In this, the fourth instalment in our series of Notes on a Voice, Joe Parham considers Chaucer, now available for iPad and Kindle ...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Winter 2010
In an obscure poem addressed to “Adam scriveyn”, Geoffrey Chaucer scolds his dandruff-plagued scribe for copying down his work incorrectly. This can be read as livid vitriol, humorous jotting or ironic self-deprecation. Serious or not, Chaucer’s anxiety about being misconstrued was justified, as his verse (in the original manuscript) was largely unpunctuated. Raw, flexible, vivacious, it encourages myriad readings. He can appear erratic, with inconsistent word order, unpredictable grammar, mid-sentence tense shifts, missing pronouns and double, triple, even quadruple negatives. Alan Gaylord went so far as to say that “there is no such thing as Chaucer’s own line”, such were the efforts required to chisel a coherent voice out of his columns of free-flowing verse.
And yet this most aural of poets speaks to us from the second half of the 14th century in a voice as distinctive as the “sondry folk” of his “Canterbury Tales”. Melodious and brusque, sardonic and celebratory, earnest and tongue-in-cheek, Chaucer’s verse revels in its own dynamic ambiguity. He invites us to a bustling verbal marketplace, like that in the final lines of “The House of Fame”, only to rise above the mêlée, deftly out-selling the competing voices of his characters.
Polyvocality. Continually inhabiting other voices—squabbling birds, raucous pilgrims or flat-footed narrators—Chaucer shows us his world without telling us what to make of it. But make no mistake; judgment is wrung from us by the bucket-load. His claim, in “A Treatise on the Astrolabe”, to be a mere “lewd compilator” of other voices is a classic example of his attempt to eschew responsibility for that judgment.
Writing in English. While more straight-laced contemporaries like John Gower preferred French or Latin, Chaucer asserted the artistic value of the vernacular. His language was as current as his subjects. Not that he ignores European culture, which he had experienced broadly as a diplomat, bureaucrat and courtier. He often alludes to medieval Italian writers and racks up 1,000 borrowings from French. To read Chaucer is to realise that language can break free of geography and class.
Fast and funny. His Middle English may take some getting used to, but its instinctive mirth leaps off the page. He is never lethargic: you bounce along his five-stress lines, danced through the stories by sheer rhythmic jollity. Chaucer may not have been the chuckling bard of popular imagination, but his ears are always pricked for nuanced humour, whether light, dark or bawdy. He has a penchant for pun and innuendo: his characters are enmeshed in insinuations. These are often tantalisingly subtle, as when he refers to the Prioress’s “softe” lips or the exemplary Knight’s dirty tunic, and make for a depth that rewards rereading.
Conjuring new words to make lines rhyme or scan. For instance, in “The Second Nun’s Tale”: “For pure chaastnesse of virginitee”. Chasteness, as opposed to chastity, does not appear again in English for almost 200 years. Aside from being practical, these forms lend tremendous variety.
Three Italian poets: Petrarch, Boccaccio (both of whom Chaucer may have met on a trip to Italy in 1373) and Dante. Boccaccio’s “Decameron” lent the inspiration and narrative template for “The Canterbury Tales”. More technically, Geoffrey de Vinsauf’s “Poetria Nova”, a passage from which Chaucer lifted for “Troilus and Criseyde”, armed him with rhetorical devices.
One mingling the profane with the profound, such as the Miller’s declaration, with its lewd pun, that “an housbonde shal nat been inquisityf/Of Goddes pryvetee, nor of his wyf.”
"The Complete Works of Chaucer in Middle English" on the Kindle, £1.99; "The Canterbury Tales" on the iPad, free
(Joe Parham is an intern at Intelligent Life. He is a comic actor and writer with Kieran & the Joes.)
Illustration: Kathryn Rathke