09.10.20, Lerer, ed., The Yale Companion to Chaucer

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James H. Morey

The Medieval Review 09.10.20

Lerer, Seth, ed.. The Yale Companion to Chaucer.. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006. Pp. ix, 420. ISBN: 978-0300-12597-9.

Reviewed by:
James H. Morey
Emory University

This collection of essays enters a crowded field, but it will emerge as one of the best critical treatments of Chaucer and his poetry. The editor offers the collection to a primarily American audience with more theoretical interests (poststructuralism, psychoanalysis, feminism, New Historicism) as opposed to those in Britain who have more philological training and historical awareness (2). To this end Lerer invited members of a "generation of Chaucerians establishing themselves at the beginning of the twenty-first century" (1) to submit a total of ten essays. Several of the contributors were quite well established before the turn of the millennium, and the only common theoretical strain is a concern with Chaucer's literary self- consciousness and with the poem as artifact. Nonetheless each essay will repay the attention of any advanced undergraduate or graduate student.

Lerer's introduction compensates for any perceived philological or historical deficiency by providing an excellent sense of fourteenth- century material culture, language, and means of production. Gower, Caxton, Hoccleve and Shirley receive brief but apt articulations to Chaucer's life and work. In a welcome departure from the usual introductions to such volumes, Lerer dispenses with a recapitulation of the volume's contents in favor of an introduction to how we know what we know about Chaucer.

Part I, "Contexts and Cultures," consists of four essays. Christopher Cannon in "The Lives of Geoffrey Chaucer" stresses Chaucer's "marginality" (34) in that, despite his place in the thick of court life, he is always the keen observer and not the full participant. Cannon delivers a version of Anne Middleton's Chaucerian narrator, "stretched to the point of transparency" (cited by Cannon on page 49 from Middleton's 1978 "Public Poetry" essay in Speculum) and Cannon struggles along with every student of Chaucer's biography when confronted with the rich life record (trips to Italy, prestigious appointments, the notorious "raptus") in comparison to the absence of any mention in that life record of his poetic work. Cannon's claim that "insisting on this distinction [between poet and pilgrim] also becomes a way of narrowing the gap even further" (49) is a bit of special pleading, but to be fair Cannon is more interested in theorizing how Chaucer's biography can be imagined than in providing one within the constraints of the essay.

James Simpson's "Chaucer as a European Writer" is an elegant and erudite tour of Chaucer's literary ancestors and influences: Ovid, Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun, Machaut, Froissart, Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio. Despite the scope of the coverage, Simpson succeeds in demonstrating how Chaucer becomes the spokesman of "poetic modernity" (71) and how he balances aristocratic and bourgeois themes to make "one tale...potentially as good as another" (80). The essay with which Simpson's is paired, D. Vance Smith's "Chaucer as an English Writer" is not as satisfying partly due to his assumption (which, however probable, is not a certainty) that Chaucer knew the poetry of William Langland. Smith's examination of Chaucer's use of Breton lays and of romances from the Auchinleck manuscript allows him to outline the difference between Chaucer's "weak Englishness" (how Chaucer is a Romantic "genius" of the age [99]) and his "strong Englishness" (how Chaucer appropriates and transforms romances and lays even while writing in a language he feels ambivalent about).

The final essay in Part I is Rita Copeland's "Chaucer and Rhetoric," a skillful exposition of Chaucer's style and of how rhetoric is always the "meta-language" (123) through which small scale semantic choices and larger scale strategies of persuasion make sense of experience. Only a scholar of Copeland's stature could write so well about the ancient feud between rhetoric and philosophy and about the claims to authority and truth each makes. There are particularly fine readings of The Wife of Bath's Tale, The Tale of Melibee, Troilus and Criseyde, and The Nun's Priest's Tale.

Part II, "Major Works, Major Issues," consists of another set of four essays. Deanne Williams opens her treatment of the dream visions with a reading of the opening line of the House of Fame: "God turne us every dream to goode." Williams is quite right in glossing this line as "God help us" (147), but the line does not ask for God's help in interpreting the dreams correctly but simply in praying that every dream, however cryptic or disturbing, will have a positive instantiation. The dream is the dream and fate is fate, no matter how good or bad the interpreter. The visions foreground issues of literary interpretation perhaps more than any other works in the Chaucerian corpus, but even so these poems are as much about life and experience as they are about self-referential textuality. In quibbling about the reading of this line I do not mean to fault Williams in particular, since many critics share this impulse to make the subject of a poem the creation of itself as opposed to the finding of meaning both in and outside of a poem.

Bruce Holsinger's contribution on the "Lyrics and Short Poems," that "strange corner of [Chaucer's] oeuvre" (179), is the most original and revelatory of the entire volume. Holsinger uses the least lyrical of Chaucer's work--the Boece--in a non-intuitive but inspired way to demonstrate how Chaucer either ignores or narrows the rich lyric traditions in Latin, French, Italian, and English itself. Far from denigrating Chaucer's talent, Holsinger explains how the constraints of lyric form enable Chaucer's innovations as a narrative poet. The next two essays--Jennifer Summit on Troilus and Criseyde and Lerer's on The Canterbury Tales will surely be the most often assigned due to their subject matter, and both provide fine overviews of these large and difficult works. Summit concentrates on "the woman question" (Jill Mann's phrase, cited on page 214) and on the intersections of sexuality and textuality. One must agree that "politics, social class, and gender" (232) influence the representation and actions of each character, but this reviewer is enough of a fatalist to maintain that politics, class and gender are subject to Fortune just as much as individual interpretation, no matter how acute, and action, no matter how strong. Summit overstates when she identifies Criseyde's dilemma "as she that nyste what was best to rede" (I.96) as "a failure of literacy" (225). Reading is simply not the primary meaning of the verb "reden" here, and Summit gives a more nuanced, but still too text-centric, sense of the verb later, on page 236. Lerer's essay is the longest in the collection and, with Copeland's, rich and accomplished. Lerer does more in this piece than some entire books on the Tales accomplish. While I disagree with a few minor points (e.g. that the Pardoner is "blithely unaware that he is giving away the whole game of his profession" [260]; of all the pilgrims he seems to me to be the most in control, at least until the very end), Lerer brilliantly exposes what he calls the "decay of language" (250) in the Tales.

The collection ends with two essays in a section called "Critical Approaches and Afterlives." Stephanie Trigg, in "Chaucer's Influence and Reception" gives many good perspectives, with critical background, on what is an enormous subject. She notes how much work was done in the twentieth-century to "purify" Chaucer's text, now making it possible for us to re-recover what Chaucer wrote (297). Ethan Knapp's "Chaucer Criticism and its Legacies" provides not only an admirable review of the high points of Chaucerian scholarship (Robinson, Manly and Rickert, Crow and Olson, Muscatine, Donaldson, Robertson) but also an education in how the academy practices literary history (Arnold, Leavis, Eliot, Foucault).

The first two appendices (a chronology and a bibliography of manuscripts and early printed books) are helpful. The last three (the patterning of the Canterbury pilgrims and Tales, a map of London and maps of England showing the spread of Lollardy and of the extent of activity in the 1381 rebellion) are not well produced. Since the Lollards are mentioned only once, on page 6, one wonders why that map is there at all. Otherwise the entire volume meets a high standard and it should become one of the best and most affordable critical companions to put in the hands of our students.

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Author Biography

James H. Morey

Emory University