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Geoffrey Chaucer

 

Geoffrey Chaucer

English writer

born c. 1342/43, London?, Eng.
died Oct. 25, 1400, London

Main
the outstanding English poet before Shakespeare and “the first finder of our language.” His The Canterbury Tales ranks as one of the greatest poetic works in English. He also contributed importantly in the second half of the 14th century to the management of public affairs as courtier, diplomat, and civil servant. In that career he was trusted and aided by three successive kings—Edward III, Richard II, and Henry IV. But it is his avocation—the writing of poetry—for which he is remembered.

Perhaps the chief characteristics of Chaucer’s works are their variety in subject matter, genre, tone, and style and in the complexities presented concerning the human pursuit of a sensible existence. Yet his writings also consistently reflect an all-pervasive humour combined with serious and tolerant consideration of important philosophical questions. From his writings Chaucer emerges as poet of love, both earthly and divine, whose presentations range from lustful cuckoldry to spiritual union with God. Thereby, they regularly lead the reader to speculation about man’s relation both to his fellows and to his Maker, while simultaneously providing delightfully entertaining views of the frailties and follies, as well as the nobility, of mankind.

Forebears and early years
Chaucer’s forebears for at least four generations were middle-class English people whose connection with London and the court had steadily increased. John Chaucer, his father, was an important London vintner and a deputy to the king’s butler; in 1338 he was a member of Edward III’s expedition to Antwerp, in Flanders, now part of Belgium, and he owned property in Ipswich, in the county of Suffolk, and in London. He died in 1366 or 1367 at age 53. The name Chaucer is derived from the French word chaussier, meaning a maker of footwear. The family’s financial success derived from wine and leather.

Although c. 1340 is customarily given as Chaucer’s birth date, 1342 or 1343 is probably a closer guess. No information exists concerning his early education, although doubtless he would have been as fluent in French as in the Middle English of his time. He also became competent in Latin and Italian. His writings show his close familiarity with many important books of his time and of earlier times.

Chaucer first appears in the records in 1357, as a member of the household of Elizabeth, countess of Ulster, wife of Lionel, third son of Edward III. Geoffrey’s father presumably had been able to place him among the group of young men and women serving in that royal household, a customary arrangement whereby families who could do so provided their children with opportunity for the necessary courtly education and connections to advance their careers. By 1359 Chaucer was a member of Edward III’s army in France and was captured during the unsuccessful siege of Reims. The king contributed to his ransom, and Chaucer served as messenger from Calais to England during the peace negotiations of 1360. Chaucer does not appear in any contemporary record during 1361–65. He was probably in the king’s service, but he may have been studying law—not unusual preparation for public service, then as now—since a 16th-century report implies that, while so engaged, he was fined for beating a Franciscan friar in a London street. On February 22, 1366, the king of Navarre issued a certificate of safe-conduct for Chaucer, three companions, and their servants to enter Spain. This occasion is the first of a number of diplomatic missions to the continent of Europe over the succeeding 10 years, and the wording of the document suggests that here Chaucer served as “chief of mission.”

By 1366 Chaucer had married. Probably his wife was Philippa Pan, who had been in the service of the countess of Ulster and entered the service of Philippa of Hainaut, queen consort of Edward III, when Elizabeth died in 1363. In 1366 Philippa Chaucer received an annuity, and later annuities were frequently paid to her through her husband. These and other facts indicate that Chaucer married well.

In 1367 Chaucer received an annuity for life as yeoman of the king, and in the next year he was listed among the king’s esquires. Such officers lived at court and performed staff duties of considerable importance. In 1368 Chaucer was abroad on a diplomatic mission, and in 1369 he was on military service in France. Also in 1369 he and his wife were official mourners for the death of Queen Philippa. Obviously, Chaucer’s career was prospering, and his first important poem—Book of the Duchess—seems further evidence of his connection with persons in high places.

That poem of more than 1,300 lines, probably written in late 1369 or early 1370, is an elegy for Blanche, duchess of Lancaster, John of Gaunt’s first wife, who died of plague in September 1369. Chaucer’s close relationship with John, which continued through most of his life, may have commenced as early as Christmas 1357 when they, both about the same age, were present at the countess of Ulster’s residence in Yorkshire. For this first of his important poems, Chaucer used the dream-vision form, a genre made popular by the highly influential 13th-century French poem of courtly love, the Roman de la rose. Chaucer translated that poem, at least in part, probably as one of his first literary efforts, and he borrowed from it throughout his poetic career. The Duchess is also indebted to contemporary French poetry and to Ovid, Chaucer’s favourite Roman poet. Nothing in these borrowings, however, will account for his originality in combining dream-vision with elegy and eulogy of Blanche with consolation for John. Also noteworthy here—as it increasingly became in his later poetry—is the tactful and subtle use of a first-person narrator, who both is and is not the poet himself. The device had obvious advantages for the minor courtier delivering such a poem orally before the high-ranking court group. In addition, the Duchess foreshadows Chaucer’s skill at presenting the rhythms of natural conversation within the confines of Middle English verse and at creating realistic characters within courtly poetic conventions. Also, Chaucer here begins, with the Black Knight’s account of his love for Good Fair White, his career as a love poet, examining in late medieval fashion the important philosophic and religious questions concerning the human condition as they relate to both temporal and eternal aspects of love.


