Tag Archives: thomas hoccleve

The many faces of the innovative poem

I’m in the process of revamping the arduity project and thus far I’ve got a new header, a couple of page layouts and some idea of direction. Instead of focusing only on difficulty, I’ve decided to include what I consider to be innovative work being made now and those that were made in the distant past. Which has got me to try and decide what I think I mean by the ‘I’ word. My initial thought was to base the definition on Pound’s “make it new” but then I decided that newness is probably an even more ambivalent quality.

In a wider sense the attraction of the new is tied up with the notion of progess, with the Enlightenment march towards a better future. This has since been exploited by capital in persuading us to buy the latest, newest, cutting-edgiest thing. What’s different for poets now is that we have this interweb thing to play with that allows is to do new things and disseminate our work in new ways. What arduity might be about is sketching out the historical ‘trend’ and attending to those who are making it new in the now.

In order to invite an argument, here is my current list of innovators and innovations with some attempt at a rationale. Obviously this is subjective and only contains poets and work that I like, primarily because I only ever write about work that I admire:

William Langland

The wonderfully flawed Piers Plowman is attributed to Langland. Unlike Chaucer, Gower and Hoccleve we don’t know who Langlan was although that hasn’t stopped critics from making assumptions. This aside Piers is innovative because it is the leading work of the fourteenth century Alliterative Revival and because of its ambition. The poem covers the usual range of God-rlated concerns but also covers the social issues of the day: regatery (what we would call cornering the market); the undeserving poor and the mendicant problem are just a few of the debates that take place within the poem.

Thomas Hoccleve

Hoccleve isn’t innovative in terms of form and most of his poems and translations are reasonably conventional. I thought about Hocclev’s treatment of mental health in the first two poems of the Series sequence but have now (provisionally) decided that this isn’t enough to count. He’s on this list in case I change my mind.

John Skelton.

Skelton is probably the least likeable of all British poets but he was a major figure between 1480 and 1520 or thereabouts. He is included here because of the first half of his Speke Parrot which is either completely bonkers or our most innovative poem before Spenser. The relationship between the bonkers and the newly made is often quite fuzzy but in this instance Parrot embraces both qualities.

Edmund Spenser

Constantly seeking to ‘overgo’ his predecessors and his peers, Spenser’s Shephearde’s Calendar and The Faerie Queene are both massive innovative with pre-existent genres and themes. For FQ Spenser devised his own form of stanza and laid the foundations upon which Paradise Lost was built. The Mutabilities Cantos are the first poems to do serious philosophy properly.

John Milton

Paradise Lost doesn’t rhyme, God plays a major role in the narrative. God is quite grumpy. It’s very clever on timing and astronomy. The first realistic portrait of evil in any language. There can’t be any argument, can there?

Andrew Marvell

Marvell wasn’t on this list until I re-read Upon Appleton House which may contain the most abstract lines of the 17th century. An Horatian Ode can also be read as an innovative (as well as masterful) use of ambiguity.

Robert Browning.


Ezra Pound.

Infuriating, inconsistent, wilfully provocative and rabidly anti-semitic. All of these but without him we wouldn’t be doing most of the things we do now.

David Jones.

One of the finest poets of the 20th century, both In Parenthesis and The Anathemata make it radically new in terms of theme and ‘voice’.

Charles Olson.

I’ve only read The Maximus Letters and the letters to Creeley but I can confirm Maximus asa magnificent exploration of time and place and the many relationships therein. Some have disparaged Olson as ‘sub-Poundian’ but these are the ones who haven’t paid him sufficient attention.

Paul Celan.

Celan’s work after 1960 cut new ground as he continued to engage with the German language and his cultural past. A Holocaust survivor, Celan was constantly finding new ways to express what had happened to the Jewish People and to bear witness to the unimaginable trials of the dead.

Charles Reznikoff.

Nothing at all like him before or since. Testimony marks one of the great ruptures with the literary past.

Allen Ginsberg.

For writing the poem that defined a generation and a half. The political poem of the 20th century in a voice that was radically new and massively influential.

Geoffrey Hill.

A borderline case- see above. Am now in the process of re-reading in an attempt to decide on Mercian Hymns and Triumph. Will try not to dither.

