The Medieval Review 14.04.25


Carney, Clíodhna and Frances McCormack. Chaucer's Poetry: Words, Authority and Ethics. Dublin Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2013. Pp. 204. $74.50. ISBN: 978-1-84682-336-7.



Reviewed by:


Andrew Higl
Winona State University
ahigl@winona.edu

The motto of the book might very well quote Monty Python: "And now for something completely different." Clíodhna Carney and Frances McCormack have put together a motley array of Chaucer essays in their volume Chaucer's Poetry: Words, Authority, and Ethics. With Chaucer's centrality in the canon, the variety of theories and approaches that have been used to understand his work since the beginnings of the discipline of English should surprise no one. After more than one-hundred years, the scholarship on Chaucer is extensive and various; it ceased to be a single scholarly conversation a long time ago, leaving many smaller, fragmented, and often siloed conversations about Chaucer and his work to happen independently of one another. This volume is another story. Unlike many of the recent collections of essays on Chaucer that adopt a particular theme, theory, or issue and remain narrowly focused throughout, this book is open and broad, and the essays rather dissimilar; nevertheless, there is something refreshing about that breadth in this case. The only thing that really unites the essays in the volume is that they are all about Chaucer. If for nothing else, I think such an approach is a useful reminder that Chaucer's work lends itself to many different ways of reading, and we shouldn't insulate ourselves with just one of them.

In the first essay, John Scattergood triangulates a pejorative definition of the term and concept "goodfellas" with Chaucer and Sir John Clanvowe, bringing Martin Scorsese's film Goodfellas into the mix to show the linguistic resonance of such a definition in American popular culture. Scattergood's claim is in part about the term "goodfellas" and in part about what it means that Chaucer and Clanvowe share a common lexicon. I often assign a lexical investigation of this sort in my Chaucer seminars, and this essay models such research methods very convincingly and effectively.

Next Niamh Pattwell promises to explore the patterns "of silence and pauses and inevitable disruptions" in the Prioress's Tale (38). While the essay is filled with intelligent readings and nuanced observations, it is hard to discern how the chapter is primarily about the patterns Pattwell promises to explore early in the essay. Nevertheless, perhaps the most noteworthy point in the essay is the argument that tale is filled with instances of "rejection of learning" (40).

Chaucer states at the end of the prologue to the Miller's Tale "men shal nat maken ernest of game" (I.3186). This line seems straightforward enough, but as Megan Murton demonstrates, Chaucer's ethical intent is rather slippery in the Canterbury Tales. Chaucer often hides behind unreliable narrators and murky sententia, eluding a single doctrine and cultivating an "experience of doctrine as a dynamic process" (59). I think the idea of looking at "doctrine as a dynamic process" has interpretive implications across the Tales and reminds us that earnest sentence is not mutually exclusive from the playfulness of solaas-filled game.

"Secondariness" is the key term of Clíodhna Carney's essay; that is to say, Carney argues that the voice of the Wife and the voice of the Clerk are marked by their use of the ideas and words of others. The envoy that concludes the Clerk's Tale marks a departure from the secondariness that dominates the tale itself. Carney argues that the envoy is finally the Clerk's voice and no longer Chaucer's voice mediated by the Clerk. In Carney's view, the envoy marks the perfect requital of the Wife. Perhaps the most important thing the essay offers is a reminder that the Riverside's assignation of the envoy to Chaucer obscures a rather unstable manuscript tradition and the potential interpretations of reading the envoy as the voice of the Clerk finally being himself and speaking to the Wife's manipulation of authority and sources.

Helen Phillips explores the connection between Chaucer's use of Apollo, Phoebus, and sun imagery relative to the near-obsession with sun imagery in the court of Richard II. Badges, triptychs, and other licensed visual texts reinforce Richard's interest in fostering a connection to the sun and implicitly Apollo. Phillips compares Chaucer's use of Apollo with that of Dante, finding that Chaucer resists a stable ideation of the sun and the sun god in his work in comparison to Dante. Chaucer's unstable use of sun, Phillips argues, points to an anxiety about the relationship between poet and patron. This anxiety seems to come down to a question of agency and the performance of agency in poetry. Is a poetical work the co-creation of poet and patron? How much authority does one party have? While Phillips's argument orbits around the rhetorical meaning of the sun in Chaucer's work, I think this question of the relationship between poet and patron might prompt further investigations into and new understandings of the role of patrons in the production of poetry and perhaps even the specific influence of patrons on particular manuscripts.

Krysten Lynn Cole's essay reminds us that form, in particular meter, is not a set of mutually exclusive options. Meter is, as she says, "end points of a range of choices" (106). Chaucer's form, in fact, points to a poetical positioning between the continental form of Romance languages and the English form of the Alliterative Revival. Chaucer neither forces the sing-song rhythm of syllable-timed meter, what Cole calls deductive, onto a stress-timed language, nor does he limit himself to the stress-timed patterns of alliterative verse, what Cole calls inductive verse. The essay suggests Chaucer positions his verse in the middle, sometimes deliberately eschewing the strictures of syllable-timed meter so sound does not overwhelm sense. In many ways, this essay is part of a larger conversation about Chaucer's "cross-channel intellectual commerce" (92). While that discussion has focused on Chaucer's narrative, language, along with his positioning as an author, Cole's essay does well to bring meter into the fold of historicism.

