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Chaucer and Fifteenth-Century Poetry.

Ed. by Julia Boffey and Janet Cowen, King's College London Medieval Studies, 5 (London: King's College London Centre for Late Antique and Medieval Studies, 1991). x + 174 pp. ISBN 0-9513085-4-8. 8.75[pounds].

The titles of these collections speak volumes for the power of Chaucer. Both books set out to investigate the work of other poets (Gower, Henryson, Hoccleve, King James, Lydgate, the Beryn poet, and others), and to understand further their achievements in relation to the literary culture in which they worked. Yet the volumes together exude a strong sense of the primacy of Chaucer, projecting an almost subliminal deference to him as the arbiter of poetic achievement. Look where one will, it is the ghost of Chaucer that fills the eye, and that must be exorcised or accommodated before an appreciation of other work can begin. In many ways, this is to be regretted: making assumptions about Chaucer means that the collections reveal less than they might about his own work; occasionally it prevents the pursuit of other interesting parallels (what of Gower's influence on Henryson?); and it can impede an appreciation of the merits of the other texts. I often felt a straining at the leash, and a desire for the essays to break free more decisively from the validating presence.

Boffey and Cowen's excellent collection, based on seminar papers, is the less affected by these strictures, for many of its pieces tackle head-on the question of Chaucer's influence: Pamela King reflects on the debt of fifteenth-century poets to Chaucer's interest in |textuality' and the processes of creation; Henrietta Twycross-Martin seeks to place Henryson's The Testament of Cresseid within a wide-ranging Chaucerian context (although it was in the course of her essay that I felt most strongly the need for an awareness of debts to Gower). Other pieces see Chaucer's influence as part of a general inheritance: Janet Cowen explores Chaucer's place in the shaping of a tradition of exempla about women; W. A. Davenport charts bird poems through the fifteenth century, examining the extent to which Chaucer's bird poems determined the development of the genre; Julia Boffey investigates the Chaucerian and Boethian background to The Kingis Quair to suggest how the poem might be received as a |newe thinge'. Even so, this leaves four essays which seek to evade the Chaucerian embrace. James Simpson addresses the textuality of madness in Hoccleve's Series, trying to explicate Hoccleve's manipulation of his audience to convince them of his sanity; and Jane Roberts offers a sensitive reading of Henryson's Oppheus Eurydice (tantalizingly labelled by her a |Lydgatian' poem). Neither of these essays is interested in Chaucerian antecedents. Finally, the essays by Rosamund Allen on The Siege of Thebes and Peter Brown on The Tale of Beryn argue that later authors were prepared to address The Canterbury Tales, not in imitation but to create works that overwent Chaucer in some way. Brown in particular is persuasive and challenging in his view of the Beryn-poet as a writer conscious of his debt, but unburdened by it. It is these glimpses of poetic independence, self-consciousness and self-belief that reveal the diversity of attitudes to Chaucer, and suggest that his inheritance was not as single as some of the essays suggest. This is an interesting and important volume; but it is also a tantalizing one for its glimpses of poets less overwhelmed by the 'anxiety of influence' than it has become the fashion to think.

Yeager, the |good Genius of Gower studies' (Wetherbee), is a great collector of work about Gower; and like all collectors of rare-ish objects, he is eager never to let items escape him. This volume displays the vices as well as the virtues of such an approach. Almost all the writers experiment with ideas or techniques, or announce work-in-progress; but, whilst this is potentially exciting, many of the arguments, I feel, lack elaboration. I feel too that the collection lacks focus; for although all the essays touch in some way on Chaucer and Gower, the main thrust of many of the arguments is that the two poets were engaged in different kinds of enterprise. This argument leads to an uncertainty about how to compare them, and often, inadvertently, to the feeling that Chaucer was engaged in a more complex enterprise. This sense emerged even from the first two, impressive, essays: Winthrop Wetherbee on the poets' relations to Boethian traditions; and Alastair Minnis looking again at their sense of auctoritee. The middle of the collection seeks to suggest that Chaucer was much more influenced by Gower than has been thought: Chauncey Wood supplies a piece pondering the notion of |Gowerian' influence on the Parson's Tale; Peter Nicholson goes some way to proving that Chaucer was influenced by Gower in his choice of the tale of Constance; and Peter Beidler offers thoughts on the relationship of the tales of Florent. Partly because of the tentative tone of the essays, however, the pieces leave little sense of a revaluation of either poet. Finally, Bob Yeager reflects on trilingual culture; and in a striking feminist piece Carolyn Dinshaw links the Chaucer-Gower |argument' and their tales of rape.

Both collections are to be welcomed, especially as both treat of texts that are only beginning to be extensively served by criticism. I am left with the feeling, though, that there is more to be learned about Chaucer from viewing him through the eyes of contemporaries and heirs; and that there may be much to be said about other poets that is best discerned when the light cast on them does not throw up the shadow of Chaucer.
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Author:Runacres, Charles
Publication:Medium Aevum
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
Words:931
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