05.02.06, Harding, ed., Drama, Narrative and Poetry

Main Article Content

Elizabeth Scala

The Medieval Review baj9928.0502.006


Harding, Wendy, ed.. Drama, Narrative and Poetry in The Canterbury Tales. Toulouse: Presses Universitaires du Mirail, 2003. Pp. 246. ISBN: 2-85816-705-2.

Reviewed by:
Elizabeth Scala
University of Texas at Austin

Drama, Narrative and Poetry in The Canterbury Tales aims at a specific audience: French professors of English literature preparing for the national examination, the Agregation. It purports to offer "up to date criticism" (11) that focuses on literary aesthetics and its analysis. The contributors were invited to submit essays, and the editor takes care to include British, American and European, as well as French scholars. The mix of authorities, however, remains eclectic and rather uneven. Two essays in particular stand out among the others as worthy of attention: John Ganim's "Drama, Theatricality and Performance: Radicals of Presentation in the Canterbury Tales" and Derek Pearsall's "Towards a Poetics of Chaucerian Narrative." Both scholars are pre-eminent in the field. Their notes and references mark their essays as "up to date" as Harding's introduction claims. Other choices Harding makes in the selection she offers are more difficult to fathom. The most obvious example of such difficulty is Agnes Blandeau's essay on Chaucer and Pasolini's film, I racconti di Canterbury. Interesting and informative, Blandeau's treatment of Pasolini hardly registers a common or especially significant line of Chaucer criticism, and her claims have little effect on our understanding of the poem. Her essay ends with a quotation from a critical essay by F. Diekstra that Blandeau takes out of Pearsall's wonderful introductory book (reprinted by Routledge), The Canterbury Tales. The distance between Blandeau's contribution and the scholarship she cites, a distance mediated through yet another critical source, tells the story of Harding's collection in miniature. Drama, Narrative, and Poetry is two (re)moves away from what one really needs to know about Chaucer. Students of the Agregation would do better to read Pearsall's book on the Canterbury Tales than anything they find in here.

Part of the problem may be the injunction to respond to G.L. Kittredge's ninety year-old argument regarding the "roadside drama" of the pilgrimage. Such a focus might have led Harding away from the most prominent Chaucerians, whose research has moved beyond this question into other arenas more relevant to contemporary concerns, or it might have made participation in the collection less appealing to them. There are many scholars one would expect to find in here--Lee Patterson, Carolyn Dinshaw, and Paul Strohm are only the most obvious few. But even in terms of the "dramatic" focus on the pilgrims, one notes particularly the absence of H. Marshall Leicester's work; he is neither a contributor nor adequately mentioned in the notes. His PMLA essay on the "Art of Impersonation" in the Tales remains absolutely central to scholarly discussion, but it goes unremarked in these pages (Leicester's book, The Disenchanted Self, is cited by Ganim and Lesley Lawton). We might couple these limitations with the fact that the collection references the Norton Critical Edition of the Canterbury Tales as its "scholarly" text presumably because that is the edition the Agregation assigns. That, in itself, speaks volumes as to the limits of the collection's usefulness for purposes other than the Agregation. Unlike other widely available collections of essays, whether written to purpose or amassed from previously published work, the scholarly apparatus in this collection weakens its usefulness and exemplarity whether seen as introductory or specialized readings of Chaucer.

The collection opens with an essay by C. David Benson, "Trust the Tale, Not the Teller," offering a thumbnail of the argument in his 1986 book, Chaucer's Drama of Style. Warning of the dangers of taking the Canterbury pilgrims as real people, he urges readers to attend to the genres of the tales and the dramatic play between them to find the poem's meaning. Following Benson is the Blandeau essay mentioned earlier, which argues that Pasolini's film, as a "visual reading" of the Tales, "reveals what distinguishes the work as a turning-point in late medieval poetry . . . a new concern with authorship" (36). She makes an interesting point about the alignment of space and pacing through something of a mistranslation of the rhyming couplet space/pace in the General Prologue. "Pace" at 1.35-36 in Middle English does not mean "pace" but is a present tense verb, meaning to "pass, go, travel." Of course the pace one keeps (and that Pasolini might manipulate) can be abstracted from this passing or going, but Blandeau fails to argue explicitly for these connections in her discussion. The essay is particularly inventive given the "roadside drama" focus of the collection and the fact that Pasolini's film elides much of Chaucer's framing discourse and thus any "drama" on the roadside, which she reads as an act of "translating the essentially fragmentary nature of the text" (41) into filmic discourse.

