Humour is the sympathetic appreciation of the comic, the faculty which enables us to love while we laugh. It is the humour which enables us to see the person's point of view, to distinguish between crimes and misdemeanours. Above all, it is humour which points out those enduring peculiarities, those little foibles and harmless weaknesses which give a character a warm place in our affections.
There is no sting in humour, no consciousness superiority. On the contrary, it contains an element of tenderness. Obviously humour is distinct from satire, but it can be distinguished from farce and wit only insisting on the externals when speaking of them. Humour is indeed the soul of all comedy. Satire, being destructive, not constructive, is in a class apart, but even satire may become so softened by humour as it does in Chaucer that it may lose the element of caricature and serve only to give a keener edge to wit.
Chaucer's whole point of view is that of the humorist. He is a comic poet who saunters gaily through life pausing the notice every trifle as he passes. He views the world as the unaccustomed traveller views a foreign country. He possesses the faculty of amused observation in a pre-eminent degree. Again and again he contrives to invest some perfectly trifling and commonplace incident with an air of whimsicality, and by so doing to make it at once realistic and remote.
Chaucer's humour is essentially English. It is not the "wit" of the Frenchman. It is born of a strong commonsense and a generous sympathy ; and there are the qualities of the greatest English humorists like Shakespeare and Fielding. R.K. Root terms Chaucer's humour as “protean in its variety", ranging from broad farce and boisterous horseplay in the tales of the Miller and the Summoner to the sly insinuations of Knight's Tale and the infinitely graceful burlesbue of Sir Thopas. Every intermediate stage between these extremes is represented, the most characteristic mean between the two being found, perhaps, in the tales of the Nun's Priest.
Chaucer's humour, as has been acknowledged by almost every critic, in always syampathetic. In the Prologue, except in his handling of the Monk and the Friar there is no sting in it. As Legouis puts it Chaucer does not treat with disdain those whose foolishness he has fathomed, nor does he turn away in disgust from the rascal whose tricks he has detected. If humour can be defined as "the sympathetic appreciation of the comic", i.e. the faculty which enbles us to laugh——but to laugh affectionately and sympathetically, then Chaucer was indeed a great humorist. In his description of the Wife of Bath, he reminds us of Shakespeare's treatment of Sir Toby in Twelfth Night and of Falstaff in Henry IV. In fact, Chaucer makes us appreciate a character even when laughing at it. Moreover, Chaucer invariably makes more fun of the individual than of the institution to which he belongs. "Mockery" says Legouis, "either discreet or uproarious never withered in him the gift of poetry."
Cazamian observes that Chaucer's humour springs from the rich fields of character. He derives pleasure from the "quaintness of individuality". By his keen observation and insight he detects incongruities in men and women and presents before his readers in an amusing manner. Some of the facts are quite trivial in themselves but become amusing in the way Chaucer tells them e.g. the Squire's locks which look as if they were laid in press, the hat of the Wife of Bath weighing 19 lbs., the Reeve's thin legs, the
's weakness for sharp sauce, etc. Franklin
According to Albert Chaucer's humour is his distinct quality. Hs says that in the literature of his time, when so few poets seem to have any perception of the fun in life, the humour of Chaucer is invigorating and delightful. Albert also admires Chaucer for the great variety in his humour. It is kindly and patronising as in the case of the Clerk of Oxford, broad and semi-farcical as in the Wife of Bath; pointedly satirical as in the Pordoner and the Summoner; or coarse, as happens in the Tales of the Miller, the Reeve and the Pordoner. Albert, however, disagrees that Chaucher's humour is pure fun. He asserts: It is seldom that the satirical intent is wholly lacking, as it is in the case of the Good Parson, but, except in rare cases, the satire is good-humoured and well-meant.
A discerning critic has pointed out that Chaucer's humour in the Prologue derives from the fact that he is himself one of the pilgrims, one of the original twenty-nine. He is both actor and spectator and both he and his audience enjoy the antics which this clever arrangements enables him to preform. As pilgrim-narrator, he often discloses to his readers something about a character which none of the other pilgrims could possibly know, but which adds something important to our impression of the person concerned. For example he reveals to the delight of the readers that the Merchant was in debt and the Prioress sang the divine service intoning through the nose while she would not like to do so outside her convent.
