Geoffrey Chaucer, the Critical Heritage

By Derek Brewer | Go to book overview

remembering his debts to Fergusson, Ramsay, and scores of nameless poets. If we are to understand Chaucer, it must be by reference to a tribe of story-tellers, songsters, traffickers in popular lore and moral maxims who, because they did not relate themselves to paper, have almost passed, except by inference, from our ken.


32.

W.M.HART, REALISM, UNITY AND COMIC POETIC JUSTICE

1908

W.M. Hart, while remaining in the tradition of a general humane criticism, was the first American scholar to give serious extended attention to Chaucer’s specifically comic poems on indecent subjects, which he derived from the somewhat similar earlier French comic poems known as fabliaux. Hart makes a detailed comparison between ‘The Reeve’s Tale’ and the French poem ‘Le Meunier et les II Clers’, which both tell the same international popular tale. Hart makes the working hypothesis, without completely committing himself, that ‘Le Meunier’ was the direct source of ‘The Reeve’s Tale’. Hart’s work laid down the future lines of criticism of what it is now usual to call Chaucer’s own fabliaux, with emphasis on realistic description of place and person, unity of time, place and action, poetic justice—in short, the full apparatus of Neoclassical criticism. Hart’s article is very full and long, and it has been necessary to abridge it severely, omitting many examples and footnotes, but retaining the line of argument. Excerpts reprinted by permission of the Modern Language Association of America from The Reeve’s Tale, ‘Publications of the Modern Language Association’ XXIII (1908), pp. 1-44.

THE REEVE ‘S TALE

(p. 10) The fabliaux were ‘destinés à la récitation publique,’ (1) and in the ’Reeve’s Tale’, thanks to its dramatic setting, (2) we seem to have the actual public recitation of a fabliau by one who, though not, indeed, a professional trouvère, is a master of the art of

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