27 December 2008

The fleshche is brukle

I think my word count may have to stand as last reported, even though I'd need just over 2000 words to meet my minimum goal of 20,000.

Although I allowed for the usual effects of the holidays, I had no reason to expect my mother to become very ill, and then to die, just before Christmas.

She disappeared in the dead of winter.
All the brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,
and snow disfigured the public statues.
The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.
What instruments we have agree
the day of her death was a dark, cold day.
(Adapted from Auden's poem about the death of Yeats)

18 December 2008

Basement Cat's Secret Life

After breakfast with friends this morning, I was about to drive away when I saw the car waiting for my space: a black Mercedes, with a personalized license plate bearing Basement Cat's real name (that is, not his inanineffable name, but the one the family use daily).

What does that cat do when we think he's safely shut in his room?

16 December 2008


Just getting back to my normal schedule for reporting progress: 17,735 words as of today, with 15 days left in the challenge.

15 December 2008

24 days

I've slipped up a bit on reporting progress with the Forty Days writing challenge. As of Saturday: 15, 750 words. I skipped yesterday (Sundays are the most likely day I'll skip) plus last Friday. And I've been doing under 1000 words a day in the last week. Still, any progress is good progress. I've also checked out a lot of books and downloaded some articles, and I think I need to add a new component to my regime: the Book A Day.

Not that I intend to read A Book A Day (too much like studying for candidacy exams). No, the idea is to pull at least one library book off the shelf and figure out why I checked it out: which project is it for? What information do I need out of it? Do I need to quote a paragraph, read a chapter, or digest the whole thing? The information goes on a sticky note stuck to the book. Then if I'm not sure what to do in a given writing session (definitely a factor in writing less: so much easier if I know I need to write Paragraph Of Close Reading or Paragraph of Historical Background), I can pull a book off the shelves and write something about it.

On an unrelated note, if any academic bloggers will spend any part of the winter break in the City of Wind (you know, in state with arrested governor), drop a line; I'm available for meet-ups.

06 December 2008

Chaucer review

Well. The plumber was very late. And the problem is more severe than was thought two days ago. So now a wall is coming apart. And in the meantime, I engaged in some procrastinatory activity that may prove productive; at any rate, I'll post the results, because with all the pounding, I can't concentrate on editing. And it doesn't seem like a good time to spread closet contents around. But I can stand to look up links.

Dr. Virago has written about her plans for changing her Chaucer course, and in the comments people have expressed enthusiasm for what she’s doing and interest in Chaucer teaching more generally. So I offer here my take on the new edition of The Canterbury Tales, edited by Robert Boenig and Andrew Taylor, from Broadview.

When the Broadview rep e-mailed an offer of an exam copy, my first thought was, "It takes nerve to do another edition of the CT," quickly followed, of course, by "Yes, please—I want to see what you’ve done."

For grad classes I always use the Riverside Chaucer, but for undergraduates, I’ve tried a variety of texts. I’ve been using the Riverside CT paperback for awhile, because, after all, it is the Riverside. It has the best notes, a glossary, and uninterrupted text, glosses at the bottom of the page. But it’s big, and two-columned (like a real medieval book! I think; weird, not like a novel, think my students). Students seem to prefer marginal glosses, and it’s very hard to get them to go to the back for notes, even though I remind them to do so and suggest sticky notes as bookmarks. (Please note that in everything that follows, I’m referring to the Riverside CT paperback, not the complete Riverside Chaucer.)

I’ve also used the Norton CT edition, about which I have mixed feelings. The original edition had a very limited number of tales; I appreciate the additions of the second edition, but even then, what if you want to refer to something that isn’t there? And yet the Norton is a nice, handy size; and the marginal glosses and foot-of-page notes are easier to deal with than flipping to the back for notes. They have a lot of useful material in the back, both sources / analogues and criticism. And yet (once again) what if you want other stuff? The Norton editions often excerpt criticism from books, which on the one hand is helpful if you want to present major scholars’ arguments in parvo. On the other, though, I don’t just use criticism qua criticism; I also want scholarly essays to help me teach how to construct an argument, and my students often have valid criticisms of essay-length book excerpts: key concepts can be omitted, chunks of the argument glossed over, the structure (unsurprisingly) like a piece of a larger work rather than like a stand-alone essay. The essays I require of my students are not nearly so long as a published scholarly essay, but students find it easier to think about an article as a model for their own work than to take a chunk of a book as a model.

(That said, I’m rather excited about the Norton edition of the Dream Visions and shorter poems, which I may review separately.)

