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Sunday, August 22, 2021

Chaucer as the Pioneer of a New Literary Age

Chaucer as the Pioneer of a New Literary Age,illustrative note on the new spirit introduced by Chaucer,Chaucer is the Pioneer of the great moderns

Discussion: Chaucer as the Pioneer of a New Literary Age

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Q. Write an illustrative note on the new spirit introduced by Chaucer.  

Or, Chaucer belonged to the medieval world, but he is the Pioneer of the great moderns.-Discuss illustratively.


Chaucer belonged to the medieval age – a dark age – an age dominated by the kingly authority, the Catholic Church and the feudal lords. Individuality in man and spontaneity in the individual is ignored and trampled down by the feudal structure of the then society. Literature, as the mirror of that feudal society, was centered around homiletic songs, and knightly romances. Man, rather the average individual man, had no place in that literature of feudal dominance.

Chaucer came in such an age. His varied experiences of strain and stress and suffering made him wiser of his age and society. Moreover, his personal involvement in servitude, captivity, and feudal atrocities as also his intimate acquaintance with foreign literary masters added to his knowledge and experience. All those factors formed his literary magnitude as well as magnificence.

And Chaucer brought a new leaf to the old and worn-out feudal literature. He introduced a new spirit into the literature of his age by his rare creative excellence. That led the way to the flowering of the Renaissance in English literature a century after. Chaucer appeared to have acted here as the very harbinger of the great moderns.

Chaucer's age was of medieval authoritarianism. Royal absolutism, Catholic rigors, and baronial arrogance, as already asserted, marked the age. Yet, England was then in a transitional phase. The dark age of medievalism was in its last phase. So long down-trodden masses began to rise and protest against the tales of injustice and wrong. The Peasants' revolution brought that glaringly to the surface. The triple authority of the crown, the Catholic Church and the peers were in utter discord. The overbearing attitude of the church and the peerage was curbed by the king out of this individual personality and capability. Corruption in the high offices of the church and covetous license among the mighty lords was exposed and defied and even thrashed by the king for his own interest. There were new trends to oppose and criticize old beliefs, notions, and views. It was a changing phase in England.

Chaucer emerged in that phase of transition. He played a major part in paving the road to that transition from medievalism to modernism by the wonder of his creative literature. Herein lies the essence of a master, who, though of the old world, remains with the great moderns.

Indeed, English literature was awakened in the second half of the fourteenth century from the stagnation of stereotyped medieval literature. That was made possible due to the genius of a great literary master Geoffrey Chaucer. English literature, in course of its advancement from the Old English period to the Middle English, reached a height of excellence in Chaucer's hand, in his mighty literary works of lasting fame.

Medieval English literature, prior to Chaucer, mainly consisted of Christian homilies, sermons, and lives, romances, allegorical poems, in addition to religious and ethical prose writings. These are all more or less stereotyped literary accounts of some saints, nuns, chivalrous knights, and lovely ladies. Individual traits in men are all missing in them. Characters are only known as princes, knights, lovely ladies, priests, innkeepers, shoemakers, different guildsmen, and so on. But Chaucer brought liveliness and individuality to preceding barren medieval literature.

Chaucer's significance to usher in a new literary age is manifested in his different literary works. His important early work The Boke of Blanche, the Duchesse, is a sort of elegy, written to commemorate the death of Blanche of Lancaster, the first wife to his literary patron John of Gaunt. But this is not merely a courtly and aristocratic elegy written in octosyllabic couplets. This is an allegory, too, intended for the instruction of beauty, but its allegory is nowhere dull or crude, although the elegiac note is not much prominent here.

Two other allegorical works, no doubt of Chaucer's French period, are The Parlement of Foules and The Hous of Fame. They reveal, once again, his power to blend realism with allegory and exhibit his fine sense of wit and humor. The former poem presents a parliament of different birds – big birds of prey as also small, common birds. The other work left unfinished, relates allegorically to the caprices of fame. What is more remarkable and original here is Chaucer's perception of the fun of life and his wonderful sense of humor. These are present in these two works as in The Canterbury Tales as an indispensable and diverting element in his literary works. Chaucer may certainly be claimed as the first great English humorist.

Chaucer's two famous romances are Knightes Tale and Troilus and Criseyde. In both these works, the thrill of a chivalrous and adventurous life and the tenderness of a warm and true love are dealt with all through. Though Chaucer was indebted to Boccaccio for the plot of his poems, his originality is remarkably perceived all through and the mere adventurous events of Boccaccio's tales are found transformed by him into highly impulsive love poems in the English language, hitherto unknown. These poems are, no doubt, romances, but they stand on a much higher footing than the metrical romances of the pre-Chaucerian medieval age.

Another poem of this period, left unfinished by Chaucer, is The Legende of Good Women. This contains a prologue that is allegorical. The poem contains the tales of different noble and fair women. Chaucer's portraits are here marked with variety and vastness. The poem indicates further his story-telling power, quite original for his age.

The crowning glory of Chaucer's literary genius is still The Canterbury Tales. It is a unique work in English literature for all times to come. It bears out his intimate attachment to the society of his time and the tastes of different social ranks and classes in the age. The various aspects of Chaucerian genius are drawn here together. There can hardly be anything better perceived and conceived than what is in The Canterbury Tales a collection of true-to-life pilgrims, drawn from every class of the contemporary Englishmen. They, in course of their arduous journey, entertain themselves by telling tales that are most appropriate to their individual characters.

Chaucer's role as a maker of English versification needs is commended here. The medieval octosyllabic lines have a total renovation in this versification. He is found to have introduced and applied the French pattern of versification to achieve metrical innovations. That is why the title 'father of English poetry' appears to have been rightly bestowed on him by Dryden. The use of line of five stresses, called the pentameter, was possibly first introduced by him in one of his earliest translations, An A.B.C. In The Parlement of Foules, the intricate structure of the French ballad forms is found cut down and simplified by him to produce a seven-line stanza, called ‘rhyme royal, which proves to be the successful medium in such long narrative poems, like Troilus and Criseyde. Finally, the rhyming pentameter or heroic verse, which is the meter of the best English poetry of all times, owes its origin in England to Chaucer's use of decasyllables (ten syllables).

But what is more about Chaucer is his application of the common dialect of London and its neighborhood as his poetic diction. This is known as the King's English which became, owing largely to his own work, the sole literary language throughout England.

Chaucerian literature is essentially humanistic. It is certainly different from and superior to its preceding literature in its interest in humanity – in human character and conduct. Chaucer's sketches are great character studies as also the portraits of the basic aspects of human nature.

Chaucer's literary achievements are unique, not merely in bulk but also in creativity and originality. His literary world is not antique, but modern. This is a steady step towards the great age of the Renaissance. His genius is found to put fresh and formative spirits into old things and to turn gross into gold.

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