minstrel: review of a book on lyrical authorship

raymond wickham fortunatefoole at vtown.com.au
Thu Jun 14 10:01:04 PDT 2001


Olivia Holmes.  <i>Assembling the Lyric Self: Authorship from
Troubadour Song to the Italian Poetry Book</i>.  Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press, 2000.  Pp. 240.  $34.95 (cloth)
ISBN: 0-816-63343-6.
               
   Reviewed by Gregory B. Stone
Louisiana State University.
stone at lsu.edu

Olivia Holmes' <i>Assembling the Lyric Self: Authorship from
Troubadour Song to the Italian Poetry Book</i> is a fairly
straightforward demonstration, documented in tremendous detail,
of a fairly limited "thesis": that certain manuscript anthologies
of medieval vernacular lyric, from the time of the first
troubadour chansonniers through Petrarch's composition of his
Canzoniere, exhibit arranged narrative sequences of an author's
poems -- sequences that function as "macrotexts" that tell an
implied story of the life of an implied author.

Holmes treats several authors, ranging from some who are
indispensable to her project, such as Uc de Saint Circ, Guiraut
Riquier, Guittone d'Arezzo, Dante, and Petrarch, to other
little-known early Italian poets such as Monte Andrea and Nicolo`
de' Rossi.  There is much to be admired in Holmes' scholarship,
particularly her philological diligence and her scrupulous
loyalty to the manuscripts; and there is much information that
will prove valuable for scholars of medieval vernacular lyric
and, especially, of early Italian lyric.

One can hardly dispute Holmes' point, nor would one wish to, for
the phenomenon that she describes -- that the sequential order of
lyrics in medieval songbooks was sometimes motivated by narrative
impulses -- is a fact of literary history that has been known to
specialists for some time.

Of course, the next step after establishing a fact of literary
history is to venture an explanation.  It is on this level that
the book is, in my view, surprisingly timorous.  For Holmes' does
not offer much more than a tautological "this happened because it
happened."  Her view, repeated throughout, is that the emergence
of narrativity in the arrangement of manuscript songbooks was
purely and simply an automatic by-product of late medieval
literary culture's transition from being a predominantly oral to
a written one: "Written transmission congealed both the order of
the component parts of individual poems and the sequence from
poem to poem.  This made possible the lyric representation of
historical time, for it is a characteristic of reading to
interpret juxtaposed elements as implying a temporal sequence."
Holmes speaks of the lyric anthology's impulse toward narrative
as "inevitable" (37) and "natural" (149), and says, regarding any
of literature's various formal possibilities, "if it can be done,
it will be done" (45).

Although a purely mechanistic explanation may have its
attractions, chief of which is its simplicity, it will not stand
up to much scrutiny.  If the phenomenon in question is truly
"natural" and "inevitable," then it must necessarily happen in
every time and place in which a predominately oral lyric
tradition is transformed into a predominantly written one.  But
surely there are instances in world literary history when (to
borrow Holmes' phrase), "it could have been done but was not."  
What is specific about Italy in the 13th and 14th centuries that
makes it a privileged locus for the rise of narrativity in a
lyric context?  Why was Petrarch "more concerned with the
representation of the author's historical self than his immediate
predecessors were"?  The only way to answer such questions is to
ascribe some causes -- ideological, historical, literary
historical, philosophical or otherwise -- that are more than
simply mechanistic.  For if literary history is a
formally-powered machine, then it will always and everywhere give
us the same products.

I am not going to offer any alterative explanations here, since I
have had my say on the issue elsewhere, in my <i>The Death of the
Troubadour: The Late Medieval Resistance to the Renaissance</i>
(University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994).  Though I do not expect
that Holmes should agree with any of that book's claims; I do,
however, feel justified in finding fault with her for showing no
indication of even having read it.  I say this only because,
although it has substantially different aims and methods, it is
perhaps the one book that treats, generally speaking, the same
object of study as does <i>Assembling the Lyric Self</i>.


 

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