Touching Hoccleve | International Congress on Medieval Studies, Kalamazoo 2016

The goal of this year’s panel, titled “Touching Hoccleve,” was twofold: to explore how his poetry (or official bureaucratic productions) might allow modern readers to reach back and grasp Thomas Hoccleve’s social and psychological moment, coming to a sympathetic accord with his worldview and means of reacting to inter-personal stimuli; and to appraise how the physical body might manifest these internalized social stimuli while poetry externalizes psychological processes.  What touched Hoccleve, and how can we touch him?  What is, and is not, recoverable?

Justin Barker’s paper, “Unstable Matter and Poetic Authority in the Series,” took on this question of knowability by turning to Aristotelian hermeneutics. She analyzed Hoccleve’s engagement with “matter,” in the sense of subjects or topics and the substance of an author’s composition. Many have noted that his poems’ form breeds instability, but Justin argues that such instability is a source of possibility in Hoccleve’s works, that his authorial identity hinges on his matter’s indeterminacy.  As he peers deeply at his surroundings, Hoccleve’s attempts to scrutinize, understand, and represent his world are aided by the multitude of interpretations allowed by verbal malleability. Justin asked whether an author can truly control his matter, and determined that Hoccleve’s choice of challenging subject matter allows him to comment on his own mental composition as he puts his poetic form in order.

Melissa Isaacs (née Pankake) presented a paper, “‘Lerne to Dye’ and Narrating Despair,” that further allowed the audience to understand the purposes and content of Hoccleve’s self-reflection. Scholars who focus on the poet’s autobiographical revelations, she argued, tend to see the Series and the “Lerne to Dye” in particular as incomplete consolation. Viewed as a realistic response to old age and infirmity rather than as a typically Christian statement about “good death,” however, Moriens rather than the Disciple appears as the protagonist, and the poem proves to be Hoccleve’s opportunity to express an uneasiness people often have as they approach death.  Hoccleve fears the loss of self into death; writing about death might familiarize it and allow Hoccleve to ease into it by stages, offering catharsis and preparation not Christian repentance and consolation.

Likewise building off the Kierkegaardian notion that despair may be a normal state of human existence, Paul Magna questioned in his paper “Hoccleve’s Existential Crisis” the appropriateness and applicability of existential theory in the evaluation of self-narrative. While “crisis” is typically judged by Western socio-cultural standards as an allowable, if not common, experience in certain life junctures like puberty and middle age, Paul suggests Hoccleve wrote about stigmatized subjects like mental illness in order to stress the fundamentality of crisis periods to the human experience. Paul concluded that what makes Hoccleve touchable to modern readers is exactly what made him touchable to his contemporaries, which was the poet’s point entirely.

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