The last time I wrote about Chaucer in these pages, in a review of Paul Strohm’s Chaucer’s Tale (February 2015), I quoted some remarks of Ezra Pound which deserve repetition. Observing that Chaucer wrote “at a time when England was still a part of Europe”—how long ago that seems!—Pound added that “his mind is the mind of Europe, not the mind of an annex or an outlying province.” It is one of the many merits of Marion Turner’s biography, Chaucer: A European Life, that it proves how right Pound was.
Turner’s focus is on Chaucer as a public figure and author, since she believes that “his emotional life . . . is beyond the biographer’s reach.” In this, she is broadly in agreement with Derek Pearsall, the author of the most substantial previous biography (1992), who also refused, in Sherlock Holmes’s phrase, to theorize without data. We cannot tell much about Chaucer’s marriage or family life, although he seems to have had a special fondness for “my little son Lewis,” dedicatee of the Treatise on the Astrolabe. The murky episode of 1380, in which Chaucer was accused of the raptus of Cecily Champaigne, but paid money to avoid a court case, sits uneasily with his popular image; raptus could imply no more than abduction, but is more likely here, as Turner and Pearsall agree, to mean rape. As for Chaucer’s spiritual life, that is as enigmatic as his emotional one, but I feel Turner’s summary of him as “a deeply secular poet” is too restrictive (more on this later).
Turner practices what one might call a good kind of materialist criticism, interested in the impact of social and economic circumstances on the writer’s imagination, as distinct from the bad kind, which sees literature as a passive product of nebulous “forces” that manipulate the writer into being the mouthpiece of a (generally left-wing) political viewpoint, projected anachronistically upon the past. One consequence of Turner’s approach is to shift our understanding of medieval society away from a rigidly hierarchical picture towards one based on the flexible allegiances of competing social groups or interests. Instead of a pyramid, we are invited to think of a Venn diagram. Chaucer’s life is narrated largely in terms of what Turner calls the “microsocieties” to which he belonged: the municipal London ward and the parish in which he was born and grew up, the mercantile trading connections of his father, his school curriculum with its emphasis on debate and rhetoric, the great household in which he began his career of public service in his mid-teens—crossing class boundaries as he did so—and the various enterprises in which he was employed—commercial, political, military, and diplomatic. Preeminent among these groups was the House of Lancaster, with John of Gaunt at its head and Henry Bolingbroke, later Henry IV, as its national incarnation.
Yet even the Lancastrian connection takes its place in a larger scheme, indicated in Turner’s subtitle and Pound’s insight. Repeatedly we are made to realize how foolish it is to see medieval England as isolated from its continental neighbors. For Chaucer and his contemporaries, “Europe” was no monolithic entity, but rather a congeries of kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities, and factions, with porous national boundaries; the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor were the only real constants, and even the papacy was split between Avignon and Rome for the last twenty years of Chaucer’s life. No one growing up in fourteenth-century London could be a little Englander. Chaucer’s father, John, traded with Flanders, and merchant vessels from Gascony, Spain, the Balkans, Hungary, and the Far East docked every day in the nearby port. As a page in a noble household, Chaucer was in daily contact with people of many nationalities; as a teenager, he served abroad in the Hundred Years’ War, was captured, and ransomed by Edward III; as an adult, he was well traveled in Europe, fluent in French and Italian. Hainault and Navarre, neither of which exists today, were as important to him as London; his wife was from a Hainault family, as was Philippa, the king’s wife, and when he traveled to Olite, in Navarre, in 1366, on diplomatic business, “he now saw at first hand,” in Turner’s words, “the operation of a multicultural society,” in which Christians, Jews, and Muslims lived in peaceful confraternity and “accommodations were made to take into account different sets of cultural norms.”
