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The Shaping of English Poetry – Volume IV

Essays on 'The Battle of Maldon', Chrétien de Troyes, Dante, 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight' and Chaucer

Gerald Morgan

This fourth volume of essays under the title The Shaping of English Poetry consolidates the work of the previous three volumes on the great subjects of English literature in the Medieval and Renaissance periods. The Norman Conquest of England built upon the rich foundation of Anglo-Saxon England but did not destroy it; thus the present volume begins with the commemoration of English heroism in The Battle of Maldon. In the late twelfth century we encounter in Chrétien de Troyes's seminal romance Le Chevalier de la Charrete a new kind of hero in Lancelot, abject and obedient before his mistress, although Chrétien himself is not an uncritical admirer of the sanctity of adulterous love. Hence the importance of Dante's exposition of love in Purgatorio, XVIII, which forms a background to the essays here on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the Parliament of Fowls. The volume concludes with essays on Chaucer's Knight's, Monk's and Nun's Priest's Tales, which form part of a long-term project to interpret the Canterbury Tales as a unified whole and not merely a series of fragments awaiting revision on Chaucer's death.

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Preface

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This fourth volume of essays under the title The Shaping of English Poetry consolidates and in some cases elaborates upon previous essays on the great subjects of English literature in the Medieval and Renaissance periods. By ‘Medieval’ is understood as before both Old English and Middle English literature, although students of English Literature at a great university such as Cambridge hold to the still baffling view that English literature begins with, say, Chaucer, in the late fourteenth century rather than with, say, the anonymous poet of the Old English epic poem Beowulf (the first European epic in the vernacular), writing some six centuries before Chaucer. The Norman invader of England at the end of September 1066 was drawn indeed by the very richness of Anglo-Saxon culture and civilisation and although the English were put to the sword at Hastings on 14 October 1066 and subsequently dispossessed of all their lands (as recorded in systematic and meticulous detail in the Domesday Book of 1086) their culture (a Germanic culture) was not destroyed but ultimately enhanced and enriched. But it is not until the age of Chaucer and his great contemporaries, Langland and the Gawain-poet, that we witness the full flowering of this new and refurbished English culture. We do not have an English poem of any significance (at least so far as I am aware) in commemoration of the English dead on Senlac Hill on 14 October 1066. No doubt the defeat was too profound, painful and long-lasting in its effects....

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