A Chaucerian interlude

As an undergraduate I took two English courses on the poetry of Geoffrey Chaucer, the first on The Canterbury Tales and the second on Troilus and Criseyde. Both courses were taught by Peter Travis (the first with the late, great Alan T. Gaylord), then in the early years of his distinguished career as a teacher, medievalist, and Chaucerian. Both courses were among the highlights of my education.

Although he retired from his faculty position in 2015, Professor Travis has continued to teach in the Osher adult education program affiliated with Dartmouth and open to the public. Through the Osher program and the miracle of Zoom I was able to reconnect with Professor Travis fifty years later. He looks and sounds almost exactly like he did then. He remains an engaging, exuberant, and learned teacher.

Earlier this year Professor Travis taught three Arthurian romances to a full class via Zoom. We read Yvain: The Knight of the Lion (by Chrétien de Troyes, translated from old French by Burton Raffel), The Death of King Arthur, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (authors unknown, translated by Simon Armitage from the Middle English). What a blast.

These are long alliterative poems (Sir Gawain employs a complex form that also includes rhyme in part). Sir Gawain is a masterpiece that has survived in a single manuscript in the British Museum. It was essentially “discovered” only in the nineteenth century. A movie version was released this summer. I recommend the translations by J.R.R. Tolkien or by Marie Boroff. Tolkien’s is posted online here.

I also took Professor Travis’s Osher course on The Canterbury Tales. Again, the class was fully subscribed. We finished up this past Tuesday. It isn’t difficult to read Chaucer in the original Middle English, but it takes a few days to get up to speed. We used Sheila Fisher’s new verse translation of The Selected Canterbury Tales with the original text on the facing page.

Fifty years later, with my attention more focused, I found that even the tales I had read before were new to me. Running the gamut of human experience, they are endlessly interesting, deeply humane, challenging, disturbing, funny, elusive. I had forgotten that Chaucer makes himself a character in the work. He gives a self-deprecating self-portrait in the “The Prologue and Tale of Sir Thopas.”

Incidentally, I wrote about “The Pardoner’s Tale” in the 2005 Weekly Standard column “Tales of the Senate.” From Chaucer’s pardoner to Senator Robert Byrd we went our way, though it was not a pilgrimage.

I also studied Chaucer with Professor Jeffrey Hart in a survey course for English majors. Professor Hart made a point that has stuck with me. The Church dominated English society. Chaucer portrayed and even drew on the corruption of the Church for several of his tales, the pardoner’s foremost among them. Professor Hart suggested that to understand Chaucer it would help us to think of an equally dominant and corrupt institution in our own era. In 1970 he proposed the university and that is an insight that time has not staled.

Professor Travis has given two introductory talks on Chaucer in Vermont’s First Wednesday humanities lecture series. In April 2018 he spoke on “Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: Still Funny After All These Years.” They brought him back in 2019 to answer the question “Where’s Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales?” Both of these lectures are worthwhile if you have any interest. I have posted the first below. As Chaucer says of the Clerk of Oxenforde, “gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche.”

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