Sunday, 10 April 2011

Coghill, Christopher Tolkien and Chaucer


I have been re-reading Chaucer's The Nun's Priest's Tale, edited (1959) by Nevill Coghill and Christopher Tolkien in the volume I pencil-annotated for O-Level English Literature.

(In the olden days, the more academic English kids - about a quarter of the year cohort - studied nine or ten Ordinary-level GCEs between ages 14 and 16 - with six numbered pass grades up to 1974, going down to three lettered grades in 1975 - an early example of the grade blurring and inflation that has been continuous and rampant ever since.)


Reading this edition has been an extremely enjoyable experience. The poem is marvelous, but it would not be possible to appreciate it properly without the introduction (by Coghill) and notes and glossary (by Tolkien).

What comes across is love of learning; a warmth, general wisdom and soundness of scholarship that is now gone (and I have read many hundreds of works of recent literary scholarship written over the past generation).

(At root, the difference between now and then is that Coghill and Tolkien are examples of scholars who are whole men, good men - aiming at virtue, honesty and beauty - men steeped in tradition and the life of the mind - yet (probably from their war experiences) also rooted in reality.)

Even the remarkable fact that I studied Chaucer at age 14, and in such depth, is evidence of how much has been lost. (The Coghill-Tolkien edition was apparently designed for school children.)

(It was a pleasure, too, to be reading the microscopic penciled annotations, including a few jokes, of my former schoolboy self - and it made it very much easier to read the poem when all the tricky bits and translations were handily written just above and alongside each line of the printed text)


Coghill and Tolkien made a superb combination.

Coghill was an historical scholar. His introduction gives the medieval world in microcosm, with a wealth of context and specific details about the themes of the poem; information on sources, philosophical debates of the age, and an introduction to technical aspects of the language and poetry.

Coghill was also a well known director of Shakespeare and Elizabethan drama (including a movie - he 'discovered' Richard Burton - the Welsh actor - and was a lifelong friend), he was Oxford's senior Professor of English at the end of his career - but is probably best remembered for having done the standard modern (Penguin) English version of the Canterbury Tales which was made into a successful musical that I saw as a teenager.

Coghill was also one of the Inklings - and was indeed tutored alongside CS Lewis when they both did the (three year) Oxford English degree in one year (Coghill having already done a History degree, and Lewis Classics), both gaining first class honours.


Christopher Tolkien (like his father) was a philologist, and his notes provide a running commentary on the meanings, context and hard words - especially those which have changed their meaning in subtle or misleading ways.

Anyway, copies of the Coghill & Tolkien edition of the Nun's Priests' Tale by Geoffrey Chaucer are still available online for just the cost of postage. I'd recommend buying one before they disappear, and saving it for a holiday.


Each of these mini volumes provides a window onto another world, the mind of a great poet, and an example of the (all too brief) greatness of English literary scholarship in its twilight years. 



dearieme said...

Our teacher told us that we were going to read the original, but that he was unable to prevent our parents buying a copy of Coghill. Ha! I must say that he did enjoy reading out bits in what he assured us was an accurate pronunciation. Of course, we did this after we'd done a little linguistic background: Germanic languages, language change, vowel shifts and all that. The Young learn so little nowadays, poor wee buggers. On the other hand, they are spared compulsory Latin: lucky buggers.

Brett Stevens said...

Learning the literature of the past is vital. In many ways, all of education is a history lesson.

In addition, as a great writer said in paraphrase, "The past isn't dead -- it isn't even past." We live in the results of those times, and we can learn from their struggles.

Very few do this, which is one reason why our leaders can propose to repeat mistakes, and look out and see row after row of nodding heads.