This would be a formative influence on what Turner sees as Chaucer’s great literary innovation: his insistence on perspective and subjectivity, his awareness of multiple viewpoints and concomitant skepticism about claims to absolute authority. In this he departs from Dante, one of his poetic masters, for whom the universe is a wheel whose spokes radiate from the hub of a transcendent God. The difference can be seen in The House of Fame, which is more interested in rumor and gossip than in official statement, and teasingly breaks off just as an unnamed “man of gret auctorite” hoves into view. In the so-called F-prologue to the Legend of Good Women, Chaucer remarks mischievously that no poet has actually been to Heaven or Hell. For him the wellspring of poetry is not divine inspiration but human activity. Pound, again, was on to something in claiming that Chaucer “was more compendious than Dante.”
Turner engages constructively with Paul Strohm’s book, mentioned earlier, but has a more nuanced sense of Chaucer’s political activities. She describes him simply as “a moderate and a Lancastrian,” political in the broad sense that he is interested in the institutions and structures by which power is gained and exercised, and uses them as prompts to poetic exploration, rather than being engagé or propagandist; The Book of the Duchess, with its blatant bid for Gaunt’s approval, was an experiment he did not repeat. Here, too, the issue is one of authority. Perceptions of monarchical power shifted during Chaucer’s lifetime as the role of Parliament became more important. Edward III, in his early days, maintained an open court, and it was there that Chaucer met John of Gaunt, the king’s third surviving son, on whose patronage he came to depend so heavily. While Edward was vigorous and in command, Parliament’s role was subordinate, but in the twilight of the reign, during the 1370s, the national mood altered; the deaths of the Black Prince (the heir to the throne) and the king in quick succession, open criticism of Gaunt, and the jockeying for control of the young Richard II in his minority created a power vacuum and lent more weight to the House of Commons. In the Good Parliament of 1376—the last of Edward’s reign—the Commons ceased to be humble petitioners, becoming instead a body presenting a united front through the innovation of an elected Speaker, thereby gaining more bargaining power. This marked a crucial turning point, reflected, Turner plausibly suggests, not only in Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls where the tercelet acts as Speaker, but also in Book IV of Troilus and Criseyde, which opens with a debate in which the people, rather than the aristocracy, carry the day. It is piquant to note that one of the MPs at the Good Parliament was Harry Bailly, the landlord of the Tabard Inn, Southwark.
Under Richard II, Parliament grew still more assertive, voicing popular dissatisfaction with the king’s favoritism, extravagance, and creation of a personal, quasi-imperial cult which was out of temper with the times. Chaucer’s short poem “Lack of Steadfastness” possibly dating from around the time of the so-called Wonderful Parliament of 1386 (in which Chaucer served as a member for Kent, where he was probably then living), admonishes Richard to be honorable, to fear God, see justice done, “and wed thy folk agein to stedfastnesse.” This Parliament saw the conflict reach dangerous proportions, partly because Gaunt was in Spain and could not exercise a restraining influence. Two years later, the Merciless Parliament assumed the right to condemn Richard’s supporters in its own name, dispensing with both civil and common law in an unprecedented move. If Chaucer had been elected as Gaunt’s man, he had temporarily backed the wrong side, but, as Strohm and Turner make clear, this did no harm to his career. In any case, by 1388 he was out of London, newly widowed, turning his attention to The Canterbury Tales.
Turner comments intermittently on the technical innovations of Chaucer’s poetry. The two early poems, The Book of the Duchess and The House of Fame, are written in octosyllabic lines; it was Boccaccio’s Teseida, probably encountered at Pavia in 1378, which prompted the shift to decasyllables, whether in rhyme royal (The Parliament of Fowls) or couplets (“The Knight’s Tale”). Finally, Turner argues, “through his regularizing of the iambic rhythm, Chaucer . . . invented the iambic pentameter.” While not dissenting from that, I would not want Chaucer to be tidied up too much. Turner’s thirty-six-page bibliography omits, as far as I can see, only a handful of essential works, but two of them by Ian Robinson—Chaucer’s Prosody (1971) and Chaucer and the English Tradition (second edition, 2004)—make the case for a more flexible approach to metrics than academic convention dictates (the second book also contains some of the best literary criticism of Chaucer). By the time he came to write The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer, like Shakespeare, could make his medium do anything he wanted—and (again like Shakespeare) he wrote for the ear as much as the eye.