Diplomat and civil servant
During the decade of the 1370s, Chaucer was at various times on diplomatic missions in Flanders, France, and Italy. Probably his first Italian journey (December 1372 to May 1373) was for negotiations with the Genoese concerning an English port for their commerce, and with the Florentines concerning loans for Edward III. His next Italian journey occupied May 28 to September 19, 1378, when he was a member of a mission to Milan concerning military matters. Several times during the 1370s, Chaucer and his wife received generous monetary grants from the king and from John of Gaunt. On May 10, 1374, he obtained rent-free a dwelling above Aldgate, in London, and on June 8 of that year he was appointed comptroller of the customs and subsidy of wools, skins, and tanned hides for the Port of London. Now, for the first time, Chaucer had a position away from the court, and he and his wife had a home of their own, about a 10-minute walk from his office. In 1375 he was granted two wardships, which paid well, and in 1376 he received a sizable sum from a fine. When Richard II became king in June 1377, he confirmed Chaucer’s comptrollership and, later, the annuities granted by Edward III to both Geoffrey and Philippa. Certainly during the 1370s fortune smiled upon the Chaucers.

So much responsibility and activity in public matters appears to have left Chaucer little time for writing during this decade. The great literary event for him was that, during his missions to Italy, he encountered the work of Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio, which was later to have profound influence upon his own writing. Chaucer’s most important work of the 1370s was Hous of Fame, a poem of more than 2,000 lines, also in dream-vision form. In some ways it is a failure—it is unfinished, its theme is unclear, and the diversity of its parts seems to overshadow any unity of purpose—but it gives considerable evidence of Chaucer’s advancing skill as a poet. The eight-syllable metre is handled with great flexibility; the light, bantering, somewhat ironic tone—later to become one of Chaucer’s chief effects—is established; and a wide variety of subject matter is included. Further, the later mastery in creation of memorable characters is here foreshadowed by the marvelous golden eagle who carries the frightened narrator, “Geoffrey,” high above the Earth to the houses of Fame and Rumour, so that as a reward for his writing and studying he can learn “tydings” to make into love poems. Here, too, Chaucer’s standard picture of his own fictional character emerges: the poet, somewhat dull-witted, dedicated to writing about love but without successful personal experience of it. The comedy of the poem reaches its high point when the pedantic eagle delivers for Geoffrey’s edification a learned lecture on the properties of sound. In addition to its comic aspects, however, the poem seems to convey a serious note: like all earthly things, fame is transitory and capricious.


The middle years: political and personal anxieties
In a deed of May 1, 1380, one Cecily Chaumpaigne released Chaucer from legal action, “both of my rape and of any other matter or cause.” Rape (raptus) could at the time mean either sexual assault or abduction; scholars have not been able to establish which meaning applies here, but, in either case, the release suggests that Chaucer was not guilty as charged. He continued to work at the Customs House and in 1382 was additionally appointed comptroller of the petty customs for wine and other merchandise, but in October 1386 his dwelling in London was leased to another man, and in December of that year successors were named for both of his comptrollerships in the customs; whether he resigned or was removed from office is not clear. Between 1382 and 1386 he had arranged for deputies—permanent in two instances and temporary in others—in his work at the customs. In October 1385 he was appointed a justice of the peace for Kent, and in August 1386 he became knight of the shire for Kent, to attend Parliament in October. Further, in 1385 he probably moved to Greenwich, then in Kent, to live. These circumstances suggest that, for some time before 1386, he was planning to move from London and to leave the Customs House. Philippa Chaucer apparently died in 1387; if she had suffered poor health for some time previously, that situation could have influenced a decision to move. On the other hand, political circumstances during this period were not favourable for Chaucer and may have caused his removal. By 1386 a baronial group led by Thomas of Woodstock, duke of Gloucester, had bested both Richard II and John of Gaunt—with whose parties Chaucer had long been associated—and usurped the king’s authority and administration. Numerous other officeholders—like Chaucer, appointed by the king—were discharged, and Chaucer may have suffered similarly. Perhaps the best view of the matter is that Chaucer saw which way the political wind was blowing and began early to prepare to move when the necessity arrived.

The period 1386–89 was clearly difficult for Chaucer. Although he was reappointed justice of the peace for 1387, he was not returned to Parliament after 1386. In 1387 he was granted protection for a year to go to Calais, in France, but seems not to have gone, perhaps because of his wife’s death. In 1388 a series of suits against him for debts began, and he sold his royal pension for a lump sum. Also, from February 3 to June 4, 1388, the Merciless Parliament, controlled by the barons, caused many leading members of the court party—some of them Chaucer’s close friends—to be executed. In May 1389, however, the 23-year-old King Richard II regained control, ousted his enemies, and began appointing his supporters to office. Almost certainly, Chaucer owed his next public office to that political change. On July 12, 1389, he was appointed clerk of the king’s works, with executive responsibility for repair and maintenance of royal buildings, such as the Tower of London and Westminster Palace, and with a comfortable salary.

