Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Chaucer’s Language

(i) Born in an age when our language was in solution but at a temperature to crystallize, Fortune chose him as the nucleus.

(ii) Chaucer, like Dante, found his native tongue a dialect and left it a language. But it was not what he did with deliberate purpose of reform; it was his kindly and plastic genius that wrought this magic of renewal and inspiration.  It was not the new words he introduced, but his way of using old words, that surprised them into grace, ease and dignity in their own despite.

In Chaucer, as in all great poets, the language gets its charm from him. The force and sweetness of his genius kneaded more kindly together the Latin and the Teutonic elements of his mother-tongue, and made it something better than either. He is one of the best versifiers that ever made English trip and sing with a gaiety that seems careless but where every foot beats to the tune of thought.

The first of the poet’s gifts is to feel; the second is to express. Chaucer possesses this second gift as abundantly as he possesses the first. The point which contemporary and later poets almost invariably note in him is, not his power of telling a story, not his tragedy, his humour, or his character drawing, but his language. To Lydgate, he is “the Noble rethor poete of Britayne”; His great achievement has been:

“Out of our tongue to avoyde all rudenesse,
And to reform it with colours of sweetness.”

To Occleve he was:

“the floure of eloquence”
“The firste fynder of our faire language.”

Spenser gave him the immortal epithet of “the well of native English undefiled”. Chaucer, like Dante, had the rare fortune of coming in upon an uninformed language, and, so far as one man could, of forming it. He grew up among the last generation in England that used French as the official language. It was in 1362, when Chaucer was just entering manhood, that the session of the House of Commons was first opened with an English speech. Hence it is easy to see the hollowness of the charge, so often brought against him since Verstegan first made it, that he was “a great mingler of English with French words”, that “he corrupted our language with French words”. Tyrwhitt long since refuted the charge: and if it wanted further refutation, we might point to Piers Plowman’s Vision the work of a great poet of the people, written for the people in their own speech, but containing a greater proportion of French words than Chaucer’s writings contain. And yet Chaucer is a courtier, a Londoner, perhaps partly French by extraction. Above all he is a translator, and some influence from the language he is translating passes into his own verse. The truth is that in his hands for the first time, our language appears as it is; in structure of course purely Germanic, but rich, assimilative, bold in its borrowings, adopting and adapting at its pleasure any words of any language that might come in its way. How Chaucer used this noble instrument is not to be demonstrated; it is to be felt.
(Grimm) “Begotten by a surprising union of the two noblest languages of Europe, the one Teutonic, the other Romantic, it received that wonderfully happy temper and thorough breeding, where the Teutonic supplied the material strength, the Romantic the suppleness and freedom of expression…. In wealth, in wisdom, and strict economy, none of the living languages can vie with it.” Such was the character of the language in which Chaucer wrote.

(Dryden) “Chaucer first adorned and amplified our barren tongue from the Provencal, which was then the most polished of all modern languages.”

“From Chaucer the purity of the English language began. He lived in the dawning of the English language.”

Chaucer is the first great English writer; the first man to use ‘naked words’ in English; the first to make (English) the composite language a thing compact and vital.

Chaucer’s Humour

“His humour contains the shock of truth, the vinegar of irony.”

Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales – especially his prologue to the Tales – abound in humour, that priceless gift of Nature to man which makes for pleasure in any piece of writing. Poetry instructs as it delights and it is through interest that the poet gives us (creates) delight and this interest is achieved more easily by the effect of humour than by any poetic contrivances. Humour is the passport to popular approval and popular appreciation. It is by his humour that a writer makes himself endearing to us and his work enduring. It is his humour that keeps alive the subject matter throughout the work and the work itself for all times. This humour is born out of mild satire and mostly of kindly ridicule; and sometimes of inconsistency or irony. Chaucer’s humour consists in his sly hints about the habit and appearance of his personages that never escape his shrewd observation; but he never attempts to vilify their characters by his remarks. His satire, though unsparing, is rather of the nature of kindly ridicule than stern invective; he aims rather at making its objects appear ludicrous, or at the worst contemptible, than exciting hatred, indignation, or disgust; he laughs them down, and we, if not they themselves, enjoy the laugh. It is this sly humour of Chaucer that makes him interesting reading, a humour that never hurts anyone, nor affects the readers.

Chaucer begins his masterpiece with a general Prologue in which he introduces to the readers his dramatis personae and in which he gives us actuality: his world as in his time. The pilgrims get together at the spacious Tabard inn and the poet is accepted as one of themselves; and they make an agreement to rise early the next morning to set off in one company for Canterbury. And now, explains Chaucer in his intimate fashion, while he has time and space, he will introduce the pilgrims to us; for that seems to him the orderly thing to do, to tell us at the start the character, degree, and array of each of these men and women.

Humour or satire would seem out of place in introducing these devout pilgrims but a clear understanding of the background in which Chaucer wrote would reveal the propriety and place fro humour. All the pilgrims of the later Middle Ages possessed a striking characteristic which was quite apart from religious motive: the journey itself had become an occasion for pleasure. The long expeditions to foreign shrines were thoroughly enjoyed by nearly everyone who made them, no matter how serious and devout the intent of the undertaking; the opportunity for festivity and carnival on a visit to the neighbouring shrine lured all into making a pilgrimage to it. On their way the pilgrims “listened aridly to the lozenges” which drew them pleasures, and “tarried restfully whenever they could”. Women visited shrines not for proper purposes, but only to make the church a ‘maison-de-rendezvous’. They invented new miracles so that they would have an excuse to visit monasteries far from their houses, and there they pay court to Venus instead of to a saint. Chaucer in his poem shows us both sides of the picture, the falseness, the lechery, the gluttony, and the drunkenness of some of the pilgrims together with the dignity and genuine devoutness of others. His ‘wife of Bath’ and the Knight very well illustrate both the species.

