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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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10 The Function of Rhetoric in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale

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I. The contrast between medieval and modern assumptions about the nature of poetry is nowhere more pronounced than on the question of the relation between poetry and rhetoric. C. S. Lewis expresses a characteristic modern distaste for rhetoric, all the more impressive in one who is so brilliant a reader of medieval literature and whose chosen task in life is to explain and render accessible that literature to a modern audience. He does so in what is in itself a magnificent rhetorical tour de force:

Rhetoric is the greatest barrier between us and our ancestors. If the Middle Ages had erred in their devotion to that art, the renascentia, far from curing, confirmed the error. In rhetoric, more than in anything else, the continuity of the old European tradition was embodied. Older than the Church, older than Roman Law, older than all Latin literature, it descends from the age of the Greek Sophists. Like the Church and the law it survives the fall of the empire, rides the renascentia and the Reformation like waves, and penetrates far into the eighteenth century; through all these ages not the tyrant, but the darling of humanity, soavissima, as Dante says, ‘the sweetest of all the other sciences’. Nearly all our older poetry was written and read by men to whom the distinction between poetry and rhetoric, in its modern form, would have been meaningless. The ‘beauties’ which they chiefly regarded in every composition were those which we either dislike...

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