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Secular & Sacred Views of Sexuality in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and Spenser's Faerie Queene

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BIOLA UNIVERSITY


Compassion and condemnation:

THE CONFLICT BETWEEN SECULAR AND SACRED VIEWS OF SEXUALITY IN CHAUCER’S CANTERBURY TALES AND SPENSER’S FAERIE QUEENE


TORREY HONORS INSTITUTE 
Early Modern Thought YMDT 220 
Wisdom Literature YMDT226 
DR. THOENNES 

12 MARCH 2008

  

BY

JOSHUA K. PENMAN


Body

Thesis Statement: Chaucer gives voice to the profane view of sexuality, and Spenser gives voice to the sacred view, but both are necessary for a balanced view of humanity’s condition.

Compassion and Condemnation:

The Conflict Between Secular and Sacred Views of Sexuality in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Spenser’s Faerie Queene

 

Chaucer and Spenser are English poets that epitomize the argument between those who believe only in the material world and those who believe in a spiritual world, in their works The Canterbury Tales and The Faerie Queene.

            Chaucer ignores divine revelation and deals solely with the corrupted, material world of sin and vice in The Merchant’s Tale and The Miller’s Tale, in which he reflects a materialist worldview that has no place for Christian morality or justice. Spenser, meanwhile, transcends the limits of materialist philosophy and delves into areas materialists would call delusional when he introduces moral judgments based on divine revelation in The Legende of the Knight of the Red Crosse.

            One of the most heated areas of debate between materialists and Christians is sexuality, where materialists reject artificial moralization based on spurious “divine revelation,” and Christians reject any material that does not contain a complete “Christian” worldview that includes redemption and examples of people who “conquer” sin. A comparison of Chaucer and Spenser reveals that Chaucer’s stories fail to contain anything that acknowledges the reality of the spiritual world, and Spenser’s stories gloss over the reality of life on this earth. However, while Chaucer could be said to give voice to the profane view of sexuality and Spenser to the sacred view, even from a Christian worldview both are necessary for a balanced account of the human condition.

 

Chaucer’s Profane World of Lust and Lechery

            Because Chaucer’s tales are full of promiscuity and wantonness with no moralizing and few consequences, none of his principle characters are virtuous by Christian standards. However, materialists appropriate his depiction of sex as an early example of their “realistic” worldview,[1] which sees sexual freedom as a basic tenet of humanity’s existence. Key examples for this claim are ‘Nicholas’ and ‘Alison’ in the Miller’s Tale, and ‘Damian’ and ‘May’ in the Merchant’s Tale.

            Damian demonstrates immaturity and lack of self control in the Merchant’s Tale when he falls in love with his master’s bride (the instant he lays eyes on her), and then collapses into a state that will be satisfied by nothing until he obtains his wishes.[2] Chaucer might be charged with trivializing adultery in The Miller’s Tale when he presents Nicholas as merely, “giving way to whim,” as he seduces Alison. Both Alison and Nicholas display a sense of humor which includes indecent exposure and flatulence.[3] All three of these youth demonstrate a lack of maturity compared to Christian standards, but their actions are consistent with a materialistic worldview, where there is no greater end for a person than to fulfill his or her own whims.[4] Under a standard that accepts no transcendent truths, Damian, Nicholas, and Alison are heroes, because they grasp what they want, even in the face of adversity.[5]

            Chaucer’s view of marriage continues in this amoral vein. He portrays earnest views of the goodness and sanctity of marriage as unrealistic and delusional.[6] His husbands never value constancy except in jealousy, and Chaucer proceeds to depict their jealousy as either abusive and overbearing, or as warranted.[7] In The Miller’s Tale and The Merchant’s Tale, both of the husbands were over-jealous, and both of them had unfaithful wives. All of these perceptions are at odds with the Christian values of successful marriages, loving husbands, and young people who control their lusts and treat others with “respect”. By not including any examples of people that demonstrate virtue, maturity, or righteousness, Chaucer caters to the perception that these things are impossible, and that those who claim to embody them are either con artists or hypocrites.[8]

