Chaucer, Canterbury Tales, "Retractions"

Genre:  an author's "retraction" of his works, or those works he repents having written.

Form: prose.

Characters:  Chaucer-the-poet?  Or perhaps Chaucer-the-man?  And his implied readers for whose souls he feels responsible, as well as God as a kind of "super-reader" who interprets all things.

Plot Summary:  The "Retractions" stages a drama in which the narrator attempts to withdraw his authorial responsibility for writing certain of his works, which he names, including his great Troilus and those Canterbury tales which might lead one to sin.  Like his move in the prologue to "Miller's Tale," this puts the reader in the position of being responsible for the tales he has "retracted."  The "Retractions" is a rather common manuscript-tradition literary genre in which an author essentially withdraws his "authority" from the circulating manuscripts which contain his worldly or licentious works.  Sometimes authors write that they are doing this on their deathbeds as a means of preparing their souls for final judgment.  Though Chaucer never says this, his list of works includes much of what he is known to have written in his lifetime, as well as one which has not survived ("the Book of the Leon").  This completeness of reference, as well as the prayer with which it closes and its apparently sincere tone, suggests it may have been such a death-bed act.   This text circulates with "Parson's Tale" as a complete unit in every manuscript preserving it, and when preserved, ParsT and Ret always end the manuscript.

Issues and general research sources:

1)  Siegfried Wenzel, a conservative Chaucer scholar, wrote the Explanatory Notes for the Riverside Chaucer edition of the Retraction" (965), and he provides a judicious, balanced summary of the current scholarly opinion of this sphinx-like paragraph.  In brief, if the Retraction is not literally the poet's renunciation of much of his secular work, it may be explained another instance of "Chaucer-the-Pilgrim"'s character showing up, this time responding to the Parson's sermon which recommended penance.  This would be a thematic conclusion to the narrative arc begun by the "General Prologue"'s springtime evocation of life as a pilgrimage that has just started.  It also might be a literary convention that an author might use to create a list of his authentic works in order to save them from association with those of later imitators.  However, in the generation after Chaucer's death, Thomas Gascoigne wrote (1434-57) that Chaucer had undergone a death-bed repentance for his career as a secular poet, and that has led some critics like Douglas Wurtele to argue that the "Retraction" is most simply explained as the written product of that event ("The Penitence of Geoffrey Chaucer," Viator: Medieval and Renaissance Studies 11 [1980] 335-9).  He points out that many previous and subsequent authors have undergone the same death-bed doubts about their lives' work, including Augustine, Bede, Giraldus Cambrensis, Jean de Meun, Sir Lewis Clifford, and Leo Tolstoy.  

    However, because some of the other CT frame narrative material (prologues, epilogues) may have been introduced by scribes, one might suspect that they might also have added the "Retraction" to retroactively protect their own labors.  How does this document fit into Chaucer's overall strategies of self-representation in the Tales and elsewhere in his work (e.g., Book of the Duchess, House of Fame, etc.)?  Can we establish a stylistic argument that this text either is or is not the product of the mind which created those works?  Could examining his diction or syntax alert us to the presence of another's hand in the "Retractions"' composition?

2)  The "book of the Leoun" (313) has never been discovered and appears to have left no trace among Chaucer's contemporary or near-contemporary readers.  Guillaume de Machaut and Eustasche Deschampes both wrote "Dites" or sayings whose title subject was a lion, probably a prince they were praising.  Where would you go to find this "missing Chaucer" and what might you expect it to contain based on its presence in this list?

3)  How do you feel about the notion that Chaucer may have wished to withdraw many of his works from circulation?  Should he be able to do so?  Should we cease to read them if we discover convincing evidence the "Retraction" expresses his final wishes?

Additional Scholarship

Dean, James. "Chaucer's Repentance: A Likely Story." The Chaucer Review. 24:1 (1989) 64-76.

                Dean argues the Retraction represents Chaucer-the-Poet's actual act of repentance based on comparison with similar events in the lives of the poets Deguileville, Boccaccio, Langland and Gower.  For further information and an analysis of Dean's argument, see Richard Roisman's 1994 entry in the Goucher College Chaucer Seminar Annotated Bibliographies.

Pigg, Daniel F.  “Figuring Subjectivity in Piers Plowman C, the Parson’s Tale, and Retraction: Authorial Insertion and Identity Poetics.”  Style 31:3 (September 1997) 428-39.

            Pigg compares William Langland’s dream vision with Chaucer’s poetic cycle and finds interesting similarities in both authors’ decisions to add “authorial signature” to the works, specifically mentioning themselves in their texts, and associating their identities with the search for penitence and forgiveness.  Piers Plowman (which Langland revised twice, producing the A, B, and C versions) describes Will’s witness of serial dreams in which the Church, Truth, Reason, Confession, the Seven Deadly Sins, and a host of other characters act out the poem’s analysis of the spiritual state of the world, culminating in a vision of the eponymous plowman, identified with Jesus, whose virtue would redeem all.  Pigg explores the possibility that Chaucer may have been aware of this poem, written during while he was just beginning CT (1367-85), because of the unlikelihood that two such different poems would use similar authorial self-positioning strategies, strategies which are strikingly different from other Middle English poems of the era.  Pigg treats the “Retractions” as an “autobiographical confession” that is evidence of genuine spiritual commitment and “developing a sense of textual self-consciousness” (38).

Portnoy, Phyllis. "Beyond the Gothic Cathedral: Post-Modern Reflections in the Canterbury Tales." Chaucer Review. 28:3 (1994) 279-92.

                Studying the difficulties of the final fragment's tales, Portnoy proposes that their rhetoric against tale-telling and the Parson's sermon contribute to Chaucer's strategy of refusing closure.   Portnoy's title alludes to Robert Jordan's 1967 study (Chaucer and the Shape of Creation) that proposed a structural analogy between the tales' arched oppositions on various topics (professions, marriage, salvation, fraud) and the gothic cathedral's flying buttresses which erect the structure by striving against each other as they rise to the central peak. In Jordan's scheme, the "Parson's Tale," considered a moralizing aesthetic flaw by some 1950s  New Critics and 1970s structuralists, was in fact the apex of the "cathedral"'s highest tower, reaching toward heaven. Portnoy's study of the interpretive patterns in the tales as a whole, and especially in the last fragment, lead her to believe that the "cathedral" structure is a figment of Jordan's imagination because it makes Chaucer more of an optimistic moralist than the tales can support. Finally, the "Retractions" end the act of narration, itself, "as the multiple voices are silenced by the last words of the poet" (279). Portnoy touches on many of the more important early tales, including the whole of Fragment 1, the Wife of Bath's and Nun's Priest's tales, but she spends most of her time on the "Parson's Tale" and the "Retractions."



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