Humour arises mostly out of the poet’s attempt to point out the incongruous and the grotesque in human nature as well as when the absurdities and frailties of our fellow-beings are laid bare to us. Chaucer’s pilgrims display every frailty and absurdity of human nature. The pilgrims have dressed themselves according have dressed themselves according to their fancy and fortune; not according to, and befitting, the gravity of the occasion. Each has undertaken the pilgrimage with a different aim, and there is nothing common about their intents except their making for Canterbury as a group.

Wife of Bath

‘Charitee’ is the key word of irony here, as ‘conscience’ is at one point in the presentation of the Prioress. It reminds us of the obligation of Christian neighbourliness which she is forgetful of at a rather unexpected time and place. Here uncharitableness in church proceeds from pride which at this point, in her own unique way, she typifies. She must go before, in that respect, have ‘maistrye’; and it is especially on a Sunday of all days that her vanity flares out, is flaunted in flamboyant costume. Within the comedy of the sins there is here perceptible an element of social comedy too. The Wife of Bath is a new social type, an exuberant example of the newly opulent, ostentatious cloth-making bourgeoisie – though her costume is amusingly not quite the height of fashion (head-dress was no longer the fashion among ladies of the court). But the wife is neither merely a type of an emergent class nor is she one of those terrible Langlandian caricatures, – the deadly sins. As a fully individual comic person of the same Shakespearean order as Falstaff she has rich human value. In spite of  (or even with the force because of) her loud dress and manner, she is realized as humanly attractive as well as a dazzling figure, a gay, talkative, formidable, dominating person.

Parallel with her many amorous adventures are her many distant pilgrimages. The phrase is (“she could much of wandring by the weye”) very likely subtler than it at first seems, if as is nearly certain it includes an allusion to the errant soul. The ‘bokeler’ and the ‘targe’ not only present an image of her hat, but, along with the ‘paire of spores shape’ are attributes of her masterfulness, that impulse to have the ‘maistrye’, which she will later confess, governed her relations with her five husbands; for in the greatest of all interludes between the Tales – her enormous monologue – this massive scarlet figure is set talking.

All but one of Chaucer’s portraits are clear and bright like profiles on a sunny day. Their subtlety does not lie so much in the characters as in the way in which the character is described. There are no tormented souls, split personalities, freaks or enigmas. No Hamlets, no Heathcliffs, no Judes not even a Don Juan. But all this Alison, the Wife of Bath, is an exception; she is large and contains contradictions.

Among the great comic figures of our literature, Falstaff is her only match, and it is a great pity that Shakespeare, wishing to show Sir John in love, threw him away on Mistress page instead of turning, as he so often did, to Chaucer to find in the wife (Sir John’s contemporary after all!) a mate of equal wit and will. What dialogues are lost to us!

The Wife of Bath was rich; but she was not aristocratic.

The General Prologue – Nun, the Prioress

Nuns in Chaucer’s day were almost always drawn from the upper class. We can be safe in assuming at the outset Madame Eglentyne has an aristocratic background. She is not only a member of religious order, but she is also the superior officer of her convent. She takes pains to uphold the dignity of her calling.

The mere fact that Madame Eglentyne is one of the Canterbury pilgrims is the first point of satire in a portrait that is satiric, though it is gentle and understanding.

To paint a portrait of one who illustrates “the engagingly imperfect submergence of the feminine in the ecclesiastical, Chaucer employs the sharp colours of irony combined with the gold of humour and sympathy. To begin with Madame Eglentyne is “full simple and coy’ and these words belong to medieval romance; she bears the flower-like name of eglentine (sweet-brier); her nose is shapely (‘tretys’), her eyes ‘greye as glas’ sparkling and bright as Venetian glass; her mouth is small and soft and red; and her fair forehead which, fair or otherwise, should have been covered in the presence of company, since Madame Eglentyne is a nun, is beautifully broad.

Of course, the jest lies in Chaucer’s endowing someone who is a nun with the physical characteristics of the fascinating, worldly heroine, but there may also be implied satiric comment on the romances; we should note that Chaucer ends his description with the quaint statement that she is well-proportioned (nat undergrowe).

She has other characteristics of the ladies of romance and of the court. Her table manners are excellent, and she wears fine clothes and ornaments.

Her brooch is noteworthy; it is an ornamental pin in the shape of a capital A surmounted by a crown; the motto ‘Amor Vincit Omnia’ is etched on it. Originally, this motto in Virgil’s Eclogues concerned profane love, but the church early adopted the motto and gave it a meaning which had to do with sacred love; Lowes poses a question: “Now it is earthly love which conquers all, now heavenly; the pleasure plays back and forth between the two. And it is precisely that happy ambiguity of the convention – itself the result of an earlier transfer – which makes Chaucer’s use of it here…a masterstroke. Which of the two loves does ‘amor’ stand mean to the Prioress? I do not know; but I think she thought she meant celestial.”

Here again we have a satiric touch to the portrait. The Prioress is not without worldly vanities, dear to a feminine heart. In yet another conspicuous way is the Prioress shown to be the eternal feminine. She possesses ‘smale houndes’ defying all rules.

Though for the most part Chaucer sees the Prioress with kindliness and understanding of her female foibles and venial weaknesses, there is a touch of sterner criticism when he says:

“But for to speken of hire conscience,
She was so charitable and so pitous
She wolde wepe, if that she sough a mouse
Caught in a trappe, if it were deed or bledde.”

It is only thus far, Chaucer implies, that the Prioress’ charity and pity are roused: it is suffering of a mouse which calls forth her sympathy; she is not greatly concerned over the suffering of her fellow men. Despite the charm and dignity, she possesses a real imperfection not unmarked by the poet who has created her. She also knew how to take proper part in the services of her convent.

