William Caxton was the first to call Chaucer “the worshipful father” of “our englissh,” who is then celebrated as “first auctor.” Dryden in turn described him as “the Father of English poetry” who fructified the “Mother-Tongue,” and from this union issued “the various manners and Humours (as we now call them) of the whole English Nation”; there emerged “God ’s Plenty,” in other words, and Dryden continued the familial metaphor by remarking that “we have our Fore-Fathers and Grand-Dames all before us.” The sexual element of this linguistic commingling is emphasised by Matthew Arnold’s delight in Chaucer’s “free . . . licentious dealing with language.” The perception is compounded in the fifteenth century by the poet Thomas Hoccleve’s lament that upon the death of Chaucer “al this lond it smertith,” as if he were some kind of mythical father whose demise created a waste land.
There are many suggestive details here. The mingling of poet and language, father and mother, is seen as a potent sexual act which has mythical associations; it is a mystery indeed since, with the inseminating power of the poet, language gives birth to language. It is the source and womb of itself, with the poet only as temporary agent or begetter. This deeply held metaphor may in part be responsible for the “sexist” interpretation of literary history, where the author is implicitly deemed to be male. The idea of the father is important in another English context, however, since the familial or domestic sensibility is a very powerful one in national literature; it may have its origins in the Anglo-Saxon image of the lighted hall or in the Chaucerian vision of a collocation of pilgrims, but the idea of a close-knit community (generally withstanding the depredations of a cold and hostile natural world) is central to the English imagination. We have traced it back to Beowulf and beyond.
Chaucer was a Londoner, the son of a vintner or wine-merchant; he was born in a grand house in Thames Street at some time between 1340 and 1345, grew up in the streets of London and has in fact become typically associated with them—or, rather, with the men and women of the fourteenth century whom he loved so much that they will live forever in his verse. Yet he was not a “man of the people” in any modern sense. He came from a wealthy oligarchy of city merchants, and spent all his life in royal or administrative service. He was closely associated with the family and “affinity” of John of Gaunt, and as a result retained a number of highly lucrative sinecures. He was the poet of the court, too, with his verses being distributed among the nobility. It has also been argued that he found another audience for his poetry among the wealthy city merchants and their families.
He was sent on diplomatic business to both France and Italy but, despite his involvement in affairs of state, he rarely alludes to contemporary events in his published work. There is only one reference to the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, for example, but the absence of comment upon such events is only to be expected in his bookish and aureate art. It was courtly poetry in every sense; it was crowded with minute and realistic detail, suffused with emotional symbolism, concerned with individual portraiture, and filled with classical learning. The courtly sensibility of the period was at once bejewelled and highly emotive; it is embodied in the sad if majestic reign of Richard II, who, in 1400, died of starvation after his enforced abdication. It was the year in which Chaucer himself died.
Yet of course there is also great humour in the poetry of Chaucer; it is the comedy of a shrewd and practical man of affairs who mocks pretension, false learning and false sentiment and who also delights in the low “humour” of the fabliau. His is the comedy of the mystery plays raised to a much higher and more sophisticated level. G. K. Chesterton considered it extraordinary “that Chaucer should have been so unmistakably English almost before the existence of England”; but it is perhaps not so surprising in a poet whose personal modesty and broadness of feeling, whose respect for tradition and inventive diversity, make him indeed the fountain of English poetry.
The metaphor of language as a spring, or stream, is equally important to the critical understanding of Chaucer’s work. Any discussion of his poetry will notice its prolonged and fluent cadences, which can be termed its musicality; the images attendant upon it, however, have interesting fluctuations. One of the earliest references appears in a poem by Chaucer’s contemporary Eustache Deschamps, who writes of Chaucer’s “fontaine” from which he desires “avoir un buvraige”; Chaucer provides “la doys,” or stream, which will refresh him in Gaul. Lydgate, lamenting Chaucer’s death, announces that
The welle is drie, with the lycoure swete
and then again regrets the absence of those
golde dewe dropes of speche and eloquence
In a climate of rain and mist, the immediate metaphors are those of streams, and wells, and dew. Spenser considered himself to be the successor of Chaucer and prayed:
But if on me some little drops would flowe, Of that the spring was in his learned hedde
It is as if the English language were indeed a course of flowing water. In The Faerie Queene Chaucer is depicted as the “well of English vndefiled” and the “pure well head of Poesie.” “Well” itself is an Old English word, so that the idea of a spring issuing from the deep earth is also a metaphor for the presence of the ancient language.
