Chaucer is the most versatile and innovative of English writers. Not quick to call himself a poet, a title passed down from ancient Rome and newly appropriated by Italian writers, he settles for the term normal">maker, suggestive of artisanal practice as much as artistic accomplishment. Yet it is precisely through lack of a poetic tradition that Chaucer is moved to experiment, in form and diction, in rhetorical strategies, with unimaginable freedom; such an opportunity presents itself perhaps just once in the history of any vernacular. In escaping the cultural hegemony of Latin and French, Chaucer’s English proves plastic and unencumbered. Confluences of differing tongues-- Anglo-Saxon and Norse; Anglo-Norman and Italian, as well as French and Latin—are tapped as Chaucer writes across a vast range of literary genres: dream visions, animal fables, knightly adventures, scientific measurementnormal"> (applied to the heavens, and to the acoustic properties of a fart), saints’ lives, orientalist fantasies, representations of Islam and of Judaism, classical legends, fables of damnation, and so on. In performing Chaucer’s verse, Chaucer’s fictional creations are especially concerned to manipulate and persuade you, as targeted audience: especially talented performers here include a professional wife (looking for a sixth husband), an alchemist, and a life insurance salesman of uncertain gender. And there is no omniscient narrator in Chaucer; the Chaucerian I is fallible, wants you to believe that he doesn’t know much, and prefers that moral judgments be made by you, not by himself.
Poets down the centuries have derived great freedom and inspiration from Chaucer, beginning with his pupil Thomas Hoccleve, who gives us the first nervous breakdown in English verse. Shakespeare, working from Thynne’s 1532 edition, was an avid reader of Chaucer and a brilliant exponent of Chaucer’s dramatic properties. More recent admirers and imitators include Sylvia Plath, Mike Poulton (for the Royal Shakespeare Company), Marilyn Nelson, and Caroline Bergvall. Marilyn Nelson, having studied Chaucer at Penn more than thirty year ago, was recently poet laureate of Connecticut; her normal">Cachoeira Tales, writtenin neo-Chaucerian metre, sees a diverse group of African-Americans go on pilgrimage. Caroline Bergvall, a language poet and performance artist, feels especial empathy with Chaucer as a French-Norwegian writing in English. Her Meddle English, and her brilliant conception of modern English as a midden or accumulated pile of lexis with deep medieval layerings, prove her to be a brilliant interpreter of Chaucer; hopefully, she will visit our class. New excitement to come, and certain to feature in our class, is Patricia Agbabi’s “remixing” of Chaucer (published April 2014).
This class begins a month or so after the New Chaucer Society meets in Iceland, so we will be able to review the latest scholarly developments and discoveries, fads and fantasies, as presented by some 700 Chaucerians and camp followers. Emphasis, for us, will be laid on normal">performing Chaucer, that is, on reading the verse aloud, with confidence, and with a sure sense that every act of reading is an act of interpretation. It is in performing Chaucer for and with new generations of students, rather than having them wrestle with the dumb page, that we will help extend this poetry’s life.