To speak of the much discussed ‘oath’ of the Prioress” “Hire gretteste oath was but by seint Loy.” Swearing was common in Chaucer’s day. The name of every part of God’s body is taken in vain in the most casual conversations. No one, however, could call Madame Eglentyne “accursed” in her swearing. She has the good taste, or better perhaps, the piety to refrain from the “dismembrynge of Christ”, and her strong oath is “by Seint Loy” – a peculiarly happy choice if she is to swear at all.

The 7th century St. Eligius called “Eloi” or “Loy” by French and English writers, was a courtier and artist of distinction, and had great popular appeal. He was apparently a man of physical beauty and a lover of personal adornment, when he withdrew from the world, his charm was not forgotten. The French poets of Chaucer’s day, Froissart and Machant, frequently mention “seint Eloy”. The poet’s linking of Madame Eglentyne with ‘Seint Loy’ was surely what Lowes terms a “felicitous choice” and a “flash of inspiration”.

Chaucer’s Prioress is a gentle, a demure lady aristocratic in her worldly and culpably indifferent outlook on life. She is the nun who remembers life beyond the convent wall, and who longs sufficiently for some of the more innocent yet nevertheless forbidden pleasures of that life to circumvent politely her conventional restrictions. Chaucer was no reformer of in any sense, but certainly he and his audience knew what the reformers were saying, and much of the exquisite humour of the Prioress’ delicate yet penetrating portrait lies in that knowledge.

Chaucer’s Monk

Chaucer’s Monk is a perfect subject for satire. He is the complete hunter, “the prikasour aright”; all his pleasure lies in tracking (prikyng) and hunting the hare, for which he will spare no cost. He keeps grey ‘houndes’, as swift as birds in flight, and many valuable (deyntee) horses. He does not hesitate to leave his cloister, when it suits his pleasure, to ‘ride out’ in his fine clothes, on his glossy brown palfrey, even though his ‘old and somdel streit’. Rule expressly forbids a monk to go outside the confines of the monastery. But Chaucer’s Monk, if we are to believe the evidence of contemporary literature, is no great exception.

He corresponds to the commonplace picture in that he cares nothing for the requirements and duties of the monastic life; e is ‘reccheless’. He rides abroad, instead of labouring or studying as “Augustine bid”. But why should this fine gentleman, asks Chaucer ironically, make himself mad with work and study? The Monk has the right idea, for who indeed can serve the world, if he, an important “lord” remains in the monastery? All very well for the long dead “Austyn” – let all the toil be reserved for “him”. For the living there are the delights of hunting to be enjoyed by a monk who loves them and does not give a “pulled hen” for the text that says that hunters are not “hooly”.

The Monk would hardly be expected to refrain from pleasure in which such a large part of the secular world took delight since he is the kind of man to disobey more important regulations.

(Dan Piers) He, however, is a subject fro satire not only as an ‘outsidere’ and a hunter, but as a lover of all creature comforts.

He is as true to type in his costume as in his habits. The trimming of his sleeves is ‘grys’ (grey squirrel); the intricate love-knot of gold, soft, unwrinkled (couple) boots – quite expressive; the prominent (stepe) eyes rolling in his head and gleaming like a furnace under a cauldron (“stemed as a forneys of a leed”)’ the well-fed body in good condition (in good point) – so unlike that of an ascetic – all seem to express the hedonist and the sybarite. And how natural that such a lover of pleasure and luxury should be especially fond of the delights of the table.

Chaucer’s Monk is in truth a “fair for the maistrie”, “a manly man”, “a lord”, “a prikasour aright”. He is fit to be an abbot of some great monastic house, and he has already attained the position of some prior (“kepere”) of some “cells”, or smaller, dependent monastery.

The Worthy Friar

The Friar is one of the most strongly individualized figures of Chaucer; he is also one of the most typical; he is the perfect epitome of friars as a class.

He is a limiter; a lymytour signified in the 14th century a begging friar to whom was assigned a certain district or “limit” where he had sole right to solicit alms; he pays his rent for the exclusive begging rights in his district. He is notorious fro the seduction of young girls of his limit:

“He hadda maad ful many a marriage
of young women at his owene cost.”

– he has found husbands or dowries for the many young women who have been his concubines. Not only girls but wives, too, must guard their virtue against him (Hubert), who knows how to insinuate himself into every household with his gossip and (daliaunce and fair language), his presents and jollity. (ll 233-239, 264-268); he is aware just what trinkets are dear to the feminine heart, for his “typet” is always full of them. He delights his listeners with a deeply pleasant note (a merye note) when he sings to the accompaniment of his “rote”; he is a fine figure of a man; he has the strength of the athletic champion, and a neck as white as the fleur-de-lys. His mannerism of lisping (for his want of ownesse), “to make his English sweet upon his tongue”, of course, attracts the women of his wide acquaintance upon him, he looks too long with eyes that twinkle as do the stars “in the frosty night”. He freely combined with the sins of his flesh, the sins of the spirit too (ll 240-250). Thus from his excellent knowledge of taverns everywhere, Hubert is more familiar with the innkeeper barmaid (“tappestere”) than with any leper (“lazar”) or beggerman (“beggestere”); indeed, says Chaucer with fine sarcasm, it is not suitable to the profession (facultee) of a man of such high standing that he must have acquaintance with sick lepers; it is inappropriate (not honest) and will not further his interests to consort with poor rabble. But with the rich and provision dealers, in fact, with anyone through whom profit to himself may result, Hubert becomes the essence of chivalry; like the knight’s son, the friar is then “curteis” and “lowely of servyse”.

For Brother Hubert, however, the poor have to be very poor, indeed, in order that he may pass them entirely; anyone who has a penny or two is a prey to his cupidity (ll 251-257). Chaucer labels him the “beste beggere” in his order – nowhere is any man more capable (verbious). For even if a poor widow has not a shoe to her name, so pleasantly persuasive is Hubert’s quotation from the gospel that he will have a farthing from her before he goes.