Dryden described Chaucer as “a perpetual Fountain” so that the stream is always fresh and ever renewed; implicitly Dryden is placing himself within the same movement, and declares that “I found I had a Soul congenial to his.” This suggestion of broad continuity appears in Dryden’s preface to Fables Ancient and Modern, in which his own translations of Chaucer into “modern English” are gathered; in that same place he states that “ Spenser more than once insinuates, that the Soul of Chaucer was transfus’d into his body; and that he was begotten by him Two Hundred years after his Decease. Milton has acknowledged to me that Spenser was his original . . .” So the image of the well, or fountain, or stream, has remarkable connotations, not the least of which is a doctrine concerning the transmigration of souls. Dryden continues with a remark, on the subject of translation, that “Another Poet, in another Age, may take the same liberty with my Writings”; Dryden places himself within the stream or, as Hazlitt has put it, “water from a crystal spring.”
To this may be added the recognition of the springs hidden within Chaucer’s poetry, as, for example, when William Empson notes in Troilus and Criseyde the presence of “a stream . . . cleansing and refreshing.” 1 There is another stream, too, which is to be found within what Matthew Arnold termed “the liquid diction, the fluid movement” of Chaucer’s line; we may imagine the cadence flowing through Spenser, Milton and Dryden. It is a form of English music. It is also a matter of what was termed “sweetness,” as of sweet water, and is implicit in Wordsworth’s reverie of laughing with Chaucer by the mill-stream of Trumpington near Cambridge. It is implicit in the first line of The Canterbury Tales, “Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote,” although the music is lent a deeper resonance in the first line of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land when April becomes “the cruellest month” whose showers produce only the disturbed movement of memory.
The natural metaphors applied to Chaucer’s verse are in one sense incongruous, since the poet’s own language is a literary compound of different sources and heterogeneous borrowings. It is as if his successors, and indeed his contemporaries, wished to naturalize the artificial process of becoming English; they heard the music, too, but wanted to claim it as a native melody, indigenous as the stream which issues from the rocks. Chaucer’s poetry, however, is elaborately and deliberately rhetorical with all the devices of exclamatio,interrogatio and interpretatio. By his own account the narrator of the poems is a bookish and reticent creature, half in love with words and old literature, who seems to advance or represent the claims of learning over experience. In The Book of the Duchess the narrator, suffering from insomnia, asks for “a book . . . To rede and drive the night away”; it was a “romaunce . . . in olde tyme,” but eventually he sleeps and dreams. On awaking he finds the old romance still in his hands, and decides then to put his own dream “in ryme.” So literature is here the beginning and end of the process, aroused by a book and manifested in a book. In The House of Fame the classical myths and stories take on emblematic and pictorial form as if they were manuscript illuminations. The opening of The Parliament of Fowls reveals “a bok . . . write with lettres olde” which acts as a commentary upon Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis; once more words and dreams are thoroughly intermingled, as if only in sleep could the narrator speak freely. But again this is a device to disguise all of Chaucer’s calculation and consideration, so that the words might somehow seem to be natural or inspired. Once more it represents a desire to naturalise—to ground, in almost a literal sense—a highly complex and various language. The English predilection for dreams has already been discussed, and it is perhaps appropriate that Chaucer “is the first European writer to use this formula.”2
This emphasis upon books or literature is of vital significance to Chaucer in more than one sense, however, since like all English writers of the period he relies upon borrowings and adaptations in order to forge an English sensibility. In his prologue to The Legend of Good Women he declares that “On bokes for to rede I me delyte,” with the further argument that
And yf that olde bokes were aweye, Yloren were of remembraunce the keye
