His Life, His Works, His World

By Donald R. Howard

Dutton. 636 pp. $29.95

BETWEEN 1968 and 1978 Donald Howard -- professor of English at Stanford -- made a radical change in his thinking about the feasibility of a biography of Chaucer. During that decade he moved from the conviction that what was known was simply insufficient, to the larger belief that, given the right disposition, an investigator could enter into so deep an empathy with his subject that he could recreate, so to speak, the very emotions, passions, doubts and sufferings against which the poet's actions were performed.

When, at a meeting of the Chaucer Society we discussed his change of heart (I was in the process of inviting him to take part in the Variorum Chaucer, responsibility for which he said would drive him mad), I responded to his enthusiasm with the suggestion that the precincts of biography he was describing sounded somewhat novelistic and subject to the temptations of an excessive subjectivity. As we now know, he was forming his ideal of biography under an assortment of influences, one of which was the advice of Christopher Isherwood, who urged him to "make it like a seance" and who recommended that Howard let Chaucer speak to him in some deeply empathic way, a recommendation Howard felt he understood only later, when the task was completed.

He tells us in his preface that he wanted to allow Chaucer to serve as a "prism of history," and more than that, as "an X-ray moving picture." Chaucer's work, seen against the backdrop of current history and politics, would lead us to the "real Chaucer," not merely the political functionary. Believing that the self is a hopeless jumble of selves and a life a shapeless flux, he asserts that "one must find a figure in the carpet whether there is a figure or not, and that the figure cannot be found without knowing first what we are looking for and why it is worth finding."

I know that an author's prefaces should not be used carelessly; but the ideas presented here are in fact, however fuzzily stated, given strong support in two ambitious experiments in empathic writing: the essay, "Experience, Language and Consciousness" in which Howard manifests his genuis for making himself a vehicle for the thoughts and emotions of a literary character; and the book, The Idea of the Canterbury Tales, in which the figure in the carpet, essentially a preconceived abstract Platonic form, becomes the control by which to test the success and completeness of what is usually seen as a fragmentary work, evaluated against a variety of artifacts in which completeness is achieved without sacrificing ambiguity or disjunctiveness. What these two experiments have in common is keen sensibility and a certain wilful, daring imposition of a pattern upon the so-called facts. In the biography considered here we can see the logical extension of these powers: the known facts and the events of Chaucer's life -- his various employments in the service of the king, his poetry, his travels, etc., will be given a richly imagined context of thought and emotion, all laid out almost in the ancient way of testing in rhetorical exercises the relations of general notions to particulars.

These historical facts, both personal aspects of Chaucer's social life and the more public aspects of royal life, are so vividly realized, often so cinematic, so novelistic, so much a triumph of the imagination that I suspect the influence of the dynamics of film as a method of opening up sequences of possible or plausible actions. The biographer helps us to understand a human action by laying out a diversity of explanations, pointing finally to the interactions between causes and effects, and leading to what is most probable. Howard does not shrink from explaining what the poems only obliquely suggest about Chaucer's personal life, recreating the 14th-century social and political contexts within which Chaucer wrote. In effect, a pattern of probabilities is continuously defined to create a kind of kunstlerroman -- a novel about the development of an artist -- for which the individual poems are the guideposts.

Even taking into account the quality of divination, of intuition, and of exaggeration, it is useful to lay out here some of the ideas about Chaucer that Howard held in his last years of life. Some of these may seem trivial, but they indicate something of Howard's gift for imagining real possibilities (these occur in the order in which they appear in the text): 1) The departure of Chaucer's sister into marriage was a traumatic experience later to underlie the descriptions of Criseyde, Constance, and Griselda's departures from their homes. 2) Chaucer attended the Inns of Court where he was schooled in business and law. 3) Chaucer's marriage was, all things considered, a matter of mutual convenience. 4) Chaucer was the first writer since the ancient world to see successfully into the mind of a woman, being himself of an (in Coleridge's term) androgynous nature. 5) The Book of the Duchess is one of the great elegies in English and may be a better poem than Pearl, Lycidas, or Adonais. 6) Chaucer saw Petrarch in Milan on the occasion of the wedding of Prince Lionel, third son of King Edward III. 7) He may have met Boccaccio in Florence. Boccaccio would have found the youngish Chaucer overconfident and cheeky. Chaucer, feeling himself demeaned, later deliberately ignores the man but uses his works. 8) Though Chaucer did not care much for classical scholarship of the De Casibus sort (that is, following Boccaccio's De Casibus Virorum Illustrium, stories about "The Falls of Famous Men"), he writes 17 examples of it. 9) The House of Fame is, like the Book of the Duchess, an occasional poem celebrating a young king's marriage. It may have been in fact completed, the ending being now lost. 10) Chaucer read Dante with awe, amusement and distaste. 11) The House of Fame may be the greatest poetical statement about the nature of poetic influence and poetic tradition in the English language. 12) He does not mention Boccaccio by name because he was not truly courtly, though his easy morality taught Chaucer the greatest lesson of his artistic life: Fiction is a body of contingencies in which the poet is freed from oppressive and didactic morality. 13) The Parliament of Birds, another occasional poem, is the germ of the Canterbury Tales. 14) Chaucer may indeed have raped Cecily Champain "in the heat of passion or exasperation," one of "perhaps many" seductions and affairs. 14) The tales of the Miller and Reeve show us a world in decline "in which the old ideas no longer hold and the new world taking shape is petty and mean." 15) The Cook's Tale suggests how pessimistic Chaucer was at this time; he would have thrown away the fragment were it not for its last line. 15) The Man of Law's reference to 'prose' resurrects an obsolete meaning for rhyme royal. 16) The Wife of Bath's barrenness reflects Chaucer's own feelings of emptiness, futility, or unfulfillment. 17) January, in the Merchant's Tale, may reflect "fossils of moments when Chaucer felt strong discontent with himself and his life." 18) Fragment VII, though linked within, does not go anywhere or teach anything. 19) The tales of "Sir Thopas," the Prioress and the Squire are deliberately inept. 20) The Envoy to Scogan reveals the fear of impotence, a symbol for the loss of other powers.

MAKE NO MISTAKE, this biography is a triumph of the imagination, so rich and multifarious that it cannot easily be summarized. In fact, it may break new ground in its willingness to provide a host of psychological possibilities and explanations that belong as much to the novel as to biography. As a work, it rounds off Howard's career in a dazzling and impressive performance, summarizing and recasting many of his earlier ideas, telling us along the way what he regards as "true" in Chaucer scholarship. Whether or not we agree with the fictionalized aspect of the work is immaterial. Like The Idea of the Canterbury Tales, this is an Idea of a life of Chaucer.

In the last line of the book Howard -- who died earlier this year -- has written, in relation to the Retraction which Chaucer wrote at the end of his own life, a line that must serve as his epitaph: "One must think of the world while one is in the world; facing eternity, our thoughts becomes closed within the self, our words become silence and all our works upon this little spot of earth seem like the waves of the sea." We can only add: Ave atque vale.

Paul G. Ruggiers, emeritus professor at the University of Oklahoma, is the general editor of The Variorum Chaucer.