Term Paper: Chaucer's "Retraction" and Its Meaning

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[. . .] It reeks of false modesty, as Byron remarked of Augustine's Confessions: "Augustin in his fine Confessions makes the reader envy his transgressions" (quoted by Nourisson). Chaucer refers to the Tales as a "litel tretys or rede," and refers slightingly to his own "unkonnynge" (Chaucer, Retraccioun). He lists all his most accomplished works in order to denounce them a "many a leccherous lay," but claims some merit for his rather pedestrian translations, only one of which, the Consolation of Boethius, he bothers to name. (Ibid.) At the end of the Retraction, he slyly returns to the guise of the narrator-pilgrim, who has only "compiled" the Tales, not authored them.

In fact, we have reason to think that Chaucer was rather proud of his erudition, as much of the content of the Tales is designed to show his familiarity with, and mastery of, various literary genres. His treatment, for example, of the courtly love convention, harks to the Romance of the Rose, and demonstrates the same admixture of sacred and secular content.

The courtly-love tradition itself, both explores the love for the pure and unattainable (comparable to man's yearning for oneness with God) and explicitly adulterous relationships. In fact, the Romance of the Rose contains both the original tale, written by Guillaume de Lorris, imbued with the most sanctified emotions, and the later addition by de Meun, which is as bawdy as any of Chaucer's Tales. Chaucer had not only translated the Romance of the Rose, but he referred obliquely to this accomplishment when he echoes its opening lines at the beginning of the Prologue. As Schwartz says of this, "His playful manipulation of conventions drawn from both classical and vernacular poetry...allows him to strut his stuff." (Schwartz, 2002)

She goes on to explicate the Tales as a satire of the Three Estates. The First Estate is that of the aristocracy, and is represented by the Knight and Squire. The Third Estate is that of the peasant, and is represented by the Plowman. The Second Estate, and the one to whom Chaucer himself belonged, was that of the Church and the Merchants. The Church could be represented by those drawn from either the First or Third Estate, and their roles within the Church would continue to mirror the prestige or lack thereof to which they were born. Thus, the Prioress is still an aristocrat. The Merchant class is represented by the Wife of Bath, who demonstrates that in addition to those generic three estates, there were three more estates for women: virgin, wife and widow. By playing on these distinctions, Chaucer is able to satirize a variety of conventions while demonstrating his knowledge of a wide spectrum of story-telling and drama techniques particular to each of them (Schwartz, 2002).

Godfrey sees the Tales as a "series of failed performances ending more or less disastrously...[standing] for nothing less than a poetics of failure" (Godfrey, 1997). If this is the case, then the humor with which Chaucer recounts the Tales shows a gentle satirizing of man's bumbling attempts to extract higher meaning from his existence, attempts which are doomed to failure by his "unkonnynge" (Chaucer, Retraccioun). Read in that light, the Retraction is nothing more or less than Chaucer's inclusion of himself as poet in the same category - the well-meaning but bungling wordsmith who while attempting to create an inspiring tale instead creates a pornographic assemblage of smut.

Throughout the Tales, Chaucer weaves a complex and balanced lattice of analogy and contrast, not only in the juxtaposition of the characters' tales (for example, the Tale of the Prioress with that of the Wife of Bath), but also in the relationship between the Prologue to each Tale and the Tale itself (the Wife of Bath's Prologue and her Tale). Therefore, it can be seen that by the time the group is almost at the end of their journey, tales have been told (one way or another) that exemplify each of the seven deadly sins. The Parson, of whom Chaucer provides nothing in the way of physical description and who therefore serves almost as a disembodied voice of conscience, rejects poetry and delivers a good old-fashioned sermon. He works his way through a definition of penance (presumably the purpose of the pilgrimage in the first place), distinguishes between venial and deadly sins, and fixes upon repentance as the cure for man's fallen nature ("This blisful regne may men purchace by poverte espiritueel, and the glorie by lowenesse, the plentee of joye by hunger and thurst, and the reste by travaille, and the lyf by deeth and mortificacion of synne." (Chaucer, Parson's Tale, X, 1080) Tupper argues that through this device, the Parson's Tale "provides the organizing principle to the preceding tales, which are exemplary of the sins and their remedies." (Tupper, 1914)

