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Chaucer Speaks: Memoirs of the Man?

  • Geoffrey W. Gust
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)

Abstract

Since the classical period, poetry and morality have been intricately linked. As Horace noted, poets seek either to delight or profit, to entertain or benefit.3 Arguably, the moral dimension that has been a defining feature of literary writing since the Greeks is especially prominent in the Middle English corpus. The late Middle Ages was a time of profound political change, scholastic growth, and theological questioning, which led exegetes and poets alike to examine the ethics of the period. Chaucer was no exception. Although his verse is more varied in its content and approach than that of most late medieval poets, there is no doubt that moral concerns are at the very center of Chaucer’s major works. This is obvious, for example, throughout the Canterbury Tales, where the author “himself” tells us that he will offer stories “of best sentence and moost solaas,” as well as tales of “moralitee and hoolynesse.”4 In a similar vein the minor works, which are the focus of this chapter, characteristically were written with an eye toward moral issues. Hence, in the texts under consideration below, the I-narrator not only laments “that al is lost for lak of stedfastnesse” but in Chaucer’s Retraction even goes so far as to revoke his “translacions and enditynges of worldly vanities” and seek remembrance for works of “moralitee, and devocioun” alone.5

Keywords

Minor Work Short Work Literary Convention Literal Reading Public Voice 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 1.
    Steven Connor, “The Ethics of the Voice,” in Critical Ethics: Text, Theory and Responsibility, ed. Dominic Rainsford and Tim Woods (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999), p. 235 [220–237]. 2. Tobin Siebers, The Ethics of Criticism (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988), p. 2.Google Scholar
  2. 7.
    Dominic Rainsford and Tim Woods, “Introduction: Ethics and Intellectuals,” in Critical Ethics, Rainsford and Woods, p. 4 [1–19].Google Scholar
  3. 8.
    Wayne Booth, The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), p. 421. 9. Alfred David, “Chaucer’s Good Counsel to Scogan,” Chaucer Review 3.4 (1969): 266 [265–274].Google Scholar
  4. 27.
    John Scattergood, “Old Age, Love, and Friendship in Chaucer’s Envoy to Scogan, ” Nottingham Medieval Studies 35 (1991): 99 [92–101]. See also Scattergood, “The Short Poems,” p. 510.Google Scholar
  5. 31.
    As Paul Strohm has noted, “the dedicatee of a poem is not necessarily the sole member of its implied audience, or even very close to the center of that audience,” which makes the scholarly search for Chaucer and his friends in/surrounding this work (and others like it) an even more difficult critical task. See Strohm, “Chaucer’s Audience(s): Fictional, Implied, Intended, Actual,” Chaucer Review 18.2 (1983): 141 [137–145]. Strohm’s view apparently was influenced by Anne Middleton’s notion of “public poetry,” which describes a common poetic voice in the vernacular that “defined man as a social being, and unlike its private counterpart, was turned outward to public expression” and “is offered not as the realization of an individual identity, but as the realization of the human condition.” See Middleton, “The Idea of Public Poetry in the Reign of Richard II,” Speculum 53 (1978): 96, 109 [94–114].Google Scholar
  6. 33.
    Carolyn Dinshaw, Chaucer’s Sexual Poetics (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), pp. 3–4.Google Scholar
  7. 66.
    Sumner Ferris, “The Date of Chaucer’s Final Annuity and the ‘Complaint to His Empty Purse,’ ” Modern Philology 65.1 (1967): 46 [45–52].Google Scholar
  8. 68.
    Andrew J. Finnel, “The Poet as Sunday Man: ‘The Complaint of Chaucer to His Purse,’ ” Chaucer Review 8.2 (1973): 150, 151 [147–158].Google Scholar
  9. 79.
    David Marshall, “Unmasking the Last Pilgrim: How and Why Chaucer Used the Retraction to Close The Tales of Canterbury,” Christianity and Literature 31 (1982): 72 [55–74].Google Scholar
  10. 80.
    Joseph A. Dane, Who Is Buried in Chaucer’s Tomb?: Studies in the Reception of Chaucer’s Book (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1998), p. 102. Trigg echoes Dane’s comments, adding that “the problems in reading the Retraction show how deeply implicated are questions of reception and transmission with the earliest response to the text, how hard it is to draw that secure line between (authorial) text and (editorial and critical) commentary, and how difficult it is to read Chaucer’s texts as completely closed.” See Trigg, Congenial Souls, p. 71. 81. On these various points, see James D. Gordon, “Chaucer’s Retraction: A Review of Opinion,” in Studies in Medieval Literature in Honor of Professor Albert Croll Baugh, ed. MacEdward Leach (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1961), pp. 81–96; and Douglas Wurtele, “The Penitence of Geoffrey Chaucer,” Viator 11 (1980): 335–359.Google Scholar