He has craftily selected words to recite that are held in superstitious awe by his contemporaries. “In Principio” may be said to be the first fourteen verses of the chapter of the Gospel according to St. John – regarded by Middle Ages as a “charm against all evils”, as favourite devotion not a greeting for friars. The friar’s illegal takings (“purchas”) far exceeded his legal gains (“rente”).

But the enterprising Hubert has even better means of acquiring money than by his hypocritical devotion, his flattery and his questionable presents of “Kryves and Pyrnnes”, his captivating music, and a manner which can be as playful as a puppy (“and rage he kould, as it were right a whelp”); he is licensed to hear confessions. (ll 214-232)
He boasts that he has a greater right to hear confession than a parish priest; his absolution is pleasant because whenever he knows that there is an allowance of food or gift (“pitaunce”) awaiting him, he is easy in the penance he prescribes. With bold irony, Chaucer, ignores the fact that absolution is conditional on contrition, and says that to give a “poore order” is a sign that one is well shriven; the gift is equivalent to repentance. Also many a sinner has so hard a heart, the poet adds, that he is unable to weep no matter how contrite he might be, and silver given to the mendicants will do as well as tears and prayers.

In two more ways Chaucer’s Hubert represents most of the friars of his time; he is richly clad and he meddles in secular matters which do not concern him. (ll 258-263).

The Love-day or “dies amoris”, or jour d’amour was a day appointed expressly by the courts fro the amicable settling out of court of specific cases, with the provision that the court in question receive the fees; the assumption was that a settlement so reached would create less ill-feeling than one decreed in court.

Chaucer is strongly sarcastic in mentioning the Friar’s activities on love days, for the poet implies that these love days are between persons of substance. Chaucer’s friar is not like one who remains in a cloister devoted to his vows (cloysterer), the poet says, nor is he clad, like a poor scholar, in a threadbare cope; instead, Hubert resembles someone who has won the Master’s Degree or even the Pope himself, for he wears a “semy cope”, a short, ecclesiastical cape used as an outer garment, of expensive double-worsted. It is as full and unwrinkled as the mould of a bell.

Thus Chaucer’s Hubert begins and remains for us an absorbing character. He is an individual through the arrogant strength of his personality and through his merry songs, his affected lisp, his playful manner, his white neck and his twinkling eyes. He is a type through his fine clothes and his greed, through his profligacy, his meddling, his shocking hypocrisy and his cheating of God and man. But always, whether as an individual or as a type, he is so real that we can think of him only as someone we know and despise, and in this sense he comes to us across years as a distinct and living person.

Humour endears the work to us; entertains the reader, enlivens the subject matter; and also adds zest to one’s enjoyment; in a word, humour renders everything lively and enjoyable and grips our attention, and takes the reader along with it.

The Prologue

We have come, in the course of time, to value the flavour of actuality above all the flavours in our reading, and it is for this reason that Chaucer seems so ‘modern’.

The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales needs no spiritual glossary. It at once fills the imagination with the simple clarities of daily fact. Chaucer’s outstanding originality had at last taken the lead in its long and loving partnership with tradition, his trust in what he saw and heard in the world about him, had lovingly invaded and conquered the domain of poetry. Experience had wedded Authority, and perhaps achieved sovereignty in the marriage.

The result was a new sort of poetic truth, the creation of a poetry of fact by a wise, sure-eyed, and sensitive selection of daily detail, mellowed and harmonized by a humane and often an amused approval, qualified whenever approval was withdrawn by an ironical wit. It was a new way of looking at people. In all English Literature, there is not such another picture of a whole society, and Chaucer contrived it in some two-and-thirty characters and 860 lines.

It was second nature with him that his sense activity should mingle with his sense of hierarchy. He presented his characters in the jumble and haphazardy of life, with a mild apology for his neglect of rank. All was to seem fortuitous, and yet all the ranks and vocations, the trades and the professions were there.

A high kind of gentle blood is seen in the knight and his son, a somewhat lesser emulous gentry in the land-owning Franklin. The learned professions appear in the Sergeant-at-law and the Doctor. The Merchant stands for the upper reaches of commerce, for the new class of wool-exporters and exchange manipulators, beginners in capitalism, while the Haberdasher and his associates represent the slightly smaller fry of London traders, though each

“was shaply for to been alder man”.

The Wife of Bath, a provincial and a woman, was a cloth-maker, an expert in the newest and most important of England’s industries at the time. Another provincial, this time a sea-dog, was the shipman, owner and master-mariner. All these were of some rank. They would have servants at home, they would exact and enjoy high local prestige. Next below them were the church-folk, of whom the Miller was the grandest, his own master, with the coveted right to work a mill, a man to give himself airs. The swaggering Simkin of the Reeve’s Tale was such another, with a wife “as digne as water in a ditch.”

Then comes the servant class: Upper servants like the Manciple and the Reeve, lower servants like the Yoeman and the Cook, each pair representing town and country between them. At the absolute bottom of the social scale come the country plowman, and at the bottom though he was, he was nearest among these lay-folk to the knight in generous Christianity. They were both “animae naturaliter christianae’.

The church was hardly less exactly represented. The Monk from his monastery, the Prioress from her convent, her attendant priests, the village parson, and the roaming Friar, sufficiently covered the more usual religious categories. The courtly pretensions of the Prioress and the humble origins of the Parson (he was the Ploughman’s brother) showed the comparative unimportance of personal rank in the religious life. Somewhere between laity and ecclesiastics came the clerk of Oxford to represent the universities, a poor scholar who as yet had got no benefice. At an infinite moral and social depth below all these came the Pardoner and the Summoner. It is true that the Pardoner might enjoy a certain prestige founded on superstition, but his natural level was with the Summoner, “his friend and his compeer”. Both were laymen, hangers-on of the church, and hated. He wrote in his House of Fame, so many years ago:

“O god! Quod y, ‘that made Adam,
moche ys thy myghte and thy noblesse.”

