Geoffery Chaucer was born in 1340 AD. He was a connoisseur and merchant of London wine. He fought in the French war, was implicated as a prisoner of war and ransomed by the King himself. In 1367 AD he was sent abroad on a diplomatic mission. Between 1374 and 1376 AD, he served in various royal offices of the English court including as a Parliament member. He was a contemplative and sensitive poet open to the socio-historical changes of his age, and had unique opportunities for observation as he came in close contact with men from all quarters. He was a scholar and had great love for books. Most of his poems were influenced by the continental models of European Poetry. There are three periods of Chaucer’s composition.
The French Period (1359 -72 AD) begins with ‘Romaunt of the Rose’, translated from the French allegorical romance, Roman de la Rose. In the poem, the lover plucks the rose of love from an exquisite garden beside the river bank in May and receives advice about Courtship from various abstractions such as courtesy and mirth, which are personifications of his lady’s mood (and how he benefits from them). The poem was originally written by two French poets Guillaume de Lorvis in 1225 and Jean De Meung (who completed it) in 1275. Chaucer brings about the contrast by juxtaposing the serious, extravagant and romantic approach of the first poet with the cynical tone of the second. His second poem is the ‘The Book of the Duchess’ (1369 – 70 AD). It is also a dream vision which was an elegy upon the death of Blanche, duchess of Lancaster, the wife of John Gaunt who was Chaucer’s friend and patron. The next prominent allegorical poem is ‘The Parliament of Fowls’ wherein Nature has summoned a grand congregation on St. Valentere’s Day (February 14) for the selection of mates. The birds make speeches in the courtly love fashion, some defending constancy and others advocating free love. Chaucer’s earliest lyrical poems are lost in time. His ballad ‘Flee from the Press’ speaks of quiet contentment away from maddening crowds.
In the Italian Period (1372 – 86 AD), Chaucer’s House of Fame was inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy. The poet is carried by an eagle to the House of Fame on a rock of ice. Fame is transient as seen in the obliteration of engraved names by the melting of ice, few names of antiquity retaining lustre. The Goddess of fame grants it indiscriminately to the deserving and undeserving and withholds it with equal impartiality – showing cosmic perversion. The buzzing rumours escape through the house holes. The poem ends abruptly. There is a humorous dialogue between the eagle and poet. From Petrarch, Chaucer borrowed the tale of Griselda told in the Canterbury Tales. He borrowed Palamon and Arcite which is the ‘Knight’s Tale’ in The Canterbury Tales. Troilus is an enlargement of Il Filastro written in rhyme royal stanza and is Chaucer’s longest single poem. In ‘Legend of Good Women’, apart from the interesting prologue, Chaucer makes his first experimentation with the heroic couplet.
In the English Period (1386 – 1400 AD) Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales. He conceived the idea of pilgrimage to bring together an assorted gamut of people to narrate stories. The stories are enhanced by the multifarious pen portraits of the pilgrims. He leaves behind Classical Poetry and ushers into modern Literature, into the world of the common people.
The Canterbury Tales begins with a prologue which constitutes the framework and is unsurpassed in its characterization to this day. The poem centers around a pilgrimage to the shrine of a Christian martyr, Thomas. A. Beckett at Canterbury. The 30 pilgrims including Chaucer visiting, would rest at Tabard Inn, in Southwark. The innkeeper Harry Bailey proposed that to beguile the tedium of the journey, each pilgrim would be narrating two stories on the way to and the journey back from the pilgrimage.
The best of the stories would be rewarded with a dinner at the Tabard Inn provided at general expense. The Canterbury Tales involves a presentation of individual portraits of different people in a plurality of professions (all except royalty) such as the Haberdasher’s Tale, The Weaver’s Tale, the Miller’s Tale, The Pardoner’s Tale, Nun’s Tale, Wife of Bath, The Nun Priest’s Tale and many others of the different walks of life. Chaucer first draws the basic outline of the character by broadly describing the tenets of his/her profession. Then he palpitates it with life by filling in minute details in a nonchalant, haphazard and table-talk fashion. Chaucer exploits the realistic style of expository narration and highlights the psychological characteristics of individual professions such as the Prioress, who is a dainty woman, particular about manner and etiquette. The Monk is another figure whom Chaucer ridicules. Where he should have been given to a life of austerity, he rides out of the monastery and violates the rules of conduct by hunting, dressing up lavishly and eating like a glutton. The Merchant is involved in bargains, borrowing, lending and illegal transactions and whenever he makes these exchanges, he talks in whispers. The clerk of Oxford is poor and underfed like his horse constantly reading books and speaking like a philosopher. The Franklin is a delightful cook, the epitome of hospitality and sensitivity. The Doctor is a very serious man and skillful at his work but critical of others. The Quaker’s wife or the character of the quarrelsome woman was inspired by his wife. In all the tales Chaucer specially focuses attention on human idiosyncrasies. With the exception of The Knight, the poor parson and the Ploughman, not a single character escapes his gentle irony. Chaucer did not live to complete his entire scheme of 122 Tales. There 24 tales of which two – Chaucer’s Tale of Melibee and the Parson’s Tale are in prose and the rest are in verse. The Knight’s Tale is the longest and the shortest is the Cook’s. Twenty tales are serious and the rest four are humourous.
Some of the serious tales include the Prioress’s tale of the murder of a Christian schoolboy in an Asian Jewish quarter. The Knight’s Tale is a high romance which tells of the rivalry between two royal cousins, Palamon and Arcite, for Emily, sister to Queen Hippolyta, wife of Duke Theseus of Athens. The Lawyer enumerates the adventures and sufferings of Constance, a Roman princess. The humourous party includes The Miller’s Tale in which he makes fun of a carpenter whose wife was seduced by a student. The reeve, i.e, the carpenter retaliates by telling a story in which the Miller’s wife and daughter are seduced by two students. The Friar farcically attacks the Summoner who further tells a filthy story about the Friar. The book ends with Chaucer’s ‘Retractions’ – an apology where he takes the leave of his readers. He revokes all secular writings that tend towards sin, and prays that Lord Jesus Christ forgive him and have mercy on his soul.
It must be reiterated that Chaucer is the transitional figure to modernity in English Literature. He is hailed as the ‘Father of English Literature’. He helped standardize the English language by adopting the East Midland dialect. Chaucer enriched it by heavily borrowing from the French language. He rendered a sense of court-enriched and bureaucratic experience in his Literature, and explored them with his gifted sense of psychological intensity. In The Canterbury Tales, he highlighted people from various professions in their peculiarities. He was a document of the age. He laid the foundational stone for the art of characterization. A close observer of human behaviour, he was also an aesthete. This great literary figure passed away in 1400 AD and was the first poet to be buried in Westminster Abbey. In the words of Saintsbury, we can describe his art of narration and characterization –
“His expression is the expression of the poet; his thought the thought of the dramatist or novelist.”
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