Although political events of the 1380s, from the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 through the Merciless Parliament of 1388, must have kept Chaucer steadily anxious, he produced a sizable body of writings during this decade, some of very high order. Surprisingly, these works do not in any way reflect the tense political scene. Indeed, one is tempted to speculate that during this period Chaucer turned to his reading and writing as escape from the difficulties of his public life. The Parlement of Foules, a poem of 699 lines, is a dream-vision for St. Valentine’s Day, making use of the myth that each year on that day the birds gathered before the goddess Nature to choose their mates. Beneath its playfully humorous tone, it seems to examine the value of various kinds of love within the context of “common profit” as set forth in the introductory abstract from the Somnium Scipionis (The Dream of Scipio) of Cicero. The narrator searches unsuccessfully for an answer and concludes that he must continue his search in other books. For this poem Chaucer also borrowed extensively from Boccaccio and Dante, but the lively bird debate from which the poem takes its title is for the most part original. The poem has often been taken as connected with events at court, particularly the marriage in 1382 of Richard II and Anne of Bohemia. But no such connection has ever been firmly established. The Parlement is clearly the best of Chaucer’s earlier works.

The Consolation of Philosophy, written by the Roman philosopher Boethius (early 6th century), a Christian, was one of the most influential of medieval books. Its discussion of free will, God’s foreknowledge, destiny, fortune, and true and false happiness—in effect, all aspects of the manner in which the right-minded individual should direct his thinking and action to gain eternal salvation—had a deep and lasting effect upon Chaucer’s thought and art. His prose translation of the Consolation is carefully done, and in his next poem—Troilus and Criseyde—the influence of Boethius’s book is pervasive. Chaucer took the basic plot for this 8,239-line poem from Boccaccio’s Filostrato.

Some critics consider Troilus and Criseyde Chaucer’s finest work, greater even than the far more widely read Canterbury Tales. But the two works are so different that comparative evaluation seems fruitless. The state of the surviving manuscripts of Troilus shows Chaucer’s detailed effort in revising this poem. Against the background of the legendary Trojan War, the love story of Troilus, son of the Trojan king Priam, and Criseyde, widowed daughter of the deserter priest Calkas, is recounted. The poem moves in leisurely fashion, with introspection and much of what would now be called psychological insight dominating many sections. Aided by Criseyde’s uncle Pandarus, Troilus and Criseyde are united in love about halfway through the poem; but then she is sent to join her father in the Greek camp outside Troy. Despite her promise to return, she gives her love to the Greek Diomede, and Troilus, left in despair, is killed in the war. These events are interspersed with Boethian discussion of free will and determinism. At the end of the poem, when Troilus’s soul rises into the heavens, the folly of complete immersion in sexual love is viewed in relation to the eternal love of God. The effect of the poem is controlled throughout by the direct comments of the narrator, whose sympathy for the lovers—especially for Criseyde—is ever present.

Also in the 1380s Chaucer produced his fourth and final dream-vision poem, The Legend of Good Women, which is not a success. It presents a Prologue, existing in two versions, and nine stories. In the Prologue the god of love is angry because Chaucer had earlier written about so many women who betrayed men. As penance, Chaucer must now write about good women. The Prologue is noteworthy for the delightful humour of the narrator’s self-mockery and for the passages in praise of books and of the spring. The stories—concerning such women of antiquity as Cleopatra, Dido, and Lucrece—are brief and rather mechanical, with the betrayal of women by wicked men as a regular theme; as a result, the whole becomes more a legend of bad men than of good women. Perhaps the most important fact about the Legend, however, is that it shows Chaucer structuring a long poem as a collection of stories within a framework. Seemingly the static nature of the framing device for the Legend and the repetitive aspect of the series of stories with a single theme led him to give up this attempt as a poor job. But the failure here must have contributed to his brilliant choice, probably about this same time, of a pilgrimage as the framing device for the stories in The Canterbury Tales.


Last years and The Canterbury Tales
Chaucer’s service as clerk of the king’s works lasted only from July 1389 to June 1391. During that tenure he was robbed several times and once beaten, sufficient reason for seeking a change of jobs. In June 1391 he was appointed subforester of the king’s park in North Petherton, Somerset, an office that he held until his death. He retained his home in Kent and continued in favour at court, receiving royal grants and gifts during 1393–97. The records show his close relationship during 1395–96 with John of Gaunt’s son, the earl of Derby, later King Henry IV. When John died in February 1399, King Richard confiscated John’s Lancastrian inheritance; then in May he set forth to crush the Irish revolt. In so doing, he left his country ready to rebel. Henry, exiled in 1398 but now duke of Lancaster, returned to England to claim his rights. The people flocked to him, and he was crowned on September 30, 1399. He confirmed Chaucer’s grants from Richard II and in October added an additional generous annuity. In December 1399 Chaucer took a lease on a house in the garden of Westminster Abbey. But in October of the following year he died. He was buried in the Abbey, a signal honour for a commoner.

