Geoffrey Chaucer – An Overview of the Poet and His Age
The Background: FRENCH INFLUENCE AND ENGLISH AFFIRMATION: The world of Old English literature is a world of warriors and battles, a world where the individual, if not under the protection of his local lord, is a solitary outsider in a harsh and difficult society. The world was to change, slowly but radically, as a result of the most famous single event in English history – the Norman Conquest of 1066. The Normans (originally ‘North Men’) crossed the Channel from France, won the Battle of Hastings, and took over the kingdom of England, which legitimately belonged to the family of the new king, William the Conqueror.
The Normans brought with them the French language and culture. The two centuries after the Conquest were a period of consolidation, as the two languages struggled to integrate: bilingualism was widespread, with French being widely read and written in England from the twelfth century to the late fourteenth century. It was, however, only after 1204, when King John’s losses of French lands led the aristocracy to opt for England or France, that the Norman conquerors themselves began to develop a fuller English identity and a desire to use the English language. Subsequently, more and more French words entered the English language.
At this time, London established itself as the capital city. The characteristics of the dialect which came to be recognised as the London dialect show that its main influences came from the north: from the university cities of Oxford and Cambridge and from the Midlands, rather than from the south.
The idea of an author comes into English literature significantly with Layamon, in the early thirteenth century. He wrote Brut, the first national epic in English, taking material from many sources and recounting tales of the Dark Ages, the two centuries between the departure of the Romans at the beginning of the fifth century and the first traces of the culture of the Britons. He takes the story up to the arrival of Saint Augustine, the first Archbishop of Canterbury, in 597, telling the story of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table – which will feature time and again in English literature as a mixture of history, legend, myth and magic.
GEOFFREY CHAUCER, 1338−1400. Chaucer (the name is French and seems to have meant originally ‘shoemaker’) came into the world probably in 1338, the first important author who was born and lived in London, which with him becomes the centre of English literature.
Chaucer was a professional courtier, a kind of civil servant. His patron was Duke John of Gaunt. His writing was a sideline rather than a vocation: the full-time English writer was still a couple of centuries in the future. Geoffrey Chaucer used a wide range of cultural references from throughout Europe in his writing, but he wrote almost exclusively in English.
Chaucer was born into a family of wine traders; he was thus from the class of the new wealthy city gentleman. His work took him to Kent (which he represented in Parliament from 1386), to France, and twice to Italy, where he made the acquaintance of the works of writers such as Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio.
Chaucer's poetry falls into three rather clearly marked periods. First is that of French influence, when, though writing in English, he drew inspiration from the rich French poetry of the period. Chaucer's second period, that of Italian influence, dates from his first visit to Italy in 1372−3, where at Padua he may perhaps have met the fluent Italian poet Petrarch, and where at any rate the revelation of Italian life and literature must have aroused his intense enthusiasm. From this time, and especially after his other visit to Italy, five years later, he made much direct use of the works of Petrarch and Boccaccio and to a less degree of those of their greater predecessor, Dante, whose severe spirit was too unlike Chaucer's for his thorough appreciation. The longest and finest of Chaucer's poems of this period, 'Troilus and Criseyde' is based on a work of Boccaccio; here Chaucer details with compelling power the sentiment and tragedy of love, and the psychology of the heroine who had become for the Middle Ages a central figure in the tale of Troy. Chaucer's third period, covering his last fifteen years, is called his English period, because now at last his genius, mature and self−sufficient, worked in essential independence. First in time among his poems of these years stands 'The Legend of Good Women,' a series of romantic biographies of famous ladies of classical legend and history, whom it pleases Chaucer to designate as martyrs of love; but more important than the stories themselves is the Prolog, where he chats with delightful frankness about his own ideas and tastes.
Chaucer’s first work, The Book of the Duchess, is a dream-poem on the death in 1368 of Blanche, Duchess of Lancaster, the wife of John of Gaunt (third son of King Edward III). It is a poem of consolation, modelled on French examples.
The House of Fame (c.1374–85) is another dream-poem, this time influenced by the Italian of Dante. It is the first time that Dante’s epic of a journey to Paradise, Purgatory, and Hell – The Divine Comedy (1310–20) – is echoed in English. Here Chaucer becomes a participant in his own writing. He is the ingenuous poet who visits the Latin poet Ovid’s ‘house of fame’ to learn about love. He brings together aspects of love which will become the frequent subject matter of poets throughout the ages. Cupid and Venus, passion and desire, innocence and knowledge, are all invoked, using the new verse form of the rhyme-royal stanza. (The name derives from its later use by Scottish King James I in his Kingis Quair, c.1424.)
