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by Ehsan Ehsan
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Chaucer (1340-1400
Ehsan Elahi Ehsan

Chaucer’s is the first great individual name in English literature. He served three kings of England and thus had a rich and varied experience of life. His literary career is divided into three phases, the French Period, the Italian Period and the English Period. In the first two periods, he was under the influence of French and Italian writers but in the third period, he got his originality and dependence. During his third period, he laid the foundation of English language developing it from the London dialect. His great literary work “The Canterbury Tales” belongs to this last period. Chaucer was a jolly and pleasant man with a genial (friendly) sense of humour. He had tolerance and sympathy for the human race in general. This tolerance and sympathy is reflected in his work. He was a well-balanced person, who realized that the world was composed (made) of both good and evil. This attitude of his is reflected in all his work especially, in his “Prologue to the Canterbury Tales.” His philosophy was naturally a broad vision of life, generous and charitable in accepting the existence of human faults, even though not condoning (overlooking) them. He had a catholic (broad-minded) vision of life. It made him a poet of humanity.
From religious point of view, we can say, that Chaucer was, perhaps, more secular (not religious) than religious minded. But he was not without religious piety. His charity and generosity towards human beings show his Christian mind.

Chaucer’s attitude towards women was balanced. He was not blind to their vices and virtues as a class. But he did not condemn them. He gives an interesting debate on marriage, which is the fundamental social relationship between men and women in “The Canterbury Tales.” The Franklin’s contribution to this debate is probably the one which represent Chaucer’s s views on the subject.

Of his third period, that is, the English period, “The Canterbury Tales: easily takes the first place. Chaucer works the scheme of this great book upon simple but ingenious (crafty) lines. Nine and twenty pilgrims meet casually at the Tabard Inn at Southwark, London, intending to visit the tomb of Thomas a Bucket at Canterbury. The twenty-nine pilgrims are carefully chosen by Chaucer to represent various types and professions, and they are brilliantly described in “The Prologue” to the poem. At the suggestion of the host of the Inn, each of the pilgrims agrees to tell two tales to the outward and two on the home-ward journey. The prize for the best tale, to be judged by the landlord, is to be a dinner at the Tabard. He could finish only twenty items, and left four unfinished. The glory of Chaucer in “The Canterbury Tales; therefore, consists not in the originality of them, but in the novelty (newness) of treatment. In his works there is true poetry, skilful distribution of light and shade, breadth of movement, as well as the range and vividness (clarity) of free and generous character-painting. With the appearance of his tales, it was felt that a new era in the history of English poetry had opened: a way had been made in which others men might follow. Under the enchantment of his pen, the English language and the English landscape were to remain for ever alive, for ever “fresher than the May flowers new.

Various Facets of Chaucer’s poetry or
The main characteristics of Chaucer’s poetry:

Following are the main characteristics of Chaucer’s poetry.
He is a versatile genius. He is the best story-teller. His poetry has the elements of novel. He is a worthy descriptive poet. He is a unique narrative poet. His poetry has the dramatic elements. He is the realistic artist. He is the master in using humour, satire and iron. His imagery is of the simplest kind. He is the master in the art of characterization. His poetry fully represents his. He is universal and in this way a modern poet. His poetry gives the message of tolerance. His poetry is the mile-stone of English language.

Chaucer’s versatility (state of having many sides): Chaucer is a versatile (having many sides) poet. He is the pioneer (pathfinder) in many aspects. He has presented the life of his age with all its facets (aspects). By presenting thirty characters in his Prologue, he has covered the whole English society of his time. He has presented different aspects of human nature through his characters. He has covered the whole society by grouping his characters into three categories, the agricultural class, the religious class and the liberal class. In the liberal class he has included nearly all the professionals of his society other than the agricultural class and the religious class. He has adopted the most proper language suiting each of his characters. He has laid the foundation of English language developing the London or the Central dialect into a regular language for which he is rightly called the father of English language. His poetry is based on realism for which he is known as the father of English poetry. He has covered the whole aspects of his society and for this he is rightly called the representative of his age and society. For his versatility, especially in the field of rich characterization, Dryden said “Here is God’s plenty.”

He is the best story teller: Chaucer’s art of story-telling has been praised by several critics. He has been called one of the three or four great story-tellers of the world. The variety as regards the stories he tells, is evident in ‘The Canterbury Tales:. He uses romance and adventure stories, or chivalric (courageous) tales, beast fables (tales), stories of saints or exemplary stories with an oral, as well as the common and broad-humoured fabliaux (story-teller). Whatever type he chooses, he gives his own touch of genius (great mental ability). He transforms the old tales into something unique and fresh. His art increases the appeal of an old story and makes it interesting forever. His affinity (likeness) with Shakespeare is to be seen in his ability to command attention of a wide spectrum (range) of readers through the ages.