Chaucer’s great literary accomplishment of the 1390s was The Canterbury Tales. In it a group of about 30 pilgrims gather at the Tabard Inn in Southwark, across the Thames from London, and agree to engage in a storytelling contest as they travel on horseback to the shrine of Thomas à Becket in Canterbury, Kent, and back. Harry Bailly, host of the Tabard, serves as master of ceremonies for the contest. The pilgrims are introduced by vivid brief sketches in the General Prologue. Interspersed between the 24 tales told by the pilgrims are short dramatic scenes presenting lively exchanges, called links and usually involving the host and one or more of the pilgrims. Chaucer did not complete the full plan for his book: the return journey from Canterbury is not included, and some of the pilgrims do not tell stories. Further, the surviving manuscripts leave room for doubt at some points as to Chaucer’s intent for arranging the material. The work is nevertheless sufficiently complete to be considered a unified book rather than a collection of unfinished fragments. Use of a pilgrimage as a framing device for the collection of stories enabled Chaucer to bring together people from many walks of life: knight, prioress, monk; merchant, man of law, franklin, scholarly clerk; miller, reeve, pardoner; wife of Bath and many others. Also, the pilgrimage and the storytelling contest allowed presentation of a highly varied collection of literary genres: courtly romance, racy fabliau, saint’s life, allegorical tale, beast fable, medieval sermon, alchemical account, and, at times, mixtures of these genres. Because of this structure, the sketches, the links, and the tales all fuse as complex presentations of the pilgrims, while at the same time the tales present remarkable examples of short stories in verse, plus two expositions in prose. In addition, the pilgrimage, combining a fundamentally religious purpose with its secular aspect of vacation in the spring, made possible extended consideration of the relationship between the pleasures and vices of this world and the spiritual aspirations for the next, that seeming dichotomy with which Chaucer, like Boethius and many other medieval writers, was so steadily concerned.

For this crowning glory of his 30 years of literary composition, Chaucer used his wide and deep study of medieval books of many sorts and his acute observation of daily life at many levels. He also employed his detailed knowledge of medieval astrology and subsidiary sciences as they were thought to influence and dictate human behaviour. Over the whole expanse of this intricate dramatic narrative, he presides as Chaucer the poet, Chaucer the civil servant, and Chaucer the pilgrim: somewhat slow-witted in his pose and always intrigued by human frailty but always questioning the complexity of the human condition and always seeing both the humour and the tragedy in that condition. At the end, in the Retractation with which The Canterbury Tales closes, Chaucer as poet and pilgrim states his conclusion that the concern for this world fades into insignificance before the prospect for the next; in view of the admonitions in The Parson’s Tale, he asks forgiveness for his writings that concern “worldly vanities” and remembrance for his translation of the Consolation and his other works of morality and religious devotion. On that note he ends his finest work and his career as poet.


Descendants and posthumous reputation
Information concerning Chaucer’s children is not fully clear. The probability is that he and Philippa had two sons and two daughters. One son, Thomas Chaucer, who died in 1434, owned large tracts of land and held important offices in the 1420s, including the forestership of North Petherton. He later leased Chaucer’s house in Westminster, and his twice-widowed daughter Alice became duchess of Suffolk. In 1391 Chaucer had written Treatise on the Astrolabe for “little Lewis,” probably his younger son, then 10 years old. Elizabeth “Chaucy,” probably the poet’s daughter, was a nun at Barking in 1381. A second probable daughter, Agnes Chaucer, was a lady-in-waiting at Henry IV’s coronation in 1399. The records lend some support to speculation that John of Gaunt fathered one or more of these children. Chaucer seems to have had no descendants living after the 15th century.

For Chaucer’s writings the subsequent record is clearer. His contemporaries praised his artistry, and a “school” of 15th-century Chaucerians imitated his poetry. Over the succeeding centuries, his poems, particularly The Canterbury Tales, have been widely read, translated into modern English, and, since about the middle of the 19th century, the number of scholars and critics who devote themselves to the study and teaching of his life and works has steadily increased.

R.M. Lumiansky

 


 


THE CANTERBURY TALES
 

Type of work: Poetry
Author: Geoffrey Chaucer (1340-1400)
Types of plots: Chivalric romance, folktale, and saint's legend
Times of plots: Remote antiquity to fourteenth century
Locale: England
First transcribed: 1380-1390
 

In this great Middle English classic, Chaucer uses an imaginative frame-story format to present twenty-four tales: A group of pilgrims meet at a tavern on their way to the shrine of Becket at Canterbury and agree to pass the long hours of their journey in a storytelling contest to be judged by the innkeeper. The stories range from bawdy burlesques to tales of chivalry, from local folk legends to sermons. Chaucer's genius is such that the tales reveal the personalities of their tellers; in addition, the pilgrims grow as distinct personalities as they converse and argue between stories.

