Age of Chaucer

Geoffrey Chaucer

In addition to the early allegorical dream visions, the “tragedy” of Troilus and Criseyde, and the “comedy” The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer composed various lyrical poems, wrote a scientific treatise in prose, and translated two immensely influential works from Latin and Old French into Middle English.
The shorter
works have received little attention from critics. “An ABC,” Chaucer’s earliest poem adapted from the
French of Guillaume Deguilleville, and the various ballades, roundels, and envoys are in the French courtly
tradition. They also reflect the influence of the Roman philosopher Boethius and often include moral advice
and standard sententiae. Somewhat longer are the Anelida and Arcite and the complaints to Pity and of Venus
and Mars, which develop the conventions of the languishing lover of romance.
Geoffrey Chaucer (Library of Congress)
The prose works include the interesting astrological study, A Treatise on the Astrolabe (1387-1392), written
for “little Lewis my son,” and the Boece (c. 1380) a translation of Boethius’s De consolatione philosophiae
(523; The Consolation of Philosophy) which particularly influenced Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde and
“The Knight’s Tale.” The prologue to The Legend of Good Women notes that Chaucer also translated
Romaunt of the Rose (c. 1370). Certainly the great Old French dream vision, particularly the first part by
Guillaume de Lorris, influenced Chaucer’s early dream allegories as well as his portrayal of certain
Geoffrey Chaucer 1
characters and scenes in The Canterbury Tales—the Wife of Bath, for example, and the enclosed garden of
“The Merchant’s Tale.” Scholars, however, are uncertain whether the extant Middle English version of
Romaunt of the Rose included in standard editions of Chaucer is by the poet.
Seldom has a poet been as consistently popular and admired by fellow poets, critics, and the public as has
Geoffrey Chaucer. From the comments of his French contemporary Eustache Deschamps (c. 1340-1410) and
the praise by imitation of the fifteenth century Chaucerians to the remarks of notable critics from John Dryden
and Alexander Pope to Matthew Arnold and C. S. Lewis, Chaucer has been warmly applauded if not always
understood. His poetic talent, “genial nature,” wit, charm, and sympathetic yet critical understanding of
human diversity are particularly attractive. To D. S. Brewer, Chaucer “is our Goethe, a great artist who put
his whole mind into his art.”
Yet sometimes this praise has been misinformed, portraying Chaucer rather grandly as “the father of English
literature” and the prime shaper of the English language. In fact, English literature had a long and illustrious
tradition before Chaucer, and the development of Modern English from the London East Midland dialect of
Chaucer has little to do with the poet. Chaucer has also been credited with a series of firsts. G. L. Kittredge
identified Troilus and Criseyde as “the first novel, in the modern sense, that ever was written in the world.”
Its characters, to John Speirs, are also poetic firsts: Pandarus “the first rounded comic creation of substantial
magnitude in English literature,” and Criseyde “the first complete character of a woman in English
literature.” Others see Chaucer’s poetry as “Renaissance” in outlook, a harbinger of the humanism of the
modern world. Such views reveal an element of surprise on the critics’ part that from the midst of Middle
English such a poetic genius should emerge. In fact, typical discussions of Chaucer’s career, dividing it into
three stages as it develops from French influence (seen in the dream allegories) to Italian tendencies (in
Troilus and Criseyde, for example) and finally to English realism (in The Canterbury Tales), imply an
evolutionary view not only of Chaucer’s poetry but also of English literary history. These stages supposedly
reflect the gradual rejection of medieval conventionalism and the movement toward modern realism.
Whatever Chaucer’s varied achievements are, the rejection of conventions, rhetoric, types, symbols, and
authorities is not among them. Charles Muscatine has shown, moreover, that Chaucer’s “realism” is as
French and conventional as are his early allegories. Chaucer’s poetry should be judged within the
conventions of his time. He did experiment with verse forms, establishing a decasyllabic line which, to
become the iambic pentameter of the sonnet, blank verse, and heroic couplet, is English poetry’s most
enduring line. His talent, however, lies in manipulating the authorities, the rhetoric, and conventional
“topics” and in his mastery of the “art poetical.” As A. C. Spearing notes, “Once we become aware of
Chaucer’s ‘art poetical,’ we gain a deeper insight into his work by seeing how what appears natural in it is
in fact achieved not carelessly but by the play of genius upon convention and contrivance.”
Such an approach to Chaucer will recognize his achievement as the greatest poet of medieval England, not as
a forerunner of modernism. It will note his remaking of French, Latin, and Italian sources and treatment of
secular and religious allegory as being, in their own way, as original as his creation of such characters as the
Wife of Bath and the Pardoner. Chaucer’s achievement is in his ability to juxtapose various medieval
outlooks to portray complex ideas in human terms, with wit and humor, to include both “heigh sentence” and
“solaas and myrthe,” and to merge the naturalistic detail with the symbolic pattern. In this attempt to
synthesize the everyday with the supernatural and the homely with the philosophical and in his insistence on
inclusiveness—on presenting both the angels and the gargoyles—Chaucer is the supreme example of the Gothic
Other Literary Forms 2
For a medieval poet, much is known about Geoffrey Chaucer’s life, his association with the English court, his
diplomatic activity on the Continent, and his public appointments. He was born in the early 1340’s, the son of
John Chaucer, a London wine merchant. He spent time in the military, serving with the English forces in
France in 1359 where he was captured; he was ransomed in 1360. Around 1366 he married Philippa Roet and
probably fathered two sons. He served the crown most of his life. Originally (c. 1357) he was connected to the
household of Princess Elizabeth, who was married to Prince Lionel, the son of King Edward III. He also
served another son of the king, John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster, who later married Chaucer’s
sister-in-law, Katherine Swynford. Chaucer’s public service survived the death of Edward III and the
tumultuous reign and deposition of Richard II. It included numerous diplomatic missions to the Continent, his
appointment as controller of customs and subsidy for the port of London (1374-1386), his service as a justice
of the peace and member of parliament for Kent (1386), his demanding duties as clerk of the King’s Works
(1389-1391), and, finally, his appointment as deputy forester of North Petherton royal forest in Somerset
(after 1391). Chaucer lived in London, Greenwich, and Calais, the French port then controlled by the English.