            Chaucer successfully removes both morality and judgment from The Miller’s Tale by never judging the characters either in narration or in the story itself, and this is applauded by materialists who don’t believe that either Christian morality or judgement exist. Critics looking for the sacred in The Miller’s Tale might argue that, because each character gets a comeuppance in the end, The Miller’s Tale is a morality tale,[9] but further investigation would find that the acts of “justice” are completely random, and have no bearing on any sort of divine plan, justice, or consequences. None of the consequences are a direct result of the character’s sins, instead, they result from the debased actions of other characters, and Chaucer does not show a clear link between the characters actions and their consequences.[10] Chaucer’s portrayal of the comeuppance as “random” fits in perfectly with a materialistic worldview that sees no direction or order in life apart from what happens by cosmic chance.     

            On the other hand, Spenser’s Faerie Queene is full of spiritual truths, virtuous characters, and divine guidance. At the beginning of the book, when the magician Archimag makes Redcrosse, “dreame of loues and lustfull play,”[11] Redcrosse rejects the temptations in his sleep. When he wakes and a succubus in the form of “his” lady Una offers him a kiss, he responds with righteous anger:

All cleane dismayd to see so vncouth sight,

And halfe enraged at her shamelesse guise,

He thought haue slaine her in his fierce despight:

But hasty heat tempring with sufferance wise,

He stayede his hand, and gan himselfe aduise[12]

 

Redcrosse displays a marked difference from Chaucer’s male characters when his first reaction errs not on the side of lust or incontinence, but on the side of violent rebuttal against temptation. Similarly, Spenser’s female lead is a pillar of virtue compared to Chaucer’s ‘Alison’ and ‘May.’ Una doggedly follows Redcrosse’s speeding horses on a humble ass when Redcrosse is tricked into thinking that she is sleeping with a squire and gallops away in disgust. In the meantime, the very colors of Una’s white clothes and white steed are a symbol of her purity and humility.[13] Spenser writes thus:

Yet she most faithful Ladie all this while

Forsaken, wofull, solitarie made

Farre from all peoples prease, as in exile

In wilderness and wastfull deserts strayd

To seeke her knight; who subtilly betrayd[14]

 

Una displays absolute constancy even in the face of daunting external difficulties whereas Nicholas and Damian bring Alison and May (respectively) to adultery almost immediately,

            Spenser always treats sinful characters in his stories in full context of their evil, and includes direct moral judgments on their actions in the narrative. This treatment leaves no room for the materialistic philosophy that all acts are random. His personification of Lechery has Nicholas’s wally eyes, and loves with the same secret looks, but Spenser places him in the entourage of the Queen of Hell.[15] Duessa mimics the misplaced love that Alison and May have towards their beaus when she expresses great care for her partners Sans-loye and Sans-foye,[16] but Spenser reveals her as one of the more memorably vile disgusting creatures in the period’s literature when she is unmasked.[17] Spenser’s “Faerie Queene” character is so virtuous that ‘virtuous Redcrosse’ looks like Chaucer in her court until he is given the “armor of God” to wear,[18] but Chaucer’s version of the “Faerie Queene” encourages adultery and conspires to let May get away with cheating on her husband in The Merchant’s Tale.[19] While Chaucer’s protagonists are among the most immoral characters in The Merchant’s Tale and The Miller’s Tale, Spenser’s protagonists are virtuous, and his villains are immoral. Spenser thereby gives his readers a clear demarkation between “good” and “bad”.

            Furthermore, while Chaucer presents his tales in a matter-of-fact manner devoid of any internal stand on morality, and leaves any moral interpretation up to the viewer, Spenser’s reaction to lechery is couched in terms that directly interpret the morality of the tale for the reader. While Chaucer’s characters are the instigators of their own sin, Spenser’s characters remain virtuous against vicious odds. Furthermore, whereas Chaucer deals with a few sins and ignores others, Spenser deals with a wide range of sexual sin and does not shy away from the harsh realities of life in a corrupt world.[20] Therefore, from a Christian perspective, Spenser’s depictions of spiritual truth form a counterbalance to Chaucer’s “unprincipled and neutral”[21] treatment of lechery and wantonness.

