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 …

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