Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Liane Strauss on John Gower

Liane Strauss's Poetry Month Pick, April 9, 2008, from Poetry Daily.

"Pymaleon" from Confessio Amantis
by John Gower (ca. 1330-1408)

371 I finde hou whilom ther was on, [once; one]
372 Whos name was Pymaleon,
373 Which was a lusti man of yowthe:
374 The werkes of entaile he cowthe [sculpture; could do]
375 Above alle othre men as tho; [then]
376 And thurgh fortune it fell him so,
377 As he whom love schal travaile, [trouble (work)]
378 He made an ymage of entaile
379 Lich to a womman in semblance
380 Of feture and of contienance,
381 So fair yit nevere was figure.
382 Riht as a lyves creature [living]
383 Sche semeth, for of yvor whyt [ivory]
384 He hath hire wroght of such delit,
385 That sche was rody on the cheke
386 And red on bothe hire lippes eke; [also]
387 Wherof that he himself beguileth.
388 For with a goodly lok sche smyleth,
389 So that thurgh pure impression
390 Of his ymaginacion
391 With al the herte of his corage
392 His love upon this faire ymage
393 He sette, and hire of love preide;
394 Bot sche no word ayeinward seide. [in answer]
395 The longe day, what thing he dede,
396 This ymage in the same stede
397 Was evere bi, that ate mete
398 He wolde hire serve and preide hire ete,
399 And putte unto hire mowth the cuppe;
400 And whan the bord was taken uppe,
401 He hath hire into chambre nome, [taken]
402 And after, whan the nyht was come,
403 He leide hire in his bed al nakid.
404 He was forwept, he was forwakid, [exhausted with weeping; broad awake]
405 He keste hire colde lippes ofte,
406 And wissheth that thei weren softe,
407 And ofte he rouneth in hire Ere, [whispered]
408 And ofte his arm now hier now there
409 He leide, as he hir wolde embrace,
410 And evere among he axeth grace,
411 As thogh sche wiste what he mente: [knew]
412 And thus himself he gan tormente
413 With such desese of loves peine,
414 That noman mihte him more peine.
415 Bot how it were, of his penance
416 He made such continuance
417 Fro dai to nyht, and preith so longe,
418 That his preiere is underfonge, [accepted]
419 Which Venus of hire grace herde;
420 Be nyhte and whan that he worst ferde,
421 And it lay in his nakede arm,
422 The colde ymage he fieleth warm
423 Of fleissh and bon and full of lif.

* * *

Liane Strauss Comments:
Going from our English to Gower’s English is what I imagine it would be like to travel back to some point in the past and see events, places, whole days even, alive again, free of the flattening and congealing effects – the sophistications and metaphors – of distance and memory. Gower’s language has a sculptural quality that seems to pop the words right off the page, as if he had written them with a lathe. His “nakid” not only looks more naked than “naked,” it is “naked” before the fossilising years of use draped the starkness of the word itself in the self-conscious accretions of our discomfiture and preconceptions. Gower’s “ymage” and “ymaginacion” have a solid thinginess about them. Is it that arresting “y” – like finding a foot where we expected a head – reaching down below the surface of the word, like a root or an anchor or a stake, re-grounding what have become mental object and mental process back down into palpable earth? I don’t know, but I feel I am seeing them with my, as it were, naked eye. Even “mente” feels thicker and more substantial than “meant”: it sticks like a tongue to the roof of the mind (mens) more stubbornly than the confident conclusiveness of any obstinate “meaning.” And then there are these wholly “new” words – the opened-tap persistence of rouneth, which makes of ofte a gentle irony, the emotional saturation of forwept, and the tantalising underfonge, which seems to come about from some amalgamation of to understand and to finger, perfect for “a lusti man of yowthe” who happens to be the most talented sculptor of his age.

The Confessio Amantis (Lover’s Confession) was Gower’s first work in English – he had previously written in French and Latin – so perhaps the language of this poem was alive to him in a new way, too. Pymaleon is, like Gower, an artist, but his story is first and foremost a love story. “The werkes of entaile he cowthe / Above alle othre men as tho; / And thurgh fortune it fell him so, / As he whom love schal travaile.” Gower’s Pymaleon works as a master of his art; this is a story about how love works him.

