Sunday, September 19, 2010

Style in the Prologue

Legouis says that up to the very end, the task Chaucer set himself was to write verses which should have charm and life. He did not seek to direct men, to judge events, to reform morals, or to present a philosophy. Poetry was his only object. And it is hardly possible to exaggerate the part he played as creator of English versification. Save the frail octosoyllabic line already in use, he had himself to forge all his instruments. He imported the decasyllabic line from France and, under Italian influence, made it pliable.
It became the heroic line which was the surpassing vehicle of the great poetry of
England. The progress of English poetry in Chaucer's time was barred by the lack of a verse-form at once ample, ductile, noble and sonorous. Chaucer used the new line alternatively in stanzas and in couplets, the stanza for songs and the couplet for narratives. He cast it in moulds unknown to his country—the roundel, the virelay, the ballade.
Chaucer's immediate choice of his own dialect as the vehicle of his poetry is proof of his decision and of his sure judgment. He did not, like Gower, allow himself to be tempted either by Latin or by French. He risked his whole literary fortune on London English, the King's English, of which it has been said how poor it was. He found it a thing of naught and left it so rich that English poetry had but to add blank verse to it in order to be fully equipped.
To wed the vocabulary of his native land to the courtliness of France was his first essential task. He recast English words—that is, surviving words of Teutonic and French origin—in the moulds of the French poets. He expressed in English all the graces and refinements he found in the poetry of France. But Chaucer's debt to France goes beyond the many imitations which can be discovered in his work, the reminiscences of the trouveres in lines, reflections, descriptive touches, opinions, or quips. Legouis observes: A Frenchman may enter Chaucer's country and be conscious of no change of sky or climate. Like the French trouveres, Chaucer has a lightness of heart which is not tumultuous but diffused. It is born of his pleasure in life and is revealed by his taste for the well-lit pictures which call up spring, the month of May, flowers, birds, and music. One line, in which he resumes the youth of his Squire, might be the device of all his poetry:
He was as fressh as is the moneth of May
This line is entirely French, the essence of the earliest French poetry.
The same may be said of his pitch, neither too high nor too low. His voice, too, has a pure, slightly frail quality. He never forces his tone ; rather, he sometimes uses a mute. It is an even voice, made to tell a long story without weariness or jar, perhaps not rich or full enough for the highest lyricism, but wont to keep to the middle tones in which meaning is conveyed to the mind most clearly and exactly.
There is the charm of fluent simplicity, complete correspondence of words and thoughts. Chaucer's best verses merely note facts, external details, or characteristics of feeling.
There is constant restraint, alike in expressing emotion and satire. When he touches the pathetic, he stops short of cries and weeping. He tempers his irony with wit, and he provokes smiles rather than unchecked laughter. Everywhere there are undefinable sobriety and good manners which imply that the poet is ruled by intelligence, rather than carried away by passion. In other words, his temperamental and intellectual powers are perfectly balanced.
It should be added that with the virtues of the French trouveres he has the faults from which the best of them are not exempt. Like them, he too often does not condense, is garrulous, often charmingly but yet indisputably. There are times when he lacks the sinew and the pace which an occasion demands, when he dawdles instead of hastening his steps, walks instead of flying. His discreet poetry is near the borderline of prose. It has its awkward, slow, and platitudinous moments. There is padding at which we smile, but which we must recognise for what it is. Again, like the old French poets, Chaucer has, however, a good-humoured, artless way with him, which makes all these manifest defects into an additional attraction. Sometimes he even uses them to point his sharpest quip.
These characteristics do not belong only to his youth but are permanent in him. Chaucer cannot be said to have had a French period. He is always French, although he sometimes gathered riches abroad, as he marvelled at antiquity or at Italy. Fundamentally, unchanged, he acquired from the Italians and Latins a certain adventitious diversity, and ended by using his French manner to paint the society of England.
Style in the Prologue
A writer's style is the way in which he chooses and uses his words to convey his meaning. Chaucer like every great writer has his own mannerisms of expression. Certain features of his style, like his conversational ease or the use of repetition are due to the fact that he wrote a good deal of his poetry for recitation before a cultured, courtly audience.
