Ruth Evans

title.none: Pope, How to Study Chaucer (Ruth Evans)

identifier.other: baj9928.0209.012 02.09.12

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Ruth Evans, Cardiff University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: Pope, Rob. How to Study Chaucer, 2nd edition. New York: Palgrave, 2000. Pp. ix, 223. 16.95. ISBN: 0-333-76283-5.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.09.12

Pope, Rob. How to Study Chaucer, 2nd edition. New York: Palgrave, 2000. Pp. ix, 223. 16.95. ISBN: 0-333-76283-5.

Reviewed by:

Ruth Evans
Cardiff University

I have forgotten exactly how I learnt to "study" Chaucer. At secondary school in England I read Troilus and Criseyde (abridged, but in Middle English) as an A-level set text for English Literature. Every week we translated a few stanzas and read them out in turn in class. Looking up nearly every word in the glossary was mechanical and laborious. But the language was beguilingly strange ("to Troiewardes" sticks in my mind), our teacher assumed we would be as enchanted with Chaucer as she was, and the poem offered a world like no other I had ever encountered. I was hooked. Of course not all schools or teachers or students are alike, now or then. But times have changed. Chaucer's Middle English (which, as Rob Pope observes, is really not that difficult) is increasingly perceived to be offputtingly unfamiliar. There are more exams, and far more anxieties attached to doing well in exams. And study guides now swarm out of the publishing houses, ready to assuage -- and feed -- those anxieties.

Pope's essentially practical guide belongs to a long established and well-respected series. It is aimed at high-school and freshman readers: in British terms, secondary school pupils who are taking AS (Advanced Subsidiary) and A2 (Advanced) level (public examinations sat at ages 17 and 18), and undergraduates who have not previously studied Chaucer. So advice on how to predict and answer exam questions bulks large. The introduction identifies "Four Chaucers": the man, the works, the narrator -- and the exam. Irritating as this kind of instrumental approach may be, it is a product of the genre and there is a place for this kind of pragmatic help. The advice on Writing an Essay on Chaucer is common-sense but bears repeating: answer the question; scrutinise its terms; develop an argument. An outline of a model answer on the Knight's Tale is given, together with (often-neglected) advice on how to quote and how to write commentaries. At the back, Pope offers a useful list of "The 'top 100' most commonly misunderstood words in Chaucer."

The rhetoric of the volume is also determined by the genre: second person address, colloquial style, many questions ("How can you push this further?"), short sentences, minimal metaphors, an overabundance of exclamation marks, plenty of summing up, and handy "tips." Pope often reassures the reader that it all comes down to "a few simple ideas" (28) ("simple" is one of the book's most overused words). Inevitably, the result is occasionally reductive: for example, Pope claims that Chaucer's output can be seen in terms of "just six story types" (15), and that the clergeon in the Prioress's Tale "is presented as neither more nor less than a little boy asking a slightly bigger boy for help with some especially difficult homework" (129). The book constantly anticipates (has to anticipate) a floundering reader. Students, says Pope, "can see that criticism must somehow amount to more than saying, 'The General Prologue is full of memorable characters', but they cannot see what" (22). Whether or not you see this as reassuring or unflattering will either put you off or recommend the volume.

A chapter on the General Prologue sets out the guide's basic approach to study, a kind of Chaucer's Anonymous "seven-step" program: What Kind of Work am I Studying?, What is it About?, Looking at Characterization, Developing the Argument, Relating the Tale to its Teller, Seeing the Text in Context, Analyzing the Style. It makes sensible points: don't just trudge through the characters, sort them into groups; look for patterns; identify "tensions" (between, say, the sexual and the spiritual); relate the tales to their tellers and to their historical and cultural "contexts"; be aware of irony; Chaucer was "no radical" (40); look at how Chaucer's style creates a sense of "variety within unity, disorder within order" (42) through devices such as rhyming couplets. The emphasis on features such as "characterization" is presumably dictated by the kinds of questions currently set at A-level.

The book then zooms in on the Knight's Tale, chosen because it is one of the most commonly studied Chaucer texts and "the one students tend to find most bewildering and overwhelming" (47). Using the "seven-step" framework, Pope comments on the tale's generic mix, gives a plot-summary, and demonstrates that the poem's idealized characters are products of its larger argument about order and disorder and of the destructive contradictions within medieval chivalry. The tale, he says, is about "the arbitrary exercise of power which masquerades as law and order" (65). He gets across a sense of the complexity of the KnT, its range of intellectual questions, and something of its style. He is good on instructing students how to move from description to analysis, and how to anchor one's response by referring to specific bits of text because of the tendency for the clear outline to become blurred through detailed reading. The idea is that students should be able to generalize this practice to readings of other texts from the Canterbury Tales.

