- The Sources of Chaucer’s Poetics, and: Chaucerian Aesthetics
Even 610 years after the poet’s death, the works of Geoffrey Chaucer continue to fascinate and instigate new inquiry. Relatively late arrivals in Chaucer criticism have been attempts to deduce and distill the overall principles that may have controlled his writing—those that, in modern parlance, might have determined the “literariness” or “poetic” of his work. However, recent decades have brought several attempts to gather together systematic, and thus symptomatic, practices into a Chaucerian poetic, some highlighting structural features (e.g., Robert M. Jordan), some the shaping influence of oral habits of composition (e.g., Derek Brewer), and yet others the doctrinal pressures that determined both reading and writing (e.g., D. W. Robertson Jr.). Long before these focused efforts to deduce a Chaucerian poetic, however, source or comparative studies, as well as analyses of the oeuvre’s degree of commitment to spiritual, social, or empirical realities, frequently touched upon the issue of an overall poetic: analytic questions inevitably spring from more or less clearly acknowledged general assumptions about the material under inquiry, and so, asking why Chaucer chose, manipulated, imitated, or transmogrified this or that source detail implies a framework, a set of constant principles and practices, even when establishing such a framework is not the principal or even consciously formulated target of investigation.
In approaching a Chaucerian poetic through the poet’s use of sources, Amanda Holton thus develops one feature of earlier source studies and, importantly, renders [End Page 255] it theoretically self-conscious. Holton chooses, in her comparative study, to concentrate upon Chaucerian texts whose sources are easily established and uncontested, a choice Holton finds necessary although it excludes certain types of text from her discussion (fabliau, satire, pp. 1–2). Combining the theories and methodologies of Genette and Chatman, Holton’s first chapter, “‘Narrative,” demonstrates how Chaucer typically focuses upon “essential” source events, chronologically organized, and excludes “inessential” events, while he delights in “existents” and “commentary,” the latter often used in ways that cause tonal or thematic friction. Character portraits are usually given at the beginning and once for all, with source materials being used, but gathered together in one place. A chapter on “Speech” concludes that Chaucer typically assigns speeches mainly to his protagonists with a concomitant reduction of speech attributed to minor characters. Short speeches are minimized, while Chaucer is fond of long speeches, many of which show a particular predilection for the complaint. The chapter “Rhetoric” focuses upon figures relating to narrative function, to the expression of emotion, and to ornamental effect. Figures relating to narrative function generally help control the narrative and readers’ overall perspective, point to omissions from or abbreviations of source texts, indicate Chaucer’s particular affinity with Ovid rather than Virgil, and call attention to the process of storytelling. Chaucer’s closeness to Ovid may be owing to the poets’ joint taste for an affective emphasis, and a look at rhetorical figures of emotion establishes Chaucer’s characteristic pathos. On the other hand, he cuts down on ornamental tropes. The final chapter, “Figurative Language,” concentrates upon Chaucer’s use of metaphor and simile, which typically follows the sources, although Chaucer tends to cut, shorten, and cluster his; he avoids coy or far-fetched tropes (often Ovidian) that may divert attention from story to expression; and when he adds his own figurative expressions, these are highly conventional, even “virtually proverbial” (p. 141).
Holton’s effort to gather strands toward a Chaucerian poetic through textual collation is sympathetic, and her findings on Chaucerian pathos and his affinities with Ovid in preference to Virgil, as well as Chaucer’s complex relation to Boccaccio and Dante, support those of other scholars focusing upon Chaucer’s poetic. Her meticulous and conscientious analysis of the categories of Chaucer’s similes is thorough, well-argued, and useful, and I very much like Holton’s point about Chaucer’s change of Ovid’s textual environment into a...