Chaucer's humour in the Prologue is also due to his unconventional descriptive style. He deliberately departs from the artificial, lifeless forms of traditional portraiture and addresses himself to strikingly realistic or lifelike portrayals which by their very realism of speech and idiom make the incident or the object delightful.
Chaucer's witty comments upon the pilgrims such as "This Manciple sette his aller cappe" or his lavish praise upon some knave such as The Shipman or his pun on some word such as Philosophere in the sense of true 'philosopher' and 'alchemist' are also conducive to a good deal of humour. About the Oxford Clerk Chaucer says:
But al be that he was a philosophere,
Yet hadde he but litel gold in cofre.
Yet hadde he but litel gold in cofre.
Not least among the manifestations of Chaucer's humour is the quality of exaggeration. The merry Friar with his twinkling eyes is the best beggar in his friary ; the Franklin has not his equal; in all the world there was none like the Doctor of Physic; the Shipman had no peer from 'Hulle to Cartage'; and in cloth-making the Wife of Bath excelled even the matchless weavers of Ypres and Ghent.
To conclude, Chaucer's humour is one of the greatest assets of his poetic art. As Compton-Rickett says, indeed for all his considerable power, pathos, his happy fancy, his lucid imagination, it is as a great humorist that he lingers longest in our memories, with humour, rich, profound and sane, devoid of spite and cynicism, irradiated by a genial kindliness and a consummate knowledge of human nature.
Satire differs from humour in that it has a definite moral purpose. "It is our purpose, Crites, to correct/And punish with our laughter......" says Mercury in Cynthia's Revels. The satirist deliberately alienates our sympathies from those whom he describes, and as the true humorist is apt to pass from comedy to romance, and from romance to tragedy, so the satirist not infrequently ends by finding rage and disgust overpower his sense of the ridiculous. Ben Jonson passes from the comedy of Every Man in his Humour to the bitterness of Volpone. Swift from the comparative lightness of Gulliver in Lilliput, to the savage brutality of the Hounyhymns. But of such satire—pure and simple—few examples are to be found in Chaucer.
The fact is that satire is not Chaucer's natural bent. He is too quick-witted not to see through sham and humbug, but his interest lies in portraiture rather than in exposure. His object is to point life as he sees it, to hold up the mirror to nature, and, as has justly been said, "a mirror has no tendency, "it reflects, but it does not, or should not, distort. But if Chaucer is too tolerant and genial, too little of a preacher and enthusiast, for a satirist, his wit has often a satiric turn.
Chaucer's kinship as a satirist is however not with Dryden or Pope or Swift but with Fielding. They are alike in a certain air of rollicking good-fellowship, a certain virility, a determination to paint men and women as they know them. Neither is particularly squeamish, both enjoy a rough jest, and have little patience with over-refinement. Both give the readers a sense of studies honesty and kindliness, and know how to combine tenderness with strength. Both with all their tolerance, have a keen eye for hypocrisy or affectation and a sharp tongue wherewith to chastise and expose it. Chaucer hates no one, not even the Pardoner, as whole-heartedly as Fielding hates Master Blifil ‘but the Pardoner's Tale affords the best instance of the satiric bent of the poet's humour when he is brought face to face with a scheming rogue.
