Chaucer: The Retraction

Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University


As if waking from a dream or looking up from a book, Chaucer, in what has been often considered a deathbed repentence, rejects art and what we consider his best work. Consensus has it that this is Chaucer, the propria persona without irony. Perhaps there were moments when he felt he was foundering while Gower was doing the proper thing. “Many modern readers, faced by the poet’s rejection of what we like best, are made acutely uncomfortable by the retraction, and attempts have been made to vitiate its force by calling it a merely conventional act of piety” (Donaldson 1114). Sometimes the Retraction is dismissed as a mere literary convention allowing Chaucer the means of establishing the canon of his authentic works.

But . . .
Expression of the poet-narrator’s repentence was indirectly called for by the Parson. This is the concluding step in a poem on the theme of the pilgrimage of life, so Chaucer makes his death part of the world he contemplates in the work: “it is within their [the Tales‘] framework that he chose to make his farewell to the world. Apparently he felt that the fiction he had created was an essential–perhaps the essential–part of the total reality that God had created in the person of Geoffrey Chaucer” (Donaldson 1114).

Now preye I to hem alle that herkne this litel tretys or rede, that if ther be any thyng in it that liketh hem, that therof they thanken oure Lord Jhesu Crist, of whom procedeth al wit and al goodnesse. / And if ther be any thyng that displese hem, I preye hem also that they arrette it to the defaute of myn unkonnynge and nat to my wyl, that wolde ful fayn have seyd bettre if I hadde had konnynge. / For oure book seith, “Al that is writen is writen for oure doctrine,” and that is myn entente.

So moral benefit is left up to the reader’s participation, unlike with Gower.

Chaucer is first sorry for “the book of Troilus” — interesting, because religiosity aside, biographically this work seems to have caused him the most trouble. Then he revokes “the book of Fame; the book of the XXV. Ladies” — how many? Attempts have been made to ascribe this 25 to scribal error. Do we not have the final version of the Legend of Good Women? Is Chaucer still pretending he wrote more than he ever did? He revokes “the book of the Duchesse; the book of Seint Valentynes day of the Parlement of Briddes; [and] the tales of Caunterbury” –only the “tales” of Canterbury? Everything else is revoked so far as a “book”; why not The Canterbury Tales? Furthermore, he adds, only “thilke that sownen into synne” — and not, apparently, the whole batch.

Next to be revoked: the book of the Leoun.

And then the list trails off: “and many another book, if they were in my remembrance, and many a song and many a leccherous lay” — so he revokes things he doesn’t even recollect. His translation of Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy and other more moral works such as saints’ lives he thanks heaven for and then beseeches that “from hennes forth unto my lyves ende sende me grace to biwayle my giltes and to studie to the salvacioun of my soule….”

And that’s it, folkes. We were closer and closer to Canterbury last we’d heard. Did we ever get there?

What is Canterbury?