Monday, March 07, 2011

Nine Lives (of the Poets): Chaucer!

[caption id="attachment_2405" align="alignleft" width="225" caption="not my copy - a lovely image I found online"][/caption]

Our book today is John Gardner's 1977 The Life and Times of Chaucer, the savory, spirited foray into biography by an author I consider to be one of the 20th century's greatest American novelists. Gardner is currently languishing in obscurity (except for Grendel, one of the only novels he wrote that's short enough to appeal to high school students and their teachers, and also a book fortuitously positioned to complement any teaching of 'Beowulf'), and that's a shame - he's responsible for one of the strongest and most interesting bodies of work in contemporary letters. In addition to his novels - each one of which received lavish, even obsessive, amounts of care and attention before it was even sent to the author's little coterie of 'first readers' - and which all contain more erudition, allusions, and just plain fooling around than are ever likely to be fully annotated - he also wrote lots of nonfiction. He wrote copious book reviews on deadline for ready money, and although he used to comment that his reviews were all raw reactions, not really considered assessments, a reading of the pieces in question (not so easy a thing to do, considering that they've never been collected in a book) disproves such modesty. He wrote longer essays and 'think pieces' for the those journals willing to wait for them. He wrote two great, rabble-rousing books on the art and craft of writing books (he held the view - unfashionable when he wrote it forty years ago and utterly unspeakable now - that novels should do more than wallow in knee-jerk cynicism and trenchcoat pornography, that they should attempt to grapple with ideas and ideals, most of all that they should aspire). He wrote an epic poem, God bless him. And he wrote this life of his beloved Chaucer.

And it caused a brief, forgotten controversy. A thoughtful writer caught many echoes in The Life and Times of Chaucer - echoes of earlier lives of the poet, echoes of earlier histories of the period, and that thoughtful writer made some diplomatic comments about fast-looming deadlines and inattentive line-editing. Then a few months later a thoughtless writer took those echoes and ran with them - making accusations of full-blown plagiarism, stopping just short of demanding the author's head on a pike outside the Tower of London, preferably with his face turned away from the direction of Iowa City.

Since there was nothing substantial in the accusations, nothing substantial came of them - Gardner's life of Chaucer has been reprinted a few times since it first appeared, and perhaps the full details of the incident will come to light when the first full-length scholarly biography of the man is finally written (a major publisher doing a pretty reprint-set of all his works would certainly go a long way toward reviving interest in that long-dormant biography). And in the meantime, the work defends itself.

This was never going to be a customary scholarly biography, as Gardner himself confesses at every opportunity throughout the book. But neither is it an unanchored flight of fantasy - a lifetime of reading and teaching Chaucer tilled the ground for this text, and several intensive months of research put solid bones underneath its flesh.

But this is still a novelist writing biography, and it shows, wonderfully. At every stage of Chaucer's life and times, Gardner dutifully lays out the facts as we know them (in pre-Internet days, 20 well-chosen books in your study would give you all those facts; what you subsequently did with them was up to you) - but then he's always compelled to sniff around those facts for the stories at which they sometimes only hint. He has that compulsion in common with other novelists turned 'amateur' historians (Louis Auchincloss' book on the court of Queen Victoria comes to mind, as does Nancy Mitford's book on Frederick the Great), and many a professional, accredited historian has profited from imitating it. It's an impulse as old as Herodotus, and it does Gardner a lot of credit even when he's enlisting it in the causes of some very, very bad people. His novels are full of sympathy for seedy underdogs, and that misguided humanity creeps into his biography as well, as when he tries his best to like Edward III's lying, thieving, thoroughly evil son Prince Lionel, one of the worst oppressors of Ireland in that island's oft-oppressed history:
When Chaucer first knew him, Prince Lionel had not yet left for Ireland. He was a mother's boy, certainly, though not necessarily in an ugly sense. He had no overwhelming love of athletics, but he was proud of his older brother, the Black Prince (King Edward's family, even in times of disagreement, was close), and in many respects Prince Lionel aped his elder brother: the extravagant dress, the arrogance, the flirtations, Lionel was shy, more comfortable with his mother and her intellectual friends than with his heroic father - more sure of his ground when talking about poetry or painting than when talking about war. He was a depressive, an evader. He ate too much, drank too much, avoided responsibility by humor or deep glooms. What Chaucer thought of him is impossible to say, except for this: he was loyal to King Edward's family all his life, as they were, for the most part, to each other (as all the chronicles remark). Whether or not Chaucer liked Prince Lionel, the problem is that like Queen Philippa, he could easily excuse him.

