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Extra resources for A Companion to Chaucer
Chaucer was able ‘vnder shadowes couertly, as vnder a visoure’ to convey truth ‘and yet not be espyed of the craftye aduersarie’ (Spurgeon 1925: i, 106). The idea of Chaucer’s learning in this period seems at odds with the prevailing sense of his language as rough and rude. This dichotomy demonstrates the bifocal nature of his reputation: his poetry might be difﬁcult to appreciate, but he had gained status as a venerable ﬁgure separate from his works. As Foxe noted, his works and Gower’s were exempted from censorship in Henry VIII’s Acte for thaduauncement of true Religion and for thabolisshment of the contrarie of 1542–3.
The history of modern Chaucer editions also suggests he was correct to worry, for here too the idea of the ‘best text’ has been central but elusive. A good deal of work in the past hundred years has been devoted to establishing the canon of Chaucer’s work, and to establishing a central manuscript, the Ellesmere Manuscript, as an authoritative text. Thomas Tyrwhitt (1775) was the ﬁrst editor really to look at Chaucer as an author whose work might have characteristic traits; he determined that a canon might therefore be determined on that basis, rather than historical tradition, and excised a lot of apocryphal material.
We have seen how much of this was owing to the age which nurtured and understood the poet. Also, we have not failed to see how different, strangely different, the condition of poetry in an essentially scientiﬁc age has become. (303) In yet another example of Chaucer criticism sprung from Victorian anxiety, the London National Review published in June 1862 ascribes Chaucer’s genius to his ability to combine the imaginary and the real: The prominent qualities which modern critics have ascribed to Chaucer are, fancy, imagination, grace, delicacy, tenderness; and undoubtedly he possessed these and other cognate qualities in a great degree.