Depth and Compassion in Profane Poetry

            However, Chaucer’s seemingly neutral tales hide depths of understanding and compassion that go far beyond what is contained in Spenser’s idealized allegory. The best of the compassion and maturity that profane literature can develop are on display in The Merchant’s Tale, as Chaucer explores the convoluted moral issues that make up reality in a corrupted world, and exposes the imbalance of power in his society that results in the abuse of young women by older men.

            At the beginning of The Merchant’s Tale, the old knight January rejects women whose age would be appropriate for him in marriage, because they would be harder to manipulate than a young women would be. January says:

Flesh should be young though fish should be mature;

As pike, not pickerel, makes the tastier meal,

Old beef is not so good as tender veal.

I'll have no woman thirty years of age

. . . . when they're young

A man can still control them with his tongue

And guide them, should their duty seem to lax

Just as a man may model in warm wax.[22]

 

The flesh allegories that precede January’s talk of ‘modeling’ and ‘guiding’ and the sexual undercurrent of Chaucer’s work indicate that January’s primary motivation is lust, and that the duty to which he refers is for his wife to please him at his beck and call. Chaucer reveals more of January’s intentions during the wedding:

His heart began to menace her and race;

That night his arms would strain her with the ardour

That Paris showed for Helen, aye, and harder.

And yet he felt strong qualms of pity stir

To think he must soon do offence to her [23]

 

January’s lust is, ‘sharp’, ‘hot’, and ‘menacing’, to May, and his line, “God hinder me from doing all I might!” may reference a desire for perversion or undue force in the sexual act.[24] Though January displays pity, that does not stop him from following through on his lust. His desires outweigh the physical, emotional, and spiritual pain he causes May.[25]

            Chaucer highlights May’s powerlessness in this situation by explicating the physical and mental shutdown that constitute a psychological defense-mechanism in one succinct phrase, “as still as stone,” with which he describes May as she is borne to the bridal bed.[26] Chaucer’s subsequent description of January uncovers January’s lack of concern for May as anything more than a toy:

He kissed his wife and gave a wanton leer,

Feeling a coltish rage towards his darling

. . . . . . . . . . . .

God knows what May was thinking in her heart, 

Seeing him sit there in his shirt apart,

Wearing his night-cap, with his scrawny throat.

She didn't think his games were worth a groat.[27]

 

The leer January gives young May; his “coltish rage”; his ‘sharp’, ‘hot’, and ‘menacing’ passion; and his prayer for God to, “keep me from doing all I might,” may all indicate a violent strain to January’s lust. When Chaucer then compares May’s rights to those of a wage-earner, he insinuates that she is a sex-slave.[28] As a slave, May is entitled to four days of rest after being deflowered, so that she can heal and be back at work as soon as possible. Seen through the lens of January’s menacing passion, The Merchant’s Tale becomes a more or less harrowing account of sexual violence. It reveals a plight that is all too familiar for young brides the world over.

He begged her then to strip her garments off

For he would have some pleasure of her, he said,

Her clothes were an encumbrance, to be shed.

And she obeyed, whether she would or no.[29]

 

May has no choice in the matter, and Chaucer drives home the point with sensitivity. He says, “Lest I offend the precious, I will go no further into what he did, or tell whether she thought it paradise or hell.” In this quotation, Chaucer may be sensitive to May’s pain by not directly acknowledging its existence and exhibit an understanding of the denial and mental shut-down that victims of sexual violence go through.[30] However, Chaucer is not finished with May’s ordeal:

. . . and when his thought was set

Upon the need to pay his wife her debt

In summer season, thither would he go

With May his wife when there was none to know,

And anything they had not done in bed

There in the garden was performed instead,[31]

 

January’s ‘debt’ to May is a play on words which reinforces the concept of sex slavery by focusing on the performance of sexual acts, rather than on intimacy or the simple enjoyment of May’s company. Things done in the garden that are not even done in the bedroom, and which are kept in the utmost secrecy may be further references to sexually deviant practices. In The Merchant’s Tale, Chaucer has hidden a scathing indictment of what an only be termed as legalized slavery and heterosexual pederasty.

