Chaucerian Fiction

Chaucerian Fiction

Robert B. Burlin
Copyright Date: 1977
Pages: 304
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt13x0qsm
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Chaucerian Fiction
    Book Description:

    By analyzing Chaucer's major poetic works, Robert Burlin succeeds in isolating thematic undercurrents with a bearing on the poet's process of composition. He is thus able to relate individual poems to Chaucer's view of himself as a writer, and to assess the internal evidence for a Chaucerian theory of fiction.

    Professor Burlin contends that a logic underlies Chaucer's aesthetic assumptions whose imaginative configuration appears both simple and inevitable in the context of his poetic development. The author first explores possible antecedents for the terms "experience" andauctoritee, and shows that this common antinomy provides the basis for dividing the poems into three groups.

    In the "poetic fictions," Chaucer speculates on the value of poetic activity, on the sources of itsaffect, and on its validity as a means of apprehension. The "philosophic fictions" concentrate on the epistemological aspect of literary activity. In a final group of poems, termed "psychological fictions," the poet explores the speaker's unspoken motives, as well as his pronounced intentions, in telling a tale.

    Originally published in 1977.

    ThePrinceton Legacy Libraryuses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-6757-8
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. PREFACE
    (pp. vii-2)
    R.B.B.
  4. EXPERIENCE AND AUTHORITY “IN SCOLE IS GREET ALTERCACIOUN”
    (pp. 3-22)

    CHAUCER’S thoughts about what we would call literary theory are, like most of his personal beliefs and judgments, difficult to isolate and interpret. Such clues as we have appear in tantalizing disguises—tossed off in a casual phrase, entangled in a dramatic encounter, or enthusiastically averred by a patently Active narrator. The indirection of fragmentary “internal evidence” undoubtedly presents severe problems to the theoretician but is not without its virtues. The critic may be left sounding tendentious by comparison, but insofar as the poet’s “definitions” are implicated in the very process of his fictions, they share in its ironic cover,...

  5. POETIC FICTIONS
    • [Introduction]
      (pp. 25-32)

      CHAUCER’S early poetry combines precisely those elements one would expect in a writer who was to give his vernacular a new dimension of suppleness and dignity. The English he had learned from popular romances¹ became in his hands a suitable poetic medium for addressing with the requisite urbanity an aristocratic audience on occasions ranging from a casual court entertainment to those of the highest seriousness. Against the diction and metrics of the native tradition, he exerted distinctly foreign pressures, importing from the continent an enriched vocabulary and, eventually, a new verse-line. The generic model for his earliest major efforts, however,...

    • CHAPTER I THE PROLOGUE TO THE LEGEND OF GOOD WOMEN: “MAISTRESSE OF MY WIT”
      (pp. 33-44)

      ONE feature of Chaucer’s dream-visions intriguing to scholars of a more historically minded generation is commonly brushed aside or ignored by modern critics. They were almost certainly occasional poems, written to commemorate a public event and designed to accommodate the poet’s voice to a public reading of the text. The demands of an occasion as much as the choice of a fashionable genre help to account for the implicit speculation on the nature and validity of the poetic process. Though theHouse of Famehas had the conclusive evidence lopped off and theParliament of Fowlsgeneralizes its occasion beyond...

    • CHAPTER II THE HOUSE OF FAME: “EXPERIENCE THOUGH NOON AUCTORITEE”
      (pp. 45-58)

      BACON’S notion of a lofty flight may not have been precisely what Chaucer had in mind in his first large-scale allegorical quest, but a shift in direction from the French tradition seems marked. TheHouse of Fameis not, however, a poem one can speak of with confidence. Its incompleteness, of course, is a major stumbling block,¹ but not the only one. There is reason to doubt Chaucer’s own satisfaction with what he was about. While Book II has moments that anticipate Chaucer’s most delightful comic spirit, the surrounding books contain some of the flattest stretches he ever wrote. Imaginative...

    • CHAPTER III THE BOOK OF THE DUCHESS: THE KINDLY IMAGINATION
      (pp. 59-74)

      CHAUCER’S EARLIEST dream-vision, theBook of the Duchess, appears in retrospect to have tackled the problem of the value of fiction head-on. It differs from the later dream-visions in that we find the dreamer literally “using” a work of fiction. The story of Seys and Alcyone, directly or indirectly taken from Ovid’sMetamorphoses, serves therapeutically to divert the narrator from an insomnia induced by an imprecisely defined melancholy. He responds, however, to the reading matter in two distinct ways that are tonally differentiated with great care. This complex reaction prepares in turn for the unconventional “consolation” the elegy will propose....