“Remembraunce” here is the term for historical memory, in the sense that Chaucer’s own histories of “good women” such as Dido or Thisbe are made up out of other histories; just as language springs out of language in the perpetual stream or fountain of words, so books spring out of other books. In The Parliament of Fowls he puts this mysterious arrangement thus:
For out of olde feldes, as men seyth, Cometh al this newe corn from yer to yere, And out of olde bokes, in good feyth, Cometh al this newe science that men lere
“Science” here has its original meaning of the state of knowing itself, so that the parameters of knowledge and understanding are fashioned by the learning of old books. This may not be an immediately familiar or even intelligible concept, but it is of the utmost importance in any understanding of the medieval imagination and, in particular, of the peculiarly English genius of Chaucer’s work. It can be said that knowledge, or truth, was a collective and communal enterprise; the individual author might enlarge or increase the store, but the principal act was not of creation but of assimilation and reinvention. Rhetoric was the means of reordering, in delightful or graceful form, already available materials and themes. The truth lay in authority, not in individual fabrication; hence Chaucer’s reticence and parodic portrayal of himself as silent and preoccupied. “For evere upon the ground,” the Host of the Canterbury pilgrims complains, “I se thee stare.” Chaucer’s narrator is “domb as any ston” because his inability or unwillingness to speak is a token of his incapacity. Of course this is also a rhetorical device, disguising his novelty and inventiveness, but it does illuminate the essential truth of Chaucer’s art; it is comprised of borrowed materials, and his genius lay in his ability to reorder and juxtapose already existing parts of poetic invention. He built a new dwelling out of old stones, and his talent for synthesis was matched only by his powers of assimilation. This will help to explain what have been called the encyclopaedic tendencies of his work, by which means he will supply lists of exempla within the course of a narrative poem or will simply copy out highly orthodox material as in his sermon upon penitence which ends The Canterbury Tales. An event or an adventure will be briefly narrated, as the preface to a fervent litany of sources and authorities; poetry becomes a means of adducing learning. He will write A Treatise on the Astrolabe, or translate the Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius, with the same attention as that which he gives to the vivid portrayal of the Wife of Bath; they are all intrinsic parts of his literary endeavour to refurbish “science” and human scholarship. No one exercise is to be preferred to another, because they all pertain to the arts of rhetoric. He considered himself to be part of a tradition, although it was his destiny fundamentally to alter the nature of that tradition.
(Top Left) “Carpet” page, from the Lindisfarne Gospel; (right) King David with musicians. The art of manuscript illumination is the glory of the Anglo-Saxon period, while the geometric intricacy of its lines, borders, and patterns is also exemplified by such artefacts as the shoulder clasp found in the Sutton Hoo burial site (below).
(Left) Anglo-Saxon attitudes: King Edgar, illuminated manuscript of the tenth century; and
(below) “Driven by the Spirit into Wilderness,” panel from the twentieth-century Christ in the Wilderness series by Stanley Spencer.
(Below left) “Twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe.” Lewis Carroll’s lyric Jabberwocky (Through the Looking-Glass) is a parody of Old English verse.
(Below right) Sir Ian McKellen in the 2001 film of Lord of the Rings. J. R. R. Tolkien’s imagination was first stirred by the strange beauty of “Ancient English” poetry.
(Above) “Event on the Downs” by Paul Nash. “There is a path that leads through English literature.”
(Below) “Seascape Study with Rainclouds” by John Constable. “English fiction is drenched in rain.”
The nave of Durham Cathedral. “The rulers of Britain knew that there was power in stone.”
“The Wilton Diptych”: an example of typically English “mystical dreaminess of mood.”
“Canterbury Tales”: illuminated initial, with a portrait of Geoffrey Chaucer, “the worshipful father” of “our englissh.”
In medieval times, the English were noted for their piety: St. Leonard with crozier and manacles, St. Agnes or St. Catherine with sword and book, two saints, from a screen in St. John’s Maddermarket, Norwich.
