Friday, July 29, 2011

An unexpected treasure

Something completely unanticipated happened today. I received a note from Virginia Hamilton Adair's daughter, Kappa Waugh. I hadn't heard from Kappa for 5 years or more. With the note came an added surprise.
     You may know that Virginia--poet and professor--was important in my Chaucer process. Actually, Virginia was essential; without her I would never have written a word. When some considered my ideas foolish, she found them "fascinating." A new viewpoint adds life. When my senior project, an effort of considerable research, was perceived as "seeing things that aren't there," she found it enthralling. The freshest idea she'd seen in years. When a paper I'd written was accepted to be read at a literary conference, it was she who arranged a practice run-through in front of a group of her friends at her home. When I finished they asked questions! I hadn't expected that.
     Her interest never flagged. When I reported that Chaucer's 600th anniversary in the year 2000 had stirred up little excitement in the literary world, she said, "We need to have a Chaucer contest." And we did, indeed, under the auspices of The Chaucer Society. The question to be answered in 500 words or less was "Why, after 600 years, are we still studying the works of Chaucer?" (The winning essay is on my website Click "About Celebrations.")
     Even after Virginia lost her sight, she continued to write poetry every day on her portable typewriter. She was "discovered" in her 80s and produced 3 books of poems.
      When my Chaucer books were published I read them to her--a chapter or two each week. Twice she astonished me by anticipating the message Chaucer had hidden. Once her insight proved hilarious; and once she sensed the horror he had concealed.
     Virginia departed this life a few years ago. Not since that time had I heard from her daughter, until today. Folded with her note was a little lapel pin decorated with heraldic images and the words Ave Mater Anglia--Canterbury. It had belonged to Virginia. Kappa's note closed with: It seems right you should have it. What a kind thought! What an unexpected treasure!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

A matter of life--and Death

Because life happens while you're making other plans, I'm going to interrupt the Thopas thoughts to reflect upon and honor a dear friend--Rose Maiorca. Last Saturday I talked with Rose for about half an hour--she in Chicago, me in California. We'd been chatting regularly once a week, or more often, for the last couple of months. As we were about to hang up she said, "We'll talk again soon." But the Lord had a different plan.

We first met in high school and soon found we had many interests in common. Conversation was always easy, open, pleasant; that never changed. She started college about the time I got married. My children called her "Aunt" Rose. She was godmother to my youngest daughter. When we moved to Arizona, she visited us there.
     Part of her working life was spent at the Chicago Sun-Times, often assisting Irv Kupcinet. A second career found her teaching in the Chicago Public School System.
     Although she was an only child, she was part of a large family of Italian heritage. As a sometime traveler, she took a trip to Italy and received a warm reception from people in the town her relatives came from. Another destination several times was New Orleans. She loved the jazz.
     My pursuit of Chaucer, after I'd finished college, brought enthusiasm and encouragement. When my first book (about Chaucer's Host) was accepted for publication her note congratulating me said:

I don't understand the trouble you've had in getting your ideas about Chaucer accepted--except that academics often get lost in details and don't see, or even look at, the main themes of the works they deal with. From the perspective of an ordinary reader, your thoughts have never seemed far-fetched at all, but rather reasonable and even self-evident.

She was a standby, a friend always to be counted on.

About a year ago Rose was diagnosed with cancer. Our phone conversations became more frequent. We'd talk about anything, everything. I asked if she had done everything she had wanted to with her life. She said yes, but confided that she thought about the two proposals of marriage she'd had and rejected. How different life might have been. Whether it was a news item--like the birth of the 16 pound baby!--or hashing over the changes soon to come in the Catholic liturgy, we just enjoyed our time together.
     So, after the Saturday phone call, I planned to call again on Tuesday. When I did, her cousin answered. "May I speak to Rose?" There was a pause and then, "Didn't you get the email? Rose passed away last evening."
     Even when it's expected, death still comes as a surprise. I would dearly have wanted to talk with her one more time. But I wouldn't have had her linger a moment longer.  Peace be with your spirit, Rose.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Prodding the pryking

There are a couple more things to prod about the pryking. A "tradition" sees Thopas, only as a peculiar fellow who gallops about the countryside and wears himself out with spurring his horse. Double entendre is not acknowledged. If it were, Thopas would rival the Miller's Tale--not in provoking belly laughs, but certainly in bawdy content.
     The single-level interpretation is solidly ingrained. A little story will demonstrate how solidly. I once had the opportunity at a Chaucer conference to ask a group of academics about a possible double meaning. Forty or more professors and grad students filled the room. I suddenly realize what a golden opportunity I had. Raising my hand, I inquired, if the dominant activity in the Tale of Thopas was pricking, then why is the story not considered risqué? The room was silent. Several seconds passed before an older man at the back volunteered, "I don't believe pricking had a sexual connotation at that time." No more was forthcoming. Another topic was taken up.
     Evidence, however, says otherwise. Beryl Rowland, in her extensive work on animal symbolism finds horse-riding and equine images expressing sexual activity as far back as Aristotle and the Bible. The Middle English Dictionary, in one of its many definitions of priken (to prick) specifies "to have sexual intercourse." That foregoing information is merely a segue to Chaucer's own portrayal in the Reeve's Tale. A student schemes to share a bed with the wife of his host. Before the night is over, they have a merry time, and, in Chaucer's own words, "He priketh hard and depe." Is interpretation necessary?

OPINIONS continued--

Because I was  reading Middle English for the first time the footnotes and glossary were often essential--like when a buxom wife means she is obedient, or where there is a gold ring in a sow's groin you need to know it really means the ring in in her snout.
     There were other times, however, when the footnote was no help at all--perhaps even a hindrance to understanding. But someone a long time ago had determined the meaning of a line. That someone knew a lot about Chaucer. The meaning that had come down to us had authority. How could we doubt what was said?

     That's where I was--wondering how I could doubt an age-old authority--when I came upon a treasure of a book: The Art of Literary Research by Richard D. Altick. Such fascinating reading about perpetuated misprints, anachronistic "evidence," or "facts" presented exactly the opposite from what was true. Altick refers to:

. . . an assumption of critics or literary historians which has gone unchallenged so long that it now seems as impregnable as an old-fashioned Gospel truth . . .

After reading that, I felt justified in questioning authorities of 100 and more years ago. Actually, I felt encouraged to do so. An easily understood place to begin is in The Tale of Sir Thopas, a story told by Chaucer himself in his pilgrim guise. In today's English the line we'll question says our hero was weary "from galloping (or spurring his horse) over the tender grass." But Chaucer says he was weary from "prikyng on the softe gras." Somehow I get a different picture from the original prikyng on soft grass!

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Critics give OPINIONS--not DOGMA

At my first encounter with Chaucer, what I read caused questions. Sometimes it would happen because of a word, sometimes because of a mental image the words inspired. And sometimes what I "saw" was different from what critics said.