Chaucer Criticism: The Canterbury Tales

Chaucer Criticism: The Canterbury Tales

Chaucer Criticism: The Canterbury Tales

Chaucer Criticism: The Canterbury Tales

Excerpt

Out of the diversity of authorship and approach represented in this anthology, a surprisingly consistent picture of Chaucer's art and spirit emerges. Of the eighteen selections, two are by poets as unlike as Cummings and Longfellow, sixteen by scholar-critics whose essays span half a century and whose critical approaches rest variously upon social history, literary history, rhetorical tradition, Biblical exegesis, or formal analysis of the text. A naive Chaucer--Chaucer as comic realist having his little jokes on contemporaries caught in his camera eye; Chaucer the benign indifferentist chuckling alike over good and evil, the happy ironist inspired by nothing so much as an incongruity; Matthew Arnold's Chaucer, lacking in "high and excellent seriousness" -- does not exist for any writer represented here. It is difficult to see how the student or general reader could read far in this anthology without developing convictions about Chaucer as a poet of the most varied and sophisticated art -- an art responsible to the moral and spiritual heart of man and human situations.

The interpretation of the Canterbury Tales and of Chaucer found in the essays is present, strikingly and emblematically, in the sonnets of Cummings and Longfellow, and it is for this reason that the two poems stand at the head of the collection. They are followed by two essays which deal with artistic problems arising in the General Prologue yet touching the Tales as a whole. Donaldson's essay, a delightful analysis of the narrative point of view provided by "Chaucer the Pilgrim," tells us that the most obvious function of the narrative persona is "to present a vision of the social world imposed on one of the moral world." Baldwin's essay finds the unity of the Canterbury Tales in a sovrasenso arising by "metaphorical . . .

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