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The Isle of Ladies: Introduction

There are two manuscripts of The Isle of Ladies (IL): Longleat House MS 256, of the mid-sixteenth century, and British Library MS Additional 10303, somewhat later. The original composition of the poem probably dates back to late in the previous century. The poem was picked up by Thomas Speght, from a copy not very distant from Addit.10303, and included in his 1598 edition of The Workes of Geffrey Chaucer, where, tendentiously and unluckily called Chaucer's Dreame, it accompanied The Floure and the Leaf (FL) into the Chaucer canon. It remained in the canon until relegated to the apocrypha in Skeat's 1878 revision of Robert Bell's edition of Chaucer, though Henry Bradshaw had questioned its authenticity as early as 1866. It was Bradshaw, on a visit to Longleat House, who inspected the manuscript and attached a note in which he first gave IL its present title. Skeat accepted the title in Chaucerian and Other Pieces (1897), and so it became established. He did not include the poem in that volume, as he did FL and AL, because of its inordinate length.

Of the three early texts, it is accepted that the best is Longleat, though the spelling of that manuscript, even given that it is of the mid-sixteenth century, is that of a maniac. There is also much that is vague, obscure, and confused in the text, but it does not seem impossible that these defects may be the responsibility of the poet, not the scribe. The present text follows that of Jenkins (1980), though I have introduced a few minor changes, and also systematized the spellings u/v and i/j according to modern practice, simplified initial ff as f, and followed modern word-division. I am very grateful to Dr. Jenkins for letting me use his edition as copy.

Since IL is a long poem and its story, unlike those of FL and AL, quite complicated, it will be useful to have a brief summary of the narrative.

The dreamer finds himself in a beautiful isle inhabited only by ladies. He is courteously but coolly received by their governess, an older lady, who tells him he will have to leave the isle, though they must wait for confirmation of this from their queen, who is about to return from a journey. The queen at this point arrives, accompanied by the dreamer's lady and a knight. She explains the mission she has been on to secure the three magic apples that guarantee her subjects youth, beauty, and happiness, and tells how she found the apples in the hands of the dreamer's lady and was then abducted by the knight. In her distress she was succoured by the lady (with an apple) and then by the knight, now repenting his rashness, and they have brought her safely back to the isle. The knight, asked to explain his conduct, falls for distress into swoon and lamentation. He is gently ministered to by the queen, but with no suggestion that she returns his passion (1-692).

At this point the navy of the God of Love arrives: scorning the flimsy defences of the isle, he advances upon the queen and her company, and demands why she treats his servant so cruelly. After shooting into her the arrow of love, he moves among the rest of the ladies, paying special attention to the dreamer's lady and recommending the dreamer to her as her servant. Having received a 'bill' from the queen, the God of Love announces that he will be there in the morning to receive the submission of the ladies to his service. The day come, he also requires that the queen and the lady accept the knight and the dreamer into their love and service. With this he leaves. So too does the lady, much to the distress of the dreamer, who jumps into the sea and gets hauled aboard her ship, where he is brought back to life by her promise of love (and an apple). As they are about to land, he wakes up (693-1310).

Falling asleep again, he finds himself back on the isle, where the queen and knight are making plans for their wedding ceremony. The knight returns to his own kingdom to complete his arrangements, but is distressed to find that circumstances do not permit him to do so in time to keep to the date he has promised for his return. In some apprehension he returns five days late, only to find that the whole company of ladies has decided they have been betrayed and that they have given their love to unworthy suitors; they are all resolved to mortify the flesh, keep vigil, and repent unto death. The queen and two-thirds of the company are already dead. The knight stabs himself. All are taken off to be buried in the chapel of an abbey of black nuns in the knight's kingdom. There, in the chapel, a wounded bird is healed by the seed from a plant brought by its fellows. The same plant proves efficacious with the queen and with the knight. All the ladies are restored to life, the wedding plans reinstated, and the dreamer's lady fetched from her land to complete the celebrations. The noise of the music at his own wedding wakens the dreamer, who prays that his lady may turn his dream into reality (1311-2208).

IL was long seen as an occasional poem and was speculatively attached to various betrothals, including those of John of Gaunt, Chaucer, and Henry V. It has been attributed to Lydgate and Sir Richard Roos as well as Chaucer. But in reality nothing is known of its author, except that he is likely to have come from the north midlands, nor of any occasion to which the poem might refer. Nothing indeed needs to be known, since the poem is perfectly transparent as an allegory of sexual repression and fulfilment. It is a dream of male desire, in which the skill of women in deflecting men's sexual drive with 'fayre wordes' (74l), enigmatic smiles (883-92), and vague non-committal promises (642-78), their skill in managing the world of mannered politeness, in which reputation or name is everything (see 529, 557, 1666), is overcome by the power of the God of Love, who operates here, as in the Roman de la Rose, exclusively to the furtherance of male sexual desire.

