Geoffrey Chaucer, the Critical Heritage

By Derek Brewer | Go to book overview
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Chaucer himself is now considered quaint beyond measure. The old dramatists are called quaint. At present, the word is sometimes used with us, in the best sense, to express the struggles of genius with an un-formed language; sometimes as the quiet humour of our ancestors; sometimes it means an obsolete form of expression; sometimes it expresses the resentments of a modern ear; sometimes it means nothing—which is rather worse than the thing complained of. All the best writers of the present age will become quaint; and as only the best will live to enjoy the necessary odium, it would perhaps be but reasonable in future to attach a more charitable meaning to this unavoidable infirmity of old age.


3.

HENRY DAVID THOREAU, HOMELY, INNOCENT, CHILDISH CHAUCER

1843 (1849)

Thoreau (1817-62), lover of woods and hater of taxes, an early example of the true American writer’s characteristic rejection of society, sees in Chaucer his own attractive character, divided between books and Nature. The suggestion of Chaucer’s childlike quality becomes, variously expressed, a commonplace of the mid- and later-nineteenth century, and the general tone of Thoreau’s comments finds its most famous expression in Arnold (cf. No. 23); but Thoreau also genuinely captures, in his own idiom, the un-pretentious ‘Gothic’ self-presentation of the poet as a ‘homely Englishman’, not a dignified and sacred bard. Thoreau’s comments, first a lecture given in 1843, then printed in ‘The Dial’ (Boston) IV (January 1844), pp. 297-303, eventually helped, in expanded form, to fill out the Friday of ‘A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers’ (1849), whence comes this extract.

What a contrast between the stern and desolate poetry of Ossian and that of Chaucer, and even of Shakespeare and Milton, much more of Dryden, and Pope, and Gray! Our summer of English poetry, like the Greek and Latin before it, seems well advanced toward its fall, and laden with

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