Involuted Mysteries, II: A Grammar of Symbols and Ideas. Some Perennial Themes, Image-complexes, Mythic Archetypes, and Philosophical Topoi in Literature and Art before 1800, Part XXXI

Music in the Roman de la Rose…

 The Old and New Dance…

     The pretension of the dreamer in the Roman de la Rose, that the music he hears in Deduit’s garden of earthly delights is really the angelic harmony of the spheres, is thus rather badly undercut by his comparison of it to the song of the Sirens.  The commonplace characterization of the Sirens as harlots who symbolize lust and carnal pleasure, and Honorius’ pointed allusion to the temptations of Adam in Eden, suggest that the dreamer is in much greater peril than he knows.

This is what makes his sunny optimism so funny, of course:

You may well know that, when I heard these tunes
And saw the verdant place, I was most gay.
Never so merry I—so glad of heart—
Until the day I knew the garden’s charms!
Then I perceived most plainly and well knew
That Idleness had excellently served
In placing me in midst of such delight.
Well I resolved to be her faithful friend…

Again, the moral humour here comes through loud and clear in the dreamer’s plain statement that Idleness/idleness served him so excellently that he was determined to be her fast friend.  It’s the sort of statement that everyone would recognize as a joke if it were made by P.G. Wodehouse’s Berti Wooster; yet, for some reason, many critics take it in earnest in a medieval poem.

The dreamer then describes in somewhat greater detail the Siren-song of the birds and the activities that accompanied it in the garden of Sir Pleasure:

The birds kept on performing all their rites;
Sweetly and pleasantly they sang of love
And chanted courtly sonnets and well.
In part songs joining, one sang high, one low.

They sang, that is, the music of “courtly love”, which once again, the dreamer affects to compare to the harmony of the spheres which is produced by the consonance of the opposites of high and low.

And then he goes on to describe the human companions of Sir Pleasure in the same ontologically exalted terms:

For, truly, winged angels they did seem.
No earth-born man had ever seen such folk.

These angelic creatures, like the birds, are engaged in the making of “melodye”, which, as we are not surprised to learn, the dreamer describes with the same breathless enthusiasm:

This noble company of which I speak
Had ordered for themselves a caroling.
A dame named Gladness led them in the tune;
Most pleasantly and sweetly rang her voice…

Gladness also

Knew well the dance steps, and could keep good time
The while she voiced her song.  Ever the first
Was she, by custom, to begin the tune;
For music was the trade that she knew best
Ever to practice most agreeably.

Whether the music that this Gladness played was the harmony of the spheres or the music of the vulgar Venus, whether the dance of which she knew all the steps was the cosmic dance of the planets held in orbit around God by their love for Him, or the latest crazes in which Chaucer’s Nicholas was an expert, is made clear enough in the subsequent passage:

Now see the carol go!  Each man and maid
Most daintily steps out with many a turn
And farandole upon the tender grass.
See there the flutists and the minstrel men,
Performers on the viol!  Now they sing
A rondelet, a tune from old Lorraine;
For it has better songs than other lands.
A troop of skillful jugglers thereabout
Well played their parts, and girls with tambourines
Danced jollily, and, finishing each tune,
Threw high their instruments, and as these fell
Caught each on finger tip, and never failed.
Two graceful demoiselles in sheerest clothes,
Their hair in coifferings alike arrayed,
Most coyly tempted Mirth to join the dance.
Unutterably quaint [cf. M.E. queynte] their motions were:
Insinuatingly each one approached
The other, till, almost together clasped,
Each one of her partner’s darting lips just grazed
So that it seemed their kisses were exchanged.
I can’t describe for you each lithesome glide
Their bodies made—but they knew how to dance!

Yes, indeed, the dreamer can hardly describe each lithesome glide, but they sure knew how to dance!, he says with a wink.

The dance he describes, I imagine, is the sort of “grinding” that takes place on prom nights and at the clubs in Toronto’s so-called Entertainment District—the kind of dancing that is the prelude to the main event.  It’s what passes for “courtship” now as it apparently also did then.  And it’s what in medieval allegorical commentary is known as “the old dance”, which is done to the accompaniment of the “old song”.