‘Farewel my bok’: Paying attention to flowers in Chaucer’s prologues to The Legend of Good Women
Chaucer is no botanist. Typically, flowers enter his poetry as similes for female beauty (the Knight’s Emelye), more rarely as indiscriminate clusters of colour signalling courtly landscapes (Parlement of Fowls, Book of the Duchess). The daisy of the Prologue to The Legend of Good Women is an exception; venerated by Chaucer’s dream-persona, it receives accurate, detailed description before being personified in his dream as Alcestis. Chaucer is by no means unique in this superficial approach to flowers: intriguingly, flowers in general gain only a fleeting mention under trees in Isidore of Seville’s influential Etymologies XVII.vi.21, where we learn flores are so named because they ‘quickly drop [defluere] from trees.’ However, following Michael Marder, superficiality offers a useful paradigm for thinking with plants. Dilettantism becomes attention, enabling associations that privilege present over past – flowers over roots. Fleeting flowers seem scarcely available to us as subjects of empathy, let alone rights or justice: arguably more remote even than trees, they pose different questions to ecologically invested critics, while the ease with which they are (superficially) understood offers clues to how literary critics may join debates about the way green spaces and entities are valued.
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