Geoffrey Chaucer's The General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales

By Harold Bloom | Go to book overview

Memory and Form

Donald R. Howard

Memory, central to the experience of reading The Canterbury Tales, is embodied in it as its central fiction and becomes the controlling principle of its form. The expressed idea of the work is that the pilgrim Chaucer, like the pilgrim Dante of the Commedia, reports an experience of his own which includes stories told by others. Both are returned travellers, both rely on memory. Frances Yates [in The Art of Memory] has even suggested that Dante relied for his structuring principles upon the artificial memory systems prevalent in the Middle Ages. This fictional premise, probably Chaucer's greatest debt to Dante, is hardly ever noted. Simple and natural as it seems to us who read novels, it was unusual for a medieval work explicitly to take the form of an imagined feat of memory: we find it in romances, but only a simple version of it. And it was unusual for a work to have as the subject of that memory an imagined experience of the author's own.

It is not surprising that this fundamental fiction of The Canterbury Tales has been overlooked. Chaucer the "observer" and "persona" have been fixed in people's minds since Kittredge's day, and these conceptions mitigate the element of personal experience in favor of distance, irony, and control. Chaucer used to be admired as an open-eyed observer of contemporary life (which he was) and so reckoned a naif; it seems astonishing now to find Kittredge in 1914 arguing that "a naif Collector of Customs would be a paradoxical monster." Since then, the sophisticated and ironical Chaucer,

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From The Idea of the Canterbury Tales. © 1976 by the Regents of the University of California. University of California Press, 1976.

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