Sunday, September 19, 2010

Some Aspects of Chaucer's Poetic Art

As A Story Teller
Chaucer is a born story-teller. Norman G. Brett-James says, 'He tells a broad story, but it could harm no one, because it is full of fun and humour. He is as broad as Fielding but never as coarse as Smollett. His effects are obtained without waste of effort. His poetry is simple, natural, easy, and unaffected. His men and women are alive as those of Shakespeare, Scott, or Dickens and they are ordinary folk, men and women in the street, travelling along an ordinary road with the background of an ordinary everyday sky. His portraits are little masterpieces, vivid, contrasted, and finished.
He gives us a microcosm of English life, noisy, arrestive, good humoured, in which the dignified Knight risks cheek by jowl with the drunken Cook, and the poor Clerk of Oxford rubs shoulder with the handsome Squire and the spotted Summoner. Like Langland, he possessed a gift of satire, a contempt of hypocrisy, and a power of individual characterisation.
A notable point about Chaucer is that he uses all the kinds of story extent at his time. There was first of all the story of romantic adventure, filled with the attitude and ethics of Chivalry : such as the Knight's Tale. Then there was the 'exemplum,' the story of a saint often used to underline the moral of a sermon. Perhaps the story of Hugh of Lincoln by the Prioress is a good example. There is the magnificent example of the Nun's Priest's Tale to show what Chaucer could do with a 'bestiary' or animal story. Finally, there are a whole group of 'fabliaux—tales of ordinary life, amusing, often a little broad by present standards, but full of real people and most enjoyable. Every story by Chaucer has mark of individuality. The Knight's Tale is epical, the Pardoner's Tale is ironical, and Nun's Priest's Tale is fabulous.
Chaucer tells his stories in a most effective way. He has the knack of transforming an old tale into a new one in such a manner that its appeal increases manifold and its human interest becomes perennial. In this respect his art is Shakespearean. And his popularity is no less. Lawlor rightly says : Chaucer's tales have been read with admiration and imitated (if not always skilfully) in most periods between the sixteenth century and the present; and in our own century they have found their largest andience so far, through the skilful agency of Nevil Coghill, whose modernisations, originally drafted for radio, have in their paperback form become 'Chaucer' for a great host of readers. All this seems pleasingly suited to their being the concluding work of our earliest recognisable poet, and a striking confirmation of that range and fullness which was best expressed by Dryden:
He must have been a man of a most wonderful comprehensive nature, because, as it has been truly observed of him. 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.
As a Novelist
John Speirs recognises Chaucer's art of story-telling as a precursor to the birth of the English novel. He says that in the Canterbury Tales we see the English novel actually in being, with the characteristics of the eigteenth 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 interests and mores; 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 the Franklin and his—and, like these novelists and Richardson before them, he explores feminine psychology. He develops to the highest artistic level what is only visible in an elementary form elsewhere in his contemporaries (in the play-cycles and Langland) the kind of characterisation which distinguishes the English novel from Bunyan to Henry James—characters which, while exquisitely realistic in detail, are morally and socially typical.
As a Descriptive Poet
Chaucer has been acclaimed as a great descriptive poet. His interest in individual character is quite unusual among writers of his time. Dryden says: All his pilgrims are severally distinguished from each other; and not only in their inclinations, but in their very physiognomies and persons. The matter and manners of their tales, and of their telling, are so suit­ed to their different educations, humours, and callings, that each of them would be improper in any other mouth. Even the grave and serious characters are distinguished by their several sorts of gravity; their discourses are such as belong to their age, their breeding; such as are becoming of them and of them only. Some of these prsons are vicious, and some virtuous ; some are unlearn'd or (as Chaucer calls them) lewd, and some are learned. Even the ribaldry of the low characters is different; The Reeve, the Miller, and the Cook are several men, and distinguished from each other as much as mincing Lady-Prioress and the broad-speaking, gap-toothed Wife of Bath.