In Chaucer we have no sustained satire of the Popean or the Swiftean type. His genius is like that of Shakespeare, having a high degree of negative capability. Hence, Chaucer gives us no impression of being a great satirist, although in his writings especially in the portraits of the Prologue we have sharp little sallies of satire. It would be rather more suitable to call Chaucer a comic satirist in relation to his General Prologue to the
Tales. Brewer remarks : For all the veriety of attitude in this extraordinarily rich Prologue, comic satire predominates. There are, therefore, certain limitations of scope. The higher aristocracy are excluded, for the Knight is comparatively low ranking, and is in any case an ideal figure. The painfulness and rough comedy of the life of the great mass of the really poor find no place, and again their two representatives are idealized portraits. The characters of highest and lowest ranks were not suitable for comic treatment, while in any case Chaucer seems to have had relatively little intimate knowledge of the poor, as we at once realize when we compare him with Langland. In the Prologue we mainly see the middling people, and we see them through Chaucer's eyes from a slightly superior moral and social station. We can afford to laugh at them. We look through the eyes of a poet masculine, self-assured, delighted, who knows there is "joy after woe, and after joy, sadness 'but is not at the moment concerned to point it out. He sees abuses but is neither surprised nor stung by them ——— after all what else can we expect from the world? And is there not a providential order ? As several characters in his stories say, God makes nothing in vain. Men are not angels, but neither are they devils. Chaucer gives us a vision of men and women in the world, and most of them have some relish of absurdity when looked at carefully——especially when they require neither our loyalty nor our fear. Canterbury
Winny contends that Chaucer does not see his company of pilgrims simply as an incongruous assortment of pantomime figures, to be enjoyed for their grotesquely comic oddity. The pervasive element of social satire in the General Prologue—most prominent in his account of the ecclesiastical figures—suggests Chaucer's serious concern at the debasing of moral standards, and at the materialistic outlook which had taken hold of society. There are moments, as when he records the Friar's sneering contempt for the poor, which seem to show Chaucer's habitual good temper revolting against the cynical opportunism which had become widespread in ecclesiastical life. Such moments are rare and uncharaceristic of Chaucer. His usual attitude towards the moral weakness which he discloses is one of mocking; not so much at men's often ludicrous shortcomings as at their incompatability with the picture of himself which he presents to the world. The Shipman is a thievish pirate, the Reeve a cunning embezzler, the Physician has a dishonest private understanding with his druggist, and the Man of Law 'semed bisier than he was'. The efforts of the Prioress to mimic courtly manners are detected and set down with the same intuitive sense of false appearance as allows Chaucer to penetrate the Merchant's imposing disguise. The mask of respectability is not roughly torn off, for while he is describing his pilgrims Chaucer is maintaining an outward manner that is awed and deferential; telling us that the Prioress was 'of greet desport', that the Monk was a manly man, 'to been an abbot able', or that the murderous Shipman was an incomparable navigator and pilot.
Because he does not insist upon their moral failings or hypocritical nature, revealing them with an ironic innocence of manner and leaving them to speak for themselves, Chaucer's approach to his pilgrims suggests a psychologist rather than a moralist' He presents vices and shortcomings within the context of human individuality, as a product of the curious pressures which stamp a unique personality upon each of the pilgrims. The Shipman's easy conscience is an integral part of the tough, self-reliant spirit of the man, which has acquired the wilfulness and moral unconcern of the elements in which he lives. His thefts and murders, the Franklin's epicurism, the Physician's avarice, interest Chaucer not as evidence of a breakdown of moral values but for what they reveal of individual character.
Thus Chaucer's satire is not directed against contemporary morals, but against the comic self-ignorance which gives man two' identities——the creature he is, and the more distinguished and inscrutable person he imagines himself to be.
Finally, it may be pointed out here that in several prologues to the tales told by the pilgrims Chaucer acts as a medieval satirist whose method was to have a villain describe his own tricks. Two of these Prologues are the Pardoner's and the Wife of Bath's. The former, like lago, Richard III and Edmund the Bastard in Shakespeare, expresses himself out and out telling the pilgrims about his sensuality, greed, hypocrisy and deceitfulness. The theme of the Wife of Bath's prologue is tribulation in marriage—particularly the misery she has caused her five successive husbands.
It is now time that we should ask ourselves as to what extent Chaucer was influenced by classical and medieval traditions of satire. There is no incontrovertible evidence about his knowledge of classical satirists. Juvenal he quotes from and mentions by name, but the quotations he could very easily have gained at second hand. Horace he does not mention at all, but since, as other critics have pointed out, he does not mention Boccaccio either, this negative evidence is worthless. Juvenal had attacked with moral horror the widespread vices of his own time under the satiric disguise of describing historical parsonages of a previous age. This device was not imitated by the Fathers or the medieval satirists who were influenced by him. and the writers of the Middle Ages, with their preoccupation with what was common to all men rather than with what makes one man different from another, were not concerned to give any appearance of particularity to their satire. The result was either the blackened generalised picture of all men as totally corrupt, found in the De Contemptu Mundi, or the combination of allegory with satire, ingeniously used, though not invented, by Langland. The distinctive vices of people in various orders and occupations throughout society he does not generalise but, like Juvenal, reduces the generalization to a description of a particular characters. This, however, seems to be Chaucer's only resemblance to Juvenal, since self-evidently there could be no greater difference of tone than there is between Juvenal's savage vehemence and Chaucer's specious mildness.
