contributor.author: Winthrop Wetherbee

title.none: Minnis et. al., Oxford Guides to Chaucer: The Shorter Poems (Wetherbee)

identifier.other: baj9928.9705.006 97.05.06

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Winthrop Wetherbee, Cornell University, ww22@cornell.edu

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1997

identifier.citation: Minnis, A. J., V. J. Scattergood and J. J. Smith. Oxford Guides to Chaucer: The Shorter Poems. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995. Pp. xiv, 578. $79.00. ISBN: ISBN 0-198-11193-2.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 97.05.06

Minnis, A. J., V. J. Scattergood and J. J. Smith. Oxford Guides to Chaucer: The Shorter Poems. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995. Pp. xiv, 578. $79.00. ISBN: ISBN 0-198-11193-2.

Reviewed by:

Winthrop Wetherbee
Cornell University
ww22@cornell.edu

This excellent book completes the series of Oxford Guides to Chaucer's works, and since it deals with what are commonly considered the minor poems, one might ask why it should be so much longer than Helen Cooper's Canterbury Tales and Barry Windeatt's Troilus and Criseyde. The answer is that these shorter poems are largely the record of Chaucer's evolution as an intellectual and a court poet, and Minnis has accordingly undertaken a full review of their social contexts and the literary and intellectual traditions to which they respond. The result is a book that provides a prolegomenon not only to the study of Chaucer's love-visions but to Chaucer studies generally. It is astute in its attention to social and political history, rich in its digesting and analysis of sources, tirelessly energetic in its devotion to detail, deft and judicious in its winnowing of a vast body of criticism. Minnis is probably unrivalled among Chaucerians in the breadth of his knowledge of Chaucer's literary and intellectual background, and he has produced an extraordinarily informative book.

A short introductory chapter digests and assesses recent scholarship on English court culture in the later fourteenth century; the status of English; and the likely social and political significance of Chaucer's bookish, reticent authorial persona. This is followed by a chapter on the love-vision as a literary form, centered in a courageously clear and thoughtful account of the medieval phenomenon of Fin'amor and its modern critical history. It is typical of Minnis's concern to get things right that his rich account of medieval dream theory (pp. 36-55) notes the likely impact of medical thought and Aristotelian skepticism on Chaucer's reception of the Macrobian categories, and reminds us that "love-service" had an authentic military side (59- 60). Then follow longer chapters on the Book of the Duchess, House of Fame, Parliament of Fowls, and Legend of Good Women. The book concludes with a chapter on the lyrics by V. J. Scattergood and an appendix on Chaucer's language by Jeremy J. Smith.

Much of the chapter on the Book of the Duchess is devoted to reviewing critical controversies. Minnis does a good job of tempering the excesses of some recent feminist readings of the poem (61-68), and defining without overemphasizing the subjecthood of Chaucer's eccentric narrator (114-17). Particularly valuable is a section entitled "Avoiding Allegory," which shows convincingly that the poem's use of religious language and motifs is subordinated to its consolatory function (135-46), building nicely on Minnis's earlier remark that when Marian imagery is used to describe Lady White, "a religious discourse is being used to construct a secular subjectivity" (62). One is bound to have quibbles about about minor points: I for one find the meter of the Book of the Duchess markedly looser than that of the House of Fame (cp. Minnis, p. 81), and among the special features of the poem's rhyming I would certainly include lines 847-52, where the Black Knight's memory "turns" on a single rhyme around the image of his dancing, singing lady. But this chapter is far and away the best single piece of work that has been done on the poem.

The House of Fame chapter does a fine job of characterizing Chaucer's use of Dante, noting the very different effects achieved by the two poets' addresses to Apollo and the Muses (174-79). A discussion of the poem's labyrinthine form becomes a tour de force, a house of fame of modern critical approaches in which Eagleton, Iser, Derrida, and Barthes, attended by a host of distinguished medievalists, are mustered and in various ways found wanting (216-22). Minnis eventually opts for a Bakhtinian approach to this "contradictory," "heteroglot" poem (222-27). The chapter ends with a careful account of Chaucer's relation to literary authority, concluding that he was not an "Author" but a "Scriptor," whose Bakhtinian dialogism issues in a text that is finally the "multidimensional space" of Barthes, where various kinds of writing are "married and contested" and no authorial "brake" is imposed (249).

The Parliament of Fowls, Minnis observes, begins as Troilus and Criseyde ends, emphasizing the smallness of our world and the insignificance of its human inhabitants (253), but then moves "from condemnation to celebration," from austere vision to the plenitude of a locus amoenus which may represent Chaucer's frame for a piece of writing that is "fundamentally secular" (307), one that considers society and its problems on their own terms rather than sub specie eternitatis, as the poem's opening vision would seem to require. After a careful review of various totalizing approaches, Minnis concludes that the poem is finally incomplete, in the sense that it resists closure, and this resistance is part of a strategy that "illustrates and affirms plurality" (317), social and political.

This is a subtler reading than my encapsulation may make it sound, but I wish Minnis had gone on to say more about the position in which the poet-narrator finds himself at the end of the Parliament. The final stanza is surely an expression of unfulfillment, rather than (as Minnis suggests) an assertion of the poet's prerogative of merely propounding problems for the philosophers to resolve (320). The taking on of a challenge had been implicit in the very choice to begin the poem with a version of the Somnium Scipionis: as Macrobius seems to have recognized, and as is clearly implied by Affrican's reference to his "olde bok totorn" (PF 110), the Somnium is a fragment, floating in an uncertain relation to the treatise on secular government of which it originally formed a part. This uncertainty -- the question, so to speak, of whether we can get here from there -- is the real occasion of the Parliament, and a measure of the lofty ambitions its poet had begun to form.

