fact that many people regard dreams as lies:
Many men sayn that in sweveninges [dreams]
There nys but fables and lesynges [lies]
In French, the rhyme here is songes for dreams, mensonges for lies, so that dreams first enter our consciousness in the poem literally wrapped up inside the idea of lying. This should by itself be enough to alert us to the possibility that the songe or dream being told here is not really a visio in the full Macrobian sense but an insomnium. So might the early references to the poet as a young lover and the poem’s promise to offer the “whole art of love” – a claim that alludes to Ovid’s Ars amatoria or Art of Love – since Macrobius specifically mentions “the lover who dreams of possessing his sweetheart” among his examples of the insomnium. Even Macrobius’s account of the visum – an early night dream in which the dreamer “thinks he is still fully awake and imagines he sees specters rushing at him or wandering vaguely about.. and hosts of diverse things, either delightful or disturbing” – turns out to be more relevant than first seems, since our dreamer begins his dream by thinking it’s morning, and wandering off into the meadows of his mind to encounter a whole series of strange, allegorical characters. Rather than carefully parsing its dream into the appropriate types in the style of Macrobius, the Rose, in short, begins by signally failing to disentangle the strands that make up its various elements. “Lette who so lyste a fole me cal,” let whoever wants call me a fool, says Guillaume’s narrator in claiming the truth of his dream, and we are tempted, from the start, to retort, “you said it, not me.” Folly is, after all, the hallmark of our impetuous, twenty-year-old, dream lover from the minute he sees the rose until its conquest, 21,000 lines (mostly by Jean de Meun) later, and the opening, for all its invocation of the authoritative figure of Macrobius, does little to make us incline to trust the seriousness of his purpose or the accuracy of his claims.
4. The Rose’s Epistemology: So, why? Why does the Rose set out to occupy this uncertain and one might have thought undesirable territory, somewhere between the somnium and the insomnium, the enigmatic dream and the dream caused by the dreamer’s waking thoughts and obsessions? And why does its success in doing this become so consequential for later poets, crucial to everything Chaucer ever thought about poetry and fiction and regarded, for all its talk of “folly,” as serious enough to act as both entry-point and exit-point for Dante’s eminently serious Divine Comedy? – not a funny poem on the whole, as we’ll be seeing. Let’s come at this question by way of a quick recap of what the poem picks up from the visionary and philosophical traditions we’ve been working with over the last few weeks, and of what in these traditions – and there’s a lot – that it flouts. The answer I want to try to build is that the poem is enormously important, not for its opposition to these traditions, nor even for its evocation of a beautiful, artificial, and morally vulnerable courtly ethos, but for its discovery, precisely, of a place from which many kinds of thinking about something, many layers of images, ideas, and cultural positions, can be simultaneously in play: “conversing” with each other, not exactly as equals, but outside the formal oppositions that distinguish good from evil and the formal hierarchies that position the worldly always lower than the heavenly, the life of the flesh from that of the spirit. That place is a fictional representation of, and in, the imagination.
We’ve for some weeks been earnestly involved in texts that desire the betterment of the self, that try to put the self on whatever they conceive of as a proper footing with the cosmos, or with God. The writers of all these texts – I’m thinking of Augustine, Boethius, Cassian, and Richard of St. Victor in particular – are involved in a most careful manipulation of their own inner selves, involving an endless sorting out of good from bad impulses in the search for a “discretion” of life that will lead to a state of absolute purity (Cassian); a flight from the flesh and beyond the cosmos to God (Augustine); the ascent of a ladder of feelings, perceptions, and thoughts, from indifference to God to impassioned contemplation of him (Richard); or the deliberate forcing of a realization that a profoundly counter-intuitive or at least counter-experiential view of reality, of the nature of happiness, and of the relative power wielded by the good and the evil, is correct (Boethius). Our guide figures have all been supernatural – Lady Philosophy – or very old (Abbot Moses, who stresses the need to follow tradition and avoid doing anything novel) – or have stressed the passage of years that needs to be spent in the acquisition of wisdom (Benjamin, or contemplation, is Jacob’s thirteenth child, born decades into the story that lies behind The Book of the Twelve Patriarchs). Much emphasis has been laid on how there is one way through the morass of worldly possibilities and of the need to chart that way with great care: that’s what Augustine’s Confessions is all about. The unity to which all these texts aim requires that the texts themselves be unified; and in the self-conscious shaping of The Consolation of Philosophy in particular, “unified” means “aesthetically harmonious” as well as “united behind a common program and authority figure.” It’s not true to say that all these texts have involved a denial of the world and of the present, though this is the sort of thing that’s often said about early Christianity. But it is true that all are engaged in the pursuit of transcendence, whether within this world or beyond it, and that all of them see their ultimate goal as lying elsewhere, beyond the material cosmos and beyond the bounds of the present life.