 


 

Principal Characters

The Knight, a courtly medieval fighting man who has served king and religion all over the known world. Modest in dress and speech, though the highest in rank of the pilgrims to Canterbury, he rides with only his son and a yeoman in attendance. He tells a metrical romance, the first of the stories in the series related by the various pilgrims. His is a tale of courtly love, the story of the love two young Theban noblemen, Palamon and Arcite, have for Emily, beautiful sister-in-law of Duke Theseus of Athens. The young men compete in a tourney for the girl's hand; Arcite wins but is killed in an accident, so that Palamon eventually has his love rewarded.
The Squire, the Knight's son. A young man of twenty, he has fought in several battles. Like his father, he is full of knightly courtesy, but he also enjoys a good time. He tells a story of adventure and enchantment in a distant land. The story he leaves unfinished tells of three gifts sent to Canacee, daughter of King Cambuscan. Each of the gifts has magical powers: a ring that enables the bearer to talk to birds, a brass horse that will take its rider anywhere, and a mirror that shows the truth and the future. The ring enables Canacee to learn the story of a lovelorn hawk, deserted by her mate.
The Yeoman, the Knight's attendant, a forester who takes excellent care of his gear. He wears a St. Christopher medal on his breast. Chaucer assigned no story to his telling.
The Prioress (Madame Eglentyn), who travels with another nun and three priests as her attendants to the shrine of St. Thomas a Becket at Canterbury. A woman of conscience and sympathy, she wears a curious brooch upon which appears the ambiguous statement, in Latin, "Love conquers all." Her story is that of a little schoolboy murdered for his religion by Jews. The child's death is discovered by a miracle of Our Lady. Like most of the stories told in the collection of tales, this one fits the personality of its narrator.
The Second Nun, who accompanies the Prioress. She also tells a Christian legend of the martyrdom of St. Cecilia, a story typical of medieval hagiography.
The Nun's Priest, whose name is John. He tells the beast epic relating the adventures of the cock Chanticleer and the fox. It is a didactic yet humorous story suitable for the Prioress' father confessor.
The Monk, a fat hedonist who prefers to be out of his cloister. No lover of books and learning, he prefers to hunt and eat. He defines tragedy as being the story of a man fallen from high degree and then offers many examples, including anecdotes of Lucifer, Adam, Samson. Hercules, Balthasar, Ugolino of Pisa, Julius Caesar, and Croesus. His lugubrious recital is interrupted by the Knight.
The Friar, named Huberd. He is a merry chap v. ho knows barmaids better than the sick. Having the reputation of being the best beggar in his house, he appears to be a venal, worldly man. His story is a fabliau telling about a summoner who loses his soul to the devil; the story arouses the discomfiture of the Summoner in the group of pilgrims.
The Merchant, a tight-lipped man of business. Unhappily married, he tells a story of the evils of marriage between old men and young women. A variation of an old marchen, it relates how a super-annuated husband named January is deceived by his young and hearty spouse named May.
The Clerk of Oxford, a serious young scholar who heeds philosophy and prefers books to worldly pleasures. His tale is an answer to the Wife of Bath's idea that in marriage the woman ought to have dominion. The Clerk's tale is of an infinitely patient wife named Griselda, who endures all manner of ill-treatment from her husband.
The Sergeant of Law, a busy man who seems busier than he really is. He makes a great show of his learning, citing cases all the way back to William the Conqueror.
The Franklin, a rich landlord who loves to eat and keeps a ready table of dainties. In his time he has been sheriff of his county. His story is an old Breton lay, a tale of chivalry and the supernatural. He apologizes for his story and its telling, saying he is an uneducated man.
The Haberdasher, The Carpenter, The Weaver, The Dyer, and The Tapestry Maker, all members of a guild, each one rich and wise enough to be an alderman. None has been assigned a tale by Chaucer.
The Cook, named Roger, hired by the master workmen to serve them during their journey. He is a rollicking fellow. Pleased by the bawdy tales of the Miller and the Reeve, he insists upon telling a bawdy story of his own, one left unfinished by Chaucer.
The Shipman, captain of the Maudelayne, of Dartmouth. He is a good skipper and a smuggler. Like others of the company, he tells a fabliau, a bawdy tale. He relates the misadventures of a merchant of St. Denis, in Belgium, who is cheated of his wife's favors and his money by a sly monk named John.
The Doctor of Physick, a materialistic man greatly interested in money. He knows all the great medical authorities, as well as his astrology, though he seldom reads the Bible. His story, which he attributes to Livy, is the old tale of Appius and Virginia.
The Wife of Bath, named Alice, a clothmaker and five times a widow. Apparently wealthy from her marriages, she has traveled a great deal, including three trips to Jerusalem. She is well-versed in marriage and love-making. Her theory is that the woman must dominate in marriage, and to make her point tells a tale of an ugly lady who, when her husband is obedient, becomes fair.
The Parson, a poor but loyal churchman who teaches his parishioners by his good example. Refusing to tell an idle tale to his fellow pilgrims, he tells what he terms a merry tale about the Seven Deadly Sins.
The Plowman, an honest man, the Parson's brother. He tells no tale.
The Miller, a jolly, drunken reveler who leads the company, playing on his bagpipes. He tells a bawdy story about a carpenter named John who is cuckolded by his young wife, Alison, and her witty lover, Nicholas.
The Reeve, a slender, choleric man named Oswald. Having been a carpenter, he is incensed by Miller's tale. In retribution he tells a story about a miller cuckolded by two lusty students, who sleep with the miller's wife and daughter.
The Manciple, an uneducated man who is shrewd enough to steal a great deal from the learned lawyers who hire him to look after their establishments. He relates the old folktale of the tattling bird.
The Summoner, a lecherous, drunken fellow who loves food and strong drink. Angered by the Friar's tale about a summoner, he tells a tale about a friar who becomes the butt of coarse humor.
The Pardoner, a womanish man with long, blond hair. He tells a tale of three young men who seek death and find it. His story is actually a sermon on the evils of the unnatural love of money. He follows up the sermon with an attempt to sell phony relics to his fellow pilgrims.
Harry Bailey, the host at the Tabard Inn in Southwark. He organizes the storytelling among the pilgrims, with the winner to have a meal at his fellows' cost upon the company's return. He is a natural leader, as his words and actions show.
Geoffrey Chaucer, the author, who put himself into his poem as a retiring, mild-mannered person. He tries to recite the "Rime of Sir Thopas," a dreary tale which is interrupted as dull, whereupon he tells the story of Melibee and Dame Prudence.
The Canon, a traveler who joins the pilgrims briefly on the road to Canterbury. He leaves when it is hinted that he is a cheating alchemist.
The Canon's Yeoman, who remains with the pilgrim company and tells an anecdote about an alchemist, a canon like his master, who swindles a priest.

