‘The last syllable of modernity’: Chaucer in the Caribbean

Abstract

In the wake of European conquest, multi-racial societies draw on diverse cultural resources in order to conceive of resilient post-conquest identities. This essay builds on Emily Greenwood’s argument that Anglophone Caribbean literary ‘misquotations’ from classical Latin should be read as signs of W.E.B. DuBois’s ‘double consciousness.’ My essay elaborates on this idea for medieval studies by analyzing references to Chaucer in the Anglophone Caribbean. First, this study examines writers who invoke Chaucer in critical essays that address race and literature (Roger Mais, V.S. Naipaul, Edward Kamau Brathwaite). Second, the essay explores an allusion to the Canterbury Tales in Jean Rhys’s short story ‘Again the Antilles’ as a catalyst for a virtuoso creole performance. Finally, the study considers how more recent writers appropriate Chaucer to convey diasporic understandings of race and gender.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Figueroa ([1982] 1992) cited in Brathwaite (1984, 39n51).

  2. 2.

    David Dabydeen ([1989] 1990, 4–5) draws a more detailed version of the same contrast with reference to the alliterative Gawain and the Green Knight.

  3. 3.

    Elsewhere, Cooper takes Beowulf as a metonym for the canonical English curriculum that can nonetheless participate in a ‘permissive praxis’ of inclusion (Cooper, 2010a, 133, 143). See also Dance, who translates Chaucer to excuse the recording of ‘offensive’ folklore (Dance, 1985, xxv).

  4. 4.

    I cite this edition as the most relevant representation of Chaucerian Middle English at the time that Rhys was writing; recent critics may have consulted the Riverside Chaucer (Chaucer, 1987). Any edition or transcription of Chaucer’s Middle English varies to one degree or another from Rhys’s text.

  5. 5.

    The racial politics of Rhys’s story have been much commented on, with some critics emphasizing Papa Dom’s anti-colonial agency (Tiffin, 1992, 73–75; Gregg, 1995, 140) and others the narrator’s (Raiskin, 1996, 119, 156; Lonsdale, 1999, 45–47; Rosenberg, 2007, 195; GoGwilt, 2010, 22–23).

  6. 6.

    For example, Agbabi (2000); Breeze (2000, 2009b); Cooper (2010b).

  7. 7.

    Cooper speaks of Professor Victor Chang’s ‘favorite’ Chaucer course at the University of the West Indies, Mona (Cooper, 2010b); Breeze says that she read Chaucer in Jamaica in sixth-form (Breeze, 2009a).

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Acknowledgements

This essay would not have been possible without Google and a host of other electronic archives, including subscription sources paid for by Dartmouth College. Abigail Macias provided timely research assistance: her work was funded by the Dartmouth Junior Research Scholar Program. Special thanks to my colleagues Reena Goldthree and Sam Vásquez for great conversation.

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Warren, M. ‘The last syllable of modernity’: Chaucer in the Caribbean. Postmedieval 6, 79–93 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1057/pmed.2015.4

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