In a new book, scholar David Wallace reflects on the master of Middle English verse, his world, and ours.
David Wallace didn’t set out to be a medievalist, and to this day he’s not interested in Game of Thrones. His idea as a young man was to study 20th century literature—until, that is, he heard Chaucer read aloud.
It was the music of the language that got him, and that has held him ever since. Wallace, the Judith Rodin Professor of English and a renowned expert, has just published Geoffrey Chaucer: A New Introduction, a chapbook-sized volume from Oxford University Press that distills a lifetime of Chaucerian learning into 172 pages of text.
Which raises an interesting question: why Chaucer and why now? At a time when students often seem caught up with more pragmatic concerns, what can a poet from 600 years ago—writing in what can seem like a foreign language—have to tell us today? Just about everything, Wallace insists, noting that Chaucer was an encyclopedic writer (as well as a man of the world) whose catholic work touches on nearly every aspect of life from women’s rights to ecology. In addition, there’s the excitement of seeing a writer at work when the language was still malleable. Far from suffering “the anxiety of influence,” as modern poets are said to do, Chaucer wrote when most everything in English literature was yet to come.
Geoffrey Chaucer was born in London, his father a merchant, but his ambitious parents dispatched him to be a page boy in an aristocratic household, and for most of his life he served the king as a civil servant.
A Briton by birth, Wallace has been teaching at Penn since 1996. In March, he began a year-long term as president of the Medieval Academy of America, a leading scholarly group in the field. Gazette contributor Daniel Akst C’78 asked him about Chaucer, his work, and how the two live on at Penn.
Chaucer’s work is brimming with life and art, but his version of our mother tongue was Middle English, which differs quite a bit from the English we speak today. Just what was Middle English, and how can we hope to understand it?
Middle English is a hybrid language, formed when Germanic or Anglo-Saxon elements began fusing with French (after the Norman Conquest of 1066), and also with Viking (Norse), Celtic languages, and Latin. That’s why the English dictionary is so very thick, and why we sometimes have alternative words for the same concept: the Holy Ghost and the Holy Spirit; brotherhood and fraternity. All these elements began to stabilize during Chaucer’s lifetime, but the language was highly flexible.
English literature, for Chaucer, was something close to a tabula rasa. What was his role establishing the contours of the language and literature to come? Was he aware that he was launching something like a national culture?
Chaucer looked to Italy and to the great poetry of Dante; he thought that English might, eventually, achieve something comparable. But the English he inherited fell far short of such lofty aspirations. He first imagines himself as a makere, or maker of verses, like a good artisan or craftsman, rather than as a poet—a word associated with Latin poetria.
You mention that Chaucer recited his poetry before audiences. To what extent did he regard his work as an oral art form, and what role did having an audience play in its evolution?
Chaucer was writing a century before the invention of printing (in the West), and hand-copied manuscripts were expensive. He thus anticipated that one person would read the tale aloud, and others would listen. He builds elements of redundancy and repetition into his poem—so if you miss a bit you can still follow the tale. He is continuously aware of his audience; he is highly performative. Students in all my classes become great readers-aloud of Chaucer.
Chaucer was a government official, a diplomat, a parliamentarian. What effect did his public life have on him as a writer? Did he censor himself, or struggle to find time for writing?
Chaucer was never paid to be a writer of poetry (or a translator of astrological texts, or of philosophy, or of religious lives—his range was huge). He was valued as an efficient and reliable book-keeper, overseer of royal commissions, and even as a member of parliament and Justice of the Peace. But of course, he noticed what was going on in all these professions, and this fed into his poetry.
Chaucer was for a while a customs officer, much like Edward Arlington Robinson and Nathaniel Hawthorne centuries later. I believe this was a patronage job for all three. Was it also a sinecure that left him largely free to write?
The job was certainly not a sinecure: he was in charge of collecting the taxes on wool that was to be exported from London—and wool was England’s most important export. In later years, however, he did have a deputy—and there were more holidays back then (holiday is from holy day), so he likely had more days off.
