The title of The well of English undefiled for Chaucer

History of English language tells that up to the time of Chaucer the struggle among its various dialects for supremacy was not decided. Wycliffe and Gower wrote in the East Midland, Langland in Southern and Minot and Barbour wrote in the Northern dialect. Born in London and living at the court, Chaucer used the ordinary dialect of the educated Londoners, that of the East Midland; and with few modifications, it has become the standard English of today. The time of Chaucer’s birth was quite fortunate for him. Besides the struggle between the English dialects, there was the more momentous struggle between the rival languages, English and Anglo-French, and English was winning all along the line. Even the Courtiers were bilingual in Richard II’s reign. In 1362 pleadings in the courts of law were ordered to be made in English. In the very same year the parliamentary session was first opened with an English speech. In 1385. Latin was being construed into English instead of into Anglo-French in the schools. In fact, ever since Robert Manning of Bourn’s Handlyng Synne in 1303. the East Midland dialect had been making bolder and bolder bids for the supremacy. There were several factors in favour of this dialect. The area in which it was spoken included London and the two universities and a larger population than that of any other dialect. It was of all the dialects the most easily understand’ in districts where it was not spoken. But it is not too much to say that Chaucer finally settled the question of supremacy, and made East Midland henceforward the royal dialect, the King’s English.

Chaucer‘s chief contribution to the development of English language is that English, which was hitherto a language of dialects, was aided by him to be ultimately made the language of England. Chaucer adopted the East Midland dialect and gave it a new form and shape till it became the proper and acceptable medium of speech. He imparted smoothness and suppleness to the dialect which it had not known since the Norman times. No doubt, he took his training from French writers like Froissart. Granson and Machaut, but he was not a “French poet writing in English”. He is the poet who took inspiration from the developed language of France but clung to his native tongue. In fact, he found it easier to adopt the French verse-forms to English use. “He infused into native vocabulary the courtliness of France and expressed in English all the graces and delicate shades of meaning which he found in French poetry.” He did for English what Dante had done for Italian. It is on account of his unique contribution to the making of English as a proper medium of poetry, that Spenser called him the “well of English undefiled” and Stow called him the “first illuminer of our English language”. Some critics have criticized Chaucer that he was a mingier of English with French and that he corrupted English rather than refined it. But such criticisms simply show ignorance on the part of critics. The truth is that Chaucer’s language simply comprises poetical vocabulary of the society in which he lived and moved. Lounsbury rightly speaks of Chaucer’s contribution. “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 pre- eminence 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.”

Walter Raleigh’s views are also noteworthy in this regard. “No poet makes his own language. No poet introduces serious or numerous modifications into the language that he uses. Some. no doubt. coin words and revive them, like Spenser or Keats in verse. Carlyle or Sir Thomas Browne in prose. The poets who take liberties with speech are either prophets or eccentrics. From either of these characters Chaucer was far removed. He held fast by communal and social standards for literary speech. He desired to be understood by the people. His English is plain, terse homely. colloquial English. taken alive out of daily speech. He expresses his idea again and again, as when the Host asks what is the use of telling a tale that sends the hearer to sleep:

For certeinly, as that thise clerkes seyn.

Whereas a man may have noon audience.

Noght helpeth it to tellen his sentence.

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So far Chaucer’s contribution to versification is concerned. he paid an equally great attention to versification. He chose and modified the one he thought fit. In Parson’s Tale, he wrote:

But trusteth wel. I am a southern man.

I can not geste-run, ran. ruf-by letterre.

Ne, God wot, rym holde I but litel bettere.

The poets hitherto had been struggling hard to evolve a new rhythm to replace the alliterative measure of the Anglo-Saxon poetry, but their attempts could not show optimistic results. By the end of the 13th century. the English people felt a bit relieved and when Chaucer appeared on the scene, they were content to find a poet from amongst themselves to write for them and in their own language and style. Feeling the national literary pulse. Chaucer abandoned the old English irregular lines and alliterative verse and adopted the old measure of decasyllabic line and made it more melodious by introducing variations in feet rather than sticking to the hackneyed alliteration.

The two prominent poetic measures used by Chaucer are the seven-line stanza and the Heroic couplet. The first was called variously, such as the Troilus stanza. used by Chaucer in his famous Troilus and Cressida, and Rime Royal, as it was used by King James of Scotland, who was a literary disciple of Chaucer. This stanza-form has the rhyme scheme ababbcc. Chaucer found it a handy form with the advantage that one of its rhyme-sounds is repeated three times, so it is musical. Chaucer’s greater achievement in versification is the Heroic Couplet. He adopted this form. with a masterly hand which could be subsequently perfected by none but Dryden.


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