He had always taken joy in the created world, a joy tinged with quizzical wonder. The simplicity of his delight in things for being what they were was qualified by an acute questioning intelligence, and this in turn qualified by a gravely comic personal humility. So bland, so unselfconscious, so mild a spectator of God’s plenty could be simple without naiveté, romantic without foolishness, ironical without cruelty. He seems omnivorous and a dainty feeder. The freshness of his gaze is like that of a man who can see what is familiar to him without losing the vividness of a child’s vision. The perfect good manners of his observations has a certain courtliness derived from the poetry of dream and a robustness derived from his general awakenings into a sunlit actuality. It was the April of the world, to him no cruel month. Such a vision, crisped by wit, now centred itself on men and women. He proceeded to invent a way of describing them.

The spiritual power of a zest for actual life shows itself not only in the plenty and variety of his pilgrims, but especially in their normality. He did not exaggerate or look for freaks, he delighted in the world as he found it. Incapable of stale vision, he also had the perennial happiness of touch described by Dryden as belonging only to a master, to draw a full face and to make the nose and cheeks stand out, and yet not employ any depths of shading. This is the mystery of that noble trade which yet no master can teach his apprentice. Zest in experience and clarity in language are the unflagging qualities of “the prologue”. “Execution”, said Blake, “is the chariot of genius.”

Chaucer’s delight in normality is what chiefly differentiates him from Dickens, with whom he has so often been compared. Dickens is a master of the eccentric. When we think of him a wonderful host of fabulously erratic figures comes to mind, adorable, grotesque, monsters of iniquity, paragons of pathos, of optimism, cunning, meanness, benevolence. Everything is in untameable, romantic excess. Micawbers, Mautalinis, Fagins, Pickwicks, Pecksniffs and a hundred other giants of comic or terrible eccentricity are spawned by his unflagging imagination. The very waiters at the wayside inns, the tramps on the road, have their violent idiosyncracies. But Chaucer’s world is almost freak-free, his characters perfectly life-size, only the Wife of Bath seems “larger and louder than life.” But she is a special case.

Within this living framework of an English actuality are placed the no less living fantasies of Europe; for if the Prologue is a cross-section of 14th century English life, the tales are a cross-section of 14th century imagination through Christendom. It was a work that held the past and looked forward into the future. The Prologue and the link between the tales together body forth the civilization of 14th century as seen in sunlight and domesticity. He chose to measure the world by its smiling rather than by the kingdom of Heaven. More than this, his yardstick was, in a sense, homely and private. The major national events of his time do not figure in his poetry.

This homeliness is apparent in his imagery. It is the imagery of common sight and sense, achieving the poetry of fact. He has a steady, effortless power of making what seem to be prose statements gleam and glow as they never do in prose. His similes are for the most part the obvious ones of common conversation, though nonetheless charming for that:

“whit was his berd as is the daye sys”
“His eyne twinkled in his heed aright,
As doom the sterres in the frosty night…”
“As hoot he was and lecherous as a sparawe…”
“As leene was his horse as is a rake…”

But imagery as we know it in Shakespeare, Donne, Milton or Keats, the imagery of broken opalescence, half-tones, imprecise suggestion, sudden wonder, extended learning, remote allusion and, above all, the imagery of that shows one thing instantly in terms of another with a flash of revelation, is nowhere to be found in The Prologue, and rarely, if ever, in the rest of Chaucer’s works.

Yet, in a more primitive sense of the word, “The Prologue” is nothing but a series of images, pictures of things directly present to the senses. Shape and colour teach us sharply and immediately as if from some bright and clearly defined object, in life, say a geranium. These bright natural images move to a dance of syllables and a turn of meaning or the rhyme that give a sudden sharpness of definition, as when the sun comes out on a garden. There is an ever-present liquidness of movement in his language, now unrecapturable in poetry because those gliding terminations that he knew so well how to use have vanished from our language. We can no longer make the music of such a line as:

“And smate foweles make melodye…”

We can make other music, but this kind is lost to us forever.

A quizzical but affirmative delight in the created world, an eye for the immediate image and an ear for the natural music of speech gathered their forces in Chaucer’s work. He expresses in ‘The Prologue’ his long experience of the daily dealings of men and women. The greatness of his work lies not only in the pleasure of so sharp and happy-hearted a sight of times past, but also in the power it imparts to us to see men and women, our own contemporaries, with a like vision, a like sympathy and amusement, a like intelligence, in their individual activity. Every reader of ‘The Prologue’ feels he has learnt to open a Chaucerian eye upon the world.


The opening of “The Prologue” is a superb expression of a sense of harmony between man and nature. The creative uprush of fresh life from the roots in spring, the wave of impulse which causes the birds to mate – are shared by human folk who desire to go on a pilgrimage – note the irony.

The romantic idea – the criterion of human ‘naturalness’ is implied right at the beginning; the spring landscape across which the human procession passes is not merely a decorative background; it is the divinely established natural order in relation to which the human comedy is to be contemplated and judged. Compare the first few lines with those of the ‘Waste Land’: “April is the cruelest month.” Both openings are authentic poetry. The difference that emerges between them is the difference between two phases of civilization. The modern poem involves a consciousness of disharmony between man and nature, a disorganization and dislocation of life. Something has gone wrong with the natural relationship between man and nature which is Chaucer’s joyous starting point.

“And drank coffee, and talked fro an hour.”
“Than longen folk to go on pilgrimages.”

The line in the modern poem conveys the aimlessness of rootless lives which no longer appear to themselves to have a social or other function.

T. S. Eliot: “What the creator of character needs is not so much knowledge of motives as keen sensibility; the dramatist need not understand people, but he must be exceptionally aware of them.”

