Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Yeoman: Why so informative?

The challenge of allegory is to identify a second meaning--using the same words. So what will we find in the Canon's Yeoman?

His disclosure is crammed with things: chemicals, utensils, vegetable and animal products. Scholars compare these "poetic" lines to and inventory. The vocabulary is equally unfamiliar whether in Middle or Modern English. Here's a sample:
           As boole armonyak, verdegrees, boras,
          And sondry vessels maad of erthe and glas,
          Oure urynals and oure descensories,
          Violes, crosletz, and sublymatories,
          Cucurbites and alambikes [also],
          . . . 
         Arsenyk, sal armonyak, and brymstoon;
         And herbes koude I telle [also many a one],
         As egremoyne, valerian, and lunarie.
This goes on for 38 lines! Alchemy is the accepted subject, but many alternate definitions deal with pigment, book-binding, water-proofing, etc.
     Much of the vocabulary serves at cross purposes. The patron saint called upon is "Seint Gile." If not personified, the two words--seint gile--mean holy fraud. "Coles" that feed a fire alternately communicate glue or sizing in book construction. Time, introduced as the French temps, plays a complicated role sometimes merging with tempren (to mix). Mulling over the lines heavy with stuff that produces ink, pigment, fixatives and more, I saw the image of a book.
     Seeing this servant as a book, it's no wonder he has so much information to give and such great willingness to inform!
          . . . I tell each proportion
          Of things which we worked upon.
          . . . 
          I will tell you as I was taught.
     He provides early memories of a book being constructed, details of things necessary for the manufacture of paper, vellum and inks. When the presentation suddenly changes from a first person narration to a second person report (regarding a procedure gone awry), this tells of notations being made in the book.
     Though a canon is a clergyman, the Yeoman clearly states that the canon he is describing in NOT the Canon that was his original companion. "Canon" also refers to scientific volumes of codified information, principles of calculation, or records of celestial events. Chaucer's Astrolabe includes a "canon" that teaches how to compute information about the zodiac, the moon, and the planets.
     The Yeoman's laboring at, and lamenting over, multiplication implies the effort of recording tables as one of his "services." When the Yeoman complains of a false canon, this means faulty information, which causes errors in judgment or calculations. The fourteenth century gained new methods of calculating as Arabic numerals (replacing Roman numerals) came into standard use. Besides greater ease of computing, tables were more readily constructed and interpreted.
     The Host's first personal question of the Yeoman asks,
          Why art thou so discolored of thy face?
The Yeoman responds,
          I am so used in the fire to blow
          That it hath changed my color.
What can this mean in regard to a  book? A pocket-sized book of Chaucer's day that held information on a particular subject (and would be handy to fan a fire!) was a common personal possession, easily carried from place to place. Because it was so transportable, it was called a vade mecum ("go with me"). This is precisely the role given the Yeoman; he traveled with the Canon.
     A vade mecum would be used a great deal, which would cause deterioration of its binding and fading of the print--as if one's eyes were bleary as the Yeoman complains.
          And of my work yet bleared is mine eye.
     The original red pigment of the cover, with wear, would lose its vibrancy and pale to grey--as the Yeoman indicates,
          And where my color was both fresh and red
          Now is it wan and of a leaden hue.
     To minimize wear on this much-used book, it was provided with a protective sheath.
          Now may I wear an hose upon mine head.
The "hose" worn by the Yeoman is the poet's playful way of indicating that protective sheath for a vade mecum.
     Chaucer creates two very different double images in the Tales. One is the pair of pilgrim brothers as Gemini. The other is the Canon and his Yeoman as two variations of the term "canon"!