Some of Turner’s comments on the Tales are familiar: their difference from Boccaccio or Gower in featuring “tellers from different social backgrounds,” permitting multiple perspectives and a kind of polyphony; their artful way of making different genres comment on one other. This is a restatement of the idea of Chaucer as a “Gothic” writer, put into circulation years ago by Derek Brewer. Turner’s observations on the starting point of the journey, the Tabard Inn, are more striking. The inn is suburban, on the less respectable side of the Thames, its name signifying a garment but also a brewer’s tank. Inns come top in the hierarchy of medieval drinking establishments, being a species of hotel, “the successor to the schoolroom as a place of debate, argument, and social mixing.” Harry Bailly, as already mentioned, was an MP, and also a tax collector, coroner, and associate of brothel owners. (Indeed, the first known owners of Canterbury Tales and Troilus and Criseyde manuscripts were both hosteliers and managers of brothels.) In a neat example of Turner’s theme of “microsocieties,” it turns out that the Tabard was owned by the Abbot of Hyde, who collected its rent. The pilgrims embark on a journey that moves with calculated vagueness through the peripheries of the Kent countryside to Canterbury and (at least in intention) back again—the paradigmatic pilgrimage of medieval romance (and Shakespearean comedy), which is psychological as well as geographical, going away only to return with new understanding of the self and the world.
It’s worth dwelling on the Chaucer/Shakespeare comparison. Both of them have left few biographical traces beyond official records and legal documents. Both were merchants’ sons. Both supplemented their school educations with extensive reading in foreign languages. Both began life in the service of aristocrats, albeit in very different ways. Both figured as witnesses in lawsuits which provide rare glimpses of personal testimony. Both disappear from the records for a period of some years, in Chaucer’s case, between 1360 and 1366. Both used the English language with unprecedented freedom, in literary works of a formal and generic innovativeness amounting to genius. Crucially, Shakespeare read Chaucer, and is more akin to him than to Ben Jonson; he is drawn towards the medieval as territory where he feels at home. Although Chaucer is a poet rather than a playwright, he is a poet with an instinctively dramatic imagination who thinks in scenic terms. Shakespeare saw the last surviving performances of the medieval mystery cycle at Coventry, and these, together with the plays of Kyd and Marlowe, taught him much about stagecraft, but perhaps Chaucer taught him more about character and dialogue. Did conversation, as distinct from debate or declamation, figure in any English poetry before Chaucer? I can’t think of any—and certainly not of conversation so sharply individuated. We feel we have a more intimate sense of Chaucer’s personality than we do of Shakespeare’s. Pound was even willing to say that “Chaucer had a deeper knowledge of life than Shakespeare,” although I don’t know how, or if, that could be measured. It must be remembered, however, that the “I” of Chaucer’s poetry, as of Shakespeare’s sonnets, is itself—at least to an extent—another character, a rhetorical construct, from which we should be wary of making picturesque biographical inferences.
I quoted at the beginning Turner’s opinion that Chaucer was “a secular poet.” This is often said of Shakespeare too, but I am unhappy about the description in both cases. If “secular” means “not religious,” the adjective is certainly wrong. Ian Robinson shrewdly observes that both Chaucer and Shakespeare used ostensibly pagan or classical settings to treat theological matters obliquely. Chaucer writes of the world (saeculum), and is a worldly man, but not necessarily a worldling. At the end of Troilus and Criseyde, Troilus looks down from the afterlife upon the human race, and bursts into laughter. This is followed by a solemn injunction to young people to forsake vanity and turn to God. It is inadequate of Turner to remark Chaucer’s debts to Boethius and Dante here, and to conclude that he is merely assembling “an anxious buildup of conventional tropes” which deprive the poem of “satisfactory closure.” Robinson seems nearer the mark in wondering whether this is “the only passage in Chaucer of overt and genuine first-person Christian feeling.”
