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This article is taken from PN Review 256, Volume 47 Number 2, November - December 2020.

Benefytes and Consolacyons Mike Freeman
What is it that has cast the into mournynge
and into wepynge? I trow that thou hast seyn
some newe thynge and uncouth.’

   — Chaucer’s ‘Boece’

Lock-down in Pavia prison, though for conspiracy rather than Covid-19, provided Boethius with reasons and time to write De Consolatione Philosophiae. Within the dialogue of his catch-all argument he inserts a sequence of poems, variedly metrical elaborations on his magisterial claims. In one of the translations that King Alfred commissioned those poems are naturalised into Old English alliterative verse, though in another manuscript they’re rendered in prose, and when Chaucer came to write his own incomplete version in his Boece, he left the poems as heightened prose, albeit with his own parenthetic glosses. Boethius himself had offered a substratum of poetic consolations to buttress his argument.

Philosophy these days scarcely sets out to offer consolation, against Covid-19 or much else, still scrupulously unpacking our mind-sets, while religion, rather less scrupulously, is still justifying the unlikely ways of God to man. Literary critics as different as Arnold, Hulme and Richards suspected poetry could take over the space that religion occupied, poets as different as Yeats and Wallace Stevens offered secular alternatives, and Les Murray thought that poetry and religion might be read as luminous metaphors the one for the other. At least, though many a poem sets out to disturb our perspectives, the genre may tentatively stake some claim as a consolatory niche; the role of the poem at a funeral isn’t as prayer, hymn or ...

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