Sunday, January 18, 2009

"The Pastons and Chaucer"

I found "The Pastons and Chaucer" fairly baffling and deliciously Woolfian. The title instantly confused me. I could not imagine what the Pastons and Chaucer had to do with each other. After about 7 pages of what I would call historical commentary, she transitions almost seamlessly into literary criticism. It was then that I realized that this essay has the same structure as Woolf's fiction.

She takes a minor detail, Sir John's reading of Chaucer, and uses it as a wormhole, jumping through time to an entirely new subject. On page 11, she leaves Sir John sitting and reading Chaucer while the smoke stings his eyes, and returns to him 9 pages later, exactly as she left him. Meanwhile she explore the merits of the Canterbury Tales. The essay moves through subjects as the mind does, seemingly randomly. It drops a sunject for another only to return to the former. It's only after reflection that the two subjects become relevant to each other. In the second to last paragraph, she points out that Chaucer would have loved the language from the Paston letters and that that sets him apart from the other great British poets.

This point seems so casual and haphazard but is keen and illuminating. It has a far greater effect than it would if it were stated as a thesis at the end of an introductory paragraph. I actually uttered, "whoa," when I read "it is easy to see, from the Paston letters, why Chaucer wrote not Lear or Romeo and Juliet, but the Canterbury Tales." I'm an English major and a history minor and I hardly ever have a visceral reaction to the essays I read on those subjects. I do, however, have a moment of pure joy when I make a discovery in literature. She captures that feeling in this essay. It's structured more like one of her pieces of fiction than like an essay but that just makes it so much cooler.


  1. I was surprised by this as well! Woolf’s essay made me consider Chaucer as a sort of Van Gogh of literature, who chose potato eaters rather than Dukes as subjects for his art. Perhaps we assume that Chaucer’s literature must be high in subject due to the almost foreign appearance of Old English or because Universities offer entire courses dedicated to The Canterbury Tales? Woolf points out that Chaucer wrote about real people without any of Shakespeare’s brilliant, but unrealistic, word play. However, I did question Woolf’s choice of the Pastons as the “realistic” voices that Chaucer, rather than Shakespeare, captured because their family held a higher status and were more educated than most people of that time. Regardless, it's still a great point about Chaucer.

  2. I've got my hands on the First Common Reader and wondering if I should read it even if I might not be too familiar with the subjects.