Takyng a Vertuous Leve: Boethian Poetics in The Parson’s Tale and The Retraction
In trying to know Chaucer through The Canterbury Tales, critics have often been puzzled by his conclusion: The Parson’s Tale and The Retraction. Questions of content and structure immediately present themselves. Why, exactly, does the Parson refuse to tell a tale at all, and why does the narrative frame break down once he begins? Recent criticism has been more charitable to Chaucer’s chosen ending, contributing valuable scholarship to establish the end of the Tales as vital to interpretation of the work as a whole (Raybin and Holley). However, little attention has been paid to the prose form of the ending, a question perhaps just as curious. Why did Chaucer end his poem with an extended piece of prose?
To see how this question can be vexing, we need look no further than the Oxford World Classics edition of The Canterbury Tales, a verse translation, published in 1985 and reprinted in 2008. This edition simply deletes the prose tales, without any disclaimer of abridgment. What is one supposed to do with the prose tales in a verse translation?
This paper intends to argue that Chaucer’s conclusion of the Tales is intentional and significant, both in terms of content and form. In addition, this paper will examine the extent to which Chaucer’s ending takes its cue from Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy, which seems to express a fear of poetry as a morally corrupting force. Chaucer does not simply copy Boethius, but instead challenges and inverts the philosopher’s ideas. The result reveals much about Chaucer, and through him, medieval poetics and ethics.
Raybin, David and Linda Tarte Holley, eds. Closure in the Canterbury Tales: The Role of the Parson’s Tale. Western Michigan University Press, 2000.