Sunday, September 19, 2010

Discuss Chaucer's The Prologue to The Canterbury Tales as a portrait gallery.

The remark, "Here is God's plenty", has become as famous as the work to which John Dryden applied it. The statement referred to The Canterbury Tales as a whole, but it holds valid even if considered for The General Prologue alone. It is obvious that the observation made by Dryden, refers to the variety and abundance of characters in The Canterbury Tales. It was Chaucer's tolerant and humanitarian outlook which enabled him to present such a variety of human beings in single work, and in such a benevolent light.
What is more, the variety exists not merely in the different classes and professions to which the pilgrims belong, but in their diverse mental attitudes, nature and behaviour, Dress, personal whims and idiosyncrasies.
Motley spectacle presented in "The Prologue"
The Prologue has rightly been called a 'portrait-gallery'. The pilgrims who collect at the Tabard to set out on their journey to Canterbury, belong to a variety of classes and professions. Each has his or her special pose and attitude, dress and behaviour. Each is vivid and lifelike. The characters represent both types and individuals. At the same time, they possess qualities, which, as Blake aptly said, compose all ages and nations. Chaucer is the first English poet to present such a lovely procession of men and women, who are differentiated from one another by the subtlest touches of characterization. The characters come alive on the pages of The Prologue. They are vital and realistic. They also show Chaucer's delight in the motley spectacles of life. "Long before Balzac", says Lowes, "Chaucer conceived and exhibited the Human Comedy".
Cross-section of the fourteenth century English society
The Prologue is often referred to as a social chronicle, and Chaucer as a social historian. Though The Prologue is much more than a mere social chronicle, there is truth in the remark that it gives a cross-section of English society in the fourteenth century. Through the clever device of a pilgrimage, Chaucer has been able to assemble the representatives of the widest possible section of the society of his day. Only the aristocracy and the lowest rungs of society are left out—both classes would have been out of place on such a pilgrimage. The thirty pilgrims, then, come from practically all classes and professions which were existent in the Middle Ages.
The Knight heads the procession of pilgrims. He has the highest social position among Chaucer's pilgrims. He belongs to the Chivalric code. He is accompanied by his son, who is also his Squire, and by his Yeoman, as was customary for the knights of the medieval times. The Knight has distinguished himself in battle, both in heathen and Christian lands. His son, too, has shown his prowess in wars. He represents the devotee of courtly love. The Yeoman is a forester and a loyal servant to the Knight and the Squire.
After the chivalric order, comes the ecclesiastical order, i.e., the representatives of the regular clergy. We have a Prioress, a Monk, and a Friar. Each presents the various degrees of corruption and degeneracy which was prevalent in the religious orders of the day. The Prioress' mind seems to be divided between the demands of the religious and the attractions of the secular aspects of life. The motto on her brooch, 'Love Conquers All', clearly indicates the confusion. The Monk hunts and enjoys sumptuous food, contrary to his vows of seclusion and abstinence. The Friar is typical of the order as found in Chaucer's time. He makes money by misusing his authority.
After the ecclesiastical characters representing the regular clergy, we have a procession of middle class representatives. Among them are the representatives of trade, the learned professions, a sailor, and other occupations. The Miller typifies his class of the day in his ability to cheat and make money. The Municipal is clever enough to outwit his learned masters. The Reeve cheats both his lord and the tenants.
The rising interest and stability in trade is represented by the Merchant, whose main desire is to keep the seas free of piracy. The Shipman represents England's widening power over the seas. He is typical of the sea captains of the day in his ruthlessness and lack of conscience. There is a Franklin who is hospitable and well off. The learned professions are represented by The Doctor of Physic and The Lawyer and the Oxford Clerk. Typical of his age and, perhaps, typical of some doctors through all ages, Chaucer's physician is not too worried by making money out of an epidemic. He likes gold, we are told. The Lawyer, too, is adept at entailing property for his own benefit. The rising middle class is represented by the five prosperous guildsmen whose wives are ambitious of great status and respectability.
If the corruptness of the clergy is once again evident in the lecherous Summoner and the Cheating Pardoner, we have the good Christian spirit exemplified in the Parson and his brother the ploughman. But the Summoner and The Pardoner exemplify the corruption and degeneracy of morals in Chaucer's time. The Summoner teaches the people the exact opposite of what he is supposed to tell them. He is quite ready to ignore the sins of people if they are willing to bribe him. The Pardoner sells false relics and bogus pardons. Both are partners of an equal temper.
