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Essay on Geoffrey Chaucer

February 25th, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

Geoffrey Chaucer was a narrative poet and one of the greatest English writers. The differences in society are important in understanding the actions and attitudes of Chaucer’s pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales. The social structure of Europe in the 14th century was feudal. Society was organized in a hierarchical form, one’s wealth and power determined the position one occupied. Each level of society had its rights and privileges, and each had its duties and obligations, as do the pilgrims Using the “General Prologue” as an example, Chaucer’s skill as a teller of tales, his precision of characterization, comic tone, use of symbols, language, and metrical techniques all contribute to his unique style of writing.

The Canterbury Tales is a series of tales within a uniting framework, although it was never finished. In the “General Prologue,” Chaucer uses the device of seven members of the feudal order, thirteen people associated with religious life, and fourteen townspeople telling one another stories while travelling on a pilgrimage. There is a significant difference between Chaucer’s framework and other writers. The structure of visualizing the pilgrims telling one another stories is artificial. It is impossible for all thirty-four pilgrims to hear each other’s stories while traveling along a narrow road.

A distinguishing feature of the “General Prologue” is its method of characterization. Each pilgrim is described in such great detail that we, as the reader, feel personally acquainted with the individual.

The line, “And al was conscience and tendre herte” (150), shows how the details are purposely used in creating a sense of intimate acquaintance with the character. The characterization’s range from the Friar’s sixty-two lines to the Cook’s nine lines. “Not a word is wasted: details of physical appearance, dress and equipment, social rank, and character evoke the whole man or woman by powerful suggestive strokes” (Wagenknecht 14).

Chaucer’s idea of a pilgrimage as the occasion for the telling of a series of tales is a great device used in The Canterbury Tales. The use of the pilgrimage device allowed Chaucer’s “General Prologue” to become a human comedy. The characters “contrast between what is and what men see – of themselves and of others – lies Chaucer’s deepest vein of comedy” (Wagenknecht 252).

The “General Prologue” begins with details to describe the setting and serious nature of the pilgrim’s journey. The season functions in a symbolic manner. Spring is a time of renewal for nature and man. The pilgrims express a desire for spiritual replenishment and rejuvenation in going on a pilgrimage to a holy place. The pilgrimage is seen as “an event in the calendar of nature, one aspect of the general springtime surge of human energy and longing” (Wagenknecht 32).

The language that Chaucer wrote and spoke in his time is different from modern English. Scholars call the language of Chaucer’s age, Middle English. A principal characteristic of Chaucer’s style is its clarity. “Chaucer was, and remained until the appearance of Shakespeare, the most consummate master of language amongst English poets” (Kluge xxix). In terms of grammar, the ending es of nouns is pronounced with an s, not as in modern English dishes (dishez), with a z. There are also differences between Chaucer’s pronouns and those used in modern English. The pronoun her(e) or hir(e) can mean either her or their. Chaucer’s use of adjectives presents a dissimilarity between the absence of ending in the singular (yong) Squire and the presence of the final e in the plural (yonge) Squires. However, the final e appears in all situations in adjectives such as swete. The final e’s are also to be pronounced. The past tense of weak and strong verbs used in Chaucer’s English are still similarly used today. Most of Chaucer’s words have survived into modern English and have not changed in meaning. However, some words have altered in meaning and must be reinterpreted.

Throughout his writings, Chaucer shows a consistency in meter, rhyme, and verse. Early in his career, Chaucer departed from the limited verse form and adopted the combination of rhyme and fixed stress patterns. He became one of the first poets to introduce the five-beat line. For the first time in English poetry, Chaucer used a five-beat, seven-line stanza, rhyming ababbcc, known as the rhyme royal, in three tales of The Canterbury Tales. Although, Chaucer mainly used a five-beat couplet, the heroic couplet, throughout the tale. Chaucer’s work on the evolution of metre and the development of language remains very important. “English poetry owes its classical metre to him, and, moreover, both directly and indirectly, more than one very important strophic structure” (Kluge xxxii).

In conclusion, Chaucer’s work altered the entire aspect of English poetry and produced a new attitude towards it. As a narrative poet, Chaucer achieves a lyrical effect and demonstrates familiarity with his ideas and audience. This effect allows him to display philosophical material in a comic and serious tone. Thus, Chaucer is a maker of English poetry in his telling of tales, his precision of characterization, comic tone, use of symbols, language, and metrical techniques.

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