An insular art: the English love of the miniature. Nicholas Hilliard’s portrait of Elizabeth I (left) measures two inches by one and seven-eighths of an inch, while in Richard Dadd’s visionary painting, “The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke” (right), the little figures are grouped among hazel nuts.
The English visionary sensibility: William Blake and Samuel Palmer were, in their different ways, intent upon discovering the spiritual lineaments of the world. (Facing page) “Daniel Delivered out of Many Waters” by Blake and (left) “A Hilly Scene” by Palmer.
The enduring magic of the legends of the Knights of the Round Table: “Sir Galahad, Sir Bors and Sir Percival,” romantic ninteenth-century painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and “Gawain,” dramatic twentieth-century opera by Harrison Birtwistle, in which a severed head continues to sing.
He was writing no more than the truth, however, when he remarked that the new science came “out of olde bokes.” He will sometimes signal his source material in manifest ways.
The remenant of the tale if ye wol heere Redeth Ovyde, and ther ye may it leere
is the advice given by the Wife of Bath. The House of Fame makes reference to no less than nineteen books or authors within its 2,158 lines. The Book of the Duchess alludes to Ovid, Macrobius, Livy, Dares, Phrygius, the Romance of the Rose and the Bible; in order to assert its authority it must name its authorities. Chaucer, more than any other European poet of the period, employed this device. When one critic describes “his slightly ridiculous pedantry and bookish exaggeration,” 3 he is in fact alluding to an English characteristic which has been maintained by many writers over several centuries.
But of course the influence of earlier written work upon Chaucer runs deeper than any overt reference, since the act of translation was the single most important aspect of his art; in this, if in no other, respect he manifests a quintessentially English genius. It has been suggested that he wrote French verse before he began composition in English but, even if this hypothesis is dismissed, it serves to emphasize the fact that Chaucer was educated in a trilingual court where the principal literary vernacular was still French. It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that his first full-scale enterprise in English, The Book of the Duchess, is an adaptation of various French “dits” or stories. His general French affiliations are numerous and extensive, and in fact Eustache Deschamps remarked in particular upon Chaucer’s great merit as a “grant translateur” of the French tongue into English. Certainly one of his earliest exercises was the translation of the Roman de la Rose which converted a whole range of European sensibility into English; his abiding preoccupation rests precisely here, in his diligent efforts to accommodate continental styles and models within the vernacular. And, until the nineteenth century, this was an enterprise which all English poets wished to share. The process of adaptation and assimilation is instinctive.
Chaucer had read Deschamps himself, but he had also studied Machaut and Froissart; he read French translations of Ovid and Boccaccio, while various other sources have been located for elements of The Canterbury Tales as well as Troilus and Criseyde. The essential matter lies, however, in Chaucer’s wish to incorporate the fluency and seemliness of French verse within his own vernacular; Middle English was in any case an absorbent medium and had incorporated a great number of French words, but Chaucer’s purpose was to elevate that mixed and various speech into a literature. His debt to Italy, to Dante and Boccaccio in particular, then became of paramount importance; it was Dante who, after all, had single-handedly created an Italian vernacular poetry to rival that of Latin and Greek. Boccaccio declared that before Dante “there was none who . . . had the feeling or the courage to make it the instrument of any matter dealt with by the rules of art. But he showed by the effect that every lofty matter may be treated in it; and made our vernacular glorious above every other.” This was precisely the intent and ambition of Chaucer himself—to create an English literature or, rather, to create out of English a literature. Far from being baffled or defeated by the essentially hybrid nature of the language, with elements of Latin, French, Norse and Anglo-Saxon all compounded, he decided to exploit and celebrate its variety. It did not have the purity of Italian, or the grace of French, or the unchanging sonority of Latin; but, rather, it possessed all these attributes together with many more. When Chaucer first experimented with Dante’s terza rima in English it was a way of proving, both to himself and to his audience, that the language was already capable of masterly expression.
