Helen Cooper

University College, Oxford



Chaucer's sescentennial year deserves widespread celebration, not least as his poetry is so uniquely enjoyable. Since he has a reputation for being the most naturalistic of medieval writers, it should also be easy to celebrate his world through him, as the topic of this colloquium—celebrating Chaucer's world and work and legacy—invites. Talking about "Chaucerian representation" suggests a marriage of the two, Chaucer as representing, imitating, what he saw around him. In practice, things are much more complicated. His works are never straightforwardly mimetic; and any process of holding the mirror up to nature gets deeply obfuscated, not only by how he writes, but by the six unbroken centuries in which his works have been read and reread in a succession of different cultures and for a succession of different purposes. So far as we know, he left no will, and so we have no way of knowing how his poetic legacy looked to Chaucer himself. The one thing we can be sure of is that it must have seemed very different to him from the way it has looked to his heirs down the centuries, whether he died in the traditional agony of repentance, or unexpectedly, his pens lying ready to pick up again among his unfinished manuscripts.

As for the legacy that he himself inherited, Chaucer gives his own view of it, and of how his works are indebted to it, in the introduction to the Parliament of Fowls. He pictures himself reading an old book,


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.[1]


It is a description of how a writer responds to earlier writing; and what it claims is that a writer's "legacy" is not a matter of acquiring something from the dead, but rather a process of regeneration, new birth, like the "newe corn.” And it is a statement not only about writing, but also reading: about how you learn in the present from books written in the past. The book in question here is one that Chaucer calls "Tullyus of the Drem of Scipioun:” the last part of Cicero's De re publica, which was indeed the only part known in the Middle Ages. As Cicero's title indicates, it is a book about the health of the nation and the community: the "res publica” was what was called in Middle English the "common wele,” or, here, "common profit.” Even just the last part, the Dream of Scipio itself, which Chaucer goes on to summarize, indicates that concern. It recounts how Scipio the younger was shown a vision by his famous grandfather of the smallness of earth, and of the final destination of those who aid the common profit as against those who damage it, "brekers of the law.”

There follows the narrator's own dream, about the walled park containing the Temple of Priapus (it is Priapus rather than Venus who has the "sovereyn place" (254), and it is presumably our following the coy practice of earlier scholars that makes us generally assign it to the goddess); and about the "parliament,” the talking-shop, at which the birds choose their mates under the aegis of Nature. It finishes with the dreamer being woken by the racket the birds make—by the dawn chorus; whereupon he abandons the poem to return to his books to carry on his reading, all in a single sentence, as if the spontaneity of the birdsong and the process of reading were in some way associated.


And with the shoutyng, whan the song was do,

That foules maden at here flyght awey,

I wok, and othere bokes tok me to,

To reede upon, and yit I rede alwey. (693-6)


It sounds like a contrast; but given that opening association between old books and new poetry, perhaps it is more of a parallel.

It is customary to read the Parliament of Fowls as a poem about love, and of course it is. But Chaucer does not write introductions and conclusions to any of his works accidentally; and readings of the Parliament that focus on the content of the dream alone have largely to ignore the material on each side of it. The opening and the end, especially the lines quoted above, give a sharp focus on a set of different issues. First is the question of, what is it that he is imitating, or representing to us? Then, what happens in the transition from Chaucer's sense in writing of producing new corn, to our sense in reading him of surveying old fields? What kind of relationship does our own new corn bear to those old fields we get it from, or his legacy to his works? And all such questions finally coalesce into one: what is it we are reading when we are reading Chaucer?

