Why Do We Care About Chaucer?

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Arthur Szyk. Illustration from the 1946 edition of The Canterbury Tales in modern English verse by Frank Ernest Hill, with miniatures by the Polish illustrator and caricaturist (and later US citizen) Arthur Szyk. ©Jerry Fieldsted. Source:

The entries in this blog so far have been exemplary in asking fundamental questions about Chaucer, concerning the fragmentary structure of the Canterbury Tales and how, if at all, we can locate Chaucer’s voice in that polycephalic text. I want to ask another fundamental question, one so basic I’m worried I don’t have anything interesting to say about it, but one to which we must have an answer, since we enact answers to it all the time whether we think about it or not: why do we care about Chaucer at all? The two answers that come to my mind are both embarrassingly retro: 1) Chaucer’s a genius; 2) Chaucer’s poetry, particularly the Canterbury Tales, is exceptionally well-suited to the material and ideological conditions of higher education. I think both are right. But what do they mean? And what do they mean together?

Let’s start with the second answer. Unlike the equally brilliant Piers Plowman, the Canterbury Tales lends itself wonderfully to the extraction of a short stretch of text for sustained examination. We all know how easy it is to pull out 15 lines from any of the Tales and set a class to work on it, how many nuances can be found there, how readily those nuances radiate out into the rest of the text. We also know how hard it is to do the same thing when teaching Langland, with the possible exception of the Prologue. It’s as though there’s no way to read Piers for the first time. This is a formal feature of the text, not a historical one. It’s not that Langland is somehow “more medieval” than Chaucer; the fact that students feel that way can be as much a hindrance to their reading of Chaucer as a help. But the dialectical work of Piers Plowman unfolds over the course of the entire poem in a way that radically changes what it is to read any moment in that text, and the difficulties of the poem don’t often chunk themselves into bite-sized morsels. That formal feature is central to Langland’s genius.

With the Tales, though, it’s different: while of course reading any moment depends on one’s reading of the whole, there’s a lot one can do with, say, the Miller’s portrait of Alisoun, or the crazy conclusion to the Physician’s Tale, just by working with the ways the details of those passages signify, and tug against each other, and radiate out into their immediate contexts. And that formal feature of the poetry works very well both within the pedagogical structures that shaped the emergence of English as a discipline and continue to shape our interactions with our students, and within the professional structures of conference papers, lectures, articles, and book chapters that shape that side of careers in the profession. So one reason we care so much about Chaucer is that each of us is part of a number of “we’s” whose relation to Chaucer is mediated by the sheer historical accident that Chaucer, unlike Langland, wrote in a way that the institutional structures of 20th-century higher education ended up finding convenient.

Still, we shouldn’t hold that against Chaucer. If it’s a sign of genius to have produced a poem, as Langland did, that so persistently interrogates its own grounds that it leaves its best readers in a state of suspension, it’s equally a sign of genius to have produced so many 10-20 line chunks of poetry, not to mention entire poems of various scales, that reward continual re-examination, that always seem capable of producing fresh insights, that always seem to be there ahead of us as we learn to think in new and different ways. That’s why so many students (and critics) are tempted to say that Chaucer somehow anticipated the insights of feminism, or psychoanalysis, or Marxism, or whatever combination of discourses we happen to have learned from. Of course that can’t be right. But then neither can it be the case that we are merely projecting our concerns onto the text. Gower, for instance (whose work also lends itself to isolating 10-20 line chunks for examination, who also wrote a big poem in the London dialect, who also was fascinated by politics and gender and sexuality and other motivating concerns of modern criticism), has not proven nearly as receptive.

The best way I can think to put it would be to say that Chaucer has an uncanny ear for the play of signification. Over and over again, as I teach the Canterbury Tales, my students pick up on a trope that I never quite recognized as a trope before, or they notice multiple meanings in a term I had previously read straight; and as they do this, it turns out that the trope or the multiple meanings link up with other figures and terms, and suddenly they have opened up a new way of thinking about something I had thought I understood. There is an incredible density of such moments in Chaucer’s poetry; and such moments themselves are incredibly dense, criss-crossed with the play of the signifier.

Condensation is all over the place in Chaucer’s poetry, and, well, it’s very condensed condensation. I want to make an intentionalist claim about this, but I don’t quite know how. Chaucer didn’t just get lucky; this is what he was aiming at. But while I might want to say that Chaucer was on the track of what Freud and Lacan were on the track of (which is not quite the same thing as saying that Freud or Lacan gives us the best terms for accounting for it), others who recognize the thing I’m pointing to will have different ways of putting it; and if there is still such a thing as literary criticism in another fifty years, students and teachers will continue to recognize that thing, while all of our ways of accounting for it will sound like curious historical artifacts of turn-of-the-century intellectual culture.

I’ll conclude by raising one further aspect of the question for consideration. If you’ll grant me that something like what I’m pointing to above is right (whether or not you agree with my way of articulating it), why do we care about that? Our critical and pedagogical practices point in two directions here. One is a kind of Arnoldian humanism, newly revitalized, among other places, in the return to formalism, the recent critical emphasis on ethical self-cultivation, and some of the directions taken in affect theory. The other is the cultivation of something very different: not the self, but critical habits of mind that interrupt the circuits of identification that make for Arnoldian horticulture. As we think not only about the value and purpose of our attention to Chaucer, but about the value and purpose of higher education, we might try again to think through the questions raised by these directions in our practice.

Mark Miller
University of Chicago

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