Geoffrey Chaucer's Role in English Literature
Geoffrey Chaucer: a conscious artist
It was during the 14h Century that the world of English Literature, luckily, saw the dawn of Chaucer’s genius. Chaucer was a conscious artist and, as such, he tried his level best to shift the focus of his native literature from the world of “Fantasy” and “Romance” to the “Republic of Reality” or “Actual life”. His efforts in this field bore fruit, so much, so that the limelight of his genius became a source of inspiration for the English writers of the succeeding centuries. Chaucer depicted the life of those who lived around him. He delineated the figures of blood and breath and they were his fellow-beings. In the main, he did not, celebrate the super-human personages of the past. Nor did he go to a fairyland to relate the tales of mystery and magic. The only magic he had was the magic of common human life.
Chaucer’s poetry the saga of human life:
Mathew Arnold is rightly of the opinion that, “with him is born our real poetry”. Like Henry Fielding (1707 – 1754), Chaucer seems to have copied “everything from the book of nature”. He, certainly, put a mirror before the contemporary English society and revealed its various spectra and shades in a diligent manner. This approach has made “The Prologue” – “a picture gallery of the 14th Century English life.” Chaucer’s pen – pictures are so perfect that the characters, therein delineated, emerge clearly before the eye of our imagination. After reading the details about various characters in “The Prologue”, it is easy to imagine as to how did they look like; how did they speak and how did they behave. Chaucer emphatically proves that he had a personal, first-hand knowledge of the tastes and trends of the people, living around him. Chaucer, thus, related the saga of human life for the first time in the domain of English Literature. This thing made him great forever and won for him the prestigious title of being “The father and founder of the English poetry”.
No more a verse romance but an objective Evidence:
Chaucer’s work, especially in English, offers a sharp contrast to the medieval songs of adventure (“The Verse Romances”), which were composed and recited by the “Scops” and the “Bards” of that age. The deeds of Chivalry were replaced by the analysis of common human behavior. The Utopian setting of the Romances now gave way to the in-rush of real life. We, therefore, find Chaucer making a strong demand on our inward eye (The eye of imagination) and providing us with an opportunity to visualize the 14th Century English Canterbury. After reaching this level of thought, we may safely remark that the devices of both “Realism” and “Objectivity” have immortalized Chaucer’s art. He was the one who gave “Substance” and “Standard” not only to his native language but also to his native literature. He introduced new theme to the world of English Literature and this new theme was “Man.” It is for this great service that people acclaim him as the real originator of the English Literature.
Chaucer, a pioneer of an age:
The qualities, which we were elaborating before, made Chaucer the first great writer in the History of English Literature, in the modern sense of the term, Owing to his priceless and prominent services to his native literature, his age (1350-1400) is called “The age of Chaucer.” When we study Chaucer’s works in English, we come to realize that:
These are among the most outstanding features of his works. Moreover, Chaucer proves his worth as a master in the art of “Characterization.” His humors, his satire, his harsh but humane treatment of his “victims” and above all, a profoundly humanitarian out-look; have made him worthy of all praise. It is important to note that “Time” itself has not been able to diminish his worth and value as an artist, and it is, perhaps, right to say that; “he belongs to the ages.” It has also been said that; “Chaucer appeared on the horizon of the English literature, never to be ignored or forgotten.” He, undoubtedly, proved to be a fountainhead of inspiration to all those English writers, who followed his path in the series of time.
Ahead of his contemporaries though a Novice:
Chaucer has been estimated as the greatest writer of his age. He has also been called “the literary giant of the 14h Century”. When studied in comparison, he surpasses his contemporaries, Langland, Gower and Barbour, by a very wide margin. It is, surely, a proof of his ever-bright, versatile genius. Chaucer’s poetry is being read and enjoyed for a variety of reasons, right from his own days to the present time. When we scan these reasons, we come to know that his education, as a poet, had aspects. The first aspect was related to the French and the Italian sources; whereas the second aspect was related to the English life itself. Although Chaucer was a “Beginner” in the field of literature, yet he knew his job pretty well. By virtue of his deep insight and wide learning, he became the “Law-giver” and exercised a tremendous influence on the English writers of the rising generations. It goes without asking that like Shakespeare and Milton, Chaucer was “a man of the world” and “a man of affairs.”
The Prologue, His masterpiece as a story teller:
The most famous and the most characteristic of the whole body of Chaucer’s work is “The Canterbury Tales”. It is a collection of tales, supposed and related by the Pilgrims, who are on their way to the Shrine of Thomas-a-Becket, at Canterbury. “The Canterbury Tales” is a landmark in the History of English Poetry. This work enriched the English Language and the Metre to such an extent that it could, now, be conveniently used for any purpose by the later composers. By drawing various portraits in verse, Chaucer showed the way to the English Novelists. Chaucer, in fact, founded the art of “story-making” and “story-telling”, which proved to be a corner stone for the proper growth and development of the future English Novel. People estimate “The Canterbury Tales”, as “Chaucer’s greatest poetic achievement”. He, in fact, laid the foundation stone of grand palace, which is now the “Palace of English Literature”. He proved himself to be the forerunner of all the great writers England has ever produced.
A Versatile Writer:
Geoffrey Chaucer is one of the most versatile writers of the English literature. Most of the critics object to his being deficient in philosophy and especially its profundity. Another field in which critics call him deficient is the tragic tinge. However, some critics are of the opinion that the allegations do not stand on factual observations. It is obvious from a close observation into his works like “Troilus and Criseyde”, “Nun’s Priest’s Tale” and some others.
The Two Categories:
We can easily classify Chaucer’s works into two main categories – the major ones and the minor ones. His lesser or minor works include, “The Romaunt of Rose”, “An A.B.C.”, “Complaint unto Pity.” “Book of the Duchess.”, “Complaint of Mars.”, “Parliament of Fowls”, “Complaint to his Lady”, “Anelida and Arcite”, “To Rosamund”, “Complaint of Venus”, “Boece”, “Legend of Good Women”, “House of Fame”, and “Treatise of the Astrolabe.”
Now we can categorize the following works of Chaucer as his major works: “The Canterbury Tales” and “Troilus and Criseyde.”
The Three Periods:
Let us classify Chaucer’s literary career into three periods.
(a) The French Period (up to 1373):
Under the French influence, Chaucer attempted the following works and it lasted until 1373:
1. Book of the Duchess.
2. Romaunt of the Rose.
During this period, Chaucer used octosyllabic couplet.
(b) The Italian Period (1373-1384):
During this period, Chaucer gave up the pattern of octosyllabic couplet and instead adopted a seven-line heroic stanza and sometimes heroic couplet as well. Heroic couplet was his favorite mode of writing. This period may include:
1. The House of Fame.
3. Parliament of Fowls.
4. The Legend of Good Women.
5. Early Drafts of the Canterbury Tales.
This period lasted until 1384.
(c) The English Period (1383-1400):
This period is, undoubtedly, the most brilliant and ambitious period, that starts from 1384 and lasts for the rest of Chaucer life up to 1400. Here in this period, Chaucer adopts his favorite verse form heroic couplet and his maturity is very evident in the works completed in this period. Chaucer’s masterpiece ‘The Canterbury Tales’ is the most precious work of this period.