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REVIEWS Pearsall's placement of CT in two crucial contexts frequently slighted in introductory courses: problems of form and transmission peculiar to a manuscript culture and the conventions of various medieval narrative genres appropriated and transformed (or subverted) by Chaucer. The latter will have their assumptions about the unity, tone, and dramatic or mimetic effect of CT, and about the significance and success of individual tales, tested repeatedly by Pearsall's articulate, opinionated readings. R. W HANNING Columbia University A. C. SPEARING. Medieval to Renaissance in English Poetry. Cambridge, London, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985. Pp. vii, 369. $44.50, £27.50. This elegant and provocativestudy seeks to stand on its head the influential view (best known in the formulation of C. S. Lewis) that Chaucer "medi­ evalized" his Renaissance-oriented sources, especially the poetry ofBoccac­ cio and Dante. On the contrary, Spearing argues, Chaucer's imagination was aligned and directed by his experience of Italian culture; it enabled him to gain "a new and more exalted idea of what it was to be a poet, a higher sense of what kind of poetry was possible in a modern European vernacular, a new sense of the past and his own relation to it, and an awareness of the possibility of re-creating in poetic fiction the world of classical paganism" (p. 21). Chaucer's successors, alas, could not com­ prehend or emulate the "major push towards Renaissance values" (p. 89) which the father of English poetry (and of English literary history) had achieved, and so they "medievalized" his work, taking it down a cul-de-sac from which it had to be rescued several decades later by writers like Dunbar, Skelton, and, of course, Spenser. This is not to suggest that poetry which was not avant-garde in these "Renaissance" terms should be dismissed; indeed, Spearing has a chapter entitled "Outside the Chaucerian Tradition" which offers interesting criti­ cism on The Awntyrs offArthure and the Wakefield Master. But the main thrust of this book is that Chaucer was an isolated pioneer whose achieve­ ment was revered rather than understood until long after his death, by which time his language was too archaic for practicing poets, who had to 253 STUDIES IN THE AGE OF CHAUCER strive afresh to bring English poetry into line with international standards of eloquence and excellence: "The work of the literary Renaissance, which Chaucer had begun single-handed, had to be done all over again in the sixteenth century" (p. 120). This thesis is exhilarating, and Spearing argues it through with all the critical subtlety and stylistic lucidity which we expect of him. Since in a brief review it is impossible to do justice to the excellence of so many of the individual literary analyses, I shall concentrate on what I regard as the book's main limitation, namely, the way in which it views the movement from medieval to Renaissance in terms of an "evolutionary" process in which the fittest emerged, suffered a temporary setback, and then pro­ ceeded to flourish and multiply. Species of poetry which did not have history ontheirside are said to have been"located on dead-ends rather than on what now looks like the highroad" to the Renaissance (p. 121). Surely this is to underestimate the amount of medieval lore and the number of medievalattitudes, conventions (bothliteraryandsocial)andgenreswhich continued to thrive long into the Renaissance. A glance at Pollard and Redgrave's Short Title Catalogue ofEnglish Books 1475-1640 or Wing's MLA Short Title Catalogue a/English Books 1641-1700 is salutary in this regard, for they make abundantly clear just howmany essentially medieval works were being printed and reprinted. But Spearing is acutely aware of the dangers ofgeneralizing about what is essentially medieval and what is essentially Renaissance, about what is "scholastic" and what is "human­ istic." He talks of"theincreasingdepth and subtlety of our understanding" of the period in question"which rightly prevents us from accepting the bold contrast the fourteenth-century Italians themselves drew between their own age and that preceding it. Almost nothing that has been at­ tributed to the Renaissance is entirely new" (p. 20). The problem is how, then, one demonstrates...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1949-0755
Print ISSN
0190-2407
Pages
pp. 253-260
Launched on MUSE
2018-01-03
Open Access
No
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