Chaucer, in his “Prologue” shows an exceptional awareness of people, not of a mass, but of distinct persons. The rather faded crusading knight is felt as already passing into the past, rememberable for an inner beauty of life beneath his battered exterior (he was very parfit gentil knight!) – a quality shared by several among the least externally distinct figures in the procession, the knight, the poor parson and his brother the Ploughman; they are blood-brothers in Christ.

The immediate contrast to the ageing knight is his son the Young Squire, the eternal young bachelor (Sir Mirthe and Youthe) an extravagant spring-like figure in the spring landscape and the spectacular Robin-Hood-like apparition of the Yoeman who is, underneath, simply a solid English countryman.

But Chaucer’s serious “criticism of life” in “the Prologue” is implied in his presentation of the ecclesiastics. The art is in seeing exactly what each is in relation to what each ought to be, an art of exact contemplation but not in a void. The art is as much in what is left unsaid as in what is said, and what is said consists in the simple juxtaposition of statements which it is left to the audience to know how to relate.

Gluttony underlies the Franklin; Avarice the Doctor of Physic. Keeping up appearances is the key-note of the merchant. The man of Lawe, too, keeps an elaborate pretence. The merchant and the Man of Law are both worldly men in contrast to the clerk of Oxenford, the unworldly scholar of all time.

The Franklin is one of the most vivid of the secular figures. He is a self-indulgent country gentleman or land-owner in an environment of natural plenty while the group of Guildsmen is, in contrast, prospering ‘townsmen-group.’ There is an affinity between the wives of these guildsmen and the Wife of Bath; they are just sinfully proud. The cook is a real London Cook. The Shipman represents, among these townsmen and landsmen, another of the traditional occupations of the English people. He is a rude semi-civilised fellow. But the Doctor of Physic is just as conscienceless.

The most vivid of all the secular figures is the Wife of Bath. The critical irony accompanying her presentation depends again on the contrast, in relation to her between her formal religious observance and profane impulse. She is neither more nor less a profane figure than the ecclesiastics of the company, in their differing degrees of delicacy and indelicacy, the Prioress, the Monk and the Friar.

As the poor Parson (who comes, as a contrast, next to the Wife of Bath) contrasts also with the profane ecclesiastics, so the Ploughman, his brother, contrasts with the Miller and the Reeve who are dishonest and prosperous. The Miller’s dishonesty and his ribaldry are both grounded in his total coarseness of texture and crude primitive vigour.

The pair of characters coming last in the diverse succession, the Summoner and the Pardoner, is the most degraded in the human scale; they scarcely belong to the human community. When we arrive at these predatory rogues and vagabonds in ecclesiastical clothing, these corrupt hangers-on of the church, we have departed a long way from the Prioress. The pardoner and the Summoner have, in contrast, a broad caricature quality; yet the caricature quality inheres in what they are themselves rather than in their art of presentation. The Summoner’s visible bestiality confronts us in repulsive details while the Pardoner is presented not only as a scandalous ecclesiastic but a man of anthropological interest.


Chaucer’s Literary Aims

I. (a) To provide an introduction to the stories that follow so that a certain verisimilitude may be imparted to the whole work; the different stories may be held together by one unifying factor.

(b) To entertain the reader – not instruct him. This is significant because medieval literature in the main was didactic.

II. (a) To draw characters of the various members of the society and thereby exercise his powers of observation and the variety of his own life and interests.

(b) To help us see beforehand through these characters, the kind of stories they are going to tell us. It is true, in general, that the stories exemplify the character of the story-tellers.

(c) To satirise all that is undesirable, especially, among the clergy.

(d) To exercise his powers of versification and illustrate the richness of English, the language enriched by the borrowings from French and Latin.

(e) Nevill Coghill sees in “The Prologue” another kind of unity expressed, e.g. in the opening lines Nature – Spring season – impels pilgrimage, and also supernature (martyr Becket). Spring impregnates the dry earth, likewise, the supernatural invigorates the sick and the diseased and this doubling seen also in the motivation of pilgrimage (some for a good reason and some for a bad reason), and hence we have good people and bad people among the pilgrims. We likewise see some unity in the pairing of characters: the Knight and the Squire; the Summoner and the Pardoner.

Ref: Chaucer – Modern Essays in Criticism Wagen Knecht.

Chaucer’s Art of Portraiture

A Painter:  Chaucer uses various devices. He can give importance to any particular aspect – he can omit details – he can exaggerate certain things. His portraits of the pilgrims of Canterbury are varied in much the same way – as the painter varies colours, Chaucer uses the colours of rhetoric.

But no picture is complete in the sense that Chaucer does not give us all the details regarding the character he portrays. One conspicuous feature – a ridiculous mannerism, obscure clothing and such things are hinted and elaborated. Yet these details are prominent enough to distinguish him or her from the jostling company. The cook for instance – the fact, “that on his shyne a mormal hadde he” makes him unique.

As with the use of “rhetoric”, Chaucer uses other methods also – conventions of medieval writers about the way to describe a person – classical writers like Cicero; Medieval medicine and so on. Chaucer’s extensive reading – use of all these methods – for instance medieval medicine tended to classify people somewhat in the same way as modern medicine does – when we say that a person is “neurotic”, all that goes with nervousness, unstable constitution etc. are brought to mind. “Neurotic” is almost a miniature portrait – similarly medieval medicine – four fluids in man – “hoot or coold, or moyste or dye.”

As portrait-painter he reveals his power of observation. We get both types and individuals in The Prologue. He takes a cross-section of humanity and there is no kind of snobbery in his observation of his characters. There is God’s plenty as Dryden puts it.