Chaucer was born roughly at the peak of the Black Death, when Europe was devastated by plague. Did this affect his outlook and his work?
People assume that experiencing the Black Death when he was about five years old, and seeing up to half the population of London die, must have traumatized Chaucer and made him death-obsessed. I would say that the opposite is more likely true: he came to appreciate life, and the process of natural regeneration, as something deeply precious. The General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales begins, after all, with the return of Spring: “Whan that Aprill …”
In your book you’ve enlisted Chaucer in the case for England as an open, European society—which it very much was in his day. Yet didn’t Chaucer also play an important role in separating England from Europe by helping to launch a vernacular literature? In that sense, I wonder if his life and work embody the persistent tensions between an inward- and outward-oriented England.
In Chaucer’s lifetime, and until 1558, English territory extended into continental Europe. The idea of England as a “sceptered isle” protected by the sea, a “moat defensive” (as Shakespeare has John of Gaunt say in his play Richard II) does not reflect the day-to-day experience of Chaucer’s England. Chaucer lived multi-lingually. His wife was French, and French was the preferred language of international diplomacy. He spoke fluent Italian and dealt with Italian merchants every day by the Thames, at the London customs house. Latin was the language of the Catholic religion—until the 1960s, of course. He was twice chosen to take part in diplomatic and trade missions to Italy, and he also travelled to Spain. He fought in France as a young man and was captured and ransomed. The push to make Chaucer “the national poet of England” came in the 19th century. Chaucer’s England was in no way “insular.”
In addition, Chaucer admired Arab science, and his tales respect Muslims who are true to their own laws. We cannot absolve him of the anti-Semitism that touched all his contemporaries, but it’s noteworthy that he assigns his one anti-Semitic fable to the vainest and silliest of his Canterbury pilgrims.
It may come as a surprise to modern readers that Chaucer, like the Greeks, worked blue, as comedians like to say, his writings shot through with sex, flatulence, and other bodily functions. Such frankness is back in vogue culturally, yet between Chaucer and us there stand the likes of Edmund Spenser, not to mention Tennyson, Kipling, and their ilk. Why was Chaucer so free, when his successors often seem so stiff?
You are right: farting stopped in the Renaissance, and is not heard in works such as Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queen. Chaucer actually took a scientific interest in farting; since any sound is defined as “broken air,” farting (or breaking wind) was seen as a form of speech. The meaning of each fart must be deduced from context. If you fart in church, for example, Chaucer says, this indicates that you do not like the sermon. More broadly, Chaucer sees the human condition as uniquely poised between the animal and the angelic.
In House of Fame, a meditation on poetry and renown written in couplets, Chaucer depicts himself as a somewhat dim-witted, wide-eyed naïf, a role he will take up in Canterbury Tales as well. Authorial stand-ins have found themselves thrust into a similar position ever since. Was it some native gift for comedy that made Chaucer try this, instead of giving himself a more heroic cast on the page?
Chaucer’s persona as not-too-bright, not the sharpest knife in the drawer, served him very well. People inevitably connected characters depicted in his tales with historical figures: an angry king in poetry may be connected with the famously irascible Richard II. By portraying himself as a bookish dreamer too portly to be taken seriously as a love interest, Chaucer made himself seem unthreatening. He lived in dangerous times: many of the men he worked with, and also the less-talented writer Thomas Usk, were beheaded. Chaucer has a brilliant gift for comedy, and his comedy is both personal and physical.
Is Chaucer read today by many students at Penn? How can the rest of us, without specialized skills, gain access to the richness of his work?
We regularly offer Chaucer classes at Penn, and we always read the texts in the original Middle English. Students begin with some reservations, but they soon become adept readers of Chaucer—we spend a lot of time reading and performing aloud in the classroom. The spelling looks odd, but is in fact phonetic: we pronounce the k in knight, for example. We have a ton of fun, and class preparations are relatively short: would you rather prep 500 lines of Chaucer or read a door-stopper Victorian novel? We have made some readings of Chaucer, in Middle English, that might be helpful to others. These can be found at Pennsound.