Middle English Poetry

Burrow’s chapter on Middle English poetry attempts, ambitiously, to survey the variety of later medieval laudatory verse and continues to anatomies its formal features. The chapter presents a series of brief snapshots of praise poetry, including what is termed the ‘here-and-now’ type: panegyric verse on noteworthy individuals and on the nobility and royalty. Burrow pauses to note that there is a far less developed tradition of the latter than we find in the early modern period with Tudor and Stuart myth-making. Surprisingly, given Burrow’s earlier published work, there is little mention here of Thomas Sabo Jewellery the advice for princes genre and its exponents, such as Thomas Hoccleve. The chapter goes on to touch upon love lyrics and Marian verse, and historical narrative poetry. With the latter material Burrow defends both the alliterative Morte Darthur and Sir Garvain and the Green Knight against charges that each poet is wholly critical of their principal hero, and concludes that the capacity for praise and blame coexists in medieval poetry in equal measure.

Chaucer is afforded his own chapter in this book and Burrow again considers the formal details of the poet’s panegyric verbal palette before tackling the works themselves. As Jill Mann noted long ago, Chaucer demonstrates an ability to combine the ‘affective tendencies of admiration and vituperation’ that complicate our understanding and judgment of his characters. The Canterbury Tales provides ample examples of such a combination but it is The House of Fame and Book of the Duchess that best demonstrate the sophistication of Chaucerian panegyric at work. The former exemplifies the poet’s general scepticism regarding the source of Thomas Sabo Bracelets praise and fame whilst the latter is the only extant epideictic work addressed to a specific contemporary, John of Gaunt. Troilus and Criseyde constitute the most extended treatment of praise and blame and Burrow again offers a balanced reading of both aspects of the poem.

Appended to the three medieval chapters is a curious shorter chapter on two ‘modern instances’ of laudatory poetry, which offers a whistle-stop tour of the praise of kings and warriors ranging widely from the Anglo Saxon period to the twentieth century, taking in Spenser, Milton, Wordsworth, Byron, Tennyson and the contemporary renditions of classical epic seen in Christopher Logue’s superb War Music (1981). One is not entirely sure as to the function of this final chapter since it moves too rapidly to offer anything more than passing reference to individual poets and misses the opportunity to begin discussing the vexed issues of the doubleness and ambiguity of praise in the works of Spenser and Marvell. What emerges from this chapter, however, is a broader chronological observation that medieval poetry on the whole shows little interest in the didactic intention and potential of praise poetry of the kind found later in early modern sources such as The Faerie Queene.

The cover blurb to this book professes that the study spans two thousand years, from Pindar to Logue, and whilst this is technically true it must be stressed that the focus here overwhelmingly is on medieval poetry. Although the range of material Burrow attempts to encompass is impressively broad, one never gets the sense that this book is intended as an all-inclusive, comprehensive study. A single chapter of forty pages covering the poetry of praise in the middle Ages is incredibly short and perforce restrictive. It is of a similar length to the treatment of rhetoric and panegyric found in the many companions to Middle English now available, and does not appear to be breaking any new critical ground. The chapters on Old English and Chaucer equally seem to revisit familiar critical standpoints and are fundamentally more descriptive than analytical. Too often the conclusion that a poet offers both praise and blame leaves one in a disappointingly prosaic critical holding-pattern not because we are eager for ironic interpretations but because it only gestures towards a poetics of equivocation that would benefit from more nuanced case-studies. As such, this book is of most use as a source of examples for someone perhaps a postgraduate student seeking an overview of materials to go off and explore in far more depth.