Course: Classical Poetry (9054)
Semester: Autumn, 2021
Level: BS (English)
Question 1.Write a well-illustrated short essay on the range and variety of the
characters portrayed by Chaucer in The Prologue
INTRODUCTION • Geoffrey Chaucer was an English poet. • He is regarded as father of English poetry • He is best known for his witting “The Prologue to Canterbury tales.” • Canterbury tales is one of the greatest work in English literature written between 1380 and 1400. • Thirty pilgrims representing all types and shades of 14th society. • Symbolizes the Middle ages.
Chaucer uses some instances of direct characterization, or instances where readers are told specific things about characters. In this case, Chaucer conveys characteristics via either the narrator or a specific story-teller. These direct forms of characterization occur less frequently than indirect characterization, however. In cases of direct characterization, we cannot be certain how reliable the source is. Most of the information we get in The Canterbury Tales is from individual story-tellers, none of whom are unbiased, omniscient sources.
As for as CHAUCER’s art of characterization is concerned, he outlines his thirty pilgrims in “The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales”. His Prologue is a real picture gallery in which thirty portraits are hanging on the wall with all of their details and peculiarities. He is the first great painter of characters in English Literature. He paints the whole of English nation during the fourteenth century, ranging from knightly class to the order of Clergymen. The Character sketches are brief, yet lucid and comprehensive. Both the in and out of the characters are depicted in such a superb way that the entire personality seems moving before the reader’s eyes. It infects CHAUCER’s uniquely rich and original art of characterization that has enabled him to delineate memorable portraits. For the purpose, he employs several techniques of characterization, some of whom were popular among the contemporaries, while the others are purely his own.
One of the major techniques of characterization which was current in the medieval authors was the use of humour. This term divides personalities according to the predominance of one of the elements-fire, water, air and earth. For example, his character is dominated by the humour of blood, which on its turn is understood to produce a large appetite and pleasure in physical satisfaction. Thus, the entire portrait of the Franklin is just an elaboration of a single phrase “Sanguine”:
“Of his complexioun he was sangwyn / Wel loved he by the morwe a sop in wyn.” ( lines 335-36)
Similarly, the medieval poets usually describe their character through their physiognomy (the shape and features of a person’s face), to expose their inner spiritual health. CHAUCER has successfully employed this technique in the case of the Summoner. His “Fire red cherubim face”, “Pimples”, “Narrow eyes” and “scabby black brows” reflect his inner spiritual corruption:
“That hadde a fyr-reed cherubynnes face / For sauce fleem he was, with eyen narwe.” ( lines 426-27)
Description through physical features is also employed in the case of The Wife of the Bath and The Prioress. He talks about the dressing of The Prioress in these lines:
“Ful semyly hir wympul pynched was……Ful fetys was hir cloke, as I was war.” ( lines 151 and 157)
And also says about The Wife of the Bath in these lines:
“Hir hosen weren of fyn scarlet reed / Ful streite yteyd, and shoes ful moyste and newe.” ( lines 458-59)
Closely connected with this is CHAUCER’s technique of character portrait through dress. As A.C. WARD asserts:
“CHAUCER’s characters are not mere phantoms of the brain but real human beings and types true to the likeness of whole classes of men and women.”
It also helps the audience in understanding, recognizing and differentiating the pilgrims. The Prioress and The Wife of Bath’s fashionable dresses reveal their materialism and amorous nature. Admittedly, CHAUCER varies his presentation from the full-length portraits to the thumbnail sketch.
CHAUCER’s most superb technique is his presentation of Characters as individuals and types. The Characters are not only representatives of their respective classes and professions but also at the same time they possess individual traits. For example, The Friar is a typical representative of his class in the 14th century; he is corrupt, hypocritical, greedy and callous. But his good voice, his twinkling eyes, his white neck and above all his name “Brother Hubert” all have individualistic touches. The Knight stands for heroism and manliness that good knight would always show on the battlefield.
