Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Tom Shippey on Geoffrey Chaucer

I came across an interesting new book recently — Literary Genius: 25 Classic Writers Who Define English & American Literature. Two of its collected essays especially caught my eye: “Geoffrey Chaucer” by Tom Shippey, and “Charles Dickens” by A.N. Wilson (known to me for his biography of C.S. Lewis).

The book wasn’t available in our local library system, so I requested it through interlibrary loan. It’s quite a handsome volume, with a novel two-column layout and beautiful woodcuts of the authors and scenes from their best-known works. My favorite was the illustration for Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Anyway, I immediately read Shippey’s essay on Chaucer, which I enjoyed immensely (as I do practically all of Shippey’s work). Like all the essays in the collection, this is a short overview, but it’s quite an insightful one. Here are a couple of excerpts to whet your appetite for more:
Chaucer seems to understand people intimately, from all classes of society and walks of life, yet identifies with none. His works span the range of medieval genres, but he delights in exposing their limitations. His poetry is one of constantly shifting perspectives and unconscious self-betrayal. [1]
Chaucer delights in demonstrating that the meaning of words is determined by their users, or tales by their tellers. He likes to use the same line in different poems, with entirely different meanings in context. His characters, like his poetry, are complex, inscrutable, capable of being read many ways. He is the poet of shifting awareness and uncertain boundaries, of mixed motives and mirror images. [2]
Give it a look!

[1] Epstein, Joseph, and Barry Moser [illustrator]. Literary Genius 25 Classic Writers Who Define English & American Literature. Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, October 2007, p.9.

[2] Ibid., p.13.

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