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The Temptations of Chaucer

The Strumpet Muse: Art and Morals in Chaucer’s Poetry

by Alfred David
Indiana University Press, 352 pp., $15.00

The Idea of The Canterbury Tales

by Donald R. Howard
University of California Press, 403 pp., $15.00

England in the Age of Chaucer

by William Woods
Stein and Day, 230 pp., $10.00

Chaucer: Sources and Backgrounds

edited by Robert P. Miller
Oxford University Press, 500 pp., $7.00 (paper)


   Listeth, lordes, in good entent,
And I wol telle verrayment Of myrthe and of solas;
Al of a knyght was fair and gent
In bataille and in tourneyment, His name was sire Thopas.

Yborn he was in fer contree
In Flaundres, al biyonde the see, At Poperyng, in the place.
His fader was a man ful free,
And lord he was of that contree, As it was Goddes grace.

It takes a great poet to write poetry as bad as this. In twelve lines Chaucer has already succeeded in making us lose all further interest in the deeds of his hero. No wonder Harry Bailly, the Host of the Tabard Inn, who has accompanied the pilgrims on their way to Canterbury and taken it upon himself to act as master of ceremonies, interrupts him with: “Namoore of this, for Goddes dignitee…. Myn eres aken of thy drasty speche.” The question for us is: How are we to take it? Why is it spoken? Is it merely a parody of second-rate romances or is such parody, as in Cervantes, only the symptom of a larger unease? Once we open ourselves to such questions others come pouring in: Who is speaking this? The pilgrim Chaucer? The poet? (But who is the poet?) Where is it spoken? On the road to Canterbury? In our heads? Then? Now?

Chaucer is one of the great unread writers of world literature. It is true that he is the Father of English Literature, but outside of English departments, where the feeling I suppose is that if you are going out with the daughters you’ve got to be civil to the father, one does not imagine anyone reading him or having any particular incentive to do so. Dryden’s remark that “here is God’s plenty,” though meant as a term of praise, would seem designed to put one off rather than encourage one to sample. Who wants God’s plenty nowadays, especially if it’s in verse and in a slippery language that at moments looks just like English and then turns suddenly into gibberish? But perhaps he has more to say to us than we often realize, perhaps he is more puzzling, doubting, inquiring, than the traditional image of him suggests. All we need to do is open his poems and see for ourselves. This, in their various ways, is what all the books under review urge us to do. Some, however, are more persuasive than others, and it may be of some theoretical as well as practical interest to see just why this should be so.

The great merit of John Gardner’s books is that they clearly set out to convert: “I write about Chaucer,” he says, “because I believe profoundly what he says in his poetry about human life, and believe his ideas are more significant right now, in the twentieth century, than they ever were before, even in his own century.” His assets are enormous enthusiasm for anything connected with Chaucer and a boundless confidence in his own ability to convey that enthusiasm. The results, however, are disappointing.

Let us begin with the biography. Here, right at the start, Gardner runs into difficulties. For the fact is that very little is known about Chaucer. We have no letters, no memoirs, no way of knowing what Chaucer thought or what his contemporaries thought about him in private. Since he was a civil servant for most of his life there are plenty of records, but these never once mention poetry or even writing. Thus Gardner is reduced to filling out his book with potted intellectual and political history: the troubles of Edward II, medieval attitudes to children, the course of Edward III’s French wars, the medieval school curriculum, fourteenth-century Oxford, Ockham, Wycliffe, Alice Perrers, The Peasants’ Revolt, etc., etc. When the going gets a little heavy he brings in a bit of “human interest”: Did John of Gaunt have an affair with his sister-in-law, Chaucer’s wife? Was Chaucer’s son really Gaunt’s? What exactly did Chaucer do to incur the charge of raptus (rape or abduction)—this in 1380, when he was a middle-aged, happily married man? The evidence, here as elsewhere, is inconclusive.

The trouble with all this is not so much that there is a great deal we can never know; it is that even the things we can be reasonably certain about seem to cast little light on the man, the poet, or the age. Gardner points out at the start that where there are gaps in knowledge he will frequently be forced to use “the novelist’s prerogative” to invent, but though this makes the book more readable, in the end it does Chaucer a disservice. We are very conscious of having Gardner’s Chaucer, rather than Chaucer himself, Gardner’s version of the English fourteenth century rather than any insight into what the period was really like. It is true that we learn a few facts on the way—it was, for example, “legal to beat a wife into unconsciousness, but not acceptable to beat her until her inert body farted, a sign that she was in shock and might possibly be dying”1—but these remain isolated and fragmentary. By the end we are no nearer to Chaucer or his age than when we started.