Chaucer is a born story-teller, humorous though never coarse, simple, and natural, easy and unaffected (natural). He adds flesh and blood to his characters. The portraits (painted or drawn image of a person) are vivid (lively), colourful, well-contrasted and complete. He gives us a picture of a wide stratum (layer) of the society in the fourteenth century England. As Dryden so correctly remarks Chaucer was a man of the most comprehensive nature, because he tooked into the compass of “The Canterbury Tales” the various manners and humours (tempers) of the whole English nation in his age.

Chaucer, the Novelist: Although Chaucer was a poet and he did not write any novel in the present form of novel yet we can trace in his works, various elements of novel. Novel as a different genre of poetry is the creation of later centuries. It culminated, (reached a climax) in eighteen century. Thus, there are nearly all the elements of novel in his works. There is a plot and a story, there are characters, there is a theme and there are individuals in relation to society. We can say Chaucer’s poetic art shows the germs of the novel, which was to make its formal appearance on the English literary scene only in the eighteenth century. In “The Canterbury Tales,” says John Speirs, Chaucer’s preoccupations (meditations) are those of the great novelists. He explores the theme of the individual’s relation to the society in which he lives. His characterization is in the manner of the great novelist. He presents in his work, the clashes between characters and the conflicts of interest and customs. The difference of outlook between the Knight and the Squire shows the difference of generations. Above all, Chaucer shows a keen inclination (tendency) to analyze feminine psychology. His characters are not only types, but realistic in detail.

A descriptive (representational) poet

Chaucer has a high descriptive skill (descriptive skill means that the writer provides the details of events, places and characters through their description (word picture)). He has a superb (fine) representation quality. His characters are distinct from one another. They differ not only in their inclinations (tendencies), but in their very physiognomies (outward appearances) and persons, as Dryden points out. The matter and manner of the tales, and of their telling, are so suited to their different educations, humours (tempers), and callings (professions), that each of them would be improper in the mouth of another. The grave (serious) characters are distinguished from one another in the types of gravity, just as the ribaldry (crudeness) of the low characters is different. Recent critics, too, agree with Dryden on the individuality of the pilgrims. Chaucer’s descriptive skill is shown in the minute details which he presents in the delineation (drawing) of character. He is fully alive to colour, sound, appearance dress and behaviour. All details are used shrewdly (very wisely) in order to draw a vivid and distinct picture.

Chaucer’s descriptive power enables him to present characters that are at once typical, universal and individual. Typical character means that his characters represent the professions to which they belong. Universal characters mean that they represent the human nature which remains unchanged with the passage of time and they are as fresh as ever. They gain the level of universality and thus become modern. Individual characters mean that they represent their own individual qualities for which they remain recognizable. Chaucer’s character represent all these level one and the same time. Minute personal details made the characters distinct from one another. These personal details are combined with details in general about the profession or class to which the characters belong. It is through such a blend of the individual and typical that Chaucer’s portraits attain a high degree of effectiveness. Further, the details are so selected that a picture emerges (appears) vividly through economical description. Chaucer shows versatility in his descriptive methods. All his characters are not described in the same manner. Realism and idealization are combined in his character-delineation (drawing of characters). Variation in descriptive method helps the purpose of the poet. Chaucer’s classical economy in description has been praised by many critics. His art is focused on the object being described itself. There, is no doubt, about Chaucer’s descriptive skill.

Chaucer as a Narrative Poet:

Chaucer is superb (excellent) in the art of narration. Kittrege calls him the greatest of all narrative poets. His style which is simple, easy, and yet forceful, endows (grants) his narrative skill with vitality (energy). Very artistically, he keeps himself detached from his pilgrims. There is objectivity (lack of emotional involvement) in his treatment of characters. This objectivity helps him to present his characters in realistic and frank detail. It also assists him in his ironical humour. However, his implicit method (indirectly suggested) in what his characters say, is not to be ignored. But it is an artist that shares their feelings and thoughts. He does not interfere with the narratives of his characters. There is a variety in Chaucer’s narrative method. The tales of the different pilgrims are told and introduced and the description of his characters made in different narrative techniques, which more or less reflects each one’s character.

