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Sunday, August 22, 2021

Wit, Humour and Comic Elements in The Canterbury Tales

Chaucer's use of Wit and Humour in his poem,Comic Elements in Chaucerian Literature,Comic Elements in canterbury tales

Wit, Humour and Comic Elements in The Canterbury Tales

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Q. Assess Chaucer as an author of comedy with specific reference to 'The Prologue'.

Or, Bring out the comic elements in Chaucer with specific references to 'The Prologue'.

Or, Write an illustrative note on Chaucer's wit and humour.


Chaucer belonged to the medieval age. It was a dark age, haunted with Catholic austerity and feudal atrocity. Spontaneity in life was all kept suppressed and silenced by the rigours of the authority. Naturally, in such a state, the genial zest for life was found to be missing in the literary pursuits of the time. Yet, Chaucer breathed in plenty spirit and liveliness, so much needed in lasting creative literary works. In fact, he had in plenty what most of his fellow poets lacked unfortunately, the sense of the comic, rare for his age.

The comic spirit is particularly resonant in two elements – wit and humour. In fact, the fun of life and literature is closely associated with the flash of wit and the depth of humour. Wit is an intellectual flash rather than a sort of intellectual exercise and it gives diversion and delight. Humour, too, is an intellectual gift, a sensitive expression. It causes laughter just as wit does. But the play of wit is spectacular, somewhat superficial, but in humour, laughter is deep and dignified. Both these elements of wit and humour are necessary constituents in the representation of any sense of the comic. This is so with Chaucer's literary talent. His creative genius bears out, in a plentiful measure, his wonderful sense of humour with which the rare flash of wit is found well mingled.

The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer's last and best work, is imbued with his most delightful sense of the comic. The work is, no doubt, great as a wonderful document of the English social life of the fourteenth century. But it is also a delightful comedy of human life, a grand social comedy, though it is no drama technically.

Chaucer's comic art is vividly revealed in The Canterbury Tales. In his conception and execution of the entire work, a true comic spirit is intensely felt. The idea of bringing so many pilgrims together is certainly quite humorous. But more humorous and witty is his description of different pilgrims, with the wonderful fidelity to reality and a profound sense of humour. Chaucer makes his pilgrims quite engaging. Chaucerian humour is certainly the chief draw here.

As a comic artist, Chaucer goes deep into what is incongruous in human life and behaviour. He does not fail to make fun with the pilgrims, drawn by him in the Prologue. All his portraits sharply indicate a sense of joy that true comedy possesses. Thus, although the Knight is not drawn for the purpose of fun, the poet makes diverting reflections on his horse and his nature. His horse was good, but he was not gay. More enjoyable, however, seems Chaucer's description of the Cook. He mentioned Cook's skill in different ways, and in doing so, he also makes fun of his nature.

Indeed, The Prologue to The Canterbury Tales is sufficiently illustrative of Chaucer's sense of wit and humour in which subtle irony does not remain unmixed. His portrait of the Monk may be mentioned in this connection. The Monk's love for eating is wittily caricatured in a single sharp line –

“A fat swan loved the best of any roost.”

Of course, Chaucer's humour appears a bit crude and heavy in the portraits of the Wife of Bath and the Miller. He makes a sarcastic comment on the kerchief that the former wears on her head on a Sunday. The Miller's bulky and robust body is also funnily represented.

Chaucer's humour, however, is not absolutely simple and innocent. Along with the play of wit, there is a touch of irony, as already noted, in Chaucerian humour. Of course, his irony has little of pungency and more of entertainment. He makes fun and provokes laughter, but does not lash savagely. His irony is, perhaps, vividly marked in his description of the nature of the Prioress. He makes a good deal of exaggeration about her, with an ironical hit on her pretentious and demonstrative nature.

What is, however, striking in Chaucer's irony is the natural, effortless revelation of the corruption in the high offices of the Catholic Church. This he does by means of his representation of the clerical order of his time. The effect achieved is almost Aristophanic, in which the comic spirit is best manifested.

Chaucer's gifts of humour and wit and the flash of his diverting irony have breathed into his poetry an atmosphere of liveliness geniality and comical gaiety. He is truly the first great English humorist and original harbinger of the comic spirit in English literature.

Chaucer's comic spirit is also marked in his other literary works, including Parlement of Foules and The Hous of Fame. His allegories are enlivened with diverting balance between wit, humour and irony. They well reveal him as a comedian in high verses.

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