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22.02.02 Moseley (ed.), Engaging With Chaucer

22.02.02 Moseley (ed.), Engaging With Chaucer

C. W. R. D. Moseley’s Engaging with Chaucer: Practice, Authority, Reading, is a worthy addition to the genre of occasional collections of essays on Chaucer. Originally appearing in two guest-edited sections of Critical Survey, its small book-form offers eleven compactly lucid and learned essays framed by a wide-ranging introduction, where Moseley manages to invoke all the essays while sampling a long tradition of literary and academic presentations of and interests in Chaucer, stressing throughout both his poetic craft and the need for the “skills of...attentive readers” (5). Noting the resonance of Chaucer’s unsettled period with our “time of unprecedented social, political, moral, epistemological and environmental uncertainty” (1), Moseley notes that the “engaging” of the title “can have the sense of ‘enter into conflict with’” (3). But none of the essays does that, and much of the introduction defends the value of continuing to investigate “a toweringly great poet” (10) who occupied “a world of assumptions and behaviour immeasurably and unknowably different from ours and was, moreover, white, male, and very dead” (4), but whose period shared “our itchy unease about what constitutes truth in statement or the reliability of knowledge” (5) while enduring a “time of radical upheaval” (1) from which we might learn.

It is unfair to pick out these slightly hyperbolic claims guiding an introduction that, like the full title and the collection as a whole, invokes a very wide and stimulating range of approaches and responses to Chaucer, while deftly avoiding any claims to comprehensive authority like those borne by guidebooks or “companions.” The volume’s overtly modest remit probably needs a little hyperbole to capture the attention of the casual reader (or student). At the same time, in conceptual range the volume has a spectral resemblance to the quasi-encyclopedic topics of such guides. Such topics are often expressed in chapter subtitles rather than main titles, which emphasize particular focuses. Thus “The Pardoner’s Passing and How It Matters: Gender, Relics, and Speech Acts,” is Alex da Costa’s adroit twist (can ‘he’ be a ‘she’?) on the well-studied issue of how doubts about gender identity and language’s potency intersect in “The Pardoner’s Tale”; da Costa uses this to set forth some of the “felicitous” conditions of speech acts from J. L. Austin’s How to Do Things With Words (or rather, from the first half of Austin’s self-contradictory book) in comparison to Chaucer’s demonstrations of the powers and limits of performative language. Simon Meecham-Jones’s “Blanche, Two Chaucers, and the Stanley Family: Rethinking the Reception of the Book of the Duchess,” demonstrates how investigating the conditions of a poem’s early history of reception might change our view of the work’s original status and meanings. Meecham-Jones tracks the mid-fifteenth century cluster of Chaucer manuscripts that first added Duchess to the canon, to consider the complicated political and textual conditions of this emergence and propose some new perspectives: probably first was Bodleian Library MS Fairfax 16 (c. 1450), which includes poems possibly by Henry VI’s supporter William de la Pole, duke of Suffolk, and was likely commissioned by John Stanley of Hooton, from an important Northern family that was also tied (until it wasn’t) to Henry VI: Stanley’s selections of the works in Fairfax 16, Meecham-Jones further speculates, sought to cast a Lancastrian tint over Chaucer, an effort possibly abetted by the contributions of otherwise forgotten works rummaged up by Suffolk’s wife, Alice (the second Chaucer), the poet’s granddaughter. Meecham-Jones further thinks that the dearth of earlier copies might show that Lancastrian family actively “disliked” the poem (89), until the poet’s granddaughter found a way to reintroduce it into the poet’s collected works. This series of speculations might be questioned at many of its steps, but it plausibly and usefully challenges the common (but equally fragile) biographical narrative that Chaucer began his poetic career as the close and valued poetic supporter of Gaunt and the Lancastrian family. We continue to need more critical attention to the post-Ricardian constructions of Chaucer’s authorial image.

