Geoffrey Chaucer, the Critical Heritage

By Derek Brewer | Go to book overview
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Mario Praz (born 1896), distinguished Italian scholar and critic of literature and art, was Professor of English Language and Literature in the University of Rome, 1934-66. The valuable scholarly examination of Chaucer’s debt to the great Italian writers Dante, Boccaccio and Petrarch reveals a Chaucer already established in the tradition of English nineteenth-century criticism: a placid bourgeois, incapable of conceiving Dante’s greatness; a simple medieval mind hungering for quotation, and incapable of presenting Criseyde with irony; but of a keen dramatic genius. Nevertheless Chaucer is indeed seen as ‘Dante in English’—as much of Dante as English could accommodate. Boccaccio’s influence is argued to be much less significant than Dante’s. Chaucer’s artistry is considered to be economical, concrete and domestic, though Chaucer shows off his superficial learning; his interests are in loyalty and morality; all very suitable to a trading nation. The vivid spectacle of Italian life must also, it is claimed, have sharpened Chaucer’s sense of drama. Reprinted from the ‘Monthly Criterion’, pp. 20-39, 131-7, 149-57 by permission of Doubleday & Co. Inc.


(p. 20) Even among the safest Chaucerian scholars over-subtlety proves sometimes to be a vice; we need not, then, be surprised at the vagaries of the less safe source-hunters. Were the reading-public alive to a morbid curiosity about source-complexes, as it is admittedly about sex-complexes, a publisher could find sufficient inducement to issue a selection of Chauceriana uniform with H.L. Mencken’s annual anthologies of Americana; and I am not sure whether, after that, ‘Americana’ would still bear the palm in the way of supreme nonsense writing.

I am going to give only one instance of priceless pettifogging interpretation, because it may serve as a convenient introduction to my study of Italian influence on Chaucer. A contributor to ‘The Nation’ for October 20th, 1904, conjectured that the nineteen ladies following the God of Love in the Prologue to the ‘Legend of Good


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