Wednesday, 14 January 2015

The Romaunt of the Rose by Geoffrey Chaucer.

The title page of the 1598
"Now this drem wol I ryme aright
To make your hertes gaye and lyght,
For Love it prayeth, and also
Commaundeth me that it be so.
And if there any aske me,
Whether it be he or she,
How this book, which is here:
It is the Romance of the Rose,
In which al the art of love I close."

The Romaunt of the Rose is Geoffrey Chaucer's earliest work. It was written in the 1360s and is a translation of Le Roman de la Rose, a French Medieval epic poem, 4 058 lines of which were written in around 1237 by Guillaume de Lorris, then, in around 1275 a further 17 724 lines were added by Jean de Meun. The translation attributed to Chaucer was 7 692 lines, however it's argued that only Fragment A (1 705 lines) was translated by him.

And this is very interesting to me! I read The Romaunt of the Rose back in November (so I won't be including this for Fanda's Medieval part of her Literary Movements Challenge), and truly, once passed Fragment A, I struggled and my attention started to wane. I am no Chaucer scholar and have not read nearly enough to be able to pick out what was written by Chaucer and what might have been, yet I will say I found the first fragment the most enjoyable. As for the rest - well, having read it I decided not to write a review straight away but sit on it for a while, perhaps even re-read it. However I've changed my mind since finding out this information (whilst looking up something for Troilus and Criseyde: I'm up to Book IV, and there are five books, so nearly finished). I can write happily and enthusiastically about Chaucer's part, but as for the rest: I struggle.

The Pilgrim at the Gate of Idleness by Edward Burne Jones (1884).

The Romaunt of the Rose is divided into three parts: Fragment A (lines 1 - 1705), B (lines 1706 - 5810), and C (lines 5811- 7692). It's a dream vision, a method of storytelling that Chaucer used a lot (as in the Book of the Duchess, 1369-72, House of Fame, 1379-80, Parlement of Foules, 1382, and The Legend of Good Women, 1382-86). Furthermore, this tale is mentioned in The Wife of Bath from The Canterbury Tales (1386-94) is said to be a combination of two of the characters in The Romaunt of the Rose: 'The Old Woman' and 'Jealousy'.

Illustration from the manuscript of
Le Roman de la Rose.
In it, the twenty year old narrator dreams that he is walking alongside a river when he comes across a garden behind a wall covered in frightening images of Hate, Feloyne (Wickedness), Vilanye (Shame), Coveitise (Covetousness), Avarice, Envye (Envy), Sorrowe (Sorrow), Elde (Old Age), Poope-Holy (Religious Hypocrisy) and Povert (Poverty). Eventually he finds a small gate and is greeted by Idleness. He meets Mirth, Gladness, Courtesy, and Cupid, the God of Love, who has with him ten arrows:
And ten brode arowes held he there
Of which five in his right hond were.
But they were shaven wel and dight,
Nokked and fethered a-right;
And al they were with gold bigoon,
And stronge poynted everichoon,
And sharpe for to kerven weel.
But iren was ther noon ne steel;
For al was gold, men mighte it see,
Out-take the fetheres and the tree.
The Pilgrim in the Garden 
by Edward Burne Jones (1889).
Whilst near the well of Narcissus, and having met a great many more characters in the interim, Cupid strikes our narrator with five arrows and he falls in love with the Rose.

In Fragment B, we see our narrator try to get close to the Rose, but he cannot:
Ne dorste I to the Rose bede
For thesteles sharpe, of many maneres,
Netles, thornes, and hokede breres,
For mych they distourbled me,
For sore I dradde to harmed be.
Lovesick, he tries once more to draw near so he may kiss her. Eventually, Venus "Graunte to me the Rose kisse", but quickly the rose is protected by Fear, Shame, Wikkid-Tunge, and Jelousie. He and his allies Bialacoil (Fair Welcome), Pity, Fraunchise (which represents nobility of character and generosity of spirit) enter into a psychological battle so that he may win the Rose. In Fragment C, the battle ensues and there is much satire on religion and the social order.