Professor Manly agrees with Dryden. He too, believes that the pilgrims described in the Canterbury Tales are vivid portraits and look like individuals. In fact Chaucer describes every character with noticeable details of clothing and appearance so as to paint a distinct picture of his personality. The details of clothing however are not intended merely to indicate the calling of the man. There is sometimes real character importance in the way they don their caps or carry their pouches or give themselves a physical make up.
An important feature of Chaucer's descriptive power is that his individual portrait also represents the type. Initially perhaps the sketches were devised to provide representatives of the chief classes of English society under the higher nobility. Hence, they give not typical trait of temperament, appearance, and manners, but incorporate the essentials of medicine, law scholarship, religion, the theory of knighthood, and also satire on faults in social life. On the whole they summarise the noblest ideals of the time and the basest practices. But the obvious merits of the sketches are that they are not mere assemblages of general traits, composite photographs, but contain many individual traits. As R. K. Root says : "It is by their successful blending of the individual with the typical that the portraits of Chaucer's Prologue attain so high a degree of effectiveness. The Wife of Bath is typical of certain primary instincts of woman, but she is given local habitation 'bisyde Bathe,' and is still further individualised by her partial deafness and the peculiar setting of her teeth. A wholly different type of woman­hood, the conventional as opposed to the natural, is furnished by the Prioress. The description of the gentle lady abounds in minute personal, individual characteristics, physical and moral; yet all these individualising traits are the same time suggestive of that type which finds fullest realisation in the head of a young lady's school—What is true of these two is true of all the person­ages of the Prologue. The details enumerated nearly always suggest at once the individual and the type."
J.R. Hulbert points out that Chaucer's characters do not develop discursively. They are models of compression in expression and selection of significant details. The same critic further says that the success of the sketches and especially their readability are due in considerable part to the variety in method and attitudes in their characterisation. Hulbert's inferences have also been supported by G. H. Cowling who says:
"The portraits of the pilgrims are not all drawn in the same way. It is true that Chaucer endeavoured to picture individuals with an outstanding peculiarity—a physical trait like the Miller's wart, a humour like the Franklin's love of rich dishes; or a passion like the Knight's love of prowess and troth; but the portraits differ in kind, as well as degree. Some of the portraits are idealised—other traits are so realistic that they must have been drawn from life."
The point which Hulbert and Cowling are trying to make is that a variation in the treatment of a character can serve a different purpose of the poet. For example the little differentiation in the description of the character can result in a different attitude towards him. The satire in the Squire and the Prioress is kindly, in the Monk slightly more serious and in the Pardoner and the Summoner much sharper.
Kittredge praises Chaucer's descriptive power for its classical economy. He says that Chaucer surpasses even Dryden in the classical finish of his description : "The artistic economy of Chaucer, even in descriptive passages, where decoration would be excusable, goes quite beyond all Dryden's power of self-control. Nor can the modern master refrain from interpolating allusions and reflections. They are apt and pointed, I admit, but they tend to dissipate the attention, which Chaucer's art keeps focussed on the thing itself." Kittredge finds a remarkable sense of proportion in Chaucer's description as in the Pardoner's Tale.
In the light of the above facts, it can be said that Chaucer possessed extraordinary descriptive skill which made his portraits models of great beauty in reflecting physical, intellectual and moral make-up.
As a Narrative Poet
Chaucer has been regarded as the prince of story-tellers and an incomparable narrative poet. Kittredge says, "If we disergard the epic, which stands in a class by itself. I do not see why we should hesitate to call him the greatest of all narrative poets whatsoever, making no reservation of era or of language". This is an indisputable opinion. Both on the merit of subject-matter and poetic skill Chaucer's fame has been spreading all over the world ever since Dryden exclaimed 'Here's God's plenty' !
