Geoffrey Chaucer, the Critical Heritage

By Derek Brewer | Go to book overview
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1856, 1865, 1870, 1873, 1876

John Ruskin (1819-1900), artist, art-critic, moralist, social reformer, passionate Victorian sage and prophet, was educated privately and at King’s College, London. In his extremely popular, influential, voluminous, digressive and varied writings he frequently refers to Chaucer, usually to make incidental points. But the relation of coarseness to idealism, the concept of the ‘national mind’, the educative and purifying power of the imagination, and the best way to manage both mental and physical nourishment, are all topics which Chaucer’s writings either illustrate or into which they are fitted, in a stimulating and unusual way. Life and literature are one. Extract (a) is from ‘The Harbours of England’ (1856) (ed. E.T. Cook and A.D.O. Wedderburn, ‘Works’ (1902-12) XIII, pp. 20-3); (b) from The Cestus of Aglaia, ‘Art Journal’, N.S. IV (‘Works’ XIX, pp. 82-5); (c) ‘Lectures on Art’ (1870), pp. 15-16; (d) ‘Fors Clavigera’ (1873), Letter 34, pp. 8-9; (e) ‘Fors Clavigera’, (1876), Letter 61, pp. 21-2.


It is very interesting to note how repugnant every oceanic idea appears to be to the whole nature of our principal English mediaeval poet, Chaucer. Read first the Man of Lawe’s Tale, in which the Lady Constance is continually floated up and down the Mediterranean, and the German Ocean, in a ship by herself; carried from Syria all the way to Northumberland, and there wrecked upon the coast; thence yet again driven up and down among the waves for five years, she and her child; and yet, all this while, Chaucer does not let fall a single word descriptive of the sea, or express any emotion whatever about it, or about the ship. He simply tells us the lady sailed here and was wrecked there; but neither he nor his audience appear to be capable of receiving any sensation, but one of simple aversion, from waves, ships, or sands. Compare with his absolutely apathetic recital, the description by a modern poet of the sailing of a vessel, charged with the fate of another Constance:


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