If the overt focuses of some chapters are narrow, others stand closer to introductions to their topics. Sebastian Sobecki’s essay on Chaucer’s earliest readers (that is, those who read him in his lifetime, not all who soon imitated his poetry) is “companion”-ready, summarizing recent work rather than forging new claims about Chaucer’s contemporary and slightly later readers; this breadth and posture, rather than the chapter’s particular content (which seems an oblique opening to a set of studies on Chaucer), might explain its placement first in the volume. The volume’s coverage and sequence are so diffidently introduced, in fact, that I began to look for subtle principles of order as well as recurrent approaches. Three essays take up reception: not just Sobecki’s (first) and Meecham-Jones’s (midway in the volume), but also Jacqueline Tasioulas’s excellent, and final, essay on Henryson’s Testament of Cresseid as a response to Chaucer’s play with truth-value (or what Morton Bloomfield called his “authenticating frames”). The essay takes us to the volume’s latest chronological point. But by showing Henryson’s careful invocations of Anelida and Arcite, the essay also elucidates in new ways Anelida’s morbid obsessiveness, which Henryson, by invoking her “complaint’s” uniquely complex verse form, proffers as a way to consider Troilus as well. The interaction between reception history and how and what literary properties we notice constitutes one of the volume’s key contributions.

An interest in the power of form governs several others of the essays, including Moseley’s own contribution on the cross-purposeful numerological structures of Parliament of Fowls. Those that she proposes (including highly complex substructures and distant parallels) would, she argues, be audible to a trained medieval ear but even more to a medieval reader, who, though lacking line numbering, would, Moseley believes, be able to identify the exact midpoint (either line 699 or 700) and from there gather what Moseley argues is the poem’s pervasive numerology, especially the power of sevens (found in various Platonizing philosophers, but notably, though not noted by Moseley, in Macrobius, whose version of Cicero’s Dream of Scipio opens the poem). Moseley identifies, convincingly enough, an elaborate envelope-structure at the center of the poem, a bookish structure of harmony that silently contrasts the oral performance of so noisily performative a work. Such doubling of perspectives makes harmony visible but only outside the noise and argument of the birds, even outside poetry, in the realm of mathematics where medieval theory of music (like that of astronomy) was located.

The focus on form also governs Ad Putter’s informative investigation of Chaucer’s metrical irregularities, which turn out to have discernible patterns and consistent strategies (but different ones in Chaucer’s short-line poetry and his iambic pentameter) for clarifying grammar, emphases, and changes in speaker. In a context in which punctuation was crude and unreliable, meter was a “much more future-proof method” (66) of indicating grammatical and dialogic structures; Putter elegantly demonstrates the tricks Chaucer uses for such grammatically and rhetorically clarifying features, and shows their use well before Chaucer. This suggests a flip side to poetry written for oral and aural experience: rather than seeming cacophonous until we regard it textually, sub specie aeternitatis, the poetry needs listeners able to experience by metrical means what readers of later poetry derive from punctuation. Putter’s appreciation of Chaucer’s initial stresses after enjambment, for example, as “a way of reunit[ing] grammatical partners separated by line a subtle aspect of his poetic art” (69), is itself a subtle appreciation of Chaucer’s living meter. The essay is one of the best on Chaucer’s meter I have read.

The volume’s essays are all compact, fresh, and lucid, testimony to careful writing and careful editing. There is some inconsistency in the mix of focused and more general essays, but this is allowed by the genre of “engaging” that the volume announces. Somewhat more troubling is that in spite of Moseley’s introductory comments on the resonance of Chaucer’s period with our “unprecedented social, political, moral, epistemological and environmental uncertainty,” the essays themselves provide almost no attention to the social, political, economic, or epidemiological arguments and disruptions of Chaucer’s period, apart from Meecham-Jones’ focus on the circumstances of his later reception, and the general implications of Helen Cooper’s adept pursuit of Chaucer’s vocabulary of misfortune.

“Handbooks” and “companions” can always be criticized for not surveying enough, which this collection, kept almost intact from its first incarnation in a periodical, categorically avoids. A further, shrewder objection to guides and companions, recently expressed in this journal, is that using Chaucer as an occasion to survey wider ranges and contexts can allow him to sink invisibly into the background, implying that Chaucer is somehow the normative epitome of his age. [1] This too the volume’s narrowly focused ‘engagements’ with Chaucer’s poetics and reception handily avoid. But given the advertisements of the introduction and the presentation of the essays as a collection, it seems fair to wonder at the scope of the idea of ‘engagement’ that leaves untouched the historical and political settings and conflicts in which Chaucer forged his work as a “toweringly great poet.” “Too many people now read poetry with tin ears,” Moseley complains (7). This volume does very good service in counteracting that. Is that enough?



1. Holly A. Crocker, review of The Oxford Handbook of Chaucer, ed. Suzanne Conklin Akbari and James Simpson, TMR 21.11.13.