The Poet’s Tale: Chaucer and the Year that Made The Canterbury Tales, by Paul Strohm

A gripping pilgrimage towards a seminal period in the genesis of a literary classic, says Elizabeth Scala

February 19, 2015

Geoffrey Chaucer’s “drasty rhyming is not worth a turd!”. So says Harry Bailly, the fictional Host of the Canterbury pilgrimage, after interrupting the poet’s own Tale of Sir Thopas. The value of Chaucer’s rhyme has since risen, but he never directly profited from his writing, at least as far as the historical record indicates. In the many documents attesting to Chaucer’s “official” life within the royal bureaucracy, he was never paid a farthing – arguably the medieval cash equivalent of a turd – for his poetry.

The gap between these two Chaucers has long necessitated invention. Here, Paul Strohm offers a “microbiography”, recontextualising and interpreting pivotal events in and leading up to Chaucer’s “exit from London” in the year 1386. This move, according to Strohm, exiles Chaucer from his familiar circle of court clerks and forces him to find a new audience in his imagination. Reviving an argument from his earlier scholarly study, Social Chaucer (1989), Strohm delivers a readable narrative of city politics to frame Chaucer’s everyday circumstances.

Strohm contextualises the well-known, yet unconnected, points of Chaucer’s biography. Like most appointments, “his selection as a shire knight [in autumn 1386] was probably a result of his sponsors’ wishes rather than his own desires”. Chaucer’s own hidden wishes, one might say, are the true subject of Strohm’s book. They are found within Chaucer’s poetry, submerged as the desires of others – figures of Chaucer’s literary creation and thus at a remove. But they are also wishes for a broader audience beyond the confines of the courtly circles that Strohm imagines for Chaucer. The year 1386, as configured, forms a break – a moment of crisis out of which the Canterbury fiction is invented. But the “revolutionary break” narrative winds up obfuscating many of the consistencies with Chaucer’s earlier poetry. Distance was always Chaucer’s signature move in his creation of dreamers and narrators, before geographic distance became a matter of record with his move to Kent.

For a book advertising itself as a narrative of a single year, The Poet’s Tale will seem as though it has taken the long way round; we arrive at 1386 only after 154 pages, the end point of each of Strohm’s uniquely focused first four chapters. This story is plausible, at times even gripping, as he reshapes matters into a Dantean narrative of exile and withdrawal. He tells a story of insolvency, seeing Chaucer’s recorded debts as a damning narrative (whereas the standard biography reads this situation quite differently). But given that these events lead us to the end of 1386, why couldn’t Chaucer have had the idea in early 1387? For no other reason than that this is the standard date at which we assume he began The Canterbury Tales already, making for a less dramatic-sounding narrative.

So the sharpest change Strohm makes to the received story is perhaps the darkness in which he puts Chaucer’s writing before 1386. He asks why Chaucer’s literary reputation did not save him from these tumultuous events, why he was so easily sent away and got rid of, and surmises that it was because “he was not yet a celebrated writer”. By other accounts, however, Chaucer was then at the height of his literary fame, and the move to Kent planned as early as 1385.

My point is not to disabuse potential readers. This tale is a good one, but it is not unqualified fact. It is a sceptical presentation of the London political scene around which Chaucer worked and an imaginative interpretation of how his movements in and through that world sparked the idea for his greatest work.

The Poet’s Tale: Chaucer and the Year that Made The Canterbury Tales

By Paul Strohm
Profile, 288pp, £15.99
ISBN 9781781250594
Published 15 January 2015

Times Higher Education free 30-day trial

You've reached your article limit

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Featured Jobs

PhD Scholar in Medicine

University Of Queensland

Manager, Research Systems and Performance

Auckland University Of Technology

Lecturer in Aboriginal Allied Health

University Of South Australia

Lecturer, School of Nursing & Midwifery

Western Sydney University

College General Manager, SHE

La Trobe University
See all jobs

Most Commented

women leapfrog. Vintage

Robert MacIntosh and Kevin O’Gorman offer advice on climbing the career ladder

Woman pulling blind down over an eye
Liz Morrish reflects on why she chose to tackle the failings of the neoliberal academy from the outside
White cliffs of Dover

From Australia to Singapore, David Matthews and John Elmes weigh the pros and cons of likely destinations

Mitch Blunt illustration (23 March 2017)

Without more conservative perspectives in the academy, lawmakers will increasingly ignore and potentially defund social science, says Musa al-Gharbi

Michael Parkin illustration (9 March 2017)

Cramming study into the shortest possible time will impoverish the student experience and drive an even greater wedge between research-enabled permanent staff and the growing underclass of flexible teaching staff, says Tom Cutterham