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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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6 Chaucer’s Tellers and Tales and the Design of the Canterbury Tales


S’io avessi lettor, più lungo spazio da scrivere i’ pur cantere’ in parte lo dolce ber che mai non m’avrìa sazio; ma perchè pieno son tutte le carte ordite a questa cantica seconda non mi lascia più ir lo fren dell’arte. — dante, Purgatorio, XXXIII.136–411 Never trust the teller, trust the tale. The proper function of a critic is to save the tale from the artist who created it. — d. h. lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature2 I. We need to distinguish between real tellers and fictional tellers. The real teller of the Canterbury Tales, including all the tales within it, is Chaucer himself. Let us begin with him. Chaucer is a poet of monumental poetic ambition and, by the time he comes to write the Canterbury Tales in 1387, a poet of monumental poetic achievement. In 1386 or thereabouts he sends out into the world Troilus and Criseyde, evident to all, then and now, as the greatest love poem in the English language (TC, V.1789–92): But litel book, no makyng thow n’envie, poem;seek to rival But subgit be to alle poesye; deferential;poetry And kis the steppes where as thow seest pace footprints;walk Virgile, Ovide, Omer, Lucan, and Stace. 130 Gerald Morgan These are the greatest poets of classical antiquity and the emphasis on Statius among them is deliberate, for Chaucer is imitating here the master’s own Thebaid (XII.816–19): vive, precor; nec tu divinam Aeneida tempta, sed longe sequere et vestigia semper adora. mox,...

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