Chaucer's narrative power gains its vitality from his simple, forceful style, dramatic action, vivid imagination, pictorial quality, subtle expression delightful temperament, humorous, satirical and ironical vein and above all extraordinary realism. Theatrical impersonality is perhaps the chief characteristic of his narrative art. Paul Ruggiers says Chaucer stands apart from his pilgrims. He seems to be content with letting others dominate the scene, and with letting their experiences pass before us without that formal control which other perhaps greater architects like Dante have achieved. Indeed there is an advantage in the detachment which Chaucer assumes towards his characters. He can present them with candour and complete abandon. Moreover, he can maintain an ironical distance between himself and his audience. But this does not mean that he is not even implicitly present in the narrations of his pilgrims. In fact, he shares their feelings, thou­ghts and emotions because he is constantly moving among them as an artist, if not a hero.
Whereas Chaucer does not intrude into the narration of his characters who reveal themselves dramatically, he does indulge in digressions now and then and adds a sudden philosophical depth to his stories by a comment here and there.
In may also be mentioned here that Chaucer does not follow a single narrative method. In The Canterbury Tales for example each teller's technique harmonises more or less with his character and the nature of his or her tale.
His Dramatic Approach
The dramatic approach to poetry makes Chaucer's Canterbury Tales more than a collection of stories. As A.C. Baugh comments it is a pageant of fourteenth-century life, a comedie humaine (human comedy) in which a group of thirty people of various classes act their parts on this mundane (worldly) stage in such a way as to reveal their private lives and habits, their changing moods as well as their prevailing dispositions, their qualities good and bad. Much of this life is revealed not by the stories they tell but by their behaviour along the road and their remarks by the way. Chaucer never lets us forget that the stories in his collection are part of a pilgrimage, incidental to it in fact, and in the links between the tales he accomplishes his end in a variety of ways. Most important is the part played by Harry Bailey, the hearty, boisterous Host, with his frankness, his rough humour, his unconscious profanity which so shocks the Person, and his good sense. He twists the pilgrims, draws the shy ones out, shows a clumsy difference to those entitled to it, smooths over differences, and keeps the company generally in good spirits. There are of course, quarrels, and these are used most effectively to introduce some of the stories. The Reeve's resentment of the Miller's tale has been mentioned. A similar feud breaks out later between the Frair and the Summoner and results in the telling by each of them a story defaming the other's calling. A humorous and realistic touch is given when some story proves tiresome and the speaker is cut short. The effect is particularly ironic when it is Chaucer's own story that the Host objects to, but it is a useful device, too, when the lugubrious (gloomy) tragedies of the Monk threaten to weary the reader as well as the original company. One of the most realistic incidents is that in which the pilgrims are over-taken at Boughton-under-Blee by a Canon and his Yeoman The Yeoman talks too freely about his master's private affairs and the Canon rides off 'for verray sorwe and shame.' Whether the Yeoman tells a story because Chaucer noticed that his pilgrims were short by one of their thirty or because he saw an opportunity of using in this way his knowledge of the frauds practised by alchemists we shall never know. In any case, the incident contributes much to our feeling that a minor drama is being unfolded all along the route.
His Satiric Technique
Chaucer's dramatic method is the most astonishing characteristic of his poetic art. This appears not only in his presentation of character and his technique of narration, but is the very basis of his success as a satirist. Other satirists of the time of both England and France—Piers the Plowman poets, Eustache Deschamps, and even the despised Gower—are richer than he in satirical materials, and some of them utter indictments of the abuses and follies of the time which could hardly be excelled for clearness, power and eloquence. But all of them declaim and indict and sermonise. Only now and then do we get from them passages which enable us, as Chaucer always enables us, to look in upon a scene of folly, or vice, or corruption, and form our own opinion. A few such scenes stand out in A text of Piers the Plowman, like the famous tavern scene in the confession of Gluttony. Gower, in his much neglected Miroir de l'Omme, also has a few, that would linger unforgettably in the memory if they were not buried in a mass of vituperation and preaching. But this method of opening a window upon life and letting the reader see the persons and events of the writer's vision is habitual with Chaucer. And this is the reason why his satire is so convincing. He does not argue, and there is no temptation to refute him. He does not declaim, and there is no opportunity for reply. He merely lets us see his fools and rascals in their native foolishness and rascality, and we necessarily think of them as he would have us think.