Next, Leo Carruthers considers "Narrative Voice, Narrative Framework: The Host as 'Author' of the Canterbury Tales." In antithetical terms to Benson, who advocates a turn away from characterological assessments, Carruthers focuses on the character of the Host and his "tale," which, according to Carruthers, may be found in the comments disbursed throughout the links (51). Indeed, Carruthers urges us to see Harry Bailly as the pilgrim who has the most to say in the Canterbury Tales and thus characterizes him as "Chaucer's mouthpiece" (53). Reading the Canterbury Tales through the links, he finds the Host as an "author" figure who takes "the author's place as the main manipulator of events" (62). A more probing analysis would have historicized the very idea of an author in Chaucer's text, but the students of the Agregation appear not to be dealing with the text at such an historicist level.

John Ganim's essay on "Drama, Theatricality and Performance" raises the critical discourse of the collection sharply. He offers a sophisticated introduction to the issue of dramatic speaking, nuanced by historical and theoretical concerns while simultaneously remaining attuned to the introductory needs of non-specialist readers. In another of the collection's worthwhile contributions, Laura Kendrick argues that the aesthetic structure of the Canterbury Tales imitates the playful relation of text and border in the illuminated Gothic Books of Hours. "Linking the Canterbury Tales: Monkey-Business in the Margins" makes a lively play on words in which "Chaucer borders with verbal bourdes his most seemly and serious tales" (83). Derek Pearsall's aforementioned "Towards a Poetics of Chaucerian Narrative" reorients dramatic and narrative readers to the verse forms Chaucer deploys by asking "what difference it makes . . . that most of th[e tales] are poems?" (99). Pearsall's turn to the poetic or what we might call the text's literariness, he openly acknowledges as a turn away from the historical. If a turn away from the historical and theoretical has been criticized in other contributions, this essay differs in its self-consciousness of such a turn, what it generously acknowledges in a full set of scholarly notes the value of what has been gained by such historicist work, for example, "the history of sexuality and gender relationships" (110) or "what can usefully be read 'through' [Chaucer's poetry] in reference to the world we ordinarily live in" (100). Pearsall emphasizes what a focus on any of the various forms of historical content cannot: "the way the words are chosen and arranged have a wider range of possible meanings than they have in ordinary discourse, and not in any way confined to denotation" (100). His essay reminds us why Chaucer's poetry is continually read and re-read in an ever-expanding canon of literary and cultural works.

With a strangely narrow linguistic specificity (as well as bald French nationalist interest), Colette Stevanovitch writes about "Polysyllabic words in end-of-line position in the Franklin's Tale." Hardly an essay one expects to find in a collection as putatively basic as this one, Stevanovitch argues essentially for the greatness of Chaucer as a derivation of his ability to adopt French forms. Not that any references are made, but apparently Stevanovitch finds the work of Piero Boitani and David Wallace on the Italian influence on Chaucer irrelevant. As a further illustration of the unevenness of the collection, one turns to Derek Brewer's essay on Chaucer's "Knight and Miller: Similarity and Difference." Written for a general audience, Brewer's treatment of the Knight-Miller interaction introduces readers to what is arguably the most central and productive conflict of the Canterbury Tales as a whole: the aristocratic and bourgeois antipathies of late medieval society. Brewer's notes are almost exclusively citations of the primary texts (with the exception of his own New Introduction to Chaucer). Years of Chaucer scholarship are silently incorporated into his introduction of the material, such as the assertion that both the Knight's elegant courtly narrative and the Miller's coarser comic farce are "designed for the same fourteenth-century audience or readership" (127). While the digestion of materials--here an argument first made by Per Nykrog in 1973--attests to their universal acceptance and even commonplace status, Brewer's noteless style jars noticeably with other efforts as well as Harding's introductory claims.