The Rose goes against the grain of most of this, in the same way it goes against the grain of medieval history-writing, the genre from which it derives the term roman; and it does so, not just in terms of its approach, style, subject-matter, and so forth, but in relation to the claims it makes for its own significance as a poem and its epistemology – its theory of knowledge and of its own truth. Instead of age, disciplined purpose, asceticism, and virtue, we have youth, initially casual and self-indulgent (although his life does take on urgency after he’s seen the rose, and the God of Love lectures him on a version of the virtues). Instead of tradition, we have an opening assertion that the “matter” of the poem is “fair and new,” an assertion of the poem’s commitment to narrative and rhetorical invention that puts it immediately outside the tradition-loving and authority-seeking culture of contemplative thought we’ve been exploring to date – in which even radical experiments like Richard of St. Victor veil the novelty of their psychological theories by presenting them as biblical exegesis. Above all, this isn’t a work of “wisdom” but of “folly,” not of mature autumnal age but of the erotic heady novelty of spring, a work not of the next life but of the perils of this one. We do call the narrator a fol, and if we haven’t at the outset – as we see him sewing up his lovely sleeves before wandering out into the meadow – we do soon enough, from the moment he decides to look into the Well of Narcissus, ignoring the warnings written around it. Failing to practice discretion (Joseph, in Richard’s schema), this narrator is not about to give birth to Benjamin (wisdom) – or not unless we read his folly against the poem’s own apparent grain, as connoting the madness of divine, not erotic, love; at least as involving, as the God of Love claims, its own kind of transcendence.
What we think about that has partly to do with what level of respect we can give to the commands the God of Love lays on his servant in ordering him to reorder his life around his new passion, after the dreamer has fallen in love with the rose and had his heart multiply pierced by the God of Love’s arrows -- on whether we see the elegant, courtly, scrupulously polite service of the rose the dreamer is ordered to undertake, and the containment of his tormenting passion in the secret recesses of his heart, as having to do with real ethics, or only with manners. There is a real theory in the God of Love’s instructions to the dreamer, one Guillaume learned, more or less, from the troubadours: that erotic desire is ennobling, or at least ennobling in so far as it is contained within a system of thought and behaviour that is about ennoblement, about trying to deserve the object of desire. This theory, which is what Guillaume calls “the art of Love” at the beginning of the poem, parallels a religious theory that holds that the same is true when you fall in love, not with a human, but with God. On p. 35, the God of Love describes how “when you have given your heart... things will often befall you that are hard and painful for lovers,” and which compel the lover to stay on his or her own in order to “sigh and lament and tremble and suffer many other pains”; “another time it will happen that you lose yourself in your thoughts and remain for a long time like a dumb image, still and motionless.” All this language is used of religious love as well as of erotic, by Richard of St. Victor, by Dante, and by many later writers; rather as there are religious parallels to the crucial scene in which the lover falls in love with the rose by looking in the well of Narcissus – after all, Richard talks of looking into the rational soul as into a mirror through which it is possible to glimpse God. As a result, many readers of the poem, medieval and modern, either insist that the fundamental principle in operation here is blasphemy – that we’re supposed to be against everything that happens – or, conversely, that the dreamer’s love for the rose is an or anticipation of the soul’s love for God, which is more or less how Dante constructs his love for Beatrice. But the poem is constructed, I think, to make both these views about equally plausible in principle and about equally awkward to sustain in practice. We’re really not given anywhere easy to stand as we contemplate these parallels.
5. The Anti-Apocalyptic Garden: There are other echoes of earlier material from this course too. The dreamer’s waking up “inside” the world of his dream evokes, at some level, the theme of heavenly ascent in apocalyptic literature, as he moves from a material to – in a sense we’ll define in a moment – a “spiritual” order of reality. Although the dreamer’s casual movement through the meadow towards a garden he actually compares to the Earthly Paradise (p. 11, bottom), his general air of aristocratic entitlement, not awestruck prophetic fervor, is hardly apocalyptic in tone, there’s more than a hint here of Paul’s ascent to the third heaven, or the journey to heaven described in the Book of Revelation (a journey undertaken by another very old man, the apostle John).
This is especially so once we arrive at the garden of love, a parody or revisiting or version of the Earthly Paradise, which is usually understood as an allegorization of the court, although I always see it more as a highly exclusive summer resort, perhaps a youthful medieval version of the Hamptons, inhabited only by beautiful people for whom what we’d now call “lifestyle” has fully taken the place of religious virtue. You’ll remember that in the Vision of Paul, the Earthly Paradise is somewhere up there, around the first heaven (and thus well below where the blessed will finally repose, in the third heaven) as a place of refuge for the dead to await the Day of Judgement, and that it contains the usual rivers and springs and flowers and trees laden with every kind of fruit – as an apotheosis of the first Earthly Paradise, the Garden of Eden. Also that this Paradise is characterized by strong categories of inclusion and exclusion: you’re in, or out, depending on your life while you were in the body, and an angel with a burning sword drives the point home, either way.