In 1399, he leased a house in the garden of Westminster Abbey. He probably died on October 25, 1400, and
was buried in the nearby abbey, the first of a long line of English authors to rest in the Poets’ Corner.
These biographical details provide little evidence of Chaucer’s position as a poet, although in a general way
they do cast light on his poetry. Chaucer’s association with courtly circles must have provided both the
inspiration for and the occasion of his early poetry. It is certain that he wrote the Book of the Duchess to
commemorate the death of Blanche, the wife of John of Gaunt. He probably also composed The Legend of
Good Women for a courtly patron (the queen, according to John Lydgate), and read Troilus and Criseyde to a
courtly audience, as he is portrayed doing in a manuscript illustration. In more general terms, his early poetry
reflects the French literary taste of the English court.
Chaucer’s public career, furthermore, reveals that he was far from being the withdrawn versifier of artificial
courtly tastes. His duties at the port of London and as chief supervisor of royal building projects suggest that
he was a practical man of the world. Certainly these responsibilities brought him into contact with a wide
variety of individuals whose manners and outlooks must have contrasted sharply with those of members of the
court. In the past, such scholars as J. M. Manly searched historical records to identify specific individuals with
whom Chaucer dealt in an attempt to locate models for the portraits of the pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales.
Like any artist, Chaucer was no doubt influenced by those with whom he worked, but such research gives a
false impression of Chaucer’s characters. Even his most “realistic” creations are often composites of
traditional portraits. Nevertheless, the studies of J. A. W. Bennett (Chaucer at Oxford and at Cambridge,
1974) show that careful attention to the records of fourteenth century England can enlighten modern
understanding of the social, intellectual, and cultural trends of Chaucer’s time and thus provide a setting for
his life and work.
One aspect of Chaucer’s public career must certainly have influenced his poetry. Repeatedly from 1360 to
1387 Chaucer undertook royal missions on the Continent. During these journeys he visited Flanders, Paris,
perhaps even Spain. More important, in 1373 and again in 1378 he visited Italy. These trips to what in the
fourteenth century was the center of European art brought him into contact with a sophisticated culture. They
may have also introduced him to the work of the great Florentine poets, for Chaucer’s poetry after these visits
to Italy reflects the influence of Dante, Petrarch, and particularly Giovanni Boccaccio. Finally, the diplomatic
missions suggest certain features of Chaucer’s personality that lie behind his poetry, although these features
seem deliberately masked by his self-portraits in the poetry. Of middle class origin, expert in languages and
trusted at court, Chaucer as a diplomat sent on at least seven missions to the Continent must have been not
only convivial and personable—the usual view of the poet—but also self-assured, intelligent, and a keen judge
of character.
Biography 3
When reading Geoffrey Chaucer’s works one is struck by a sense of great variety. His poetry reflects
numerous sources—Latin, French, and Italian—ranging from ancient authorities to contemporary poets and
including folk tales, sermons, rhetorical textbooks, philosophical meditations, and ribald jokes. Equally varied
are Chaucer’s poetic forms and genres: short conventional lyrics, long romances, exempla, fabliaux,
allegorical dream visions, confessions, saints’ legends, and beast fables. The characters he creates, from
personified abstractions, regal birds, and ancient goddesses to the odd collection of the Canterbury pilgrims
and the naïve persona who narrates the poems are similarly varied. Finally, the poems present a wide variety
of outlooks on an unusual number of topics. Like the Gothic cathedrals, Chaucer’s poetry seems all-inclusive.
Not surprisingly, also like the Gothic cathedrals, his poems were often left unfinished.
“Experience, though no authority,” the Wife of Bath states in the prologue to her tale, “is good enough for
me.” Unlike her fifth husband, Jankin the clerk, the Wife is not interested in what “olde Romayn gestes”
teach, what Saint Jerome, Tertullian, Solomon, and Ovid say about women and marriage. She knows “of the
woe that is in marriage” by her own experience. This implied contrast between, on one hand, authority—the
established positions concerning just about any topic set forth in the past by Scripture, ancient authors, and the
Church fathers and passed on to the present by books—and, on the other hand, the individual’s experience of
everyday life is central to medieval intellectual thought. It is a major theme of Chaucer’s poetry. Often
Chaucer appears to establish an authority and then to contrast it with the experience of real life, testing the
expected by the actual. This contrast may be tragic or comic; it may cast doubt on the authority or further
support it. Often it is expressed by paired characters, Troilus and Pandarus, for example, or by paired tales, the
Knight’s and the Miller’s. The characters’ long recital of authorities may be ludicrous and pompous,
Chaucer’s parody of the pedant, but the pedant may be right. After Chanticleer’s concern with what all the
past has said about the significance of dreams, readers probably sympathize with Pertelote’s comment that he
should take a laxative. Nevertheless, once the rooster is in the fox’s mouth, the authorities are proven correct.
Similarly, the sum total of the Wife of Bath’s personal experience is merely the proving, in an exaggerated
form, of the antifeminist authorities. As Chaucer states in the prologue to the Parlement of Foules, out of old
fields comes new corn, and out of old books new knowledge.
Related to the contrast between authority and experience are a series of other contrasts investigated by
Chaucer: theological faith versus human reason, the ideal versus the pragmatic, the ritual of courtly love
versus the business of making love, the dream world versus everyday life, the expectations of the rule versus
the actions of the individual, the Christian teaching of free will versus man’s sense of being fated. Again,
these contrasts may be treated seriously or comically, may be represented by particular characters and may be
brought into temporary balance. Seldom, however, does Chaucer provide solutions. The oppositions are
implicit in human nature, in the wish for the absolute and the recognition of the relative. As novelist and critic
Arthur Koestler comments on a modern political version of this dilemma (as represented by the extremes of
the Yogi and the Commissar), “Apparently the two elements do not mix, and this may be one of the reasons
why we have made such a mess of our History.” Chaucer’s poetic and highly varied treatment of these
nonmixers may help to explain why his poetry continues to speak to readers today.