If this is true, then clearly the Retraction is Chaucer's capitulation to his own character's prescription for salvation. His tone through the Tales is lightly satirical, or at least ironic, and there is no reason to suppose that the ending of the work should be any different. Above all, Chaucer was an acute student of human nature, both in the day-to-day actions of all classes of people in his society, and also in how they had been portrayed by the writers who preceded him. His experiences as a scholar and as a diplomat would have exposed him to a wide spectrum of the cruelties, mercies, conceits and foibles of universal man (Persall, 1992). He uses his wit and his erudition to point out the foolishness of much of human nature, then includes himself in his own burlesque.

In conclusion, there seems to be no reason to see the Retraction as anything other than an integral part of the Tales. It is irrelevant in some ways to wonder if Chaucer is sincerely invoking divine pardon for any sins that he as a writer about the human condition may have committed. As a man, he is already guilty of original sin. Therefore, he, along with his all-too-human characters, can only make the human journey and hope to find mercy at the end.

Works Cited

Allen, Judson. "The Old Way and the Parson's Way: An Ironic Reading of the Parson's Tale." Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 3 (1973).

Benson, L.D. "Chaucer's Retraction." 2000. [Online]. Retrieved December 5, 2002 at http://icg.harvard.edu/~chaucer/canttales/retraction/

Boenig, Robert. Chaucer and the Mystics: The Canterbury Tales and the Genre of Devotional Prose. New York: Associated University Presses, 1995.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. "Retraccioun." [Online]. Retrieved December 5, 2002 at http://www.librarius.com/cantales/retract.htm

Godfrey, Mary. "Only Words: Cursing and the Authority of Language in Chaucer's Friar's Tale," Exemplaria, 1997. [Online]. Retrieved December 5, 2002 at http://www.cas.suffolk.edu/english/richman/Eng323/ret.htm

Haines, Victor Yelverton. "Hony Soyt Qui Male Pense: Can the Reader Sin?," Revue de l'Universite d'Ottawa, 53, (1983), pages 181-188.

Persall, Derek. The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers. 1992.

Pilkington, J.G. (translator). Augustin: Epistles to Darius, Ep. CCXXX, c.6, 429 AD., also Byron quote. [Online]. Retrieved December 5, 2002 at http://www.ccel.org/fathers2/NPNF1-01/npnf1-01-08.htm#P202_52543

Portnoy, Phyllis. "The Best-Text/Best-Book of Canterbury: The Diologic of the Fragments." 1994. [Online]. Retrieved December 5, 2002 at http://www.arts.uwo.ca/florilegium/vol-xiii/portnoy.pdf

Sayce, Olive. "Chaucer's Retractions: The Conclusion of the Canterbury Tales and Its Place in Literary Tradition." Medium Aevum 40 (1971).

Schwartz, Dr. Debora. "Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales." 1999-2002. [Online]. Retrieved December 5, 2002 at http://cla.calpoly.edu/~dschwart/engl203/gp203.html

Speed, Peter, ed. Those Who Prayed, An Anthology of Medieval Sources. New York: Italica Press, 1997.

Tupper, Frederick. PMLA, 1914, 93-128, and Types of Society, 1926.

Young, Mark. "Better Safe than Sorry: Chaucer's Retraction." 2000. [Online]. Retrieved December 5, 2002 at http://www.csis.pace.edu/grendel/projf20004f/chaucer/retraction.htm

Wurtele, Douglas. "The Penitence of Geoffrey Chaucer." Viator II (1980). [END OF PREVIEW]

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