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Review Article Writing about Writing: The Case of Chaucer LEE W. PATTERSON John Gardner, The Poetry of Clraucer Carbondale and Edwardsville, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press 1977. 408. $16.50 Donald R. Howard, The Idea of the Canterbury Tales Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press 1976. 403. $15.00 Robert B. Budin, Chaucerian Fiction Princeton University Press 1977. 292. $16.70 Alfred David, The Strumpet Muse: Art and Morals in Chaucer's Poetry Bloomington: University ofIndiana Press 1976. 280. $17.25 Of the doubtless many reasons for the current bumper crop of books on Chaucer two invite comment. The first is a simple matter of chronology. For some fifteen or twenty years now the graduate students of the 19505 and early 19605 (themselves a bumper crop) have been teaching Chaucer, and those years of lectures have now come to harvest. All of these books, in that they summarize and assess, seem written with an eye to a student audience. With the exception ofHoward's, none is written to demonstrate a thesis, and the strong views they express are of the kind that grow strong by constant pedagogical testing. The second reason is ideological. The struggle between historicism and fonnalism which.. as a duel between D.W. Robertson and Talbot Donaldson, took a particularly virulent fonn in Chaucer studies.. has moved beyond simple partisanship. This is not to say that the issues have been resolved or even outgrown: they are at best suppressed. On a Robertson-Donaldson axis each of these books finds its place, but prefers not to define it too precisely. What methodological discussion is contained in these books -and Gardner's and Howard's contain a good deal- is on the whole ad hoc and occasional rather than systematic. Wariness, even weariness.. dogs the issue: 'It is all very dreary,' says Howard, referring specifically to the exegetical approach he deplores but encompassing the controversy as a whole. Reading these books is like being at a family reunion where everyone is determined to UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO QUARTERLY, VOLUME XLVIII, NUMBER ), SPRING 1979 0042-0247179/°500-026)$01.5°/0 © UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO PRESS 1979 264 LEE W. PATTERSON keep the skeletons in their cupboards but cannot forbear reminding us how many skeletons there are. Given the turmoils of the past, the present autumnal calm is a welcome relief, but were the battles fought in vain? Which returns us to the first point: calm has also settled on the campuses of North America and the adolescent intensities of the 1960s have given way to the careerism of the 1970s. We welcome a return to the familiar norm and write books for dutiful students. John Gardner's The Poetry ofChaucer adopts an historicist stance so foursquare as to seem simple commonsense. This book is one-half of a two-volume enterprise, the other being The Life and Times ofChaucer: the man stands side by side with the poet, each reflecting on the other. Yet not only the exigencies of publishing have led Gardner to present the two volumes separately. Chaucerseems deliberately to resist the Victorian inclusiveness of 'Life and Works.' The 600 pages of the Life Records contain not a single reference to Chaucer's life as a poet, and to add the historian's 'Times' hardly helps matters. The times were after all cataclysmic, but how do they register in Chaucer's poetry? The Peasants' Revolt provides material for two or three lines of a simile; the deposition and murder of a king can be inferred from a begging poem addressed to his successor. In a poet so enamoured of the feel and tone of life, a poet so palpable and visible, the absence of specific reference is extraordinary. He presents fourteenth-century England virtually without history, a time without a 'Times.' All of which makes the hard job of historicism harder. The methodology of historicism, in its classic form, rests on three assumptions: that the literary text has a single and contingent meaning; that this meaning can be identified with authorial intention; and that this intention is largely determined by proximate cultural causes. In searching for, in Taine's words, the 'exact and demonstrated divination of bygone...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 263-282
Launched on MUSE
2014-07-02
Open Access
No
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