Charles d’Orléans’ English Aesthetic
Edited by R.D. PERRY and MARY-JO ARN
Thank you for taking the time to take part in this interview! To begin with, can you please provide a brief summary of your new book Charles d’Orléans’ English Aesthetic?
Scholars have investigated many of the issues surrounding this body of fifteenth-century poetry—including the question of its authorship—but few have dealt seriously with the aesthetic dimensions of it. What makes this poetry fine poetry? poetry worth considering deeply? poetry worth writing about? Why should it be part of the canon of English literature? We were looking to establish a firm basis for work on the duke’s poetry that took into account its unusual, sophisticated, and very high qualities by looking at its form, poetics, and style (as our title indicates).
In a previous blog post for Proofed, your co-editor, Ryan Perry, mentioned that ‘Charles d’Orléans is one of the most fascinating figures of the fifteenth century’. Can you elaborate on this statement?
Sure. Charles, duke of Orléans, was important both historically and literarily. The nephew of Charles VI, and son of two very well-known personages in French history (the king’s brother Louis and Valentina Visconti), he was a major figure in the civil strife in France in the early fifteenth century. He rode at the head of an army at the Battle of Agincourt and was the highest ranking captive taken after the battle. Throughout his life he collected manuscripts, many in Latin, and his large library (together with that of his cousin Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy) formed the basis of what became the Bibliothèque nationale. What is more, he was (and is) among the finest lyric poets of the age in France. For our purposes, the main interest lies in the fact that he was taken to England as a prisoner of Henry V and remained there for 25 years, as negotiations for his ransom and release ebbed and flowed with the changing political climate. During those years, he composed a large body of poetry in English – in fact the largest body of English lyrics extant from a single hand. Even more striking is its excellence. He mastered not only the language of his captors but the English poetics our authors have highlighted in their contributions to this volume.
Have you always been interested in medieval literature?
Always? Well, since I woke up in graduate school, yes.
When did you first come across the poetry of Charles d’Orléans?
While still in graduate school, in a course taught by Bernard F. Huppé on medieval allegory I was assigned to choose, more or less at random, a lesser-known work (actually unknown to us) to analyse and report on.
What was it about this work (Fortunes Stabilnes) that made you want to investigate it further?
First of all, it became evident from our reports for the course that ‘my’ poetry was vastly superior to that of the works other students had chosen. Then it was the fact that Charles’s borrowings and remanipulations of medieval ideas were thick on the ground, many obviously discovered in the works of Chaucer. The fact that many of the lyrics had versions he had composed in French only added to my interest.
In the book’s blurb, Ryan stated that the essays in this collection ‘bring out the underappreciated contribution made by Charles to the canon of English poetry.’ Why was his work so underappreciated?
I think it was first of all because he was a Frenchman (and you know how monolingual scholars of English can sometimes be). Then it was the fact that an early critic claimed that, though the poet’s name (‘Charlis’ and ‘the duk that folkis calle of Orlyaunce’) appears more than once in the collection as the putative author, he did not actually compose the English poetry. The author, or rather the translator, was, he claimed, some unnamed and untraceable Englishman. I think that introduced enough uncertainty into the authorship question to put people off. In addition it was unprecedented that a medieval writer would compose poetry in two languages, neither of them Latin.
Was there something within this essay collection that especially surprised you?
What surprised me most was the willingness – nay, the alacrity – with which excellent scholars who had done little or no work on Charles’s poetry took up the challenge of putting their literary skills to work on it, and the wealth of new material and new connections they came up with.
What is next for you?
It’s long past time for an inexpensive student edition of this poetry, so I may head down that path.
We like to finish with the same question to all our contributors. Naturally, we hope you have stayed well throughout the last year but how has your work been affected by lockdowns and restricted access to libraries and archives?
My work on Charles’s life in England was very rudely interrupted and lies in pieces in Harvard’s Widener Library, locked up tight. Hence my thoughts of a student edition.
MARY-JO ARN is an independent scholar, and editor of Fortunes Stabilnes.
R.D. PERRY is Assistant Professor of English and Literary Arts at the University of Denver.
Contributors: B.S.W. Barootes, J.A. Burrow, Andrea Denny-Brown, Simon Horobin, Richard Ingham, Philip Knox, Jenni Nuttall, Ad Putter, Jeremy J. Smith, Elizaveta Strakhov, Eric Weiskott.