At the close of Troilus and Criseyde, which itself is supposed to derive ultimately from Boccaccio’s Il Filostrato, Chaucer appends a verse which demonstrates his literary ambition:
Go, litel bok, go, litel myn tragedye . . . And kis the steppes where as thow seest pace Virgile, Ovide, Omer, Lucan, and Stace
Virgil, Ovid, Homer, Lucan and Statius were the classical authors most celebrated and most widely read in the medieval world, and Chaucer is placing himself in their company. But there is also another context. Three of the great European poets—Jean de Meun, Dante and Boccaccio—had also composed such self-regarding tributes associating themselves with Homer, Ovid, Virgil, Horace, Tibullus and others; so, in imitating their device, Chaucer is also representing himself as part of a European literary tradition. Here, then, is the importance of Chaucer to the English imagination. He was the first poet self-consciously to create the idea of an English literature worthy to rival that of the classical past. He also implicitly establishes himself at the beginning of that tradition, and so all subsequent myths of source and origin spring from him.
In the same poem Chaucer prays that God send him the power to write a “comedye” as well as a “tragedye,” but then addresses his “litel bok” with the words “But subgit be to all poesye.” It is interesting, perhaps, that The OxfordEnglish Dictionary believes this to be the first occasion on which tragedy and comedy appear as English words. Chaucer may have derived “comedye” from Dante’s Divina Commedia but, whatever the exact provenance, the status of his remarks is clear; it is worth re-emphasising the fact that he was fashioning the idea of literature out of English itself. In his own arduous and continual practice he had learned its capacity, or its capaciousness, and in a preface to his prose treatise on the astrolabe he places his trust in “trewe conclusions in English, as well as sufficith to these noble clerkes Grekes these same conclusiouns in Grek, and to Arabiens in Arabik, and to Jewes in Ebrew, and to Latyn folk in Latyn.” The English language is therefore placed upon the same level as Greek, Latin and Hebrew as a medium for truths both sacred and profane.
His resourcefulness is far-reaching, too, since in order to create the idea of an English literature he was obliged to celebrate the native propensities of the language; we might even say that the largeness of his aim was such that the language spoke through him. It had steadily been speeding up, with the alliterative line in particular moving in a much freer and more fluid cadence, but Chaucer expanded its range so successfully that it gained infinitely more freedom and elasticity. He invented the decasyllabic couplet, otherwise known as the “heroic couplet,” but more significantly he treated the various forms of verse with a fluency that brought them closer to the native intonations of speech. From this derive later critical remarks about his “sweet numbers” and “smoothly flowing diction”; it elucidates those comments upon his employment of a “rhythmical tradition” and a “native tradition” so successfully that the rhythm of native speech is attached to his own music. The pattern is one of variety and purposefulness, heterogeneity within the cadences of significant form.
The variety is itself exemplary. His greatest if most incomplete achievement, The Canterbury Tales, is a consummation and celebration of all previous English literature. Its “general prologue,” and twenty-four separate tales, cover every form from sermon to farce, from saint’s life to animal fable, from heroic adventure to full-scale parody. Its twenty-eight characters (including Chaucer himself ) furnish an assembly of fourteenth-century people in a medley of occupations and professions. The Divine Comedy has come to earth; The Romance of the Rose has been humanised. Chaucer’s is an inclusive art, in other words. He understands and reflects every aspect of human society, spiritual and natural. That is why his characters are at once fully naturalistic and archetypal. He creates stories as well as allegories. The Wife of Bath is both a realistic fourteenth-century woman, in a period when women were often very powerful, and a compendium of medieval attitudes towards her sex.
The Canterbury Tales is, then, a conflation of narratives written in different styles and upon different themes; the metrical changes are extraordinary and even within the boundaries of one narrative the language is mixed and various. The appearance is one of perpetual novelty, like the surface of a swiftly running stream, mixed with elements of wonder and surprise. This in no way mitigates the central truth that Chaucer would not have considered himself an “original” writer in any modern sense. The fact that he borrowed themes, stories and characters from a variety of sources is testimony to his deep traditionalism; yet he was obliged to invigorate and intensify this familiar material with such arts of rhetoric as variation and display. He creates the impression of diversity, of “newness,” as a way of reaching an audience which itself desired novelty and surprise. The demand is noticed by Chaucer himself in The Canterbury Tales—“Diverse folke diversely they seyde . . . Diverse men diverse thinges seyden . . . Diverse men diversely hym told . . . Diverse folk diversely they demed.”