All this is available for comparison as one reads Guillaume’s account of the Garden of Pleasure, with its careful walls, designed to shut out all but the elect, its trees and fruits and rivers and spring, and its strong associations with vitality and happiness. This garden, like the dream as a whole, is out of the real world, but cannot be appropriated to any of the heavens, nor to anything we can call reality in a strict sense. Instead, I’m fairly sure that we’re meant to think of the dream as happening inside the dreamer’s head, specifically in his cellula imaginativa, the place where the various earthly, heavenly, and other influences that make dreaming happen combine to embody the dreamer’s desired or actual future, in confused and allegorical aethereal form. This might be an important thing to bear in mind, since it follows from it, first, that the Garden might well be made up out of other gardens the dreamer knows about, recombined into the shape of his own desires by the forces producing his dream; second, that this is why the meaning of the Garden is not more spiritual, more abstract and allegorical, than the literal dream garden we see, but rather the opposite: more material, more earthly. Unlike the spiritual gardens on which it’s based, the allegorical garden of love, formed by the dreamer’s imagination, primarilly signifies this world rather than the next, and its this poetic engagement in the present, rather than the heavenly future or the historical past that seems to be central to what the poem’s trying to do, and the studied ambiguity of its self-representation.
This set of contrasts between the Earthly Paradise and the Garden of Pleasure might again lead us to assume that Guillaume is being oppositional, either writing against apocalyptic and contemplative literature or, on the contrary, writing in support of them by drawing a picture of worldly pleasure that seems, at this early stage of the poem, to be favorable but that he’s going, in the end, to moralize, by showing the evil consequences of succumbing to desire etc. etc.. It’s easy to decide this at a number of moments in the poem: for example, when we meet the Garden of Pleasure’s equivalent of the Earthly Paradise’s angel with a burning sword and it turns out to be Idleness, who announces herself as “a rich and powerful lady, happy especially in one thing, that I have no care but to enjoy and amuse myself, and to comb and braid my hair” (p. 11). I do think that the Garden of Pleasure is anti-apocalyptic in the sense that it’s meant to bring the Earthly Paradise, with a shock, back down to earth, for the purposes of fictional exploration. But a great deal of the power of the Rose, and of the models of fiction and literary representation it passes on to later poets, resides in how the relation between its imaginative vision of worldly pleasure and desire is kept in uncertain relation to the far older and more authoritative accounts of virtue and spiritual happiness it’s constantly bouncing itself off. That is, there are constantly analogues between the Garden of Pleasure and the Earthly Paradise, as well as oppositions, and the combination of the two keeps the reader deliberately off balance.
This can be neatly illustrated from the walls of the Garden of Pleasure as described on pp. 5-9. Here, the list of what’s excluded from the garden, and so is depicted on its outside walls not found within it, begins in a clearly moralistic vein. The Garden of Pleasure isn’t like the Hamptons at all in some respect, for there’s no place here for “Hate” (this is pp. 5 ff.), or for Baseness, or for Covetousness, or for Avarice, or for Envy. In the discourse of Christian apocalypse, these are all perfectly respectable sins that would exclude you from any spiritual garden anywhere and might even earn you a stint in the Vision of Paul’s river of fire, or some elaboration of it in Dante’s Inferno. In other words, to some extent the Garden of Pleasure follows, or at least acknowledges, Christian moral norms. But when we find Sorrow up there, her main fault the fact that she’s no fun and looks too sad, our sense of the ethical nature of register being employed here begins to shift: p. 7:
“Her hair was all unbraided, and lay straggling about her neck, for she had plucked it in her anger and her bad temper. And I assure you that she wept most bitterly, and that no one, however hard-hearted, could have seen her without feeling great pity for her, for she struck and tore at herself and beat her hands together. The sorrowful wretch was completely occupied with her grief; she had no interest in making merry, in dancing or treading the measure, for you may be sure that he whose heart is grieved has no desire for either.”
Missing here is any sense of what makes Sorrow sorrowful, for what it is she’s weeping. In our other texts, sorrow is more often represented as a virtue than a vice, as the grief that follows fear, for example, in The Book of the Twelve Patriarchs. Here it’s not clear how far, if at all, this is the case, because all that matters is the bad effect Sorrow will have on the party going on inside the garden.