The long chapter on the Legend of Good Women takes a long time to get rolling, and the discussion of the poet's rhetoric with which it begins is perhaps one instance in which Minnis's generosity with information gets in the way of his presentation. The discussion of Chaucer's reference to the "naked text" (LGW, GProl. 86), the poem's use of occupatio and other figures, and its relation to the exemplum tradition, strung together around the question of whether Chaucer has treated his female subjects ironically (330-43), was hard for me to follow, though all that is said here is relevant to the excellent reading of the Legend that follows.

Minnis is at his best in making the case for an originally complete collection of 25 "legends" (325-27), fending off radically obscene readings (342-44), and defending the view that the poem addresses a single audience of men and women rather than distinct gendered textual communities (379-89), and his feeling for the poem's Ovidian qualities is very good (see esp. 357-66). It is his special strength to have shown that the poem can be both richly comic and serious in its treatment of women, that it is a richer and more profound essay in the inversion of heroic values that is the basic strategy of Ovid's Heroides (436-37). It would take too long to sum up the many excellences of this chapter, but again I think it is possible to say that its 134 pages are the best book we have on the Legend.

One of the many attractive features of Minnis's presentation is the sheer enjoyment of literature it communicates. His prose is full of literary echoes, and at several points he uses modern poems to punctuate his argument. I am not sure that Hopkins' fire-catching kingfishers are the best preparation for entering Chaucer's Parliament (253), and Eliot's Prufrock and Prufrock's Hamlet become something of a King Charles's Head in the early chapters (pp. 126, 161, 163, 250); but Philip Larkin's "An Arundel Tomb" works wonderfully as an introduction to the interplay of artifice and real feeling in the Book of the Duchess (73-78), and the narrator's reflections on fame in Pope's version of the House of Fame nicely set off the more flustered reaction of his Chaucerian original (163). A wholly unexpected bonus, and one I am still pondering, is Tennyson's impassioned response to the "wild tales" of the Legend of Good Women, wherein he wept to behold "Beauty and anguish walking hand in hand / The downward slope to death" (345-46). My immediate response to this passage is to be reminded of how much I dislike pre-Raphaelite art, but it provides a salutary reminder that in the Legend, as in Ovid's treatments of women in love, humor and irony are interwoven with genuine pathos.

One of Minnis's special concerns, announced early on, is to engage with recent criticism and literary theory, and here it must be said the results are mixed. The introduction provides a set of "notes on terminology" (2-5), which turn out to be largely unnecessary. "Intertextuality," we are told, will be used "in the sense given currency by Julia Kristeva," but while the term itself may recur, it refers to nothing that would daunt an old-style new critic. Minnis expresses a scrupulosity about terms like "subject" and "subjectivity" which makes good sense as a general critical principle, but tends to get in his way later on. Characters referred to as "inscribed subjectivities" at one moment are just ordinary human beings the next (see, e.g., 109); on p. 163 a character identified simply as Guido da Montefeltro "speaks freely," not to Dante, but to "Dante's self- construction." At certain points Minnis takes it upon himself to deal with what he considers the excesses of current critical approaches. When he engages the more extreme feminist readers of the Duchess (61-68) on their own terms, one can admire his willingness to meet extremism head-on while recognizing that the attempt to achieve a truce is probably doomed. But some will feel that the flexibility of a critical imagination that can bring Derrida and Barthes to bear on the House of Fame is compromised by the relative ease with which Derridean differance and Barthesian jouissance are summed up and dismissed (221-22).

In general, however, Minnis's negotiations among conflicting interpretations and schools of criticism are judicious and clarifying. A lot of foolishness is tactfully eased to one side, and no significant issue is ignored. To repeat: this is an excellent book, much the most useful guide of its kind that I know of, and one that will inspire as well as facilitate fresh work on this difficult body of poetry.

* * * * *

V. J. Scattergood's chapter on the short poems concentrates on the 22 free-standing lyrics attributed to Chaucer. His account is primarily a careful inventorying of pertinent information about Chaucer's relations with French poets and poetic models, and the political contexts and social relations that may have elicited the occasional and personal poems. It includes a sensitive reading of Anelida and Arcite which argues persuasively that the lyric body of the poem, with its Statian emphasis on the plight of women in a war-torn world, fulfills the purpose implied by its epic- historical introduction, a reading which nicely complements the more elaborate recent treatment of the poem in Lee Patterson's Chaucer and the Subject of History (469- 73). The Complaint of Mars, too, is shown to stand out among the "complaints" generally, marked by the seriousness of its Boethian probing of the "mistihed" that conceals the causes of human suffering (473-76). Among the moral lyrics, Truth is given a very full reading that places it in a tradition of Senecan "counsel" which in its medieval form looks back to Walter Map and forward to Dunbar and Wyatt (492-97; in the Latin quotation at the top of 495, for the second "sufficiant" read "sufficias"). Most of us know these poems only vaguely, and the chapter is full of incidental observations that bring out their quality as poetry and their pertinence to larger Chaucerian issues.

Since Jeremy J. Smith's appendix on Chaucer's language bears no special relation to the shorter poems, it would seem to have been included in this volume as a way of rounding out the larger project of the "Oxford Guides" as a group. It provides clear, concise accounts of the development of post-Conquest English; the orthographic evidence for Chaucer's own spelling system; the ways in which he exploited phonological and morphological variables for purposes of rhyme and meter; and the interplay of English and French diction in his poetry (512-25).