Friday, June 5, 2015

Romancing the Rose

I first learned about The Romance of the Rose in music history class back in college. And so now of course I’m reading it. It only took me thirty-eight years to get around to it.

This long allegorical poem was begun by Guillaume de Lorris in the early 1200s. A half a century or so later, a fellow named Jean de Meun picked it up and did something like finish it. The plot, which runs seamlessly from one author to another, concerns a first-person, male narrator who wanders to the Garden of Pleasure and falls in love there with a rosebud that he wishes to pluck. Both authors promise to explain what it all means, and neither ever follows through, but we all know that deflowering represents deflowering.

In her preface, the editor proffers the puzzle of whether the two authors approve of the lover’s pursuit of his goal, disapprove of the young man’s quest, or disagree on the commendability of their joint protagonist’s obsession with the rose. As she points out, the narrator’s voice, which always at least partially masks an author’s, is in turn mostly hidden by still other voices in this book. Each author brings in several allegorical characters who speak quite a bit and occupy almost all of the poem’s lines. So which character or characters does each author identify with? Which presents the point of view to which the authors are sympathetic?

Well, I don’t know the answer. I’m no trained expert in medieval hermeneutics, and I’m only halfway through the book. But I have an opinion, and of course I’m going to share it. In other words, I’m not a medieval scholar, but I play one on the internet.

My extremely interesting, well-founded, and highly plausible hypothesis begins with a clear distinction of style between the two poets. If the plot flows seamlessly and the authors’ sympathies lie hidden in the Pleasure Garden’s grass, their respective tones are clearly differentiated. Guillaume is concerned with the psychological dynamic of wooing a rose, while Jean spends his efforts intellectually exploring the ethical issues involved. The former author introduces a parade of allegorical figures representing the feelings and thoughts of a young man and woman as their acquaintance, shall we say, develops: Love and Reason, Fair Welcome and Rebuff, Courtesy and Shame all step apace into and out of the dance of courtship. The latter, on the other hand, gives a handful of the characters one long chapter each in which, one by one, they present their advice to the young lover. And Jean fills these sermons with classical allusions, revealing even more clearly his scholarly approach.

Jean de Meun’s bookish, philosophical view of the matter suggests to me that he disapproves of the romance. Reason, for instance, gives the young lover a long lesson on the perils of passion and the necessity of basing a relationship between a man and a woman on piety and purpose. It is so convincing, so full of good arguments drawn from Plato, Boethius, and others, that Jean must have believed it all when he learned it in the first place. Two details seal the deal for me. First, Reason mentions that someone ought to translate Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy into French so modern laypersons can benefit from it, and the editor tells us that Jean himself executed that translation a few years later. So surely Reason speaks for Jean. And second, when Friend gives his advice simply to bribe and lie to the rose and everyone surrounding her until the young man gets what he wants, the lover himself balks and calls for rational, virtuous discourse with both humans and plants.

So at this point I have an idea what this classic poem is about, what it might mean, and what the authors thought readers should get out of it. Now I just have to go back and reread that chapter in my old textbook to see what any of it has to do with medieval music.

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