Chaucer's Canterbury Tales is the most experimental, generically diverse poem in the whole history of English literature. At a time when the English language had unmatched plasticity and expressive force, Chaucer chose to write in many genres: classical romance, bedroom farce, Ovidian metamorphosis, saint's life, anti-feminist fable, feminist fairytale, poetic manifesto and prose treatise on the Seven Deadly Sins. By dressing contemporary characters in ancient garb, Chaucer was able to write a kind of science fiction before its time: medieval Londoners, depicted as ancient Trojans, Athenians, or Bretons, address vital and controversial issues of honor, belief, and afterlife.
Chaucer also wrote a poetry designed to be read aloud and appreciated in group settings. In this class we will devote considerable time to reading Chaucer aloud, mindful that each new reading is an act of interpretation. We will also see how later centuries have reacted to or rewritten Chaucer, beginning with a cranky anti-feminist Scottish schoolmaster (Robert Henryson): his coda to Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde exerted major influence upon the mood of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. More recent reworkings of Chaucer for consideration include Ted Hughes (and Sylvia Plath), African-American poet (and Connecticut poet laureate) Marilyn Nelson, and Chaucer rap artist Baba Brinkman.
The creative effort of this seminar builds towards one final, independent research paper. Form of assessment: one shorter essay (6pp.), one longer essay, with research component (12 pp. max); no incompletes. One critical reading (pass/pass) at some point in the semester: a reading of c. 20 lines of text, mindful that every reading aloud is an act of interpretation.
Students are invited to bring knowledge of later periods to this class; no prior medievalist experience required.