- Erasure and Afterlife in Chaucer’s Retraction
Enfin, je demanderai pardon pour m’être nourri de mensonge. Et allons (Well, I shall ask forgiveness for having lived on lies. And that’s that).—Arthur Rimbaud, “Farewell”
All the books he had published had left him with a complex feeling of repentance.—Jorge Luis Borges, The Secret Miracle
Chaucer’s Retraction, a title first assigned by John Urry in 1721,1 appears in Fragment X of The Canterbury Tales. This statement exists in thirty copies (including manuscripts and early prints) of the Tales, and in another, Gg (Cambridge, Cambridge University Library, MS Gg.4.27), which preserves the incipit for the Retraction.2 The Retraction, intentionally allusive in its fluctuation between its fictional speaker and the author Geoffrey Chaucer, corroborates the artistic possibilities of erasure and endings. Calling upon his readers to pray for the forgiveness of his sins, especially those writings that imagine impious content, the speaker creates a predicament between the world of private confession and a reader’s obligation to intervene in the writer’s salvation: I biseke yow mekely, for the mercy of God, that ye preye for me that Crist have mercy on me and foryeve me my giltes; / and namely of my translacions and enditynges of worldly vanitees, the whiche I revoke in my retracciouns (I humbly beseech you, for the mercy of God, that you pray for me that Christ have mercy on me and forgive me my sins, especially my translations and works of worldly vanities, which I revoke in my retractions) (lines 1084–85).3 The speaker asks for his “giltes” to be revoked and retracted, and for his readers to intercede, yet retracting a text in name only becomes difficult once a text has been copied, dispersed, and read in medieval manuscript culture. [End Page 135]
The confusion over this inexplicable statement, and whether Chaucer the man felt real guilt towards some of his writings, has long perplexed critics. Olive Sayce calls the statement a “stumbling-block to critics”; Melissa Furrow, that it is “notoriously difficult”; Stephen Partridge, that its phrasing is “frustratingly ambiguous”; and Christopher Roman, that it presents a “high level of indeterminate meaning.”4 The Retraction is, in other words, both a complete statement and an impossible request—the speaker can never recall all the copies of his work once they are sent into the world, yet it is unclear whether readers are then to shun those revoked texts by not reading them, are to forgive their writer, or are to pretend he did not write them. What is the force of a written confession that requires its readers to both read and unread? Anita Obermeier’s excellent collection of literary topoi for Chaucer’s Retraction reveals that while there are “no direct sources for Chaucer’s Retraction,” public acts of recanting erroneous or sinful writings are ubiquitous in medieval Europe.5
Presenting sin as a literary subject, the Retraction blends auricular confession with the literary trope of retraction by way of inscription and erasure. At the center of Chaucer’s Retraction emerges the speaker’s complex plea for forgiveness that doubly serves as the final literary judgment on Chaucer’s works at the end of The Canterbury Tales.6 Chaucer’s Retraction uses the framework of penance as a literary event. Penitence (contrition of the heart) is the state of repentance7 for past sins with the intention to amend one’s life; confession (of the mouth),8 the formal admission of sins to a priest; and satisfaction (penance),9 the expiatory works of prayer, self-denial, and charity enjoined upon a penitent after confession. While the scene of retraction would seem to close down the possibilities of imaginative writing, to be the author’s final apology and sentence, Chaucer problematizes the theological doctrine of sin as memorial stain of the soul (even after absolution), by weaving confession and tale-telling.
To shun one’s literary works is to, in a sense, try to forget them. While a penitent’s sins are erased or annulled by the penitent’s contrite confession even before penance is performed, Mary Carruthers, whose research is deeply attuned to...