Chaucer’s humor: • Chaucer is a born humorist. • First and most pervasive element which strikes us is humor. • He mingles the comic with the tragic. Smiles and tears find here equal. • Even when Chaucer satirizes and uses irony, the aim is for fun. • Mansfeild called him “a great Renaissance gentle man mocking the middle ages”. • Little humour is present in the character of The Knight. • There is ironical humor in case of Doctor of Physic. • Chaucer’s humour is semi farcical in case of wife of bath. • He describes physical appearance of the Reeve humorously. • Humour is also found in the meal of the Summoner.
Chaucer’s irony and satire: Irony and Satire are undoubtedly Chaucer’s most prominent techniques of characterization. The Prioress speaks French fluently. Her
dress and her fashionable manners are also ironically described. Irony is employed in the portrait of the Friar, too. He was the best beggar in his jurisdiction. The summoner’s face frightened the children. The pardoner is satirical portrait who is extremely corrupt. The Lawyer amuses us by pretending to be busier than he is. The Shipman has been called a good fellow but actually he is a rascal. Doctor’s love of gold is also satirically described
Chaucer’s Realism: The Pardoner can speak of his deceitful ways of making money by selling pardons and displaying the so called holy relics. The wife of Bath can talk of her matrimonial experiences. The Merchant is another important figure who signifies the changed conditions of Chaucerian society. He very realistically portrays “The Friar”. He advises the sinners not to offer prayers or weep to purgate of their sins. The portrayal of his characters is a real picture gallery in which twenty nine portraits are hanging on the wall showing all their details and specifications. Depiction of the Shipman represents the salient features of the trade.
DISTINCTNESSDistinctness is another striking quality of Chaucer’s characterization.A critic remarks: “Chaucer is a modern among the medieval and medieval among the moderns.” The old Knight, the Squire and the yeoman represents the military class. The learned professions are represented by The Doctor Of Physic, the lawyer and the oxford clerk. The Merchant has all the vanity which comes from the growing of wealth. The Prioress, The Monk Summoner Pardoner and Friar are the representatives of the regular clergy. The Miller, The Municipal, Wife Of Bath and The Reeve are middle class representatives. Good Christian spirit is exemplified in Parson and the Ploughman.
UNIVERSALITY • Universality is another striking quality of Chaucer’s characterization. • His characters have relation with all the ages and climes. • The old Knight is an example of the chivalrous character which is found in every generation. • The Squire is just the typical man of any day. He was as fresh as is the month of May. • The Merchant has all the vanity which comes from the growing of wealth. • Wife of Bath is still found today. • Some Franklins are also found. • The Monk, the Prioress, the Franklin, the Wife of Bath etc., may have changed their names by which they are known, but they are all human beings, having the same desires and passions as are common to all humanity
The Friar and the Summoner
The Friar and the Summoner tell stories about each other, back to back, each attacking the character of the other as well as their professions in general. These two stories, ‘The Friar’s Tale’ and ‘The Summoner’s Tale,’ can certainly not be taken as fair assessments of friars and summoners, since it is clear that there is a great deal of animosity driving them, and also since the stories themselves are not realistic.
However, we can assume that there is a grain of truth in each, at least insofar as both stories play on stereotypes that Chaucer’s audience would have been familiar with, such as the stereotype of corrupt clergy. Again, Chaucer is characterizing them with direct commentary, but through mouthpieces that we cannot entirely trust – particularly in this case, where it’s quite clear they’re biased.
Q.2 Define sonnet and trace the development of English sonnet with special reference to Shakespearean contributions to the field.
The sonnet is a type of poem finding its origins in Italy around 1235 AD. While the early sonneteers experimented with patterns, Francesco Petrarca (anglicised as Petrarch) was one of the first to significantly solidify sonnet structure. The Italian or Petrarchan sonnet consists of two parts; an octave and a sestet. The octave can be broken down into two quatrains; likewise, the sestet is made up of two tercets. The octave presents an idea to be contrasted by the ending sestet. The particular quatrains and tercets are divided by change in rhyme. Petrarch typically used an ABBA ABBA pattern for the octave, followed by either CDE CDE or CDC DCD rhymes in the sestet. (The symmetries (ABBA vs. CDC) of these rhyme schemes have also been rendered in musical structure in the late 20th century composition Scrivo in Vento inspired by Petrarch’s Sonnet 212, Beato in Sogno.) The rhyme scheme and structure of Petrarch’s sonnets work together to emphasize the idea of the poem: the first quatrain presents the theme and the second expands on it. The repeated rhyme scheme within the octave strengthens the idea. The sestet, with either two or three different rhymes, uses its first tercet to reflect on the theme and the last to conclude.