The words and expressions of which Chaucer is keenly fond may be studied with some interest. For example, the word faire is used by him as a useful descriptive adjective in many places with no specific force attached to it:
Wel semed ech of hem a faire burgeys(369)
A fairer burgeys is ther noon in Chepe. (754)
Other expressions which Chaucer uses very frequently are of the type 'wel koude he', 'wel knew he', 'ful patient', 'ful byg'. Here the short wel and ful help the line only metrically. However, in the portrait of the Prioress even humble words like wel and ful have been employed repetitively to create the effect of emphasis and eagerness. To keep the metre of a line going properly Chaucer also uses some tag phrases which establish a direct link between him and the reader:
Of twenty yeer of age he was, I gesse (82)
Ful fetys was hir cloke as
I was war (157)
But greet harm was it,
as it thoughte me (385)
Of Northfolk was this Reve
of which I telle (619)
An important characteristic of Chaucer's style is its conversa­tional ring. One notices in his heroic couplets used in the Prologue an easy flow of language. This has been attained by the use of common turns of speech, popular idioms, proverbial sayings, slangs and plain, ordinary words. The following lines in the Prologue seem to have been lifted straight from the plain, conversational expressions of the fourteenth century:
So hadde I spoken with hem erichon
That I was of hir felaweshipe anon,
And made forward erly for to ryse,
To take oure wey ther as I yow devyse.
A not heed hadde he, with a broun visage.
His studie was but litel on the Bible.
A picturesque popular phrase or a contemporary proverb also add to the colloquial tone of the Prologue :
He yaf nat of that text a pulled hen,
But thilke text heeld he nat worth an oyster
And yet he hadde a thombe of gold, pardee.
Pardee in the last line has further colloquial effect.
Chaucer also takes care to choose his ordinary words and arrange them artificially so that they satisfy the reader's ear and enhance his enjoyment, for example ;
He koude rooste, and sethe, and broille, and frye (The Cook's portrait)
Long sounds coupled with the repeated and in this line make the list of accomplishments appear much longer than it actually is.
Greater emphasis and poetic effectiveness is sometimes achieved by an abnormal arrangement of common words:
God loved he best with al his hoole herte
Mark also how the emphatic God at the start of the line is balanced by the duplicated al and hoole in the second half.
While Chaucer employs a combination of short words to have an emphatic hammering effect or to produce a light, tripping or dancing effect, he uses longer 'dictionary' words to slow down the verse or to add solemnity or pompousness, as in the case of the Lawyer:
Discreet he was and of greet reverence... He seemed swich, his wordes weren so wise. Justice he was ful often in assise, By patente and by pleyn commissioun,
Like his contemporaries, Chaucer sometimes chooses words which alliterate to make a line more musical and effective:
Ful byg he was of brawn. and eek of bones,
longs were his legges and ful lene
With scalled
browes blake and piled berd.
Figures of speech or images or what the literary men of the Middle Ages called 'the colours of rhetoric' are a significant stylistic device of Chaucer. Here are some similes used in the Prologue. The Squire is "as fresh as is the month of May" and keeps awake in the night as "doth a nightingale". The Monk out of his cloister is not like a fish out of water. The Friar's neck is as white as the flourdelys. His eyes twinkle as "the sterres in the frosty night." The Clerk's horse is lean as "a rake". The Franklin's beard is as white as is a daisy. The Miller's beard is red "as any sow or fox" and broad as a spade. (January, in The Merchant's Tale has the distinction of having "thikke bristles of his berd unsoft, like to the skin of hound fish, sharp as brere".) The tuft of hair on the wart of the Franklin's nose is red "as the brustels of a sowes erys". The Summoner is as lecherous as a sparrow. The garland on his head is "as greet as it were for an ale-stake". The Pardoner's eyes are glaring as those of a hare. His voice is small as that of a goat.
Sometimes Chaucer repeats an idea in succeeding lines in order to introduce some subtle twist, such as:
Ful swetely herde he confessioun
And pleasaunt was absolucioun:
He was an esy man to yeve penaunce,
Ther as he wiste to have a good pitaunce.
It is also a rhetoric device of Chaucer to express a simple idea in an elaborate and roundabout manner ; for example Chaucer uses twenty-one lines to convey the idea that the Franklin was very fond of food. The Miller's big, brawny, uncouth appearance is depicted in fifteen lines, while the wide reading of the Doctor of Physic is described in six cataloguing lines.