J H Prynne

A constant innovator over the last forty years whilst (only just) managing to stay within the Late Modernist vein. Prynne’s uncompromising engagement with language has led others to denigrate his apparent obscurity. His work does resist a straightforward, conventional reading, but that’s partly the point.

Simon Jarvis

Just looking at a copy of Dionysus Crucified will give some hint as to Jarvis rejection of the norm and his intention to push the limits in quite surprising ways. Both The Unconditional and Night Office are defiantly metrical and the latter rhymes throughout. Some might complain that a revival of Pope’s intent and method isn’t making things anew but it certainly is in our current context/culture. Incidentally, his reading of Dionysus with Justin Katko is a stunning example of innovation with two voices.

John Bloomberg-Rissman.

The In the House of the Hangman project is a huge, dark mirror that speaks for the way that life is or appears be in the present. Bloomberg-Rissman’s daily furtle (technical term) through the interweb brings together an entirely new means of expression. It’s also quite monstrous in scope and ambition.

Vanessa Place.

Place is either staggeringly good or disappointingly average. Her Tragodia and her Full Audio Transcripts are an important and strategic intervention in the current malaise that is the Poetry Business. The work is like nothing before it and points to where the future might be.

Keston Sutherland.

Is an innovator for introducing Black Beauty into a very serious work about the murderously idiotic fiasco in Iraq and for writing with such disturbing honesty about his sexual desires and experiences as a child. I’m not entirely certain that these two make him an innovator per se but I’d never come across anything like either of the above before.

Jonty Tiplady

Some of us are of the view that Jonty represents/embodies the future of English poetry in his readiness to use other media and to take full advantage of the interweb in a complex dance of innovation and repression. Trillionaires.

Thomas Hoccleve and Medieval Mental Health

This has two strands. The first of these is about Middle English poetry and how we ought to pay more attention to those poets who weren’t Geoffrey Chaucer. The second relates to madness and poetry and how Hoccleve in particular has challenged my view of the confessional poem.

I’m a relative newcomer to medieval verse, I’d been put off Chaucer at A level (as with most other things) and since then have been pre-occupied by other periods. My knowledge of the 14th and 15th centuries is scanty and it seemed like to much effort to acquire the context as well as the ability to read Middle English.

Two things then occurred- the internet got better and I decided that rather than move forwards through the canon, which would have meant Dryden and Pope, I would move backwards. The improvement in the internet has meant that there are many more resources on-line and that I now have access to a wide range of books on the period as well as primary texts.

The first thing that I’ve learned is that Middle English is gloriously expressive and this makes me smile a lot. The second thing is that it isn’t ‘fixed’ in that there are huge variations in vocabulary and sentence construction. This ‘mobility’ is much more apparent than it is in the 16th century early modern usage.

So, I’m paying attention to Hoccleve and am being dragged further and further into the work because he throws himself into his poems (in every sense) and he’s really good at feeling sorry for himself. I first came across him on the TEAMS site which is really good for us newbies because it provides both an introduction and translates the more difficult words. The site has Hoccleve’s best known work ‘The Regiment of Princes’ and, on the strength of that, I’ve subsequently bought ‘My Compleinte and Other Poems’ edited by Roger Ellis. I’ve had a recent moan about Ellis’ gloss but it is mostly serviceable even if it makes me cross.

We now come to the confessional. I’m against confessional poetry because most of it strikes me as self-indulgent whinging with more than a little exhibitionism which I find distateful. I accept that this is a personal view but it’s one that I can usually defend. As a bipolar depressive I’m particularly against confessional poems about the poet’s mental health and share Geoffrey Hill’s distaste for the work of Lowell and Plath because of this. I also readily accept that this is about my view of how ‘we’ should respond to and ‘deal with’ our condition. Thomas Hoccleve experienced a bout of mental illness and wrote a poem about his experience which has gone some way to modify the above view.

Before proceeding, it is important to note that Hoccleve is one of literatures great complainers, he complains about not having enough money, about not being paid and about the poor state of his health and therefore qualifies as the leading miserablist of the late medieval period. The other point to note is that he was a senior civil servant, working as a senior clerk in the office of the privy seal and was never poorly paid by the standards of the day. Having this job also implies a thorough knowledge of both Latin and French.

