Geoffrey Chaucer, the Critical Heritage

By Derek Brewer | Go to book overview
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night were dark, within was so great brightness of light without candles that it was marvel; and it seemed him the sun shone there. With that he issueth forth and betaketh him to the way he had abandoned, and prayeth God grant he may find Lancelot of the Lake.’




W.W. Lawrence (1876-1958), educated at Leipzig and Harvard, was Professor of English at Columbia University, New York, 1916-36. He begins to develop a social theory of literature, based on an underlying concept of the primarily mimetic function of literature (a ‘mirror’). Chaucer is denied sublimity and, more surprisingly, pathos, but the critic observes the significant diversity of Chaucer’s work, concentrating on ‘The Canterbury Tales’. Reprinted from ‘Medieval Story’, Columbia University Press (1911), pp. 211-20.

The tales of the common folk contain many a caustic comment on the aristocratic manners of the day. We have already seen two separate tendencies in the literature of the middle classes,—the one satirical, mocking with bitter laughter at Church and State through the mouth of Reynard the Fox; the other a more dignified and good-humored protest uttered by Robin Hood. In the ‘Canterbury Tales’ the bitter and cynical tone is very noticeable in the criticism of life which comes from the commons. These folk have sharp tongues; they love to ridicule the errors of churchmen and the frailties of women. Chivalry had insisted on blind devotion to the gentler sex and to the majesty of religion; these people answer, with a sneer, that neither women nor clerics are any better than they should be. Most of their stories will not bear repeating. The closest modern analogues of these fabliaux, told among men in the ale-house and tavern, are our smoking-room stories, indefensibly coarse, even though indisputably humorous. The grossness of Chaucer’s tales is well-known, but they have some redeeming qualities. They differ from


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