This of course is the triumph of the creative imagination and of constructive art. And it is in these qualities that Chaucer is supreme. All other satirists of the fourteenth century give us the materials from which imagination may, if it can, reconstruct the life with all the solidity and colours of reality, and the men and women of his world are as vivid and familiar as those whom we see daily with our own eyes.
His Realism
Chaucer is the innovator of literary realism. With his Canterbury Tales he turns poetry from allegorical interpretation of life to a realistic portrayal of society. As Leguois says : "It was more than a literary innovation. It was a change of mental attitude. Poetry turned, with tolerant curiosity, to the study of man and manners. For the first time, the relation between individuals and ideas was clearly realized. Ideas ceased to be an end in themselves, and became interesting as revealing him who expressed them, who believed in them, or who was pleased by them." The new approach to literature required a complete impersonalisation in outlook. To quote Leguois again 'For such an end it is necessary that the author should efface himself voluntarily. Chaucer is fully conscious of the realism to which he obliges himself. He assumes the part of mere interpreter, a chronicler and no more, who relates without altering a word or a tone stories he has heard told. By his groupings of representatives of the different callings, and by his impartiality which allows individuals to speak and never dictates their thoughts or words, he has painted, with minute exactness, the body and soul of the society of his time. He is as truly the social chronicler of England in the late fourteenth century as Froissart is the political and military chronicler of the same period.'
Chaucer's realism is not merely of matter but also of form. In his approach to the latter he is primitive, aiming at exactness of feature and correctness of emblem. He is a primitive also by a certain honest awkwardness, the unskilled stiffness of some of his outlines, and such an insistence on minute points as at first provokes a smile. He seems to amass details haphazard, alternates the particulars of a costume with the points of a character, drops the one for the other, picks either up again. Sometimes he interrupts the painting of a pilgrim's character to put colour on his face or his tunic. It is an endearing carelessness, which hides his art and heightens the impression he makes of veracity.
The characters presented in the Canterbury Tales behave as ordinary men and women should. They are under no censor and under no moral compunction. They can describe their experiences freely. The Wife of Bath can talk of her matrimonial experiences and the Pardoner can speak of his deceitful ways of making money by selling pardons and displaying the so-called holy relics. Their language is also indicative of real speech. They use words and phrases to depict even slightly obscene facts without any taboo. So when we hear the Canterbury pilgrims we believe that we are in the very vortex of life. We are not in a fairy-land forlorn but in a human society full of vices and virtues, decency and indecency, innocence and fraud. And it is no exaggeration that with his Canterbury Pilgrims Chaucer introduces into English literature the realism the like of which is sought even in our own day.
His Humour
Chaucer's humour is by far the best of all his qualities. He is the first humorist in English literature who shows a broad sympathy for the foibles, weaknesses and misdemeanours of mankind. He observes humanity with a certain comic detachment and bears with all kinds of men and women. Kittredge says: "Human nature is the one thing that we can comprehend; and to comprehend, with Chaucer, was to sympathise, for he felt himself a part of all he saw." But Chaucer was also the supreme ironist, the kindly man of humour, with a touch of subtle melancholy which is essential in such a temperament. If we could imagine a being whose nature should be pure reason, how absurd we should all appear to him! "He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh: the Lord shall have them in derision." But, even to mortals with keen perceptions, the everlasting tangle of humanity, in its frenzied pursuit of the unattainable, its undying hope, uninstructed by experience, is a fit subject for humorous contemplation. Otherwise, what shall one do but despair and die? The greatest thing about Chaucer is that he loves the world, he loves its ups and downs, its defeats and triumphs, its rascals and saints and knows that a man is a man for all his frailities, his imperfections and wickedness. John Speirs says: "Chaucer's subject is human nature, human nature observed as particular parsons in a particular society planted in Nature and in God." The poetry of Chaucer expresses a complete and glad acceptance of life, involving the acceptance of full moral responsibilities. Hence, the sense of humour also gives him the sense of disenchantment. He gets rid of all illusions about himself as well as of his character. However, he does not become disappointed. On the other hand he acquires greater cheerfulness because life gives him a clarity of self-knowledge and a deeper knowledge of human character.