Winny says what may strike us first about Chaucer's writing in the General Prologue is its forceful directness and immediacy, qualities derving in part from his habitual use of the verb 'to be' in describing the pilgrims. The simplificity of his statements— 'a Monk ther was', 'his heed was balled', 'whit was berd as is the dayesie'—neither invites nor admits qualification. The thing exists as Chaucer says, its presence solid and incontrovertible. This impression is confirmed by the uncomplicated naturalness of Chaucer's images, which are taken from the most familiar areas of common experience. The Monk's horse is 'as broun as is a berie the Friar's eyes twinkle 'as doon the sterres in the frosty night', the Franklin's purse is as white as morning milk, and the threadbare Clerk's horse is leene as is a rake.' The adjectives used in describing the pilgrims are usually as simple and direct. Worthy, gay, bright, fair, fresh, perfect, sharp, wise, which are among the commonest of Chaucer's descriptive terms, sometimes derive from their placing the immediacy and strength that normally we expect only of metaphor.
'Boold was hir face, and fair, and reed of hewe' describes the Wife of Bath's appearance in language that seems to have no literary pretension, yet with a graphic effect that is almost startling. His matter-of-fact note on the Shipman's sunburnt face has the same arresting quality :
The hoote somer hadde maad his hewe al broun
Although he uses an image to suggest the size of the Miller's huge mouth, the comment derives its force from the repetition of the commonplace adjective by which Chaucer suggests its size :
His mouth as greet was as a greet forneys.
These three examples of Chaucer's vernacular plainness of idom show how little he depends upon formal or technical devices to make his point. If there is no use of metaphor in the General Prologue, its absence is likely to go unnoticed in the density and richness of sensation which the poem throws out. The style of its long opening sentence—courtly in form and language, its more elegant vocabulary and involved development indicating a conscious literary mode—offers a sample of the poetic tradition which Chaucer had abandoned. The comic anti-climax which completes the sentence, as he drops abruptly from the rhapsodic to the prosaic, from the mythological Zephyrus to the folk and their rollicking pilgrimage, epitomizes the general change which Chaucer's style had undergone in order to reach this final phase.
In its racy turn of phrase and pithy commentary, the style of the General Prologue is often close to the terse, pungent manner of the proverbial sayings which are scattered plentifully through his work. In the fabliaux, which deal frankly with the ludicrous happenings of everyday life, this style reaches its fullest achievement. The account of the carpenter's preparations for the great flood in The Miller's Tale uses language whose coarse-grained, earthy flavour supplements the description by evoking a sense of contact with square-cut timber and rough country food:
His owene hand he made laddres thre,
To climben by the ronges and the stalkes
Unto the tubbes hanginge in the balkes,
And hem vitailled, bothe trogh and tubbe,
With breed and chese, and good ale in a jubbe.
These are the colloquial English terms which, after the opening literary flourish of the General Prologue, Chaucer accepts as the standard of his narrative. Lifted out of their context, such conversational remarks as
For aught I woot, he was of Dertemouthe
or, in commenting upon the Clerk,
And he nas nat right fat, I undertake
read like informal asides taken from everyday speech, with no pretentions to literary character. They may even seem to have no claims to be poetry. By using this direct and richly vernacular style Chaucer is able to secure an effect of sensational reality, in which material objects take on a heightened power, as though seen with the intensity of imaginative insight.
This intensifying of sensation is most obvious in the degree of emphasis which Chaucer brings to his description of the pilgrims. The absolute finality of the comment which sums up the Monk,
Now certeinly he was a fair prelaat
is typical of the emphatic manner by which Chaucer constantly underlines and reinforces his point. His use of simple intensifying adjectives—ful, wel, al—is so characteristic a feature of his style that their repetition may pass unnoticed, even when they appear as frequently as they do in the portrait of the Prioress. The monk is set down as 'a lord ful fat and in good point', the Man of Law as 'ful riche of excellence,' and the epicurean Franklin has 'ful many a fat partrech' waiting to be eaten. The Reeve shaves himself not just closely but 'as ny as ever he kan'. As a ballad-singer the Friar is without rival—'he baar outrely the pris'—and the Host is made impressive by the manly qualities of which 'him lakkede right naught'. Part of the Clerk's outstanding character—his severe economy of speech—is put in a negative form which retains the emphatic force of Chaucer's statements:
Noght o word spak he moore than was neede.
