Scholarly criticism of Chaucer's oeuvre verges on being a veritable industry; therefore, volume 31 in D. S. Brewer's excellent series on Chaucer Studies, New Readings of Chaucer's Poetry, makes an intriguing promise that it can, for the most part, keep. A short introduction by Derek Brewer summarizes--more aptly than I can--the ten essays in the volume that originated from the April 2000 Sewanee Medieval Colloquium at The University of the South to celebrate the six-hundred-year anniversary of Chaucer's death. The essays cover most of Chaucer's writings and employ a variety of approaches. A wealth of information can be gleaned from this collection, both by larger approach and in the details of discussion.
This is especially true of the first two essays by Helen Cooper. In "Chaucerian Representation," Cooper masterfully challenges the opinion that Chaucer is "the most naturalistic of medieval writers," arguing that his "works are never straightforwardly mimetic". (7) It is imitation of other authors, not of life, that is at the heart of his poetry. While he uses mostly ancient auctoritates as his seedbed, Chaucer himself becomes such an auctoritas for later writers. By 1532, an edition of his poetry carries the title of "Works," which makes him the first vernacular author in English to become an accepted authority. Cooper further chronicles how each period "remakes Chaucer in its own image, just as he remade old books in a new image" (14), resulting in interesting dichotomies: orthodox Catholic or proto-Protestant, moral author or bawdy writer. Using the Tale of Sir Thopas, Cooper makes the case for Chaucer the "man writing as against the man written"; thus Thopas is either "rym doggerel" or Chaucer's "finest virtuoso" piece. (21) For Cooper, these bifurcations continue in essay two, "Chaucerian Poetics," evident in "Chaucer's double allegiance to both the English language and continental models" (33) and discussed in a number of Chaucer's works. One of the most interesting assertions is that the "Englyssh Gaufride" of the House of Fame is not the often glossed Geoffrey of Monmouth, but Chaucer himself.
John V. Fleming's piece, "The Best Line in Ovid and the Worst," hails Chaucer as the "first learned poet" (53) in English, focusing on his amalgamation of sacred and secular sources, specifically the Bible and Ovid, often via The Romance of the Rose. The leitmotif here, although a bit hard to follow, is the topos of the thirsty woman who, to the detriment of male characters, cannot keep her mouth shut. The article culminates in a discussion on the Wife of Bath. One of the most fascinating points of the essay is that Chaucer--like Jean de Meun, Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio--has been trying to combine the "moral history of the Tanak and the moral history of ancient Troy" (60), that, for instance, the dinner party at Deiphoebus's house is "modelled on the story of the rape of Tamar" (61) in Samuel. Fleming also points out that we have neglected the influence of the "Eight Moral Authors" on Chaucer. More documentation of primary sources would have been helpful for the reader.
In "Delicacy vs. Truth: Defining Moral Heroism in the Canterbury Tales," Traugott Lawler provides a lexical study of the word "delit" and its derivatives, informing us that in Chaucer the term is applied primarily negatively, signaling an "excess of delicacy or refinement" (75) in language, food, and sex in contrast to the virtues of plainness or simplicity. Lawler sees the most obvious examples of this delicacy in the characters of the Pardoner, "Nero, Melibee, January, Walter, Apius, and the tercelet who jilts the falcon" (79) in the Squire's Tale. On the other hand, certain tales contain guiding truths. The Parson's portrait in the General Prologue, the Clerk's Tale, the Second Nun's Tale, and the Franklin's Tale are lauded for their moral rectitude. My favorite suggestion by Lawler is to read the garden scene in the Merchant's Tale as a repeat of the Biblical fall.
Like many readers of Chaucer, William Provost is intrigued by Chaucerian endings, offering a reading of "An ABC," The Book of the Duchess, Troilus and Criseyde, and the "Retraction". This essay is disappointing because it does not have more than seven footnotes nor engages scholarly criticism after 1987. A great deal, however, has been done on endings generally and the "Retraction" specifically, which takes up the lion's share of his essay. Aside from a slew of fine articles on the topic, there are the following recent book-length studies: Rosemarie P. McGerr, Chaucer's Open Books: Resistance to Closure in Medieval Discourse (1998); Anita Obermeier, The History and Anatomy of Auctorial Self-Criticism in the European Middle Age (1999), especially chapter 8; David Raybin and Linda Tarte Holley, eds., Closure in The Canterbury Tales (2000).
