Five Studies in Literature

Five Studies in Literature

Five Studies in Literature

Five Studies in Literature

Excerpt

LOVERS OF CHAUCER'S Troilus and Criseyde will not have forgotten the charming scene where Pandarus comes to his niece's palace and finds her sitting with her friends within a "paved parlour;" listening to the story of Thebes, which a maiden is reading for their delight from a rubrict manuscript. But modern readers do not always pause to reflect that the conditions under which Chaucer's own poems were enjoyed by his contemporaries were similar to these. We have to remind ourselves that reading in Chaucer's day was primarily a social diversion. In a world of printed books the enjoyment of literature has become for most people a solitary form of pleasure. We are accustomed to gather our impressions of an author through the silent and conventional symbols of type. For the past three hundred years and more, authors other than dramatists have written to this basic condition. They have known, that is to say, that for every individual who made acquaintance with their works through the ear, there would be fifty who would become acquainted with them through the eye. Before the invention of printing, however, the situation was reversed.1 It is worth while, in reading the work of an early poet like Chaucer, to readjust our point of view to that older habit of communication. For it is obvious, when one thinks of the matter, that a change so radical as the substitution of one sense for another as the primary medium of communication must exert profound, if subtle, effects upon literary art. It implies a different relationship between the author and his public. Instinctively, a writer modifies the form of his writing accordingly as he thinks of readers or of hearers. And he will do so whether he is himself to be the disseminating agent of his work or whether some other person is expected to serve as his mouthpiece. We today have become so inured to the reading habit that we ignore this obvious truth. As readers, we thoughtlessly project our habitual notion of the present relationship between author and public into a period when the normal relationship was an auditory one--when a poet wrote not merely for the ear of the imagination, but literally to be heard. If by an effort of imagination we suspend our lifelong habit and examine Chaucer's poetry with the kind of response that he himself took for granted--with, that is to say, the constant awareness of a listening audience as a primary condition of his writing--we shall thereby enrich our understanding of his technique and gain a fresh appreciation of his art.

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