Between two stools

Scatology and its representations in English literature, Chaucer to Swift

Peter J. Smith
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This book investigates the representation of scatology (humorous, carnivalesque, satirical, damning and otherwise) in English literature from the middle ages to the eighteenth century. The 'two stools' stand for two broadly distinctive attitudes towards scatology. The first is a carnivalesque, merry, even hearty disposition, typified by the writings of Chaucer and Shakespeare. The second is self-disgust, an attitude characterised by withering misanthropy and hypochondria. The book demonstrates how the combination of high and low cultures manifests the capacity to run canonical and carnivalesque together. This makes sanctioned and civilised artefacts and scatological humour frequently co-exist in the works under discussion, evidence of an earlier culture's aptitude (now lost) to occupy a position between two stools. The book considers the history of bowdlerisation of Chaucer's fabliaux and reflects upon the current state of scatological commentary. 'Innocent scatology', characteristic of English literature of the mid-1650s, is contrasted with the caustic and malevolent obscenity in that composed following the Restoration. Just as in The Miller's Tale, the fart, in 'the bum-centred comedy' of The Summoner's Tale, is a long time coming. Cavalier scatology is infused with a political specificity which is less pronounced in that of the earlier period. The common characteristic of most examples of Shakespearean onomastic bawdy is their localised essence. The relationship between anality and sexuality, central to the work of Rochester and of essential importance to Freudian theory, is explored in one of Jonathan Swift's comically excremental poems, 'Strephon and Chloe'.

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