Chaucer and the Energy of Creation: The Design and the Organization of the Canterbury Tales

Chaucer and the Energy of Creation: The Design and the Organization of the Canterbury Tales

Chaucer and the Energy of Creation: The Design and the Organization of the Canterbury Tales

Chaucer and the Energy of Creation: The Design and the Organization of the Canterbury Tales

Synopsis

"A remarkably accessible account of individual tales, tellers, and the poem-as-a-whole, with a voice of such authority and appreciative command that it could be recommended to any undergraduate or graduate student.... To anyone who doubted the survival of practical criticism in the current sea of theory, this book will come as a tonic."--Dolores Warwick Frese, University of Notre Dame

Arguing from the evidence of extant manuscripts, Edward Condren describes the overall design of the Canterbury Tales --one of the most enigmatic puzzles in Chaucer studies--as a structural parallel to Dante's Commedia. Through close analysis of the text, he shows how individual tales support this design and how the design itself confers rich meaning, in some instances investing with new complexity tales that otherwise have been little appreciated.
Dividing its focus between the underlying unity of the poem as a whole and the discrete tales that create this unity, Chaucer and the Energy of Creation advances several startling interpretations-the progressive dislocation and displacement in Fragment I; a new claim for the unity of the "marriage group"; the survey of the poet's literary career in Fragment VII; and the merging of Chaucer's professional and spiritual lives at the end of the poem. Overall, Condren shows that the famous pilgrimage to Canterbury has three sections corresponding to Dante's Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. He maintains that Chaucer's poem depicts human nature deriving its energy from the tension of equal and opposite forces and then resolving this tension in one of three ways, as illustrated in the poem's three large sections. By converting Dante's vertical, cosmic structure to a horizontal, earthly plane, Condren argues, Chaucer is able to portray human beings, rather than souls as in Dante, struggling between disintegration and transcencence.
Chaucer and the Energy of Creation celebrates the Canterbury Tales as a work of literary art executed according to a unified plan. It is expressed in a voice that will remind readers of Donaldson's close readings and unfolds with methods and arguments that belong to a tradition from Kittredge to the finest of the moderns.

Edward I. Condren is professor of English at the University of California, Los Angeles. His articles have appeared in the Chaucer Review, Viator, Philological Quarterly, Studies in English Literature, and elsewhere.

Excerpt


The Man of Law's Tale

To resurrect a world that vanished at the fifty-eighth line of the Cook's Tale (i.e., I.4422.) the Canterbury Tales needs a new beginning. It is obvious that Chaucer intended the Man of Law's Tale to be this new beginning, for it contains passages closely paralleling the poem's concluding tale. Like a matched pair of bookends embracing everything that stands between them, the Man of Law's Tale and the Parson's Tale use nearly identical images of the sun as a universal, immutable indicator of the time of day, the exciting dynamic of a beginning and the inexorable movement bringing the cycle to an end, while also including closely similar images that undermine this permanence by calling attention to the cessation of time and the end of days, that is, to death.

"Degrees . . . fyve and fourty" (II.12) in the Introduction to the Man of Law's Tale anticipates the precisely measured "Degreës nyne and twenty" (X.4) in the Parson's Prologue. The former, an image of morning, alludes to an equilateral triangle, an absolute formula used here for measuring the sun's height, yet includes as one of the triangle's legs an insubstantial shadow, suggesting that all things are transitory:

[He] saugh wel that the shadwe of every tree
Was as in lengthe the same quantitee
That was the body erect that caused it.
And therfore by the shadwe he took his wit
That Phebus, which that shoon so clere and brighte,
Degrees was fyve and fourty clombe on highte. (II.7-12)

The latter, an image of late afternoon, relies on the same universal geometry to mark the sun's elevation, though its reference to the twenty-nine degrees through which it will swiftly set -- hardly a coincidental reference to the twenty-nine pilgrims who began the pilgrimage (cf. I.24) -- conveys an inescapable feeling of impermanence. This image too includes a . . .

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