"The Engendering of Harry Bailly" becomes the topic of the sixth article in this collection. John F. Plummer explores the connections between words and seeds, along with the engenderer of the tales, the Host, and his interest in the sexuality of the Monk, the Pardoner, the Nun's Priest, and Chaucer the Pilgrim. Plummer theorizes "that generative power in narrative and sexuality are linked, while 'feminine' meekness and quiet [sic] are by contrast linked to...narrative 'feebleness'". (115) To this effect, the Host ranks down Chaucer the Pilgrim but praises the Monk, the Nun's Priest, and Chauntecleer. The reason, however, that Harry Bailly reacts so violently to the Pardoner, Plummer contends, is a certain self-identification with the emasculated Pardoner.
The Shipman's Tale does not receive a lot of scholarly attention; therefore, "Thinking about Money in Chaucer's Shipman's Tale" provides a welcome investigation of medieval and modern attitudes towards money. William E. Rogers and Paul Dower examine the tale both with Karl Marx's notions of money as well as Ludwig von Mises'--the major figure in the Austrian School of economics, "the foundation for the 'libertarian' philosophy of politics" (125)--finding that money functions "as measure of value" as well as "medium of exchange" (126), but that it "seems oddly unstable" in the tale. (130) The question arises whether Chaucer sanctions or satirizes the money-economy of the tale. The authors conclude that, hermeneutically, critics cannot help but project their modern anxieties about money and language onto the tale.
Celia Lewis's work, "Framing Fiction with Death: Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and the Plague" takes issue with the widely held notion that the plague did not influence Chaucer much. Carefully researched and documented, her essay compares the frame narrative of the Canterbury Tales to other medieval story collections, such as the Thousand and One Nights, The Seven Sages of Rome, and the Decameron, in which fiction could ward off death. Lewis does not see the Canterbury Tales working in that vein, but as a healing pilgrimage, on which, she argues, fiction ultimately concedes to the reality of death. The essay provides a multitude of detail discussions, and subtle as they sometimes may be, it is fascinating to think of the Reeve as a representation of the Grim Reaper, complete with "rusty blade."
John Hill sets out to redeem the reputation of Pandarus--often accused of being a bawd--in Troilus and Criseyde by phrasing him in the context of both courtly love and Ciceronian brotherhood. He concedes that the "Ciceronian ideal of virtuous friendship between aristocrats, amicitia, functions mainly in a political and philosophical context for Cicero, not in the affairs of love" (168), but it is Boccaccio, Chaucer's source, who combines the "friend as procurer" with the "friend as aristocratic companion and intimate". (168) The point then becomes what are "honorable and dishonorable acts of assistance in love". (169) Hill exemplifies that Pandarus always acts honorably and in the best interest of Troilus, although they are not exactly social equals.
For R. Barton Palmer it seems a natural step from editing and translating Guillaume de Machaut's The Judgment of the King of Navarre and The Judgment of the King of Bohemia to demonstrating that Chaucer relied on Machaut's work for the structure of his Legend of Good Women. Palmer contends that because of a number of similarities between Machaut and Chaucer, especially palinodic ones, that Chaucer was "writing himself deliberately and creatively into a French tradition". (189) Furthermore, Palmer sees the distinction between Chaucer and his "fictional alter ego" (191) emanating from Machaut. I would add, however, that the palinodic structure permeates Chaucer's entire canon. And Cooper discusses the bifurcations in Chaucer's authorial representations in pieces other than the Legend.
There is much useful information in this volume, but the role and function of its editors is puzzling to me. Benson and Ridyard provide a one-page preface to the volume; Derek Brewer was asked to write the introduction, summarizing the content of the articles. He discusses the essays in a particular order that intimates a progression in the articles' approaches from more traditional methods to modern critical theory. That, however, is not the order in which the articles are printed. It is simply not clear to me under what theoretical principles the volume was put together, and I would have expected the answer to that from the editors. Various analytical pairings or groupings could have been achieved under such rubrics as moral issues (Lawler, Hill), sources (Fleming, Palmer), bifurcations (Cooper, Palmer), sexuality, language, and money (Plummer, Rogers, Dower), to suggest a few. The other problem is that a number of the articles still evidence unnecessary and distracting oral delivery characteristics that needed to be edited out in the transformation from conference paper to published essay (see pages 33, 50, 54, 64, 77, 84, 85, 88, 126). Bios of the contributors would have been helpful as well. Many a good kernel of Chaucerian and critical wheat is produced in New Readings, but an editorial broom should have swept away the superfluous chaff.