The subject of love is taken up again in Chaucer’s two greatest poems before The Canterbury Tales: Troilus and Criseyde and The Legend of Good Women. The first takes the Italian writer Boccaccio as its source. It brings together the classical Trojan war story, the Italian poetic version of that story, and the sixth-century philosophical work of Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy. Like Layamon, Chaucer consciously uses other writers’ books, and deliberately gives himself the role of intermediary, relating, revisiting and refining old stories.
If Chaucer had never gone on to write The Canterbury Tales, Troilus and Criseyde would remain as one of the outstanding poems in European literature of the mediaeval period. It has even been called ‘the first modern novel’.
All Chaucer’s earlier writing can be seen to lead to his masterpiece, The Canterbury Tales. He probably began writing it around 1387 and the work was uncompleted at his death in 1400.
Originally, 120 tales were planned, with each of thirty pilgrims from Southwark to Canterbury telling two tales on the way there and two on the way back. Rather less than a quarter of the project was realised, but the whole range of genres, styles, and subjects which history and tradition, England and Europe offered Chaucer were exploited in these tales. Why Canterbury? Why Southwark? Why, indeed, April, in the famous opening lines of the prologue?
Canterbury and Southwark bring together the religious and the secular. Canterbury Cathedral was the site of the martyrdom of Saint Thomas à Becket in 1170, during the reign of Henry II. As such, it became a shrine, the object of pilgrimage in a British sense, reflecting the duty of pilgrimage to Jerusalem which was the inspiration for the Crusades in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
The starting point of the journey, the Tabard Inn at Southwark, represents the city, the new focal institution in society. The inn’s role as meeting place and hostelry affirms the importance of drinking and conviviality in this society.
In Southwark, at The Tabard, as I lay
Ready to go on pilgrimage and start
For Canterbury, most devout at heart,
At night there came into that hostelry
Some nine and twenty in a company
Of sundry folk happening then to fall
In fellowship, and they were pilgrims all
That towards Canterbury meant to ride.
(The General Prologue – in modern English)
The knight, the miller, the wife of Bath, the prioress, the cleric, and others are all identified by their occupation or marital status, but the narrator’s descriptions of them as individuals – and their tales and the telling of them – not only bring out individual differences and characteristics, but invite the reader to recognise and identify the pilgrims as stereotypical characters.
Chaucer himself (or his narratorial persona) prefers not to take sides and does not overtly judge the characters he presents, but he allows the reader a new degree of interpretative freedom, based on the recognition of an ironic gap between how the characters see themselves and how others see them. This is new to English literature.
Why April? we asked. April is the spring month when the showers bring new fertility to the earth, when there is a reawakening, a rebirth, and the rigours of winter are overcome. This is, together with the Christian pilgrimage, an almost pagan element of ritual spiritual renewal, which finds echoes throughout literature from the Dark Ages as far as the ‘wastelands’ of twentieth-century writing. A land, a kingdom, awaits rebirth, and then gives thanks for that rebirth, for the continuity of life that it inspires.
So there is a great deal going on in the seemingly simple framework of The Canterbury Tales. It gives a wide-ranging view of the late fourteenth-century world and its people. The specific people and places described become emblems of their period and the text becomes an image of its time.
Chaucer’s irony permits the reader to see the knight, ‘a very perfect gentle knight’, not as the true model of courtly perfection (as these words suggest) but as a mercenary soldier who will fight for anyone who pays him.
A similar gentle irony may surround the nun, a prioress, Madame Eglantyne. She is a sensual woman, one who enjoys the pleasures of the senses. Hanging from the bracelet around her wrist, there is not a cross (as the reader might expect) but a ‘brooch’ with the motto in Latin, ‘Love conquers all’. Again critics have shown that this is ambiguous, to say the least. Love of Christ and sensual love are brought together in one very vivacious female character. Her tale is a fairly traditional, uncritical story of murder and religion, which is surprisingly open in its conclusions.
The Miller’s Tale is an old-fashioned fable, a story of deception in love, in almost complete contrast to The Knight’s Tale, and full of earthy humour.
The Wife of Bath was based on a favorite joke of the Middle Ages, the domineering wife. The wife of Bath – Dame Alice - gives a staunch defence of having had five husbands, and her tale, set at the time of King Arthur, opens up the question of what women really ‘most desire’ – again a challenge to courtly values.
