Medium AEvum

Review of Fortunes Stabilnes

Some fifty years have passed since the contents of London, British Library, MS Harley 682 were diplomatically edited for the Early English Text Society by Robert Steele and Mabel Day as The English Poems of Charles of Orleans. Subsequent study of the poems has been largely dominated by issues which these editors raised: the relationship of the contents of MS Harley 682 to the body of French poems attributed to Charles in Paris, Bibliotheque Nationale MS f. fr. 25458; the nature of many of the texts as 'translations', and the identity of their translator; the degree to which their concerns reflect features of Charles's biography during his lengthy English imprisonment. While Mary-Jo Arn's new edition, at over twice the length of the earlier one, does not ignore the history of scholarly argument on these points, its central aim is to make the poems accessible and comprehensible as a significant (and virtually unique) English example of the lyrico-narrative 'erotic pseudo-biography', analogus to Dante's Vita nuova or to Machaut's Voir Dit: a 'book' of love, in which questions concerning the art and writing of poetry are addressed.

Arn's text, unlike that of the earlier edition, is punctuated, and accompanied by on-the-page paraphrases of the knottier sections. The revisions made in the manuscript by one or possibly two hands are incorporated as authorized corrections, and abbreviated refrains are printed in full (this notably clarifies the sense of the roundels, and counters the impression of slightness which they convey in Steele and Day's edition). Extensive endnotes, and a comprehensive glossary, expand on linguistic and syntactical details, and are particularly rich in contextualizing information about dress and social custom. Such a wealth of aids, together with a full bibliography and a number of appendices and indexes, offers at least some support in the face of expression which, while piquant and arresting, is sometimes--as Arn readily admits--rebarbative in the extreme.

The lengthy introduction deals judiciously with the nagging issue of authorship and offers full accounts of the verse-forms, metre, style and language of the poems. Arn interestingly consolidates what is known of the chronology of the composition of the 'book', and makes a plausible case for an observable development through the sequence of a fluent and idiomatic 'English' voice, informed alike by familiar proverbs and Chaucerian echoes. If one could wish for more in a work this full it would be in the area of the availability and later circulation of his poems--points concerning which Arn herself signals the need for more investigation (see, e.g., pp. 41 and 123). Although the scribal practices observable in MS Harley 682 are here meticulously characterized, and the later annotations carefully transcribed, the provenance and later history of the manuscript are not pursued in any detail; further study, and a fresh look at the primary sources in which Charles's residence in England can be traced, might have more to yield.

Julia Boffey, London

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