 



 

The Stories

Although a number of the individual tales of Geoffrey Chaucer's masterpiece, The Canterbury Tales, are themselves brilliant feats, the work as a whole—though an unfinished whole—is unique. No earlier collection of narratives is framed so imaginatively. The General Prologue gathers together thirty characters, most of whom are not mere storytellers but well-articulated personalities of various occupations and social levels. They meet at the Tabard, a real inn in Southwark, across the Thames River from London, for a purpose familiar to fourteenth century English folk: a pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral, where St. Thomas a Becket was murdered in 1170.
Chaucer devotes the bulk of the General Prologue to describing the pilgrims. He deftly sketches the Knight, who loves chivalry and has fought in many lands for his faith; his son, the Squire, blessed with blond curls and musical talent; the Prioress, who eats perhaps too heartily but nevertheless very daintily; the Monk, who escapes his monastery as often as possible to hunt; the begging Friar, lisper of easy penances to widows who open their pocketbooks wide; the Clerk of Oxford, a sober student of Aristotle; the Miller, a brawny chap with a wart on the end of his nose—and even Chaucer the pilgrim, a shy and rotund little man.
Harry Bailly, the proprietor of the Tabard, offers to accompany them and enliven their journey, which will take two days each way, by hosting a storytelling contest. As they ride along, each pilgrim will tell two tales outbound and two more on the return journey, at the end of which Harry will reward the teller of the tales he judges most instructive and entertaining with a free meal (the cost of which devolves upon the other pilgrims). The competition is never completed. In fact, Chaucer did not succeed in bringing his pilgrims into Canterbury, but he left two dozen richly diverse tales embedded in a context of lively interplay among the pilgrims.
The gentlemanly Knight appropriately begins the storytelling with a long, stately romance about two The-ban knights, Palamon and Arcite, who, as prisoners of war in Athens, spot through a window of their cell Emily, the sister-in-law of their captor, Duke Theseus, and immediately fall in love with her. Later Arcite is released and Palamon escapes, and the two friends battle over the beautiful Emily. Theseus, coming upon this unseemly struggle, arranges a proper tournament for the purpose of determining her husband. Arcite wins but is mortally injured. On his deathbed he commends his friend to Emily, and Theseus confers her upon Palamon.
The Miller follows with a tale as earthy as the Knight's is elevated. Nicholas, an Oxford student boarding with a carpenter named John, lusts for Alison, the latter's young wife. He convinces his landlord that a great flood is imminent but assures him that they can escape if John will make three tubs, one for each of them, and hang them from the eaves of the house in readiness. When John falls asleep in his tub, Nicholas and Alison climb down from theirs and make love in John's bed. Toward morning, another admirer, Absalom, a dandified parish clerk, comes to the bedroom window and begs a kiss. Alison gleefully presents her posterior over the win-dowsill. When Absalom discovers which end of Alison he has kissed, he vows revenge. Returning from a blacksmith's forge with a hot coulter, he asks for another kiss. This time Nicholas decides to repeat the ruse. Absalom applies the smoking implement, the stricken Nicholas shouts "Water!" and John awakens. When he cuts loose his tub and crashes to the ground, the confusion brings out the neighbors in the gathering dawn, who laugh at the disorder, particularly at John's "madness."
This fabliau, as such a tale is called, brings the Knight's theme of contending lovers down to earth, with gross motives, language, and behavior replacing the courtly conduct of the previous tale. It also generates wrath in the Reeve, a carpenter by profession, who sees himself in the gulled husband. He thereupon tells a similar tale whose victim is naturally a miller. Thus, Chaucer sets in motion an intricate work in which tales can reflect then-tellers, tellers often interact, and themes sometimes intersect.