            The Merchant’s Tale is the first piece of literature in the Torrey program to cover an issue like this form of abuse with such a deep level of empathy and detail.[32] The story does not merely note that a woman was raped by a god, or ravished by a satyr; instead, it delves into the details of the woman’s experience in the situation. This level of involvement in the character’s life gives insight into her experience and actions that is not found in Ovid or Spenser, and which melds with accounts by victims of the current globalized sex trade.[33]

            Not only does The Merchant’s Tale explore a facet of sexual violence in an unprecedented compassionate manner, but the undercurrent of sexual violence in The Merchant’s Tale can also help explain May’s “sinful” reactions to Damian’s advances. When Damian expresses his “painful” desire for her, May writes that she ‘could not rid her heart of Damian, or of the wish to see his troubles ended.”[34] January has so drilled into her the idea that his pleasure is worth far more than anything she feels or desires that when Damian tells her that he is in pain as long as she does not satisfy him, she reacts in the way in which January has trained her. May’s idea of sexuality has developed the expectation of constant servitude. Chaucer highlights May’s total surrender of control over her own body when he continues, “. . . there needed nothing but the time and place, to grant the satisfaction he desired, he was to have whatever he required.”

            Therefore, what May has experienced at the hands of the old knight,[35] influences her later actions. She commits adultery because she is sexually traumatized and views herself as nothing more than an instrument for men’s pleasure. This is an aspect of life that is not explored at all in The Legende of the Knight of the Red Crosse.

            Christians that proscribe all “profane” literature turn a blind eye to sins that affect a person’s identity and contribute to their promiscuity. These legalistic Christians may be afraid that past sins against May will be used to deny responsibility for her subsequent sins and thereby deny that God is just in his condemnation of her sin, and they would shun her to keep themselves as far away from her immorality as they can get, but this sentiment is far removed from Jesus’ example of eating with prostitutes and tax collectors.[36]

            Throughout his tales, Chaucer breeds compassion for subjects which people would not know about if they limited themselves to reading spiritual allegories like Spenser’s Faerie Queene. When Spenser addresses the theme of powerlessness that is found in May’s story, he only focuses on potential powerlessness instead of its real-life ramifications in the world: Una is vulnerable, but she is saved by divine intervention at each crisis. Her vulnerability even serves her as a tool when her innocence wins over both a lion, and a group of satyrs and fauns to serve as her protectors during her journey[37] (would that Ovid’s satyrs might be so affected). The few really bad things that happen in The Legende of the Knight of the Red Crosse do not happen to Una, but to a nameless woman in a forest, briefly, and without any exploration of the complicated interactions involved.[38] This treatment of powerlessness does not come close to the reality with which May has to deal, or the realities that victims of rape and sexual violence have to face every day in the real world. Spenser’s sacred poetry falls short of an adequate description of the material world, because he glosses over harsh realities that do not fit into black-and-white tales of victory over evil.

Conclusion

             Fans of Spenser might argue that the frankness of Chaucer’s works are so blunt that they should never be read by a Christian, referencing phrases like, “And Absalon, so fortune framed the farce, put up his mouth and kissed her naked arse,” or, “. . . Damian pulled up her smock at once and in he thrust.”[39] However, Spenser’s description of Duessa naked, as a filthy, stinking, malformed hag with shriveled, sagging nipples, a foxes tail, protruding dong, and un-mentionable nether-parts is no less candid.[40]

            Advocates of obviously sacred poetry might say that a Christian should only dwell on Spenser’s idealized spiritual world: that problems should always be solved, damsels should always be saved, and the protagonists should always be virtuous. But a Christian’s effectiveness at performing a healing role in this world depends on not turning away from knowledge of the fallen, gritty reality that is found in Chaucer’s approach to sin, not on a ideology that ignores inconvenient complications.

