Geoffrey Chaucer, the Critical Heritage

By Derek Brewer | Go to book overview

41.

CAROLINE F.E.SPURGEON, CRITICS OF CHAUCER JUDGE THEMSELVES NOT HIM

1925

Caroline F.E. Spurgeon (1869-1942) was educated at King’s College and University College, London, and was Professor of English Literature in the University of London, 1913-29. She enormously added to the collection of references to Chaucer which was initiated by Speght in 1598 (see Vol. 1, No. 53), and which had been continued by other scholars, to create the massive and fundamental collection of five hundred years of Chaucer criticism and allusion to which modern scholarship and this present work in particular are so greatly indebted. In her long Introduction her own critical appreciations are unoriginal, but a real sense of historical relativity is introduced into the criticism, leading to the gentle but profoundly sceptical reflection that criticism tells us more about the critic than about the writer he claims to discuss. A history of appreciation is sketched, and it is suggested that a feeling for nature and a sense of humour are modern developments. This comment is reprinted from ‘Five Hundred Years of Chaucer Criticism and Allusion 1357-1900’, 3 vols, Cambridge University Press (1925), I, cxxiv-cxxvii, cxxix-cxxxv, cxxxviii-cxxxix, by permission of Messrs Crofts & Ingram and Wyatt & Co.

As we watch this vast company of writers passing before Chaucer, and leaving on record their opinion of him, it is curious to reflect that the criticism Chaucer has received throughout these five centuries in reality forms a measurement of judgment—not of him—but of his critics. Just as we trace the development of the mind of an individual by studying his opinions and works at different periods of his life, so it would seem that in looking at this ever-shifting procession of critics we can trace the development of the mind and spirit of the nation to which they belong. We know that as individuals our taste changes and fluctuates from youth to age; the favourite authors of our youth are not, as a rule, the favourites of middle age, or, if they are, we like them for other qualities, they make another appeal to us. Similarly, we can here watch the taste of a nation changing and fluctuating; Chaucer is now liked for one quality, now for another,

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