In his comic vision Chaucer is peculiarly English. He has in fact Christian virtues that taught him the fundamental things of life such as the gentle behaviour, the quality of pity, the delicacy of a romance feeling for natural beauty and the springtime of the world. "These he always retained while extending his vision beyond an aristocratic setting to include the richer riots of less exalted people." And these things he used to apply his powers of observation to a delightful understanding of men and women in the actual world.
Nevil Coghill says Chaucer’s perennial comic vision was loved and shared by Shakespeare. "These two poets see and show a whole society in being, united by common purposes and moving towards a happy end in a dominant mood of easy goodwill (rogurery notwithstanding) where the whole is made up of diversities, and the individual a part of it in virtue of being so fully himself. Common-sense, wit and pathos, ride side by side and the ordinary and the moral unique, touching, funny, and memorable. And in both poets romantic love is the core of the comedy."
His Imagery
Chaucer's imagery has a touch of homeliness: It is the imagery of common sight and sense, achieving the poetry of fact. He has a steady, effortless power of making what seem to be prose statements gleam and glow as they never do in prose. His similies are for the most part the obvious ones of common conversation, though nonetheless charming for that:
Whit was his berd as is the dayesye...
His eyen twynkled in his heed aryght,
As doon the sterres the forsty nyght...
As hoot he was and lecherous as a sparwe...
As leene was his horsa as is rake...
But imaginary as we know it in Shakespeare, Dante, Milton or Keats, the imagery, of broken opalescences, half-tones, imprecise suggestion, sudden wonder, extended learning, remote allusion, and above all, the imagery of metaphor that shows one thing instantly in terms of another with a flash of revelation, is nowhere to be found in The Prologue, and rarely if ever in the rest of Chaucer's work.
Yet in a more primitive sense of the word The Prologue is nothing but a series of images, pictures of things directly present to the senses. Shape and colour reach us sharply and immediately, as if from some bright and clearly defined object in life, say geranium. These bright natural images move to a dance of syllables and to a turn of meaning on the rhyme that give a sudden sharpness of definition, as when the sun comes out on a garden. There is an ever-present liquidness of movement in his language, now unrecapturable in poetry because those gliding terminations that he knew so well how to use have vanished from the English language. We can no longer make the music of such a line as:
And smale foweles maken melodye
We can make other music, but this kind is lost to us for ever.
A quizzical but affirmative delight in the created world, as eye for the immediate image and ear for the natural music of speech, gathered their forces in Chaucer to express in The Prologue his long experience of the daily dealings of men and women. The greatness of his work lies not only in the pleasure of so sharp and happy-hearted a sight of times past, but also in the power it imparts to us to see men and women, our own contemporaries, with a like vision a like sympathy and amusement, a like intelligence, in their individual actuality. Every reader of The Prologue feels he has learnt to open a Chaucerian eye upon the world.
His Irony
Chaucer is known for ironic contemplation in the Canterbury Tales. According to Nevil Coghill Chaucer's unique gift is to blend a warm feeling for human beings with a total detachment in observing their self-deceptions. His laughter comes down to us from a sphere above that of moral indignation. Like Samuel Butler he thinks that moral indignation is the hall-mark of a blackguard. Indeed he seems to bear this out in the earlier and concluding parts of the sermon he puts into the mouth of the Pardoner in The Pardoner's Tale.