            Critics of Chaucer may say that one can not tell of evil without participating in it, and that the ills of society should not be entertainment for the masses, but Chaucer does not ‘merely entertain’ in the Canterbury Tales. He writes a scathing commentary on the problems in his society. The irony, hypocrisy, and violence found in his tales could teach one to abhor the crimes, not embrace them. Therefore, as Chaucer’s profane poetry tells the truth and builds up an abhorrence to sin, it approaches the sacred. Like Ecclesiastes, Chaucer illuminates the profane from within a materialistic worldview in order to better illuminate the sacred when the materialistic fails. Like Ecclesiastes, The Canterbury Tales is devoid of divine language or spiritual content until the very end of the book when “The Minister’s Tale” acknowledges both God and spiritual reality. This acknowledgment provides a moral key to his entire preceding work.

            To discount the spiritual world would relegate readers to live in Chaucer’s cruel and corrupted materialism with no hope of ever finding something better. But to discount the truth of the material world would be to lose sight of present reality and humanity’s main means of compassion. Spenser’s spiritual truths counter Chaucer’s worldly truth, and Chaucer’s warm, living poetry counters the cold, idealized spirituality of Spenser. They coexist because the future, perfected, state of humanity is just as true as the sinful, fallen state in which we now live. Together, Chaucer and Spenser provide some of the tools necessary for a person to develop a knowledgeable and holistic response to humanity’s bifurcated reality. 


[1] Reference!

[2] Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, trans. Nevill Coghill (London: Penguin Classics, 2003), 371.

[3] Ibid., 102-103.

[4] Not enough interaction with previous literature: this “Materialistic Worldview” exists only in the author’s head, and is as yet uncorroborated by literary evidence.

[5] Unargued assertion: the author’s self-analysis is that he is pandering to the known worldview of his institution.

[6] Ibid., 356, 362, 358, 365.

[7] Ibid., 367, 379, 381. (The Carpenter in the Miller’s Tale, the King in the Clerk’s Tale, and the Knight in the Merchant’s Tale.)

[8] Logical leap: why does not including examples cater to the perception that things are impossible? Need either a theoretical study (I think it could be done with Humean Empiricism) or an empirical communication study on perceptions. Search term: “The effect of media instances on perceptions of possibility” or “probability” (use other words for “instances” and “media”)

[9] Ibid., 105.

[10] Ibid., 101-106.

[11] Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, ed. Thomas P. Roche (London: Penguin Books, 1987), 52.

[12] Ibid., 45.

[13] Spenser, 57.

[14] Ibid., 67.

[15] Spenser, p.85,  Chaucer, p.91.

[16] Perhaps because of weakness in May (Chaucer p.376), perhaps malice or malformed mischievousness in Alison (Chaucer p.91);

[17] Ibid., 58, 96.

[18] Spenser, Letter of the Author’s, 16-17.

[19] Chaucer, 384.

[20] Spenser’s treatment of Lechery in Faerie Queene, 85, Duessa’s misplaced love, 96, the woman raped by the satyr, 111, and the exposition of Duessa, 144.

[21] Why is “neutrality” considered “bad”?

[22] Chaucer, 361-362.

[23] Ibid., 370.

[24] Chaucer, 370, other references at 372, 373, 376, 378, 380-381.

[25] An alternative interpretation of this scene could be in the context of “chivalry” and an idea of any sexual contact as dishonorable, but the rest of Chaucer’s stories do not give this impression – they are more akin to Bapsi Sidhwa’s The Crow Eaters “barnyard humor” and accompanying matter-of-factness towards sexuality than the high chivalry of Spencer’s tale.

[26] Ibid., 372.

[27] Ibid., 373.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Chaucer, 376.

[30] Need to reference the literature on this beyond what you learned from the interviews about Black Snake Moan.

[31] Ibid., 378.

[32] In the Morgan House curriculum.

[33] Need to refer to the scientific literature on the subject, but pop culture references include the Frontline Documentary “Sex Slaves”,

[34] Chaucer, 377.