On this occasion, it all comes right in the end, but the metaphor of sculpture doesn’t always bode so well for lovers. It puts me in mind of the “sculptured effigies” the unhappy couple of George Meredith’s Modern Love cycle turn into as they fall asleep at the end of the first sonnet; theirs is like the Pygmalion story in reverse, or perhaps wrenched inside-out. Likewise, the anti-Pygmalion moment when Gabriel Conroy stretches out beneath the snowy sepulchral sheets beside the sleeping Gretta at the end of The Dead. These are both in their own way instances of what Hemingway elsewhere called The End of Something. Gower’s Pymaleon is the beginning of something.

That said, things don’t at the outset look all that promising for Pymaleon. His behaviour with respect to his “ymage of entaile” – addressing it and apparently expecting an answer, keeping it by him always, serving it “mete” (as if that might put some flesh on its bones!), lifting drink to its unyielding lips, going even so far as to have it transported to his chamber and laying it beside him in his bed, not to mention setting (is Gower punning?) his love upon it in the first place – is, even by the most charitable of lights, beyond eccentric. More than that, it seems pretty clear that there’s just so far the “pure impression of his ymaginacion,” even bolstered by “al the herte of his corage” is going to get him.

Things begin to change with the rhyme that is not a rhyme, the repetition of “peine” on the heels of the “tormente” on which the penultimate sentence of the story ends. Ovid and his Pygmalion both give Venus a lot of credit for what happens next; but Gower is more circumspect. His Venus does nothing more than hear the prayers that have already met with acceptance: “his preiere is underfonge; / which Venus of hire grace herde.” Gower works the normally innocuous, workaday pronoun “which” rather finely here, getting it to convey something of the mutual causality that is involved in Venus conferring her blessing: the prayer is “herde” – it penetrates the senses – because it is accepted; and it is accepted because Venus has “herde” it. This is nothing less than a definition of divine agency as the difference between hearing and hearing, and it reminds us that Pymaleon’s “ymage” represents the difference between seeming and being, the mere appearance of life and life itself.

Lich to a womman in semblance
Of feture and of contienance,
So fair yit nevere was figure.
Riht as a lyves creature
Sche semeth

Pymaleon’s suffering, coupled with his perseverance, melts the goddess’s sympathy; that is, it is the thing that transfigures the “grace” for which he asks into the “grace” through which his love is answered.

Gower makes this touchingly clear in the final, passionate lines of the poem.

The colde ymage he fieleth warm
Of fleissh and bon and full of lif.

Loss, love – nothing is real until you feel it. The real difference, the difference that matters to us, is not the one between seeming alive and being alive, but the one it stands for, that between being and feeling. The word that breathes life into this story is Gower’s propulsive fieleth, which we, in the very act of saying, can literally, and no less than twice, sink our teeth into, and out of which “of fleissh” and “full of lif” seem almost to spring, as if they were etymologically related. It is the act of feeling that brings Pymaleon’s ymage, through Gower’s art, to throbbing life. (And what else does that final line do if not throb with life?) Pymaleon does not only feel warmth in the heretofore cold, insensate “ymage,” he makes it warm, by feeling, as Gower makes “fieleth” work both transitively and intransitively. And it’s not just a rhetorical trick. It really happens. Because it is not until Pymaleon feels the “peine” and “tormente” of love, feels his love, lying in his “nakede arm,” laid bare, confessed, that the miracle transpires. It is the miracle. His love, which was until then an unresponsive, unfeeling ymage, no more than the outward show, the word, at last, and verily, lives. It’s no more than what art, and love, at their best, when they are themselves most full of life, most fully felt, can do, which is to remind us, who are of flesh and bone, what the images and words that have become the stock-in-trade of our lives are made of, and what it is not just to be alive, but to feel it.

About Liane Strauss:
Liane Strauss lives in London. A pocketbook of her poetry is due out in October of this year with Donut Press and a full first collection is forthcoming from Salt Publishing in April 2009. A selection of her work can be found among the Guest Poets on the Clive James website ( Her work is also featured in the anthologies, Ask for It by Name (Unfolders Press, January 2008) and The Like of It (Baring & Rogerson, 2005).

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