by James Como (January 2018)
Geoffrey Chaucer: a New Introduction
by David Wallace
Oxford University Press, 172pp
his slim, but by no means slight, book might have been part of the Very Short Introduction series that Oxford has been publishing the past several years (the editors of that series and of this book are the same, and so this full disclosure: I’m writing the VSI on C. S. Lewis). I say ‘might have been’ because it is some eight thousand words longer than books in that series (which are limited to thirty-five thousand words) and at that is missing some fifteen hundred words that I would have liked included (more on the missing piece anon). Of course, therein lies the difficulty for any scholar who has steeped himself lifelong in a writer and his world but must satisfy strict limitations. Within those Prof. Wallace has produced a superb introduction: an adroit, authoritative, fresh, energetic delight.
The book’s seven chapters are Beginnings; Schoolrooms, Science, Female Intuition; A Life in Poetry; Poetry at Last: Troilus and CriseydeThe Canterbury TalesCanterbury Tales in the Ellesmere manuscript. A feature worthy of note above all others is Prof. Wallace’s use of Chaucer’s own Middle English in his quotations (with marginal glosses). But four fewer illustrations, the elimination of Box 1, and a shorter bibliography would have allowed for those additional fifteen hundred words.
We learn early on that Chaucer, for all his invention of “the king’s English” (true), was a European man who knew France and Italy far better than he did England (“he might more plausibly be known as ‘Geoffrey Chaucer of Logres’”: contemporary European history is here called upon); that he is one of our great war poets; that his command of the persona ‘Chaucer’ (as opposed to the poet himself) is nuanced and quite deliberate; that he could move fluently from dream theory, to the nature of speech, and on to cosmology—each treated, though briefly, perhaps ironically, but also legitimately; that story-telling had physical consequences (for both good and ill); and—above all—that according to Chaucer women did not get a fair shake. Alas, he fails to quote the answer to Freud’s famous question (posed four hundred years later) provided by the knight:
‘My lige lady, generally,’ quod he,
‘Wommen desiren to have sovereynetee
As wel over hir housbond as hir love,
And for to been in maistrie hym above.’
Just how does Professor Wallace manages such an array, let alone so compactly? One wonders, literally: as I read I marveled. His adducing of passages, even of a few lines, from The Parliament of Fowls, The House of Fame, the Tales (even the most obscure and little read: one sees that nothing in Chaucer is trivial), Dante, Boccaccio and many others, is both fluent and to-the-point. The result is utile, but even more dulce.
His explication de texte is as skilled as are his thematic surveys. At the very beginning, for example, he discusses the General Prologue. “Here,” he says, “Chaucer does something that will be found exceptional not just with [the Prologue] or [the Tales] but anywhere in his writings. That is he foregrounds himself as poetic virtuoso.” That is, Chaucer’s ‘then’ comes twelve lines after the opening ‘whan’; and later, at line 19, Chaucer finally introduces himself—having spoken along the way of “planetary motion, inspiring wind, natural regeneration, and birdsong.” This is the same ‘Chaucer’ who will refer to himself (actually a complaint by the bird lifting him in The House of Fame) as “roly poly.” Also satisfying is the lesson that Chaucer was a dramatist attuned to his varied audiences, “one of the many reasons why Shakespeare loved [him] so much.”
Which brings me to my major complaint, that missing piece. Professor Wallace can be quirky (in his choice of illustrations, for example, or in the words he spends on contemporary iterations of Chaucer, or with “Geoffrey Chaucer, once CT is complete, becomes the Wife of Bath’s sixth husband”—all interesting though not, so to speak, to the bone). But that quirkiness allows for the almost total absence of any discussion of Chaucer’s use of rhetoric, of the arts that appeared in the late fourteenth century, and of Chaucer’s deep education in the art. Here is a sampling of twelve sources (chosen from some two dozen) that must not be missing from any introduction to Chaucer’s genius:
Richard J. Beck, “Educational Expectations and Rhetorical Results in The Canterbury Tales”; Martin Camargo “Chaucer and the Oxford Renaissance of Anglo-Latin Rhetoric”; Rita Copeland, “Chaucer and Rhetoric”; Dorothy Everett, “Some Reflections on Chaucer’s ‘Art Poetical’”; Marie P. Hamilton, “Notes on Chaucer and the Rhetoricians”; John M. Manly, “Chaucer and the Rhetoricians”; James J. Murphy, “A New Look at Chaucer and the Rhetoricians”; Robert O. Payne, The Key of RemembranceThe Life of Geoffrey Chaucer
From figures of speech on scales small and large (and the ironic references to those), to the deployment of proofs (and the parodies thereof), on to intonational variations to suit different audiences, and (especially) to the canny manipulation of his persona, Chaucer is the essential homo rhetoricus.
