Two pieces of 18th c Chaucerian pastiche

One thing I (Amy) often do with teaching texts is record myself reading them aloud, for students to use as a reading aide. The one text I never do this with is the Canterbury Tales, as so many audio versions are available free online! As well as providing a bridge for students (especially second-language speakers) into the unfamiliar rhythms of Middle English, I find that being forced to slow down and read, stop-starting to get the sentence cadence right, goes a long way to identifying for me both where the humour in a text is, and where any particularly tricky interpretive snarls might be.

I’m currently trying to figure out who or what the audience for a particular 18th century Chaucerian adaptation (the anonymous 1715 Miller of Trompington) may have been; having read the other close adaptations in Betsy Bowden’s collection, I’ve turned to a range of texts which I’m calling “pastiche”; poems “In imitation of” or “in the style of” Chaucer, some of which are by poets who also wrote closer modernisations. Bawdy humour is a common feature (although by no means universal), although these poems often seem… softer, less biting, than Chaucer’s own work both in their lack of satire and the relative lack of explicit obscenity.

I thought I’d try reading a couple aloud – and I think I did appreciate them more in that context. Here’s two:

Alexander Pope “In Imitation of Chaucer”

Or, as I like to call it, “Unsolicited Duck Poem”.

And so I solicited, from Kristen, a duck illustration. A Work-Appropriate Duck Pic:

Cartoon illustrating the young man with duck in trousers, from Pope's poem

By Kristen Haas Curtis

While highly comic, this little piece from Pope doesn’t strike me as particularly Chaucerian. It relies chiefly on embarrassment humour, and there’s no real element of satire to it. The final lines, where the young ladies remark on the dangers of a “yerd” that can talk, come close to the style of the later Middle English and Middle Scots advice poems which Carissa Harris links with the Wife of Bath’s prologue: these wise lasses prefer, evidently, the “yerds” of their acquaintance to keep mum about what they find.

Elijah Fenton, A Tale, Devised in the Plesaunt Manere of Gentil Maister Jeoffrey Chaucer:

If the last one was an unsolicited duck poem, this one is a Rooster Joke.

In many ways, this is not a very good poem. It lays on the faux-Chaucerian language too thick, contorting both rhythm and rhyme scheme. It was much harder to read aloud than the Pope one. The final joke is just cringe-worthy – and, while certainly cringe-worthy sex jokes are not outside of Chaucer’s remit, the marital dynamic, with the husband both worldly and wise, and the wife extremely clueless and yet sexually willing, is certainly not Chaucerian in style.

The poem does however reveal Fenton to have been an attentive reader of Chaucer. As well as the clunky archaisms, he layers together elements drawn from several of the Canterbury Tales. We have an amorous clerk with overly-well-groomed hair, not unlike Absalom (which makes his ultimate paternalistic dominance over the wife even odder), with a “licorous Eie”, drawn from Chaucer’s description of Alison in the Miller’s Tale. The wife, meanwhile, “Ypert was as a Propinjay” – not a direct borrowing from the Miller’s Tale, but one in keeping with the descriptions of Alison, and perhaps inspired by the alliterating series (popelote, primerole, pieggesnye) used to describe her. The little description that “Ne Wit, ne Wordes did she waunt, / Wele cond she many a Romaunt” struck me as novel – I don’t believe any of the women in Chaucer’s fabliau are marked by their interest in reading romances!

Fenton’s pastiche thus leads one to expect something like a Chaucerian fabliau, but it is not. After the couple are married and travel to the clerk’s home in Kent, we meet the wives of various local franklins (en masse, not individually), and then zoom in on the new wife, occupied with the livestock which her husband keeps – in particular, with the chickens.

Comic-style illustration (twenty squares) of a rooster "fethering" a chicken, from KHC's Nun's Priest's Tale comic

From Kristen Haas Curtis’ Nun’s Priest’s Tale comic

His Wyf grete Joie to fede hem toke,
And was astonied at the Cocke;
That, in his Portaunce debonair,
On everich Henn bestow’d a Share
Of Plesaunce, yet no Genitours
She saw, to thrill his Paramours:
Oftsithes she mokel mus’d theron,
Yet nist she howgates it was don.

How does the rooster thrill his paramours? Do tell us, Mr Fenton. This section – while labouring the point, certainly, and mangling dialect (that -gates form, totally out of place in this period and dialect, was particularly awful to read aloud) – surely speaks to someone who was very much amused by Chantecleer’s “fethering” of Pertelote in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale. And who can blame him? Not I. I recommend to you Kristen’s Nun’s Priest’s Tale comic, if you haven’t read that already. The Nun’s Priest’s Tale is not, by the terms of our project or any generic assessment, a bawdy tale. The moment of chicken copulation isn’t central to the story; but Fenton seems to have plucked it and made a main course of it, trading on its authentically Chaucerian flavour.

The poem goes on from there, as the wife goes in cringe-worthy cluelessness to ask her husband about the cock’s, well. “Genitours.” (The OED has senses of “cock” meaning penis going back to the early thirteenth century, so yes, “astonied at the cock” was no doubt a snigger-worthy inclusion.) Via a brief – and misinformed* – discussion on whether it is possible to tuck testicles into one’s undercarriage, we end up at the final joke about the correct place to hide a phallus, which, by the time we get there, has been painfully obvious as it looms.

(*Elijah Fenton had not heard of tucking, apparently. I’m pretty confident that the molly-houses of 18th c London would have, though.)

Final remarks:

I think the main thing I’ve learned, concerning the generic norms of 18th century Chaucerian pastiche, is that 18th century poets printed and sold the kind of thing which my generation were putting on livejournal and/or BBCode discussion boards and/or the Yuletide Rare Fandom exchange for free. I wonder would Alexander Pope be amused by cliosfolly’s Old Spice Chaucer: The Poet Your Poet Could Write Like…?

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