Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History

Review of Fortunes Stabilnes

Fortunes Stabilnes is the title Mary-Jo Arn has chosen for the sequence of early and fifteenth-century English poems in MS Harley 682 which are a translation, or rather reworking, of a set of French lyrics by Charles d'Orleans. They have often been considered to be the Duke's own translations, completed towards the end of his imprisonment in England between 1415 and 1440, and the editor presents good reasons to support this view. Arn also demonstrates that the scribe of the unique English manuscript, Harley 682, was working with Charles' autograph manuscript of his French (and some further English) poems in front of him. Both in French and English the material presents something which falls generically between a collection of formes fixes lyrics within a narrative frame and a complete narrative of the dits amoureux type. In both languages the proportion of lyrics to narrative passages is higher than in other dits amoureus: for instance, after the opening allegory we have an unbroken sweep of seventy-four ballades (seventy-one in the French) and two similar sequences of roundels and ballades follow, separated by two dream episodes. The whole ensemble tells the story of a lover separated from a lady who subsequently dies, his retreat from love, as one too aged for its passion, and Venus's command that he shall woo a second lady who eventually rejects him. They may be designed to suggest, without being direct autobiography, Charles's love for his wife, Bonne d'Armagnac, who died during his English imprisonment, and for a second, English, woman. The English text is longer than the French and, Arn argues (pp. 2-3), closer to being a coherent narrative. While that is true, the English text lacks any final frame passage (though not all medieval framed narratives have a literal final frame) or clear narrative conclusion, its last section being a series of ballades mostly without French equivalents, recording the increasingly unhappy second love affair, ending with the ballade that begins:

As for farewel! farewel! farewel! farewel!
What we read in the Harley manuscripts [sic] seems, in fact, to be material not only hovering between genres, between an author's lyric anthology and a love narrative, but in the process of becoming is one of the central qualities and fascinations of the work.

Revisions to the Harley manuscript include short substantive changes and Arn argues persuasively that Charles oversaw this revision, rethinking his translation of some lines in the process. Textual evidence from Harley and the existence of two paste-down fragments of what looks like a more elegant (presentation?) manuscript of the English text strengthen the impression of a developing process: in the first place of assembling English writing by Charles over many years, from a collection of drafts and manuscripts into the text found in Harley, with guidance from the layout and renumbering in the French autograph, and also of an evolving, creative rethinking of the material. The group of roundels in the middle is not as subordinated to narrative purposes as the ballades and the codicological evidence, Arn shows, suggests Charles was in the process of finalising this section: adding many fresh roundels without French counterparts, perhaps to reach a round hundred and also maybe to give them a clearer story-line. That he never completed this would tally with Arn's conjectural date of 1439-1440 for the making of the Harley manucript. Perhaps the English composition, with its ongoing movement towards greater narrative shaping, and the completion of the Harley text itself in the roundel section (and conjecturally at the end?) were left unfinished when Charles returned to France in 1440.

The English is frequently not close translation, often hardly a translation or not a translation at all, of the French. Apart from the interesting codicological complication that the Harley scribe apparently worked out his layout with the guidance of the autograph French manuscript, the survival of an author's writing in two languages offers invaluable insight into many linguistic and literary processes. The French ballades in the autograph have been renumbered in a story-telling order followed in the English text; a French ballade originally sent to Charles by the Duke of Burgundy furnishes the starting point for two new English amorous ballades; such developments in the fahioning of the English text (or is it texts?) show us genre-shifting and genre-recreation in the making by which discrete lyrics, with already the first stages towards some narrative shaping, are extended and reworked into fuller narrative. In linguistic and stylistic matters too we see a continuous process going on. Frequently Charles rewrites what he said in French into an English with in diction and metaphor echoes Chaucer, suggesting how much Chaucer was seen already as having created a new poetic koine for English courtly composition. The many cases where Charles's English involves creative new 'homonym' translation of his own pre-existing French locutions ("N'a pas long temps qu'alay parler" becomes "Not long ago I hyed me apase") are further evidence of continual composition.

Steele and Day's 1941 EETS edition of the, significantly entitled, English Poems of Charles of Orleans is the obvious point of comparison. Unlike Arn, they did not present this group of poems, totally 6531 lines, as a single work but--with an ambiguity that understandably matches that of the manuscript situation--as 'two sequences' of love poems and, between them, a 'book' they entitle 'The Book of Jubilee': the rondel collection. Their presentation of the text is diplomatic. The Harley 682 scribe used some bizarre spellings (perhaps reflecting Charles' own aural grasp of spoken English in exemplars?), which make the poems, for fifteenth-century courtly verse, a little hard to read, and Arn's more accessible presentation, with modern punctuation, of her own similarly prudently conservative parallel edition will enable more readers to study and enjoy this neglected text. Her list of corrections to the EETS text is not large and many items concern the division of words and expansion to final -e.

The book has clearly been carefully prepared: the on-page glossing, final glossary, textual information and appendices (which include Charles's other English poems) are ample; the Introduction and Explanatory Notes provide a wealth of explanation and commentary on literary background, language and critical issues. They are particularly illuminating on metrical developments and differences between the French and English ballades, and on Charles's affinities with other poets, including Machaut, Gower, Chaucer, de Graunson, and Chartier. Though Harley 682 and the now fragmentary manuscript apparently remained in England, his English poem(s) left no trace of influence on later English writing apart probably, as Pearsall has shown, from the Assembly of Ladies. There was no early printed edition.

Charles d'Orleans deserves to be read as an English as well as a French poet: for his vivid, often colloquial, self-dramatising courtly style; the Wyatt-like sense of a voice speaking within an intimate, empassioned, relationship; for the aural beauty of his diction, and the charm of his characteristic metaphorical landscape with its Forest of Noyous Hevynes, its Castell of No Care, and the sleepless heart that voraciously reads in bed the Romance of Plesaunt Pancer, laughing over its record of his lady's deeds, until the eyes beg an hour's respite and leave him lying frustrated 'like a coal that has fallen out of the fire', and angry (we may notice) like the aristocrat whose servant has begged a moment's rest after hours of small-hours reading. This edition must ensure more readers, students and critics encounter the pleasures and fascinations. Arn's new title, Fortunes Stabilnes, refers to the narrator's recurrent perception of Fortune as unchanging; it is also nicely reader-enticing, and appropriately suggests in its oxymoron the editor's conviction that here, out of fluid and originally varied material, comes a unified work. It also fortuitously captures something of the intriguing insight the Harley manuscript vouchsafes us into an unstable text, an endlessly evolving creative process, fixed for ever only by the changing political fortunes of the poet's external life, and--with all that--a deeply satisfying reading experience.

Helen Phillips
University of Nottingham

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Rev 6/98