Chaucer’s concern with these topics—a fascination not unusual in the dualistic Gothic world—imbues his
poetry with a sense of irony. Since the 1930’s, readers have certainly emphasized Chaucer’s ironic treatment
of characters and topics, a critical vogue that may be due as much to the fashions of New Criticism as to the
poetry itself. Yet Chaucer’s characteristic means of telling his stories clearly encourages such readings. One
can never be sure of his attitude because the poet stands behind a narrator whose often naïve attitudes simply
cannot be identified with his creator’s. Perhaps the creation of such a middleman between the poet and his
audience was necessary for a middle-class poet reading to an aristocratic audience, or perhaps it is the natural
practice of a diplomatic mind, which does not speak for itself but for another. Whatever the reasons,
Analysis 4
Chaucer’s narrators are poetically effective. They provide a unifying strand throughout his varied work.
Scholar A. C. Spearing notes that “the idiot-dreamer of The Book of the Duchess develops into the
idiot-historian of Troilus and Criseyde and the idiot-pilgrim of The Canterbury Tales.” Later, he comments
that when Chaucer assigns the doggerel poem, “Sir Thopas,” to Chaucer the pilgrim as a joke, he “takes the
role of idiot-poet to its culmination.”
One result of the use of such narrators is that, in contrast with the contemporary dream vision, The Vision of
William, Concerning Piers the Plowman (c. 1362)—with its acid attacks on English society, the failures of
government, and the hypocrisy of the church—Chaucer’s poetry seems aware of human foibles yet accepting
of human nature. He implies rather than shouts the need for change, recognizing that in this world at least
major reform is unlikely. His essentially Christian position, hidden behind the naïve narrator and his concern
with surface details, naturalistic dialogue, and sharp description, is implied by the poem’s larger structures.
They often provide symbolic patterning. The contrast in the Parlement of Foules between the steamy
atmosphere of the temple of Venus and the clear air of Nature’s dominion or in Troilus and Criseyde between
the narrator’s introductory devotion to the god of love and his concluding epilogue based on Troilus’s new
heavenly point of view imply Chaucer’s position concerning his favorite topic, human love. Similarly, the
traditional Christian metaphor identifying life as a pilgrimage and the Parson’s identification of Canterbury
with the New Jerusalem suggest that the pilgrimage from a pub in Southwark to a shrine in Canterbury is a
secular version of an important traditional religious theme. The reader of Chaucer, while paying careful
attention to his realism which has been found so attractive should also be aware of the larger implications of
his poetry.
Behind the medieval interest in dreams and the genre of dream visions lies a long tradition, both religious and
secular, originating in biblical and classical stories and passed on in the Middle Ages in the works of
Macrobiuss and Boethius. As a literary type, the dream vision, given impetus by the Romaunt of the Rose, was
particularly popular in fourteenth century England. The obtuse dreamers led by authoritative guides found in
such works as Piers Plowman and The Pearl (c. 1375-1400) are typical of dream visions and may have
suggested to Chaucer the creation of his characteristic naïve narrator. Certainly Chaucer’s four dream visions,
as different as they are from one another, already develop this narrative voice as well as other typical
Chaucerian characteristics.
Book of the Duchess
The earliest of Chaucer’s very long poems, Book of the Duchess (1,334 lines), is a dream elegy in memory of
the duchess of Lancaster. The poem begins with the narrator reading in bed about dreams, specifically the
Ovidian story of the tragic love of Ceyx and Alcyone. After her husband’s death, Alcyone is visited in a
dream by Ceyx, leading to Alcyone’s eventual brokenhearted death. This introductory section, which as usual
refers to numerous authorities on dreams, combines Chaucer’s concern with both dreams and love. These
authorities provide background for the narrator’s experience in a dream. After praying to Morpheus, the
narrator falls asleep to dream of another couple divided by death, a man in black (John of Gaunt) and his lost
lover, “faire White” (Blanche). The dreamer’s foolish and tactless questions allow the grieving knight to
express his love and sense of loss, sometimes by direct statement, on other occasions by such elaborate
devices as describing a game of chess in which fortune takes his queen. The traditionally obtuse dreamer is
here used in a remarkably original way. The poet is able to place the praise of the dead and the feelings of
anguish in the mouth of the bereaved. Thus, this highly conventional poem, with its conscious borrowing from
Ovid, Romaunt of the Rose, Jean Froissart, and Guillaume de Machaut, is an effective elegy in the restrained
courtly tradition.
Hous of Fame
Analysis 5
The Hous of Fame, Chaucer’s second dream vision, breaks off suddenly after 2,158 lines. It creates a series
of allegorical structures and figures in an analysis of the relationship between love, fame, rumor, fortune, and
poetry. The dreamer is here provided with a guide, Jupiter’s eagle, that probably derives from Dante’s
Purgatorio IX. In Book I he relates the romance of Aeneas and Dido, two lovers of some poetic fame whose
story is portrayed in panels on a temple of glass dedicated to Venus. This temple is contrasted with the house
of Fame which the dreamer sees in Book III when the eagle rather unceremoniously whisks him into the
heavens. In this second allegorical structure, the dreamer views the goddess Fame surrounded by the great
poets of antiquity on pedestals. They represent the authorities who, like Vergil, record the stories of such
lovers as Aeneas and Dido. The dreamer realizes, however, that Fame (and thus presumably the poets of
Fame) deals out good and bad at random, suggesting that there is little relationship between actuality and
reputation. He next sees the house of Rumor. Full of noise and whispering people, it is perhaps an allegorical
representation of the character of everyday life. In any case, this chaotic structure is no more attractive than
the house of Fame. Still searching for “tydinges of Loves folk,” the dreamer sees “a man of greet
auctoritee,” but the poem breaks off before the man can speak. The reader, like the dreamer, is left in the air;
the poem is left without an ending. As Muscatine comments, “It is hard to conceive of any ending at all that
could consistently follow from what we have.” In fact, the poem lacks a sense of unity. Its multiple topics and
elaborate descriptions are best studied as set pieces. Of particular interest is the often comic dialogue between
the dreamer and the eagle in Book II.
