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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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9 The Grand Design of the Monk’s Tale

Extract

This essay sets out to show that the seventeen tragedies that constitute the Monk’s Tale are carefully and systematically ordered so as to develop a coherent argument about the nature of providence and fortune largely based on the authority of Boethius and in accordance with the status and character of the Monk himself. As such the Monk’s Tale takes its place as part of the larger and finished design of the Canterbury Tales as a whole. Ben se’ crudel, se tu già non ti duoli pensando ciò che ’l mio cor s’annunziava; e se non piangi, di che pianger suoli? Thou art cruel indeed if thou grieve not now, thinking what my heart foreboded, and, if thou weep not, at what dost thou ever weep? — dante, Inferno, XXXIII.40–42; Sinclair, I.4071 I. According to Derek Pearsall no grand design is to be found in the Monk’s Prologue and Tale (CT, VII.1889–2766), but simply a medieval catalogue characteristic of monastic learning.2 Characteristic it certainly is and the love of learning can at times result in a mere accumulation of facts and stories. This tendency is exhibited with brilliant learning on the part of Chaucer in the figure of the Monk, both in the relentless compilation of tragedies based on Fortune and in the ostentatious display of learning that accompanies it. Thus we have a learned reference to the verse form of six feet suitable for tragic or epic poetry as that which ‘men clepen exametron’ (VII.1979),3 although which men...

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