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Chaucer Through the Back Door

ISSUE:  Winter 1933

Chaucer. By G. K. Chesterton. New York: Farrar and Rinehart. $2.50.

In “A Tale of a Tub,” Swift remarks that “to enter the palace of learning at the great gate requires an expense of time and forms; therefore men of much haste and little ceremony are content to get in by the back door.” Mr. Chesterton, to judge from his “Chaucer,” has been more than willing to expend time and forms; he has entered the palace of Chaucerian pleasure and profit at the great gate; he has discovered many mansions; and now he returns, full of praise for the man and his times, to write a guidebook for others. But paradoxically enough his guidebook seems designed, however inadvertently, for “men of much haste and little ceremony”; it offers a backdoor entrance, enticing but dangerous.

In his introduction Mr. Chesterton states his qualifications for writing on Chaucer and his purpose in doing so. He “makes no claim to specialism of any sort in the field of Chaucerian scholarship.” He is “primarily concerned with the fact that Chaucer was a poet,” one whom he wishes to praise. But he admits a “general thesis; that, in spite of everything, there was a balanced philosophy in medieval times; and some very unbalanced philosophies in later times.” It is only fair to add that in his first paragraph he issues a caveat: his approach to the subject has its “inevitable pitfalls.” If the “normal and unpretentious persons” for whom the book was written find themselves on the last page not much closer to Chaucer than they were before, they should remember that “what matters is not books on Chaucer, but Chaucer.”

Even though an author disclaims the name of specialist, we have the right to expect accuracy from him in matters of established fact. Unfortunately Mr. Chesterton’s “Chaucer” contains not a few errors, which suggest reading almost too casual at times, and writing done in moments of powerful emotion without subsequent moments of tranquility for dull but necessary checking. If these lines ever reach the author, he will probably accuse the reviewer of pedantry. But is it pedantic to object to such inaccuracy of statement as the following? “It is not for nothing that the comfortable and prosperous Merchant tells a tale that is rather naughty, in the manner of a French farce, but not gross in the manner of the Miller’s Tale.” The merchant comfortable and prosperous? Outwardly, to the casual observer, yes; but anything but that behind his protective motley, which keeps his debts hidden and makes him hold his tongue until the “long and large difference” between the patience of Griselda and his own wife’s passing cruelty forces from him a bitter confession, followed by a tale not merely rather naughty, and not essentially farcical, but gross enough and to spare in its cynical picture of crabbed age and youth. Or again, is it meticulous to point out that although Troilus may seem to be an unconscionable long time loving, he does not “seem to be an unconscionable long time dying”? “Dispitously him slough the fiers Achille” suffices; the most rapid bit of action in a long and leisurely poem. One could wish that in the interests of accuracy the author had not forgotten, apparently, that the Wife of Bath had buried her fifth husband as well as his predecessors; and that not all three of the priests attendant on the Prioress “disappear.”

To point out errors in details, however, is not to condemn the book as a whole. Considered primarily as “the effect of a particular poet on a particular person,” it displays the enthusiasm and vigor, the brilliant paradoxes and robust dogmatism that we have come to expect from its author. He comes to praise Chaucer, not to bury him under piles of learned lumber. To be sure, he spends much time in flogging dead horses; few of those who read Chesterton, and even fewer who read Chaucer, need to be told that the Middle Ages were not wholly unenlightened, or that Chaucer enjoyed a balanced philosophy by which to live. The main thesis, which the author seems to consider the heart of the book, is really of less consequence than the obiter dicta, which show him at his best. “The great poet exists to show the small man how great he is.” But one must resist the temptation to quote more. That much of the best writing in the book relates slightly, if at all, to Chaucer, will hardly be considered a serious matter, at least by those who enjoy Mr. Chesterton; we gladly learn from one who, like Chaucer’s Clerk, so gladly teaches. “The Moral of the Story,” as he entitles his concluding chapter—and anyone who knows his Chesterton can guess what that moral will be—is less significant than the incidental but characteristic and provocative paradoxes.

The great gate to Chaucer is, and always will be, his own works; and there are many, even in these days of much haste and little ceremony, who are willing to spend the time necessary to open it. But books on Chaucer do matter, especially when they are written by authors of established reputation. Those who will explore Chaucer himself after entering by the enticing back door which Mr. Chesterton has provided will, I fear, be rather few. Far more will be led to further exploration in the works of Mr. Chesterton. Therein lies the danger of the book’s defeating its avowed purpose. It will be of most value to those who have already found Chaucer for themselves; for it will set them to rereading him, to discover, perhaps for the first time, how really great “the most human of human beings” was, and how much he matters.


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