William Shakespeare utilized the sonnet in love poetry of his own, employing the sonnet structure conventionalized by English poets Wyatt and Surrey. This structure, known as the English or Shakespearean sonnet, consists of three quatrains and a concluding couplet. The rhyme scheme is a simple ABAB CDCD EFEF GG format. The effect is “like going for a short drive with a very fast driver: the first lines, even the first quatrain, are in low gear; then the second and third accelerate sharply, and ideas and metaphors flash past; and then there is a sudden throttling-back, and one glides to a stop in the couplet”. Like Petrarch, Shakespeare used structure to explore the multiple facets of a theme in a short piece.
Example of Petrarchan sonnet
In what bright realm, what sphere of radiant thought
Did Nature find the model whence she drew
That delicate dazzling image where we view
Here on this earth what she in heaven wrought
What fountain-haunting nymph, what dryad, sought
In groves, such golden tresses ever threw
Upon the gust? What heart such virtues knew?—
Though her chief virtue with my death is fraught.
He looks in vain for heavenly beauty, he
Who never looked upon her perfect eyes,
The vivid blue orbs turning brilliantly—
He does not know how Love yields and denies;
He only knows, who knows how sweetly she
Can talk and laugh, the sweetness of her sighs.
—Translation by Joseph Auslander of Petrarch,
While the poem as a whole aims at praising love, the focus shifts at the break between octave and sestet. In the first eight lines, the speaker poses a series of questions in admiration of a beloved; the last six lament the man who has not experienced love From Shakespeare, Sonnet 18
The beloved, whose beauty Shakespeare idolizes here, is given the gift of immortality by the poet; the first two quatrains primarily address different ways in which the physical beauty of the material world inherently dims, fades, and/or falls short of ideal beauty at some point. In the third quatrain the poet presents his beloved with the gift of immortality in his lines of verse. The changing rhymes emphasize the dualist nature of beauty (how those things which are beautiful in their prime inevitably grow old, fade, and die), while the alternating pattern provides continuity. The independently rhymed couplet introduces yet another shift in the poem; the speaker reiterates how his beautiful beloved will be eternally preserved as long as men can breathe and see, and as long as the poem exists the beloved does, too.
Almost all of the quotations for the remainder of this comparison are extracted from pages 360–384 of Carol Thomas Neely’s “The Structure of English Renaissance Sonnet Sequence”. A reference is noted for the one exception in paragraph four.
“Still in my better part I shall be borne immortal far beyond the lofty stars and I shall have an undying name.” (Metamorphoses, XV, 875–876)
“he gained new vigour in his better part.” (Metamorphoses, IX, 269)
“Alas, if by speaking I renew the burning desire that was born the day I left behind the better part of me, and if love can be cured by the long forgetfulness, who then forces me back to the bait so that my pain may grow? And why do I not first turn to stone in silence?” (Canzoniere, XXXVII, 49–56)
“Oh how thy worth with manners may I singe, / When thou art all the better part of me?” (Sonnet 39, 1–2); and “My spirit is thine, the better part of me” (Sonnet 74, 8)
“Oh, I am he! I have felt it, I know now my own image. I burn with love of my own self; I both kindle the flames and suffer them. . . . the very abundance of my riches beggars me” (Metamorphoses, III, 463–464 and 466)
“But thou contracted to thine owne bright eyes, / Feed’st thy lights flame with selfe substaintial fewell, / Making a famine where aboundance lies” (Sonnet 1, 5–7)
“Injoyd no sooner but dispised straight” (Sonnet 129, 5)
Spiller 1992, p. 159.
Neely 1978, pp. 363–364.
Neely 1978, p. 363.
Neely 1978, p. 364.
Neely 1978, p. 367.
Neely 1978, p. 368.
Neely 1978, p. 382.
Edmondson & Wells 2004, p. 15.
Neely 1978, p. 384.