[35] Ibid., The Merchant’s Tale, 373, 376.

[36] Reference

[37] Spenser, 3.1-3, 3.10-12, 3.41, 6.7-9, 3.4-9.

[38] Spenser, 111.

[39] Chaucer, 103, 386.

[40] Spenser, 144.


Formal Outline

Thesis Statement: Chaucer gives voice to the profane view of sexuality, and Spenser gives voice to the sacred view, but both are necessary for a balanced view of humanity’s condition.

I.    Chaucer's poetry gives voice to the profane, secular world of lust and lechery with no moral compass, but Spenser counters with an idealized, spiritual world.

A.    Chaucer exhibits a view of sex and marriage characterized by infidelity, promiscuousness, and base passions that is incompatible with the Christian view of Godly sexuality. (The Canterbury Tales, p.371, 91-92, 101,)

1.     Nicholas and Alison in the Miller's tale are lustful, immature, and crude. (Miller’s Tale, p.101, 102, 106).

2.     Damian & Nicholas exhibit no self control. (Miller’s Tale p.101, 102, 106, Merchant's Tale p. 371, 374, 386,)

3.     Damian, Nicholas, and Alison all demonstrate an immaturity consistent to a purely materialistic worldview. 

4.   Chaucer’s characters present an earnest view of marriage as unrealistic. (p.356, 362, 358, 365)

5.     Jealousy in Chaucer’s stories is usually either warranted, or abusive and overbearing. (p.367, 379, 381, Carpenter in Miller's tale, the Clerks tale)

B.     Spenser explores sexuality in terms of temptation and sin, in a spiritual allegory that counters Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

1.     Spenser shows an inner-struggle for virtue that Chaucer does not have in the Merchant’s Tale or the Miller’s Tale.

a)   Redcrosse is dismayed and enraged by the Archimagoo’s attempts to tempt him, rather than giving in. (Spenser p.54, 56)

b)   Redcrosse can act as a positive role model, because he consistently conquers lust. (Spenser p.52, 54, 55, 56)

2.   Spenser's treatment of the female character is not one of infidelity, but of absolute constance, even in the face of outside difficulties. 

a)   Una is ever constant; her white ass doggedly follows the speeding horses, (Spenser p.57),

b)  Spenser’s description of Una’s faithfulness stands in stark contrast to the infidelity in Chaucer’s female characters (p.67)

3.     When Spenser presents characters that sin, he always makes clear their interaction with evil and gives direct moral judgment in the text.

a)     Spenser parallels the misplaced love in Alison and May with his description of the great care that Duessa expresses for her illicit partners (Spenser p.58, p.96,)

b)    Spenser’s personification of “Lechery” in the city of hell exhibits the characteristics of Nicolas and Damian. (Chaucer p.91; Spenser p.85)

c)     Spenser’s reaction to lechery is couched in moral terms, but Chaucer lacks any stand on morality within his tales. (Spenser p.85 .26,)

d)    The “Faerie Queene” character in Chaucer acts on the side of adultery, but Spenser’s “Faerie Queene” character is the epitome of virtue. (Spenser p.16-17, Chaucer p.384).          

4.     Spenser’s treatment of sexual sin is more wide-ranging than Chaucer’s. (Spenser p.85)

a)     Spenser describes more aspects of Lechery than Chaucer does (Spenser p.85, (Duessa’s misplaced love p.96.)

b)    Spenser does not completely skip evil but compared to Chaucer he glosses over worldly realities. (The woman raped by the satyr, p.111) the exposition of Duessa p.144)

II.  Chaucer describes our material world with a depth and compassion that Spenser’s poetry lacks.

A.  Chaucer's portrayal of the old knight’s marriage in the Merchant's Tale is an exposé of a social evil that goes beyond Spenser’s broad allegory in depth of detail and the opportunity for compassion. (Chaucer p.357, 361, 366) 