Professor Wallace’s discussion of the poetry not Troilus or the Tales is rich in context, allusion, and micro-analysis. We learn that Chaucer’s admiration for ottava rima (Boccaccio) and terza rima (Dante) finally gives way to his own Rhyme Royal; and we also learn that although Boccaccio is the poet Chaucer most copied, he is also one whose name Chaucer never mentions. Although the author’s reference to Thomas Mann may be a bit of showing-off, his brief discussions of nationhood (not determined by language), the poetically and musically brilliant Giullaume de Machaut (“the French poet [Chaucer] most admired”), the value of ‘judgment poems’ (wherein a question is posed), and the development of Chaucer’s art (not least his own representation of ‘Chaucer’) are rich beef cut bite-size. Professor Wallace seems to have read almost everything and remembers. I do not exaggerate when I say the book is a page-turner and that, before we get to the main attractions.
That attraction is Troilus and Criseyde. When I first read it in graduate school I thought it the most contemporary fiction I had read to that point. Its movement into and out of the poem as well as the consciousness of its characters, the ambiguity of the narrator, the manipulativeness of Pandarus (Criseyde’s uncles, after all, pandering her), the placement of the story within a wider narrative (that of the Trojan War), its utter reversal from comedy to tragedy (or, as Professor Wallace points out, from Dante to Boethius): all of these make this poem a landmark of world literature, surpassing Statius’ Il Filostrato (one of its sources) and even Shakespeare’s play. (Here a picky point: C. S. Lewis’s Allegory of Love, for its discussion of the poem, and his “What Chaucer really did to Il Filostrato” belong in a bibliography of the length provided here.)
We learn further that Chaucer meant part of the poem to be sung, that he did not intend for it to be heard once only but to be re-read (that’s for sure: it is densely allusive), that Chaucer worried over his “newly-hatching reputation as a besmircher of women,” and that he knew he was now legitimately a poet, one of European breadth who could stand with “Vergil, Ovid, Homer, Lucan and Statius” (a trope, we are told, used by Jean de Meun, Dante, and Boccaccio).
And yet, at the end of the later General Prologue to the Tales, Professor Wallace tells us, we find Chaucer “among low-life predators, swindlers, and word merchants listed sixth of six.” This would seem to be a step backwards for Chaucer, but he was not quite the stickler for completion as was Boccaccio; rather “the framed collection [i.e. the Tales] proved a convenient workshop and repository for all kinds of writing, some of it drafted much earlier . . . Chaucer lets genre and literary form run wild.” And then comes this fundamental truth: “Such formal promiscuity suggests forms of challenge to social order not to be found in Boccaccio,” such as allowing the drunken and well-armed Miller to proceed out of order. “This is the revolutionary moment of CT, its point of no return.”
Professor Wallace discusses (briefly) the manuscripts (Ellesmere and the competing Hengwrt), the order of the tales, and Chaucer’s metrical dexterity. But he emphasizes the efforts it takes to keep the compaignye (“those who eat of the same bread”) together. Finally, after examining the interruption of tales (Monk’s, Squire’s) and the portraits and meter that match (or fail to: some tellers, for example, have no portraits), he instructs, “it is best to read . . . with genre as an open question.” (Dorigen, in the Franklin’s Tale, “tries to think herself into a new genre.”) Even the notorious Pardoner “is finding his way to Canterbury.”
The final two chapters (Something to Believe In, Performance and New Chaucers) give us as much Wallace as they do Chaucer. In the penultimate chapter we learn of paganism, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam in relations to the poet: Professor Wallace at his most nimble. Chaucer’s own beliefs are hard to pin down (though we know that for “our planet, our home,” nature is “a noble emperesse . . . the vicaire of the almyghty Lord”), for within the Tales he is not as tame as some would like. Moreover we are divided from him as Medieval is from Modern, as was Christianity by the Reformation. Yet Chaucer is “a sublime poet who explores many forms and objects of belief. New thresholds may arise at any moment of reading: suddenly, the membrane thins between this world and some other.”
I would certainly assign this book if I were teaching Chaucer, or for that matter any survey course on early English literature; further, I recommend it to the generally literate reader as a mini-introduction, not only to Chaucer but to key touchstones of Western literature, such is its richness of reference. But I would add the following, not noted by Professor Wallace. If we look to the end of the Tales we find the devout Parson. In his tale, Chaucer (with not long to live), takes his leave with a faithful gravitas:
Al that is written is writen for oure doctrine, and that is myn entente . . . thanke I oure Lord Jhesu Crist and his blisful Mooder . . . and graunte me grace of verray penitence . . . thrugh the benigne grace of hym that is kyng of kynges so that I may been oon of hem at the day of doom that shulle be saved. Qui cumpatre et Spiritu Sancto vivit et regnat Deaus per omnia scuela. Amen.
James Como is the author, most recently, of The Tongue is Also a Fire: Essays on Conversation, Rhetoric and the Transmission of Culture . . . and on C. S. Lewis (New English Review Press, 2015).
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