Monday, May 12, 2014

The comet comes and goes

So far we've only seen froth and clothing trailing behind Chaucer's Canon. Now a "male" is mentioned (a man or a pouch) on the "horse's" hind-quarters. It's a tweyfoold (twofold) indicating two parts.  (A "male" is also associated with the Parson and his brother as Gemini.) The Canon and his Yeoman (servant) are actually a double image. We'll pursue that as we get to know the two of them better.
     Action  begins as "a man" is seen trying to overtake the pilgrims. The narrator describes his streaming clothes, his light array, and his speed. He enters shouting.
          "God save," quote he, "this jolly company!
          Fast have I spurred," quote he, "for your sake,
          Because I would overtake you
          To ride in this merry company."
After this resounding greeting, his servant, who has arrived without notice, explains:
          . . . "Sirs, during the morning
          Out of your hostelry I saw you ride
          And informed my lord and sovereign here
          Who is very eager to ride with you
          For his amusement; he loves conversation."
     For all the Canon's desire to join the pilgrims and converse, there is no conversation. We learn about his lifestyle through questions the Host asks the servant, who appears eager to volunteer information.
     The Host asks,
          "Can he tell a merry tale or two, 
          With which he may glad this company?"
The servant replies,
          "Who sir? my lord? yes, yes, without a lie,
          . . . 
          If you knew him as well as I do
          You would wonder how well and craftily
          He could work and in how many ways.
          He has taken on many great enterprises."
Astrologically, the lines confide the power and influence of a comet.    
     The servant concludes a stream of disclosures with,
          "He is a man of high discretion
          I assure you, he is a passing man."
While "passing" usually intends great approval, the ambiguous sense here is movement passing high above.
     The Host inquires again:
          "Is he a cleric, or not? tell what he is."
The question asks what he is, rather than who he is. The talkative servant obliges.
          "Nay, he is greater than a cleric, for sure,"
          Said this Yeoman, "and in words few,
          Host, of his craft somewhat I will show you.
          . . . 
          That all this ground on which we are riding,
          Until we come to Canterbury town,
          He could clean turn it upside down
          And pave it all with silver and gold."
In the covert reading, of course, there is no ground beneath their feet; they are travelers in the firmament. Then a comet's glowing tail would naturally spread for miles.
     The Host becomes critical. How can the Canon's personality be as described?
          "Why is thy lord so slovenly, I pray thee.
          And he has the power better clothes to buy,
          If his deeds accord with thy speech?"
The penetrating query makes the servant hesitate.
          "Why?" said his Yeoman, "why do you ask me?
          God help me so, for he shall never thrive!
          (But I will not admit what I said,
          And therefore keep it secret, I pray you.)
      The Host persists.
          "Where do you dwell, if it can be told?"
Unable to resist informing, the servant replies:
          "Outside the walls of a town," said he,
          "Lurking in secret places and dark, hidden lanes
          Where robbers and thieves by their nature 
          Keep their private fearful residence,
          Like they that dare not show their faces;
          So we fare, if I say the truth."
Here Chaucer sketches where comets abide when unseen--where evil astrological forces reside.
     The Canon draws near and listens.
           And thus he said to his Yeoman:
          "Hold thou thy peace, and speak no words more,
          For if you do, you shall pay dearly for it.
          You slander me here in this company,
          And reveal what thou shouldst hide."
The Host encourages the servant:
          ". . . tell on, what happened.
          Don't be concerned over his threats."
     A one-line response follows:
          "In faith," said he, "I do no more that 'lyte.'"
If "he" is the  servant, then he is minimizing his disclosures:
          "In faith, I do no more that a little."
But if "lyte" is a play on light, "he" the Canon is claiming innocence of wrongdoing:
          "In faith, I do no more than light."
The Canon/comet protests that he is only an object of illumination.
     Now the Canon takes leave as suddenly as he came.
          And when this Canon saw it would not be,
          But that his Yeoman would tell his private matters,
          He fled away for sorrow and shame.
The poet creates an excuse for the Canon's departure. In allegory, once the Canon is identified as a comet, he must "leave as suddenly as he came." That's his role.    
     But wait, the informative servant has been left behind!