An ironist sees as clearly as a moralist into the blind velleities (mere wishes) of the human heart, but he is above anger. If you are angered and disgusted by a sense of human hatefulness after reading Swift's Modest Proposal or Chaucer's Merchant's Tale, you will have taken their point but you will have missed their mood.
Anger is active, irony contemplative, and from its high region from which it can see two opposite truths at once, there descends a 'silvery laughter' which in Chaucer's case is not unkindly. This laughter arises from knowing that one should expect nothing from a pig but a grunt—and, indeed, how to welcome a grunt from a pig. It is to take mordant pleasure in human double-talk and double-do, especially when the double-talkers and double-doers are fully, innocently self-deceived, like January, Damina and May ; or like ourselves.
Chaucer's irony sledom shows anger, as Langland's so often does. When Langland tells us how a Friar shrove Lady Meed, and told her of a costly window that needed glazing, the ironic point is made with the Friar's words:
' Woldist thou glase the gable, and grave there thin name,
Sikir shulde thi soule be heuene to haue.'
But Langland allows his anger to boil over and make the moral points as well:
Ac god alle good folk such grauyng defendith
And seith Nesciat sinistra quid facial dextera
In The Merchant's Tale Chaucer gives the rein to his feelings about Damian on one occasion, not of course for his sexual antics, anymore than for those of Jnauary or May, but for his treachery, it is as if he accepted it as natural that Damian should be a handy young animal in hot blood, but was shocked at his playing traitor to a kind master, like a cold-blooded reptile:
O servant traytour, false hoomly hewe,
Lyk to the naddre in bosom sly untrewe,
God shilde us alle from youre aqueynaunce !
May's treacheries on the other hand are taken for granted ; the serpent in Eden had a woman's face.
On the sexual side, the irony issues from a lofty, an amused awareness of the fact that human beings are what they are. For though treachery may take us by surprise as something less than human, we must not be so naive as to expect rich old gentlemen not to want their sex as wall as their salvation, nor to suppose that these commodities are not for sale in a world such as we allow it to be. That marriages like that of January to May are approved by society and blessed by the Church is all too frequently clear, and since we all know this (and are partly responsible for it) we must expect a girl in May's position to welcome the solace that a Damian can offer, even if she has to climb a tree for it. This is the oblique, ironical approach ; Langland's is moral and direct :
It is an vancomely copil, be crist, as me thinketh,
To ziuen a zong wenche to an old feble
Both poets are saying the same thing in their different ways, from their different planes.
His Poetic Achievement
Legouis gives the following opinion about Chaucer's accomplishments in English Poetry ; If all this poet's work be regarded together, he is clearly seen constantly to have advanced nearer truth. He found poetry remote from nature, its essence being fiction in the accepted belief, while its task was the ingenious transposition of reality in accordance with artificial rules. In the beginning Chaucer submitted to the received code, dreamt with his contemporaries, like them had visions of allegorical figures and combined imaginary incidents. Or he sought the matter of his poems in books, borrowing his subjects and characters. Then by degrees, he reached the point of deeming nothing as interesting and as diverse as Nature herself. Relegating his book to a secondary plane, ridding himself entirely of the allegory and the dream, he looked face to face at the spectacle of men and set himself to reproduce it directly. He made himself the painter of life.
It is well-known how dry, morose, and bitter such reproduction of reality can be. It may breed disgust with life and men. Chaucer without flattering his modal, placed it in an atmosphere which is good to breathe. No one can read him and not be glad to be in the world. Whoever enters through the door he opens feels a healthy air blow on him from all sides. This is partly because Chaucer writes in a dialect still new, uses words which he was the first to put to real literary use. The language breathes a freshness, as when earth is turned in April, such vernal youth as it could never have at another time. Usually this novelty of language coincides with crudity of thought and puerility of art. But Chaucer, who begins English poetry, ends the Middle Ages. It happened that he inherited all the literature of France, rich by three centuries of generous effort, free of speech and fertile of thought, already a little weary because it had produced too much. For Chaucer, a literature in its autumn and a language in its spring combined as they have rarely, if ever, done before or since. He is at once very young and very mature ; he unites the charm of a beginning to the experience of long life. When he repeats a description or an idea which has become a little jaded in its native language, he often gives back to it the grace of novelty by the artlessness of his expression. In his highly skilled verses, English words, frozen by a long winter of waiting, first gave forth their fragrance.