Parlement of Foules
The Parlement of Foules (699 lines) is a more satisfactory poem, although it shares much in common with
Hous of Fame, including a series of allegorical portraits and locales, a guide who tends to shove the dreamer
around, and birds as characters. A poem describing the mating of birds on Saint Valentine’s day, the
Parlement of Foules begins, like the Book of the Duchess, with the narrator reading a book about a dream. The
book is Cicero’s Dream of Scipio, the standard textbook on dreams, found in the last part of De republica
(52-51 b.c.e.). Its guide, Scipio Africanus the elder, becomes the dreamer’s guide in the Parlement of Foules.
He dreams of the typical enclosed garden of romance, guarded by a gate. The gate’s contrasting inscriptions
alluding to the gates of Dante’s Inferno, suggest the dual nature of love: bliss, fertility, and “good aventure”
on the one hand, and sorrow, barrenness, and danger on the other. Within the garden the dreamer again sees
two versions of love, although, as naïve as ever, he seems bewildered and unsure of what he witnesses.
Like the Renaissance masterpiece painting of “Sacred and Profane Love by Titian,” the poem contrasts two
traditional ideals of love. One is symbolized by Venus, whose entourage includes Flattery, Desire, and Lust as
well as Cupid, Courtesy, and Gentleness. Her religion of love is the subject of the poets and ancient
authorities whom the narrator so often reads. Her palace is dark and mannered, painted with the tragic stories
of doomed lovers. In contrast, the dreamer next sees in the bright sunlight “this noble goddesse Nature,” who
presides over the beauty of natural love and mating of the birds. These ceremonies include description of all
levels of the hierarchy of the birds, from the pragmatic arrangements of the goose and the love devotion of the
turtledove to the courtly wooing of the former by the eagles. The language of the birds, often comic, similarly
ranges from the sudden “kek, kek!” and “kukkow” to elaborate Latinate diction. Although lighthearted and
sometimes chaotic, the openness and social awareness of Nature’s realm is clearly to be preferred to the
artificiality and self-absorption of the temple of Venus. The poem ends under Nature’s skillful guidance as
the birds sing a song of spring, which awakens the dreamer. In the prologue, the narrator states that he wishes
to learn of love. This dream has provided much to learn, yet he seems in the end unchanged by his experience
and once again returns to his authorities.
The Legend of Good Women
Of great interest as a forerunner of The Canterbury Tales, The Legend of Good Women is Chaucer’s first
experiment with decasyllabic couplets and with the idea of a framed collection of stories. Like the much
Analysis 6
grander later collection, it begins with a prologue and then relates an unfinished series of stories. Although the
prologue plans nineteen stories, the poem breaks off near the conclusion of the ninth, after 2,723 lines. Unlike
“The General Prologue” to The Canterbury Tales, with its detailed portraits of the pilgrims set in the Tabard
Inn, the prologue to The Legend of Good Women is set as yet another dream. It presents the god of love and
his daisy queen in conversation with the Chaucerian narrator. Once again, the narrator is a reader of books
anxious to learn from life about love. More interesting, he is here also a writer of books and is harassed by the
god of love for not presenting lovers in a good light in his poetry. Specific reference is made to his translation
of the Romaunt of the Rose and to Troilus and Criseyde. As penance for his grievous sins against the religion
of love, the narrator promises to write about the faithful lovers of ancient legend.
Comparisons with The Canterbury Tales are perhaps unfair, but the poem, lacking the dynamic characters and
varied tales of the later collection, seems grievously repetitious. Its recital of love tragedies is borrowed from
Ovid and other authorities. Nevertheless, the legends do encompass a wider range of classical stories than
might at first be expected, including the stories of Cleopatra and Medea, who to the modern reader, at least,
hardly qualify as “good women.” The luscious yet natural scenery of the prologue is superb. Furthermore, the
work is fulfillment of Chaucer’s poetic development in the courtly tradition. Whatever the poem’s
weaknesses, it is unlikely that Chaucer would have agreed with Robert Burlin’s judgment that the poem was
“a colossal blunder.”
Troilus and Criseyde
In his elaborate panegyric, the French poet Émile Deschamps refers to Chaucer as a “Socrates, full of
philosophy, Seneca for morality . . . a great Ovid in your poetry.” The poem that most fully deserves such
praise is Troilus and Criseyde, Chaucer’s longest complete poem (8,259 lines) and, to many readers, his most
moving work. Here for the first time in a long poem, Chaucer turns from the dream-vision form and the
participating narrator but not from his concern with authorities and the nature of love. He now adds, however,
a Boethian philosophical touch. Although it is a poem about love, Fortuna rather than Venus is the controlling
goddess of Chaucer’s “little tragedy.” Although the career of Troilus is based on Boccaccio’s Filostrato (c.
1335-1340), it would seem that The Consolation of Philosophy exerted the greatest influence on the poem.
The five books of Troilus and Criseyde rather than being, as modern critics like to assert, the first novel or a
drama in five acts, represent the various stages of Troilus’s tragic love affair. Describing the “double
sorrow” of Troilus, the son of King Priam of Troy, the poem begins with his initial love-longing, then traces
his increasingly successful courtship of Criseyde culminating in their fulfilled love, the intervention of the
Trojan War in the midst of their happiness, their forced separation, Criseyde’s eventual acceptance of the
Greek Diomede, and finally Troilus’s gallant death at the hand of Achilles. While telling this story, Chaucer
paints a series of scenes, both comic and serious, sometimes absurd, often movingly romantic, examining
various outlooks on human love. Troilus’s excessive idealism seems to parody the courtly lovers of French
romances, whereas the pragmatic, often cynical attitudes of Pandarus, the uncle of Criseyde and confidant of
Troilus, remind one of the waterfowl in the Parlement of Foules and the later fabliaux of The Canterbury
Tales. Criseyde’s views of love shift between these two extremes, varying according to her feelings and the
exigencies of circumstance.