The cumulative effect of such insistent comment is most readily seen in the description of the five Gildsmen, who are among the least conspicuous of the pilgrims. Even these figures, whom Chaucer describes collectively, are given a heightened reality by the emphasis that seems to reflect his delighted approval of their costume and bearing:
Ful fressh and newe hir geere apiked was;
Hir knives were chaped noght with bras
But al with silver ; wroght ful clene and weel
Hir girdles and hir pouches everydeel...
Everich, for the wisdom that he kan,
Was shaply for to been an alderman.
The strongly affirmative phrases, 'ful fressh and newe', 'ful clene and weel', 'al with silver', and the inclusive terms 'everydeel’ and 'everich', as well as the lavish final compliments, are typical of Chaucer's whole-hearted acceptance of the world about him. His enthusiasm is tempered by the critical insight that enables him to comment ironically upon moral character, but his disclosures are impish and without malice. Like his own Host, who offers an expansive welcome to all his guests 'right hertely', but reserves the right to snub and admonish, Chaucer administers rebukes without losing the good-humoured humanity that remains his great attraction. His security of mind is too assured to be disturbed by the moral failings of society, or for him to adopt the destructive outlook of a satirist. His fondness for affirmative and positive terms—ful, wel, al, greet, certeinly—is a stylistic trait by which Chaucer implicitly associates himself with the unlimted abundance and generosity of natural creation.
Style in the Opening Passage of the Prologue
Brewer says : The Prologue opens with a passage about spring of the kind no writer could omit. Boccaccio has one in his Latin handbook of mythology, Creton in his French chronicle of Richard's deposition, and there are many others. So familiar a subject could surprise no audience The triumph of the opening as literary art lies in its purposive structure and its style. This elaborate introduction takes less than twenty lines, and in it we have smelt the spring air, and have swooped in imagination down from the Zodiac to the Tabard. The focus has carried us from a general view of the season to fix sharply on the nine-and-twenty pilgrims gathered in a well-known inn near London. The vision is both spacious and precise. The passage is written in a modified 'high style'. The first two lines are simple and direct, so that no listener or reader can miss the point. The next three lines, with their almost scientifically elaborate mention of the nourishing of plants, are written in that poetic diction for which Chaucer was so venerated in the following two centuries ; he calls water, licour, the west Wind Zephirus. The third line shows Chaucer's magic fully at work, with the image of Zephirus in the first half, and the realistic 'sweet breath' in the second. The fanciful personification of the west wind gives him not only a colourful and musical word in itself—it presses home the sensuous realism of 'sweet breath', There is the same splendour and simplicity in the next two lines and by this time he can well afford one of his favourite astronomical references to the date—it heightens the style, and connot be misunderstood. He continues with a line of the most striking simplicity and musical beauty : 'And smale foweles maken melodye'. The commonplace reference to the song of birds in spring becomes beautiful and arresting partly from the music of the line, and partly from its position in the poetic unity, which is the paragraph.
Chaucer's poetic power is only rarely distilled in a word or phrase; it is to be sought in the paragraph and even larger units. Narrative poetry, especially when written partly for an audience, is as a rule diffuse and repetitive. It is to be taken in large draughts, not sipped ; a table wine, not a liqueur. But here, in this rhetorical and superbly poetic beginning to his poem, Chaucer gives the delights of both narrative and lyric.
To conclude, Chaucer's style is simple, direct, conversational, racy and at the same time literary. He is an outstanding poet for his concrete imageries, use of apt similies, expressive phrases, all-embracing and genial humour, penetrative knowledge of character and unrivalled dramatic sense. He has immense confidence in the choice and use of words, from one extreme of language usage to another. He is able to move with equal facility from colloquial words of every day usage to learned, technical words relating to law or medicine, and to moments of sheer beauty. As a poet he had no other tools besides words, yet he can delight and entertain us and make us think seriously by the literary force of the language and the style that he used six centuries ago. His style is perhaps the most vital aspect of his poetry to keep his name among the immortals of English literature.

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