Q.3 Discuss in detail Spenser’s primary purpose of writing ‘The Faerie Queene
Spenser himself stated that the main goal of his epic was to instruct young men in the ways of virtuous living. To this end, he uses the examples of several noble knights to work through the various virtues, overcoming temptations and learning the proper behavior associated with the virtue, as allegorical stand-ins for the young readers themselves.
Spenser’s personal beliefs color the epic
Spenser allowed his own fervent Protestantism to give The Faerie Queene a distinctly anti-Catholic bias. Catholic “heresies” are depicted in the person of Grantorto, the monster Errour, and the failure of the knight Burbon. Each of these episodes serves to promulgate the superiority of Protestant Christianity over Roman Catholicism.
view of women is presented in The Faerie Queene
In many ways, Spenser’s view of women as depicted in the epic is ahead of its time. While many of the damsels in distress are vapid and frail, major characters such as Britomart stand out as examples of strong femininity. Britomart’s gender serves the purpose of the allegory in making her immune to evil feminine wiles, but Spenser goes further in his depiction of Britomart as a woman equal in beauty and battle-prowess. Only her future husband, Artegall, can master Britomart, and he only achieves a form of equality on the field of battle, not superiority.
virtue of Holiness depicted in The Faerie Queene
Holiness is represented by Redcrosse, a knight bearing the symbol of Jesus Christ upon his shield. His brand of holiness includes moral and theological purity, as he fights deceptive monsters on behalf of his lady Una (whose name means “truth”). Una herself reminds Redcrosse that his holiness proceeds from God, not from within, allowing him to overcome Errour and eventually to destroy the dragon imprisoning Una’s parents. Holiness overcomes false doctrine in this Book.
virtue of Temperance depicted in The Faerie Queene
Temperance is the most ambiguously depicted virtue in the epic. Guyon, the knight of Temperance, is himself often intemperate (he even threatens harm to an old woman!). While he is a more human character than many of the other walking symbols in the work, his representation of Temperance is not unequivocally pure even by the end of his quest: as he enters the Bower of Bliss to destroy it, he is sidetracked by his desire to stand and watch two beautiful, naked women frolic in a fountain. Only the Palmer–a more mature believer who has taken the path already–can urge him on his way to fulfill his quest.
virtue of Chastity depicted in The Faerie Queene
Contrary to popular views, Chastity is not depicted as perpetual abstinence from sexual relations. Britomart does not seek to remain a virgin all her life; in fact, her quest is to find the man she has fallen in love with, win his heart, wed him, and raise up a noble and mighty line of rulers. Her Chastity is more a single-mindedness in love: she will not turn from her path toward her beloved Artegall for any man, and her gender gives her built-in immunity to the charms of the temptresses along the way.
virtue of Friendship depicted in The Faerie Queene
Spenser departs from his traditional single-knight representation of virtues in Book 4, where two knights must illustrate Friendship through a bond of mutual love. Spenser intentionally sets Book 4 up as a series of balanced pairs, which interlock into tetrads (groups of four). Cambell and Triamond are the exemplars of friendship; their relationship is double-bonded by their virtuous wives, Canacee and Cambina, each the sister of her husband’s best friend.
the virtue of Justice depicted in The Faerie Queene
Justice is represented by the knight Artegall and by the iron man Talus. Talus shows Justice in its most mechanical, systematic, and stubborn form. The iron man knows nothing of mercy and must be repeatedly stopped from slaughtering everyone associated with an unjust character or place. Artegall is a more fully developed kind of Justice: he is fair and impartial, but knows when punishment must stop and reconciliation must begin.
the virtue of Courtesy depicted in The Faerie Queene
Calidore is the knight of Courtesy, which in Spenser’s day meant proper behavior in relation to the social classes, particularly the nobles (those who reside in the sovereign’s court). Spenser follows the traditional depiction of Courtesy as a virtue of those born to high estate and raised properly by courteous parents. At the same time, he introduces the problem of nature versus nurture into the equation in the form of Tristram, who has not been raised properly but is nonetheless courteous due to his noble lineage; and the Savage Man, who has no noble heritage but was raised properly by his adopted parents and behaves most courteously in the epic. That the Savage Man saves the knight of Courtesy and is himself immune to any knight’s weapon suggests that Spenser saw Courtesy as a universal virtue rather than one limited to societal constructs.
