Chaucer and the Fifteenth Century

Chaucer and the Fifteenth Century

Chaucer and the Fifteenth Century

Chaucer and the Fifteenth Century

Excerpt

This book forms part one of Volume II of The Oxford History of English Literature, of which part two, under the title of 'The Close of the Middle Ages', has already appeared (1945). In part two Sir E. K. Chambers has dealt with the medieval drama, medieval lyric, popular narrative verse, the ballad, and Malory. The present volume, as its title suggests, has the two-fold purpose of attempting to reassess the work of our greatest medieval author and to resurvey the fifteenth century in the light of modern scholarship.

Both parts of this task have been formidable, for different reasons. As long ago as 1870, J. R. Lowell opened his classic essay on Chaucer with these words: 'Will it do to say anything more about Chaucer? Can anyone hope to say anything not new, but even fresh, on a topic so well worn? It may well be doubted.' Since then Chaucerian studies have greatly increased in volume and in scope--nowhere more so than in the United States--and we are in some danger of losing sight of the wood for the trees. It is particularly ironic that this most humane of English poets should be in peril of being buried under a mass of erudition. That much of value has emerged from a fraction of such work cannot be denied, but it may well be argued that more is to be obtained from the study of the age of Chaucer and from the events which shaped his career. The age does not make the man, but it contributes much to his making, and the object of the first part of this volume is to show this more clearly than has been done before. At the same time, considerable attention has been paid to the precise poetic means Chaucer used to produce those effects we speak of as peculiarly Chaucerian.

Much that is best known in fifteenth-century literature has been dealt with by Sir E. K. Chambers; in some ways, however, this has been my gain, for it has allowed me to discuss the literature of that century with more attention to its promise than to its performance. The value of the writings of Lydgate, Hoccleve, Pecock, Fortescue, and Caxton can only be assessed as part of the fifteenth century's contribution to the body and continuity of our literature. While the literary value of their work is often small, the importance of these writers, and of . . .

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