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REVIEWS EARLE BIRNEY. Essays on Chaucerian Irony. Ed., with an Essay on Irony, by Beryl Rowland. Toronto, Buffalo, and London: University ofToronto Press, 1985. Pp. xxx, 162. $25.00 cloth; $12.95 paper. Beryl Rowland has here assembled eight essays by Earle Birney on Chaucer's development as an ironist. The essays fall into two groups: the first four are general essays, drawing on Birney's doctoral thesis (University ofToronto, 1936) and were published between 1937 and 1942; the latter four are applied criticism, and were published in1959 and 1960. Birney is now, of course, better known as a venerable Canadian poet; both groups ofessays were written while he was still active as a Chaucerian. Rowland, a more distinguished Chaucerian, was his graduate student in the early 1960s, and the volume is a kind ofhomage. She has prefaced the compilation with an introductory essay of her own and appended to it a set of bibliographies updating scholarship and criticism which reflect an interest in Chaucer's irony, relating these to the subject matter of each of the nine essays respectively. Rowland commences her own excursus with an acknowledgment (or caveat) that "anyone who tries to define irony is looking for trouble" (p. xv). Reviewing late-classical and early-medieval definitions which categorize irony under allegory (e.g., Donatus, Quintillian, and the author ofthe Ad Herrenium), she goes on to observe that irony is to be found in a much wider array of medieval rhetorical figures and tropes. With this medieval disposition towardirony in mind, she then sets out to reveal "Seven Types of Irony," broad general categories which she feels can map most helpfully various approaches to Chaucer's irony: verbal irony; irony arising from narrator-poet discrepancy; dramatic, philosophic, and "structural" irony; irony of values; and irony of theme. While not every reader will be persuaded that she has avoided the trouble she foresaw, Rowland does seem to have improved upon the general schema of her mentor. In his "English Irony Before Chaucer," Birney sets out to give a status quaestionis on the subject for about 1937. He will use the critical term, he warns, "as loosely as the dictionaries allow" (p. 21), and he generalizes his sense ofthe meaning he attachesto it as "indirectsatire," which now seems ratherlikecloaking wool with flannel. His generaltypes are curiously linked to action and theme rather than voice: "battle irony," "proverbirony," "irony offate," "irony ofthe underdog," "parody and burlesque" (pp. 21-30) and, in this early essay, finally lack any real analytic power. One is reminded that medieval grammarians and rhetoricians themselves were better at this sort 181 STUDIES IN THE AGE OF CHAUCER ofthing. Isidore of Seville's identification, in his Etymo/ogiae (1.37.22) of "seven types ofallegory," for example (irony, antiphrasis, aenigma, charien­ tismos, paroemia, sarcasm, astysmos), offers, by comparison, precision instruments; James J. Murphy and others have shown how rigorous the application of such rhetorical distinctions could be. The first group ofBirney'sessays is marked by vestiges ofthe old Empire style; as if written with sherry glass in hand, they exude an informed but casualair,a genteelsavoirfaire. Birney's Chaucer is predictably an epitome ofbrilliant amateurism: No doubt, ofcourse, he was a busy and competent public official. The ironist ofthe Canterbury Talescould not have failed to be an excellent diplomat. And he had the shining versatility peculiar tothe Italian artists ofthe next century. Hewas both poet and forester, philosophical student and courtier, humanist and customs collector, theological scholar and royal carpenter, astronomer and linguist-and a brilliant dabbler in law, medicine, and alchemy. [P. 4] But we should not unkindly dismiss this now dowdy mannerism without observing that often it accents a broad historical literacy which is able to discriminate perceptively among uses and abuses of criticism. In back­ grounding the limitations of modern "discoveries" of irony in Chaucer, Birney points to the (ironic) coarsening and oversimplification ofChaucer's humour by Dryden as an instance ofthe disposition ofthe Enlightenment to misunderstand the moral basis ofChaucer's humour and suggests some­ thing about why it is that Pope proved a more sensitive reader (pp. 42-44). He sees Victorian criticism of Chaucer-grounded, as a reflection of Ger­ man...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1949-0755
Print ISSN
0190-2407
Pages
pp. 181-183
Launched on MUSE
2018-01-03
Open Access
No
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