Review – The Poet’s Tale: Chaucer and the Year that Made the Canterbury Tales

This major new work pinpoints 1386 as the year in which English literature was changed forever

Sun, Mar 8, 2015, 14:12


Book Title:
The Poet's Tale: Chaucer and the Year That Made the Canterbury Tales


Paul Strohm

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We know a great deal more about Geoffrey Chaucer than we do about any other early writer in English, because he was a civil servant who played an active and responsible part in public affairs for most of his life. The collection amassed in Chaucer’s Life-Records amounts to 493 items. We can calculate that he was born in the early 1340s, and we know that he died in October 1400.

And, of course, we have the works of “the father of English poetry”, most notably The Canterbury Tales, which were written mostly in the last 15 years of his life. There is a major body of earlier work, as well, from The Book of the Duchess, in the late 1360s, to his most satisfactorily completed single work, Troilus and Criseyde, probably from the mid 1380s.

Chaucer has been widely admired and recalled ever since the early 15th century. His works were frequently copied and reprinted from his own times onwards. There are 56 manuscripts of The Canterbury Tales, in whole or in part, and 16 of Troilus. Many lives of Chaucer have been written over the years. A settled view of the poet has taken shape, largely derived from the figure we encounter in The Canterbury Tales: a portly, benign personality in whose works we find, in Dryden’s phrase, God’s plenty.

A note of reservation was struck in the most trusted modern biography, Derek Pearsall’s The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer: A Critical Biography (1992). Pearsall suggests that the poet was a hard-headed man of the world whose satirical representations in the tales reflect the harsher view of the world that might be expected of an experienced government official.

One of the salutary things in Pearsall’s book was a warning against speculative constructions of the poet, as in John Gardner’s The Life and Times of Chaucer (1977), which Pearsall unforgivingly calls “licentiously fictional”; a more entertaining instance was Who Murdered Chaucer?, by Terry Jones of Monty Python, in 2003.

A good year

Paul Strohm is careful to avoid this practice in The Poet’s Tale: Chaucer and the Year That Made the Canterbury Tales, keeping firmly to the events of the poet’s life as we know them. He follows Pearsall in seeing 1374 as a year of good fortune for Chaucer, when he was appointed to the important and lucrative role of “controller of the customs of hides, skins and wool in the port of London”. In addition he was granted a pitcher of wine a day by the king, the ailing Edward III, a lease for life of a rent-free dwelling over the Aldgate, and an annuity of £10 from John of Gaunt.

Chaucer’s close connection with Gaunt and the royalist parties, in the reign of Richard II as well as Edward III, was often a perilous one, and his fortunes waxed and waned along with those of his hated patron. Gaunt and the fated Richard II were not Chaucer’s only dangerous associates.

While Chaucer was responsible for the customs, he was answerable to Nicholas Brembre, three times mayor of London, whose sharp business practices and loans to the king led to his impeachment and execution under the “Merciless Parliament” in 1388 (a fate shared by Chaucer’s friend and fellow poet Thomas Usk). Chaucer had attended the “Wonderful Parliament” in 1386 as a member for Kent; he was on the wrong side of the developing politics of the later years of what Barbara Tuchman called the calamitous 14th century, and he might have shared Usk’s fate.

Thirteen eighty-six is the year that made The Canterbury Tales, in Strohm’s title. His argument is an intriguing and paradoxical one. According to Strohm, Chaucer had been a marginal figure up to that point: marginal to the chicanery involved in his official capacity (although perhaps not quite clear of it) and marginal even within his own marriage. He was married above his station to Philippa, the sister of Katherine Swynford, Gaunt’s mistress and ultimately wife. So the patronage of Chaucer by Gaunt was indirect – Strohm neatly calls it “derivative favour”. (He writes also that, in Aldgate, Chaucer received “derivative reassurance”, in religious terms, from overhearing the church bells in the local churches. In this account Chaucer remained a kind of proxy in his own life.)

The main argument here is that, as long as Chaucer was involved in the affairs of magnates such as Brembre and of increasingly unpopular political figures such as Gaunt, he had a small audience for his writing in that world. His first notable poem was The Book of the Duchess, an elegy for Gaunt’s wife, Blanche of Lancaster, in 1368. In Strohm’s view an audience for writing in English was as yet limited, even for a masterpiece such as Troilus and Criseyde in the 1380s.

Once Chaucer fell out of favour in 1386, and was expelled from his grace-and-favour lodgings to live in Kent, he had to find another audience. Strohm suggests, ingeniously, that he invented one. In the words of his own Knight’s Tale he “made a virtue of necessity” and embarked on his most ambitious and greatest literary work. The audience he invented consisted of the listening pilgrims within The Canterbury Tales.

A new kind of tale

As each pilgrim tells their tale, the response of others is part of the story: the exchanges between the Miller and the Reeve, or between the Friar and the Summoner, for example. The host, Harry Bailly, and the Knight represent more authoritative figures of judgment and assessment. So the emerging vernacular European form of the story collection was taken by Chaucer to new and transcendent heights.

Pearsall’s book on Chaucer was subtitled A Critical Biography. What is so valuable in Strohm’s sparkling book is that it proceeds through the developing story of Chaucer’s life and times largely without feeling the need to locate the works chronologically.

Of course, some textual moments are too apt to ignore, such as the accusation of the narrator in The House of Fame that “when your labour is all done, / And you’ve done all your reckonings, / You hasten home without delay, / And, just as dumb as any stone, / You sit and read another book / Until completely dazed is your look” (Strohm’s translation).

He concludes with a plausible suggestion about how Chaucer’s greatest work came about as he rapidly became the first literary celebrity in English. It is a marvellously inviting introduction to the poet who shaped English literature: not only its new linguistic capacity but also the dramatic narrative life that ultimately informed the observant, keen-eyed fictional world of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens.

Bernard O’Donoghue’s Reading Chaucer’s Poems will be published by Faber & Faber in May