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narrative verse, allegorical narrative, courtly eroticism


Guillaume de Machaut's narrative verse, much honored and imitated by his peers, has met with a generally indifferent reception from modern critics. There are, it seems to me, two reasons for this. First, Machaut's heavy indebtedness to Guillaume de Lorris has made inevitable a comparison between the two which leaves the imitator, though exploring the form for a different purpose, at a disadvantage. Unlike his model, Machaut does not infuse allegorical narrative with either a sharp reading of psychology or his own quite genuine joy in experience. Allegory is for him a two-dimensional device to serve a didactic end: the presentation of love doctrine through image and dialogue. For Machaut is largely uninterested in the archetypal chasse of Eros for its own sake. As both priest and teacher of the love religion, he depicts in his narrative poetry the emotional vicissitudes that ultimately lead to consolation. Kissing the rose is not the reward his lovers receive. They triumph not in thinly disguised sensuality but in their release from Fortune's bonds. The poems may lack narrative vividness, but the conception of poetry that underlies them in thoroughly medieval. It can be defended as a largely successful attempt to give courtly eroticism a solid Boethian foundation. Machaut's undisputed popularity in his own time as narrative poet testifies more eloquently to the appropriateness of his aesthetic than the polite disregard of early modern scholars.