chapter  5
Chaucer’s Stature
Pages 22

In 1897, Havelock Ellis published an article entitled “Genius and Stature” that dealt with what he called the “anthropometry of genius.” In this essay he asserted that “great men” (as he called them) tended either to be short (below 5′ 4″) or tall (above 5′ 9″). It is, as he says, “mediocrity alone that genius seems to abhor.”2 He explains this theory by claiming that in both cases, “it seems probable that the primary cause is a greater vital activity… Among the tall such intensity of vital action has shown itself in unimpeded freedom; in the short it is impeded and forced into new channels by pathological or other causes.”3 It is easy now to look back on such speculations as a pseudo-scientific attempt to extract (as Barbara Stafford has demonstrated) “semantic meaning from isolatable looks”—a bygone attempt to link the visible with the invisible, the material with the spiritual.4 Yet the slippage between literal height and the symbolic “stature” of genius here is only the most evident manifestation of a more deep-seated rhetoric of aesthetic value that conditioned the recovery of Chaucer in the twentieth century. This rhetoric facilitated two seemingly opposed impulses in the modernist reception of the poet. On the one hand, formalists recuperated the poet by claiming that Chaucer’s value lay in his modernity. His “stature” as a great poet enabled him to transcend temporal boundaries and speak to all ages. The value of Chaucer-his greatness-was coextensive with what made him historically accessible-in the familiar formalist formulation, ars gratis artis. Yet if the poet’s greatness or “stature” was what made him historically accessible, it remained invisible to most of the population. Only a very few of the cultural upper caste supposedly had the “taste” to discern this greatness and thus to pass this knowledge on to the rest of the reading public. Thus “high” modernism was at heart a class-based formulation of aesthetic value that privileged the elite over the common, the transcendent over the material, and the spiritual over the bodily. Yet if, in the early twentieth century, the materialist conception of poetry was insistently repressed (some might even say buried), like the body, it always threatened to rise up and reveal the contingency of the formalist idea of aesthetic

value. This materialist conception, which located Chaucer’s aesthetic value in his utility, was related to the functionalist (or what Michael Saler calls the medieval modernist) extension of William Morris’s and John Ruskin’s more democratic ideas about the “organic integration of the individual into a temporal and spiritual community.”5