Hence the extraordinary interaction in his verse between French and Latinate idioms, between the low English of the fabliau and the aureate diction of the saints’ tales. Chaucer is constantly employing new words, but often uses them once only so that the process is one of continuous novelty. He employs another device, too, whereby he can align ancient and modern. He will juxtapose old stories with new framing devices, so that a preface or prologue can set an unfamiliar context for a familiar tale. Thus “there is no paradox in the fact that Chaucer invents so few stories yet is so inventive a story teller.”4 To be thoroughly traditional yet novel: this was the great demand, and was Chaucer’s great achievement. By bringing together these various sources and conflicting styles, Chaucer established a literature and helped to stabilize a language capable of accommodating it.
It has been argued that in the process he created the idea of England and the notion of “Englishness”—that the characters of The Canterbury Tales prefigure those of Fielding or of Smollett and that the poet’s humour is itself a profoundly native affair. At a later stage in this volume we will be discussing the nature of a specifically London vision, but the argument may be anticipated by quoting some of Chaucer’s words on his native city. He is said to have celebrated “the citye of London that is to me so dere and sweete, on which I was forth growen; and more kindly love have I to that place than to any other in yerth.” The notion of Chaucer’s “Englishness” must also be set beside his attachment to a more local territory. He was born in the parish of St. Martin in the Vintry; although he travelled throughout Europe in the course of his official duties, he returned to his dwelling above the city gate at Aldgate. It has often been said that, the more local and locally identifiable a writer, the more universal may be his or her vision. But what are we to make of the vision of Chaucer’s Englishness? His diversity and variety are in this context significant, particularly in his ability to mingle pathos and parody, tragedy and irony. Another London visionary, Charles Dickens, called the mixed style “streaky well-cured bacon,” and it has become a defining characteristic of the English imagination. The fellowship of the pilgrimage itself provides a variety of characters and humours, the miller and the knight, the parson and the pardoner, all of them adding to the image of a disparate nation. Where in Boccaccio only the aristocrats speak, in Chaucer the voices of the servants and the churls can plainly be heard. The romantic tale of Palamon and Arcite, spoken by the knight, is followed by the miller’s tale of lechery and buffoonery:
And up the wyndowe dide he hastily, And out his ers he putteth pryvely Over the buttok, to the haunche-bon; And therwith spak this clerk, this Absolon, “Spek, sweete bryd, I noot nat where thou art.” This Nicholas anon leet fle a fart . . .
The lyrical dignity of “The Man of Law’s Tale” is immediately followed by the pantomime bravura of “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue.” The editors of The Riverside Chaucer have noted “Chaucer’s attempts . . . to forestall, even undercut, high pathos”5 and, in “The Merchant’s Tale,” the “mixing of genres, styles, voices, and tones, of pagan and Christian elements, even of narrative levels.”6 This was the style of London, and of England. It may also reflect Chaucer’s own social being and his “somewhat ambiguous position poised somewhere between the court . . . and the city and shifting in relation to those two poles.”7 It may be that Chaucer’s decision to combine “high” and “low” was a way of deliberately enhancing his claim for the novelty of English literature; nevertheless it was precisely this decision to mingle sacred and secular, romantic and real, which animated his English genius.
There is also the question of embarrassment. It is partly a matter of reticence. It lies in Chaucer’s self-effacement, and in his oblique portrayal of himself as a bookish innocent abroad. It lies also in his detachment from his work. Of one unusually obscene narrative Chaucer writes:
And therefore, whoso list it nat yheere, Turne over the leef and chese another tale . . .