Returning to the Prioress, Frances McCormack compares the empty words of the Pardoner to the empty words of the Prioress; while the Pardoner's Tale is the epitome of a divorce between message and intent, the Prioress's Tale is marked by a divorce between style and substance. The tale is not concerned with doctrine or even theological continuity, but sensuality and affectivity. Just as the Pardoner is sexually indeterminate, the Prioress is overly sensual in a celibate social position. The argument is that "Chaucer employs the dichotomy of gendered discourse to construct a case against religious modes of speech that are unsupported by authority" (116). While McCormack's case is convincing, some points seem left out. First, perhaps because the previous chapter focused on versification, I wondered why there wasn't some discussion of the rhyme royal form. Also, I wonder what happens if we divorce tale from teller. Just as theologians debated whether an immoral priest could effectively consecrate the bread and wine, one might wonder if something good might come out of the moral rhetoric of the immoral Pardoner. Similarly, one must wonder whether or not a tale that is all style and no substance is necessarily a case against a particular form of religious discourse or if it is an exploration of whether words must be cousin to their speakers and whether style might subsume meaning and still make for a good, pious tale.

The inconsistencies in the uses of time in the Parliament of Fowls may be explained away as the sloppiness of a poem designed for oral recitation or justified with elaborate reinterpretations of feast days and medieval views of the season. Charlotte Steenbrugge argues that the inconsistencies in time, especially in that the eternal day is paired with a description of the sun moving towards the west, may be explained by the medieval view that "perpetuity could accommodate mutability and time" (128). Steenbrugge concludes that this intentional inconsistency is Chaucer questioning timeless authority. This is especially remarkable considering how carefully Chaucer tends to put a timestamp on his work. For instance, the Tales are set in April and the House of Fame on December 10. In fact, Chaucer tells us the date twice early in the House of Fame. It seems the argument for a rhetorical use of inconsistent time might be extended to other works as well and might make the case even more convincing if the pattern appears in those other works.

Brendan O'Connell argues that the so-called "counterfeit exempla" are marked by the pivotal presence of counterfeit documents. While O'Connell's main point is that Chaucer's primary concern is the authority and authenticity of documents with ethical implications, one might suggest that the pattern of falsified texts occurs far beyond the exempla O'Connell focuses on. Perhaps the full spectrum of false texts fell outside of the purview of the essay. I was also rather surprised to see the coins in the envoy to the Clerk's Tale mentioned at the end and not connected to some of the evidence from earlier in the essay. For me, the stamped impression on a coin and the stamp on the royal and papal seals that validate the forged documents O'Connell discusses early in the essay go together in remarkable ways.

The collection takes a turn with the last two essays and finally aims for some unity with two chapters on Chaucer's afterlife. Malte Urban's essay is really two distinct discussions. The first part takes up Chaucer's dynamic virtual new media self, always subject to remaking and reimagining. The second part of the essay considers the digitization of manuscripts. I have to say that I am particularly interested in both of these topics, and they have been at the heart of my scholarship as of late. The latter part of the essay focuses on the effect of digitization on the original document. That is to say, the new digital representation is distinct from the original document; it is a new thing with new implications and new potential meanings. The point is much the same with Chaucer. Malte's connection between the two becomes clear at the end. Such a link is quite fascinating. However, what is missing is a discussion of how Chaucer is constructed newly almost immediately after his death, and the making of Chaucerian avatars continues with every new media and/or dominant ideology after 1400. The argument is much stronger with regard to manuscripts remediated. In digital environs, they are changing in ways never before possible. Chaucer, on the other hand, has been changing and virtual for over 600 years.

The final chapter moves away from Chaucer's work in favor of Chaucer's influence on William Morris and mediation through Morris. In fact, I think Malte's essay and Richard Pearson's final essay are in dialogue. Pearson's article serves an apt reminder that virtual Chaucer of the digital world is just as much a construction as the Chaucer of Morris's world. The chapter does well to trace Morris's inheritance of Chaucer through the concept of interruptions, not only tracing interruptions in Morris's work habits but also in his art, and, in turn, Chaucer's own narrative interruptions. The essay culminates in a nuanced reading of the effect of type and decorations of the Kelmscott Chaucer on Chaucer's text, concluding that "their materiality interrupts an imaginative reconstruction of Chaucer's world" (184).

The only way to consider this book is to consider the essays individually. As a whole, there is not much that unifies it. As individual pieces, the essays are strong. While some chapters seem incomplete, even those essays are well argued and might prompt further and fuller investigations. If for nothing else, the book is a useful reminder that Chaucer scholarship is vibrant and diverse and open to new readings of lingering points of uncertainty and anxiety in his work.



Copyright (c) 2014 Andrew Higl



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