The onset of the illness is described (in strictly medieval terms) in the first stanza after the prologue of ‘My Compleinte’. I have had to use contemporary lettering throughout because WordPress doesn’t seem keen on ME, I’ve marked with an asterisk where this occurs-

Almygh*ty God, as liketh his goodnesse,
vesiteth* folke alday, as men may se,
With los of good and bodily sikenesse,
And among othir, he forg*at not me.
Witnesse vppon the wilde infirmite
Wiche th*at I had, as many a man wel knewe,
And wiche me oute of mysilfe caste and threwe.

As you might expect, the medieval explanation for mental illness is much more straightforward then ours, no mention of childhood trauma, nor of genetics or excessive substance use but it’s about God not forgetting our inflicted poet.

The last line is a wonderful example of the expressive qualities of Middle English, I can relate to what’s being described, in fact it seems in many ways more accurate than contemporary attempts to portray the onset of mania/depression. Being cast and thrown out of yourself is also gloriously succinct and neatly avoids the details that so many poets dwell on. I’m taking ‘wilde infirmite’ to relate to a period at the psychotic end of mania primarily because other forms of wildness tend to recur and because of how Hoccleve describes the negative reaction of his friends. I may of course be entirely wrong on this but it does seem likely.

Those of us who do recover or have periods of being well do find the reaction of some former friends and acquaintances quite difficult- even in these enlightened times there is still huge stigma attached to mental illness and people often find it easier to sever ties with those who have been ill. Things were not at all different in the early 15th century. Hoccleve reports that is has been five years since his recovery (occasioned by God) and that he is still shunned by his friends:

For th*ough* my wit were hoom come ag*ein,
Men wolde it not so undirstonde or take.
With me to dele hadden they disdein.
A rietous persone I was and forsake.
Min oolde frendshipe was al overshake.
No wigh*t with me list make daliaunce.
The worlde me made a straunge continuance.

Hoccleve explains this rejection as being due to his friends’ belief that his infirmity will recur- which is entirely reasonable given that most periods of illness are episodic- whether treated or not. I’m sure that many of us have experienced that sense of isolation and I know that I have also isolated myself in the fairly recent past What strikes me as remarkable in this passage is (again) the last line which seems to capture what still goes on today. ‘Continuance’ is taken by Ellis to mean ‘face’ but I think ‘countenance’ is more accurate. Most bouts of madness, in whatever form, still kick off a negative societal reaction that is more to do with fear of othernerness than straightforward ‘disdain’.

In conclusion, I’m very glad that I went backwards instead of towards Dryden and Pope primarily because of the joys of the language but also because of the greater differences and smaller similarities between then and now. I’m also becoming more mellow about confessional verse.

Commentaries, Annotations, Glossaries and the Poem

For the past few months I’ve been trying to broaden my reading to incorporate poetry written before 1570 and also to get to grips with the joys of Middle English. Thus far this has involved engaging primarily with Thomas Hoccleve and John Skelton, for both of these I’ve made use of editors which has proved to be a ‘mixed’ experience. I’m also in pursuit of most things relating to David Jones and this morning I received Rene Hague’s commentary on The Anathemata. Obviously I haven’t begun to read this in depth but this from the preface encapsulates some of my concerns:

I very soon met two difficulties. The first was the problem of whom I was addressing, and what knowledge, apt to help him in his interpretation, could I attribute to him. For while it is annoying not to be told, something of which you are ignorant, it is equally, or even more annoying to be told what you have known since childhood: it is as bad as having an obvious joke explained to you. I could only take my own friends, so often better informed than I, as a standard. I found it impossible to be consistent, and in the end I had to write as though simply for myself, with a friend reading over my shoulder.

The second difficulty arose from the impossibility of defining a literal meaning. That exists at no more than syntactical abstraction, which has little use unless it allows the reader to move onward into the intricacies of allusion, allegory, spiritual and even mystical interpretation; and here (even though a commentator may provide a useful starting-point) every reader must do his own work based on his own reading and thinking. Anyone who has studied the great poets closely and for many years will know how endless is that work, and how entrancing.

Needless to say, Hague has now been promoted to one of the Few who write well about poetry and understand the needs of the attentive reader. This balance is a useful benchmark and I would add, from recent personal experience, explanations or definitions that the reader doesn’t understand- I don’t think I should need to consult the OED to understand this kind of explanation. The other infuriation comes from notes/glosses that are wrong, that are factually incorrect and (usually) misleading.