Nikolaus Pevsner noted the same quality in the work of Hogarth and suggested that this “oddly detached attitude in an artist to his own creation, this seeming lack of compulsion, is English.”8 It partly represents the risk of seeming superior, or of expressing too much enthusiasm for one ’s work, but for Pevsner it was deeply implicated in a deliberately self-conscious method of working. It is present in Chaucer’s highly sophisticated employment of various and different styles for each of the Canterbury narratives. This has been termed the “commonwealth of style” at once “eclectic and low-key.”9 It is present, too, in what one biographer has called the “apparent tentativeness” of Chaucerian style “like an embarrassed giggle, that response to grandeur which takes refuge in off-handed irony and levity.”10 The detachment of William Shakespeare from his own creation, as well as his consistent note of scepticism, has been well documented; there can really be no better evidence of the dramatist’s detachment than in his willingness to allow his work to remain unexamined and uncollected until after his death. It has also been noticed in the “detachment of the English eighteenth-century portrait,”11 characterised by restraint and understatement. In the twelfth chapter of Emma Jane Austen anatomises “the true English style” as one “burying under a calmness that seemed all but indifference, the real attachment.”
That is perhaps why the American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson described English taciturnity as endemic for “six or seven hundred years.” Pevsner lists other observations of a similar nature. Muralt, a Swiss traveller, described the English in the late seventeenth century as “taciturn, obstinate” while in 1740 the Abbé Leblanc noted them to be “naturally inclined to silence.” It lies in that absence of overpowering feeling which is so noticeable in The Canterbury Tales where the very mixture of “high” and “low,” reverential truth and domestic detail, militates against any grand or noble statement. William Morris recognised it in the English landscape, too, where there is “not much space for swelling into hugeness . . . no great wastes overwhelming in their dreariness . . . all is measured, mingled, varied, gliding easily one thing into another” like Chaucer’s language itself where its various elements commingle and flow together.
This reticence may of course have its origins in the fierce protectiveness and self-defensiveness of the Anglo-Saxons, combining fatalism and fortitude equally, but in Chaucer it is not unmixed with friendly irony. When he is accused of questioning female faithfulness in love, Alcestis defends him by saying that Chaucer’s works were only translations and that in any case he wrote “Of innocence and nyste what he seyde.” He did not understand what he was saying, in other words, and this native reluctance openly to profess sentiments of love appears in Troilus and Criseyde where he declines any authorial role in the developing love-tragedy: “Men seyn—I not—that she yaf hym hir herte.” But this calculated naivety can work its own enchantment, so that, for example, the pilgrims on the road to Canterbury are larger than life or, rather, larger than the narrator’s own life. It has been described as “a yielding to the essential humanity of his companions, a sense of being overwhelmed by their worth, and success, and obvious talents.”12
Chaucer is not alone among his contemporaries in consistently underestimating or understating his own artistry. The poet of Cursor Mundi asks apologetically, “Quat sal I sai yu lang sermoune?” The author of The Prick of Conscience pleads:
. . . haf me excused at this tyme If yhe fynde defaut in the rhyme
Thomas Usk, a London scrivener executed for high treason in 1388, apologises that “bycause that in conninge I am yong, and can yet but crepe, this leude A.B.C have I set in-to lerning,” while of John Gower it has been written that “in this unemphatic understatement he is typically English.”13The same attitude emerges in the most unexpected places; thus the state of instrumental music in England has plausibly been related to “the continuing failure of the English to make their own contribution to virtuoso display,”14 which in turn is associated with the dislike of novelty and the pleasure taken in invisibility. All these forces work together, for good or ill. That most confessional of authors Thomas De Quincey himself professes to embarrassment at “breaking through that delicate and honorable reserve which, for the most part, restrains us from the public exposure of our own errors and infirmities.” His tone is redolent of his first meeting with William Wordsworth, which, he stated, was marked by “a peculiar embarrassment and penury of words.” There is the murmured voice of Sir Philip Sidney in A Defence of Poesy: “I coniure you all, that have had the eville lucke to read this incke-wasting toy of mine . . .” When a critic writes of Sidney’s contemporary George Gascoigne as exercising “an almost perverse delight in self-effacement,” 15 we recognise that the irony is very deeply embedded. One literary historian has noted that in “the English discursive tradition . . . irony is pervasive.”16 It is a central fact.