The resemblances between Chaucer and Horace are more subtle and more specific. The object of Horace's satire had been different from Juvenal's, in that Horace was chiefly concerned with those who disrupted the social harmony of life, the fool, the bore, the miser, and these he portrayed with a minute and particular observation of habit and conversation, which gives the impression that description is of an individual, though by definition not unique, personality.
Chaucer shares some characteristics with Horace. He has in common with him the easy tone of a man talking to friends who share his assumptions and sympathies, though usually with a deceptive twist. When Horace meets the characters in his satires, he expects his audience to sympathise with his misery, whereas Chaucer pretends that the situation was delightful and the characters to be admired. He shares with Horace, too, the use of comic images, the quick observation of human affection, and the suggestion of a recognizable personality. Chaucer, however, extends Horation ridicule to the kind of objects satirized in the Juvenalian tradition, and modifies it by the tone of pretended naivete, not found in Horace's style, but certainly learnt in part from Ovid whom Chaucer imitated as if he were his master.
Irony is a method of humorous or sarcastic expression in which the intended meaning of the words used is the direct opposite of their usual sense. It is also the feigning of ignorance in argument. The voice of the satirist speaking out of a mask is subtle irony. Behind the mask his face may be dark with fury or writhing with contempt, but his voice is calm, sometimes soberly earnest, sometimes lightly amused. The lips of the mask and its features are persuasive, almost real, perfectly controlled. Some of those who hear the voice, and see the suave lips from which it issues, are persuaded that it is the utterance of truth and that the speaker believes everything he say. In actuality, however, the voice speaks a gross exaggeration or a falsehood, knowing it to be exaggerated or false, but announcing it as serious truth. Listening to it, intelligent men think, "That cannot be true. He cannot possibly mean that." They realise that he means the reverse of what he says. For the truth is sometimes so contemptible, sometimes so silly, sometimes so outrageous, and sometimes, unhappily, so familiar that people disregard it. Only when the reverse of such a truth is displayed as though it were veridical, can they be shocked into understanding it. Sometimes even then they are not convinced. They attack the satirist as a provocator, a liar. That is the penalty of being a satirist who uses irony. Aristotle, who knew men and liked neat definitions, said that irony was the opposite of boasting : it was mock-modesty, dissimulation, self-depreciation.
Gentle irony and wounding sarcastic irony can be used as weapons in all types of satire. They are, however, most effective in monologue, where a skillful satirist can, now and then, allow the real truth to flash through the mildly-coloured cloud of dissimulation. The finest example of this in Chaucer is, as has been mentioned above, in the Pardoner's prologue to his tale. Here, Chaucer lets the whole truth come out of the mouth of the villain himself.
Brewer who believes that Chaucer is frequently ironical says that in many respects for Chaucer irony is what metaphor is for later poets. Both irony and metaphor put into the same set of words a double meaning ; whereas in metaphor they are linked by comparison, in irony they are linked by contrast. The linkage is important. In each case the two elements of the double meaning modify each other, though one may be dominant. In the case of irony the superficial 'false' meaning is still part of the total meaning. It modifies the "true" meaning, if only by asserting that even the underlying meaning is not the only competitor for our assent; or by establishing a limited validity even for simple mindedness. The obvious meaning is the contribution innocence makes to experience. More generally the duality of irony contributes a certain kind of uncertainy, and hence a need for toleration, not least for the poet himself, who uses irony to evade responsibility. Admittedly, this is uncomfortable. We desire certainly above all things, and we admire commitment. In his brilliant book Ricardian poetry John Borrow finds the absence of such commitment, and of its accompanying vulnerability and exaltation, a serious deficiency in the poetry of Chaucer and his contemporaries. Its absence accounts for a certain 'middle-aged' quality, a lack of passion—indeed, Borrow seems to renew the old Arnoldian accusation of a lack of high seriousness. We may wish to qualify the assessment but the perception is surely true. One thing is not another thing. Chaucer is not Milton nor Wordsworth nor Shelley. The peculiar mixture of participation with detachment, of sympathy with irony, of multiple points of view, giving freedom yet a basis of certainty, is surely Chaucer's outstanding characteristic. Nothing is sacred to him except the Sacred. He is the least idolatorous of English poets.
