Chaucer Speaks: Memoirs of the Man?

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


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


Minor Work Short Work Literary Convention Literal Reading Public Voice 
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    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
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    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
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    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
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© Geoffrey W. Gust 2009

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  • Geoffrey W. Gust

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