The Poetry of Chaucer is equally disappointing, though here it is harder to put one’s finger on the source of failure. “I have no single point to make about Chaucer’s poetry,” Gardner says at the start, “except of course, that it is a joy to read, a magnificent, puzzling, delightful world to move into….” His method is to begin at the beginning, with The Book of the Duchess, and to work his way through the canon to the Retraction at the end of The Canterbury Tales. He has read much of the recent scholarship on Chaucer and there are many good insights on the way, usually culled (with ample acknowledgment) from the work of others. But my overall impression of the book is that it is at once too dense and too thin. Gardner’s answer would no doubt be that the book is meant to be an introduction for the general reader: “In a book meant for nonspecialists,” he says at the start of his discussion of The Canterbury Tales, “it would be impossible to present a full line-by-line analysis of the whole work, much less a full appreciation of its magnificence as poetry.” But does this distinction not rest on a strange assumption? Is the difference between a book for the general reader and one for “specialists” really that between general comments and line-by-line analysis? Though Gardner constantly gestures in the direction of scholarship he hives it off from “response to the poetry” with a positively ruthless determination: “It is not my purpose,” he declares in the preface, “to write a book closely examining Chaucer’s possible use of the writings of Robert Grosseteste, or Chaucer’s relationship to John Gower, or the influence of Livy on Chaucer’s aesthetic theory. My purpose is to follow where the poems lead, avoiding presuppositions but turning to ideas popular in Chaucer’s day when those ideas seem to illuminate the poem.” Are these really the alternatives?

Part of the trouble would seem to be that it is very hard to write an interesting book which has no particular point to make. Our sense of the book’s diffuseness and lack of bite stems perhaps from Gardner’s initial decision about the kind of book he wanted to write. But this is not the whole reason, for Gardner does in fact, despite his early disclaimer, have a “point” or thesis, and it is one he drives rather hard. Chaucer, he argues, lived in a period which saw the triumph of Nominalism, and he sensed therefore that all truth is relative “and knew that quite possibly, there can be, in the end, no real communication between human beings.” This, it seems, links him with “Samuel Beckett and many other writers of the first rank in this century,” who have also played with “the paradox of speech denying the validity of speech.”

This is a strange argument. Though Chaucer does undoubtedly deal in his later works with problems of language and communication it seems odd to relate this exclusively to a scholastic controversy. Is it not more likely that Nominalism too is the response to profound and complex transformations in medieval society in the later Middle Ages? However, that is not the point I want to labor. I don’t feel it’s the oddness of Gardner’s thesis or the general flaccidity of the language in which he presents it (“Samuel Beckett and many other writers of the first rank in this century”) that is the primary reason for our dissatisfaction with his book; it has to do rather with the kinds of questions he asks of Chaucer’s text.

Here is where Alfred David’s book can help us, if only negatively. For he does definitely have a thesis—indeed, he sets out to do little else than argue this thesis—and yet it leaves us with the same feeling as Gardner’s book: we are left at the end with the sense that the pieces have been energetically moved about on the board, but that in reality nothing has changed.

David’s thesis is oddly old-fashioned, though he too makes full use of the most recent scholarship. Briefly, he argues that Chaucer began his career with the notion of the poet as preacher which was prevalent in his time, and ended it by divorcing his fiction completely from the domination of morality. The turning point, according to David, is to be found in the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales:

Chaucer’s Prologue…is liable to the charge that, by medieval standards, it is not moral enough because it fails to make judgement explicit. By modern standards, that is its greatness as a work of art. Great fiction has the power of making the reader suspend moral judgement along with the sense of disbelief. He becomes absorbed in the imaginary characters for their own sake and not for the sake of some truth or moral that can be learned from them.

This is just a more sophisticated version of the old argument that Chaucer gradually broke free of the shackles of medieval conventions and found a way to write about “real life.” David compares Chaucer’s achievement with Boccaccio’s, but one just has to look at The Canterbury Tales and The Decameron to see the error of such a view: Boccaccio’s elegant young people are cocooned from the world; they tell their tales in a vacuum, and they themselves have, in a sense, no past. Chaucer sets his characters on a pilgrimage to Canterbury, and neither their own pasts nor the culture in which they are embedded can be cast off: the book is in one sense precisely about the interrelation of the two, of individual and society, the modern and the ancient, freedom and tradition.

  1. 1

    Gardner does not say where he got this piece of information from. Throughout he quotes mainly from secondary sources, and only a handful of them at that. William Woods, on the other hand, in England in the Age of Chaucer makes excellent use of primary sources and conveys a remarkable sense of what it was like to be very poor in a still largely feudal society. Unfortunately his book degenerates in its later chapters into a rather simple-minded description of the political upheavals of the latter part of the century.

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