Chaucer knew the court, commerce and many aspects of life. Humour, satire and seriousness, in his study of people, are visibly presented. The physical appearance, dress, equipments, habits, profession and character – all these are clearly mentioned by the poet. These character studies are a fitting introduction to the stories that follow. “Contrast among characters and sometimes pairs of characters” are the distinctive features of his powers of painting characters. Not only his words, but the words of his characters, too, sometimes reveal their character,

III. “Every Age is a Canterbury Pilgrimage; we all pass on possessing the features of one of these characters.” – Blake.

IV. Prologue by John Burrow

“Chaucer the Pilgrim and Irony”

Fellow of Jesus College,


The General Prologue to “The Canterbury Tales” is one of the most original, as well as the most familiar, of Chaucer’s works. The Tales themselves, however brilliant, all belong to established poetic types – romance, saint’s life, lay, tragedy, etc.; but the General Prologue must have struck contemporary readers as what we would now call an “experimental” piece. Chaucer’s “gallery of portraits” (how exciting the idea seems!) was assembled without any real literary precedent, and in an age which had no art galleries. Of course, individual literary ‘portraits’ were commonplace, then as now, indeed medieval rhetoricians laid special stress on the descriptive function of the poet – but Chaucer’s gallery of contemporary type was, it seems, essentially a new conception.

Nevertheless, in one important respect the idea of the General Prologue seems to have grown quite naturally out of Chaucer’s earlier and more conventional work. At the time when he started on The Canterbury Tales (round about 1387) Chaucer was probably still working on the last of his four dream poems, ‘The Legend of Good Women’. Now in each of these new poems he represents himself as the dreamer and describes the events and people of the dream in the first person, as if through his own eyes. In the process he evolves a kind of character for himself – a dramatic ‘I’ who is and is not the real Chaucer. He is Chaucer in so far as his name is Geoffrey, and he works in the Custom House; yet his enthusiasm and uncertainties are not always Chaucer’s. He is a dramatic figure.

The pilgrim Chaucer of The Canterbury Tales descends directly from the Chaucer of the dream poems; and it is important to realize that he too is a dramatic figure. He is the narrator, and it is his friendly, uncritical voice that we hear first in the General Prologue; but we must not simply identify this, the voice of Chaucer the pilgrim, with the voice of his creator. Chaucer is in many ways a friendly, ‘genial’ poet; but he is also a satirist and a master of irony. So there are, as one critic puts it, ‘two voices’ to be listened to in the General Prologue. Sometimes, as in the portrait of the Parson, these voices speak together in whole-hearted praise; but more often, as in the portrait of the Monk, they divide like voices in a part-song, and we hear praise in one voice and blame in the other.

Typical of Chaucer’s pilgrims is the indiscriminate way in which he uses the word ‘worthy’. This is one of his favourite epithets, and he applies it to the knight (a ‘worthy vavasour’), and the Wife of Bath (‘a worthy woman’). The narrator, in fact, finds something to admire almost everywhere, for he is always ready to judge people on their own terms, according to their ‘craft’:

“But of his craft, for Berwyk into ware
Ne was there swich another pardoner.”

The Pardoner may be corrupt and deceitful; but he is very good at his job.  Similarly, the Friar is “beste beggere in his hous”, the Doctor is a “varray, parfit praktisour”, and the Wife of Bath is “passed hem of ypress and of gaunt” with her clothmaking. Again, the Monk deserves to be an abbot, the Guildsmen all deserve to be aldermen, the host deserves to be a lord’s marshall.  The testimonial, in each case, comes from Chaucer the pilgrim: it may or may not be endorsed by the poet.

Another characteristic of Chaucer the pilgrim, and one that gives rise to some very spirited passages of writing, is his readiness to act as spokesman for other people’s ideas – good and bad alike. A famous example occurs in the portrait of the Monk, where the narrator accepts his subject’s defence of hunting monks (“I seyde his opinion was good”) and goes on:

“What shoulde he studie and make hymselven wood,
upon a book in cloystre alwey to poure,
or swynken with his handes, and laboure,
as Austin bit? How shal the world be served?
Lat Austin have his swynk to hym reserved.”

I these powerfully indignant lines, Chaucer the pilgrim is speaking for the Monk, as elsewhere he speaks fro the Parson and the Friar. Only once does he dissociate himself from a sentiment – and even here he first voices it with generous gusto. The subject is the Summoner:

“He wolde techen him to have noon awe
In swich caas of the ercedekenes curse,
But if a manner soule were in his purse;
For in his purse he shoulde ypunysshed be.
‘Purs is the ereedekenes helle,’ seyde he.”

If one roads these lines aloud, as Chaucer should be read, one notices the powerful triple repetition of the word ‘purs’; first at the end of the line, then in the middle with  heavily stressed alliteration (“purs …ypunnyshed”),  and finally, with explosive stress, at the very beginning, where we normally expect an unstressed syllable. The Summoner’s contemptuous joke builds up until it bursts into direct speech: ‘Purs is the ereedekenes helle,” seyde he. This is the drunken Summoner ‘speaking and crying as if he were mad’ and even the tolerant narrator, for once, is shocked:

“But wel I woot he lyed right in dede;
of cursing oghte ech gilty man him rede…”

But such explicit condemnation is very rare in the General Prologue. We should not expect the two voices to speak as one on such matters. Much more often, where ‘condemnation’ is in question, the voice of Chaucer the Pilgrim preserves its customary tone of friendly interest (‘I seyde his opinion was good’), leaving the burden of criticism and judgement to be carried by the other voice of Chaucer the poet. Chaucer’s favourite weapon, in other words, is irony.

Chaucer’s irony presents some difficulties for the modern reader. It is not always easy to decide whether he is being ironical or not, and in some few cases even the scholars are still unable to agree. But generally he puts his irony over pretty clearly, in one of two ways. His friendly narrator may simply praise or accept something which is obviously not praiseworthy or acceptable; or he may make an ‘unfortunate’ remark of some kind.

