Geoffrey Chaucer Essay
When it is said that Chaucer is the father of English poetry, and even the father of English literature (Brewer, 1978) we broadly mean that his contribution to the evolution of English poetry or literature is much more significant than that of his contemporaries and predecessors, and to be similarly rated is his introduction of so many novel features into it. That Chaucer was a pioneer in many respects should be readily granted. “With him is born our real poetry,”says Mathew Arnold. He has been acclaimed as the first realist, the first humorist, the first narrative artist, the first great character-painter, and the first great metrical artist in English literature. Further he has been credited not only with the “fatherhood” of English poetry but has also been hailed as the father of English drama before the drama was born, and the father of English novel before the novel was born. And, what is more, his importance is not due to precedence alone, but due to excellence. He is not only the first English poet, but a great poet in his own right. Justly has he been called “the fountain-source of the vast stream of English literature?
We may justly say that Chaucer found the English language brick and left it marble. When Chaucer started his literary career, the English speech, and still less, the English of writing was confusingly fluid and unsettled. The English language was divided into a number of dialects which were employed in different parts of the country. Chaucer employed in his work the East Midland dialect, and by casting the enormous weight of his genius in the balance decided once for all which dialect was going to be the standard literary language of the whole of the country for all times to come. None after him thought of using any dialect other than the East Midland for any literary work of consequence. Chaucer chose English which was a despised language, and as the legendary king did to the beggar maid, raised her from the dust, draped her in royal robes, and conducted her coronation. That queen is ruling even now.
Chaucer’s contribution to English versification is no less striking than to the English language. He sounded the death-knell of the Old Saxon alliterative measure and firmly established the modern one. After Chaucer no important poet ever thought of reverting to the old measure. Thus Chaucer may be designated “the father of modern English versification.”
Chaucer seems to be the first Englishman who realized and brought out the latent music of his language. “To read Chaucer’s verse,” observes a critic “is like listening to a clear stream, in a meadow full of sunshine, rippling over its bed of pebbles.”
Chaucer made English a pliant and vigorous medium of poetic utterance. His astonishingly easy mastery of the language is indeed remarkable. With one step the writing of Chaucer carry us into a new era in which the language appears endowed with ease, dignity, and copiousness of expression and clothed in the hues of the imagination.
Chaucer was a pioneer not only in the linguistic and prosodic fields, but was one in the strictly poetic field also. Not only the form of poetry, but its content, too, is highly indebted to him. His major contribution towards the content of poetry is in his advocacy of and strict adherence to realism. His Canterbury Tales embodies a new effort in the history of literature, as it strictly deals with real men, manners, and life. He realized, to adopt Pope’s famous couplet (with a little change):
Know then thyself: presume not dreams to scan,
The proper study of mankind is man.
And the product of this realization was The Canterbury Tales. This poem, as it were, holds a mirror to the life of Chaucer’s age and shows it manners and morals completely, “not in fragments”. Chaucer replaces effectively the shadowy delineations of the old romantic and allegorical school with the vivid and pulsating pictures of contemporary life.( Brewer, 1978)
And Chaucer does not forget the universal beneath the particular, the dateless beneath the dated. The portraits of the pilgrims in the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales constitute not only an epitome of the society of fourteenth-century England, but the epitome of human nature in all climes and all ages.
Chaucer’s tone as a poet is wonderfully instinct with geniality, tolerance, humor, and freshness which are absent from that of his contemporaries and predecessors who are too dreamy or too serious to be interesting. In spite of his awareness of the corruption and unrest in the society of his age Chaucer is never upset or upsetting. He is chronic optimist. He is never harsh, rancorous, bitter or indignant, and never falls out with his fellow men for their failings. (Tatlock, 1950)
The great English writers like Shakespeare and Fielding share with Chaucer the same broad human sympathy which he first introduced in literature and which has bestowed upon his Canterbury Tales that character of perennial, vernal freshness which appears so abundantly on its every page.
Arnold, Matthew. The Study of Poetry. Essays: English and American. The Harvard
Brewer, Derek. Chaucer and his world. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1978.
Tatlock, J.S. The Mind and Art of Chaucer. Syracuse, N.Y. Syracuse University Press.