Charles d’Orléans is one of the most fascinating figures of the fifteenth century. A fabulously charming member of the French royal family, captured at the battle of Agincourt and held as a prisoner in England for 25 years, he was most importantly an accomplished poet in English as well as in French. At a crucial turning point in the English work, Charles d’Orléans’ long English poem, Fortunes Stabilnes, the poet-narrator falls asleep on a cliff overlooking the sea. Defending the importance of dreams, the poet assures us that they are able “to the body signyfy” what will later befall a person (line 4750). As an introduction to this new collection of essays Mary-Jo Arn and I have edited about Charles’s English work, I would like to dwell for a moment on this felicitous phrase, “to the body signyfy.”
That dreams “to the body signyfy” means, most obviously, the way that dreams talk to a person, that they tell us about our world and even, if read aright, might be able to tell us about our future. But the phrase is more suggestive than that, as Charles often is. Because dreams arise from our body, and at the same time can represent our body in them (as Charles’s dreams in his English poetry do), the phrase recalls to us that the body is both a means and a site of signification, that we use our body to make meaning even as our body itself can be meaningful. Charles was well aware of this potential: he makes a version of himself the protagonist of his book, as he blends biography and literary convention in complex ways. Throughout his English poetry, Charles plays with the different potential ways that Charles d’Orléans, the person and the figure, the man and the performative self—charming courtier and political prisoner—can signify. And he has a lot to work with. One might think of the last major collection of essays on Charles in English (Charles d’Orléans in England, 1415-1440, likewise published by D. S. Brewer, and likewise edited by Mary-Jo Arn) to be about that source material, the body that does the signifying, Charles the historical person.
This collection, Charles d’Orléans’ English Aesthetic, focuses on the ways Charles is able to “signyfy.” We approach his signification from several different angles addressing various questions, from ones that focus on specific aspects of his poetic practice to broader questions of his aesthetics and the structure of his work. How does Charles’s status as an English-language learner influence his poetry, especially his well-known capacity to use unusual words and phrases (considered in chapters by linguists Richard Ingham and Jeremy Smith)? How does a Frenchman adapt himself to the accentual-syllabic metre of England (handled by Ad Putter and Eric Weiskott)? How does he adapt French lyric forms into an English context (covered by Jenni Nuttall and Elizaveta Strakhov)? What role does the construction of the first lyric sequence in English literature play in his work (discussed by B. S. W. Barootes)? What style does he employ and how does it compare to his English contemporaries (explored by Andrea Denny-Brown)? In what way does the manuscript of his English poetry resemble other books produced in the London Book-Trade (reviewed by Simon Horobin)? And, finally, what does it mean to think of his English poems as a singular work and what might that tell us about Charles’s understanding of authorship (analyzed by John A. Burrow and Philip Knox)? The essays in this collection are meant to open up a discussion of all of these questions and more as they ask people to consider the beautiful and innovative poetry of one of the most accomplished writers of the late-medieval period in England.
This guest post is written by R.D. Perry, Assistant Professor of English and Literary Arts at the University of Denver.