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The PRESIDENTIAL ADDRESS The New Chaucer Society Fifteenth International Congress July 27–31, 2006 Fordham University PAGE 1 ................. 16596$ PRT1 11-01-10 14:05:49 PS PAGE 2 ................. 16596$ PRT1 11-01-10 14:05:50 PS The Presidential Address New Chaucer Topographies David Wallace University of Pennsylvania How is Chaucer doing? Will our New Chaucer Society generations and constituencies hang together, as congenial souls,1 as we plow deeper into the new millennium? We seem to be in a much less secure timeframe, now, in 2006. At York in 1984 there seemed a comforting if illusory congruence between the 1380s and 1980s. As we advanced through the 1990s, we knew that Chaucer would die, tidily enough, in London in 2000; we duly assembled in Westminster Abbey with the poet laureate. Since then, even the illusion of comfort in historical parallelism has gone awry. Several things happened: September 2001 turned out to supply the moment of millenarian change that was planned for, but yet failed to arrive, on 1 January 2000. And then, in our own modest sphere, the Linne Mooney discoveries of 2004 meant that we could not simply assume a structured path toward 2006 and 2008, years that we might associate with the copying of Hengwrt and Ellesmere and the orderly formation of Chaucerian textual afterlife. In a way we have been thrown back into the 1980s and 1990s, imagining a Chaucer who now looks much more like Petrarch or Christine de Pisan This essay represents a slightly modified form of the lecture given at New York on 28 July 2006 as part of the 15th New Chaucer Society congress. Material on Le feminine et le sacré was added later and included in the joint presentation with Marilyn Nelson at the University of Connecticut on 12 October. I would like to thank Daniel Hoffman for his good offices and Marilyn Nelson for her inspiration and encouragement. 1 The most intensive investigation of Chaucer-reading communities to date is that of Stephanie Trigg, Congenial Souls: Reading Chaucer from Medieval to Postmodern (Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press, 2002); see esp. pp. xx, 37–38. See now additionally Jennifer Summit and Nicholas Watson, ‘‘Response to the New Chaucer Society Conference , July 27–31, 2006,’’ in NCS Newsletter 28 (Fall 2006), pp. 1–9; http://www.artsci⬃chaucer/congress2006.html. PAGE 3 3 ................. 16596$ $CH1 11-01-10 14:06:19 PS STUDIES IN THE AGE OF CHAUCER as part-shaper of his own textual corpus. We are, conceptually if not organizationally, all at sea: a good place for a New, now not so new, Chaucer Society to be in its thirty-ninth year. In the very last days of 1999, at the MLA Chaucer Forum, Lee Patterson observed that all prior fins de siécle had seen major figures arise to engage and revitalize Chaucer: William Morris, William Blake, John Dryden, Edmund Spenser, William Caxton. Public celebrations for Chaucer seemed fairly muted as 2000 came and went, especially when compared to those of 1900.2 A sign of powerful poetic engagement with Chaucer did, however, appear in 1998; it is just taking us a while to digest it. I speak here of Birthday Letters, and more broadly of the ill-starred Ted Hughes/Sylvia Plath relationship.3 The first of the two Chaucerian Birthday poems, ‘‘St Botolph’s,’’ replays the innamoramento scene of Troilus and Criseyde, as young Ted first sees Sylvia; the second, called simply ‘‘Chaucer,’’ opens with Plath reciting the General Prologue, and later the Wife of Bath, to a field of cows. These two poems bespeak profound engagement not just with the texture of Chaucer’s language but also with his multiple, nonlinear temporalities: the kind of thing that Paul Strohm and Carolyn Dinshaw are just now teasing out.4 As Chaucerians, Plath and Hughes merit places on the smartest of NCS panels. But they feature no further in this presentation, for their engagement with Chaucer seems to me peculiarly inward, mystical in a Julian-like sense, tethered to the dynamics of interpersonal relationship rather than to the qualities of particular locales. In Birthday Letters, Chaucer becomes almost a third party to the disastrous, love...


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