G.K. Chesterton (Ignatius, 1991)
220 p. First reading.
Here is a match made in heaven. If you had the chance to dream up ideal pairings of biographers and biographical subjects, you could hardly do better than choose Chesterton to expound on Chaucer, a man for whom he would seem to have a natural affinity. In fact, it isn’t difficult to imagine Chesterton himself appearing as one of the pilgrims treading toward Canterbury, his cape and cap a fair match for the flamboyant accoutrements of his companions, his boisterous laugh enlivening the company, and his mule staggering bravely under his massive weight.
Not only is Chesterton a good biographer for Chaucer, but Chaucer is a good subject for Chesterton. The very dearth of dates and details about Chaucer’s life, which might be an impediment to a less imaginative biographer, liberates Chesterton to hold forth on any number of topics, sometimes straying well wide of his professed course, and sometimes rather reckless in his speculations, yet always interesting and provocative, and enjoyable to read.
Those who have read his more popular biographies, on Aquinas and Francis, will remember that the frankly biographical aspects of biography tend to be overlooked by Chesterton. The problem here is actually not as pronounced as in those other cases: there are two or three pages where we learn about Chaucer’s parents, and we are told roughly when he lived and where. But for the most part Chesterton is after larger game: the place of Chaucer in English letters and language, what we can learn about medieval England from Chaucer, the place of religion in Chaucer’s work and world. The book is cheerfully partisan; Chesterton loves Chaucer, and doesn’t pretend otherwise.
He especially loves The Canterbury Tales, and he is at his best when describing the wonderful variety of that company of pilgrims, or speculating on why Chaucer gave particular tales to particular persons. He has interesting things to say about Chaucer’s relationship to those who came before him, like Langland, and to his contemporaries, like Boccaccio and Petrarch, and to those who came after, like Shakespeare and Dickens. Beyond the details of the stories, he is interested in what we can learn from Chaucer about history, for he sees the Chaucerian corpus as a good antidote to many misconceptions about medieval European culture, misconceptions that prevent our seeing it clearly and, to Chesterton’s way of thinking, benefiting from what we see.
From time to time I will post excerpts from this book at The Hebdomadal Chesterton. For today, I leave you with a few nuggets:
We are not here dealing with a mind to be merely patronized for its simplicity, but with a mind that has already baffled many commentators with its complexity. In one sense he is taken too seriously and in the other not seriously enough. But in both senses, almost as many men have lost themselves in Chaucer’s mind as have lost themselves in Shakespeare’s. But in the latter case they are like children wondering what their father means; in the former, like beaming uncles, wondering what the child means.
[Chaucer the traditionalist]
Now Chaucer is a particularly easy mark for the morbid intellectual or the mere innovator. He is very easily pelted by the pedants, who demand that every eternal poet should be an ephemeral philosopher. For there is no nonsense about Chaucer; there is no deception, as the conjurers say. There is no pretence of being a prophet instead of a poet. There is no shadow of shame in being a traditionalist or, as some would say, a plagiarist. One of the most attractive elements of this curiously attractive personality of Chaucer is exactly that; that he is not only negatively without pretentiousness, but he is positively full of warm acknowledgment and admiration of his models. He is as awakening as a cool wind on a hot day, because he breathes forth something that has fallen into great neglect in our time, something that very seldom stirs the stuffy atmosphere of self-satisfaction or self-worship. And that is gratitude, or the theory of thanks. He was a great poet of gratitude; he was grateful to God; but he was also grateful to Gower. He was grateful to the everlasting Romance of the Rose; he was still more grateful to Ovid and grateful to Virgil and grateful to Petrarch and Boccaccio. He is always eager to show us over his little library and to tell us where all his tales come from. He is prouder of having read the books than of written the poems.
[Chaucer contra popular conceptions of medieval culture]
Those strangely fanatical historians, who would darken the whole medieval landscape, have to give up Chaucer in despair; because he is obviously not despairing. His mere voice hailing us from a distance has the abruptness of a startling whistle or halloo; a blast blowing away all their artificially concocted atmosphere of gas and gloom. It is as if we opened the door of an ogre’s oven, in which we were being told that everybody was being roasted alive, and heard a clear, cheery but educated voice remarking that it was a fine day. It is manifestly and mortally impossible that anybody should write or think as Geoffrey Chaucer wrote and thought, in a world so narrow and insane as that which the anti-medievalists laboriously describe. They have no chance, on their own theory and argument, of answering that Chaucer was cheerful because he happened to be lucky in some ways, though unlucky in others; and certainly lived among the rich, though himself, at certain periods, decidedly poor. The whole point of Chaucer is in the fact that he does not retire with lords and ladies, like Boccaccio, to tell his tales. He is enjoying not the walled garden but the world. The world he is enjoying is just as much the world of the Ploughman and the Cook as of the Prioress and the Squire. Moreover, it is vital to the hostile contention that even emperors and princes could be crushed under superstitions that paralysed them like nightmares; and that to all men even the promise of heaven was only the threat of hell. And it is a stark staring fact, of everyday psychology, that a man like Chaucer could not have lived in a world like that.
Chaucer often sounds satirical; yet Chaucer was not strictly a satirist. Perhaps the shortest way of putting it is that he already inhabits a world of comicality and is not a world of controversy. He makes fun of people, in the exact sense of getting fun out of them for himself. He does not make game of them, in the actual sense of hunting them down and killing them like wild vermin or public pests. He does not want the Friar and the Wife of Bath to perish; one would sometimes suspect that he does not really want them to change. Anyhow, a softening element of this sort has got into his satire, even if he really meant it for satire. But, with this step, he is already on the road to the Dickensian lunatic-asylum of laughter; because he is valuing his fools and knaves and almost wishing (as it were) to preserve them in spirits — in high spirits.