A Note On Chaucer’s Contribution To English Poetry

Chaucer has been acclaimed consent as the Father of English poetry. He is also regarded as the earliest of the great moderns. For in the dark period of the Middle Ages, when the light of modernism had not yet been visible on the literary horizon. Chaucer went a long way in anticipating the modern taste and temperament. At such a period he made notable contributions to English poetry. E. Albert rightly says “All the Chaucerian features help to create this modern atmosphere: the shrewd and placidly humorous observation, the wide humanity, the quick aptness of phrase. The dexterous touch upon the meters, and above all. The fresh and formative spirit-the genius turning dross into gold”.

Before Chaucer, poetry was narrow in outlook and hackneyed in delineation. Other poets of his age fixed their eyes on certain limited aspects suiting their own tastes. For example. Wyclif sang only of religious reformation. Gower expressed the fears of people arising out of the Peasants Revolt. Pearl spoke of the mysticism of refined minds and Langland bothered himself about the rampant corruption in the Church. But Chaucer’s poetic eye covered the wide canvas of humanity. People from all walks of life. Leaving of course the highest and the lowest. Came within the scope of his poetic delineation.

Chaucer is the first English poet to have a keen interest in men and manners. He is an objective and disinterested painter of human beings, Chaucer’s principal Object was to portray men and women truthfully and to present an exact picture of life. With his access power of observation he painted people as he found them. The Prologue reflects the fourteenth century not in fragments but as a whole. It Is the realistic picture of the society. Chaucer himself makes his point clear:

“Whoso shal telle a tale after a man,
He moot reherce as ny as evere he can
Everich a word, if it be in his charge,
Al speke he never so rudeliche and large
Or elles he moot telle his tale untrewe,
Or feyne thing, or finde wordes newe.”

The Prologue truly shows that Chaucer was the first great realist in English Poetry.

Chaucer “is the first great painter of character because he is the first great observer of it among European writers.” (Ward). Chaucer’s greatest contribution is in the field of characterisation. His portraits are life-like. His characters are living creatures, not carved images. In the words of Blake. “the characters of Chaucer’s Pilgrims are the characters which compose all ages and nations….Some of the names or titles are altered by time but the characters themselves remain unaltered: and consequently they are the physiognomies or lineaments of universal human life.” How can one forget the characters of the Prioress, the Doctor of Physic, the Wife of Bath and others? In fact Chaucer “has the power of getting into some one else’s character. His understanding of the men and women of whom he writes is complete. His slightest character-sketches are always solid and dimensional” (Hazlitt).

Chaucer ranks as the first great humourist in English literature. It is his humour that has endeared his poetry with the people of all ages. His pervasive sympathetic humour is specially characteristic. We can see him looking with twinkling eyes at the Miller. “tolling thrice” at the Monk full fat and in good point. Hunting with his greyhounds, or smiling before a fat roast swan: at the Squire keeping the nightingale company, at the Doctor, prescribing by the rules of astrology, In the words of Albert. “The humour which steeps nearly all his poetry has great variety: kindly and patronizing as in the case of the Clerk of Oxford: broad and semi-farcical as in the case of the Wife of Bath: pointedly satirical, as in the Pardoner and the Summoner: or coarse, as happens in the tales of the Miller, the Reeve and the Pardoner. The prevailing feature of Chaucer’s humour is its urbanity, the man-of-the world’s kindly tolerance of the weaknesses of his erring fellow mortals.”

Then Chaucer is the first great story-teller. He stands in the front rank of those who have attempted to tell stories in melodious verse. Lowell rightly says, “one of the world’s three or four great story-tellers. He was also one of the best versifiers that ever made English trip and sing with a gaiety that seems careless, but where every foot beats time to the tune of the thought.” His stories are living pictures. In fact, he was the first great poet to relate story-telling to life. It is his art of story-telling that has also given him the title of the fore-runner of English novel. His stories are novels in miniature. They have almost all the elements that go to make a novel or even a drama. His Prologue to The Canterbury Tales may safely be called as the Prologue to the modern fiction.

Chaucer’s contribution to English language and versification is no less noteworthy. He found English a dialect and left it a language. He is also known as a “well of English undefiled.” Lounsbury remarks in this regard. “No really national language could exist until a literature had been created which would be admired and studied by all who could read. And taken as a model by all who could write. It was only a man of genius that could lift up one of these dialects into a prominence over the rest. Or could ever give to the scattered forces existing in anyone of them the unity and vigour of life. This was the work that Chaucer did.”

Thus, Chaucer stands first in many respects so far English poetry is concerned. His poetry has universal appeal. His work. Particularly The Canterbury Tales make the profoundest and deepest appeal to the modern reader. His character are present even today in the society in one form or the other. English owes much to Chaucer. Therefore, it is not too much to call him the father of English poetry.



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