Sunday, September 19, 2010

Elements of Drama and Novel in the Prologue

Many critics have expressed the view that Chaucer had in him distinct characteristics of a novelist and a dramatist. This is true. Chaucer's consummate art of story-telling in The Canterbury Tales does indicate that if he chose he could be one of the immortal novelists of the world. R. K. Root observes that Chaucer proves himself a master of the art of characterisation, skilful in his handling of dialogue, delighting in action, and keenly alive to the value of effective situation and climax.
Above all, he is the master of constructive art. He is able to weld different tales into harmonious groups. Another critic feels that The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales is the prologue of modern fiction. Its characterisation, realistic portrayal of life and a sort of structural unity give it the semblance of a novel in miniature. A. W. Pollard says : "The only department of poetry open to his pursuit was that of story-telling, and as a teller of stories, when we consider the sweetness of his early tales, the glittering colour and high chivalrous tone intermingled with comedy of the Troilus and Palamon, the vivid character-sketches of the Prologue and the humour of his latest tales, it is impossible to name any other English poet whose achievement can be matched against his. If we could take thirty per cent of Goldsmith, fifty of Fielding, and twenty of Walter Scott, and vitalise this compound with the spirit of the fourteenth century, we should get perhaps fairly near to another Chaucer. But it would be a Chaucer whose right hand wrote in prose and only his left in verse, and our formula, though it may be useful in suggesting the writers to whom Chaucer is most akin, and how modern he really is, would still be defective, for the charm of his poetry remains personal and individual." S.D. Neil is of the opinion that Chaucer's longer poem Troilus and Criseyde is a great novel in verse. Had Chaucer written in prose, it is possible that Troilus and Criseyde and not Richardson's Pamela would be celebrated as the first English novel. Chaucer like any other modern novelist was gifted with the ability of revealing the human heart and unravelling the complexities of sentiments. Troilus and Criseyde is written with an exceptional insight into human psyche.
Like a novelist Chaucer has a masterly art of description and narration. His portraits in the Prologue are no less vivid than the characters in any human comedy. The narrative style in the Prologue speaks of an inimitable precision and enviable literary style. The central incident is the pilgrimage which unifies the whole band of travellers to the shrine of St. Thomas into the inter-related people of a novel or the actors of a drama. Above all, it is Chaucer's stark realism and nearly complete objectivily which are the hall-marks of a modern novelist or a real dramatist of any age. The point is that Chaucer as it is evident to us in the Progolue does seem to be possessing the talents of a novelist and a dramatist. The prologues to the Tales are the counterparts of the soliloquies of Shakespeare or the monologues of Browning or the interior monologues of modern fiction writers. His negative capability matches the aesthetics of a true artist who presents his viewpoint not as a lyrical poet but as a passionate at the same time detached story-teller or playwright.
Aubrey de Selincourt says that there lie in Chaucer's works, especially in the Canterbury Tales, certain seeds which in subsequent centuries were to sprout and grow mightily. These are the seeds, first of the drama, secondly, of the novel. Had Chaucer been a contemporary of Shakespeare, he might well have written plays. Had he been a contemporary of Fielding, he might well have written novels. The power for both is implicit in the Canterbury Tales, and adds richness to that incomparable work. Throughout the Tales, there is not only creation, but interplay and clash of characters. The pilgrims, brilliantly pointed for us in the Prologue, are developed, and elaborated, some more, some less, as the poem proceeds, and always with a beautiful consistency. There is the mutual disparagement between the Miller and the Reeve, between the Summoner and the Friar ; the attempt of the pardoner to make capital out of his story and his vigorous repulse by the landlord. The Wife of Bath in the immensely garrulous and entertaining dissertation upon marriage, which precedes her story, reveals herself as a full-length comedy character, and satisfies, incidentally, the curiosity of the reader as to why he was casually told, in the Prologue, that she was deaf in one ear. The Knight (perfect and gentle) finds the Monk's catalogue of historical diasters unspeakably tedious. The Merchant having heard the tale of patient Griselda, is driven to bewail the very different temper of his own two-month's wife. Harry Bailey the landlord and self-appointed master of ceremonies, by comment and criticism, and a full flow of highly personal remarks, dominates the company, and grows in stature and solidity as the work proceeds. By means of these passages of narrative and comment between the tales Chaucer keeps his characters alive, each one being aware of the rest, so that the tales themselves, though they are in fact the main body of the work, are yet but an incident in the whole.
John Speirs says that the term 'poetry' has had in recent times a limiting suggestion. Chaucer is indeed properly to be called a poet; but he bears a closer relation to the great English novelists than to Spenser.
To see the poetry of Chaucer only in relation to that part of English literature which is in verse—and only the non-dramatic verse at that—is, however, less injurious perhaps than the academic tendency to separate it from the whole of what is often called 'modern' English literature (meaning English literature since the sixteenth century). It is a tendency which is limiting both to our reading of Chaucer and to our reading of modern English literature. Modern English literature is implied in the poetry of Chaucer and (we may add) of Chaucer's English contemporaries.
The scholarship which is preoccupied with exposing the derivativeness of Chaucer's poetry tends also to obscure the remarkable newness of what Chaucer has done. How new Chaucer's poetry is it is difficult for us to apprehend because so many of the remarkable developments in English literature since—and each original author has been a new development—have been developments from what Chaucer did for the first time. The Canterbury Tales and Troilus and Criseyde are, if one thinks back to what there was before them which they are developments from, surprisingly new works of art.
With Troilus and Criseyde and the Canterbury Tales Chaucer inaugurates the English novel ; and, moreover, the Great Tradition of it. In these two great dramatic-poetic novels we see the English novel actually in being, with the characteristics of our eighteenth and nineteenth-century masterpieces. Chaucer's preoccupations here are those of the great novelists. He explores the theme of the individual's relation to the society in which he lives; launches the comedy of the clash of character and the conflict of interest and motives; and shows the comic and ironic effects obtainable from the class distinctions felt by the newly emerged bourgeoisie associated with the growth of town life and of the trades and commerce (the Wife of Bath is the new bourgeois wife asserting her independence). He observes, as do Jane Austen and George Eliot, the changes in manners and outlook between the older generation and the new—between the Knight and his son, and Franklin and his—and, like them he develops to the highest artistic level what is only in an elementary form elsewhere in his contemporaries (in the play-cycles and Langland) the kind of characterization which distinguishes the English novel from Bunyan to Henry James—characters which, while exquistely realistic in detail, are morally and socially typical.
According to Saintsburry, Chaucer's tolerant, not in the least cynical, observation and relish of humanity gave him a power of representing it, which has been rarely surpassed in any respect save depth. It has been disputed whether this power is rather that of the dramatist or that of the novelist, a dispute perhaps arguing a lack of the historic sense. In the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century, Chaucer would certainly have been the one, and in the mid-nineteenth the other. It would be most satisfactory could we have his work in both avatars. But what we have contains the special qualities of both crafstsmen in a certain stage of development, after a fashion which certainly leaves no room for grumbling. The author has, in fact, set himself a high task by adopting the double system above specified, and by giving elaborate descriptions of his personages before he sets them to act and speak up to these descriptions. It is a plan which, in the actual drama and the actual novel, has been found rather a dangerous one. But Chaucer discharges himself victoriously of his liabilities. And the picture of life which he has left us has captivated all good judges who have given themselves the very slight trouble necessary to attain the right point of view, from his own day to this.

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