Geoffrey Chaucer, the Critical Heritage

By Derek Brewer | Go to book overview

31.

SIR WALTER RALEIGH, IRONY AND SIMPLE GOOD ENGLISH

1905 (1926)

Sir Walter Raleigh (1861-1922), Merton Professor of English in the University of Oxford, in lectures given in 1905, posthumously published in 1926, emphasises, besides irony and dramatic quality, how frequently Chaucer breaks his own ‘tone’. Raleigh overemphasises Chaucer’s simplicity of diction while recognising the social basis of speech. Reprinted from ‘On Writers and Writing’, ed. G. Gordon, pp. 108-19, Edward Arnold (1926), by permission of the publisher.

Chaucer’s strong sanity and critical commonsense, his quick power of observation, and his distaste for all extravagances and follies helped to make him a great comic poet. But he is not a railing wit, or a bitter satirist. His broad and calm philosophy of life, his delight in diversities of character, his sympathy with all kinds of people, and his zest in all varieties of experience—these are the qualities of a humorist.

Charles Lamb thought with misgiving of a heaven in which all irony and ironical modes of expression should be lacking. Certainly it would be no heaven for Chaucer. The all-pervading essence of his work is humour. Sometimes it breaks out in boisterous and rollicking laughter at the drunken and unseemly exploits of churls; sometimes it is so delicate and evanescent that you can hardly detect its existence. But it is everywhere, even in places where it has no right to be. The intellectual pleasure of standing aside and seeing things against an incongruous background was a pleasure he could not long forgo.

In this matter, and in this alone, Chaucer is sometimes guilty of what I shall call ‘literary bad manners.’ It is like the fault of distracted attention. Even at a funeral he must insinuate his jest. Now, it is quite excusable to jest at a funeral so long as it is regarded as a formal, official function; or if it is merely matter for thought. The suit of clay as the dwelling-house made for this creature a little lower than the angels is a jest of the Gods. But Chaucer will arouse deep feelings of pathos and sympathy, and in the atmosphere thus created, he will let off a little crackling penny jest, from

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