Chapter 4 then applies the seven-step grid to a selection of the CT texts that feature most commonly in current A-level syllabuses (though erosion is at work: in 2001, the AQA (Assessment and Qualifications Alliance, one of the UK examination boards) dropped the Wife of Bath's Tale altogether and set only her Prologue): MilPro and T; PardPro and T; NPT; MerT; WBPro and T; ClT; FranT; RvT, PrPro and T; FrT; SumT. Tales are treated individually, so there is no sense here of the Canterbury Tales as an elaborate conversation. Horizontal groupings and recurrent themes are considered in Chapter 8. To save space, there is very little quotation of the text (readers are referred to specific passages by line numbers), and little close reading (though the discussion of the pluralities of "entente" in FrT is good). Pope is fairly successful at conveying the fact that Chaucer wrote narrative poetry, not novels, and pretty deft at suggesting something of the literary and political complexity of each text, while not committing himself to one particular reading. But his own attitudes do intermittently come across: for example, he is sceptical of those critics who read irony in every line of Chaucer.

Less attention is given to the dream poems and to Troilus and Criseyde precisely because these texts are no longer set at A-level or taught that much to undergraduates. Pope anticipates that readers will find the dream poems "odd" (144), and gives them only seven rather bland pages. But the brief chapter on the Troilus pleasingly drops all attempts to press for a "unified" reading. It asks students to decide between two contradictory versions of the narrative: Troilus's (which offers "a traditionally moral view of Criseyde") and Criseyde's (which emphasizes "the 'pity' of being human") (152-3).

Chapter 8, Common Topics and Current Debates, is geared towards the more sophisticated reader, offering frames that link various texts together horizontally and guidance about further critical reading. Resisting the "race, class, gender" mantra, Pope touches on topics that are clearly, if not always explicitly, defined by current theoretical and historicist thinking on Chaucer's poetry: authority and experience (including the Wycliffite Bible translation project); humour (with a brief explanation of carnival); narrative and rhetoric (referring to Tony Davenport's distinction between "well-made" and "wayward" narratives (192)); speakers and audiences (Bakhtin's "dialogic speech" is explained here); and finally sexual difference, love and marriage. The lists of "dominant" and "muted" (minority) views of men and women (209-10) are problematic and need elucidation. But there are useful insights: Pope notes that Chaucer's men are "curiously split" between active/passive and aggressive/submissive (205) because of the contradictory demands of the heroic and courtly-romantic codes, and that his holy women are also split, being both submissive and courageous in their piety.

This revised edition includes some new recommendations in the Further Reading Section: Steve Ellis's extremely good Geoffrey Chaucer, Valerie Allen and Ares Axiotis's valuable New Casebook, Helen Phillips' handy Introduction, Helen Cooper's indispensable Oxford Guide. Specialist studies include the stimulating but challenging (for the kind of reader this book constructs) Carolyn Dinshaw's Sexual Poetics, H. Marshall Lester's The Disenchanted Self, Lee Patterson's Chaucer and the Subject of History, Paul Strohm's Social Chaucer. For cultural history, there is Pearsall's Life, Blamires' Woman Defamed and Woman Defended, and Bakhtin's Rabelais and his World. Older (still valuable) studies are there too: Aers' Chaucer (though not Stephen Knight's sharp Marxist reading which came out in the same year), Elizabeth Salter, Charles Muscatine.

The book asserts that it will provide readers with the tools to form a "varied and complex" (21) response of their own, but the pragmatic approach militates against this. Readers would do better to go to something like Dinshaw's Sexual Poetics. There is little sense of what makes Chaucer's works piquant and pleasurable. In the introduction, a section called "How to read five lines of Chaucer" takes the novice to Middle English through five lines of the General Prologue, showing how unfamiliar words can be made to look more familiar (by removing final e, for example) and how word order can be simplified (by inversion). It's good stuff, but it stops there. Later on, of course, Pope offers extensive interpretation, but he's missed an opportunity early on to pull the reader in, to indicate why Chaucer might be worth reading in the first place and not just in order to get through an exam. In On Literature (London, 2002), J. Hillis Miller comments on the opening sentences of literary works, describing his sense of their transformative force: he becomes, he says, "the fascinated witness of a new virtual reality", or, more accurately, "a disembodied observer within that reality" (24). "Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote..." does it for me with Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. But who knows what it is that makes readers respond to this special literary force?