All I Survey/Essay XXXIII

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Essay XXXII All I Survey
written by Gilbert Keith Chesterton

Essay XXXIII: On Mr. Geoffrey Chaucer

THE challenge of Chaucer is that he is our one mediæval poet, for most moderns; and he flatly contradicts all that they mean by mediæval. Aged and crabbed historians tell them that mediævalism was only filth, fear, gloom, self-torture and torture of others. Even mediævalist æsthetes tell them it was chiefly mystery, solemnity and care for the supernatural to the exclusion of the natural. Now Chaucer is obviously _less_ like this than the poets after the Renaissance and the Reformation. He is obviously more sane even than Shakspere, more liberal than Milton; more tolerant than Pope; more humorous than Wordsworth; more social and at ease with men than Byron or even Shelley. Nay, some have doubted whether he is not still more humane than the very latest humanists; whether his geniality does not exceed the rosy optimism of Aldous Huxley or the ever-bubbling high spirits of T. S. Eliot.

Chaucer was, above all, an artist; and he was one of that fairly large and very happy band of artists who are not troubled with the artistic temperament. Perhaps there was never a less typical poet, as a poet was understood in the Byronic tradition of dark passions and tempestuous raiment. But, indeed, that Byronic generalization was largely founded upon Byron, or rather, on a blunder about Byron. It would be much truer to say that practically every type of human being has been also a poet, and that Byron was a Regency Buck plus poetry. Similarly, Goethe was a German professor plus poetry, and Browning was a rather commercial-looking bourgeois plus poetry, and Heine was a cynical Jew plus poetry, and Scott was a rather acquisitive gentleman farmer plus poetry, and Villon was a pickpocket plus poetry, and Wordsworth was a noodle plus poetry, and Walt Whitman was an American loafer plus poetry--for, in the art of loafing, Weary Willie could never have stood up against Unweary Walt. I have not yet heard of an American dentist or a shop-walker in a large draper's who is a poet, and I have no doubt that both of these deficiencies will soon be supplied. Anyhow, the general rule is that almost any trade or type of man can be an artist-- yes, even an æsthete.

But once or twice there appears in history the artist who is the extreme antithesis of the æsthete. An artist of this kind was Geoffrey Chaucer. He was a man who always made himself useful, and not only ornamental. People trusted him, not only in the moral, but in the more purely practical sense. He was not the sort of poet who would forget to post a letter, or post an unstamped ode to the cuckoo instead, had the penny postage existed in his day. He was not only given many responsible posts, but responsible posts of many kinds. At one time he was sent to negotiate the delicate finances of ransom and peace with a great prince. At another time he was sent to oversee the builders and workmen in the construction of a great public building. It has been conjectured that he had some technical knowledge of architecture, and I think the descriptions of various pagan temples and royal palaces in his poems support the conjecture. It is certain that he knew a good deal about the official precedence and etiquette of the Chamberlain's Office; he was a witness upon a point of heraldry in an important trial. Though his relations to the Court, during and after the _débâcle_ of Richard II, are covered with some obscurity, it is certain that, for the greater part of his life at least, he performed job after job, of the most quaintly different kinds, to the increasing satisfaction of his employers. He was emphatically, as the vulgar phrase goes, a man of the world.

But through all these tasks the lyric element flowed out of him quite naturally, as a man will whistle or sing while he is potting a shrub or adding up a column of figures. He never seemed to have felt any particular strain or dislocation between the world in which he was a man of the world and that other world of which he was one of the immortals. He had that sort of temper in which there is no antithesis of Sense and Sensibility. He does not seem to have quarrelled with many people, even in that very quarrelsome transition time; and he does not seem to have quarrelled with himself. Being a Christian, he was ready to accuse himself when he was seriously considering the question; but that is something quite different from the sort of constant unconscious friction between different parts of the mind which has marred the happiness of so many artists and poets.

I do not mean merely that the poetry of Chaucer, like the poetry of Dante, was in the higher sense a harmony. I mean that it was in the ordinary human sense a melody. It remained not only unspoilt, but unmixed; uncomplicated by the complexities of living, whether they were actually there or no. It is unfortunate that the word "mood" is almost always used of a sombre or secretive mood; and that we do not convey the idea that a man was in merry mood when we say merely that he was moody. For there was truly a special thing that may be called the Chaucerian mood, and it was essentially merry. There are any number of passages of pathos, and one or two passages of tragedy, but they never make us feel that the mood has really altered, and it seems as if the man speaking is always smiling as he speaks. In other words, the thing which is supremely Chaucerian is the Chaucerian atmosphere, an atmosphere which penetrates through all particular persons and problems; a sort of diffused light which lies on everything, whether tragic or comic, and prevents the tragedy from being hopeless or the comedy from being cruel. No art critic, however artistic, has ever succeeded in describing an atmosphere. The only way to approach it is to compare it with another atmosphere. And this Chaucerian mood is very like the mood in which (before it became merely vulgarized by cant or commercialism) some of the greatest of modern English writers have praised Christmas.

Chaucer was wide enough to be narrow; that is, he could bring a broad experience of life to the enjoyment of local or even accidental things. Now, it is the chief defect of the literature of today that it always talks as if local things could only be limiting, not to say strangling; and that anything like an accident could only be a jar. A Christmas dinner, as described by a modern minor poet, would almost certainly be a study in acute agony: the unendurable dullness of Uncle George, the cacophonous voice of Aunt Adelaide. But Chaucer, who sat down at the table with the Miller and the Pardoner, could have sat down to a Christmas dinner with the heaviest uncle or the shrillest aunt. He might have been amused at them, but he would never have been angered by them, and certainly he would never have insulted them in irritable little poems. And the reason was partly spiritual and partly practical; spiritual because he had, whatever his faults, a scheme of spiritual values in their right order, and knew that Christmas was more important than Uncle George's anecdotes; and practical because he had seen the great world of human beings, and knew that wherever a man wanders among men, in Flanders or France or Italy, he will find that the world largely consists of Uncle Georges. This imaginative patience is the thing that men want most in the modern Christmas, and if they wish to learn it I recommend them to read Chaucer.