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The Floure and the Leafe: Introduction

The only authoritative text of FL is that which Thomas Speght introduced into his first edition (1598) of Chaucer's Collected Works, though there is a contemporary list of contents in the late fifteenth-century manuscript Longleat 258 (which also contains The Assembly of Ladies) which suggests that FL once occupied pages now lost in that manuscript. In including FL, Speght was following the practice of his sixteenth century predecessors by enlarging his edition of Chaucer with the addition of works that could plausibly be attributed to the poet, and FL remained in the Chaucer canon, as one of the most admired of his poems, until expelled by Henry Bradshaw on the basis of rhyme-tests in 1868. The attribution to Chaucer is totally without historical foundation. Skeat printed a text of FL in the supplement to his great edition of Chaucer, Chaucerian and Other Pieces, in 1897, with valuable introduction and notes, and with the text restored to its presumed original near-Chaucerian form (it was actually probably written about 1460-80) by means of very extensive conjectural emendation of grammar and spelling. In this he was extremely skilful, but a modern editor, faced with a unique text of a poem at least a hundred years later than the date of composition of that poem, is less likely to engage in such wholesale reconstruction, and Pearsall, in the standard modern edition of the poem (1962), made only such changes in Speght's text as were necessary to restore sense. These changes are incorporated silently in the present text.

FL takes its origin from the real or supposed courtly cult of the Flower and the Leaf to which Chaucer refers in the Prologue to The Legend of Good Women and to which Deschamps had referred before him (and Charles d'Orléans after, in the English poems written in his captivity, 1415-40). Knights and ladies would declare their adherence to the Flower or the Leaf and maintain the propriety of their choice with no doubt elegant and sophisticated casuistry. The poet of FL gives a fresh twist to the debate by moralizing adherence to the Flower and the Leaf in terms of a contrast between perseverance and fidelity in love and fashionable fickleness and flirtation, and between honor and valor in battle and idleness. This contrast is developed in the poem with a wealth of allegorical and metaphorical suggestion. The flower, which is fading and transitory, in reality as well as in some famous biblical contexts (e.g., Isaiah 40:6-8, Psalm 1:3), is contrasted with the leaf (of certain evergreen trees, especially the laurel), which is enduring; the nightingale (female), which sings of faithful and betrayed love, is contrasted with the more light-hearted goldfinch (male); the medlar, which only ripens in decay, is contrasted with the evergreen leaf and with the woodbine, symbolic of faithful attachment. The company of the Leaf engage in singing and dancing together, but only after the ladies have done their own service to the Leaf through song and dance, and the knights have jousted; the company of the Flower arrive with minstrels and proceed immediately to promiscuous singing and dancing and to worship of the daisy (where our poet either forgets or repudiates the traditional role of the daisy or marguerite in Chaucer and the French poets). The great storm that follows is nicely symbolic and not too unlikely in terms of English weather (an early summer hailstorm with sharp extremes of temperature): those who shelter under the laurel are protected, so to speak, by their loyalty and fidelity in love from the extremes of passion to which those more light of love are subject. The moral contrasts are unambiguous, but they are not ruthlessly pressed home: the company of the Leaf are very sympathetic to the distress of the company of the Flower after the storm, even to the extent of gathering salades for them to eat - not the only time the poem has the air of a modern guide to wholesome living. The ladies of the Leaf and the Flower treat each other with exquisite politeness, and the guide that the poet meets and who explains the allegory can find no worse rebuke for the followers of the Flower than that they are 'idle.'

The poem is cast in the conventional form of the allegorical love-vision, and there are many echoes of Chaucer, Lydgate, and the French poets (Guillaume de Lorris, Guillaume Machaut, Jean Froissart, and Eustache Deschamps), particularly in the elaborate seasonal and garden setting. At the same time, the poem is also in some ways highly unconventional: it is, for one thing, a 'dream-poem' in which the narrator fails to fall asleep; furthermore, the carefully contrived arbor-setting is used only as a vantage point from which the narrator has a view of events in the wide meadow beyond. In this, and in other ways, there is a sense that the boundaries of traditional allegorical love-vision are being deliberately tested. Most striking of all is the representation of the narrator as a woman: though not unprecedented, this is quite unusual, and has to do, presumably, with a tradition that women above all are concerned with the service of the Flower and the Leaf and with questions of loyalty and constancy. On the other hand, the emphasis in the explanation of the allegory is much more upon the duties of knights to fight valiantly and not to be idle than upon the opposition between constancy and fickleness in love. The exhortation seems very close to Malory's complaints about the idle habits of present-day knights or to his vivid contrast between the stable and constant love between men and women in the old days (King Arthur's days) and 'the love nowadayes, sone hote sone colde' (Works, ed E. Vinaver, III.1119).

Whether the poem is actually by a woman is a question which no ingenuity, it seems, could solve, though prejudice might point a way. The poem is pervaded by an extraordinary charm and sweet reasonableness: it breathes through and softens even distressing moments and potentially severe moral judgments. It reads like a poem that Jane Bennett (of Pride and Prejudice) might have written. The imitation of Chaucer is intimate, though not without its awkwardness: syntax is sometimes a little less under control than one might have expected, and the versification, if all its defects are due to scribes, must have undergone an exceptionally thorough process of corruption at their hands. The rhyme royal stanza is treated in a remarkably free and un-Chaucerian manner, with little attempt to match sense to stanza-unit or to natural divisions within the stanza.

Bibliography for The Floure and the Leafe, The Assembly of Ladies, and The Isle of Ladies

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