What Strange Intoxication?

In The Pastons and Chaucer, written by Virginia Woolf for the first volume of The Common Reader, Woolf juxtaposes the life of wealthy but romantic heir, Sir John Paston, with the origin of Chaucer’s use of language in The Canterbury Tales.

Sir John, deemed an unworthy heir to his single-minded father, acquires a corrupting practise:

For sometimes, instead of riding off on his own horse to inspect his crops or bargain with his tenants, Sir John would sit, in broad daylight, reading. There, on the hard chair in the comfortless room with the wind lifting the carpet and the smoke stinging his eyes, he would sit reading Chaucer, wasting his time, dreaming – or what strange intoxication was it that he drew from books?

Drawing her life of Sir John from family letters, Woolf finds the roots of Chaucer’s austere yet beautiful use of language.

Chaucer, it seems, has some art by which the most ordinary words and the simplest feelings when laid side by side, make each other shine; when separated, lose their lustre. Thus the pleasure he gives us is different from the pleasure that other poets give us, because it is more closely connected with what we have ourselves felt or observed.

Reading Woolf on Chaucer brings to mind Ezra Pound’s urging, “Anyone who is too lazy to master the comparatively small glossary necessary to understand Chaucer deserves to be shut out from the reading of good books forever.”

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