Those are questions of particular import now, six hundred years since Chaucer's death, in an age of "Only historicize!" For that principle tends to assume that reading an author for a reflection of his age—his world—is comparatively easy; you just need to break away from the habit (long-lost now, I suspect) of reading for the beauties of language, set aside the quest for some transhistorical, liberal-humanist "truth,” take a sceptical line on the author's professed values, and his (or her) "world" will emerge to view. Chaucer's reputation for naturalism, for representing life, should make an historical reading of him almost unavoidable. A stress on naturalism is still an immensely useful way of approaching him, not least when it comes to teaching. It is itself associated with habits derived from our own familiarity with later forms of fiction, and tends to bring with it an accompanying assumption that literature follows a Darwinian evolutionary path towards the nineteenth-century novel. Our admiration for the psychological depth Chaucer portrays tends to go hand in hand with the idea that character study is the end and aim of all literature: that is why we find Troilus and Criseyde, or many of the Tales, so moving. And even if we are too sophisticated to accept the naturalism of psychological verisimilitude at face value, as good postmodernists we are still finding ways to practice such readings, in the guise of studying the emergence of the Subject. The social and ideological concerns of the New Historicists similarly assume some kind of process in Chaucer of his holding a mirror up to own historical moment—and indeed it would be surprising, if not impossible, for a writer not to mirror the concerns of his age to some degree. Reading for context, approaching Chaucer not as "universal" in the Aristotelean or liberal-humanist sense but as a representative of his age, is probably the most common scholarly way of approaching him now: we look for reflections of social and political and religious change in him, and write about Chaucer and the court, or Chaucer and the 1381 Rising, or Chaucer and Lollardy. The principle behind such scholarship can sometimes seem like what I once read in an exam script, that "Chaucer was more typical of his age than any other person then living." It is, however, extraordinarily difficult to make such approaches inhere in Chaucer himself Arguments of this kind tend to be grounded in texts outside Chaucer: we have to find what we want somewhere else first. And when we move on to applying those arguments to him, they all too often acquire an air of special pleading—sometimes more so when we claim to be reading him historically than when we read him overtly for our own agendas, as a forebear of our interests. For we do plenty of that too: Chaucer and colonialist discourse; Chaucer and queer theory; Chaucer and feminism. It is, however, worth remembering that that is itself a style of reading that has a long and distinguished history, to the Middle Ages and beyond, when there were the medieval equivalents of New Ovid Society conferences on Ovid and moral action, Ovid and the Old Testament, Ovid and Christian doctrine.

I do not for one second intend to deny the value of approaching Chaucer in the ways that we do. Most of it is hugely valuable—and we must not forget that those medieval approaches to Ovid were likewise hugely valuable for the Middle Ages, a fertile field that produced an abundance of new corn. We have been uncovering things in Chaucer that forty years ago nobody ever dreamed were there, and he has emerged as a writer of greater range and power than even his most ardent fans imagined he might be. Some of our modem concerns and methodologies have brought to the front of our attention things that it is simply astonishing were not seen before, such as the debate on women embedded in so many of the Canterbury Tales and beyond: a much further-reaching and urgent issue than the "marriage debate" identified by Kittredge and for so long regarded as Chaucer's final word on such matters. But our practices of reading for culture or multiculturalism, for history, for context, still tend to skip over that question of what it is we are reading when we are reading Chaucer; because one thing he is evidently not giving us is a straightforward portrayal of fourteenth-century life. The Parliament of Fowls illustrates the point forcefully. Birds do not talk; and that a duck swears by its hat is not an example of naturalism in any form. If it is meant to serve as an allegorical reflection of some political occasion, it is impossible to deduce from the text just what that might have been, and none of the occasions proposed fits very easily with the work as it stands. The poem is rooted, as its introduction stresses, in a mixture of translation, summary and adaptation, partly of Cicero, partly from the general medieval and contemporary French vogue for debates involving talking birds. Chaucer's poetry is a matter above all of imitating, not life, but other authors.

     We are thoroughly familiar now with ideas of conventionality, intertextuality, horizons of expectation and the rest of it; but Chaucer's works present us with some peculiarly difficult problems of reading historically. He seems to go out of his way to avoid reflecting his own age. The books that were the seedbeds of his writing were frequently old (fifteen hundred years or more), or, if they were up to date, as many of his French and Italian sources were, then they emanated from cultures somewhat different from Chaucer's own. So our desire to read off his own age from his works, to use them to reconstruct an "age of Chaucer,” presents obvious problems; which is why conference papers on the Age of Chaucer that attempt to go beyond the kind of antiquarianism encouraged by the portraits of the pilgrims can actually find Chaucer himself something of embarrassment, in a way that does not happen to such an extreme, I think, with any other major English writer: not Spenser, or Milton, or Wordsworth, or Yeats, or even Shakespeare.

[. . .]

     [1]    Parliament of Fowls, 22-4. All quotations from Chaucer are from The Riverside Chaucer, general editor Larry D. Benson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987).