Old Age, the next figure, is even more distant from religious categories of vice, for as we’ve seen Age in our contemplative texts is often associated with virtue, and would elsewhere be a category of inclusion, not exclusion (Paul’s earthly paradise and its descendants is full of bearded patriarchs talking of godly things in soft voices). Religious Hypocrisy would certainly be a vice (p. 8), if one didn’t suspect that it’s the religious lifestyle that is incompatible with life inside the garden, not hypocrisy as such – although this figure could be taken to complicate one’s sense that Guillaume is trying to do something actively anti-religious, especially its final lines (p. 9): “The gate of heaven was forbidden to her and her kind, for the Gospel says that these people grow gaunt of face in order to be praised in the town, and for the sake of a little vain glory which will rob them of God and his kingdom.” But is even this a sign that “virtue” as the Garden of Pleasure conceives it actually has much in common with spiritual ideals? Or are we supposed to see the accusation of hypocrisy rebounding on our pleasure-loving dreamer, who is inevitably going to decide that all devout people are hypocrites, just as he asserts in describing the final portrait that Poverty – another deep religious ideal – is merely despicable? “Cursed be the hour in which a poor man was conceived, for he will never be well fed, or well clothed, or well shod, and he is neither loved nor favoured” (p. 9). Just as, at the beginning of the poem, we seem to shift in and out of different dream types, confusing any sense we might have that the poem has any particular kind of truth status, so here we shift in and out of moral discourse, sometimes making ethical assertions, sometimes watching as moral approval or disapproval declines into the aesthetic, or becomes confused with mere social snobbery.
6. Conclusion: The Lady in the Heavenly Tower. The literary folk in the room are so habituated to the idea that literary expression is fundamentally ambiguous, that poetry is written under the sign of Janus (the god who faces both ways at once), that I doubt whether I have succeeded in doing what I set out to do: to make the concept of fiction, which I take to be what underlies the radical play on show in The Romance of the Rose and what the Rose in some very real sense invents, out of many of the materials we have been working our way through up to this point, seem unfamiliar. Let’s have one more go at that in closing, remembering the map of the mind with which we began this course, with the cellula estimativa behind and above the cellula imaginativa and the fantasia in which, I’m arguing, the poem is set; and with the rational soul a part of the mind that officially has no locale, but that in practice is associated with the cellula imaginativa and its lofty and secure place in the human brain. Close to the end of Guillaume’s portion of the Rose – a portion that I read as a complete poem, not an unfinished one, a poem that is waiting for the narrator’s love-life to improve in his waking life, so that he can write a second poem, not finish this one – the dreamer is feeling discouraged by his failure to secure the rose after several near-successes, as Rebuff (Danger in the French) outwits Fair Welcome (Bel Acueil in the French), and the God of Love and, apparently, Fortune turn against him. This is the moment at which Reason, the dreamer’s ratio or rational soul, chooses to intervene, descending from a high tower to converse with him, p. 46:
“The lady’s name was Reason, and, descending from her tower, she came directly to me. She was neither young nor old, neither too tall nor too short, neither too thin nor too fact. The eyes in her head shone like two stars and she wore a crown upon her head; she looked like a person of importance. It was apparent from her form and her face that she was made in paradise, for Nature could not have fashioned anything so perfectly proportioned. Know that if the books do not like, she was made in the firmament by God in his own image and likeness, and that he gave her such virtue that she has power and authority to keep a man from folly, provided he be such as to trust in her.”
Reason’s appearance here is obviously modeled on that of Lady Philosophy in Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, although what’s emphasized here is the consistency of her proportions, the permanence of her features. You would think such beauty could be the object of erotic passion in its own right, until you remember that what distinguishes the rose as an incitement to the most violent desire is precisely its mixture of perfection of form and radical impermanence: even the unopened buds that represent the most desirable, virginal, girls “stay fresh for ... two or three days,” no longer (p. 26). Failing erotic passion, you might think that Reason’s descent from her unlocalized place in the rational soul into the confusing landscape of the cellula imaginativa would be enough to settle the poem into rational shape, to oblige it to attempt, at least, some sort of middle ground between passion and reason, just as Richard of St. Victor does in making passion, that is Leah, into the mother of the virtues, and reason, that is Rachel, the mother of knowledge and contemplation. Indeed, we’ll see a couple of classes from now that this is, more or less, what Jean de Meun does when he reintroduces Reason into the poem, by making her an advocate of a rational argument for the pursuit of passion, viz that it continues Nature’s work by encouraging lover to propagate. It takes Jean’s dreamer about fifteen thousand lines to accept this argument, or at least to recognize that it can serve his purposes, and Guillaume’s dreamer is having none of it: ratio, the rational soul, is soon back off to her tower. It’s not, though, that Reason is wrong; only that Guillaume recognizes that the poem needs to remain in the place of the imagination, which is also to say in the place of the dream, if it is to maintain the extraordinary, impossible epistemological stance that makes it what it is and that we recognize as fiction.