The Modernity of Chaucer

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. The kaleidoscope presents an orderly arrangement of elements, most snapshots do not. An increase in naturalism means a decrease in order. Most artistc value rests, among other things, on the exact reconciliation of these demands. Primitive art, on the whole, is an art of rigid symmetries, sacrificing plausibility to a wonderful sense of patterns, while the art of impressionists went so far in its search of visual truth as to appear almost to discard the principal of order altogether. Chaucer’s achievement in The Canterbury Tales was to increase, by some fact of genius, naturalism without decreasing order, but only diffusing it, in disguise, throughout his work. Chaucer’s equivalence of the exact reconciliation of these conflicting demands does not appear to be exact or a reconciliation, but rather co-existence of the two elements in a somewhat mysterious, sometimes ambiguous, always exhilarating way. In the ‘Prologue’ art seems at one moment to deny itself in the face of life’s variety – a variety it can best strive to reproduce faithfully – and at the next to impose significance of life by borrowing and organising material from literary and intellectual sources. In this way, Chaucer is a bridge between classical literature and modern literature.
  2. Chaucer has generally been accepted as the founder of the modern language. Modern linguists find in his language the initial stages in the evolution of the modern standard English.
  3. Avoidance of prolixity – in other words, the use of clear-cut, concise speech in place of clumsy phrasings – use of short and pithy sentences – the hallmark of modernity
  4. The dramatic appropriateness of language assigned to the different characters in The Canterbury Tales. We have, in The Canterbury Tales, a range in the dignity of language corresponding to the social status of the characters. Especially, we see urbanity and courtliness in the language of the knight; a gentle dignity in the language of the Prioress, a swiftness of professional dignity in the language of the Man of Law; a pompous dullness in the Monk’s language; an eloquent vulgarity in the language of the Miller and the Reeve, and an adaptability in the language of the host.
  5. Chaucer’s 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 belongs to all ages. The characters in the Prologue are the faithful images of the whole humanity. Within the limited scope of about 29 0r 30 pilgrims, Chaucer is able to present humanity, in bloc, in miniature. One cannot but think of Shakespeare’s famous lines in Richard II: “This happy breed of men, this little world.” In Dryden’s words, “Here is God’s plenty.”
  6. Chaucer’s characters represent their classes, but they have their distinctive features too – their saving qualities but for which they would have lost their humanity and would just have been types. The knight, for instance, is an embodiment of all that is good – chivalrous, truthful, honourable, freedom-loving and courteous. He is a “very parfait gentle knight.” The Man of Law was the best in his profession. Similarly, the Doctor of Physic, the Franklin etc were all the cream of their particular groups.
  7. Another feature is that, in the ‘Prologue’ and The Canterbury Tales the characters grow out of the tales and the tales grow out of the characters. The Wife of Bath is feminine to her finger tips. She is vigorous and energetic. She is the unregenerate descendent of the first weaver of cloth. On the whole, she is unparadised Eve. The Monk, who comes in the garb of the religion, enjoys life to its last dregs. The Prioress is well-versed in social etiquette, and “very coy and fetish.” The Summoner is as lecherous as a goat. The Pardoner is his bosom pal.
  8. Thus what we find in Chaucer is the world of men and women in flesh and blood, bubbling with life, characters who have their own class-consciousness, vanities and vagaries. Chaucer provides us with a cross-section of humanity. The traits of his characters are not modified by the customs and peculiarities of particular place and time.

There is thus a universal touch in Chaucer’s characters. His pilgrims are types as well as individuals, true to their own age but also representatives of humanity at large. They are timeless creations on a time-determined stage. The pilgrims are the epitome of mankind. Time has brought about some change in the names or titles of characters, but the characters themselves forever remain unaltered, spreading radiance of joy all over the world. Their lineaments, as Blake put it, are of universal human life, beyond which nature never steps. They are with us today, though some of them have changed their names. The knight now commands a line of regiment. The Squire is in the guards; the Friar is a jolly publican; the Pardoner vends quack medicines and holds séances and the Prioress is the headmistress of a fashionable convent school. Some of them reappeared in later literature: the poor Parson was reincarnated in The Vicar of Wakefield, the knight is Colonel Newcome (The Newcomes by William Thackeray) and the Monk is the Archdeacon Grantly (Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope).