Older Masters: Essays and Reflections on English and American Literature

By Donald Davie | Go to book overview

1
Chaucer and One Idea of Englishness

Before I read Ian Robinson's Chaucer and the English Tradition, I had thought that its title meant something like "The Chaucerian Tradition in English Poetry". I looked forward to essays which would ask what justification there is, if any, for using the word 'Chaucerian' of later poets so different as George Crabbe and Robert Browning. Such essays, if they were well done, would interest me a great deal. Instead what I found was four pieces on supposedly 'early' Chaucer ( The Book of the Duchess, The House of Fame, and The Parliament of Fowls); then an essay on Troilus and Criseyde, followed by six on various parts of The Canterbury Tales; and in a last section, an article on Piers Plowman, one on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, one on the Scottish Chaucerians, one on Dante, and two last chapters (both very good) called respectively "Chaucer and criticism" and "Chaucer the father". This page of contents certainly takes care of the first half of Ian Robinson's title; but what, I asked myself, had happened to ,the English tradition'? Having read the book, I recognize what has happened to it, and how it has been taken care of — in parenthetical asides and momentary cross-lightings, comparing Chaucer with some of his successors; comparisons which are blankly asserted, provocative at first but later predictable, comparisons asserted or assumed, but not argued for. I see that I was very na`ve, not only in looking for names so out of fashion as Crabbe's or Browning's, but also in overlooking the definite article: the English tradition — there is only one, and the name that presides over it more insistently than any other is (wait for it!) D.H. Lawrence.

Already I must apologize. When Ian Robinson takes issue with other critics, he does it with burly good humour and hard-hitting but real civility. And I had promised myself that I would observe the same proprieties with him. But it's no good: the part of his book that corresponds to 'the English tradition' seems to me simply outlandish, of an eccentricity that can be acknowledged only by a flurry of astonished exclamation-marks. What else can one do with a comment on "The Knight's Tale": ' Chaucer may show in this tale a tragic truth that we need to complement Lawrence, or Shakespeare, or Sophocles'? Or — a more sinister example — what but exclamation-

-7-

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