- Chaucer: Contemporary Approaches
In the Preface to his recent collection of essays, the Yale Companion to Chaucer, Seth Lerer notes ‘there is no dearth of Companions to Chaucer’: Chaucer has become indeed ‘something of an industry’. Susanna Fein and David Raybin, editors of Chaucer: Contemporary Approaches, promote this general enterprise extravagantly as a ‘renaissance of new collections … attesting to an esprit in the scholarly community’. Inevitably, however, they face the same question Lerer imagines: ‘Why … produce another assembly of essays?’
The first problem of a Companion’s editor, then, becomes its orientation. Fein and Raybin claim to address the specialist less than an undetermined audience of ‘thoughtful readers’. Their collection is sponsored by Chaucer Review; it will present, therefore, a modern scholarly history and invite its readers ‘to engage with present Chaucerian discussion points of most contention, innovation, and promise’. And these essays too will serve as a ‘blueprint for Chaucer studies in the future’.
Chaucer: Contemporary Approaches does have a certain advantage over its competitors – its economy. Its eleven essays are impressively concise accounts of current thinking on issues that place Chaucer’s achievement. They seem more angled, more provisional than most performances in this scholarly genre. My reservations about the volume have less to do with the essays than with its general perspective, represented in the list of topics the contributors were asked to discuss, which seems to have been shaped by the tradition laid down in the Rowlands and Boitani/Mann collections. Modern scholarship here mostly stays within established frames, while re-conceiving the character of issues addressed, typically emphasizing the problematic.
So Chaucer’s relation to France and Italy gets discussed in a sequence that actually challenges the traditional history of Chaucer’s influences as he heads towards Englishness; Italy (Robert Edwards) means a ‘transformative encounter’, but never fully comprehended, and the gaps and failures are telling; France (Ardis Butterfield) is not just French sources, but a deep experience of a language that is both native – English, in fact – and not fully possessed, since in some sense it comes from elsewhere. The dream poems (A. C. Spearing) lose their familiar purchase in French sources that underwrite an apparent visionary status, leading instead to emphasis on the fractured experience of dreaming itself. Chaucer’s fabliaux get submerged in a larger question, humour (Laura Kendrick). The gain is immediate since it takes analysis beyond formalism to the psychic moves performed by humour [End Page 206] when it employs incongruities, social reversals, and the kind of refocusing that Bakhtin notes: ‘everything that makes us laugh is close at hand.’ Critical attention to perspective shifts does much to explain the comic force of many textual moments, notably ‘The General Prologue’.
The only text that actually gets designated as a topic for discussion – unlike practice in most other Companions – is the dream poem. Other texts do get discussed in exemplary applications of arguments made by these writers about Chaucer’s practice, as when Karla Taylor analyses discursive collisions in The Reeve’s Tale in order to demonstrate how language studies can serve literary interests. Taylor makes a fine point, but also engages with a larger issue, the study of language as also ‘the study of culture’. In this respect, her essay joins others in emphasizing the contextual, the social, the grounds of production, rather than the debatable poetic text itself. In some cases, this shift does indeed seem strictly ‘contemporary’, as when Simon Horobin details the gains in reading the Chaucer text as a manuscript production, while placing Chaucer in a larger field, the study of textual transmission, ‘reading circles’, and the irregular development of an emerging literate society.
Mostly, in fact, the social here becomes the object of ‘contention’ and the means by which Chaucer is problematized. Seth Lerer’s study of Chaucer’s reception, shifting emphasis from literary homage towards ‘the common reader’, stresses the recent emergence of reception as ‘sociology of authorship’, citing Victor Kahn: ‘the aim of literary studies should be not the interpretation...