OCR new AS level: close analysis question – Chaucer

45 minutes to plan and write…

I thought it might be useful to answer the Pre-1900 close analysis question for Chaucer to assist my Yr 12 in answering this part of the new examination.  I do not claim that this is an A grade answer, but am trying to point out the approach that might work well for them when faced with the question.

My first concern is to ensure that I am including detailed a commentary on the actual text and the second is that I am showing clear awareness of the text as a whole in my response.

I will begin by placing the passage (ll 663-699) into context:

The passage in question comes from the middle of the tale, when Januarie, having “labour’d” through his wedding night notices Damyan’s absence from his serving table.  Chaucer’s description of the love making is graphic and longwinded – as is the act itself – Januarie is very pleased with himself, singing loudly when the act has been completed.  Damyan, his squire, has been seen to have fallen in love with May, but Chaucer has not given any detail of his character until this point. 

The question is focused on the depiction of Damyan.  let’s deal with this first:

Damyan, the squire, is a character who displays a common trope of a Medieval tale about courtly love.  This tale in particular is often considered a Fabliau – a satire on the French model – and so it should not surprise the reader if the typical traits of that form of writing – coarseness and irony are found to the fore in his presentation.  Chaucer typically introduces description of a character through the use of the form “This..” and the passage is launched in this way.  A typical courtly lover needs to suffer for his love and also for the love to be carried out over a long period and from afar.  Chaucer here subverts this tradition by presenting Damyan, who in “venus fyr/so brenneth” as needing only to borrow a pen in order to make his love clear.  The idea of “Venus fyr”, with its suggestion of sin and of Hell,  clearly suggests a lustful desire, rather than one built on purer ideals as might suit a “gentil squier”.  This sense is further heightened by the rhyming pattern of the couplet, which links “fyr” with “desyr”.  We know that later in the tale, at the consummation of the relationship between him and the ironically titled “fresshe” May, Damyan will be rough and direct – “in he throng”- and will not show any of the expected reticence of a true courtly lover.  The use of the epithet “gentil” is important in establishing the irony at the centre of the fabliau:  it is the term used throughout the Canterbury Tales to describe the epitome of good behaviour and good manners.  In this passage, the ironic use of it is clear, as Damyan begins to plan his cuckolding of Januarie.

At this stage of the poem, the Merchant is keen to present Damyan in a manner that maintains the illusion of a lover, however,  he wears the letter he writes “leyde (it) at his herte”, and he writes in the manner of a “compleint”: the common form of lover’s letter written to the unattainable love of his life.  Once he keeps to his bed, Chaucer allows the reader to see him through the eyes of Januarie, for whom he is “gentil”.  This idea is enhanced through the use of the tricolon towards the end of the passage:  “wys, discreet and … secree…”.  That Januarie should so misjudge his squire should not surprise the reader – he has shown poor judgement throughout the story when ignoring Justinus and choosing a young wife, and Chaucer uses the enjambement of this line to strike his clear point:  “…as secree/as any man I woot of his degree”.  The message is clear – the Merchant (and therefore Chaucer) is suggesting that most squires are essentially untrustworthy.  Chaucer writes in rhymed couplets throughout and here the rhyme has evident purpose – to link men of this kind with secrets and a level of untrustworthiness.  The irony here, so typical of this tale, is that Januarie’s estimation of Damyan, based no doubt in his service of Januarie in business, allows the reader to see the three essential requirements of the cockolder.  This irony is further strengthened when he is described as “manly and servisable” at the end of the passage.  Whatever January thinks he is praising here, the Merchant is showing Damyan as the opposite of a man who needs to take “ypocras” and read “de Coitu” prior to his lovemaking, no doubt because of his extreme age and who will certainly be able to “service” May who has rated Januarie’s attempts as not “worth a beene”.  The fact that his lovemaking is so physically perfunctory merely adds to the ironic humour here:  Damyan is  far from being “gentil” or “servisable” to either Januarie or May.  Januarie’s marriage has been based on a lustful desire rather than on “hooly sacrament” and here we see an ironic suggestion that the affair with Damyan is driven by the same desire.  In a Fabliau, the high status code of courtly love should be debased.  This passage introduces the clear intention of Damyan to possess May for purely sexual pleasure.

Having spent some time discussing Damyan, I want to be sure I am addressing the idea of typicality….

In the middle of the passage there is a digression typical of this tale.  Whether it is Chaucer or Chaucer’s narrator the Merchant who wishes to show off his knowledge of astrology is not certain , but the device is used in various places thought the tale as a means of allowing time to pass in the narrative.  Here the moon is said to have “gliden” between Taurus and Cancer whilst Damyan has kept to his bed.  The reader is also told the May is bedridden for the same length of time  “as custume is”.  Chaucer is telling the reader here that the wedding took place at the conjunction of Mars and Venus – not a propitious time for Januarie, since we assume that Damyan, being young and strong is a better model for the God of War than he.  May has already been linked indirectly with Venus in the description of “Venus fyr”.  At this point the link is inescapable.

The nature of Damyan’s treachery is made clear in the description of Januarie’s sadness and concern for his faithful “squier”.   Januarie has shown awareness of the well being of another f0r the first time in the tale – he will do so again at the moment of deception by indulging May’s longing for the surely sexualised “smal peres grene” –   the irony is that he is so wrong in his assumption of Damyan’s virtue.  just as at the end of the tale when he wishes he had a “knave/that koud climbe”, he completely misjudges Damyan’s character and his pity is misplaced.  At this point in the tale, May’s treachery has not yet been seen, but her swift willingness to dupe her husband, whilst remaining “fresshe” in terms of her epithets is another example of the irony established throughout this tale.

I suggest you round it off with a conclusion which re-establishes the passage within the context of the whole:

The passage comes at the midpoint of the tale.  Until this point the focus has been on Januarie and on the nature of marriage.  May has been a silent participant in Januarie’s plans.  The passage looks both forward and backward within the tale to allow the central ironies to be established and to further explore the sense of male ownership of women in this tale.  May’s role as a woman clearly capable of breaking the mould of woman-as-victim is yet to be made clear.

I hope this serves as an example of how the passage selected can be linked to the tale as a whole and how the task requires close reading of the passage to present detailed discussion of language.

OCR publish support material which can be found here: http://www.ocr.org.uk/Images/281463-shakespeare-and-poetry-pre-1900-candidate-style-answers.pdf   be sure to use it wisely.