Let Chaucer Be

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The latest controversy roiling the breasts of English majors at Yale is their being required to take a survey course called “Major English Poets,” a course of study that forces them to become familiar with the works of Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Donne in the first semester and Milton, Pope, Wordsworth, Eliot, and one other modern poet in the spring. Their beef, according the petition that they’ve delivered to the Department is that “a year spent around a seminar table where the literary contributions of women, people of color, and queer folk are absent actively harms all students, regardless of their identity.” [1]

I heartily disagree, and I’m going to quote at length one of the white men listed above, TS Eliot, from his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent.”

To proceed to a more intelligible exposition of the relation of the poet to the past: he can neither take the past as a lump, an indiscriminate bolus, nor can he form himself wholly on one or two private admirations, nor can he form himself wholly upon one preferred period. The first course is inadmissible, the second is an important experience of youth, and the third is a pleasant and highly desirable supplement. The poet must be very conscious of the main current, which does not at all flow invariably through the most distinguished reputations. He must be quite aware of the obvious fact that art never improves, but that the material of art is never quite the same. He must be aware that the mind of Europe—the mind of his own country—a mind which he learns in time to be much more important than his own private mind—is a mind which changes, and that this change is a development which abandons nothing en route, which does not superannuate either Shakespeare, or Homer, or the rock drawing of the Magdalenian draughtsmen. That this development, refinement perhaps, complication certainly, is not, from the point of view of the artist, any improvement. Perhaps not even an improvement from the point of view of the psychologist or not to the extent which we imagine; perhaps only in the end based upon a complication in economics and machinery. But the difference between the present and the past is that the conscious present is an awareness of the past in a way and to an extent which the past’s awareness of itself cannot show.

And, yes, and that includes Alexander Pope, who may not be “fun” to read but who provides a nearly flawless mirror to the intellectual world of his century.

For people of color, “queer folk,” and women to have an understanding of the works of great artists and the historical contexts of those works strikes me as the opposite of harmful, especially given that I’m fairly sure Yale offers elective courses that feature other great poets like Derek Wolcott, Elizabeth Bishop, Langston Hughes, and Hart Crane.  Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, and Donne in a sense established the traditions of English poetry, the colloquial, rough-hewn verse of Chaucer and Donne pointing the way for the great Walt Whitman, the smoothness of Spenser no doubt influencing the verse of Christina Rossetti.

One student, Ariana Miele, in an op-ed piece for the Yale Daily News wrote, “We read Chaucer, but we are told to view his misogyny with an ‘objective’ lens.”

Certainly, the Middle Ages were misogynistic, and perhaps Chaucer was typical of his age, but he has also given us the Wife of Bath who offers this bit of wisdom to her fellow pilgrims:

By God, if women ever wrote some stories

As clerks have done in all their oratories,

They would have told of men more wickedness

Than all the sons of Adam could redress.

In other words, women in Medieval Europe did not have their voices heard.

Or this from Iago’s wife Emila from Othello explaining to chaste Desdemona why some women betray their husbands:

But I do think it is their husbands’ faults

If wives do fall: say that they slack their duties,

And pour our treasures into foreign laps,

Or else break out in peevish jealousies,

Throwing restraint upon us; or say they strike us,

Or scant our former having in despite;

Why, we have galls, and though we have some grace,

Yet have we some revenge. Let husbands know

Their wives have sense like them: they see and smell

And have their palates both for sweet and sour,

As husbands have. What is it that they do

When they change us for others? Is it sport?

I think it is: and doth affection breed it?

I think it doth: is’t frailty that thus errs?

It is so too: and have not we affections,

Desires for sport, and frailty, as men have?

Then let them use us well: else let them know,

The ills we do, their ills instruct us so.

 

I’ve often said that when parents start running a school, that school’s in trouble. When students start running a university, especially when they’re undergraduates, that university’s in big trouble.


[1] Is it possible to study post-colonialism without understanding colonialism? Might knowledge of pre-colonial and colonial art help students better understand colonialism and post-colonialism?

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