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Indepth Arts News:

2000-09-08 until 2001-01-28
Huntington Library, Art Collections, & Botanical Gardens
San Marino, CA, USA

The 600th anniversary of Geoffrey Chaucer's death will be commemorated in this exhibition, the centerpiece of which is The Huntington's magnificent 15th-century illuminated manuscript of The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer (c. 1343-1400) is considered by scholars to be second only to Shakespeare among English poets. Six centuries after his death, his work continues to delight readers and critics alike, yet every age sees the past through different eyes, their mirror reflecting both Chaucer and something of themselves. The mirour of the title is taken from the Merchant's Tale, one of the Canterbury narratives.

Chaucer (c.1343-1400), the first great poet to write in English, has never lacked for critics. Daniel Defoe thought him not fit for modest persons to read; Lord Byron found him obscene and contemptible; and Matthew Arnold deplored his lack of high moral seriousness. But these are a minority opinion: Chaucer's work continues to delight readers and critics alike, and his place as the Founding Father of English literature is secure. Chaucer's characters live age after age, said William Blake. Every age is a Canterbury Pilgrimage.

Yet every age sees the past through different eyes, and critics---admiring or not---often reveal as much about themselves and their times as they do about the subject of their commentary.

The exhibit begins with the famous Ellesmere manuscript of The Canterbury Tales, the earliest complete surviving text of this medieval masterpiece. The beautiful, leather-bound volume was penned by scribes less than a decade after the poet's death, and is beautifully illuminated with miniature paintings of Chaucer and 22 fellow travelers who accompanied him on a fictional springtime pilgrimage to Thomas Becket's tomb in Canterbury Cathedral. Purchased by Henry Huntington from the Earl of Ellesmere in 1917 along with the rest of the great Bridgewater House Library, the Ellesmere Chaucer made a pilgrimage of its own: through the North Atlantic's war-time waters and across America by Huntington railroads to San Marino, where it has held center stage ever since as the Library's greatest literary manuscript.

Chaucer's fifteenth century successors praised his use of the English language for serious literature, rather than the Latin or French then common in aristocratic or scholarly circles, and the earliest English printers shared this view with an enthusiasm fostered by growing English nationalism. The first substantial book of poetry ever published in English was William Caxton's 1478 edition of The Canterbury Tales, his tribute to the first foundeur and embelissher of ornate eloquence in our englissh.

By the end of the sixteenth century, however, Chaucer's Middle English language was finally beginning to seem a little archaic. Edmund Spenser immortalized him as a well of Englishe undefyled, but the first great work of English literary criticism, Philip Sidney's Defence of Poesie, already placed Chaucer in a mistie past. The rising Neo-Classical tide of the seventeenth century preferred its poetry polished and elegant, uniform in tone and time. Critics were troubled by Chaucer's apparently rough and irregular verse, obsolete language, and Gothic flexibility. While his works had been steadily reprinted throughout the Tudor era, no new editions at all appeared in the 85 years following Queen Elizabeth's death. Even John Dryden, who admired him tremendously and helped bring about a revival of interest by publishing a modernized version of The Canterbury Tales in 1700, thought Chaucer a rough Diamond...[who] must first be polish'd, e'er he shines.

Romanticism broke through the measured surface of Augustan calm with a renewed interest in things medieval and a renewed appreciation of Chaucer and his work, Byron notwithstanding. Wordsworth and Coleridge praised his broad humanity and the inborn kindly joyousness of his nature, and William Blake's famous engraving of the Canterbury pilgrims in procession brilliantly illustrated the richness and variety of medieval life: the pilgrims represent, he said, the characters which compose all ages and nations…. As Newton numbered the stars, and as Linneus [sic] numbered the plants, so Chaucer numbered the classes of men.

The Victorians too, awash in romantic notions of chivalric knights and fair ladies under the greenwood, found in Chaucer and his world a welcome antidote to the evils of modern industrialization. In William Morris this escapist aesthetic provided the inspiration for his Kelmscott Press 1896 edition of The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, with Morris's own specially designed typeface and decorative borders, and 87 woodcut illustrations after designs by Sir Edward Burne-Jones. The Kelmscott Chaucer remains a celebrated landmark in the art of the book, and-with the Ellesmere manuscript and Caxton's first edition-completes the triad of great Huntington treasures on which the current exhibit is founded.

From the common ground of Morris's admiration, Chaucerian criticism in the twentieth century has taken two diverging paths. The first continues an earlier effort to modernize Chaucer and make him more accessible to the ordinary reader: here is the inspiration for post-Dryden translations into modern English, for a child's version of the Canterbury Tales, or for Virginia Woolf's heartfelt tribute in The Common Reader to Chaucer's joyousness, his surprising brightness, his brilliance as a story-teller. Woolf, however, was among the last of modern critics to write in general circulation publications for a non-specialist audience. The second path leads to professional scholarly attention: Chaucer is alive and well in an academic world of university classes and scholarly books and journals, interpreted by professors for their students or peers. The Modern Language Association's annual bibliography of scholarly publications, for example, lists 119 books and articles about Chaucer written in 1998 alone.

But how many people now read Chaucer for themselves, for simple pleasure? It is hoped that this 600th anniversary exhibition will inspire visitors of all ages to discover---or rediscover---his work. Those who do will find what Virginia Woolf did, that he is a superb poet and story-teller of humorous, humane and tolerant genius, who can still make us wish… [to read on and] learn the end of the story.

Mary L. Robertson
William A. Moffett Chief Curator of Manuscripts

Ellesmere manuscript of The Canterbury Tales, circa 1410

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