The Faerie Queene fit into the chivalric tradition
Spenser self-consciously imitated the works of Thomas Malory and the purveyors of the Arthurian legends in his epic. However, he also takes critical shots at the code of chivalry by depicting many of the knights as immoral, lazy, cowardly, and incompetent. There is an undercurrent of critique against the romantic tradition in his repeated use of the “damsel in distress” trope as a catalyst for confusion and foolishness on the part of the otherwise virtuous knights. The best example of this is Florimell, who lures even Arthur off his path with her fleeting beauty.
Q.4 What evidence of spirit of reformation is present in The Faerie Queene’. Elucidate your answer with textual evidence.
The Faerie Queene (1590) is an epic poem by Edmund Spenser (c. 1552–1599), which follows the adventures of a number of medieval knights. The poem, written in a deliberately archaic style, draws on history and myth, particularly the legends of Arthur. Each book follows the adventures of a knight who represents a particular virtue (holiness, temperance, chastity, friendship, justice and courtesy) and who has that quality in him or herself tested by the plot. The Faerie Queene is an allegorical work in praise of Elizabeth I (represented by Gloriana – the Faerie Queene herself – and the virgin Belphoebe) and of Elizabethan notions of virtue. The poem employs frequent allusions to recent history and contemporary politics in its celebration and critique of the Tudor dynasty, such as the religious controversies and reforms under Mary and Elizabeth. Spenser wrote that one of his intentions was that the reading of this work should ‘fashion a gentleman or noble person in virtuous and gentle disciple’. Spenser invented a new verse form for his epic that is now known as the Spenserian stanza.
The poem is unfinished: Spenser’s original plan was for 12 books, but we have just seven, the last being incomplete. The first three books were published in 1590 and the second three in 1596.
The Faerie Queene as a source for King Lear
In Book 2, the knight Guyon reads an old history of faerie land, which gives Spenser the opportunity to recount a chronicle of British rulers. In Canto 10, Stanzas 27–32 (pp. 332–34), Spenser tells the story of Leyr. The story is similar to that found in Holinshed and Geoffrey of Monmouth. However, in Spenser’s version, Leyr is looking to retire in his old age. After the love test and division of the realm, he weds Gonorill to the king of Scotland, and Regan to the king of Cambria (Wales). Cordeill/Cordelia is sent dowerless to Aganip of Celtica (France). In an ending very similar to Holinshed’s, Cordeill restores Leyr to the crown and later inherits it only to be overthrown by her nephews. In Spenser’s version, Cordeill hangs rather than stabs or slays herself (as in previous versions), which may be the source for the method of Cordelia’s murder in Shakespeare’s play.
Warrior women in The Faerie Queene
In Book 5, Canto 5, Sir Terpin tells the knight Artegall (representing Justice) of an Amazon Queen called Radigund who defeated and enslaved him (p. 232–33). Radigund is described as proud, lustful and skilled at arms. She is reported both to kill men and to dress them in women’s clothes and make them do housework such as cleaning and sewing. Artegall fights Radigund and is himself made captive.
In Canto 7, Britomart (a woman knight representing Chastity and with allegorical links to Elizabeth I) goes to rescue Artegall, with whom she is in love. She seeks out Radigund and kills her in a fight, releasing Artegall and the other imprisoned men (pp. 275–81). On seeing Artegall dressed in women’s clothes, she asks him, ‘What May-game hath misfortune made of you?’ (188.8.131.52), relating this inversion of gender roles to the topsy-turvy world of festive license and misrule.
Britomart and Radigund represent two different types of warrior woman: Radigund the Amazon is a renegade who operates outside of the social control of men, whereas Britomart upholds patriarchy. When Britomart overthrows Radigund she also reorganizes the Amazon enclave, subjecting them to male rule: ‘The liberty of women [she] did repeale, / Which they had long usurpt; and them restoring / To mens subjection, did true Justice deal.’ (184.108.40.206–7) In this way, Spenser is able to criticise the idea of female rule without necessarily criticising Elizabeth I herself. He explicitly excludes ‘lawfull soveraintie’ in his condemnation of the liberty of women:
Such is the crueltie of womenkynd,
When they have shaken off the shamefast band,
With which wise Nature did them strongly bynd,
T’obay the heasts of mans well ruling hand,
That then all rule and reason they withstand,
To purchase a licentious libertie.