To this advantage, due to exceptional circumstances, Chaucer added natural gifts, the first of them the wide sympathy which is otherwise called indulgence. To this especially his poetry owes the soft, lovable, and smiling light which is shed on it. For some of his fellow-men he feels affection or respect; about all the others he has so much curiosity that they interest him. No one is excluded. He is not easily repelled. He loves the world's variety, is grateful to defects for their difference from virtues. He looks at himself without illusions, judges himself without bitterness, is carried away by no desire to excel. He places himself on the average level, and finds all the multitude of men beside him. It is the consciousness of shared failings which makes fellowship among men. Of all writers of genius, Chaucer is the one with whom it is easiest to have a sense of comradeship.
Sympathy of this kind, founded on clear self-knowledge, is a form of intelligence. If it were absolutely necessary to define in a word the novelty of Chaucer's masterpiece, it might be said to show, most of all, the progress of intelligence. It evinces a weakening of the passion which leads to lyricism or satire and is supported by self-confidence and by the energy of desires, hopes, loves, and hates; a weakening also of the imagination which transforms and magnifies reality ; projecting it on to another more or less arbitrarily chosen plane, and which produces epical, romantic, or allegorical poems. In the Canterbury Tales the element of the poet's personality has been subdued, superseded by pleasure in observing and understanding. Hitherto this degree of peaceful, impartial spectatorship had never been reached by poets. More noble and more essentially poetic works had indeed been written: we have but to name two with different claims to greatness the Chanson de Roland and the Divina Commedia. Some of the lines of French song-makers, stretching from the twelfth-century romancers to Rutebeuf, and past him to reach its apotheosis, a hundred years after Chaucer, in Villon, were more exquisite than the English poet and sounded more thrilling notes than he, nor did he ever attain to the refinements of feeling and language which Petrarch put into his sonnets. But where, before The Canterbury Tales, can we find a poem of which the first object is to show men, neither exalted nor demeaned, to display the truthful spectacle of life at its average? Chaucer sees what is and paints it as he sees it. He affaces himself in order to look at it better.
He is the pioneer of that group of spectators who regard with amused indulgence, without seeking to redip it in dye of one colour, the warp and woof of variously coloured threads which is the chequered stuff of a society. Doubtless he has judged certain colours to be more beautiful than the others, but it is on the contrasts they afford that he has founded both his philosophy of life and the law of his art.
Chaucer is one of the most outstanding figures in English literature. He has Shakespearian merits for everlasting fame. In the words of G.G. Coulton "Age cannot wither him, nor custom stale his infinite variety. We venerate him for his years, and he daily startles us with the eternal freshness of his youth. All springtide is here, with its green leaves and singing-birds; aptly we read him stretched at length in the summer shade, yet almost more delightfully in winter, with our feet on the fender; for he smacks of all familiar comforts—old friends; old books, old wine, and even, by a proleptic miracle, old cigars. 'Here, said Dryden, 'is God's plenty'; and Lowel inscribed the first leaf of his Chaucer with that promise which the poet himself set upon the enchanted grace of his Parliament of Fowls:
Through me men go into the blissful place
Of the heart's heal and deadly woundes' cure;
Through me men go unto the well of Grace,
Where green and lusty May doth ever endure;
This is the way to all good aventure;
Be glad, thou Reader, and thy sorrow off-cast
All open am I, pass in, and speed thee fast!

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