'The Poet's Tale: Chaucer and the Year That Made the Canterbury Tales', by Paul Strohm - Review

By Leith, Sam | The Spectator, January 17, 2015 | Go to article overview

'The Poet's Tale: Chaucer and the Year That Made the Canterbury Tales', by Paul Strohm - Review


Leith, Sam, The Spectator


The Poet's Tale: Chaucer and The Year that Made the Canterbury Tales Paul Strohm

Profile Books, pp.284, £15.99, ISBN: 97817812505945

Proust had his cork-lined bedroom; Emily Dickinson her Amherst hidey-hole; Mark Twain a gazebo with magnificent views of New York City. Where, then, did the father of English poetry do his work? From 1374 till 1386, while employed supervising the collection of wool-duties, Chaucer was billeted in a grace-and-favour bachelor pad in the tower directly above Aldgate, the main eastern point of entry to the walled city of London.

'Grace and favour' makes it sound grander than it was. With the help of a wonderfully ingenious pattern of inferences -- in particular an architectural drawing from 200 years later which happened to include a sketch of Aldgate's north tower at its margins -- Paul Strohm is able to reconstruct the room in which, after a long day weighing bags of wool and writing down columns of figures, Geoffrey Chaucer retired to scratch away at his verse.

Chaucer occupied a single bare room of about 16' x 14'. The only natural light would come from 'two (or at most four) arrow slits' tapering through the five-foot thickness of these walls (the towers were a defensive feature) to an external aperture of four or five inches. 'Light, even at midday, would have been extremely feeble. Arrangement for a small fire might have been possible. Waste would be hand-carried down to the ditch that lapped against the tower and dumped there.'

You can imagine how cosy it was in winter. And the noise! Chaucer slept directly over the main London thoroughfare. Every morning at first light the portcullis would go rattling up, and thereafter 'the creak of iron-wheeled carts in and out of the city, drovers' calls, and the hubbub of merchants and travellers pressing for advantage on a wide but still one-laned road, probably made sleep impossible, five-foot walls or no five-foot walls'. That's if he could hear anything over the incessant bong-bonging of bells from each of the three churches within a couple of hundred feet of his front door.

Meanwhile 'a stench wafted from the open sewer known in its northern extension as Houndsditch that ran (or festered) just outside the city wall'; Houndsditch was so called because of the many dead dogs dumped there. In addition to rotting garbage, dead dogs, and faecal waste from the next-door Holy Trinity Priory ('a populous foundation', Strohm tells us jauntily), you'd find 'the occasional human corpse'. 'And then,' Strohm adds with excellent tact, 'there was the matter of felons' and traitors' rotting heads...' This was an occupational hazard of living in a gatehouse tower. On the other hand, there was a nice view from the roof...

It's a great vindication of Strohm's project that we are able to gain so vivid a sense of how Chaucer would have fared in one of those 'Writers' Rooms' features. And that is, in very large part, the point: Strohm's is one of that mini-genre of books that take a single decisive year in the life of a writer and use it as a window onto their world. The prototype, I guess -- what our man would have called 'myn auctor' -- is James Shapiro, with his 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare (2005). Shapiro had a hard row to hoe: there's a lot we don't know about Shakespeare. Strohm has a harder: there's almost nothing we do know about Chaucer the man or Chaucer the poet. Every scrap of contemporaneous evidence -- there are 493 documents gathered in Chaucer Life-Records (1966) -- relates to his public life. You'd know from no contemporary record that he was a poet.

Even reading back from the work into the life can be done with little or no confidence. For all the slanginess of his presentation, Strohm is too fastidious a scholar to cross that line. He's at pains to remind us of how wired into literary convention Chaucer was. So he allows himself -- in the context of Chaucer's living apart from his wife -- a page and a half noting how negative the portrayals of marriage are throughout the works ('to speke of wo that is in marriage'); before pulling back to remind us that 'literary tradition rather than veiled autobiography seems to undergird most of Chaucer's antimarital sentiments'. …

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