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Twentieth-Century Chaucer Criticism: Reading Audiences (review)

From: Studies in the Age of Chaucer
Volume 34, 2012
pp. 380-383 | 10.1353/sac.2012.0043

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In this volume, Kathy Cawsey identifies and analyzes major trends over a hundred years of Chaucer criticism through the work of six critics and their conceptions of Chaucer’s audience. As she takes us through a survey that begins with George Lyman Kittredge’s dramatic principle and concludes with Lee Patterson’s new historicism, her insightful judgments and comparative perspective bring into sharp relief the arguments, discussions, and assumptions under which the world of Chaucer criticism has progressed over the last century. The retrospective she provides for her envisioned audience of graduate students offers an overview of the subject, a useful map of the terrain whose peaks and valleys they may not yet have encountered. For those she terms the “more mature scholars” who might read the book, she reveals unexpected similarities between seemingly distinct critical approaches. Over its course, her analysis also raises a series of implicit questions that go to the heart of the practice of literary criticism in general and to Chaucer criticism in particular.

The rationale for the book is to define and analyze what Cawsey terms the “audience function” in the work of the various critics she discusses. She builds her analyses on the plausible theory that in the literary criticism of medieval literature defining an audience means defining a text, in essence drawing parameters for what and how it means. The book focuses on six critics familiar to all Chaucerians—George Lyman Kittredge, C. S. Lewis, E. Talbot Donaldson, D. W. Robertson, Carolyn Dinshaw, and Lee Patterson. In each case, Cawsey’s intelligent analysis reveals that the “audience function” for these critics is essentially a projection of his or her own learning and cultural perspective. For different critics in different cultural circumstances, Chaucer is various things. In one view, he is a universal author accessible to all, a position Kittredge and Donaldson share, although they come to it in very different ways. For Lewis, Robertson, and Patterson, Chaucer is a medieval author whose audience lived within a culture that must now be substantially recovered. For Carolyn Dinshaw, Chaucer and his audience are best understood by reading from the margins and appreciating the multiplicity of perspectives that gender and cultural difference—medieval and modern—bring to a text.

The various chapters of the book provide detailed exposition of each critic’s assumptions about audience, literature, and the past. Kittredge “at once universalizes his own response and assumes a universality of readers” (26) in a medieval world not radically different from ours because, while human culture changes, human nature remains constant. C. S. Lewis “uses the refined and educated nature of his vision of Chaucer’s audience as a defence for his own reading . . . that will allow gentle humour in Chaucer, but nothing that might portray him as mocking or ironizing the courtly ethos in which Lewis situates Chaucer’s writings” (47). E. Talbot Donaldson, in contrast, imagined Chaucer’s audience as “capable of humour, alive to dramatic and structural irony, undisturbed by irreverence” (57). For Donaldson, the “careful” modern reader could prise meaning from a text’s formal and structural elements that would be “more-or-less the same response to the same text” (67) as a medieval reader might have. Donaldson did allow for the semantic instability of language over time, but beyond that concession to cultural change, he regarded historical context as substantially inaccessible. His critical method, famously rooted in his elevation of irony, means that the skeptical “distance” inherent in that mode becomes central to how Chaucer’s audience engaged his texts.

Donaldson’s position was opposed by D. W. Robertson’s contention that truths and aesthetic values deemed universal are “historically contingent and transitory.” Robertson argued that while the re-creation of the past is inherently impossible, some effort to recover culture is necessary to understand how Chaucer’s audience understood his work. The result was Robertsonian criticism, a focusing lens of Christianity, especially the Augustinian doctrine of charity, and an assumption that Chaucer’s medieval audience was used to “reading” both the created world and texts as representative of religious truth. Cawsey points out that for Robertson, Chaucer’s texts were about something more than their surface level, and that...



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