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PRESIDENTIAL ADDRESS The New Chaucer Society Fourteenth International Congress July 15th–19th, 2004 University of Glasgow PAGE 1 ................. 11491$ PRT1 11-01-10 14:00:33 PS PAGE 2 ................. 11491$ PRT1 11-01-10 14:00:33 PS The Presidential Address Chaucer and the European Tradition Winthrop Wetherbee III Cornell University Iwill begin by apologizing for a title that might suggest absurdly grandiose ambitions. I remain dutifully subject to the authority of Charles Muscatine, E. R. Curtius, and the other ‘‘maisters soverayn’’ who have helped me think about literary tradition over the years, and, to this extent at least, I emulate the Chaucer I want to talk about. The Chaucer, that is, who was the one truly European poet of his place and time, yet whose unique appreciation of the larger view of poetic tradition that distinguished the writers of trecento Italy coexisted with a strong sense of his alien relation to this tradition. Despite the inspiration he drew from the example of Dante, and the deep affinity he came to feel with Boccaccio, he remained closer in spirit to the French tradition and above all to Jean de Meun. Chaucer owned the French tradition; his poetry is its finest flowering. But toward Italy he retained to the end something of the shyly self-deprecating attitude of the dreamer at the House of Fame. The assurance with which Dante and Boccaccio addressed the classical tradition, and the sense of the importance of poetry that their work expresses, seem to have made him keenly sensitive to the limitations of the Anglo-French poetic tradition to which he himself had been apprenticed. I want to examine the ways in which this sense of limitations finds expression in Chaucer’s work, how he both demonstrates an awareness of what poetry in the highest sense might be, and how, by design, and often to telling effect, he avoids a direct response to the challenge this knowledge represents. I will begin by considering a specific instance of challenge and response: Dante’s and Chaucer’s versions of the story of Ugolino of Pisa. PAGE 3 3 ................. 11491$ $CH1 11-01-10 14:00:44 PS STUDIES IN THE AGE OF CHAUCER A brief essay by Jorge Luis Borges on Inferno 33, the canto of Count Ugolino, addresses the qualities in Ugolino’s story that seem to me to have most impressed Chaucer. Borges’s concern is with what he calls the ‘‘false problem’’ posed by line 75 of the canto, Ugolino’s famous assertion that after days of starvation, during which he witnessed the deaths of four sons, ‘‘hunger proved more powerful than grief.’’ Borges reviews the history of critical commentary on Ugolino’s enigmatic declaration , and concludes that we cannot know whether Ugolino was driven to eat the flesh of the four victims or simply died of hunger after withstanding the effects of grief. To attempt to resolve this question, moreover , is to misread Dante’s purpose, for the ambiguity is crucial to the effect of the scene: ‘‘To deny or affirm Ugolino’s monstrous crime,’’ says Borges, ‘‘is less horrifying than to be stunned by it.’’1 The one complex turn in Borges’s generally straightforward argument occurs when he cites the earlier lines in which Ugolino’s sons offer themselves to their father as food: ‘‘tu ne vestisti queste misere carne, e tu le spoglia.’’ (Inferno 33.62–63) [‘‘you did clothe us with this wretched flesh; and do you strip us of it.’’] In the face of a hallowed critical tradition, Borges professes to find here ‘‘one of the very few falsehoods present in the Commedia’’: Dante, he says, ‘‘could not but feel its falseness, which is made more serious, without doubt, by the circumstance of the four children simultaneously toasting the ravenous banquet. Some will insinuate that we are dealing with a lie by Ugolino, concocted to justify (to suggest) the previous crime.’’ Borges’s insistence on the falseness of the scene is based not just on the implausibility of Ugolino’s depiction of his children’s last hours but on its quality as art. There is a sense in which this narrative is unworthy of Ugolino—or, better, incommensurate...


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