The High Style

Youre termes, youre colours, and youre figures,
Keepe hem in stoor til so be ye endite
Heigh style, as whan that men to kynges write.
Speketh so pleyn at this tyme, we yow preye,
That we may understonde what ye seye. (ClPro IV.16-20)

Chaucer's contemporaries and successors regarded works in that style as his finest accomplishment. His younger contemporary, John Lydgate, hailed Chaucer as the first to "distill and rain the golden dew-drops of eloquence" into the English tongue. The "aureate" diction of poets in the next century (including Lydgate himself in such works as The Epithalamion for Gloucester and Lydgate's admirer, Benedict Burgh, whose work seems almost a parody of his master's technique) was an attempt to imitate Chaucer's "golden" style.

The style was partly a matter of diction, with a heavy use of Latin and French borrowings and partly a matter of versification, including the elegant rime royal stanza, which became the standard for elegant verse in the centuries that followed. But even more important was the skilled use of the arts of a matter of "rhetoric," which was understood to be not the art of persuasion as we usually define it today, but the art of producing elegantly-adorned verse. Thus Petrarch, the Italian poet, is regarded as a "rhetor," and rhetoric is regarded as the art of great poetry:

"Fraunceys Petrak, the lauriat poete,
Highte this clerk, whos rethorike sweete
Enlumyned al Ytaille of poetrie,
As Lynyan dide of philosophie. (ClPro (IV).31-34)

Rhetoric, as Chaucer and his contemporaries understood it, was an art developed in classical times, mainly by Cicero ("Tully"): the Rhetorica ad Herennium, attributed to Cicero, was his best known rhetorical work. It had a heavy influence on the twelfth and thirteenth-century "rhetoricians;" authors of handbooks on how to apply the techniques of late-classical rhetoric to the composition of ornate Latin verse.

Basic to the doctrine was the concept of decorum; of the necessity to suit the style to the subject. As Harry Bailey says, the "high style" was suitable for writing to kings, or to writing about them: the medieval rhetoricians illustrated this with the "wheel of Virgil," which assigned the high style to The Aeneid, the medium to works of instruction such as the Georgics, and the low (plain) style to the pastoral poems; thus a writer who intends to treat the doings of kings and the fates of nations should use the high style, while one who is to write about the doings of the lower classes should use the low.

The handbooks of rhetoric paid little attention to the middle and low stylistic registers; rhetoricians such as Geoffrey of Vinsauf (fl. 1200) in his Poetria Nova, the "New Poetry," concentrated their attention on the high and elaborate style. Chaucer knew that work and its author, whom he addresses in an elegant rhetorical apostrophe in the Nun's Priest's Tale:

O Gaufred, deere maister soverayn,
That whan thy worthy kyng Richard was slayn
With shot, compleynedest his deeth so soore,
Why ne hadde I now thy sentence and thy loore,
The Friday for to chide, as diden ye? (NPT VII.3347-51)

The apostrophe -- an address to a character or to an absent or imaginary person -- is a frequent mark of Chaucer's high style. It can be extended to things as well as humans (conformatio, personification):

O brotil joye! O sweete venim queynte! (MerT IV.2061)

And it may be used along with exclamatio:

Alas, that Chauntecleer fleigh fro the bees!
Alas, his wyf ne roghte nat of dremes! (NPT VII.3339-40).

For one of the most elaborate uses of these dedvices in medieval literature, see Geoffrey of Vinsauf's Lament for King Richard, to which, as noted above, Chaucer alludes in The Nun's Priest's tale.

An almost invariable mark of Chaucer's high style is the occupatio (or praeteritio) -- a refusal to describe or narrate (see note by Vincent Di Marco in Riverside Chaucer, n. 875-88, pp. 828-29). This is often used to supply a good deal of specification of a subject under cover of omitting it:

But it were al to longe for to devyse
The grete clamour and the waymentynge
That the ladyes made at the brennynge
Of the bodies, and the grete honour
That Theseus, the noble conquerour,
Dooth to the ladyes, whan they from hym wente;
But shortly for to telle is myn entente. (KnT I.994-1000).

It is also used as a simple "refusal to narrate":

His felawe wente and soughte hym doun in helle --
But of that storie list me nat to write. (KnT I.1200-01).

