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Chaucer’s Problematic Priere: An ABC as Artifact and Critical issue William A. Quinn University of Arkansas Also in this mervelous example I have techyng with me as it were the begynnyng of an ABC, wherby I may have sum vnderstondyng of our Lordys menyng. —Julian of Norwich Chaucer’s Priere de Nostre Dame, more commonly titled An ABC, has proven peculiarly problematic for many Chaucerians. It survives as the poet’s only ‘‘[f]ree-standing . . . independent . . . unattached prayer.’’ 1 And many consider this lyric to be Chaucer’s ‘‘only completely devotional work.’’ Yet as a fairly faithful translation of a lyric embedded in Guillaume de Deguilleville’s La pèlerinage de vie humaine, Chaucer’s Priere has more often than not been simply ignored as ‘‘one of the least interesting and most derivative’’ of his compositions.2 The doctrin of Chaucer’s Marian devotion seems so rudimentary; this poem’s delit in simply sustaining an alphabetic sequence of stanzas, so obvious; and its pious tone, so pronounced that extensive critical comment long seemed either unnecessary or undeserved. It is somewhat more disturbing to confess, however, that the critical neglect of Chaucer’s Priere entails an opposition between Catholic and non-Catholic perspectives that can be 1 Georgia Ronan Crampton, ‘‘Chaucer’s Singular Prayer,’’ MÆ 59 (1990): 191. I would like to take this opportunity to thank Ann Hotta of Georgetown University and especially Beth Juhl of the University of Arkansas for their expert and generous research assistance; I would also like to thank the readers of SAC for their careful critiques. 2 Larry D. Benson, gen. ed., The Riverside Chaucer, 3d ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987), p. 1076b. All my citations of Chaucer’s Priere are from R. T. Lenaghan’s edition of ‘‘The Short Poems’’ in the Riverside edition with notes by Laila Z. Gross. Citations of Deguilleville’s first recension are from J. J. Stürzinger, ed., Le pèlerinage de la vie humaine de Guillaume de Deguilleville (London: Nelson and Sons, 1893); translations are by Eugene Clasby, The Pilgrimage of the Human Life (New York: Garland, 1992). 109 ................. 8972$$ $CH5 11-01-10 12:19:55 PS STUDIES IN THE AGE OF CHAUCER traced all the way back to the Reformation. By 1570, John Foxe (ignoring the ABC and accepting Jack Upland as canonical) read Chaucer as ‘‘a right Wicleuian.’’3 Rosemund Tuve, who would not ‘‘overstress the Protestantizing’’ of a seventeenth-century English abridgement of the Pèlerinage, did acknowledge, ‘‘The ABC prayer to the Virgin of course disappears; it was as little suited to the new literary tastes as to the new doctrines’’ of the era.4 Robert Ackerman found that most modern (ergo ‘‘humanist’’) Chaucerians have long thought Chaucer a reformer or, at least, anticlerical or, at most, Laodicean.5 Even professed Robertsonians have found little to explicate or appreciate in Chaucer’s Priere. As evidence of the poet’s early, seemingly sincere, and arguably enduring devotion to Mary, however, Chaucer’s Priere proves most problematic for critics who would prefer what Linda Georgiana terms ‘‘a Protestant Chaucer’’—an institutionalized bias that cuts ‘‘across humanist, exegetical , and Marxist studies alike.’’6 Especially for readers who would amplify the oppositional significance of Chaucer’s more subversive texts, the achievement and integrity of his Priere must be muted. There have been a few defenders of the prayer itself. Wolfgang Clemen found Chaucer’s ABC stylistically superior to both its French prototype and any comparable English lyric of the fourteenth century. Likewise, Edmund Reiss, acting as an apologist for all of Chaucer’s relatively undervalued lyrics, admired the ABC as well. Nevertheless, the majority of Chaucerians cum New Critics remained unmoved by these reputedly objective, because purely formalist, assessments of Chaucer’s Priere. Most of the lyric’s other advocates—notably G. K. Chesterton, Sister Mary Magdaleva, and Gerard M. Corr, O.S.M.—freely confessed a strong predisposition to applaud its pious function. Yet Chaucerians who refuse to picture Chaucer at his beads (see figs. 1 and 2) usually fail to 3 See Caroline F. E. Spurgeon, Five Hundred Years of Chaucer Criticism and Allusion, 1357–1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1925), pp. 104–7...


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