Sunday, September 19, 2010

"Chaucer has none of that strong ethical bias which is usually to be found in the English mind." How is this remark of Aldous Huxley justified by The Prologue to The Canterbury Tales?

When we think of Chaucer's poetry, we are immediately reminded of its broad comedy, subtle irony and gentle satire. We are struck by the tolerant humour colouring his lines. We come to agree with Aldous Huxley's comment that Chaucer has none of that strong ethical bias which is usually present in the English mind.
It is all the more striking if we call to mind the nature of most of the work written by Chaucer's contemporaries. The aura of Christianity dominated all the works of the Medieval age. Indeed literature was often the medium for the propagation of the Christian religion and ideals of virtue and good conduct. Chaucer, alone among his contemporaries, refused to treat art as a medium of propaganda.
Chaucer's broad vision
Chaucer did not possess, or did not want to present in his art, a religious temperament like Wycliff or Langland. His vision of life is not restricted by a narrow moral bias. His lively sense of humour refused to be depressed at the sight of the evil and ugly. He looked upon the world and its sorrows and evil with a tolerant eye. The little and bigger frailites of human nature amused him. They did not whip up intense moral indignation in his heart as they did in Langland or Wycliff. He sees life in its totality, taking all the aspects it presented. His vision, essentially comic, embraced a wide spectrum of life. His superiority over his contemporaries lies in his broad vision of life.
Chaucer's vision is, consequently, free, of cynicism. Not expecting perfection from human nature, and quite willing to take the good alongwith the bad in his stride Chaucer presents in his work a genial kindliness as well as a shrewd insight into human nature.
Realistic Approach
Chaucer has a comprehensive vision of the world. He was aware, like all realists, that the world is composed of all kinds of people, most of whom are a mixture of the good and the bad. There are not only black and white aspects of life, but all shades of grey are to be found in it. Furthermore, the healthy, unhealthy, ethical and unethical, bad and good were not to be found in clear cut contrasts in life. All opposites and contradictions were often to be found in a surprising and inextricable combination. Chaucer saw this and endeavoured to present life in all its true colours.
To this end he requests,
"I beg to you, in courtesy, not to condemn me as unmannerly, if I speak painly and with no concealings."
He wishes to avoid "things invented and phrases new" in the presentation of his character's dealings. He had nothing of the frowning moralist or the zealous reformer. He saw life and presented it as it was. He left it to others to seek morals from it. He broke free from the bondage of tradition and convention. His poetry is that of a realist, a humanist, and has none of the moral prejudice which characterises other medieval English poets.
"Here is God's plenty" : life in all its aspects
The pilgrims of The Prologue come from a wide spectrum of the society of Chaucer's time. They not only belong to different professions; they are also of every shade of moral stature. The high and the low, the good and the vicious, the virtuous and the lecherous, all act their parts on this worldly stage. The dishonest Miller and the fun-loving and somewhat coarse Wife of Bath mingle with the studious Oxford Clerk and the sophisticated and prim Prioress. The chivalrous and virtuous Knight and the poor, good Parson rub shoulders with the worldly Monk, the corrupt Friar and the wicked Summoner and the digesting Pardoner. The Doctor's avarice is matched by the dubious dealings of the Man of Law. Indeed, we find that the wicked and the vicious far outnumber the virtuous characters. Against the Knight, the Parson and the Ploughman, are ranged a whole galaxy of vice and wickedness of all hues and shades.
Chaucer's sympathetic attitude
What is noteworthy, however, is that Chaucer looks upon all characters of dubious moral stature with a free and sympathetic attitude. He is not horror struck at the existence of such depravity and baseness. He is tolerant and willing to be amused by all the knavery. However wicked some of the characters, Chaucer does not rant in moral indignation at them. Indeed, he does not even show any sharp aversion towards them. He seems to be quite grateful that he has been given the opportunity of deriving some pleasure from having met such knaves and rascals. He shows no hate towards any of them. Though he is fully aware of their moral shortcomings, he does not rail at them in disgust.
An artist's consciousness of life's complexity
Chaucer sees life in its totality. He has the artists's awareness of the complex quality of life. The good and the bad do not form two wholly separate areas. Most men are a mixture of the two. With the artist's instinct, Chaucer identifies himself with average human beings. He is willing to accept human fraility and laugh at it sympathetically. He has keen insight into the tortuous working of the human mind and the complexity of human behaviour.
Chaucer is not a social reformer
The folly and depravity of his fellow human beings did not shock Chaucer. The decidedly immoral conduct of many of the characters in The Prologue does not drive Chaucer into a frenzy of horrified moral indignation. He does not aim at social reformation. He saw the vice inherent in human beings but does not attack it violently. But, one might ask, is not Chaucer satiric and ironic, and is not satire and irony the beloved weapons of a social reformer ? Chaucer's satire and irony, however, are of a benign and tolerant nature. His primary aim is not reformation, but a realistic portrayal of humanity. His satire and irony are facets of his essentially comic vision of life. If one chooses to derive morals from his portraiture, one is quite welcome to. That brings us to the consideration of whether Chaucer's poetry is immoral.
Chaucer's consciousness of high moral standard
When we say that Chaucer's poetry did not show a strong ethical bias, it does not imply that it is immoral. It is unfortunate that some critics have charged him with being immoral. Arnold refuses to give him the position of a classic because he lacks "high seriousness". But surely poetry does not always have to be solemn and grave and serious, with explicit moral teaching. Arnold's contention betrays his own strong ethical bias.
Undoubtedly, Chaucer's poetry is not of the same order as that of Dante. It is of different kind. But it would be wholly incorrect to say that Chaucer's poetry is immoral. We cannot seek the morality of grave philosopher or religious thinker in Chaucer. His view is free and tolerant, broad enough to include the tragic beauty of the Knight tale, the pathetic loveliness of the Prioress' tale, and the bawdy and boisterously funny stories of the Reeve and the Miller. His vision is one of sympathy and charitableness. It is also quite clear that he did not respect vice and wickedness. His ironic treatment exposes folly as folly. His tolerance does not imply that he condoned vice and evil. His regard and appreciation for the knight, the Parson, the Ploughman and the oxford Clerk is obvious. Equally apparent is his disrespect for the Pardoner, Summoner, Monk and other wicked characters. His poetry implies his respect and love of honour, virtue and unselfishness. Nowhere does it seem that Chaucer advocates vice or wickedness as things to be followed.
It is clear that Chaucer did not set out to reform society. He certainly does not show a strong ethical bias. His vision was too broad, too tolerant and benign to allow strong moral sermonising. Human fraility existed, and Chaucer accepted it. He did not feel the necessity to don a judge's cap and condemn wickedness and evil. His poetry presented a picture of life in its totality and reality. Such a reproduction of reality might have been dry, morose, and bitter. It might have bred disgust and hatred for life and men. But Chaucer, without flattering his model, placed it in an atmosphere which is good to breath, as Legouis so aptly comments. ‘No one can read him and not be glad to be in the world'. However, it is quite a different thing to say that Chaucer was immoral. That he was not.

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