The Wife of Bath introduces another theme. She is perhaps Chaucer's most complex creation: a virago who has outlived five husbands and is seeking a sixth, a champion of oppressed womanhood, an outrageous misinter-preter of the Bible, an experienced traveler, a skilled clothmaker, a sinner who has nevertheless enjoyed her life and would not have had it otherwise. She tells an old fairy tale beautifully adapted to her purpose, the promotion of woman's sovereignty. An Arthurian knight has dishonored his calling by raping a woman. The queen prevails upon King Arthur to suspend the death penalty he has imposed if the knight can, in a year and a day, discover "what women most desire." Near the end of a fruitless quest, the knight meets an ugly old woman who reveals the secret extracting a promise that he will do the first thing she asks of him. The hag trails the knight to court and, upon his disclosure that women desire most sovereignty over their men, requests that he marry her. The appalled knight objects to her age, ugliness, poverty, and low social standing; she responds with a lecture on gentilesse, comprising the qualities of a true gentleman. He must fulfill his promise, but the hag unexpectedly gives him a choice: He can have her ugly and loyal, or beautiful and perhaps unfaithful. The knight avoids the dilemma by turning the choice over to her. By accepting her "governance," he is rewarded beyond his hopes, for she is transformed into a beautiful woman who will always be true to him.
This tale provokes several more on the sovereignty theme. In the Clerk's tale of patient Griselda, a marquis named Walter marries a peasant's daughter and soon begins to subject her to humiliations. He sends away their daughter because his lowborn wife is not a suitable mother. Later he removes their son also and eventually sends Griselda back to her father's house in rags. At length he announces that he is remarrying and orders Griselda back to his palace to minister to the young bride-to-be. Patient and diplomatic as ever, Griselda nevertheless counsels Walter not to subject his second wife to the same indignities, for she has been reared gently and could not endure adversity. At this point Walter confesses that the "bride" is in fact their own daughter. He has been testing Griselda's obedience, and since she has passed all the tests, the family is now reunited in happiness and prosperity.
The Merchant, a newlywed already regretting his own marriage, tells a cynical tale of a possessive old husband who, in the midst of guarding his young wife from temptation, is struck blind. In their secluded garden, she plays him false in his presence. When his sight is suddenly restored, she is still able to convince him of her fidelity against the evidence of his senses. The story ends with the befuddled old man doting on her.
After such extremities of marital disorder, the Franklin's story of Arveragus and Dorigen achieves a moral equilibrium. Dorigen rashly promises herself to a lover in order to promote her beloved husband's safety. When she confesses to Arveragus, he advises his distraught wife to be true to her word and reward her lover. The lover, Aurelius, in turn acknowledges Arveragus's magnanimity by releasing Dorigen from her promise. Finally, Aurelius is forgiven a huge debt he has incurred in his efforts to gain her love. Gentilesse, not sovereignty, turns out to be the last word in the marriage debate.
Several other tales, less obviously connected, are classics. The rapacious Pardoner's is an exemplum, a tale designed to illustrate the theme of a sermon. His unvarying theme—that avarice is the root of all evil (and, incidentally, an obstacle to his success as a con man)—he exemplifies by his tale of three carousers who seek to kill the "false traitor Death," the destroyer of many of their friends. A strange old man points the way to Death's abode; they follow it and find a pile of gold. Their original quest now forgotten, two of the revelers send the third for food and drink to celebrate their find. When he returns, they slay him to increase their share, then consume the poison he has brought back for them. Thus all three find Death.
The Nun's Priest contributes a rollicking beast fable about Chanticleer the proud rooster, who almost loses his life to a sly fox but outwits the beast in the climactic
moments of a helter-skelter barnyard chase. The pilgrim Chaucer attempts a chivalric romance in clanging short lines, but his listeners disgustedly cut short his uproarious tale of Sir Thopas and force him to substitute a prose narrative. The Parson, similarly unable to manage the rhymed couplets and other verse forms which Chaucer the author was pioneering, tells the only other prose tale, actually a treatise on the Seven Deadly Sins.
At the end of the Parson's Tale, Chaucer purports to revoke all his writings of "worldly vanities" in a pious retraction that has produced much controversy. It stands as Chaucer's alternative to the fulfillment of an original plan which he recognized, late in his life, as beyond his capacity to complete. Neither the scribes who copied The Canterbury Tales nor its modern editors, however, have withdrawn from circulation even Chaucer's most "worldly" poems but have consigned to posterity in its fullness the work to which John Dry den later referred as "God's plenty."

