Woolf on Chaucer (again)

Because it’s been bugging me ever since I read the essay Aruna told me about.

This example, for me, sums up what’s wrong with Woolf’s approach to Chaucer:

“But there is another and more important reason for the surprising brightness, the still effective merriment of the Canterbury Tales. Chaucer was a poet; but he never flinched from the life that was being lived at the moment before his eyes. A farmyard, with its straw, its dung, its cocks and its hens, is not (we have come to think) a poetic subject; poets seem either to rule out the farmyard entirely or to require that it shall be a farmyard in Thessaly and its pigs of mythological origin. But Chaucer says outright:

Three large sowes hadde she, and namo,
Three kyn, and eek a sheep that highte Malle;

or again,

A yard she hadde, enclosed al aboute
With stikkes, and a drye ditch with-oute.”

Now both of those quotes are from the beginning of the Nun’s Priest’s Tale. But the Nun’s Priest’s Tale is not the everyday story of farmyard folk, it’s a sophisticated piece of literary parody. It’s a fable told in the language of a medieval romance. The chickens are described in terms that would be more suited to Lancelot and Guinevere:

“His coomb was redder than the fyn coral,
And batailled, as it were a castel wal.
His byle was blak, and as the jeet it shoon,
Lyk asure were hise legges and his toon,
His nayles whiter than the lylye flour,
And lyk the burned gold was his colour.
This gentil cok hadde in his governaunce
Sevene hennes, for to doon al his plesaunce,
Whiche were hise sustres and his paramours,
And wonder lyk to hym as of colours;
Of whiche the faireste hewed on hir throte
Was cleped faire damoysele Pertelote.
Curteys she was, discreet, and debonaire
And compaignable, and bar hyrself so faire
Syn thilke day that she was seven nyght oold,
That trewely she hath the herte in hoold
Of Chauntecleer loken in every lith.”

It’s as inappropriate as a Beatrix Potter story retold as a gumshoe thriller. But that’s the point – it’s a joke. Chaucer describes Chaunticleer as though he were a great knight (comparing him to jet and coral and castle walls), and applies classic courtly love vocabulary to Pertelote (fairest, damsel, courteous, debonaire); but at the same time he reminds us that these are chickens –

“This gentle cock had under his rule seven hens, to provide all his delight, which were his sisters and his concubines”


“Courteous she was, discreet and gracious, and companionable, and bore herself so beautifully since that day she was seven nights old…”

Later on the chickens have arguments about dreams, prophecy and medicine, with reference to, amongst other things, Cato, Cenwulf, Scipio, the Book of Daniel, Croesus, the medieval theories of the bodily humours and astrology. In other words, all the panoply of medieval scholasticism; and again, putting it all into the beaks of chickens is a literary joke.

The bulk of the story is told at the level of the chickens – they are full characters in their own little world, as is normal in fables. But Chaucer frames the whole story with bits of description at the human level, in order to emphasise the joke by effectively pulling the camera out to reveal that these courtly lovers and scholars are indeed just chickens in the coop of an aging peasant woman. The first part of that framing, at the very beginning, is where Woolf gets her quote about the sheep called Malle. There’s another similar passage at the end where the fox has just caught Chanticleer and run off with him:

“This sely wydwe, and eek hir doghtres two,
Herden thise hennes crie, and maken wo,
And out at dores stirten they anon,
And seyn the fox toward the grove gon,
And bar upon his bak the cok away;
And cryden, “Out! Harrow and weylaway!
Ha! ha! The fox!” and after hym they ran,
And eek with staves many another man,
Ran Colle, oure dogge, and Talbot, and Gerland,
And Malkyn with a dystaf in hir hand,
Ran cow and calf, and eek the verray hogges,
So fered they fered for berkyng of the dogges,
And shoutyng of the men and wommen eeke,
They ronne so, hem thoughte hir herte breeke;
They yolleden as feends doon in helle,
The dokes cryden as men wolde hem quelle,
The gees for feere flowen over the trees,
Out of the hyve cam the swarm of bees,
So hydous was the noyse, a! benedicitee!
Certes, he Jakke Straw and his meynee
Ne made nevere shoutes half so shille,
Whan that they wolden any Flemyng kille,
As thilke day was maad upon the fox.
Of bras they broghten bemes and of box,
Of horn, of boon, in whiche they blewe and powped,
And therwithal they skriked and they howped,
It seemed as that hevene sholde falle!”

The lines quoted by Woolf are, in fact, comic counterpoint to the rest of the Tale. They’re not even representative of the poem they’re in, let alone Chaucer as a whole. In giving the name of the sheep, Chaucer was being deliberately banal for comic effect, because farmyards were no more regarded as a ‘poetic subject’ in the C14th than when Woolf was writing. More typical of the period would be Chaucer’s other great work (other than the Canterbury Tales, that is) – ‘Troilus and Criseyde’, a long chivalric poem about love and honour set in the Trojan War.

So how did Woolf misread the NPT so badly? Because, I would suggest, she had a completely narrow view of the Middle Ages. She seems to have completely bought into the Pre-Raphaelite/William Morris/Merrie England view of the period, which was always somewhere between a romanticisation and an outright lie. Because she has this idea that the period was one of simplicity and directness, she only sees half of what’s going on. Chaucer was, often, a very direct writer – but he could also be ironic, indirect, and nuanced. Much like Shakespeare, who sometimes did metaphysical speculation and sometimes did knob jokes.