Chaucer: A Critical Appreciation

Chaucer: A Critical Appreciation

Chaucer: A Critical Appreciation

Chaucer: A Critical Appreciation

Excerpt

If the whole history of Chaucer studies is ever written, it will show--along with a record of trial and error as the facts of his biography and the essentials of background have been recovered (so far as they are now recoverable)--a surprising phenomenon: that seldom has there been anything but praise. Other poets abide our question; not Chaucer. It has come now to seem disloyal to hint a fault in "our incomparable poet": for if anything in his poetry appeared irregular or unsatisfactory we have studiously overlooked it or hurried to his defense with ingenious contrivances of interpretation; if there was anything lacking we have generously added it, imputing to him qualities to which he made no claim and of which he never dreamed. Bagehot laid it down a century ago "that the business of a critic is criticism; that it is not his business to be thankful; that he must attempt an estimate rather than a eulogy." But the critical premise of our professional Chaucerians seems to have been that Chaucer was a great poet and should therefore be adorned with all the high qualities of other great poets. Whatever he did was always right and nothing will do short of proving him so.

Thus our criticism has taken two wrong turns. One is that of gratuitous supplementation--which I have illustrated specially in the elaborate variations on the Pardoner theme (Chapter II) and in the Note on the Clerk (Chapter III). No doubt by leaving some things uncertain Chaucer has given the critics an opportunity, and they have taken every advantage of it. The other turn is that of elevation: the discovery of profound latent philosophical or ethical meanings. This critical procedure is of course . . .

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