by Geoffrey Chaucer; James Dempsey Print book
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The Court Poetry of Chaucer by James Dempsey   (2007-09-22)
Chaucer scholars as well as poets and poetry fans will find extreme delight in reading James Dempsey’s modernizations of Chaucer’s short and often neglected poems. They show Dempsey’s deep admiration for Chaucer’s work—for its embrace of life’s contradictions, its variety and wit, and especially its play with language. Plainly, turning Chaucer’s robust, Middle-English verse into poetry that is accessible to contemporary readers was, for Dempsey, a labor of love, and we readers benefit from the labor, and the love.Dempsey passes over famous works such as The Canterbury Tales and Troilus and Cressida, concentrating instead on modernizing Chaucer’s lesser-known poems. Included are the unfinished, epic-romance, “Anelida and Arcite” as well as all 21 works (among them, satires, verse epistles, proverbs and romances) that F. N. Robinson labels “Short Poems” and other scholars call “Minor Poems.”I suspect that Dempsey’s versions of the poems will rescue them from the “minor” category. He takes these works seriously, and in his preface and brief header to each poem, sets the scene and gives a cogent explanation of its medieval background, genre, and verse form. He discusses, for example, the medieval popularity of the “complaint,” in which the poet-speaker praises the beauty and virtues of his beloved, but bemoans the fact that their love cannot survive. In his introductory notes, Dempsey points to the similarities between this Chaucerian complaint genre and today’s popular song lyrics, such as those by Bob Dylan.We thus see Chaucer firmly in his medieval setting, and at the same time, Dempsey’s explanations and modernizations of the poems make Chaucer accessible and attractive to 21st century readers. Look, for example at the “Complaint of Mars,” which, Dempsey writes, is “vastly underrated” and which he then renders for us, preserving Chaucer’s favorite seven-line stanza, his rhyme scheme, and his picture of the love (though soon to be disrupted) of Mars and Venus: Of all the poetry I have ever read, None could describe their joy when they two met. Without ado, they tumbled into bed, And there I leave them both to love and pet. Great Mars, by whom all knights their standards set, Embraces her whose beauty has no peer, And Venus kisses heaven’s chevalier. Here, as everywhere in the book, Dempsey’s knowledge of poetry and his marvelous ear for the poetic are evident. Throughout, he modernizes Chaucer’s text with zest and energy, and at the same time preserves Chaucer’s verse forms and basic meanings. It is a splendid achievement. Reviewer: Laura Jehn Menides, Ph.D. Professor of English, Emerita Worcester Polytechnic Institute Worcester MA 01609
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