  6. PHILOSOPHIC FICTIONS
    • [Introduction]
      (pp. 77-82)

      THOUGH the three poems considered in the previous section fall roughly into the first half of Chaucer’s poetic career, they cannot be said to define a tidy period in his development. He was, apparently, still tinkering with thePrologueto theLegend of Good Womenin the 1390s and gives no indication of downgrading even the octosyllabic poems when compiling his poetic catalogue for the “Retraction.” Yet it is not unwarranted, I believe, to view these poems as a group and to consider their thematic propositions as a preliminary ground work for future exploration of the possibilities and limitations of...

    • CHAPTER IV THE PARLIAMENT OF FOWLS: “EVENE NOUMBRES OF ACORD”
      (pp. 83-94)

      THEParliament of Fowlsbursts into the Chaucerian canon with a dazzling show of exuberant, self-confident mastery. The octosyllabic poems seem in retrospect poor things indeed or, in their technical aspect at least, limited and jejune. In theParliamentChaucer rolls out decasyllabic lines of effortless metrical and tonal variation, assembles them into rime-royale stanzas of equally varied flexibility, and shapes his dream-vision with an assurance of formal control that enables its cohesive but mercurial surface to enclose a complex structure of philosophically provocative images. Everywhere one looks at theParliament, one is struck by the deceptive artlessness of its...

    • CHAPTER V PALAMON AND ARCITE: “MYRAKLES AND CREWEL YRE”
      (pp. 95-112)

      THEParliament of Fowlsjoyously celebrates a world of avowed unreality, a universe of dreams and talking birds, a fabric of studied artifice embroidered with courtly conventions. But it evokes a higher reality, the ghostly paradigm on which the appearances of our mundane reality play, the substance underlying our workaday accidents. TheParliamentoffers an essential vision of Nature, removed by a dream from the contingencies of actual experience. The natural landscape, the contentious birds, even the sensuous allegorical figures may seduce us by the vitality of their dramatic cohesion into crediting their fictive substantiality, but nevertheless they are not...

    • CHAPTER VI TROILUS AND CRISEYDE: “LOVE IN DEDE”
      (pp. 113-136)

      THE story of Palamon and Arcite moves us a considerable distance from the idealized vision of theParliamentinto a realm of recognizable historical realities. It does not, however, entirely lose theParliament's range of inquiry, which relates individual human experience to social and political concerns, and human experience in general to cosmological forces. Nor, in spite of its greater mimesis, is the comic perspective entirely abandoned. The price exacted in sympathetic human involvement, however, becomes very apparent once one turns to theTroilus. The characters of theKnight’s Taleare defined by their experiences; they are the functions of...

    • CHAPTER VII PATIENT GRISELDA: “BILOVED AND DRAD”
      (pp. 137-146)

      CHAUCER was not moved to exploit Boccaccio’s pagan fictions because of a dissatisfaction with orthodox theology; on the contrary, he expresses the philosophic poet’s urgent need to examine the ground of human experience that makes the consolation of theology necessary. Putting to canny advantage the pre-Christian setting, Chaucer managed to infuse a vitality into Christian doctrine often denied its explicit pronouncements. His audience, transported imaginatively into that remote world, is invited to discover, or re-discover, the relevance and immediacy of familiar beliefs. If Chaucer’s dalliance with antiquity needs justification, it should be on much the same terms Augustine applied to...

  7. PSYCHOLOGICAL FICTIONS
    • [Introduction]
      (pp. 149-154)

      CHAUCER’S philosophic fictions, as I have distinguished them, are not simply narratives that reproduce thematically a pre-existent system of abstract thought. Still less can they be identified by an explicit “moralitee,” though the four works discussed in the preceding section seem to move progressively toward overt statement—from the uncomprehending dreamer of theParliamentto the Boethian oration of Theseus, the palinode of theTroilusand, finally, the allegorization of the Clerk. In each case, the forthright moralization, whatever its independent value, is qualified, if not radically undermined, by the fiction of which it is a part. The poems are...