Here are two examples of the ‘unfortunate remark’ – cases where Chaucer the pilgrim, as it were accidentally, lets slip something to the discredit of a fellow-pilgrim. First, the lines about the Monk:

“Ful many a deyntee hors hadde he in stable,
And when he rood, men myghte his brydel here
Gynglen in awhistlynge wynde als cleere
And eek as loud as dosth the Chapel belle.”

Here  as so often the narrator is enthusiastic to the point of extravagance; but one cannot help noticing how the simile in which he expresses his appreciation of the jingling bridle reflects on the Monk – as if the Chapel meant no more to him than his ‘dainty horse’. A more complicated example of the same technique is to be found in the portrait of the Pardoner:

“A Voys he hadde as small as hath a goot,
No berd hadde he, he nevere sholde have;
As smothe it were as it were late shave.
I trowe he were a gelding or a mare.”

The passage is rather more explicit than most, in that the narrator does draw a tentative conclusion from the high voice and smooth chin – the Pardoner is perhaps (‘I trowe’) a eunuch or ‘gelding’. But even here there is room for further implicit suggestions of an ‘unfortunate’ and seemingly accidental kind. That goat is notoriously lecherous, as well as high-voiced, animal; and a mare is not the same thing as a gelding. We remember the Pardoner’s lecherous friend the Summoner, and wonder.

The other kind of irony where Chaucer the Pilgrim praises or accepts something which is praiseworthy or acceptable, must have been more broad and obvious for the contemporary audience than it is today. Standards have changed, and the modern reader often needs the editor to warn him when the friendly narrator is countenancing some notorious fourteenth century abuse. The portrait of the Prioress is full of this kind of irony. We need an editor to tell us, for example, that nuns were forbidden to keep dogs (‘of male houndes hadde she…’) and that they were expected to veil their foreheads (‘But  sikerly she had a fair forehead’). Still, there are more obvious things, even in this, the most subtle and oblique of all the portraits in the General Prologue. We do not have to be historians to realize that ‘charity’ meant more in the fourteenth century than ‘sympathy’ for mice and dogs; and it is not hard to hear the second voice in the narrator’s admiring summary of this aspect of the Prioress’ character: ‘And al was conscience and tender herte.’

The appreciation of Chaucer’s irony should play a large part in the right reading of the General Prologue; but it is not everything. I do no want to leave the impression that Chaucer is always ironical. There does not seem to be much irony in the portrait of Franklin, and surely there is none in the portraits of the Knight and the Parson. These two last serve to remind us that Chaucer could write with grave beauty and ‘ful devout corage’ when occasion demanded:

“A good man was then of religioun,
And was a poore persoun of a town,
But rich he was of hooly thought and weak,
He was also a lerned man, a clerk,
The cristes gospel trewely wolde preche;
His parisshens devoutly would he teche.
Benygne he was, and wonder deligent,
And in adversitee ful pacient…”

The Modernity of Chaucer’s Poetry

  1. The Language of Chaucer:  He has been generally accepted as the first fonder of Modern English Language. Modern linguists find in his language the initial stages in the evolution of the modern Standard English. The avoidance of prolixity – in other words, the use of clear cut, concise speech in the place of clumsy phrasings, short and pithy sentences – the hallmarks of simplicity.
  2. The Dramatic appropriateness of language assigned to the different characters. We have in the Canterbury Tales for example, a range in the dignity of language corresponding to the range in the social status of the characters. Especially we see the urbanity and courtliness in the language of the knight, a gentle dignity in the language of the Prioress, a stiffness of professional dignity in the language of the Man of Law, a pompous dullness in the Monk’s language and eloquent vulgarity in the language of the Miller and the Reeve and an adaptability in the language of the host.
  3. His capacity to portray “the eternal human nature” transcending the limits of time and space – “Every age is a Canterbury Pilgrimage; we all pass on possessing the features of one of these characters” (Blake). Chaucer also belongs to all ages. The characters of ‘The Prologue’ are faithful images of the whole humanity. Within the limited scope of about 29 or 30 pilgrims, Chaucer is able to present humanity, en bloc, in miniature. One cannot but think of Shakespeare’s famous lines in Richard II: “this happy breed of men, this little world.” Thus the characters represent their classes; but they have their distinctive features – their saving qualities but for which they would have lost their humanity and would just have been types.
  4. The Knight is the embodiment of all that is good – chivalrous, truthful, honourable, freedom-loving and courteous. He was a “very parfit gentle knight.” The Man of Law was the best in his profession. Similarly, the Doctor of Physic, the Frankeleyn etc., were all the cream of their particular groups.
  5. Another feature is that in ‘The Prologue’ and in ‘The Canterbury Tales’ the characters grow out of the tales and the tales grow out of the characters. The Knight’s Tale is of a high order. cf. Duke Theseus.
  6. The Monk, who comes in the garb of religion, enjoys life to its dregs. The Prioress is well-versed in social etiquette, and “very coy and fetish.” The Wife of Bath is feminine to her fingertips. She leaves five husbands at the church door – vigorous, energetic, but a little dwarf – she belongs to the company of roguish women whom we can se even in our midst. The Summoner is lecherous. The Pardoner is his friend. He is a knave.
  7. Thus what we find in Chaucer is real men, in flesh and blood, bubbling with life, who have their own class consciousness, vanities and vagaries –  the cross-section of humanity – the traits of the characters are not modified by the customs and peculiarities of particular place and time.

There is something innocent, sweet and, perhaps, inaccessible about Chaucer. He regarded sex as one of God’s blessings. His devout, lusty pilgrims wending their garrulous way to Canterbury have an intimacy with natural odours, natural functions and the natural affections of men and women. The seamless unity of faith and flesh creates an abyss between the 14th and the 21st century. Chaucer’s people are not paralysed by self-consciousness in the act of love. They possess none of the modern man’s neurasthenic haste to import trouble into Paradise.

They export joy.