Geoffrey Chaucer, the Critical Heritage

By Derek Brewer | Go to book overview

49.

GILBERT KEITH CHESTERTON, NEVER A LESS TYPICAL POET

1933

G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936), educated at St Paul’s School, London and at the Slade School of Art, was a man of letters, novelist, poet, and journalist. His entertaining evocation of a cheerful, Christian, patient Chaucer, both spiritual and practical, is an agreeably old-fashioned exercise in literary appreciation, which establishes with penetration some differences between Chaucer and modern literary culture. Reprinted from ‘All I Survey’ (1933), pp. 174-8, by permission of Miss D. Collins.

On Mr. Geoffrey Chaucer

The challenge of Chaucer is that he is our one medieval poet, for most moderns; and he flatly contradicts all that they mean by medieval. Aged and crabbed historians tell them that medievalism was only filth, fear, gloom, self-torture and torture of others. Even medievalist aesthetes tell them it was chiefly mystery, solemnity and care for the supernatural to the exclusion of the natural. Now Chaucer is obviously less like this than the poets after the Renaissance and the Reformation. He is obviously more sane even than Shakespeare; more liberal than Milton; more tolerant than Pope; more humorous than Wordsworth; more social and at ease with men than Byron or even Shelley. Nay, some have doubted whether he is not still more humane that the very latest humanists; whether his geniality does not exceed the rosy optimism of Aldous Huxley or the ever-bubbling high spirits of T.S. Eliot.

Chaucer was, above all, an artist; and he was one of that fairly large and very happy band of artists who are not troubled with the artistic temperament. Perhaps there was never a less typical poet, as a poet was understood in the Byronic tradition of dark passions and tempestuous raiment. But, indeed, that Byronic generalization was largely founded upon Byron, or rather, on a blunder about Byron. It would be much truer to say that practically every type of human being has been also a poet, and that Byron was a Regency Buck plus poetry. Similarly, Goethe was a German professor plus poetry, and Browning was a

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