Dramatic Elements in Chaucer’s Poetry:

“The Canterbury Tales” is not merely a collection of stories. The groups of pilgrims are not merely described in static (fixed) terms by Chaucer. They are made to act their parts on this mundane (earthly) stage as A.C. Baugh puts it. They act in such a way that they reveal their personal lives and habits, their changing moods and prevailing (persisting) dispositions (tendencies) and their qualities. Indeed their lives are revealed through their behaviour on the road to Canterbury. Their characters are also revealed through their speeches and conversations _ another dramatic link between the tales. They quarrel, interrupt during a boring tale. All these elements add to the realistic aura (atmosphere) of the narrative. It is made to seem as if a small drama is being enacted along the way to Canterbury. It is quite reasonable to accept the contention (claim) of the critics that Chaucer was a dramatist even before drama was born.

Chaucer: The realistic Artist

Chaucer’s realism in his art is all the more remarkable if seen against the medieval ( of the Middle Ages) _ literary scene. Allegory (narrative fable -, dream visions, and sermons in the form of tales), were the common literary force of the medieval literary artist. For the first time in English literature Chaucer veers (changes direction) away from allegorical representation of life to realistic presentation. As Lewouis rightly says, it was more than a literary innovation (introduction of new things), it was a change of mental attitude. Poetry turned with tolerant curiosity, to the study of man and manners. For the first time, relationship between man and manners was realized. Ideas ceased (stopped) to be an end in themselves, and became interesting as revealing him who expressed them, who believed in them or who was pleased by them. Such a viewpoint required dramatic detachment (non-involvement). The author had to efface (absent) himself deliberately (knowingly), and Chaucer is fully conscious of the realism to which he obliges (forces) himself. He becomes a chronicler (historian), a narrator, and interpreter and no more. He paints men as he sees them and does not dictate (order) their thoughts or words. He painted with minute exactness (precision), the body and soul of the society of his time. It is his realism which makes him the social chronicler of fourteen century England. The characters in ‘Canterbury Tales’ are ordinary men and women with human faults and foibles (weaknesses). They speak without restraint (self-control). Further, the language is idiomatic, colloquial (conversational, informal), conversational and personal, just as the speech of ordinary men and women is likely to be. There is a free frankness, about the language which enhances (increases) the realistic aspect of Chaucer’s art. The easy carelessness, with which he seems to pile up (gather) minute details about his characters, hides acute (serious) artistic sense. It adds to the realism. He presents a world which is lived in by ordinary people of flesh and blood. It is a world close to humanity, not a fairy land remote in the artist’s mind. Chaucer introduced realism into English literature, where it has come to stay for ever.
Satire and Irony in Chaucer’s poet
Chaucer is a humourist, ironist and satirist. His dramatic approach to art helps his satiric technique. His contemporaries such as Langland and Gower might have more material for satire, and express themselves forcefully and eloquently (persuasively) but their satiric techniques consist of indictment (an accusation) and sermonizing. It is very rare that the scene is presented for the reader to perform his own opinion. With Chaucer, however, we come to the subtle (delicate) technique of presenting folly and vice (evil) in such a way as to encourage the reader to detect the actual state of things. Chaucer’s satire is implicit (indirec) rather than explicit (direct). The apparent praise hides the satiric intentions which nevertheless (anyway), is very much there. It lends conviction (acknowledgement) to his satire. He does not preach directly, but opens a window on life. He merely presents the wicked and the vicious (evil) of the world, and his technique is subtle (excellent) enough to make us think of them as he does, without any direct and zealous (passionate) argument. His satire shows his genius for imaginative creation.

Chaucer’s Humour
Chaucer’s humour is closely linked with his broad vision of life. He is tolerant, charitable and sympathizing. His satire, therefore, has two severe indictment (accusation) or invective (curse). His broad humanity informs his humour as well as his satire. His humour prevents his realism from becoming morose (irritable) and bitter as it well could have. He loves the world and humanity. His poetry accepts the world and the men and women inhabiting (living) it as they are. His sense of humour helps him to maintain his detached outlook. Chaucer’s comic vision of life is shared by Shakespeare alone. Commonsense, wit, and pathos (pity), ride side by side with the ordinary and the moral, unique, touching, funny and memorable. And in both poets romantic love is the core of the comedy, as Nevil Coghill so aptly (suitably) comments.

Chaucer’s ironic vision is all prevalent (widespread) in “The Canterbury Tales”. He had the special gift of being able to blend a warm feeling for human beings with a total detachment in observing their self-deceptins. His laughter comes down to us from an area beyond moral indignation. His irony is the result of amused observations, rather than an instrument for venting (releasing) righteous anger. His irony is contemplative (meditative), and comes from his shrewd (wise) knowledge of human nature and his humorous acceptance of folly and vice. He does not condone (forgive) vice and folly but accepts it as inevitable (unavoidable). His laughter and irony are, therefore, tolerant and benign (kind). His broad vision of life in all its aspects, colours his satire, humour and irony.

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