The other Chaucer text I’ve used is Baugh’s Chaucer’s Major Poetry. The advantage is that it has almost everything: T&C and dream visions as well as the CT, all in one volume. But I miss the prose, because I like to assign excerpts of the Parson’s Tale.

No, listen: parts of it are very funny! It’s a terribly undervalued text, especially for teaching undergraduates. Go look at the descriptions of clothing under Pride if you don’t believe me; read them in the voice of the clergyman in Harold and Maude, the one who says "flabby . . . b-b-buttocks."

And (hey, come back; ah, heck, everybody’s off checking You-Tube for Harold and Maude excerpts), and, I say, Baugh uses the Bradshaw shift to order the Canterbury Tales, which means I have to explain the different orderings and why the Bradshaw shift went by the wayside. That’s not all bad, because it lets me wax enthusiastic about manuscripts and why we should look at what actually existed in the Middle Ages as opposed to some possible ideal Ur-text. But again, my students find this a bit tedious and want to know why the Baugh edition is still kicking around if scholars no longer accept the Bradshaw shift. That lets me talk about publishing and book history and scholarly reputation, all of which I find wildly interesting and relevant, but my students are single-minded and think they are in class to learn about Chaucer and Middle English. So, in the end, I’m not so happy with Baugh even though it’s a not-unreasonably priced single volume of most of what I want when teaching Chaucer.

That was a long preamble to consideration of the Broadview edition. It’s slightly larger than the Riverside CT, significantly larger than the Norton; it’s in two columns (like a real medieval book!) with marginal glosses (glossed words are marked in the text with a raised open circle, as in Norton) and foot of page notes. The print is uncomfortably small, at least to my middle-aged eyes. There are some "Background Documents" at the back, including, to my delight, bits of the Tale of Beryn. All of these, including Beryn, are translated into modern English. There is no glossary. The edition is based on the Ellesmere MS, corrected from Hengwrt only, say the editors, where Ellesmere is "clearly defective" (37). They repeatedly characterize their goals as "more modest" than those of other editors: they wish to "mak[e] sense of a specific manuscript" (37). There are several black-and-white reproductions of pages from Ellesmere, and on the cover is a color picture of Ellesmere’s first page.

The introduction is, I think, considerably more accessible to undergraduates than the Riverside introduction. In the first place, page numbers are Arabic, not Roman, numerals. The Riverside begins with a discussion of the extant Chaucer life-records; the Broadview editors begin by saying, "Chaucer’s biographers reckon the approximate date of his birth by testimony Chaucer himself gave" in the Scrope-Grosvenor dispute. They give specific examples of how we know various information about Chaucer, and frame his life in a way that I think my students will find more engaging than the Riverside’s presentation of the same information. For example: "Chaucer came from a well-to-do merchant family" (Riverside, xiii); "Chaucer was born to a family that eventually rose from the peasantry to the nobility" (Broadview 9). The movement of the second formulation will appeal, I think, and show that social structure was not so rigid in the Middle Ages as some people are inclined to think. (Or maybe A Knight’s Tale already made that point.) Broadview includes assorted snippets of information that help individuate people in Chaucer’s background, such as "John le Chaucer was killed in a brawl," and explain cultural practices , such as "It was normal for married couples in the upper nobility to maintain separate households" (9). After the opening section on Chaucer’s life comes a section on "The Construction of the Canterbury Tales," brief discussions of "Chaucer’s English" and "Chaucer’s Versification," and a lengthy study of reception history, divided into two parts, one up to the twentieth century and another devoted to twentieth-century criticism.

The section on language is much briefer than that in the Riverside, with no tables for pronunciation or paradigms for pronouns and verbs. While I will miss having those at hand to point out to students, I always have to spend considerable time in class on the language anyway, and my students usually have seemed more willing to study paradigms I put on the board in class than those neatly printed in the book they paid good money for. (I don’t understand it; I merely report. Perhaps it’s the act of copying out the pronouns, etc., from the board that helps them to learn.) I object to the characterization of Chaucer’s verse as "iambic pentameter" (18); sometimes his lines come out to iambic pentameter, but sometimes they’re four-stress lines, with a looser rhythm, more like older English poetry. But again, the finer points of medieval prosody don’t usually get a huge amount of attention in my classes anyway.

I will also miss the timeline included in the Riverside, but again, I’ve had difficulty getting most students to pay attention to timelines (I love them, and the few stray history majors I’ve had seem to like them, too, but I don’t get enough of those: English is an oversubscribed major at LRU, so I teach mainly majors). If you’re trying to teach a significant amount of medieval English literature in the original language, there’s quite a lot to do in a semester without teaching the history of the fourteenth century as well. Some historical context is crucial, but like the language, it may be better delivered in class.

All in all, I like the book for its accessible introduction, including the introduction to twentieth-century schools of Chaucer criticism, its simplified notes, and its focus on a single manuscript. I’m going to try Broadview next year and see how it goes. If it doesn’t go "faire and weel," as Nicholas says, then I’ll return to the Riverside. I'll try to remember to report back to you next fall.

So. That was another 1500 words. But it's not research.


Today is the fifteenth day of the Forty Days Writing Challenge. Word count: 12,221. I skipped one day entirely; did less than 1000 on two other days; but today I got up to 1450 and felt reluctant to quit.

That sounds like I'm on a roll. Actually, I'm quite ready to stop the project I was working on (more ME/AN lists). Other possible activities, however, have limited appeal. It's cold and snowy outside, so I don't so much want to go out (though I have to get cat food today). Some of the closets really, really, in actual non-procrastinatory fact, do need cleaning, but if the choice is cleaning, I'd really rather write. Or edit something. At the moment, I'm waiting for the plumber, anyway. Sir John is at Midwest Theory Day*, so no distractions from him. I guess the overdue essay will get some attention.

* Why am I not there? It's not what my usual readers are likely to think. No, really, other disciplines have theories, too. This meeting, however, always makes me start saying, "It's flat because the giants trampled it down! No, it's flat because the glaciers receded! It's so big because it got stretched out flat by the giants!" And then Sir John rolls his eyes and says "Nyuk nyuk nyuk," and I give up trying to theorize the Midwest.

The Scot and the Grammarian

I did say more cat pictures were coming. Here are our other two boys. Their pseudonyms are in-jokes related to their real names and some obscure details of early modern English cultural life.

02 December 2008

Cue rant

It's probably a Christmas card; probably from a not-close relative on Sir John's side. But here we go again: I'm Dame Eleanor, not Lady Hull, definitely not Lady John Hull, a form of address reserved, I believe, for old-fashioned wives of dukes' younger sons (as in Harriet Vane becoming Lady Peter, for social purposes, when she married).

And since this is the USA, the social niceties aren't nearly as tricky as working out who's who among British aristocrats. How hard is it to ask people who marry what they want to be called? She might or might not change her name. Sometimes he takes hers! They might hyphenate, or adopt a name meaningful to them both, or combine.

Combination actually makes for an excellent party game. Which guests ought to get together just for the name possibilities? Dart and Staley become the Dastardleys! Villalobos and Barton become the Villains! Who ought to eschew any such partnership, or, should it develop, avoid name-combination at all costs? I can think of some well-known scholarly collaborators who, at least for nomenclatory purposes, should keep their collaborations to the intellectual realm.

Well, yes, I go to some very nerdy parties. But we nerds have fun, too, in our own weird way.

01 December 2008

One quarter of forty

I'm now ten days into the Forty Days and Forty Nights challenge, one-fourth of the way through. My total word count as of this evening: 8291.

I have met my word count every day except yesterday, when I did not write a word. Today I achieved 568. Except for these two, I have succeeded at producing a thousand words on workdays, five hundred on weekends and holidays. If I continue to produce 8000 words every ten days, I'll have not 20,000 words but 32,000 by 31 December.

I could wish more of them were continuous prose. Much of what I've been doing lately involves listing brief quotations from a Middle English poem and its Anglo-Norman source, in columns, under various headings, trying to work out which images they share, how often the speaker refers to himself as "I" or "we," how many times each version refers to singing, writing, or other forms of narration. The translation, of course, is not literal, but sometimes Anglo-Norman images reappear some stanzas further on in the Middle English. At some point I will turn this raw data into prose---I mean into excitingly incisive analysis of the medieval lyric---but for now I'm still listing and thinking.

And today I printed a nasty dirty draft of the overdue essay, to be edited (cut, pasted, excised, added to and rewritten). I'm sure other things I've written have come more easily. I swear I remember other essays almost writing themselves after I had an outline. Is this like childbirth? Have I just forgotten what it was like, those other times?

Without losing sight of the main goal (500 words a day, every day; on weekdays, 500 on each of two projects), I want to add an hour of editing time to weekday work. We'll see how it goes. If I have to work out some equivalencies (500 words of new writing = one hour of revision), I can accept that, but I'd rather treat editing as a separate kind of work.

Next report in another five days. I'm hoping to get around to giving you some more cat pictures in between. We do have others besides Basement Cat, after all; they should get their moment of fame.