BBC Radio 4 offers its listeners a weekly music and chat programme. It has been running since the 1940s. The presenter interviews a famous person and asks them how they would cope if they happened to be stranded on a desert island, alone. (The execution surpasses the craziness of the concept.) The imaginary compensations granted to the castaway are: one luxury item, eight gramophone records (CDs, I suppose, nowadays) and books – the Bible, the works of Shakespeare, and one other book.
I admit that I don’t listen to the programme; but it has made me think.
In the unlikely event that I were stranded, alone – whether on a desert island or not – what (on the lines of the offers made above) would I choose to have with me?
The choice of a luxury item can be deferred. Perhaps it could be a comfortable bed.
I’d happily choose to have the Bible and Shakespeare, as I dip into them from time to time already.
And the third book? The answer is: the complete works of Geoffrey Chaucer – available in the excellent Riverside Edition, first published in 1987, which provides background information, including help with Chaucer’s medieval English.
Translations of major works are available in modern English translation, e.g. those by N Coghill and B Stone, published by Penguin (London).
Why this choice, given all the other possible ones?
There is great variety: lyrics, mini-epics, and collections of stories.
One of the remarkable things about Chaucer’s work is the way he is influenced by continental literatures (Roman/Latin, French and Italian). He is hence a cosmopolitan rather than a merely English poet. Moreover, he adapts the originals and blends them and makes something new. (‘Poetry’ means ‘making’.) In some passages, he translates closely, but in many places he paraphrases, makes omissions, or adds his own material. (Compare, for example, Boccaccio’s Filostrato and Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde.)
Chaucer’s writing addresses religious and philosophical topics, in particular, the matter of determinism versus free will – a serious business, but conveyed in readable, digestible ways. (See, for example, Troilus and Criseyde and the ending of the Knight’s Tale.)
He uses much humour and irony and gentle satire. See, for example, the comical discussion between the cock and his hen wife in The Nun Priest’s Tale about the significance of dreams. (The cock refers to learned books, whereas his wife relies on personal experience; and experience, on this occasion, would have provided the better guide concerning the risk a fox poses to chickens.)
Chaucer invents believable, memorable characters, e.g. the talking Eagle (in the House of Fame) and the Wife of Bath (in the Canterbury Tales).
He evokes pathos, especially as regards the fate of the eponymous protagonist in Troilus and Criseyde.
He gives us a gallery of characters from many walks of life (apart from the highest and lowest classes) in the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales.
He is a master of the use of the narrator as a literary device; and the narrator even puts himself, as a character – into the Canterbury Tales.
An early, favourable critic of Chaucer (and translator/adapter) was John Dryden (1631-1700), himself a prominent poet in his day. He comments on him at length in the Preface to his Fables, Ancient and Modern. He is generous in his praise; and he sums up his verdict with the phrase: “here is God’s plenty.”
Hundreds of other poets shine; but as a companion to cheer me up, if I were to be stranded on a desert island, I have found no one yet to compare with Chaucer (other than Shakespeare himself).