    • CHAPTER VIII THE CANTERBURY EXPERIMENT: “A SOPER AT OURE ALLER COSTE”
      (pp. 155-168)

      PALAMON AND ARCITE, whatever its initial form, was certainly adapted to the Knight. He even anticipates its stoical theme when accepting his lot as first story-teller:

      He seyde, “Syn I shal bigynne the game,

      What, welcome be the cut, a Goddes name!” (GP853–54)

      But as the Knight is an idealized figure, a noble representative of that chivalric tradition that always seems just to have vanished, he has no vices or foibles, no particularizing traits that color his narrative. The proportion of romance elements—more battle and tournament than love—suit him well, as does the serious philosophic inquiry....

    • CHAPTER IX THE PARDONER AND THE CANON’S YEOMAN: “GYLOUR BIGYLED”
      (pp. 169-180)

      THE Pardoner’s performance constitutes one of the most complete and explicit illustrations of the dramatic formulae set forth in the preceding chapter. Like the Wife of Bath, his greatest rival in self-revelation, he enjoys talking; like her, he finds it the only available weapon against a hostile world of masculine supremacy. His defense, like hers, is a strong offense, but a verbal assault delivered not so much to wound as to distract. Yet, like the criminal anxious to safeguard his secret, the Pardoner cannot resist seeking out his enemy and overplaying his role. Consequently, whatever lingering questions one may have...

    • CHAPTER X THE MONK AND THE PRIORESS: “CRAFT IS AL”
      (pp. 181-194)

      THE linguistic miasma that pervades the discourse of those loosely attached to the secular Church might also be expected of the regulars if the performance of the witty Friar is any indication. But there are instructive variations and even surprises. In theGeneral Prologuethe three members of the regular clergy are grouped together, an impressively well-dressed trio whose social inclinations have successfully laid to rest their vows of poverty. Though all three are satirically inspected and found vocationally wanting, important differences in tone and method reflect significant moral distinctions. The Prioress is all manner and manners, from her singing...

    • CHAPTER XI THE FRANKLIN AND THE MERCHANT: “WE SEKEN FASTE AFTER FELICITEE”
      (pp. 195-216)

      THE three substantial members of the regular clergy are followed in theGeneral Prologueby three imposing men of a monied class that in the fourteenth century was beginning to nibble at the prestige and power of the nobility. In spite of their obvious social prominence and professional expertise, a certain coolness descends on these portraits; the narrator gives little sense of the human personalities that animate this merchant, lawyer, and professional host and officeholder. They are, with the possible exception of the Franklin, “seemers,” men who view their occupations as necessitating a certain amount of ostentation and subterfuge. In...

    • CHAPTER XII THE WIFE OF BATH AND THE NUN’S PRIEST: “OUT OF OLDE BOKES”
      (pp. 217-234)

      AS a fiction maker, the Wife of Bath ambles down the Canterbury road virtually without a peer. She puts to shame her nearest rival, the Pardoner, by virtue of the spontaneity and agility of her fertile imagination. Yet as a storyteller in the conventional sense, she is pretty much of a disaster, herTalebeing in many ways the least independent of its dramatic context. Though the story does not lack intrinsic interest, her narration, removed from the Canterbury framework, would seem a conundrum of ungainly digressions and misshapen materials: it can only be understood in terms of its teller,...

  8. THE USES OF FICTION: “I WOOT AS WEL AS YE”
    (pp. 235-244)

    THE Nun’s Priest’s splendidly ambiguous citation of a famous passage from St. Paul is, for all its comic exaggeration, typical of the medieval attitude to authority. Even the divine inspiration of Scripture did not prevent the wresting of a verse or phrase out of its biblical context, putting it to other and often quite contrary purposes. In this case, St. Paul, having just referred to a text from the Psalms (68:9), has only the Jewish scriptures in mind, when he interjects:

    Quaecumque enim scripta sunt, ad nostram doctrinam scripta sunt, ut per patientiam et consolationem Scripturarum, spem habeamus.

    Writing to...

  9. NOTES
    (pp. 245-286)
  10. INDEX OF AUTHORS AND WORKS CITED
    (pp. 287-292)
  11. Back Matter
    (pp. 293-293)