Calling Troilus and Criseyde Chaucer’s “great failure,” Ian Robinson (Chaucer and the English Tradition,
1972) believes that the poem includes “many great parts but they don’t cohere into a great whole.” Yet the
poem does have a unifying structure, based on the rising and falling stages of the Wheel of Fortune. The
notion of Fortune turning a wheel which sometimes takes man to the height of success and sometimes drags
him down to failure is standard in medieval thought and very popular in both literature and art. The stages of
the wheel, along with the poem’s narrative units, are set forth in the invocations which introduce the books of
Troilus and Criseyde. In the first, when Troilus is at the bottom of the wheel, the narrator invokes Tesiphone,
“thou cruel fury.” As Morton Bloomfield comments (“Distance and Predestination in Troilus and
Analysis 7
Criseyde”), Tesiphone was characterized as the “sorrowful fury” who laments her torments and pities those
whom she torments. The choice is thus appropriate for the description in Book I of the hero’s initial love
torments and for the events of the entire poem. The Chaucerian narrator presents himself as “the sorrowful
instrument” of love, required to tell the “sorrowful tale.”
The invocation in Book II, to Clio the Muse of history, suggests that the second stage represents a rather
neutral and objectively historical description of the rise of Troilus on the wheel, whereas the invocation to
Venus in Book III is appropriate for the stage when the lovers are at the top of the wheel and consummate
their love. As all readers of Boethius know, however, if one chooses to ride to the top of the wheel, one in all
fairness cannot be surprised when the wheel continues to turn downward. Thus, Book IV begins with an
invocation to Fortune and her wheel, which throws down the hero and sets Diomede in his place. There is also
an appropriate reference to Mars, suggesting the growing influence of the war on the romance. Book V
follows without an invocation, probably because it is a continuation of the fourth book and implying that the
downward movement of the wheel is one continuous stage. Certainly the poem’s last book does not introduce
any new elements. Its major concerns are Troilus’s fatalism and the details of the Trojan War.
This pattern clearly interweaves two problems which dominate the poem: the perplexities of human love and
man’s sense of being fated. Troilus is the character overwhelmed by both problems. Although many critics
are fascinated by the inscrutable Criseyde and attracted by the worldly-wise Pandarus, Troilus is the poem’s
central figure. Readers may become frustrated by his passive love-longing and swooning and his long-winded
and confused discussion of predestination and free will; however, he is treated sympathetically and his
situation must be taken seriously. One can argue, using Boethius as support, that the solution to the human
predicament is simply never to accept the favors of Fortune—to stay away from her wheel—but what man
would not do as Troilus did for the love of Criseyde? Similarly, one can agree with the moralizing narrator at
the poem’s conclusion that the solution is to avoid worldly vanity and the love associated with Venus and to
look instead to heavenly love.
Certainly Troilus recognizes this view as his soul ascends to the seventh sphere. Yet the poem as a whole
hardly condemns the love of the two Trojans. On the contrary, it describes their long-awaited rendezvous in
bed with great sensitivity and poetic beauty, with warmth and sensuous natural imagery. As Spearing states,
“There is probably no finer poetry of fulfilled love in English than this scene.” In this great tragic romance,
Chaucer seems to juxtapose human and divine love and to intermingle the sense of predestination and the
Christian teaching of free will; not until the end does he speak as the moralist and condemn worldly vanity.
Perhaps the tragedy of Troilus and of the human situation in general is that the distinctions are not sufficiently
clear until it is too late to choose.
The Canterbury Tales
Near the end of Troilus and Criseyde, Chaucer associates his “little tragedy” with a long line of classical
poets and then asks for help to write “some comedie.” Donald Howard and others have seen this as a
reference to the poet’s plans for The Canterbury Tales. Whether Chaucer had this collection planned by the
time he had completed Troilus and Criseyde, The Canterbury Tales can certainly be understood as his
comedy. If, as the Monk notes at the beginning of his long summary of tragic tales, a tragedy deals with those
who once “stood in high degree, and fell so that there was no remedy,” in the medieval view comedy deals
with less significant characters and with events that move toward happy endings. The Canterbury Tales is thus
a comedy, not because of its comic characters and humorous stories—several tales are actually tragic in tone
and structure—but because its overall structure is comic.
Like Dante’s The Divine Comedy (c. 1320) which traces the poet’s eschatological journey from Hell through
Purgatory to Heaven, shifting from a pagan guide to the representatives of divine love and inspiration, and
concluding with the beatific vision, Chaucer’s comedy symbolically moves from the infernal to the heavenly.
Analysis 8
From the worldly concerns of the Tabard Inn in Southwark and the guidance of the worldly-wise Host,
through a variety of points of view set forth by differing characters on the pilgrimage road, the poem moves to
the religious goal of the saint’s shrine in Canterbury Cathedral and the Parson’s direction of the pilgrims to
“Jerusalem celestial.”
Although with differing effects, since the Christian perspective of Troilus and Criseyde lies beyond the
narrative itself, Chaucer’s tragedy and comedy thus share a similar moral structure. Like the tragedy, The
Canterbury Tales moves from an ancient story of pagan heroes to a Christian perspective. In Troilus and
Criseyde the narrator develops from being the servant of the god of love to being a moralist who condemns
pagan “cursed old rites” and advises the young to love him who “for love upon a cross our souls did buy.”
