Language strange: Speech and poetic authority in Chaucer, Lydgate, Dunbar, and Spenser
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"Language Strange" addresses the linguistic "inferiority complex" that poets in English faced as they worked to raise the literary profile of the fledgling vernacular. It foregrounds the under-studied importance of strange language (or what Chaucer's character the Reeve calls "churles termes," as well as regional, class-based, and archaic diction) to the concept of authorship and poetic diction as it develops in late medieval to early modern poets. With a focus on the poetic language of Chaucer and his literary descendants (those shaped by his poetry, who also shaped the perception of his legacy), my project explores how that language intersects with concepts of authorship and informs the emerging standard. By closely examining key words in English poetry to show how poets gloss and mediate them, I argue that authorship in English is based on sorting and deploying all kinds of domestic dialects, in addition to forging a relationship to language as poets interrogate words. Thus a sense of authorship in English derives not only from "having a good ear" for language, but also often involves choosing the wrong word and then working through its implications. In tracking these relationships, this project articulates how "strange language" played a central role in the development of the poetic mainstream. In articulating the role of "strange language," I contribute to a critical discourse that proposes a rethinking of linguistic, geographic, and period boundaries. Thomas Tyrwhitt, who edited The Canterbury Tales in 1775, recognized that Middle English was not "pure and unmixed" and that French could hardly be counted as a foreign language for speakers in late medieval England. More recently, critics such as David Crystal, Paula Blank, and Katie Wales have argued that the story of Standard English cannot be accurately told without considering the range of regional alternatives that sprang up alongside and contributed to it. Alexandra Gillespie and Megan Cook have helped trouble the distinction between scribal and print culture in England, while Jonathan Hsy and David Wallace have examined meeting (and melding) points between the languages and literatures of disparate places in the medieval world. By attending closely to poetic diction in the poets I study--not only where that diction comes from, but also what it means in the context of the poetry--"Language Strange" helps clarify how poets took advantage of artificial boundaries between places, times, and tongues. The aim is not to argue that periodization, e.g., is a meaningless construct, but to think through differences in late medieval to early modern poetry in a way that reflects their crosscurrents and mutually constitutive elements.