Geoffrey Chaucer, the Critical Heritage

By Derek Brewer | Go to book overview

There are also dangers arising from being too sure that one knows what ‘genuine poetry’ is.


51.

ALFRED EDWARD HOUSMAN, SENSITIVE FIDELITY TO NATURE

1933

A.E. Housman (1859-1936), was educated at St John’s College, Oxford. Classical scholar, poet and textual critic, he was Professor of Latin in the University of Cambridge, 1911-36. Like Eliot (No. 50) Housman approaches Chaucer through Dryden, and by implication praises Chaucer’s ‘sensitive fidelity to nature’ and his capacity to express human feeling, revealing a genuine response to the ‘realistic’ side of Chaucer’s genius, and a not incomparable wit. The comment is reprinted from ‘The Name and Nature of Poetry’ Cambridge University Press (1933), pp. 22-5, by permission of the Society of Authors as literary representative for the Estate of the late A.E. Housman.

(p. 22) [Eighteenth-century style] was in truth at once pompous and poverty-stricken. It had a very limited, because supposedly choice, vocabulary, and was consequently unequal to the multitude and refinement of its duties. It could not describe natural objects with sensitive fidelity to nature; it could not express human feelings with a variety and delicacy answering to their own. A thick, stiff, unaccommodating medium was interposed between the writer and his work. And this deadening of language had a consequence betyond its own sphere: its effect worked inward, and deadened perception. That which could no longer be described was no longer noticed.

The features and formation of the style can be studied under a cruel light in Dryden’s translations from Chaucer. The Knight’s Tale of Palamon and Arcite is not one of Chaucer’s most characteristic and successful poems: he is not perfectly at home, as in the Prologue and the tale of Chauntecleer and Pertelote, and his movement is a trifle languid. Dryden’s translation shows Dryden in the maturity of his power and accomplishment, and much of it can

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