The collection of tales similarly moves from the Knight’s “old stories” set in ancient Thebes and Athens and
relating the fates of pagan lovers to the Parson’s sermon beginning “Our swete lord god of hevene.” In
contrast with the earlier poem, The Canterbury Tales is a comedy because its divine perspective is achieved
within the overall narrative. Yet as in the earlier poem, this divine perspective at the end does not necessarily
cancel out the earlier outlooks proposed. The entire poem with its multiplicity of characters and viewpoints
Such an approach to The Canterbury Tales assumes that, although unfinished, the poem is complete as it
stands and should be judged as a whole. Like the Corpus Christi cycles of the later Middle Ages, which
include numerous individual plays yet can (and should) be read as one large play tracing salvation history
from creation to doomsday, The Canterbury Tales is more than the sum of its parts. “The General Prologue,”
that masterpiece of human description with its fascinating portraits of the pilgrims, establishes not only the
supposed circumstances for the pilgrimage and the competition to tell the best story but also the strands that
link the tales to the characters and to one another. Although only twenty-four tales were finished, their
relationship to one another within fragments and their sense of unity within variety suggest that Chaucer had
an overall plan for The Canterbury Tales.
The famous opening lines of “The General Prologue,” with the beautiful evocation of spring fever, set forth
both the religious and the secular motivations of the pilgrims. These motivations are further developed in their
description by the pilgrim Chaucer. He again is the naïve narrator whose wide-eyed simplicity seems to accept
all, leaving the discriminating reader to see beyond the surface details. Finally, in his faithful retelling of the
stories he hears on the way to Canterbury—for once his experience has become an authority to which, he
explains, he must not be false—the narrator again unwittingly implies much about these various human types.
Several of the prologues and tales that follow then continue to explore the motivations of the individual
pilgrims. The confessional prologue of “The Pardoner’s Tale” and its sermon filled with moral exempla, for
instance, ironically reflects the earlier description of the confidence man, Pardoner, as one “with feigned
flattery and tricks, made the parson and the people his apes.”
It would be a mistake, however, to interpret the various tales simply as dramatic embodiments of the pilgrims.
Certainly Chaucer often fits story to storyteller. The sentimental, self-absorbed, and prissy Prioress tells, for
example, a simplistic, anti-Semitic tale of a devout little Christian boy murdered by Jews. The implications of
her tale make one question the nature of her spirituality. The tales given the Knight, Miller, and Reeve also
reflect their characters. The Knight tells at great length a chivalric romance, a celebration of his worldview,
whereas the Miller and Reeve tell bawdy stories concerning tradesmen, clerks, and wayward wives.
Yet these tales also develop the larger concerns of The Canterbury Tales implied by Chaucer’s arrangement
of the tales into thematic groups. “The Knight’s Tale,” with its ritualized action and idealized characters,
draws from Boethian philosophy in its symmetrically patterned examination of courtly love, fate, and cosmic
justice. The Miller then interrupts to “quite” or answer the Knight with a bawdy fabliau. Developing
naturalistic dialogue and earthy characters, it rejects the artificial and the philosophical for the mundane and
the practical. In place of the Knight’s code of honor and courtly love, elaborate description of the tournament,
Analysis 9
and Stoic speech on the Great Chain of Being, the drunken Miller sets the stage for sexual conquest, a
complex practical joke, and a “cherles tales” involving bodily functions and fleshly punishment. In “The
Miller’s Tale,” justice is created not by planetary gods but by human action, each character getting what he
deserves. The Reeve, offended by both the Miller and his tale, then follows with another fabliau. His
motivations are much more personal than those of the Miller: The Reeve feels that the Miller has deliberately
insulted him, and he insists on returning the favor. Yet even in this tale Chaucer provides another dimension
to the issues originally set forth by the Knight.
The clearest example of Chaucer’s thematic grouping of tales is the so-called Marriage Cycle. First noted by
G. L. Kittredge and discussed since by various critics, the idea of the cycle is that Chaucer carefully arranged
particular tales, told by suitable pilgrims, so that they referred to one another and developed a common theme,
as in a scholarly debate. The Marriage Cycle examines various viewpoints on love and marriage, particularly
tackling the issue of who should have sovereignty in marriage, the husband or the wife. The cycle is
introduced by the Wife of Bath’s rambling commentary on the woes of marriage and her wishful tale of a
young bachelor who rightly puts himself in his wife’s “wyse governance.” After the Friar and Summoner
“quite” each other in their own personal feud, the cycle continues with an extreme example of wifely
obedience, “The Clerk’s Tale” of patient Griselda. Such an otherworldly portrait of womanly perfection
spurs the Merchant, a man who is obviously unhappy in marriage, to propound his cynical view of the
unfaithful wife. The saint’s legend of the scholarly Clerk is thus followed by the fabliau of the satirical
Merchant, and the debate is no nearer conclusion. Finally, the Franklin appears to “knit up the whole matter”
by suggesting that in marriage the man should be both dominant as husband and subservient as lover. Yet the
Franklin’s view is hardly followed by the characters of his tale. Interestingly, the two solutions to the issue of
sovereignty proposed—those of the Wife of Bath and of the Franklin—are developed in Breton lays, short and
highly unrealistic romances relying heavily on magical elements. Is it the case that only magic can solve this
typically human problem? Chaucer, at least, does not press for a definitive answer.
The great sense of variety, the comic treatment of serious issues, the concern with oppositions and
unsuccessful solutions, and the lively and imaginative verse that so typifies The Canterbury Tales are best
exemplified by “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale.” A beast fable mocking courtly language and rhetorical
overabundance, the tale at once includes Chaucer’s fascination with authorities, dreams, fate, and love, and
marriage, and suggests his ambivalent attitudes toward the major philosophical and social concerns of his day.
The elevated speeches of Chanticleer are punctuated by barnyard cries, and the pompous world of the rooster
and hen are set within the humble yard of a poor widow.