The Romaunt of the Rose is a partial translation, so I'm keen to get a translation of the entire Le Roman de la Rose by de Lorris and de Meun (and also The Allegory of Love by C. S. Lewis, 1936, which is in part a discussion of it), but in Chaucer's translation we get a taste of it: this allegory which is about seduction: it's not so much about love as lust, and the 'real world' and the world of love, romance, and seduction is, though within it, distinctly separated by that garden wall guarded by the various social ills listed above. The role of women is also a feature: the difference between the feminine courtly 'ideal' and the sexualised human, both represented in the attitudes towards this Rose (a topic Chaucer went on to explore in various tales within The Canterbury Tales). It's a beautiful translation, and on the whole enjoyable, but as I said I very much favoured Fragment A and I struggled with the rest.

Finally, some illustrations: these are by Keith Henderson and Norman Wilkinson from the 1911 edition published by H. Holt.

'As Byde in Bour'
by Keith Henderson
'Iolyf and Gay'
by Keith Henderson
'In at the Wiket went I tho'
by Norman Wilkinson
'The Daunce'
by Keith Henderson
by Norman Wilkinson
'The God of Love'
by Norman Wilkinson
by Keith Henderson
'Love Persuing'
by Keith Henderson
'The Bothoun'
by Norman Wilkinson
'The Three Arrows of Love'
by Norman Wilkinson
by Keith Henderson
'The Lover Listening to Reasoun'
by Keith Henderson
'Unto my freend and tolde hym alle'
by Keith Henderson
"A Bialacoil, Myne Owne Deere"
by Norman Wilkinson
'Sweet Reason'
by Norman Wilkinson
'Youthe and Delite'
by Norman Wilkinson
"Mi Modir is of Gret Prowesse"
by Norman Wilkinson
'The End'
by Keith Henderson

'Dame Absintence-Streyned'
by Norman Wilkinson

Further reading
The Allegory of Love by C. S. Lewis


  1. A wonderful review! And what wonderful illustrations, as well. This period seemed to give rise to such beautiful paintings, engravings, etc.

    I really enjoyed your comments in the last paragraph. As modern readers it's hard to understand the mindset of that time. Certain words may be used that mean something different to us than they did to them, etc. I'm impressed that you're trying to dig deep and not only read Chaucer, but understand him.

    I feel so torn now though ..... I think I must read a biography on Chaucer and some of Lewis' scholarly works on this period before I dive into reading the actual Chaucer (or what is suspected to be the actual Chaucer). I have The Canterbury Tales on slate for March, so I can perhaps fit something in by then, or move my reading back a month. Lewis' essays The Genesis of a Medieval Book and Imagination and Thought in the Middle Ages might be good place to start. Thanks for the inspiration, O!

    1. Thanks, Cleo.

      All I'll say is I *didn't* read a biography before I started (and though I have since, it's only because I found one by chance) so I don't think you'll be desperately disadvantaged.

      Have you read Virginia Woolf's essay on Chaucer? It's been a long time since I have, so I'm not so much recommending it (though it may be awesome), just drawing your attention to it. It's called The Pastons and Chaucer.

      I'm going to try and get some essays by C S Lewis, I've been thinking of him as the "Narnia" writer for too long - I know there's much more :)

  2. What an amazing post! Those illustrations are beautiful. And your review is excellent. Waiting to write it certainly paid off! I've meaning to read The Romaunt of the Rose for the longest time but I still can't decide if I'm brave enough to confront the original text. Not being a English native speaker adds a new level of complexity to book that is already complex but I'm not willing to give up. I think I'll try to find an edition that has both the original text and a version in modern English so I can compare and use the translation when I need it. Thanks for sharing this with us!

    1. Thank you, it was a tricky post to write!

      There's bound to be a original and modern text somewhere, at least online. I've seen a few like that with some of Chaucer's other poems.

      Let me know when you get to it - I think I'll learn a lot from other people's thoughts :)


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