This allegory of power and the desire for sexual domination is what drives the poem, but it is softened and blurred with a multitude of subtle touches. For instance, the men of the poem, with the exception of the God of Love and the knight in his one unguarded moment (384), have thoroughly absorbed the rules of reputation - the care for name, the fear of slander and social disgrace - that the ladies use to protect their chastity. But more than this, the artificiality, fragility, and unnaturalness of the ladies' seclusion and refusal of love is suggested by the glass walls and elaborate artifice of the island's defences, with their metal singing-birds and exotic carved flowers (78-84). The God of Love, on the other hand, is associated with real flowers and live singing-birds (707, 714, 952), and his presence seems to restore the natural flowers of the isle (84l). The implication, of course, as throughout Troilus and Criseyde, is that it is men who know what women really want, though one might accept that there is potentially more to the contrast than this - something of what Yeats hinted at in Byzantium ('Miracle, bird or golden handiwork / .... scorn aloud / In glory of changeless metal / Common bird or petal / And all complexities of mire and blood'). The symbolism of birds and flowers is carried through into the startlingly beautiful climactic episode of the poem, where the bird that has been wounded (significantly enough in trying to escape through the chapel window), is brought back to life by the seeds from a miraculously rapidly growing plant provided by its fellow (1864). It does not take much ingenuity to trace here the contrast between artificial and unnatural restraint and the life-giving force of natural love and compassion. There is an earlier suggestion of this at a key moment in the poem, when the queen is ministering to the distressed knight: she remains cool and non-committal enough, in the way she feels ladies must, but there is 'a looke peteus / Of womanehed' (675-6) that she bestows upon him which does not seem part of her strategy, and which might be taken as just that opening of the heart to pity and love which enables the God of Love to make his entrance, as he does at this very moment.

Not everything in the poem is done so felicitously, and an unsympathetic inquiry would turn up lots of loose ends in the narrative. But in another respect, that is, in the presentation of the 'I' of the narrative, the poet has been very successful. The success is achieved by playing off two techniques of self-presentation one against the other. The first technique is to suggest a stumbling earnestness about the dreamer, and a desire that the audience should re-live with him his experiences (e.g., 36-42). His emotions are always overflowing into the narrative: the fear that creeps about his heart at his situation on the isle (257-62), his delight at seeing his lady made so much of (453), his excitement at the arrival of the God of Love's navy (705), his anxiety when the God of Love recommends him to his lady, fearing that she will think he has been talking to everyone (863), and his frank delight at the 'loaves and fishes' miracle of the embarkation (1560). At the very end of the poem, the translation of the 'Go little book' formula into an apostrophe to his own heart gives to the poem, instead of sealing it off as a 'book,' an urgent unfinished personal life. On the other hand, there is also a carelessly sophisticated mock-naiveté about the dreamer which makes us wonder, as we wonder with Chaucer, whether we have been taken in. There is self-conscious play with the conventions of the dream-poem, especially in the poem's prologue, where the recognition that he is having his dream at the time lovers conventionally have their dreams (54-5), the commendation of waking visions (like his) over dreams (43-59), and the demand that his rude style be tolerated (64), all stimulate our awareness of the artifice of the form. There is some humor too in the representation of the dreamer's experience, behavior, and reactions: not many will resist a smile when he is fished out of the water with boat-hooks after floundering out to his lady's boat (1159), nor when he describes his joy as being so great that all his bones desired to dance (1200-02). There are also moments when the dreamer stands momentarily outside the conventions of allegory or indeed of narrative itself, as when he explains, within the narrative, the exact allegorical significance of the ship the knight embarks in (1373), or refuses to reveal what he and his lady said in secret (1251-66). It is all a trifle brittle, and it is not Chaucer, but it gives a vitality to a form which is usually thought to have been on the point of exhaustion.

The poem's major weakness is the thinness of its stylistic texture and the diffuseness and vapidity of its syntax. Diffuseness is characteristic of medieval poetry written within the conventions of oral delivery, and it has its function, but there are degrees of diffuseness, and in IL there is remarkably little in the way of allusion, ornamentation, or metaphor to sustain poetic interest, and almost no power of visualization. As for the poet's sentences, it could be said, not uncharitably, that they operate not so much to drive towards a chosen meaning as to pump out clouds of verbiage that, it is hoped, will precipitate here and there as sense. It could be regarded as a poetic idiom of a kind, and it is certainly not unfamiliar to those who know Lydgate's systematically and self-consciously inflationary poetic techniques.

IL is different in many ways from FL and AL. It is not told by a woman-narrator, nor does it purport to be by a woman, and it has much more to do with the genre of romance, especially romances of Celtic origin such as the Breton lais of Marie de France (see e.g., 7ln, 340n, 1505n, 1864n), than those poems. But it makes an excellent complement to FL and AL in discussions of the fate of late medieval allegory and of the relationships between the sexes that are therein shadowed forth.

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

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