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A Chaucerian’s Homecoming

ISSUE:  Autumn 1934

Geoffrey Chancer, By John Livingston Lowes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. $2.50.

In december, 1930, Professor Lowes gave the first lecture on the Sir Israel Gollancz Foundation, his subject being “The Art of Geoffrey Chaucer.” When this lecture was published, early in 1931, it was received not only as one of the finest short essays on Chaucer in existence but also as evidence that its author, after following Coleridge for a decade down the long, meandering, adventurous road to Xanadu, had once more come home to his earlier love, the road to Canterbury.

Now, as further evidence of homecoming, we have his series of lectures, delivered at Swarthmore College, published under the title “Geoffrey Chaucer.” It is a small volume, beautifully printed, with the pages unencumbered with footnotes, and without any critical apparatus; for the foundation on which the lectures were given requires that they be printed as delivered. And even though there may be an occasional reader, as Professor Lowes remarks in his preface, “who will be disturbed by the absence of means by which statements can be controlled and citations verified,” one can scarcely regret the absence, in a volume addressed primarily to “lovers ot books” rather than to scholars, of an apparatus criticus.

“Geoffrey Chaucer” contains six chapters, each a beautifully ordered essay. The titles indicate clearly the general scope of the book: “Backgrounds and Horizons,” “The World of Affairs,” “The World of Books,” “Old Forms and New Content,” “The Mastered Art,” and “The Human Comedy.” The first chapter contains an admirably concise and lucid exposition of Chaucer’s cosmography, of medieval physiology with all its categories, and of that mapemounde which is Chaucer’s “lytel erthe”—all of which, with their complicated interrelations, make “the time-determined stage” for his “timeless creations.” Next the author turns to Chaucer’s extra-literary life and brings together the facts which years of patient research have uncovered in an essay on Chaucer as a man of affairs, “the first of a distinguished line of public servants who both because of and in spite of their absorption in affairs have memorably enriched English letters.” There follows what in some ways is the finest chapter in the book, an essay on Chaucer’s reading. It would seem that so far as is humanly possible Professor Lowes has read all that Chaucer read—and what a quantity of reading in divers languages that means!—not merely because he “was on the trail of something,” but because only by so doing could he feel certain what it was in the often interminable romances of the Middle Ages that so delighted Chaucer. These two chapters—one lecture, as originally delivered—make very clear indeed the fact that an appreciation of the two distinct yet blended influences in Chaucer’s life, his “need of a world of men” and his delight “on bokes for to rede,” is essential to an intelligent understanding of the poet’s work. The remaining chapters discuss critically the four vision poems, the “Troilus and Creseyde,” and the “Canterbury Tales.” As one reads these essays, he becomes increasingly, and regretfully, conscious of the limitations which time put upon the lecturer. But he must accept the wholly reasonable plan by which the author elected to unfold “Chaucer’s genius up to its crowning achievement in the ‘Canterbury Tales,’” for it is obviously true that “to most of us the masterpiece is more familiar than the evolution of the powers which created it.”

For one who knows Chaucer only slightly or not at all, Professor Lowes’ “Chaucer” should serve as an excellent introduction to the study of the poems themselves. It is not a handbook, nor does it pretend to be; it is neither exhaustive nor, for all the strange lore and unknown titles it contains, exhausting. It has the rather rare virtue of combining sound and thorough scholarship with a most contagious and unflagging enthusiasm. Its author enjoys research; the labor he delights in physics the pain of going through “thirty centuries of pages” of Deschamps, to mention but one almost casual item. But what is more important—and I am still thinking of the book as a beginner might use it—he likes Chaucer even more, the man and his work. It would be a dull soul indeed who, after feeling such enthusiasm, did not turn to his Chaucer to learn, as one must eventually, for himself.

But it is not a book for the beginner only. The professed Chaucerians—and their tribe increases—will find in it much to praise and little to blame. It brings together, in literary form, much of what is most important in the Chaucerian scholarship of recent years; it adds new matter and new interpretations as well. Here and there are statements to which objection may be raised. But that is inevitable. Rather than object to this or that, the Chaucerian worthy of the name will rejoice that here is a book which will make the results of Chaucerian scholarship easily available to the uninitiated, thanks to an author who, like the poet of whom he writes, knows how to teach delightfully. And grateful as many are, specialists and general readers alike, for “The Road to Xanadu,” there will be many who will note with satisfaction that one of the most brilliant of Chaucer scholars has taken to the Canterbury road again.


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