  11. 82.
    See Spurgeon, Five Hundred Years of Chaucer Criticism, 1:1.307. 83. See Brewer, Chaucer: The Critical Heritage, 1:319.Google Scholar
  12. 86.
    J. M. Manly, ed., Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (New York: H. Holt, 1928), p. 656.Google Scholar
  13. 87.
    James Work, “Chaucer’s Sermon and Retractions,” Modern Language Notes 47.4 (1932): 257–259.Google Scholar
  14. 88.
    Charles A. Owen, Jr., The Manuscripts of the Canterbury Tales (Cambridge, UK: D. S. Brewer, 1991), p. 125.Google Scholar
  15. 89.
    Owen specifically refers to the Parson’s “treatise” as the “Treatise on Penitence.” See Charles A. Owen, Jr., “What the Manuscripts Tell Us about the Parson’s Tale,” Medium Aevum 63.2 (1994): 239 [239–249]. Lee Patterson similarly considers the function of the Parson’s Tale and Retraction as a penitential manual or treatise on penitence; see Patterson, “The ‘Parson’s Tale’ and the Quitting of the ‘Canterbury Tales,’ ” Traditio 34 (1978): 331–380.Google Scholar
  16. 90.
    Larry D. Benson, “The Order of the Canterbury Tales,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 3 (1981): 80–81 [77–120]. 91. Míċeál F. Vaughan, “Creating Comfortable Boundaries: Scribes, Editors, and the Invention of the Parson’s Tale,” in Rewriting Chaucer: Culture, Authority and the Idea of the Authentic Text, 1400–1602, ed. Thomas A Prendergast and Barbara Kline (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1999), pp. 46, 47, 51 [45–90].Google Scholar
  17. 95.
    Olive Sayce, “Chaucer’s Retractions: The Conclusion of the Tales and Its Place in Literary Tradition,” Medium Aevum 40.3 (1971): 232, 233 [230–248]. Sayce explains that this type of text often served the purpose of recapitulation to capture the listener’s sympathy, and included the motifs of reemphasizing the moral message, admonishing sinners to take heed, offering prayers and requests for intercession, and mentioning the poet’s name and the title of the work.Google Scholar
  18. 98.
    Schricker, “On the Relation,” 24. Schricker also claims that in no other of his endings is the speaker so manifestly Chaucer himself, nor the motivation for speaking so profound as personal salvation (p. 14). 99. In making this point, I am drawing from Obermeier’s History and Anatomy of Auctorial Self-Criticism in the European Middle Ages, p. 17.Google Scholar
  19. 100.
    See William A. Madden, “Chaucer’s Retraction and Mediaeval Canons of Seemliness,” Mediaeval Studies 17 (1955): 178–179, 182, 184 [173–184]. 101. Gregory Roper, “Dropping the Personae and Reforming the Self: The Parson’s Tale and the End of the Canterbury Tales,” in Closure in the Canterbury Tales: The Role of the Parson’s Tale, ed. David Raybin and Linda Harte Holley (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute, 2000), pp. 173, 174 [151–175].Google Scholar
  20. 102.
    Gordon, “Chaucer’s Retraction,” 93. More specifically, Gordon contends, Gower’s supposed advice to Chaucer in (the first recension of) the Confessio is initiated by Venus, who urges Gower to encourage his friend to resign himself to his age and write his final “testament of love.” For reference, see The Works of John Gower, ed. G. C. Macaulay, 2.8.2941–2957.Google Scholar
  21. 103.
    Judith Ferster, Chaucer on Interpretation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), pp. 155, 156.Google Scholar
  22. 104.
    Ferster, Chaucer on Interpretation, p. 156. George Petty and Peter W. Travis are among those who likewise offer theoretical readings of the Retraction. Petty wonders if the Retraction is a sort of “performative misinterpretation” that would permit Chaucer to escape the final condemnation of a Christian judgment against his soul for the sinfulness of his creations. Travis, meanwhile, sees the Retraction as a Derridean “parergon” that raises questions about its own status, as well as the status of the poetry it frames—the prose seems to reside inside and outside of the Tales, serving as both marginal gloss without and essential constituent within. See George R. Petty, Jr., “Power, Deceit, and Misinterpretation: Uncooperative Speech in the Canterbury Tales,” Chaucer Review 27.4 (1993): 413–423; and Peter W. Travis, “Deconstructing Chaucer’s Retraction,” Exemplaria 3.1 (1991): 135–158.Google Scholar
  23. 105.
    Elizabeth Fowler discusses how Chaucer evokes certain (conventional) “social persons” in the Retraction, and thus “presents us with a process of ethical deliberation.” See Elizabeth Fowler, Literary Character: The Human Figure in Early English Writing (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003), p. 90.Google Scholar
  24. 109.
    Tony Davenport, Medieval Narrative: An Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 268.Google Scholar

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© Geoffrey W. Gust 2009

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  • Geoffrey W. Gust

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