Geoffrey Chaucer, the Critical Heritage

By Derek Brewer | Go to book overview

30.

F.J.SNELL, CHAUCER IS THE MOST IRRESPONSIBLE OF MEN

1901

F.J. Snell (1863-?), scholar and man of letters, who was educated at Balliol College, Oxford, recognises Chaucer’s humanity without feeling obliged to insist that all he writes is uplifting. The passage is reprinted from the general summary that concludes a sensible and fairly detailed account of Chaucer and his contemporaries, ‘The Age of Chaucer’, pp. 231-4 (omitting a long quotation from Emerson, above, No. 1 (b)), Bell (1901), by permission of the publisher.

In estimating Chaucer’s position as a writer, the first point with which it seems necessary to deal is the charge many entertain, if they do not openly allege—that, after all, he is a mere imitator, that he has no true gift of originality. The frequent references we have been compelled to make, and they are by no means exhaustive, to Chaucer’s sources, cannot but raise the problem to what extent such obligations are admissible, and how far they may consist with practical independence. Here, then, it is requisite to distinguish between mechanical appropriation and spiritual assimilation involving, it may be, verbal reminiscence. That Chaucer was never guilty of mechanical appropriation we dare not aver, but the ratio between slavish imitation and free reproduction, or masterly recasting, was constantly varying, and always in favour of the latter….

In his discourse at the unveiling of the Chaucer window at Southwark Church, Mr. Alfred Austin seemed to advocate the theory that Chaucer, holding a brief for conduct, made of his poetry a handmaid of virtue, a nurse of good morals. This doctrine conflicts with the present writer’s opinion, according to which Chaucer never grasped the idea of duty, as the stern, perhaps solitary, fulfilling of what is right. Virtue to him was not something binding on the conscience, but that which was socially convenient and attractive—the ‘good fair White’—in other words, a sort of higher etiquette accepted by a few. How else explain the composition of poems, the tendency of which is the reverse of edifying? The truth is, Chaucer had a taste and relish, an eye and understanding for many things in human nature, from which the ideal moralist turns away

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