Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Chaucer at Large: The Poet in the Modern Imagination

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Chaucer at Large: The Poet in the Modern Imagination

Article excerpt

Steve Ellis, Chaucer at Large: The Poet in the Modern Imagination, Medieval Cultures 24 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000). xiv + 204 pp. ISBN 0-8166-3376-2. $29.95.

Where in the last 150 years do we find Chaucer at large (i.e. outside universities)? Why is it that when Shakespeare won BBC Radio 4's Today poll for the `person of the Past] millennium', Chaucer (arguably the second greatest poet in the English language) did not even make the shortlist? Steve Ellis richly documents and pointedly analyses the recent public reception history of Chaucer. He explores a range of reasons for the `relative obscuring of Chaucer in our culture at large', including `the difficulties of iddle English, Chaucer's appropriation by academics, the counterattraction of Dante, the absence of patriotism, a patronizing attitude toward him from later writers, and an inability to function as a novelistic "hero"'. The penultimate feature here is particularly odious: it struck me repeatedly how much more aware, complex, `grown-up;, verbally agile, and sheerly intelligent Chaucer was than the many prim or supercilious commentators of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who condescendingly appraised his happy-go-lucky or childlike innocence.

Ellis traces the many varied Chaucers who have been read (heard or seen), including the Pre-Raphaelite nature poet; the Chestertonian English gentleman with his `self-effacing sociability'; the bluff, no-nonsense companion; the cheerful poet; the post-Second World War bawdy musical backslapper; and the all-purpose heritage door-keeper to basket-weaving, archery, and other mildly educational weekend dress-up entertainments. Chaucer is multifarious and hard to locate in any one place - that is part of his greatness, as with Shakespeare, though that does not prevent the Bard from being popularly valued for his variety, whereas the latter-day crudification of the capacious range of Chaucer has reduced him almost entirely to a T-shirt icon of bums and farts - resounding as I write at the very end of the latest medieval romp, the film A Knight's Tale. …

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