A too-somber look at Chaucer's genius

Chaucer, by George Kane. A part of the Past Masters Series. New York: Oxford University Press. 128 pp. Hard-cover, $12.95; paperback $3.95. As George Kane sees it, Chaucer's value lies in his moral questioning of why people choose evil in a world where the standards of goodness are absolute and divinely sanctioned.

In a useful and cogent biographical opening chapter, and in a generally persuasive examination of the poet's response to the literary and intellectual climate of 14th-century France and Italy, Kane makes his case: that Chaucer's achievement as a moralist was his insistence that proper moral choice could not be accounted for by Christian doctrine of the period, which bullied all ethical analysis into cruel submission to belief in original sin. Chaucer's comedy and his moral genius came in his understanding that the capacity for goodness ``had an accidental look'' and might be a matter of random combination of mental and emotional talent for goodness.

Kane concludes that Chaucer's final days were melancholy because the poet could not reconcile his findings with the mentality of his age, or value the artistic advances he had made, since they might, by their departure from standard morality, lead men astray. It remained for future readers, for us especially, to appreciate the tragicomic genius of this famous English poet.

This is a reasonable approach to Chaucer's work, but I think exaggerated in its somber attempt to make a medieval artist approachable by modern readers. Little of Chaucer's confidence in ``love of kinde,'' men's natural gladness in spontaneous right-doing, emerges in Kane's account, less of the poet's love of creation's physical pleasures and beauty. Even in what Kane calls the ``eschatological crisis'' of medieval Christianity, humanism did not always bring anxiety with it as a booby prize, as it seems to have done for so many thinkers in our century.

While he does a service by concentrating on the complexity of Chaucer's moral thinking and humanistic art in this introductory study, Professor Kane brings a foreign darkness to a poet who, after all, together with Shakespeare, Dickens, and Joyce, largely invented our sense of humor, and what we mean when we say we are happy.

Theoharis C. Theoharis teaches literature at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has also published work on Joyce's fiction.

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