The Clerk of Oxford, a student, stepped forward next. He was the opposite of Alice. He, like a priest, was a man focused on moral virtue. Dame Alice stood for everything that he despised. He has not forgotten that, at one point, Dame Alice said that no clerk could speak well of women. This provoked the Clerk to tell the story of Griselda, the most patient wife who ever lived. [Griselda, more than any other woman in literature at the time, appealed to male authors. In the fourteenth century, Boccaccio created her character in The Decameron. The Clerk of Oxford in The Canterbury Tales used allegory, making Griselda the personification of patience. Petrarch wrote the same story in Latin, while a French writer named Menatier also wrote about the patient Griselda as the kind of woman every man wanted].
It was the Franklin, however, who spoke about true love, with neither spouse competing for mastery.
The friar is described not as a holy figure, but as ‘wanton and merry’. He tells a teasing tale about an extortionate religious figure, a summoner, who is carried off to Hell by the devil. The Friar is hence portrayed as corrupt and hypocritical. The clergy on the whole were supposed to be closer to God, but often the contrary was true. Priests were underpaid, so they were quick to sell their services. Offerings were expected for every service they performed, even for Communion. They also took bribes.
The Pardoner was painted as the most evil of the pilgrims because he used the church and sacred objects for personal profit.
The summoner then answers this with a comic story of a greedy friar, again using low humour to mock religious attitudes.
This gentle mocking of heroic courtly values reveals that Chaucer’s intention is more than just to describe the world in which he lived. Although himself conservative, he examines, and wants the reader to see, the changes that society is undergoing. There is a sense of shifting emphasis as older values are questioned and new values affirmed. Throughout the Tales there is also a joyful sense of humour, of enjoyment of sensual pleasures, and of popular, earthy fun. Serious and comic intentions go hand in hand, and give a new vision of a fast-developing and richly textured world. Above all, individual self-interest is more important than social, shared interests. Many of the characters are seen to be set in their ways. They are old-fashioned and unwilling to change. But, again, Chaucer does not judge – it is the reader who must enjoy, evaluate, and decide.
The host, Harry Bailey, is in charge of this early package tour, and it is he who keeps harmony among the diverse characters, classes and professions, and who, incidentally, underlines the need for drink to keep the group from dissension.
It is from Chaucer that later writers began to trace the history of English poetry, beginning with George Puttenham’s The Arte of English Poesie, published in 1589.
The East Midland Dialect: The range and variety of Chaucer’s English did much to establish English as a national language. Chaucer also contributed much to the formation of a standard English based on the dialect of the East Midlands region which was basically the dialect of London which Chaucer himself spoke. The cultural, commercial, administrative and intellectual importance of the East Midlands (one of the two main universities, Cambridge, was also in this region), the agricultural richness of the region and the presence of major cities, Norwich and London, contributed much to the increasing standardisation of this dialect.
His Metrical Skill: In the matter of poetical technique English literature owes much to Chaucer. He virtually imported the decasyllabic line from France - it had been employed hardly at all in England previously - and he used it in both stanzaic and couplet forms. The seven-lined stanza a b a b b c c has become known as the Chaucerian or rime royale.
Italian poet Giovanni Boccaccio had a great influence on Geoffrey Chaucer’s work. In fact, as was common during that time, Chaucer borrowed from Boccaccio’s work. Boccaccio’s Testide became “The Knight’s Tale” in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.
Points To Ponder: The characters and their tales were arranged as follows: Knight, Miller, Reeve (Estate Manager), Cook, Man of Law, Wife of Bath, Friar, Summoner; Clerk, Merchant; Squire, Franklin (landowner), Physician, Pardoner; Shipman, Prioress, Sir Thopas, Melbee, Monk, Nun’s Priest; Second Nun, Canon’s Yeoman; Manciple (Business Manager), and Parson.
1. Now, Why do you think Chaucer opens his narrative with the ‘knight’s tale’?
2. Who calls Chaucer, ‘the well of English undefiled’? Why?
3. Bring to mind some other epithets used to describe Chaucer, like ‘Chaucer was called a ‘vivid painter of life’, etc.
4. Wade through each character to get a unique portrait of them all – their idiosyncrasies – their specific traits – like for example, the Wife of Bath was deaf, and also with the duties of a Manciple, a Reeve, a Franklin, a Prioress, etc.
English Literature by Edward Albert [Revised by J. A. STONE]
History of English Literature, by Legouis and Cazamian
Chaucer: Celebrated Poet and Author by Janet Hubbard-Brown
The Routledge History of Literature in English: Britain and Ireland, by Ronald Carter and John McRae
Picture Courtesy: DeviantArt.Com