Chaucer: 1340-1400: The Life and Times of the First English Poet

Richard West, Author
Richard West, Author Carroll & Graf Publishers $28 (352p) ISBN 978-0-7867-0779-9
Reviewed on: 12/04/2000
Release date: 12/01/2000
Paperback - 302 pages - 978-0-7867-0925-0
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For the 600th anniversary of Chaucer's death, biographer West (Daniel Defoe: The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures) concentrates more on the times than the life. Chaucer's era, which encompassed the Hundred Years War, the Black Death, the Peasants' Revolt, John Wycliffe's proto-Protestantism and the end of the Plantagenet dynasty, is not without interest. Finding Chaucer often on the periphery of these events, West is left to argue that it was a pivotal era for England, in transition between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and between a French-dominated culture and a homegrown national identity. As for his treatment of Chaucer, about whom little is known, West relies on a discussion of translation of the French medieval bestseller Le Roman de la Rose to Canterbury Tales. Despite the chronological remoteness of the era, West colors in his subject matter with contemporary parallels, sometimes stretching the point, such as comparing the plot of Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde to that of Casablanca. More often than not, in West's presentation Chaucer was neither as forward-looking nor as reactionary as some other biographers, such as Terry Jones or G. K. Chesterton, would have it--he was simply a man of his time. Students of literature looking for a historical context in which to put Chaucer will find edification here, but the man still remains at a distance. 8 pages b&w photos not seen by PW. (Dec. 1)
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