But virtuous women wisely understand,
That they were borne to base humilitie,
The Faerie Queene Spenser has shown the fight between vices and virtues and finally the triumph of virtue. Now we need a critical discussion that The Faerie Queene is an allegory.
Moral and spiritual allegory in The Faerie Queene deals with the action and interaction of virtues and vices. The good characters stand for the various virtues and the bad characters stand for the corresponding vices. The Red Cross Knight stands for Holiness, and Lady Una, Truth and Goodness. Her parents symbolize Human race and the Dragon who has imprisoned them stands for evil. The mission of Holiness is to help Truth fight Evil and thus regain its rightful place in the human heart. Thus the Red Cross Knight encouraged by Lady Una kills the monster error and marches ahead on his way. This is the first moral truth taught by the story. Archimago, the magician, who symbolizes Hypocrisy is an evil in disguise. His mission is to work out sinister design and intrigues against the Red Cross Knight and the Lady Una so that they may be separated from each other.
The moral and spiritual allegory blends with the religious allegory of the book. The Reformation was the most important religious movement of the time and in his epic Spenser has represented it allegorically. He is strong supporter of the Reformed Church of England, which is the only true church for him, and against Papacy and the Catholic Church. Here Red Cross Knight stands for the Reformed Church of England. The parents Lady Una represent Humanity, and the foul dragon who has imprisoned them is the Pope of Rome. The Monster Error allegorically stands for error or mistakes which human beings make in course of their lives. The fight of the Red Cross Knight with the monster Error, symbolizes the conflict between Protestantism and Catholicism. The books and papers vomited by Error allude to the scurrilous pamphlets directed against Queen Elizabeth by the Roman Catholics.
The moral and religious allegories are mingled with political allegory in The Faerie Queene. According to political allegory, the Red Cross Knight is St. George of England and Lord Leicester is Prince Arthur. Lady Una stands for Truth which is represented by the National Church of England. Una’s parents are the people of England who are hold in subjection by Roman Catholicism represented by the Dragon (Antichrist). The Monster Error is one of the powerful but evil forces of Roman Catholicism. Archimago stands for Philip-2 of Spain, who was a Roman Catholic by faith. Archimgo, one instrument of the separation between the Red Cross Knight (Holiness) and Lady Una (Truth), may also be identified with the Roman Catholic Pope. To conclude, according to above discussion, we can say that Spenser’s “The Faerie Queene” is one of the greatest allegorical epic we have ever read in English literature. It is an excellent moral and spiritual allegory.
Q.5 Critically evaluate Chaucer’s contributions to English poetry.
Chaucer’s contribution to English literature
Chaucer in some ways inaugurated English poetry at the time when English was considered a vernacular in England and French and Latin reigned. Chaucer was just not a first-rate literary artist; he was the pivotal figure in English literature who encompassed earlier traditions, genres and novelty in forms and literary content with his ingenious innovations. John Dart has called Chaucer the father of English poetry due to his exceptional contributions to the English language. Similarly, Matthew Arnold has remarked, “with him is born our real poetry.”
Chaucer was the first English poet who gave full expression to the new hopes and aspirations of the people of his time. He was a realist who found fitting subjects for his poetry not in gods and heroes of a Golden age but in life that unfolded before his eyes. He mixed freely with humanity and expressed its aspirations and concerns in his poetry with full sincerity. Chaucer’s realism is truly discernible in his mammoth work The Canterbury Tales in which he has painted the truthful picture of the 14th-century life through a group of pilgrims. By introducing pilgrims from different classes and giving an analysis of their manners, virtues and follies, clothes and habits, Chaucer didn’t just give voice to the tendencies of his age but he also added new dimensions to the act of literary characterisation. Another remarkable aspect of Chaucer’s work is his humour which is delightful and stimulating. Before Chaucer, English humour was synonymous with buffoonery and horseplay, but he refined and raised it to the standards of literary humour which were kind and patronising as in the case of the clerk of Oxenfor and semi-farcical in the case of Wife of Bath. By his remarkable observation of inconsistencies in conduct and power of selecting what is typical in manners, Chaucer also paved the path for satirists of the forthcoming generations.
