Chaucer's Tale, Badly Told

By Juster, A. M. | The American Conservative, July/August 2019 | Go to article overview

Chaucer's Tale, Badly Told


Juster, A. M., The American Conservative


Chaucer's Tale, Badly Told Chaucer: A European Life, Marion Turner, Princeton University Press, 624 pages

The first sentence of the epilogue to Marion Turner's biography of Geoffrey Chaucer (ca. 13421400) aptly summarizes the poet's legacy: "Chaucer became a monumental poet, enclosed in a monumental tomb, with monumental volumes of his Complete Works functioning as the bedrock of the English national canon." Among his achievements, he invented iambic pentameter, a meter so dominant that all poets writing in English must either embrace it or reject it.

Inspired by the vernacular works of Boccaccio, Dante, and Petrarch, Chaucer made the radical move from writing poetry in French to writing poetry in English. Boccaccio's Decameron was also a model in other ways for Chaucer's immortal Canterbury Tales, perhaps most notably with its realistic portrayals of people outside of the nobility. These portrayals continue to enchant and puzzle readers; "Chaucer Doth Tweet," which comments on pop culture in Middle English, reaches over 89,000 Twitter followers.

Turner, an associate professor of English at the University of Oxford, exaggerates when she refers to a "Chaucer biography industry," but it is true that significant documentary evidence about his life has encouraged biographers. The first of several dozen biographies is John Leland's brief 1540 biography in Latin; the most recent is the 2015 book by one of Turner's Oxford colleagues, Paul Strohm.

Documents detailing Chaucer's activities provide us with an arc that begins with his birth around 1342 and ends with his death in 1400. His father was a successful London merchant who provided a solid early schooling for his son, but no college education. Chaucer became fluent in French, Latin, and Italian, which was useful when he went to work in the household of a powerful nobleman at about the age of 15. A few years later he became a soldier for the king and briefly a hostage in France. With his skills-intelligence and tact-he spent much of the rest of his life in direct or indirect service to English kings and nobles.

After his return from France, Chaucer married a lady-in-waiting from a well-connected family; they had two sons and a daughter. His oldest son, Thomas, married into a wealthy family and amassed land and other wealth that dwarfed his father's ample resources. His daughter, Elizabeth, entered a nunnery through a direct order of the king and then joined Barking Abbey, the preeminent nunnery. There is little known about Chaucer's trailer child, Lewis, except that the poet clearly doted on his son.

Turner's biography is avowedly nonlinear: "I've chosen to tell the story of his life and his poetry through spaces and places, rather than through strict chronology," she writes.

Each chapter focuses on a particular space that mattered in Chaucer's life, as I attempt to recreate multiple kinds of environment. Some are actual places. Some represent contemporary structures that mattered both socially and in the contemporary imagination, such as the Great Household or the Inn. Others are more abstract and draw on key metaphors used by Chaucer, such as the Cage or the Threshold. In every case, my aim in exploring the space is to find out more about Chaucer's imaginative development-as opposed to his emotional life, which I believe is beyond the biographer's reach.

Exploring the broader context of a poet's life can work well. For instance, in her 2016 biography of Catullus, Daisy Dunn skillfully drew on her broad knowledge of Roman history and culture to provide useful contexts for the poet's life.

Turner's biography falls far short of the Dunn standard because it is poorly written, poorly organized, and poorly conceived. Better copy editing could have resolved some of the problems, such as the random substitution of colons for semicolons, excessive use of the passive voice, dangling participles, incomplete sentences, and run-on sentences that lack parallelism. …

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