Likewise he does his best to exercise a novelist's power of understanding (in all of 20th century American fiction, I don't think there's a more understanding writer than Gardner - he used to sit in his chair and work at just that faculty, until it was as sharp as a paring knife) when trying to explain the phenomenon of Alice Perrers, the buck-toothed, stringy-haired, monstrously selfish, utterly deplorable mistress who played Grima Wormtongue to Edward's Theoden for the last decade of his life. Gardner isn't so chivalrous that he can make himself ignore what a miserable blot on humanity she was, but he can't help himself - he can't let it go at that:
And in any case, her freedom was limited: she loved her husband, as royal mistresses seem frequently to have done; yet, as any medieval subject should have done, she returned the king's love and did everything in her power to make him happy. To Chaucer, in short, she was a study for art - a brilliantly entertaining wit, a good, gentle woman, a thief, a harlot; she was, as a child of the poet's own merchant class, an astonishing success, and at the same time a woman dissatisfied, as firmly locked out of the aristocracy as Chaucer was himself - a kind of pet, a failure. Chaucer watched, forgiving and fascinated, hands behind his back, prepared to trade lightning fast puns with Dame Alice, discuss biblical exegesis or astronomy or, if she liked, perform some recent poem for the dazzling company she'd assembled for King Edward's amusement.

And his book is balanced with equally great pen-portraits of good people too - of course most of all our good poet, who rose to prominence in Edward's court, conducted a busy life of official duties, and forced himself, in long sleepless hours late at night, to bequeath to posterity some of the finest, most enjoyable poetry in the English language. Like Horace (but unlike Shakespeare and Milton, the two titans who were to follow), Chaucer thinks it natural to give his readers plenty of himself the man mixed in with his verses - we read him and see him, pouring over his books by the late-night taper, hurrying to appointments with the mighty, slyly provoking the laughter of powerful ladies at court. This portrait of Chaucer - a portrait as far beyond scurrying accusations of factual plagiarism as Heaven is beyond the reach of a cathedral spire - is Gardner's great gift to his readers, and it culminates in his singing final paragraph, a little gem of prose I'm fond of quoting:
When he finished he handed the quill to Lewis. He could see the boy's features clearly now, could see everything clearly, his "whole soul in his eyes" - another line out of some old poem, he thought sadly, and then, ironically, more sadly yet, "Farewell my bok and my devocioun!" Then in panic he realized, but only for an instant, that he was dead, falling violently toward Christ.

I long for the day when I'll read those words in a nice hefty Library of America volume - perhaps one

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big volume for nonfiction, one big volume for the longer, major novels (and that epic poem), and one big volume for Grendel and the two writing-books. Maybe one day I'll see that volume - after all, Philip Roth's juvenilia has got to run out eventually, right?


PatD said...

Time to embark upon a Gardner reading fest. Thanks for the kick in the butt, Steve.

Philip Christman said...

"He wrote copious book reviews on deadline for ready money, and although he used to comment that his reviews were all raw reactions, not really considered assessments, a reading of the pieces in question (not so easy a thing to do, considering that they’ve never been collected in a book) ..."

Um. Since you're Steve Donoghue and I am merely some guy, I'm gonna assume you already know about Gardner's ON WRITERS AND WRITING (a posthumous (1994) book that, well, collects many of those pieces in a book), and that your "never been collected" here means "never comprehensively collected" or "only incompletely collected" or something like that. In any case, it's a fun collection that deserves mentioning: Gardner on THE SILMARILLION; Gardner on Bicentennial placemats; Gardner on Dickens ...

Gardner is wonderful. THE SUNLIGHT DIALOGUES remains my favorite of his novels--a common choice, I guess, but once in a while the majority is right. And his explications of medieval literature!--Gardner talking about mystery plays, or for that matter about Chaucer's poetry in the companion volume to the LIFE (THE POETRY OF CHAUCER), is almost as good as, say, Kenner on Zukofsky, or Delany on Disch (wouldn't want to Google-Image that last one, though).

Steve Donoghue said...

Philip: I HOOTED with laughter over that 'Delany on Disch' comment! And I don't know where that 'I'm just some guy' comment comes from - on the very rare occasions when I wear them, I put my pants on one leg at a time just like everybody else. I did indeed mean 'not comprehensively collected' - "On Writers and Writing" is a wonderful volume (wonderful enough so that I really should have plugged it in the post), but it represents about one-fifth (maybe less) of the total output we're talking about here, and that's not even including all the early-career reviews that may or may not have been written under exceedingly clever pseudonyms! And there's SO much more - Gardner never wrote a letter that wasn't good enough to publish, AND he kept journals, AND he kept an annotated commonplace book ... and ALL of it just glows with wit and insight of a rareness that really makes it a shame it doesn't yet belong to the republic of letters.

Nine Lives (of the Poets): Spenser! | stevereads said...

[...] his own poem-sequence under the pseudonym E. K.) It had been two centuries since Chaucer, and in that time England had come into her own as a country and an identity and had begun to [...]

Jeff Sypeck said...

I love this book too, Steve, and I always refer students to Gardner's lucid and lightly humorous three-page guide to pronouncing Middle English. Sure, there are more precise academic introductions to ME pronunciation, but Gardner remembers what it's like to be an enthusiastic beginner who benefits from knowing it's okay, sometimes, to "fake it"...

Nine Lives (of the Poets): Jonson! | stevereads said...

[...] (which she dedicates, the dear thing, to the New York Public Library). Chute did similar books on Chaucer and Shakespeare, but her Jonson book is my favorite – and I’d be willing to bet it was [...]