For more than six hundred years, a key passage in Chaucer’s Merchant’s Tale has defied all attempts to interpret it. Near the opening of the tale, the Merchant seems to flatly contradict himself. Moments after saying that his own wife and two-month-old marriage are unspeakably awful, he delivers what is generally known as the “encomium on marriage”. Bewilderingly, this lengthy digression contains an absolute paeon of praise for the institution of marriage, although – to add to the confusion – it also includes a couple of caustic anti-matrimonial jokes. In my book, I hope to show that I have definitively solved this mystery.
My central argument is that Chaucer has left numerous textual clues to the hidden meaning of the encomium. This claim is the first step in a chain of argument, which works as follows. If these supposed clues are used to interpret the passage, its basic meaning becomes clear for the first time. Also, a strong thematic link with the rest of the tale emerges, where no connection whatever was visible before. And finally, this baffling passage – which has often been regarded as ill-conceived, botched or unfinished – is revealed to be a miniature literary masterpiece, profound and moving, and many centuries ahead of its time in both conception and technique. The veracity of all these claims can be confirmed by reading the essay containing my interpretation.
All of which would seem to indicate, both that Chaucer did leave textual clues of the kind described above, and also that the interpretation presented in my essay must represent something very close to the hidden meaning he intended those clues to reveal.
So what do Chaucerians make of such claims?
When essays on Chaucer’s work are submitted to literary journals, their editors employ professional “Chaucerians” as “readers” to produce reports recommending for or against publication. I’ve submitted numerous different versions of my essay to these journals over a period of very many years, and in all that time not one reader has ever so much as acknowledged the existence of my claim that Chaucer left textual clues of the kind I’ve described above – in fact, they seem to take the greatest care to avoid all mention of it. They are equally evasive regarding my interpretation as a whole.
Now why, one is bound to wonder, should people who devote their lives to interpreting Chaucer’s work choose to display no interest whatever in the meaning of a key passage in one of his greatest works? How, in particular, can they flatly disregard the claim that the encomium contains clues that reveal the precise intentions regarding the meaning of this important passage of the man on whose work their entire professional life depends?
The reader may wonder what their reports do contain. Well, there are quite a number of allegations of insufficient respect displayed towards particular Chaucerian authority-figures; frequent complaints about my methodology and presentation; numerous attacks directed against carefully isolated – and therefore virtually meaningless – snippets of my argument; and countless other evasive devices. Since there is no discussion of my interpretation as a meaningful whole, there is naturally no mention of the revelations that come with it.
So it would seem that the question of whether I’ve succeeded in solving this long-standing mystery by following the poet’s own carefully-laid clues is a matter of little or no importance to professional Chaucerians. Other considerations always supervene. Not long ago, the reader for one journal, after having had the grace, for once, to concede, “It should be published”, immediately added, “but not, I think, in this journal”. Such a ploy seems to me to offer a glimpse of the fear of breaking ranks which I believe rules the hearts of Chaucerians and finds expression in a steely resolve never to publish any criticism so utterly different from their own, in almost every respect, as mine.
Viewed as an achievement, discovering the meaning of the encomium is not specially impressive. It should have happened long ago. But it is an extremely important – indeed a historic – literary event. Happily, that event can now be revealed to the public, in my book, Ignoring Chaucer, which contains my essay and examines the Chaucerians’ response both to it and to the encomium itself. I hope that many members of the wider public will enjoy reading it. I can’t imagine that many specialist readers will.