GEOFFREY CHAUCER 1343-l400
The Roman de la Rose – 1276-80 /The book of the Duchees – 1369 /The House of Fame – c1379 /Boethius – c1380 /The
Parliament of Fowles – c1382 /Troilus and Criseyde – c1385 /The Legend of Good Women – c1386 /The Canterbury Tales – c1386-93
Chaucer was born into a middle-class family. His father was a wine merchant and sent him to be a e in the household of Prince Lionel. Chaucer later came under the patronage of John Of Gaunt, Edward’s fifth son and he most powerful noble in England, and may have been his personal friend. He became Justice of Peace and Knight of the Shire for Kent, effectively its Member of Parliament, in 1386.
Chaucer’s production is divided into three phases: French, Italian and English. Chaucer knew French much better than he knew Italian: it was the language of the English Court and of European diplomacy. During his French phase his poetic models were French, altough his works were also profoundly influenced by Latin authors, especially Virgil and Ovid. The importance of his Italian experience was that it showed Chaucer that a vernacular language – in his case English – could be used to create literature fo a nobility, subtlety and importance equal to that of the classical languages. He tried not so much to reproduce the great Italian authors in English as to elevete English to equal importance as a literary language. This is the true meaning of his English phase, during which he succeeded, with The Canterbury Tales, in creating an idom uniquely his own, and uniquely English.
Chaucer is often called the father of English poetry. Chaucer estabilished the East Midlands and London dialect as the dominant form of literary language that would later develop into Modern Standard English.
Most major medieval English poets attempted the dream poem. This popular and long-lasting literary form went back to classical examples, and was widely used in order to give the poem’s content a supernatural or quasi-supernatural quality. Chaucer often exploited the various possibilities offered by this genre and the developed the theme of dream vision in many of his longer poems
The second half of the fourteenth century is charaterised by a great number of translations of secular works. Chaucer himself was a translator (in the loose medieval sense of the world) and many of his works can be defined as translations.
The Canterbury Tales
All over Europe piligrimages were both religious and recreational events and were undertaken by people belonging to most levels of society. This gave Chaucer the opportunity of bringing together a heterogeneous society. His piligrims are both individuals and stock types and it is often difficult to know what is convention and what is not in their description. Chaucer’s piligrims also strike us for their variety. Some fo them are connected with the feudal world of contemporary England. Others relate to the world of the Church. Yet others include townspeople, the representatives of the growing English mercantile and professional middle class. It will be noticed how Chaucer’s piligrims cover the middle strata of society. Nobles and peasants are alike excluded. Chaucer’s is, broady, speaking, a portrait of middle-class England in the late fourteenth century. This is carried out with a fire irony and a narrative gusto that do not take away the fundamental truth of Chaucer’s picture.
As his characters covered virtually all of contemporary English society, it was possibile for Chaucer to collect tales covering virtually all the major medieval narrative types – romance, fabliau, beast fable, parable, moral fable, etc – thus creating an anthology of medieval literary genres. Each teller is strongle characterised and the tales are made to correspond to the personalities of the piligrims who tell them. In fact, part of the richness of Chaucer’s piligrims is precisely due to the fact that each tale is told by a different speaker who relates things with a personal voice.
Chaucer’s original intention was to have each of his 30 piligrims, including himself, tell two tales on the road from London to the shrine of Thomas Becket in Canterbury and two on the way back, giving a total of 120 tales, plus detailed portraits of the piligrims in the General Prologue. The teller of the best tale would be awarded a free supper by Harry Bailey, the host of the Tabard Inn, where they meet to begin their journey. In the event only 23 piligrims tell a storu, and Chaucer himself, as a piligrim narrating what he sees and hears on the journey, tells two. In addition to the General Prologue, most of the individual tales have a prologue in which the teller introduces his themes and point of view, and relates his tale to those that have preveded it, and an epilogue that carries the narrative forward to the next tale. However, the originality and brilliance of the final effect is produced by the fact that Chaucer himself is a piligrim, not an invisible narrator.
Thus, Chaucer is the inventor of narrative, but in his creation it is other people who tell the tales, giving rise to narrative tension between the voice of the narrator (Chaucer) and the voices of the narrators within the general narrative (the piligrims). This enables Chaucer to report, comment and criticise without being directly responsible for what he is saying. This means that the reader is never really sure who is actually speaking at any given moment – wether it is Chaucer himself, or Chaucer the piligrim, or one of the piligrims, or Chaucer commenting on what the piligrims say, or the piligrims commenting on Chaucer himself. Thus, Chaucer is both inside and outside The Canterbury Tales at the same time, and the work become a kind of Chinise box of narrative frames. The result is an extremely subtle example of the power of language to persuade and convince
Among Chaucer’s major metrical innovations mention must be made of his early introduction into English versification of the five-accent line, technically know as the iambic pentameter. It is a line of teen syllables with alternating weak and strong stresses (first syllable is unstressed and second syllable stressed. third syllable unstressed and fourth syllable stressed; and so on). The suppleness of this metre helps Chaucer to carry through his narrative without apparent effort: The Canterbury Tales are written in couplets (two consecutive lines rhyming together) of iambic pentameters. Such a form would later be known as heroic or closed couplets.