And it is sometimes combined with dubitatio -- doubting what to say or how to say it:

Who koude ryme in Englyssh proprely
His martirdom? For sothe it am nat I;
Therfore I passe as lightly as I may. (KnT I.1459-61).

This last example may be an instance of the "affected modesty" or "humility topos," the protestation that the author is unworthy or incapable of doing justice to his subject. For an extreme example see Benedict Burgh's Letter to Lydgate, where the protestation of ignorance of rhetoric is the occasion for an elaborate display of rhetorical devices. More briefly:

To smal is bothe my pen and eke my tonge,
For to descryven of this mariage. (MerT IV.1735-36).

Closely linked to the "humility topos" is the "inexpressibility topos" ("topos" means "commonplace"), the common protestation that no one could do justice to the wonders of which the narrator tells:

So fair a gardyn woot I nowher noon.
For, out of doute, I verraily suppose
That he that wroot the Romance of the Rose
Ne koude of it the beautee wel devyse;
Ne Priapus ne myghte nat suffise,
Though he be god of gardyns, for to telle
The beautee of the gardyn and the welle
That stood under a laurer alwey grene. (MerT IV.2030 -37)

Such devices seem to be means of compressing the narrative, but they serve rather as means of expanding statements, the dilation that that is the main aim of the rhetorician. Geoffrey of Vinsauf illustrates the basic aim of the rhetorician, in his discussion of "circumlocution," by quoting the opening lines of Virgil's Aeneid:

Thus Virgil puts circumlocution in his Aeneid:

I sing of arms and the man who first from the coast of Troy, driven by fate, came to Italy and the Lavinian shores; much buffetted on sea and land by violence from above, through Juno's unforgiving wrath, and much suffering in war also till he should build a city and bring his gods to Latium, whence came the Latin race, the lords of Alba, and the walls of lofty Rome.

This means nothing more than "I shall tell of Aeneas."

Geoffrey means this as high praise. He would have had little patience with the modern unadorned style of a Hemingway, which aims for lean and straightforward statements; the true literary artist, Geoffrey believed, was one who could dilate two words ("Describo Eneam") into seven lines.

Among the methods the rhetoricians recommended for a dilating a narative is the chronographia, the specification of time by reference to the astronomical state of the sky. The opening lines of The Canterbury Tales provide the most famous example, one often imitated by Chaucer's followers. The fifteenth-century Scots poet, Robert Henryson, begins his Testament of Crisseid, a "continuation" of Chaucer's Troilus with an elaborate astrological specification of time:

A dismal sessoun to ane care-full ditty
Should correspond and be equivalent
Right so it was when I began to write,
When Aries, in middes of the Lent,
Showers of hail did from the north descend,
That scarsly from the cold I might defend.

Yit nevertheles within myne study
I stood, when Titan had his beams bright
Withdrawn down and sailed under cover,
And fair Venus, the beauty of the night,
Uprose and set unto the west full right
Her golden face, in opposition
Of God Phebus, direct descending down. (Test. Cr., translated)

Other obvious marks of the high style are the elaborate rhetorical descriptions of characters, which Chaucer employed in early works like The Book of the Duchess and uses as a kind of referential frame for some of the descriptions in The General Prologue, the use of catalogues, such as the long list of trees in The Knight's Tale, and (in English works) a heavily latinate diction.

See the notes to the Knight's Tale and The Book of the Duchess for examples of other rhetorical devices and for more detailed discussions consult the following:

Charles Sears Baldwin, Medieval Rhetoric and Poetic. New York, 1928 [Widener ML 9 28].
Edmond Faral, Les arts poetiques du xiie et du xiiie siecle. Geneva, 1982 [PN1035.F3x 1982].
Ernest Gallo, The Poetria Nova and Its Souces in Early Rhetorical Doctrine. The Hague, 1971 [WIDENER MLv 210].
Margaret F. Nims, tr. The Poetria Nova of Geoffrey of Vinsauf. Toronto, Pontifical Institute, 1967 [PA8442.V5 P613].
James J. Murphy, Rhetoric in the Middle Ages. Berkeley, 1974 [PN173.m8].
James J. Murphy, Three Medieval Poetic Arts. Berkeley, 1971 [PN185.M8].