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The land of Cokaygne: a study of the Middle English poem and the traditions to which it is related Howard, Irene T.

Abstract

The Land of Cokaygne may be interpreted as a burlesque of the paradise legend of the saints’ abode in the Eden of the blessed. Or it may be taken as a poor folk's Utopia, expressing the desire of the common people for a life of abundance and ease. The essay is therefore divided into two parts. The first concerns the poem as burlesque. What beliefs and conventions are being parodied and what can be learned of the satirist? To answer the first question I offer as a frame of reference a resume of conventional paradise motifs as illustrated in certain paradise legends which were widely known in medieval England. To answer the second question I find analogies to the poem in Greek and Celtic literature and discover the sceptical and satirical spirit in which they were written. The Celtic analogue invites comparison of the Cokaygne poet with the wandering scholar of the Middle Ages. It is possible that the Cokaygne poet with his sceptical spirit and delight in the sensual pleasures was a goliardic clerk. Turning to the poem itself, I set forth those passages of the poem which burlesque the conventional paradise motifs--the list of negative joys, the rivers, the abode of holy men, the garden, well and tree, the catalogue of precious stones and, finally, the barrier. The poet's method is to improvise freely, introducing foreign elements into a familiar series and thus making an exalted theme ludicrous. The Cokaygne motifs--the cloister roofed with cakes, the roast goose, the well-seasoned larks--are used in this way. But the poem may be taken out of its Middle English context and given a larger literary relationship. Structurally, it may be classed as a satiric utopia, for in his burlesque the poet has created a topsy-turvy land as a vehicle for breaking down existing ideas about paradise and for criticizing the religious orders for their immorality. The second part of the essay concerns the poem as a utopia. The Cokaygne fantasy has its origins in primitive agrarian rites and its themes are abundance without toil, general license and inversion of status. The acting out by the folk of these themes in the medieval folk festivals may be taken as a projection of the world as they would like it to be. Around the Cokaygne fantasy the utopia of the folk takes shape. The poet uses the roast goose motif to burlesque the saints’ paradise. But he also uses it as a symbol of the good life without fear of want. His poem takes up the Cokaygne theme of abundance without toil, and communicates as well a sense of the injustice suffered by the poor. Two hundred years later, Thomas More also speaks for the poor and oppressed in his Utopia, and it is his conviction of social injustice which gives emotional force to the theme he shares with the Cokaygne poet of abundance without toil. Other Utopians have in some way given expression to this theme, but only William Morris in News from Nowhere has captured that sense of freedom and of delight in the abundant earth which pervades the Middle English poem. The Utopian element in the poem may also be measured by contrasting it with the anti-utopia. Swift, Huxley and Orwell create wonderlands in the spirit of anti-Cokaygne. They mistrust the idea of abundance without toil and take a gloomy view of the perfectibility of man. They have never been inspired by the vision of the wonderful tree, symbolic of Utopian dreams, or else they have rejected it out of concern for our minds and spirits. The burlesque utopia of the Cokaygne poet lives on in North American folk literature of the twentieth century. It is best known in that well-loved Cokaygne song. The Big Rock Candy Mountains.

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