 



 

Critical Evaluation

Geoffrey Chaucer, the first great poet in English literature, left behind him a work of perennial attraction and enjoyment. Not only was The Canterbury Tales popular from the time of its composition; it has been read ever since, edited, reprinted endlessly, taught in schools, adapted in part for the stage, and used for political parody.
Why should a work written in Middle English six centuries ago have such a hold upon subsequent generations? What does its author contribute in his collection of stories that appeals so to all classes of individuals down the years? Why is The Canterbury Tales considered one of the outstanding works of English literature? Answers to these questions are not difficult when one reads the tales either in their original language or in modern translation. Immediately one finds an author who had a tremendous feeling for life, understood human motivation, and could tell a story with great gusto.
The collection of pilgrims making their way to the shrine of Canterbury is a fair cross section of people from various walks of life and professions. Chaucer draws them with detailed individual characteristics but still with universal qualities that allow them to come alive in any generation. Moreover, he has taken consummate care to match these stories to their tellers.
No one, for example, can forget the brief portrait in the Prologue of the Wife of Bath, a florid woman, gaudy and bold in appearance. She is a lower-middle-class weaver from beside the town of Bath and has had five husbands; Chaucer slyly adds, "not to speak of other company in her youth." Yet the story she tells is an Arthurian romance stressing the virtues of courtesy and gentilesse. It has been termed a wish-fulfillment tale in which the ugly old woman wins sovereignty over her unwilling youthful husband and then turns young and beautiful. Careful study of this tale with the Wife's Prologue portrait, her conversation with other pilgrims, and her lusty confessional prologue reveals another side of this apparently crude and brash woman. She is more complex than one at first realizes, but Chaucer handles this point subtly withput stating the fact.
Another pilgrim who fascinates readers is the Pardoner, a thorough charlatan, admittedly evil, who brags of his scandalous treatment of those he should serve. It is again important that Chaucer never says the Pardoner is a rogue; as with all the characters, he is allowed to reveal his character through quarrels with other pilgrims or by the type of story he relates.
The purposeful ambiguity in the portrait of the Nun, who concentrates on social concerns—feeding delicate morsels to her pet dogs and watching her table manners— instead of showing more Christian traits, makes a comment, though again indirect. Her tale reveals little human sympathy but is a typical miracle story she might have learned by rote.
Throughout The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer, who places himself along with other pilgrims as a naive, unobservant traveling companion, uses this persona to effect satire and irony in the portraits. Seldom is the work didactic; Chaucer does not condemn clerics, tradespeople, or any other group. Instead, he allows them to reveal their own faults or makes clever asides to the reader to suggest a viewpoint. We see the pilgrims as they are with all their virtues and vices, and we can readily identify with their humanness.
Another reason for this great work's popularity lies in the variety of tales. Chaucer handles with equal facility different genres of medieval literature, from the courtly romance told by the Knight down to the bawdy tales of the Miller and Reeve. In the collection of twenty-four stories, there is something for everyone. If the reader does not care for one, Chaucer advises, "turn over the leaf and choose another tale." If anyone is offended by a tale of lechery, he can select a saint's legend or something in between.
Chaucer also handles with dexterity different levels of language: courtly speech, bawdy expressions, elegant prayers—language of the church, street and tavern. He can employ a clipped reporting style and turn out a parody of the excesses in metrical romance. He has at his command a whole bag of rhetorical tricks.
Critics and readers have attempted over the centuries to find an encompassing theme in The Canterbury Tales. Is the work a mere collection of unrelated stories or do they in one way or another deal with a single topic such as love (human or divine), or the question of who should have the upper hand in marriage? Attempts at making the tales conform to a single theme have mainly been unsuccessful; one can always find certain tales which do not fit the chosen category. It seems more likely that the Canterbury collection represents a panorama of representative humanity—a comedie humaine, not only of the fourteenth century but of all ages.
One other reason for the lasting quality of this first great work in English literature is that, like Shakespeare's drama, it opens innumerable possibilities to the reader. It poses questions about human motivation and aspirations. It probes into established attitudes, questions existing institutions. The Canterbury Tales reveals the tensions of Chaucer's time, the alternatives for man in a changing world, where many long-cherished customs and opinions were disintegrating.
Chaucer's pilgrims with their tales reveal the hopes and uncertainties of life, the heights to which man can climb as well as the depths to which he can descend. Perhaps all these qualities make The Canterbury Tales timeless.

 

 

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