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Fucking Up Chaucer

December 16, 2009, 6:08 PM
Chaucer_hoccleve

Who needs proper porn when one can read Chaucer? Both might make us feel good in diverse ways, but assumptions that the afterglow of old poetry is uniquely cerebral are wrong. Joan Acocella's New Yorker piece on Peter Ackroyd's new book, a "retelling" of The Canterbury Tales, makes our mouths water for more--of the original.

It's easy to avoid Chaucer. Or rather, easy to attempt avoiding him even when electing English as a major, or as a passion. Nothing about the academic marketing of Chaucer would lead one to believe he is sexy, or current. Yet he was both. Mr. Central to English Literature was also very cool. Acocella's piece reminds us why.

Chaucer was sly. He was ironic. And, as puts it, he was the first writer to "dignify the vernacular," following Dante. So, he was capable of taking risks. 

Chaucer was also concupiscent. He talked dirty. His characters, in their "tales," discussed their desires, and acted on them. Ackroyd, a celebrated English scholar, takes all these elements to a new level, as perhaps only a celebrated English scholar could. Acocella writes of his translation, "[It] is proesy in another sense: If Chaucer is often indelicate, Ackroyd is downright obscene." She continues with what one hopes might end up on the back of the jacket someday:

When Chaucer has the Wife of Bath saying, in defense of love, "For what purpose was a body made?," Ackroyd translates, "Cunts are not made for nothing, are they?" She also cites King Solomon, with his many wives. "On his wedding nights," she says (in Chaucer's original) "he had many a merry bout with each of them, so lively a man was he." Ackroyd translates, "What about all those wedding nights? I bet that he did you-know-what as hard as a hammer with a nail. I bet he gave them a right pounding." When, in the Miller's Tale, Alison says to her swain, "Love me at once or I will die," Ackroyd gives us "Fuck me or I am finished."

This is literary history: a loving "fucking up" of English Literature. Wouldn't we rather spend afternoons reading lines like "fuck me or I am finished" than deconstructing the latest evolution of the Kindle's hegemonic rise? Plus, a fucking up of Chaucer has one key advantage over a watering down of Shakespeare: it's unique.  

Acocella's piece ends:

Chaucer died in 1400, or so the inscription on his tomb says. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, in honor of his royal service, not his poems. But, two centuries later, Spenser was buried near him, and it was then decided to devote a special section of the Abbey to writers. So Chaucer, in a way, founded Poets' Corner. This is fitting. He brought wit and beauty to English poetry and thereby gave his successors not just a model but pride and confidence in their young literary language.

Ackroyd's work may not please everyone, but as even the finest Derridean knows, it's all relative. Consider the alternatives.

 

Fucking Up Chaucer

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