In order to exemplify what Hague is describing, I set out below the sinners and saints in my recent (ish) reading with some examples. I readily accept that each reader brings a different knowledge base and vocabulary to this material but (as ever) this is a subjective view and I’d be grateful for other responses from interested readers.

Roger Ellis on Thomas Hoccleve’s ‘La Male Regle’.

Editors of Middle English poetry place modern definitions alongside the line in question. This particular poem is an extended version of what Drayton categorised as ‘ah, me!’ poetry in that the poet spends a lot of time bemoaning his plight and generally being sorry for himself. These lines are from the second stanza, Ellis’ definitions are in italics:

 And now my body empty is, and bare
of ioie and ful of seekly heuynesse, sickly
al poore of ese and ryche of evel fare. in things bringing ease; in misfortune

I would argue that this last line is done an enormous disservice by this inept heavy-handedness. Not many readers will need to be told that ‘ese’=’ease’ but if they did then it might be better/more helpful to give the phrase as ‘ill at ease’. With regard to being incorrect, ‘in misfortune’ completely misses the point. I’m not any kind of expert in these things but I can think of many more precise definitions and ‘evel fare’ doesn’t really need an explanation because most of us will be able to define both words for ourselves. It could of course be argued that this edition is aimed at students who might need this kind of assistance, I would then point out that in that case there is an even greater need for precise definition and not what appears to be lazy platitude.

Alexander Dyce on John Skelton’s ‘Diuers Balettys and Dyties Solacyous’.

Skelton was writing about a hundred years after Hoccleve at the start of what is thought of as the early modern period (a decidedly movable feast). This is the second verse of one of his more minor ‘ditties’:

Allectuary arrected to redres
These feuereous axys, the dedely wo and payne
Of thoughtfull hertys plungid in dystres;
Refresshyng myndys the Aprell shoure of rayne;
Condute of comforte, and well most souerayne;
Herber enverduryd, contynuall fressh and greene;
Of lusty somer the passing goodly quene;

Dyce’s edition of Skelton’s verse was published in 1843 and is a delight in that it is hopelessly partisan and idiosyncratic but you can feel the enthusiasm for the work bouncing off the page- the notes can be read on their own merit although it does help to know something of the period. However, Dyce often omits words and phrases which should be glossed and also gives explanations that the interested reader (me) may not understand.

This is how Dyce deals with the above:

Allectuary- Electuary. Arrected – appointed. Redres- relieve, remedy. Axys – (access) fits, paroxysms. Of thoughtful hertys plungid in dystre- Skelton borrowed this line from, Lydgate whose ‘Lyf of our Lady’ begins: “O thoughtful herte plungid in dustressed”. Thoughtfull is anxious, heavy, sad. Herber – arbour.

So, how many of us are familiar with ‘electuary? Was this a common word in 1843 and do we need a definition of ‘redres’ when we aren’t given one for either ‘condute’ or ‘enverduryd’? Because of his enthusiasm I should nevertheless confess that Dyce annoys me far less than Ellis.

At this point I could repeat what I’ve said elsewhere about commentators on Spenser, Herbert, Milton, Marvell and Wordsworth but instead I’ll move forward to the present and the problem of the introduction.

Ann Hassan on Geoffrey Hill’s ‘Speech! Speech!’

Thus far I’ve only read the introduction the Hassan’s commentary but it does contain one roadblock of a sentence. Following Hague, I’m of the view that the reader should be encouraged to undertake his or her own reading and to do the work of attention in all it’s senses. Early on in her introduction Hassan has this: “Hill’s stock preoccupations (in shorthand the triumvirate of martyrdom, memory and responsibility) are still present.” This glib, albeit ‘shorthand’, observation has no place in such an introduction because it sets out a position rather than encouraging readers to form their own impressions and views. For this reader, I think I know Hill’s work reasonably well and I’m deeply sceptical of a ‘triumvirate’ that omits God and England but I am deterred from preceding by the simple fact that this kind of generalisation isn’t helpful and may portend even more infuriations to come. There’s also a degree of complexity in Hill’s work that makes the adjective ‘stock’ either simplistic or (more likely) wrong. I will continue eventually however because I’m a Hill completist, I haven’t paid sufficient attention to this particular sequence and there are 294 pages for me to get lost in and annoyed with.