Academic journal article Studies in Philology

Chaucer's Corrective Form: The Tale of Melibee and the Poetics of Emendation

Academic journal article Studies in Philology

Chaucer's Corrective Form: The Tale of Melibee and the Poetics of Emendation

Article excerpt

This essay argues that the form Geoffrey Chaucer devises for the Canterbury Tales rests on a recursive and iterative corrective process based on grammatical emendation that was tied, by a long-standing analogy, to moral reform. The Tale of Melibee makes this process most explicit and suggests both the ambitions and the dangers of this artistic and moral project. On the one hand, it is in the Melibee that the logic of the corrective process can be seen most clearly, as Prudence makes correction a principle of her prose; the tale portrays a slow, incremental repetition that only gradually brings about change. In that way, the tale displays the ambitions of the project. On the other hand, its dangers are clear enough, because the tale is notoriously unsatisfactory. Chaucer, however, deliberately stages those dangers in the Melibee and contrasts the dangers with a solution. While in the Melibee that incremental repetition illustrates literary pitfalls, in the Tales it becomes a means for literary innovation: the certainty of error and the corruption of discourse provide Chaucer an artistic method, one that evades moral clarity but provides the occasion for ongoing intellectual, artistic, and moral exercise. This account of Chaucer's moral poetics suggests that debates over the moral bearing of his poetry are unavoidable by design, but also irresolvable by design.

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RECENTLY and suddenly, notable critics--such as Alcuin Blamires, Eleanor Johnson, Mark Miller, J. Alan Mitchell, and Jessica Rosenfeld--have resumed discussion of Geoffrey Chaucer's ethics, a topic that has been out of fashion since nearly the mid-twentieth century. (1) Indeed, for decades debates concerning Chaucer's moral objectives were shelved, not resolved. (2) But the fact of those debates should make us ask: what is it about Chaucer's poetry that invites disagreement on a topic so fundamental and leaves it unamenable to resolution? I want to suggest that those debates respond to a real property of his poetry, something about it that generates the question of a moral agenda but makes it irresolvable. I shall suggest a means for understanding why this is so by examining practices of emendation that Chaucer inherited from medieval grammar traditions. From classical grammatica, medieval practices of linguistic and textual emendation--emendatio--inherited a broader analogy of correction, which made the pedagogical correction of grammar and style, the textual correction of errors, and moral correction so naturally analogous to each other that any distinction between them became difficult to see; often one cannot be sure what kind of correction is under discussion. (3) Chaucer uses this analogy in devising the narrative protocols of the Canterbury Tales, so that correction itself becomes a principle of meaning and design. How he does so suggests why his moral aims have been largely indeterminate: he presses the analogy to the point that the literary and the moral become in effect versions of each other.

Chaucer thus develops a method by which he may consider moral concerns without subordinating his art to those concerns, and it is his Tale of Melibee that most clearly demonstrates this method. To be sure, the Melibee has spent its share of time near the center of those prior debates; the Chaucer pilgrim himself describes the Melibee as "a moral tale vertuous," while the protagonist, Melibeus, requires constant guidance, which must be revisited and re-explained. (4) On the one hand, this persistent need for guidance would seem to serve moral aims, since the didactic message must be spelled out for Melibeus as well as for readers. On the other hand, if the Melibee makes a case for the sentence of the Tales, it is a case made of schoolboy proverbs. If such elementary learning is itself the moral aim, it is hard to see why readers should care about it, and it is hard to see why Melibeus seems chronically unable to apply it. In fact, it may seem an embarrassment to my claim that the best place to perceive this negotiation between the moral and literary is in the Melibee, which many readers have regarded as Chaucer's least successful tale. …

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