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Walter Stevens, a sixteenth-century editor of a manuscript of Chaucer’s Treatise on the Astrolabe, ‘fownde the same corrupte and false in so many and sondrie places, that I dowbtede whether the rudenes of the worke weare not a gretter sclaunder to the authour, than trowble and offence to the readers’ (Brewer 1978: i, 105). Speght writes that he undertook his edition at the request of gentlemen who wished to do ‘some reparations on his [Chaucer’s] works, which they iudged to be much decaied by iniurie of time, ignorance of writers, and negligence of Printers’ (Brewer 1978: i, 141).

I mene / Maister Geffrey Chaucer hath translated this sayd werke oute of latyn in to oure vsual and moder tonge’ (Brewer 1978: i, 75). The result of this translation is aureate diction and ‘ornate wrytyng’ (76) located in the substance and power of his pithy style: ‘For he wrytteth no voyde wordes / but alle hys mater is ful of hye and quycke sentence’ (75). 1456: ‘þe laureal and moste famous poete þat euer was to-fore him as in þemvellishing of oure rude moders englisshe tonge, clepid Chaucyer’ (Spurgeon 1925: i, 54).

Such criticism flowers in the early nineteenth century in statements like this one by Byron: ‘Chaucer, notwithstanding the praises bestowed on him, I think obscene and contemptible’ (Brewer 1978: i, 249). Leigh Hunt blames a change of manners for what might once have pleased the court and gentils but was, in the mid-nineteenth century, ‘sometimes not only indecorous but revolting’ (Brewer 1978: ii, 71). Matthew Arnold’s charge that Chaucer lacked ‘high seriousness’ seems an uncanny echo, after nearly five hundred years, of Chaucer’s own fears.

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