Geoffrey Chaucer came from a family that belonged to the urban middle class and yet benefitted from the Crown’s trust. Indeed he was appointed to many official charges among which, for instance, Controller of Customs on Wool and Hides (pelli di animali di grossa taglia) in 1374; he was Member of Parliament for Kent; furthermore, due to his political knowledge, was sent on many diplomatic missions on behalf of the king. However, in 1386, he fell in disgrace and lost all his charges until, in 1389, he was appointed Clerk of the King’s Works in Westminster till his death. Thanks to his many diplomatic delicate assignments he travelled broadly throughout Europe, including Italy where he became fascinated by Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio, here he also widened his knowledge of Latin literature, especially Virgil.
Chaucer is the first English secular poet and the Father of English poetry because he wrote in London’s dialect which soon became the standard spoken language, laying thus the basis for Modern English. Yet his great literary value goes much beyond this, his wide-ranging interests brought him to experiment and challenge quite a variety of poetic styles and themes as it is easily shown by his fertile literary production that can be conveniently divided in three different main periods, the French, the Italian and the English periods.
– French Period-
The Romaunt of the Rose (before 1373) introduces courtly love and medieval court etiquette to the English audience; The Boke of the Duchesse (approx. 1383) is an elegy whose protagonist mourns the death of his young wife; Chaucer transforms the Black Knight’s grief into a universal grief for the premature death of all young women.
– Italian Period –
it is in the writings grouped under this period that Chaucer reaches his great poetic deftness both in skilfully using metrics and in his deep understanding of broad subject-matters.
The Parliament of Foules (approx. 1383) is the perfect example of mastering one of the most popular medieval literary genre, the Bird and Beast Fables (Bestiario)
The House of Fame (approx. 1383) this is a humorous fantasy tale in which Chaucer cleverly uses irony to ridicule man’s vanities and wishes.
The Legende of Good Women (approx. 1385) it is a poem used to introduce for the first time in English poetry the couplet and it is about women’s sufferings for love.
Troylus and Criseyde (approx. 1380-5), it is the last one of this period and it is greatly inspired by Boccaccio’s Il Filostrato, a long poem written in rhyme royal, seven verses in iambic pentameters, whose characters development is unfolded by psychological sophisticated investigation.
– English Period –
it withholds Chaucer’s masterpiece, The Canterbury Tales (approx. 1387) a much more realistic work.
The Canterbury Tales deserves a wider analysis for its importance in English literature as for the variety of styles employed, and themes its author deals with. As far as its structure is concerned, it is a long narrative poem written in rhyming couplets of iambic pentameters; meaning lines of ten syllables with alternating stressed syllables. Two tales, though, are in prose.
The main idea of the poem is disclosed in the General Prologue which also represents a frame within which the whole story is told. It is the beginning of spring and the place where it all starts is the Tabard Inn in London, a meeting place where people gather to go on a pilgrimage to Canterbury where they will pray on Thomas Beckett’s shrine. The people involved are thirty and, upon suggestion of the inn’s host, they all agree to tell four stories each, two on their way towards their destination and two on their way back. The best story will win a prize, whereas those pilgrims who give up will pay a penalty. The work is incomplete due to the author’s endless revisions and to his premature death; consequently there are only twenty-four tales and the characters never even reach Canterbury. Yet each tale is unique and complete in itself and could be appreciated on its own even though it is a part of a whole. They all have a prologue that introduces the theme of the tale and some have an epilogue.
The idea of the pilgrimage is employed to enhance the poem’s realism but each story is full of subtle meanings combining real and unreal as they all unfold strong ideas and morals. Hence to obtain this effect Chaucer does not give the tales any particular order following a hierarchy. The choice of characters achieves the purpose of drawing a realistic picture of medieval society and it is thus carefully planned; there are knights, members of the rising middle class and of the Church. Yet Chaucer meaningfully excludes the nobles because they would never have mingled with the common people and there are no peasants either since they could not have afforded the expenses necessary for the journey; once again it all contributes to portray a realistic picture. The storytelling though does not follow any social hierarchy, as one might expect, on the contrary women characters are well mixed to the male ones because Chaucer intends to underline the growing power gained by women during the Middle Ages. Moreover, Chaucer’s characters are all complete sketched individual, they are portrayed as endowed of personal insight interacting with the outside world, their names are often taken from their professions to emphasise the importance of work during this time for it often influenced and conditioned not only people’s lives but their way of thinking as well.
The Canterbury Tales is Chaucer’s masterpiece for other reasons too. It is full of symbolism, Canterbury, for instance, is not merely the pilgrimage’s end, it also represents the heavenly place to go to at the end of one’s life, therefore the pilgrimage is the allegory of human life, the journey seen as the way that leads to meditation through prayer and finally the enlightening of real insight. Furthermore, setting the beginning of the story in Spring has also a double meaning, in fact, on the one side the author underlines the natural succession of seasons and, in this case, spring represents the rebirth of nature, the recurrent coming together of water and earth; at the same time, man also benefits from the end of winter, it is a time of renewed mobility after long months of confinement and yet it conveys another meaning too, that of the healing supernatural gifts attributed to the Saint who they are all going to worship. Just as spring restores life to nature, the Saint restores health to those suffering, oblivious to seasonal changes.
Finally, Chaucer does focus on realism, and this is the poem’s most important characteristic, nonetheless he largely employs medieval conventional styles such as exaggeration, the grotesque or caricature. In fact realism does not mean to simply observe the surrounding world, Chaucer is a man of his time, consequently he is strongly permeated by medieval art and its strategies, indeed the pilgrimage is man’s life journey headed towards the heavenly city and in this sense The Canterbury Tales is an allegory of existence and as such its tales are a report of life’s experience.
Daiches, D. Storia della letteratura inglese, Garzanti, Milano, 1982; Vol. I, Dalle Origini a Milton .
M. Spiazzi, M. T. (2010). Only Connect, New Directions; Vol. 1 (3 ed., Vol. 1). Zanichelli.
© L. R. Capuana