Monday, July 06, 2015
The CanterburyTales by Peter Ackroyd
Chaucer’s England was violent: usurpations, civil war and rape were prevalent. He himself had to make a legal settlement for a rape he evidently committed, and he suffered the experience of seeing friends and associates, with whom he had served Richard II, beheaded while he was spared.
As a poet, he clearly had a sense of his magnitude, though his pervasive irony masks it. French was still the language of the court, and Chaucer had chosen to write in the English vernacular. Much of his work is magnificent translation, and I think he would approve, however ironically, Ackroyd’s Chaucerian translation.
Ackroyd is a fiercely prolific novelist, biographer, general person of letters, sometimes reminding me of the equally industrious and similarly brilliant Anthony Burgess, whom I continue to miss personally.
Burgess, though, was at his best in some of his novels, particularly in his Joycean fiction about Shakespeare, “Nothing Like the Sun.” Ackroyd’s novels hold me, particularly his outrageous “Milton in America,” but his best work is in his marvelous cultural visions: “Albion,” “London,” “Thames.” I say “visions” because they convey a comprehensive and frequently dark sense of the English character and its vagaries, including sudden excursions into brutality and lawlessness. That darkly ironic sense is profoundly Chaucerian and suits the poet’s major work, the unfinished yet aesthetically complete “Canterbury Tales,” upon which he continued to work until his death at around 57. He contrasts in this with Shakespeare, who died at 52 and chose to write nothing during his three final years, while retired at Stratford-on-Avon.
Shakespeare’s greatest contemporary, the epic poet Edmund Spenser, derived directly from Chaucer, whom he praised as the “well of English undefiled.” That prompted the 18th-century poet-critic John Dryden to term Chaucer “a perpetual fountain of good sense.” Ackroyd’s Chaucer is a personified London and a humanized Thames, incessantly vital and comprehending everything it flows past.
Like Shakespeare’s plays, “The Canterbury Tales” convey a strong impression of the author’s detachment from his own creation. Chaucer the Pilgrim, a character in the “Tales,” is partly a parody of Dante the Pilgrim in the “Commedia” and partly an anticipation of Jonathan Swift’s Lemuel Gulliver and the Tale-Teller in “A Tale of a Tub.” As pilgrim, Chaucer professes admiration for every scoundrel he gathers together in his company of 28 wayfarers en route to Canterbury. Ackroyd catches the mode in which the pilgrimage is the 14th-century version of our West Indian cruises, erotic and recreational “wanderings by the way.”