Chaucer is known for his metrical innovations. He invented Rhyme Royal stanza pattern which is a seven lined stanza in iambic pentameter with a rhyme scheme of ababbcc. He was also one of the first to use blank verse for his poetry with only a few anonymous short works using it before him. Chaucer is also recorded in the oxford english dictionary as the first author to use many common english words in his writings. These words were probably frequently used in the language at the time, but chaucer with his ear for common speech, is the earliest masuscript source.
Although he doesn’t have the same worldwide name recognition as William Shakespeare, Geoffrey Chaucer – who lived, approximately, from 1343 to 1400 – is sometimes known as the father of English literature. Widely considered the greatest English language poet of the Middle Ages, he authored The Canterbury Tales and a slew of other poetry.
Here are five of Chaucer’s major contributions to the history of the English language.
He helped found the English vernacular tradition.
Some scholars point out that an English literary tradition had begun to emerge centuries earlier, so it’s not exactly accurate to say that Chaucer started the trend. Still, he was certainly going against the grain when he chose to write The Canterbury Tales, his magnum opus, in English. During the fourteenth century, French and Latin were viewed as more sophisticated and more permanent than English. Chaucer proved that literature written in English could be every bit as beautiful, enjoyable, complex, and profound as literature written in a supposedly “better” language.
His work indirectly contributed to the creation of English language dictionaries.
As the centuries went on and the English language evolved, people realized that it was becoming harder and harder to understand Chaucer’s writings. According to Jack Lynch’s The Lexicographer’s Dilemma, disappointment over how difficult it had become to appreciate his amazing literature – as well as anxiety that more-recent works of literature might meet the same fate – helped spur on the (futile) Early Modern efforts to halt linguistic change in English. One result of these efforts was the creation of English-language dictionaries (link to “The Strange Origins of the English Dictionary”).
He introduced rhyme royal into English.
Traditionally, Germanic poetry focused more on alliteration (using words that start with the same sounds) than on rhyme, as in Beowulf and other Old English texts. Chaucer chose to focus on rhyme, which was unusual for an English language poet of his time, but not completely original.
However, he was probably the first person to include rhyme royal in English language literature. Rhyme royal is a rhyme scheme of a-b-a-b-b-c-c with specific meter. It was a popular form through the Reformation, and it’s been used in a few poems since then, such as W.H. Auden’s Letter to Lord Byron and W.B. Yeats’s “A Bronze Head.”
He’s the source of the “The ____’s Tale” trope.
Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Richard Dawkins’s The Ancestor’s Tale are just two examples of titles inspired by The Canterbury Tales. This work of Chaucer’s contains connected stories almost all of which have titles like this (“The Pardoner’s Tale,” “The Wife of Bath’s Tale.”)
People Still Read – And Play With – His Work Today
If you read the Troilus and Criseyde excerpt earlier in this article, you might be surprised to learn that Chaucer is still read today. It’s relatively easy to learn enough Middle English to understand his work, and there are plenty of translations to help you out if you struggle.
However, people today do more than just read Chaucer’s work – many deeply enjoy it. Full of emotion, wit, social critiques, and a surprising number of fart jokes, works like The Canterbury Tales and Troilus and Criseyde enchant audiences today.
Chaucer scholarship is a substantial academic field, but even beyond that, fans of Chaucer have fun playing with his identity, language, and writing.
A few years ago, an English language professor named Brantley Bryant wrote a blog in a humorous interpretation of Chaucer’s voice. Although he no longer updates the blog, the old posts can be great fun to read, and the related Twitter account is still active. Occasionally, a movie or mini-series is released that explicitly pays homage to The Canterbury Tales. In 2004, Canadian hip-hop artist Baba Brinkman released a fantastically creative rap album remixing The Canterbury Tales. There’s even a wine company called Chaucer’s that sells such old-fashioned products as flavored mead, with labels inspired by medieval art. You don’t have to have read Chaucer to enjoy either the rap album or the libations, so if you want to start there, go ahead!