Chaucer the Love Poet: A Study in Historical Criticism
By John B. Treilhard
PhD Dissertation, McMaster University, 1978
Abstract: This thesis is an historically based inquiry into the aesthetic function and moral significance of the themes of marriage, fornication, and adultery in Chaucer’s poetry about sexual love. Its first aim is to construct a philosophic and historical framework within which to study Chaucer as a love poet and thereby to help dispel the common but fallacious idea that Chaucer’s poetic compositions on the subject of love are archetypally and thematically similar to those of the romantic poets of the nineteenth-century. Chaucer’s attitude toward love is interpreted as a composite product of the influences of Ovid, St. Augustine, and the Christian Church of the Middle Ages and is shown to be morally incompatible with the idea, popular in the romantic literature of another era, that the world is well lost for love.
The first chapter of the thesis is mainly devoted to an investigation of the salient differences between Chaucer’s conception of love, which is in essence abstract moral, and impersonal, and the romantic conception, which tends to be emotional, amoral and highly subjective. This chapter describes the intellectual background of the distinctively medieval traditions of cosmological love, married love, and Ovidian love and attempts to interpret the influence of these traditions on the mind and art of Chaucer.
After the first chapter, the focus of discussion becomes much narrower, and descriptive treatment of the history of ideas gives way to close analysis of specific cruxes in love poems like Troilus and Criseyde, the Knight’s Tale, and the Parliament of Fowls. These cruxes, which included the problematic function of Chaucer’s various apostrophes and invoations to Venus, and the complex moral relationship of Venus to Nature, are examined for their relevance to the question of how Chaucer actually views erotic passion in his great love poetry. The conclusion reached in the second chapter is that the various cruxes treated here can all be resolved by showing that Chaucer consistently subscribes to Augustinian doctrines of nature, grace, and sexual morality.
The third and last chapter of the thesis departs from the conceptual approach to love taken in the previous two in that it adopts a more formalistic and aesthetically orientated mode of criticism. However, this chapter, like the preceding one, concentrates on the elucidation of cruxes and supports its generalizations about Chaucer’s artistry through close analysis and attention to poetic detail. Chapter 3 deals solely with Troilus and Criseyde, analyzing the concept of “love as an art” to which the poem repeatedly alludes; interpreting dynamics of response in the poem’s audience; and discussing the metaphoric association of verbal prevarication with amorous enslavement in the behaviour of Troilus, Criseyde, and Pandarus. The general conclusion of this chapter, as of the others, is that Chaucer was unquestionably a man of his time — an orthodox member of the Church and a firm follower of the teachings of St. Augustine in matters of art as in ethics.