Comment on Geoffrey Chaucer’s language and versification

It is said that Emperor Augustus had found Rome a city of brick a when he died he left it a city of marble. Similarly Chaucer found his native tongue a dialect and lefty a language, that is, he turned brick into marble. He did the same service to English that Dante had done to Italian. He harmonised, regulated and popularised the still discordant elements of his national speech, and made it an instrument of social, political and literary thought.

Different from Moderns:

It is with Chaucer that the modern period of the English language begins. In his own days there were four marked dialects-southern, Midland, Northumbrian and Kentish. He adopted the East Midland dialect and made it a language. For all practical purposes Chaucer’s English is modern and can be read without the aid of a grammar and a glossary unlike the work of his predecessors, and his contemporaries, who wrote in any of other dialects. Yet his pronunciation and scansion are different from that of the moderns. Many of his lines would not scan and his rhymes would look ‘bad’ ones if they were read in the pronunciation of today.

Spelling was not fixed in Chaucer’s time as it is today. The result of this was that men spelt as they pronounced. Spelling in the Middle Ages, therefore, varied according to the dialect and the speaker. But it was more or less phonetic. i. e. the consonants and the vowels had their original or continental values.

Compared to the modern English syntax, Chaucer’s is loose and conversational. It does not insist upon rigidity or strict regularity, because the English language of the Middle Ages was in a stage of transition and consequently the process of formalizing had not yet culminated in fixing writing. Moreover, in Chaucer’s day the interest of the writer as well as the reader was rather in the story than in the language which clothed it. In Chaucer’s day, as Chaucer himself says, is the broken language:

And for there is so great diversity

In English and in writing of our tonge.

-Troilus and Criseyde

But it is Chaucer who tries to give it a unified and uniform form. He also enriches it by mingling French words.

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Chaucer’s Style:

Chaucer’s style is lucid, graceful, easy and unrestrained Spirited, original and joyous, he at once captivates and charms us. His language is altogether free from vagueness and affectation. It is very easy and effortless. His words are the words of everyday life. His sentences are from awkward inversions. From any studied balance or antithesis. There are no strained conceits and far-fetched metaphors. His images are concrete and homely. In fact, Chaucer’s instinct was for the concrete. His imagery is not that as we observe it in Shakespeare. Donne, Milton or Keats the imagery of broken solaces, half-tones. Imprecise suggestion, sudden wonder, extended learning, remote allusion, and above all, the imagery of metaphor that shows one thing instantly-in terms of another with a flash of revelation Chaucer’s imagery is the imagery of common sight and sense, achieving the poetry of fact. He has a steady, effortless power of making of what seems to be prose statements gleam and glow as they never do in prose. His similes are for the most part the obvious ones of common conversation, though nonetheless charming for that. For example:

  • His even twynkled in his heed aryght. As doon the sterres in the frosty nyght.
  • As hoot he was and lecherous as a sparine.
  • A leene was his horse as is a rake.

Right Word In the Right Place:

Beautiful women. Heroic men. Gorgeous buildings. Gay processions. Splendid armour, gardens and fountains, woods and rivers, birds and beasts, come in his way as the poet of fables and allegories love, character and romantic adventure: and he describes them enthusiastically with the utmost opulence of detail. His pictorial imagination was not called upon for many fragmentary contributions, but every now and then it received steady employment. To read Chaucer is to listen to the charming, gracious conversation of cultured gentleman who is also a poet. Chaucer illustrates best. Coleridge’s definition of poetry as the best words in the best order and Wordsworth’s theory of poetic diction. The right word in the right place and never an unnecessary word is the keynote of Chaucer’s style. His stories tell themselves without apartment effort, even without art, without hurry, but without delay. Yet his style is not a careless style. In his perfect finish, his easy elegance, Chaucer is essentially Gallic, one may almost say. Hellenic.” There is the simplicity, felicity of word and beauty of phrases which betray the master hand. The gold dew-drops of speech. The divine liquidness of diction and fluidity of movement which so much pleased the ears of Matthew Arnold make Chaucer’s poetry and enduring delight and eternal pleasure.

Chaucer’s Musical Poetry:

Chaucer’s poetry is extremely musical and must be judged by the ear rather then by the eye. To the modern reader, the lines appear broken and uneven, but if one reads them over a few times, he soon catches the perfect swing of the measure. And finds that he is in the hands of a master whose ear is delicately sensitive to the smallest accent. Numerous lines may be selected to prove Chaucer’s perfection in the melody of word music and sheer poetic charm. His verse flows like the slow stream, and the music produced by his lines is like that of a clear stream rippling over its bed of pebbles.

As a Metricist:

As a metricist alone he may be claimed as the father of English poetry. Old Anglo-Saxon poetry rests upon principles of composition, quite different from those which govern modern English In place of time or ‘end rime’ as it is more strictly called, it employs ‘beginning time’ or alliteration, that is, the regular and emphatic repetition of the same letter..

Grandel gongan, Godes yere haer (Grandel going God’s anger bore).

Chaucer abandons the old English irregular line and alliteration ‘rim, ram, ruff”. As he jestingly calls it, and accepts the French method of regular metre and end- rimes’. He makes the heroic couplet the standard measure of narrative poetry, as Shakespeare makes blank verse the standard measure of drama. He handles the decasyllabic line with a mastery which is the envy and despair of the following century.

He normally employs the Iambic rhythm. His measure is almost always tetrameter or pentameter. The essence of metre is regularity, its ornament is variety’, says Dr. Johnson and Chaucer remarkably illustrates this great truth in prosody. He found English meters halting and stiff, he left them formal, forceful and supple.



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