Sunday, September 19, 2010

Descriptive Method in the Prologue

The poets of Chaucer's time described an object or a person after set methods spelled out in the manuals of rhetoric, so that instead of life-like sketches there were stock portraits of idealised nature, lacking personal touches. A notable point was that a subject's moral nature was separated from his physical characteristics, which were described in a specified order working from head to toe, followed by an occount of his clothing. Chaucer himself was a rhetorician in his early poetic career, as is evident from his allegorical figures in the opening of the Romance of the Rose.
But towards the end of his life when he had conceived the plan of the Canterbury Tales, he had evolved a reastic technique of description the testimony of which is found in the General Prologue and the Tales. Here Chaucer is unconventional. He has both by study and experience hit upon a mature dramatist's style of life-like wholeness, subtlety of touch and delicacy of self-revelation. The effects of this new style are amazing. The 'Prologue', a gallery of portraits, medieval in costume and habits, is faithful to the eternal in human nature.
Grose remarks that many of the figures in the General Prologue seem almost to leap out of the page. There are two reasons for this. The first is that the descriptions follow no set order ; items appear to tumble out just as they come into the narrator's mind. The effect is as if we were listening to an eye-witness pouring out his news without pausing to reflect and to rearrange it in a logical order. Take the Wife of Bath ; from what we hear about her she appears to be an extroverted, hearty sort of person, not unlike a Breadford woolman of today. On top of this she is deaf, which probably only makes her and everyone else shout louder. It must have been one of the most noticeable things about her, and so it is blurted out at once:
A good wif was ther of biside Bathe,
But she was somdel deef, and that was scathe.
Of clooth-makyng she hadde swich an haunt,
She passed hem of
Ypres and of Gaunt.
In al the parisshe wif ne was ther
That to the other offrynge bifore hire sholde goon ;
And if ther did, certeyn so wrooth was she,
That she was out of alle charitee.
Only after her deafness comes her skill at weaving, about which she would not have been slow to tell the company on every possible occasion, and after that her self-importance. This passage also illustrates the second reason for the loveliness of Chaucer's descriptions ; his way of converting the portrait of a type into one of an individual typical of a class by adding distinctive personal details—the Wife of Bath's deafness, and later, her fine scarlet stockings. Even brief portraits can include significant detail: the Yeoman has his St. Christopher medallion, and the Cook has his ulcer, just as the Prioress, who is described at length, has her pet dogs. The most individual treatment is not reserved for those who are at the lower end of the moral scale, or those whose person does not seem to be entirely in harmony with their office. The Parson, on the other hand, is described at length ; he is set up as an exemplar, but about his personal characteristics as a real man we learn comparatively little.
According to Brewer Chaucer describes a man as if his eyes were wandering over him, noticing a bright detail here and there, which he equally haphazardly records. There seems nothing more natural in the world, but this very impression of casualness, his economy, significance and variety of detail clearly tell of that supreme art which conceals art. There is no pattern of description. Sometimes the visible details of dress come first, and through them we see the character. The Knight's gipoun is still marked by the rust and oil from his armour, and his horses are good. Mere factual information, it seems; yet from these we learn that he has wasted no time after his safe return horns to on his pilgrimage. He is not concerned with a smart outward appearance, but he is not poor, nor neglectful of his essential equipment as can be seen from his horses. Sometimes Chaucer describes a person's character, and adds almost as an afterthought those details of dress which set him vividly before our eyes and reinforce what is already known of him. There is a different method for almost every pilgrim. The sketches are very brief, yet by including snatches of conversation, and by describing in many cases of opinions, usual activities, or dwelling place of a person, Chaucer conveys a strong sense of individuality, and depth of portraiture. The necessary shortness of the description leads Chaucer to lay detail close by detail, often in a non-logical order. The impression of naivety which this compression sometimes gives may be compared with Chaucer's fondness portraying himself in his own poetry as a foolish simple man. The sugar-coating of naivety contrasts pleasantly with the sharpness of wit it pretends to conceal. Thus of the Cook Chaucer says:
But greet harm was it, as it thoughte me
That on his shyne a mormal hadde he
For blankmanger, that made he with the beste
The poetry is in the piquancy.
Not all the characters are treated ironically. There is variety of mood. All the pilgrims are presented in terms of their occupation (this is partly the secret of their astonishing variety). Then, there is an element of idealisation in the actual description of characters ; almost every person, whether good or bad, is said to be the perfect example of his or her kind. The faint exaggeration sharpens the outlines of the sketches. Chaucer exaggerates both good and bad, but the distortion is more noticeable in the case of good characters, and the characters he satirises are livelier than those he respects.
Trevor observes that Chaucer has used his variant of the naive or simpleminded narrator to good effect in earlier poems, but, with the exception of Troilus and Criseyde, never has his method been more integrated into the plan and spirit of the work than it is here in the Canterbury Tales. Chaucer, as a foolish though devout pilgrim, purports to present his fellows as he got to know them during their stay at the Tabard and perhaps on the road as well. The limits of his knowledge, the extent to which he relies upon their conversation or their appearance, are delicately stressed. At the same time, by a sleight-of-hand taick, the time-span is expanded to include more than the night's stay at the inn or the several days' travelling : subtly more extensive information is provided us. Further, the pilgrims seem to reveal more of themselves to us, the readers, than they did to poor Chaucer, the pilgrim who had not wit enough to see through their fair words or specious arguments. While there is a joke in this at the expense of the simple poet, more important, Chaucer the pilgrim comes to epitomise the myopia of human insight. Even as the careful selection of details, with their calculated density of implication, challenges us to judge profoundly, Chaucer weaves into the cloth of his poem the theme of human fallibility.
To conclude, Chaucer introduces the pilgrims to his readers with all their idiosyncrasies of dress and character artfully inventoried. Their tastes and fads are not omitted. Their very warts and pimples are not forgotten. They live before us, clean-cut at once for the eye and for the imagination. We know them both in themselves and as they appeared to their fellows. The method of reaching this end seems absurdly simple and ingenious. The poet jots down his points apparently at random, with an economy of words which surprises and delights the critical reader, who is astonished at the vivid reality of the finished portrait. Each pilgrim could indeed be well painted from Chaucer's descriptions, so exact is the attention to external detail ; but such details are usually of an interpretative kind, throwing some trait of character into prominence, and are usually subsidiary to those little touches of actions and behaviour which are even more revealing. Here Chaucer shows himself a master of sympathetic observation, possesses of that searching intuition which probes into the most intimate secrets of human character. A roguish irony is one of his commonest weapons ; satire and serious admiration help ; but good humour is always in his right hand.

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