The great risk of this kind of writing is fragmentation, or a serial dissipation of effect, or self-contradictory, self-destructive inconsistencies. The attempt at variety, the implication of several possible points of view, may shatter unity. Yet most of us rarely feel that Chaucer is disintegrated, even when our rational processes, working with inappropriate models, reproach him for his inconsistencies. It is not with Chaucer's world, as it seems with ours, that 'the centre cannot hold'. In the form of the poems the poet's speaking voice, for all the occasional multiplicity of what is implied, holds together the poem and his audience in a complex of relationships.
While discussing Chaucer as a satirist we concluded that he is a comic satirist, always gentle, seldom severe, and never savage. This is also true about his irony. He is to all intents and purposes a comic ironist. His portraits in the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales are excellent examples of comic irony. In fact, throughout the General Prologue the reader has to be on his guard against Chaucer's seeming enthusiam towards each of his pilgrims, realising that his irony operates obliquely through praise that is characteristically lavish and unstinted, whether sincere or not. For example, the remarks about the Knight that 'He was a verray, parfit gentil knight' are straightforwardly respectful, but Chaucer's generous tribute to the Monk 'A manly man, to been an abbot able' should leave us wondering whether he means that most abbots were appointed for their worldliness and self-indulgence. When he rounds off the description of the Merchant by remarking "For sothe he was a worthy man with alle" Chaucer's irony is obvious, for he has just disclosed the pilgrim's dishonesty and hypocritical manner. Similarly, that 'verray parfit praktisour' the Physician, although described in terms which recall the Knight, observes a code which inverts the standards of truth, honour and liberality which the Knight strives to uphold. Here Chaucer's seeming praise is doubly ironic. The physician is not the genuine, perfect practitioner of a noble ideal but shrewd, miserly and self-regarding. The nun in Madame Eglentine is a charming imposture, imperfectly concealing a woman whose social ambitions lead her into an absurd confusion of purposes—a mimicking of courtly mannerisms that are completely inappropriate to her calling. She is a specimen of fascinating disparity between what she is and what she seems to be, and Chaucer exploits this comic incongruity in a very subtle manner. The Wife of Bath is subjected to irony when Chaucer while praising her charitable nature points out that she goes out of all charity if some other woman in the parish takes precedence over her in making the offering. The implication is that charity should be evidenced by humility, not by pride, by gentleness, not by anger.
Leaving aside such idealisation as the Knight, the Parson and the Plowman, it may be undeniably asserted that Chaucer takes men as he finds them, obtaining that kind of amusement in the ironic yet sympathetic observation of his fellows which yields itself only to the artist's vision. Although he has a loving relish for human behaviour and human weakness, it is wrong, as some critics tend to do, to play down his irony. A high proportion of his pilgrims are rascals, and Chaucer knows that they are. Nor can we ignore his clear attack on corruption in the Church, though here again the attack is done obliquely through the presentation of individual characters. The Monk and the Friar and the Summoner are amusing enough characters as Chaucer describes them, but the behaviour of the latter two, brilliantly presented and magnificently comic though it is, is the behaviour of petty blackguards. The Pardoner, perhaps Chaucer's greatest masterpiece of character drawing, implies a whole world of moral hypocrisy.
Chaucer's point of view is no doubt secular throughout the Prologue, and he is intrigued rather than shocked by the weaknesses of human nature. But irony always has moral implications, and Chaucer in the General Prologue as well as the Canterbury Tales was not an ironist for nothing.