The Romance of the Rose.


Since I read Chaucer's partial translation of The Romance of the Rose (The Romaunt of the Rose), which was his earliest work written in the 1360s, I've been meaning to read the original (or at least a translation of the original) by Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun from the 13th Century. 

The Romance of the Rose (Le Roman de la Rose) can be divided into two; the first part, written by Guillaume de Lorris in around 1230 runs to 4,058 lines; the remaining 17,724 lines were written by Jean de Meun in about 1275. I read a new prose translation by Frances Horgan (1994; Oxford World Classics) which divides the work into twelve chapters:
  • 'The Garden of Pleasure'
  • 'The Spring of Narcissus'
  • 'Hope and Despair'
  • 'The Advice of Reason'
  • 'The Advice of Friend'
  • 'The Army of Love'
  • 'The Advice of the Old Woman'
  • 'The Assault on the Castle'
  • 'Nature and Genius'
  • 'Nature's Confession'
  • 'The Sermon of Genius'
  • 'The Conquest of the Rose' 
Like many Medieval works (particularly Chaucer) it's based on a dream-vision. It begins,
Some say that there is nothing in dreams but lies and fables; however, one may have dreams which are not in the least deceitful, but which later become clear. In support of this fact, I can cite an author named Macrobius, who did not consider that dreams deceived, but wrote of the vision that came to King Scipio. Whoever thinks or says that this is foolish or stupid to believe that a dream may come true, let him think me mad if he likes; for my part I am confident that a dream may signify the good and ill that may befall people, for many people dream many things secretly, at night, which are later seem openly.
He continues,
In my twentieth year, at the time when Love claims his tribute from young men, I lay down one night, as usual, and fell fast asleep. At I slept, I had a most beautiful and pleasing dream, but there was nothing in the dream that has not come true, exactly as the dream told it. Now I should like to recount that dream in verse, the better to delight your hearts, for Love begs and commands me to do so. And if any man or woman should ask what I wish this romance, which I now begin, to be called, it is the Romance of the Rose, in which the whole art of love is contained. The matter is fair and new; God grant that she for whom I have undertaken it may receive it with pleasure. She it is who is so previous and so worthy of being loved that she ought to be called Rose.
de Lorris goes on to write about his dream - it is, as he said, the month of May and he writes of the joy and hope the month brings, all the colours, warmth, and light after a cold winter, and how on walking along a riverbank he comes across a garden surrounded by high walls and with portraits of Hate, Covetousness, Avarice, Envy, Sorrow, Old Age, Religious Hypocrisy, and Poverty. He is however let in by Lady Idleness:
To excite the desire of the featherbrained she had sweetly scented breath, a pink and white face, a little, full-lipped mouth, and a dimpled chin. Her neck was well proportioned, her flesh softer than fleece and free from spots or sores: no woman from here to Jerusalem had a finer neck; it was smooth and soft to touch. Her throat was white as snow freshly fallen on the branch, her body was well formed and slender. There was no need to search in any land for a more beautiful female form. She had a charming gold-embroidered chaplet; no maiden ever had one more ever gad one more elegant or unusual. I could not describe it properly if I took all day. On her gold-embroidered chaplet she had a garland of fresh roses, in her hand she held a mirror, and she had arranged her hair very richly with a rich braid. For the sake of greater elegance she had sewn up her two sleeves, and in order to prevent her white hands form becoming brown, she wore white gloves. She had a tunic of rich Ghent green, edged al round with braid. You could tell from her finery that she had very little to do. When she had combed her hair carefully and decked herself out in her fine clothes, her day's work was done.
He travels through the garden describing the flowers and the birds that sing in it as well as the people he encounters - the God of Love for example, Fair Welcome, Beauty, Wealth (whose purple robe is embroidered in gold "with stories of dukes and kings", Largesse, Generosity of Spirit, Courtesy, and Youth, until he eventually comes across the Spring of Narcissus, where Narcissus himself drowned. It is here the God of Love shoots him with his arrows and he falls in love with the rose.

From here de Lorris and, from the 4,029th line, de Meun, describe how the narrator Guillaume endeavours to win the rose. In essence it's an allegorical love affair with host of people advising him on how he might be successful. What I love about The Romance of the Rose is that it draws together Ancient Greek and Roman myth and philosophy: the friend, for example, is surely based on Cicero's De Amicitia (44 B.C.), and the reference to Scipio in at the beginning - "I can cite an author named Macrobius" refers to a commentary by Macrobius on Cicero's Republic. Then there are the numerous re-tellings of myths, all of which I recognise from Ovid's Metamorphoses (8 A.D.). Unsurprisingly for this era it also is very clearly inspired by Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy (I read Chaucer's translation a while back) with frequent reference to the fickleness of fortune. Looking forward again to Chaucer, there's an interesting section in 'The Advice of the Old Woman' in which de Meun writes of women who were scorned in love, which I imagine inspired Chaucer's The Legend of Good Women (1386-88). Above all else, though, we see an account of what is perceived as the correct manner to conduct a love affair - a wonderful insight into the courtly affairs of the Medieval period.

I particularly enjoy this kind of literature from the Medieval period that we see reflected in Spenser in the 1590s: the personification of attributes and their pairings - the character Fraud, for example, born of Hypocrisy. There's a great deal of the ancients about it, but there's also Christian theology in it. It's an impressive marrying of nearly two thousand years of myths, legends, philosophy, and theology. And it's very beautiful too, though, a word of caution: in examples of the anti-feminist literature of the time, this would rank fairly highly - I'd say the thoughts of St. Jerome are very much present in this. But it is of its time and still has the power to move even the most modern reader. A truly beautiful work.


*****

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