1.   The old knight has a lust for young flesh, and rejects women that are more suitable in age and experience on grounds that he can not control them as easily. (Chaucer p.361-362, )

a)   The old knight’s lust is sharp and menacing. (Chaucer, p. 370)

b)   Chaucer portrays May’s sexual experiences with the old knight as unpleasant, and hints at an undercurrent of violence. (Chaucer, p.372)

c)   The Merchant’s Tale becomes a harrowing account of sexual violence as May is used for sex regardless of her wishes. (Chaucer p. 370, 372, 373, 376, 378, 380-381)

2.   May’s internal reasons for adultery with Damian may stem from her abuse at the hands of January (Chaucer p.370, 373, 376, 378, 380-81)

a)     May's stated reason for giving herself to Damian is pity, and this pity may be caused by her own sexual trauma, which leads her to view herself as an instrument for mens' pleasure. (Chaucer p.373, 376,)

b)    Spenser does not have anything in the The Legend of the Knight of the Red Crosse that approaches the Merchant’s Tale’s depth of compassion.

B.    Spenser’s closest analogue to The Merchant’s Tale is his treatment of Una’s potential powerlessness, but his portrayal is so tidy and idealized that it comes across as utterly insensitive to victims of sexual crimes. (Spenser p.107, 111)

a)     Una is saved through divine intervention. (Spenser, p.107)

b)    Una’s vulnerability becomes a tool for her when her innocence wins over would-be predators.(Spenser 3.1-3, 3.10-12, 3.41, 6.7-9, 3.4-9)

c)     Spenser only shows the nastier side of life winning out briefly, and does not explore the complicated interactions involved. (Spenser p.111 Canto VI.22)

III.  Conclusion: Chaucer’s and Spenser’s treatment of lust and marriage are at opposite sides of the spectrum between the profane and the sacred, but Chaucer's profane vision is just as necessary in context of Spenser's idealistic vision as Spenser's sacred vision is necessary in context of Chaucer's secularism.

A.   Spenser is as grotesque in his moralizing as Chaucer is obscene in his storytelling, so they could both be accused of being overzealous in their content.

1.     Chaucer presents terse, shocking obscenity in quotes like, “and (he) kissed her naked arse.” (Chaucer p.103), or “(he) pulled up her smock at once and in he thrust.” (Chaucer p.386).

2.     But Spenser has his characters strip Duessa naked and uncover a filthy, stinking, malformed hag with shriveled sagging nipples, a foxes tail and protruding dong, which is just as disgusting and offensive as Chaucer’s obscenities. (Spenser p.144; Canto VIII Section 46-49)

B.    Chaucer’s tales can be viewed as sacred when taken as a whole because they reference scripture and provide the keys with which to interpret the morality of each story.

1.     Chaucer’s Minister’s Tale gives one the key to unlock the disputed morality of his previous tales, while maintaining the greater detail of his treatment of life as experienced in our fallen world.

2.     Looking at scripture, The Canterbury Tales could be compared to Ecclesiastes, because it includes a long narrative devoid of divine language right up to the end followed by an acknowledgment of God and spiritual reality.

C.    With only poetry like Spenser’s, we would lack scope and depth of life on this earth, including the myriad of mitigating factors to consider in any person’s seeming incontinence. (Chaucer p.373, p.376; Chaucer p.106)

D.   With only poetry like Chaucer’s, we would lack the plane of the spiritual and moral guidance that we can find through sacred poetry like Spenser’s.

1.     Profane literature without the sacred would relegate us to a world without hope of redemption from its corruption.

2.     Through sacred poetry like Spenser’s we see that humans can transcend the corrupt world (with divine help).  (Spenser p.68, p.107-108) 

E.    Spenser’s poetry is necessary to counter Chaucer’s because we are not wholly worldly, but Chaucer’s poetry is necessary to counter Spenser’s because we are not wholly spiritual. They each represent a half of our bifurcated reality.

 


Works Cited

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales, trans. Nevill Coghill. London: Penguin Books, 2003. 

Spenser, Edmund. The Faerie Queene, ed. Thomas P. Roche. London: Penguin Books, 1987.

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Josh Penman,
Oct 26, 2012, 4:49 AM
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