Perhaps the most vibrant personality in The Prologue, is the Wife of Bath. While she is more individualised than typical, she also represents the rising middle class. She is a first-rate weaver of cloth, and a very rich woman. A much married woman, she indicates the existing social conditions in which rich single women were never left single for long.
Typical, universal and individual traits of the characters
The pilgrims represent different classes and professions of the time. They, thus, also embody the traits which are considered typical of then: particular position in society and their profession. Incidentally, Chaucer's pilgrims represent the ‘best’ in each profession. It is noted that many of these typical traits are presented in such a manner that they also become the individual traits. Thus the Doctor's greed for making money at the time of an epidemic, is at once typical of the medieval doctor and also seems to be an individual trait of the particular doctor.
Particulars of dress, moral qualities, behaviour, special features, idiosyncrasies, etc., serve to individualise the pilgrims. The Squire's pleasantly embroidered dress and his constant singing, give an individual touch. The Knight's fustian doublet indicates his sober nature while contrasting him with its hair like the bristles of a sow's ears. We 'see' the thinness of the Reeve and the Franklin's beard, which is white as a daisy. The Wife of Bath is a vibrant personality who wears scarlet stocking and huge kerchiefs. She laughs and jokes and exhibits exuberant energy. The fearsome ugliness of the Summoner comes out clearly in his red face full of pimples. He gets drunk and is fond of garlic and leek. The Pardoner, has thin hair and shining eyes like hare's. His voice is thin as a goat's. The Monk wears rich clothes, which at once typifies the fourteenth century monks while individualising him. The Prioress has exquisite table manners.
The details are not only typical of each pilgrim's class. They often belong to basic human nature. We may not find such a Miller now, but the traits embodied in the Miller could easily be found in some other person. The vibrant sexuality and boisterous sense of fun of the Wife of Bath can be found in some human beings in all ages and nations. This is true of most of the traits shown by Chaucer in his pilgrims. He has given in each one certain basic features which are common to human beings through the ages. And he has dealt with all possible facets of the human personality in his pilgrims. Hence the term 'here is God's plenty', is specially suitable for The Prologue to The Canterbury Tales. We do not merely see the good and the bad. We do not only come across pure white and black. We see a mixture of the good and the bad, and all shades of grey as well. We see the world and life as it is, not as it ought to be. We find good, bad and average men and women on this earth. We come across dishonesty, ruthlessness, sentimentality, gaiety, chivalry, kindness, greed and numerous other such qualities in the human beings all around us. We see the essence of most of these qualities in the pilgrims of The Prologue.
Chaucer's tolerant vision and joy in God's creation
What is very important to note about the presentation of 'God's plenty' in The Prologue, is that Chaucer takes it to be precisely God's plenty. He shows the full realisation that God has created all kinds of human beings, and there is no cause for man to disapprove or criticise violently. Though his presentation is not immoral, for we can easily detect that Chaucer's own moral standards were not low, he does not criticise violently or bitterly the frailties of human nature. He accepted the imperfections in human beings, and presented them in all their variety without castigating their vices or frowning upon their follies. Chaucer's poetry has a spirit of joy and wonder. He was an amused and tolerant spectator of God's plenty. He took keen joy in the created world. He never lost the wonder or curiosity he felt about the diversity of human nature. Life to him was a vast field of delights, and this is very much evident in The Prologue. Chaucer was, indeed, a man of the most comprehensive nature, who could encompass such a large variety of human nature in single work.
The Canterbury Tales, and more particularly The Prologue indicate Dryden's view that "here is God's plenty." Chaucer's comprehensive nature is evident. He "has taken into the compass of his "Canterbury Tales" the various manners and humours (as we now call them) of the whole English nation in his age. Not a single character has escaped him. All his pilgrims are severally distinguished from each other; and not only in their inclinations, but in their very physiognomies and decisions", observes Dryden. Indeed, he could not have put it more aptly or correctly. As Aldous Huxley in recent times pointed out, there could not a be a happier choice of words than 'God's plenty’. He adds that it calls up a "vision of prodigal earth, of harvest fields, of innumerable beasts and birds, of teeming life. And it is in the heart of this living and material world of Nature that Chaucer lives."

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