Theodore Spencer: Selected Essays
In a civilized society, nobody under the age of thirty would be permitted to publish any literary criticism. (Bibliographies might be allowed.) In our own, alas, the young are not only permitted but economically compelled to perform in a field for which they have, as yet, neither the scholarship, judgment, wisdom, nor good manners it requires. The result is only too visible in journals like the PMLA, where one is confronted by article after article which nobody could possibly read and its wretched author had obviously no desire to write. Tenure, however, insists that he get his name into print.
This selection of essays by Professor Spencer includes one piece of juvenilia, “Chaucer’s Hell: A Study in Medieval Convention,” written when he was twenty-five, and it is instructive to compare this essay with one written seven years later, “The Story of Ugolino in Dante and Chaucer.” The early piece has one virtue which augurs well for his future as a critic, modesty of aim. The young man confines himself to doing what is within the powers of any industrious student to do, namely, to read through the whole of Chaucer’s work, noting down every reference he makes to Hell. Then, with the assistance of the Widener Library and Professor Kittredge, he hunts down as many references to the subject in Classical and Medieval literature as he can find and appends them in columns of footnotes. The trouble is that he has no subject worth writing about. In the first place, Chaucer was not very interested in Hell, so that what he has to say about it is not very interesting: in the second, the mountain of research can in this case bring forth only a mouse of conclusion.
The most we can say is that Dante, as far as his picture of Hell is concerned, occupied a slightly more important place in Chaucer’s mind than Virgil or Claudian; the influence of convention was overwhelmingly predominant.
Did anyone who has read both Dante and Chaucer ever think otherwise?
How different is the later piece. The footnotes upon which only an expert can check have vanished: instead, we find a detailed comparative analysis, which a reader without any special knowledge can follow, of two related texts, the story of Ugolino as told by Dante and as retold by Chaucer. By showing us how Chaucer modified Dante, by omission, addition, and shifts of emphasis, Professor Spencer brings us to a clearer understanding of Chaucer’s cast of imagination.
Ugolino imagines that he is going to be starved to death, and the thought makes him weep:
“Allas!”, quod he, “allas, that I was wroght!”
Therwith the teeris fillen from his yen.
This directly contradicts, be it noticed, Dante’s account of Ugolino, who says at this point:
Io non piangeva, si dentro im- pietrai.
The next stanza is entirely of Chaucer’s invention.
His yonge sone, that thre yeer was of age,
Unto hym seyde, “Fader, why do ye wepe?
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.