Geoffrey Chaucer, the Critical Heritage

By Derek Brewer | Go to book overview

29.

WILLIAM PATON KER, THE COMMONPLACE TRANSFORMED

1895

Ker (1855-1923), educated at Glasgow University and Balliol College, Oxford, professor of English at London University, united immense scholarly knowledge with richly thoughtful critical appreciation, expressed in prose whose learning and intelligence is matched by its wit and elegance. This example is taken from The Poetry of Chaucer, a very long and full review of ‘The Complete Works of Chaucer’, 6 vols (1894), edited by W.W. Skeat, in ‘The Quarterly Review’, CLXXX (April 1895), pp. 521-48.

(p. 522) There is a place for biographical particulars, and there is a place for commentaries and glossaries; but the first and most necessary thing for every reader of Chaucer is that he should be allowed to read the poems for himself in something like peace of mind. It may be at times amusing to make one’s own emendations, but not in the middle of Chaucer’s story of ‘Troilus.’ Mr. Skeat’s edition has removed these offences, and in it the writings of the great master of verse may be read without the impertinences of ‘Adam Scriveyn’ and his successors.

The art of Chaucer in some of its qualities was as fully recognised two hundred years ago as it can be at the present day. With regard to some of the strongest parts of Chaucer’s poetry, no later writer has been able to add anything essentially new to the estimate given by Dryden. ‘Here is God’s plenty’ is still the best criticism ever uttered on the ‘Canterbury Tales’; and Dryden’s comparison of Chaucer and Ovid, with his preference of the English author’s sanity and right proportions over the Latin poet’s ornamental epigrams, is to this day a summary of the whole matter, and enough in itself to give liveliness and meaning even to such a battered critical phrase as the ‘following of Nature’; a phrase which is so employed by Dryden in this context as almost to look like a new idea.

In other respects, however, there is a defect in Dryden’s criticism; and, in spite of the exertions of many scholars, his failure to appreciate Chaucer’s versification has been very generally repeated since his time. It is possible that, even at the present day, Dryden’s estimate of the laxity of Chaucer’s verse may still represent

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