Harding's collection is divided into two sections. The first "groups together the articles that deal most directly with the literariness of the Canterbury Tales and with the problem of how to read this framed collection of stories" (12). Part two focuses on particular tales and themes. However the relation to Kittredge's dramatic ideas and critical influence persists loosely across both parts (the division in the collection occurs between Stevanovitch's and Brewer's essays). In fact, in what reads as a critical replication of Kittredge's elaboration of Eleanor Prescott Hammond's idea of the "marriage group" in the Canterbury Tales, a number of essays begin a discussion of the subjects of marriage and women. Juliette Dor considers "The Wife of Bath's 'Wandrynge by the Weye' and Conduct Literature for Women," using courtesy literature like Christine de Pizan's Treasure of the City of Ladies and "What the Goodwife Taught Her Daughter." Highlighting the ambiguities of her physical description and behavior Dor turns to courtesy literature "as a yardstick to measure the Wife's deviance" (141). Following on Dor's consideration of women, Lesley Lawton's "'Glose Whoso Wole': Voice, Text and Authority in the Wife of Bath's Prologue" continues the discussion of women and particularly the debate about women's discourse. She presents the textual nature of the Wife's construction and her authority--the texts she cites and speaks as well as the anti-feminist texts from which she is created--over and against the dramatic understanding of the Wife's individualized speaking voice. Lawton's essay is exemplary for its straightforward presentation of a complex subject, its primary, secondary, and theoretical references and its clarity. Finally, Elizabeth Robertson treats the doctrinal points regarding marriage and consent in order to understand the historical position of women as they are presented in an array of Chaucer's tales. Her "Marriage, Mutual Consent, and the Affirmation of the Female Subject in the Knight's Tale, the Wife of Bath's Tale, and the Franklin's Tale" explores "the different ways competing understandings of the female subject in marriage theory and practice shape Chaucer's representation of the degree of agency the female subject exhibits" (176). From the elegant quotation I have pulled here, one can glean the tenor of Robertson's essay. Like some of the others I have singled out, she offers a more specific argument with excellent reference materials than one might expect in an introductory volume, but one, I think, that is nicely prepared for by the two essays that precede hers.

Susanna Fein's "Boethian Boundaries: Compassion and Constraint in the Franklin's Tale" gives a rather specific (and interesting) reading of that story's serious philosophic questions and the value of the concepts of constraint/self-restraint for the tale. Somewhere toward the middle of the essay (near n. 28), Fein situates her discussion as a response to the dramatic approach to the Tales, which she finds too limiting and dismissive of the complaint as a literary form. Boethian philosophy offers a means of reading some of the grand metaphysical questions in the tale rather than mocking the characters' or the narrator's melodramatic voices. Fein's discussion and her extensive notes offer students much to think about. By contrast, David Raybin writes directly to the issue of the dramatic approach in "Poetry and Play in the Nun's Priest's Tale and the Pardoner's Tale," which makes a nice review of the relevant treatments, pro and con, of Kittredge's reading. Raybin's essay serves the purpose of the volume well even if it largely dismisses the dramatic approach (and the various poststructuralist modes that would get at "what makes Chaucer's narrators tick" [218]) for a critically nostalgic view of Chaucer's "ideas" about poetry's dual function as "sentence and solaas." Largely agreeing with C. David Benson's approach, Raybin calls for a Chaucer who "knew the value that could be found in a good story, independent of the particular character of its teller" (226). The simplicity and clarity of Raybin's claims is immediately useful for the purposes of Harding's collection. One only hopes the co-editor of the Chaucer Review looks less disdainfully at the "practitioners of historicist studies, gender studies, feminist studies, deconstructionist studies, marxist studies, queer studies, formalist studies, anthropological studies, and most especially psychologically and psychoanalytically oriented studies" (217-18)--most of whom (in my reading of the criticism) do not focus on the narrator--if the now moribund journal is going to survive.

Ending the collection are shorter essays from two eminent scholars in France, both of whom probably understand the needs of Agregation students better than anyone but whose essays are sharply disengaged with the critical discourse on their subjects. Andre Crepin's "The cock, the priest, and the poet" reads as a set of eclectic comments on the Nun's Priest's Tale celebrating "the enchantment of The Canterbury Tales" (236). Its "series of narrators--the cock, the priest, and the poet--creates a never ending succession of questionings and thoughts" (236), a rather lackluster note on which to end an essay and Harding's collection, not to mention Chaucer's tale. Crepin's comments come out of left field as, for example, he blithely describes the cock's "symbolic connotation[s]" as they appear to him from the weathervanes of churches. His general allegorical readings of these birds that blow with the wind is somewhat amusing but rather ridiculous as a model of scholarship. In a similarly undergraduate fashion, Helene Dauby surveys "The generation gap in The Canterbury Tales," one of many transhistorical themes, she avers, found in Chaucer's poem. Dauby's general point may be summed up by her closing sentence, which generalizes Chaucer's humor in the Canterbury Tales and makes a comparison characteristic of her essay as a whole, "Like Moliere, Chaucer has the knack of entertaining the audience while probing the human predicament" (241). That these two essays conclude a section on particularized readings of the tales is nothing short of completely disappointing. I wouldn't let any of my students get away with this uncritical level of generalization in my introductory Chaucer course.

While a number of these essays might be helpful to beginning readers (Pearsall, Ganim, Lawton and Robertson particularly), the larger part will not. If one is a student of the Agregation, one may have been advised to attend to this collection. The readings of the Canterbury Tales offered here may be what the administers of that examination are looking for. All other students of Chaucer would do better to look elsewhere.

Article Details

Author Biography

Elizabeth Scala

University of Texas at Austin