A review of The Court Poetry of Chaucer by James Dempsey

Reviewed by Bob Williams

The Court Poetry of Chaucer
by James Dempsey
The Edwin Mellen Press 
2007, ISBN 0-7734-5434-9, $109.95, 192 pages

James Dempsey is Adjunct Professor in the Department of the Humanities and Arts at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and in the Department of English at Clark University. He has also been active on journalism.

The Book of the Duchess is absent from this collection, perhaps because of its length. The other poems are presented in the original and in a modern version on facing pages. Dempsey in his introduction justifies the modernization on the basis that Chaucer’s language, although English, is not exactly the English that we use. Chaucer’s English still has about it wisps of a more archaic form of the language and some words that he used have different meanings today. Some of his words have dropped out of the language. This is an occasion for sadness in some cases – ‘bobaunce’ for boasting is a wonderful word and it is a pity that it is dead.

Modernization, once one allows it in theory, knows no restraint. Brian Stone’s marvelous translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight goes beyond the original into an extravagance of adaptation. So too with Dempsey’s Chaucer. Where Chaucer writes: “Dowte is there none, thou queen of misericorde,/That thou n’art cause of grace and mercy here.” Dempsey alters to: “Dear queen of pity, doubt will never shade/This fact: you are compassion’s only cause.” That the version is weaker is to be expected. That it is for this reason bad is not a reasonable conclusion. With the original easily available, the reader can with only slight adjustment connect to the original. If Dempsey’s version is a crutch, it is a comfortable and useful one. The versification is consistent and its occasional use of phrases with a modern topical allusions is amusing, a kind of sly wit that Chaucer would appreciate.

In the introduction Dempsey defends Chaucer’s complaint poems, a type of poetry about which many critics betray some discomfort. Many of the complaints involve the courtly love clichés. Dempsey very shrewdly suggests that this form is still around but has gone unnoticed because it has been living a surreptitious life in the lyrics of the popular song.

The publisher is something unusual in the way of publishers. The aim is to provide for the publication of scholarly books and the target market is the larger libraries and not the general reader. I’m happy that this excellent book came my way but I am puzzled that it did so.

Such a happy conjunction of a gifted modern writer with Chaucer should be more widely known. It is a fit companion for Nevill Coghill’s version of The Canterbury Tales.

About the Reviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His writings, two books and a number of short articles on Joyce, can be accessed at: http://www.grand-teton.com/service/Persons_Places