Turner’s treatment of “The Parson’s Tale” and the Retractions is more positive. While insisting that “the voice of the Retractions is not an authentic confessional Chaucer” she allows that “his leavetaking is nonetheless connected to the ageing poet coming to the end of his work,” and that “there is certainly no reason to think that his request for prayers from his readers is not genuine.” Derek Pearsall emphasized the range of religious writing in the Tales: satire of ecclesiastical corruption, depiction of affective devotion, vindication of faith in a world of tribulation and deceit. This last category, Pearsall adds, is markedly focused upon women—yet another anticipation of Shakespeare, this time of his late plays. For Pearsall, “The Parson’s Tale” is “the expression of a deep and orthodox piety,” devoid of irony or self-dramatization, and the Retractions are “Chaucer’s own act of satisfaction,” in response to the Parson’s call to repentance. There is a wide gap between this view and Turner’s more sophisticated (but not thereby better) reading of Chaucer resisting “closure.”
One can certainly agree that Chaucer was not a visionary in the mold of Dante, or of his contemporary William Langland. He is not flamboyant. John of Gaunt’s circle included the so-called Lollard knights, sympathetic to the reformist ideas of Wycliffe (not at this point seen as openly heretical); in a rare moment of speculation, Turner surmises that Chaucer “may well” have shared their sentiments. The edition of Chaucer which Shakespeare read contained several apocryphal poems, including the markedly Lollard “Plowman’s Tale,” and Chaucer was wrongly believed to have been a pupil of Wycliffe’s at Oxford. Elizabethan Protestants would hail him, mistakenly, as a forefather. Lollards, however, disapproved of pilgrimages and the veneration of saints. Chaucer, one can assume, was an orthodox Catholic. His last months were spent in a house in the gardens of Westminster Abbey. The fact that he was buried in the Abbey, rather than at his parish church, St Margaret’s, is striking; as Turner says, he was not buried there because he was a poet, since Poets’ Corner did not yet exist. (When it was created, his tomb was moved.) The explanation seems to be that the monks regarded him as a close associate.
Chaucer must have hoped for favors from Henry IV, whose Lancastrian cause he had supported all his life. “The Complaint of Chaucer to his Purse” can be dated after Henry’s coronation in September 1399, and petitions for the back payment of Chaucer’s annuity by the “conquerour of Brutes Albyon,/ Which that by lyne and free eleccion/ Been verray king,” a close echo of Henry’s own claims to his title. Whether the poem was actually sent or not, Chaucer was dead within the year. Of his children, “little Lewis,” born around 1380, disappears from sight; there is some slight evidence associating him with Oxford. His daughter Elizabeth became a nun (although Pearsall questions whether this girl was actually Chaucer’s daughter). His elder son Thomas, who had been retained for life by Gaunt, profited in the new reign, marrying well, becoming a rich landowner, and being several times Speaker of the Commons. The last direct descendant died in 1539—one final parallel with Shakespeare, whose line is also extinct.
Marion Turner has done a magnificent job. Her account is not strictly chronological, but readers are assisted by an index running to fifty pages, one of the best I have seen in an academic book: a spot check has revealed not a single error. Apart from Ian Robinson, the only serious omission from her bibliography is the late J. A. W. Bennett, whose monographs on The Parliament of Fowls (1957) and The House of Fame (1968) still have much to teach us, while his Chaucer at Oxford and at Cambridge (1974) throws light on the tales of the Miller and the Reeve, and incidentally shows that Chaucer knew those two places and their universities very well. These, however, are minor quibbles. I do not expect to see this biography superseded.
1 Chaucer: A European Life, by Marion Turner; Princeton University Press, 600 pages, $39.95.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 9, on page 64
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