Here the reader is provided with a comic version of the detached perspective that concludes Troilus and
Criseyde. After deciding that dreams are to be taken seriously and refusing to take a laxative, Chanticleer
disregards his dream and its warning and makes love to his favorite wife in a scene that absurdly portrays
chickens as courtly lovers. Interestingly, Chanticleer now cites a standard sentiment of medieval
antifeminism: In principio/ Mulier est hominis confusio (“In the beginning woman is man’s ruin”), which
alludes to the apostle John’s famous description of the creation (John 1:1). The learned rooster, moreover,
immediately mistranslates the Latin as “Womman is mannes ioye and al his blys,” perhaps the Priest’s subtle
comment on the Nun he serves or the rooster’s joke on Pertelote. Yet the joke ultimately is on Chanticleer
when “a colfox ful of sley iniquitee” sneaks into this romance “garden.” Noting that the counsel of woman
brought woe to the world “And made Adam from paradys to go,” the Nun’s Priest then relates the temptation
and fall of Chanticleer and the subsequent chasing of the fox and rooster out of the barnyard. The adventure is
full of great fun, a hilarious scene, yet strangely reminiscent of the biblical story of the fall of man. It is not
clear what one is to make of such a story.
Although Chaucer was not the first author to create a framed collection of stories, The Canterbury Tales is
assuredly the most imaginative collection. Earlier the poet had experimented with a framed collection in
Legend of Good Women. His Italian contemporary, Boccaccio, also created a collection of stories in The
Analysis 10
Decameron (1348-1353), although scholars cannot agree whether Chaucer knew this work. Earlier collections
of exempla and legends were probably known by the poet, and he certainly knew the great collection of Ovid,
The Metamorphoses (c. 8 a.d.). Like Ovid’s collection, The Canterbury Tales is organized by thematic and
structural elements which provide a sense of unity within diversity. Chaucer’s choice of the pilgrimage as the
setting for the tales is particularly effective, since it allows the juxtaposition of characters, literary types, and
themes gathered from a wide range of sources and reflecting a wide range of human attitudes.
Here, perhaps, is the key to Chaucer’s greatness. Like the medieval view of the macrocosm, in which
constant change and movement take place within a relatively unchanging framework, Chaucer’s view of the
microcosm balances the dynamic and the static, the wide range of individual feeling and belief within
unchanging human nature. The Canterbury Tales is his greatest achievement in this area, although earlier
poems, such as the Parlement of Foules, with its portrayal of the hierarchy of birds within Nature’s order,
already show Chaucer’s basic view. Ranging over human nature, selecting from ancient story and supposed
personal experience, with a place for both the comic and the tragic, Chaucer’s poetry mixes mirth and
morality, accomplishing very successfully the two great purposes of literature, what the Host calls ‘sentence
and solas,’ teaching and entertainment.
Borroff, Marie. Traditions and Renewals: Chaucer the Gawain-poet, and Beyond. New Haven, Conn.: Yale
University Press, 2003. A collection of essays that provide a fresh and different analysis of Chaucer’s work.
Bowden, Muriel. A Commentary on the General Prologue to “The Canterbury Tales.” 2d ed. New York:
Macmillan, 1967. Restricted in scope to the general prologue, the most widely read (and taught) of Chaucer’s
writings. Provides a detailed explication that explores the prologue virtually line by line, collecting and
arranging all significant discussions of the text. A valuable reference for the specialist, while remaining clear
enough to be accessible to the general reader.
Brewer, Derek. Chaucer and His World. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1978. A social history of the late fourteenth
century in England as well as a biographical study, this work presents Chaucer as a man at the center of his
culture exploring his early life and civic career, as well as his art and artistry. Many excellent illustrations give
a lively sense of the period.
Brewer, Derek. A New Introduction to Chaucer. New York: Longman, 1998. Brewer, an expert in the field,
provides ample biographical and historical material for anyone who is unfamiliar with Chaucer’s life and
work. Includes a thorough bibliography and index.
Brewer, Derek, ed. Chaucer: The Critical Heritage. 2 vols. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978. A
two-volume selection of essays on Chaucer. Volume 1 (1385-1837) contains contributions ranging from
Émile Deschamps to Samuel Taylor Coleridge; volume 2 (1837-1933) includes criticism by Virginia Woolf,
among others. In the vast resources on Chaucer, this volume edited by an eminent Chaucerian stands as an
excellent source for reviewing Chaucer’s scholarship and criticism.
Brown, Peter, ed. A Companion to Chaucer. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2000. Part of the Blackwell
Companions to Literature and Culture series, offers broad and detailed essays by scholars of Chaucer and his
Chute, Marchette Gaylord. Geoffrey Chaucer of England. New York: E. P. Dutton and Co., 1946, rev. ed.
1962. This general reader’s life of Chaucer, first issued in 1946, remains the best of its type. The style is clear
and unpretentious, and the facts are set forth in the context of background information such a reader will
Bibliography 11
invariably need. The author discusses the poet’s literary achievement but is more successful at conveying the
flow of his life.
Coghill, Nevill. The Poet Chaucer. New York: Oxford University Press, 1949, 2d ed. 1967. Coghill’s book
interweaves three biographical chapters with discussions of Chaucer’s poetry, emphasizing matters which
influenced his writing and omitting details of his official life.
Condren, Edward I. Chaucer and the Energy of Creation: The Design and the Organization of “The
Canterbury Tales.” Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1999. Examines the motives behind Chaucer’s
layout of the stories.
Crow, Martin M., and Virginia E. Leland. “Chaucer’s Life.” In The Riverside Chaucer. Edited by Larry D.
Benson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 3d ed. 1987. Part of the front material in this impressive new edition,
this biographical essay briefly but authoritatively presents the principal known facts of Chaucer’s life. It will
serve the purposes of the reader for whom accuracy and conciseness are more important than atmosphere.
Crow, Martin M., and Clair C. Olson, eds. Chaucer Life-Records. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1966.
Not a biography but a compiliation of all known records pertaining directly to the poet, this basic reference
work will give the student of Chaucer an opportunity to experience directly the materials on which any
responsible life must be based.
Gardner, John. The Life and Times of Chaucer. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977. Written by a popular
novelist who was also a medievalist, this lively and handsomely produced book nevertheless has drawn sharp
criticism from medieval scholars for its lapses in taste and judgment, its careless appropriation of sources, and
its failure to fuse its often interesting parts into a coherent whole.
Gittes, Katherine S. Framing the Canterbury Tales: Chaucer and the Medieval Frame Narrative Tradition.
Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1991. Analyzes the influence of the Asian frame narrative tradition on
The Canterbury Tales; argues that what was once taken for incompleteness is the result of the influence of
Eastern modes of narrative structure.
Harding, Wendy. “The Function of Pity in Three Canterbury Tales.” The Chaucer Review 32 (1997): 162-
174. Discusses the variability of pity in “The Knight’s Tale,” “The Clerk’s Tale,” and “The Parson’s
Tale.” Argues that in different ways, all three deal with the role of pity in hierarchical relations.
Howard, Donald R. Chaucer. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1987. A most comprehensive and authoritative
biography, by a renowned critic, valuable for both the novice and the advanced student. Combines
biographical and historical material with insightful commentary on the poetry. A thorough yet readable
introduction to Chaucer, his work, and his world.
Howard, Donald R. The Idea of “The Canterbury Tales.” Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976. This
study endeavors to understand the idea of the poem in a historical perspective. It looks at language, customs,
institutions, values, and myths, as well as the use of visual models like rose windows and pavement labyrinths
to understand the sprawling form. Special attention is paid to the darker side of Chaucer, the concept of
pilgrimage and medieval aesthetics. Howard elucidates the implied meanings behind the juxtapositions of
some of the tales. Excellent bibliographical references appear in the footnotes.
Kittredge, G. L. Chaucer and His Poetry. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1915. This classic of
Chaucerian scholarship includes a critical appraisal of the chief works based on lectures given by the author in
1914. The first chapter is a short discussion of the man and his times, but the meat of the criticism develops
around the poems with two chapters devoted to The Canterbury Tales. A reading knowledge of the poems is
Bibliography 12
Muscatine, Charles. Chaucer and the French Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957. A
history of literary style in the medieval period, this study proposes that Chaucer adapted his personal style
from the courtly and bourgeois styles of French literature. It presents Chaucer as fusing the traditions of the
idealized court romances and the “fabliaux,” beast epics, and fables.
Narkiss, Doron. “The Fox, the Cock, and the Priest: Chaucer’s Escape from Fable.” The Chaucer Review 32
(1997): 46-63. Examines Chaucer’s reworking of Aesop’s fable in “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale.” Argues that
Chaucer moves the fable away from the realm of learning and wisdom to mockery and a way of reading that
in “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale” fable is extended by characterization and action. Claims that Chaucer’s use of
the fable suggests doubling, repetition, and substitutions.
Payne, Robert O. Geoffrey Chaucer. 2d ed. Boston: Twayne, 1986. A concise introduction to Chaucer and his
period for the beginning student by one of the leading scholars in the field. Addressed to readers who have no
previous background in medieval literature or cultural studies.
Pearsall, Derek. The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer: A Critical Biography. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1992. For
a review of this biography see Magill’s Literary Annual review.
Percival, Florence. Chaucer’s Legendary Good Women. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Suitable for introductory students yet containing challenging insights for scholars. Percival attempts to
provide a comprehensive interpretation of the puzzling Legend of Good Women without ignoring any of the
contradictory views that it contains about women.
Robertson, D. W., Jr. Preface to Chaucer: Studies in Medieval Perspectives. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton
University Press, 1962. This is the classic of Chaucerian new historicism developed by Robertson partly in
reaction to G. L. Kittredge and the New Criticism which downplay the religious and cultural influences on
Chaucer. Robertson clearly presents the principles of medieval aesthetics through which Chaucer can be
processed and given richer meaning. He focuses on the prevalent ideas of Chaucer’s time, the importance of
allegory in medieval theories of literature and religion in medieval life. Amplified with more than one
hundred illustrations.
Rossignol, Rosalyn. Chaucer A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Works. New York: Facts on
File, 1999. An indispensable guide for the student of Chaucer.
Rowland, Beryl, ed. Companion to Chaucer Studies. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.
Especially valuable for the student or teacher with little ready access to a research library. Contains
twenty-two essays, each followed by an extensive bibliography, by major authorities in the field. Surveys the
history of Chaucer criticism in a wide range of topics, beginning with Chaucer’s biography and influences, to
his style. Contains six chapters on The Canterbury Tales and individual chapters on the more important minor
Schoeck, Richard, and Jerome Taylor, eds. Chaucer Criticism. 2 vols. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre
Dame Press, 1960-1961. Volume 1, The Canterbury Tales, assembles some of the most important early
studies of Chaucer’s masterpiece, including John Matthews Manly’s “Chaucer and the Rhetoricians” and
George Lyman Kittredge’s seminal “Chaucer’s Discussion of Marriage.” A valuable introduction to major
critics and approaches. Volume 2, “Troilus and Criseyde” and the Minor Poems, contains an introduction to
“The System of Courtly Love” by William George Dodd, followed by twelve essays on Troilus and
Criseyde. Also includes essays on individual shorter poems.
Bibliography 13
Storm, Mel. “Speech, Circumspection, and Orthodontics in the Manciple’s Prologue and Tale and the Wife
of Bath’s Portrait.” Studies in Philology 96 (Spring, 1999): 109-126. Asserts that Chaucer’s “The
Manciple’s Tale” is his apologia for his life as a poet. Suggests that “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” is balanced
both thematically and dramatically in “The Manciple’s Tale.”
Taavitsainen, Irma. “Narrative Patterns of Affect in Four Genres of the Canterbury Tales.” The Chaucer
Review 30 (1995): 191-210. Discusses four genres: sermons, saints’ lives, courtly romances, and fabliaux.
Argues that an assessment of inherent linguistic patterns of genres reveals new ways of seeing how the
audience is manipulated, how their emotions are provoked, and how narrative suspense is sustained.
West, Richard. Chaucer 1340-1400: The Life and Times of the First English Poet. New York: Carroll & Graf,
2000. A discussion of the history surrounding Chaucer’s achievements and the events of his life. Chapters
take up such matters as the Black Death’s impact on the anti-Semitism evident in “The Prioress’s Tale” and
the impact of the great English Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 on Chaucer’s worldview.

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