Sunday, September 19, 2010

What are the salient features of Chaucer's style? Illustrate from The Prologue to The Canterbury Tales. (P.U. 2005)

The style of an author is his distinctive manner of writing or expressing thought in language. In commenting on Chaucer's style, it would be well to remember that he was writing in English at a time when that language was in a rather poor state of development. His sure instinct and judgement, however, made him choose the dialect of his native land when his contemporaries like Gower preferred to write in Latin.
To Chaucer goes the credit of having developed the condition of his native language to such an extent, that only the addition of blank verse was required to make English poetry fully equipped. His versatility in experimenting with new verse forms makes it impossible to exaggerate his importance as the creator of English versification. He brought to an inadequate dialect, the beauty of fluid simplicity, conversational ease as well as literary grace. He took up a dialect and left it a language. He enriched it by-adapting words from foreign languages, especially French. He infused the rough English dialect with the refinement and polish of the French language. He brought flexibility to his native language.
Conversational and colloquial style
As we read The Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, we are immediately struck by its conversational tone. The verse flows with a pleasing fluidity. It shows Chaucer's mastery of the decasyllabic couplet. We find ordinary speech, common proverbs and idiomatic terms, and even contemporary slang in his poetry. It provides a conversational slant to Chaucer's style.
Some phrases, which Chaucer often tags on to the end of the lines in order to ensure an easy metrical flow, have a conversational and personal quality:
‘twenty year of age he was, I gesse’ Or ‘Of Northfolk was this Reve of which, I telle’ Or ‘And he nas not right fat, I undertake’
Numerous other such lines, seem to establish the direct contact with the reader which is the essence of a conversation. It is done through phrases such as "I telle", "I gese", "I seyde", "as I was war", etc.
A passage such as:
So hadde I spoken with hem everychon.
That I was of hir felaweashipe anon,
And made forward erly for to ryse,
To take our wey, then as I yow devyes.
Seems to have a distinct aura of the plain speech of the time.
Chaucer's use of contemporary idiomatic terms and phrases, adds to the colloquial style. One such instance, which immediately comes to mind, is in the lines about the Monk :
He yaf not of that text a pulled hen And
But thilke text heeld he nat worth an oystre.
In The Prologue, we come across a racy and forceful style, which has the pungency of a proverb. It is especially evident in the fabliaux, which present the comic aspects of ordinary life.
His owene hand he made laddres thre,
To climben by the rouges and the stalkes……
Unto the tubbes hanginge in the balkes ...
Chaucer uses such colloquial words as quoted above, as a standard language in the poem. It seems surprising, for it contrasts vividly with the highly literary tone of the opening passage of 'The Prologue. Chaucer's skill, in fact, lies in the smooth transition, which is effected from the "high" to the colloquial style.
Triumph of style in the opening lines of "The Prologue"
The opening passage of The Prologue is in the tradition of Medieval writers, who paid tribute to, and welcomed spring at the beginning of their works. But, as D.S. Brewer observes, the triumph of the opening as literary art lies in its purposive structure and its style. In the opening passage, 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 pilgrims gathered at an inn near London. The vision is spacious as well as precise. The passage is written in a modified ‘high style’ In the term 'Zephirus' connected with 'swete breeth', we have the fanciful personification in combination with sensuous realism. Splendour and simplicity are beautifully harmonised. The 'high' literary tone of the astronomical allusion is followed by a line striking simplicity and musical charm : "And smale foweles maken meloyde."
Kemp Malone traces the gradual steps by which the 'high' style in the opening passage gives way to the plain and simple, which would be Chaucer's appropriate style in the rest of The Prologue. The style stays ‘high' for eleven lines. The twelfth line.
Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
is plain and straightforward enough. But the fall is not too swift. The next two lines.
And palmers fro the seken straunge strondes
to fern halves, couthe in sondry londes
have a certain dignity and remoteness from everyday life. The next three lines show more of the common touch and bring the English reader home :
And specially, from every shires ends
Of Engelond, to Canterbury they wende,
The holy blisful martir for to seke.
With the next line, we come to clear simplicity and plainness : That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke
The transition is complete. From the elaborate beginning, we have travelled to the easy familiar style, in a smooth and flowing manner.
Forceful directness and immediacy of style
Chaucer's style has a directness and immediacy, which comes from the habitual employment of the verb 'to be' in describing the pilgrims. His statements are so plain and simple that they admit no qualifications.
"A Monk ther was", "his heed was balled", "whit was bard as is the dayesie"—these statements are clear, solid and irrefutable. The terms in which the pilgrims are described, are simple and direct. The most common of the adjectives used are, perfect, gay, fair, wise, and worthy. They often gain their strength and directness through masterly placing in a line. The Wife of Bath comes alive before us in the simplest, but so very graphic terms:
Bold was hir face, and fair, and reed of hewe.
The Shipman's tanned face is vividly described in very ordinary words :
The hoote smoer hadde masd his hewe brown.
Forceful directness of the figures of speech
The simple immediacy which marks the adjectives used for the pilgrims, is to be found in Chaucer's images, too. ‘The colours of rhetoric' was the name given to figures of speech in the Middle Ages. Chaucer has plenty of images and similes. But they are all simple, direct, and never elaborate. At the same time, they have vivid and arresting quality.
His mouth as greet was a greet forneys
says Chaucer, and we get a direct picture of the cavernous mouth of the Miller. The Squire is "as fresh as is the month of May". The Friar's neck is as white as a lily (flour-delys), and his eyes shine like "stars in the frosty night." The Miller's beard is as red "as any sow or fox", while the Franklin has a beard, "white as is a daisy." The graphic description of the tuft of hair on the wart of the Miller's nose, is unforgettable. It is red "as the bristles of a sow's ears". The Pardoner's eyes look like those of a hare, and he has a voice which resembles that of goat. The Monk's horse is "as brown as a berry", and the Franklin's purse is "white as morning milk", while the poor Oxford Clerk's horse is "lean as rake".
The images are derived from the common spheres of experience. They are uncomplicated and direct. Chaucer does not employ extended simile and metaphor in his poetry. His images are drawn from homely, and familiar fields of life.
Use of intensifying terms to emphasise a point
A special stylistic device used by Chaucer is the emphatic manner in which he underscores his point. Some of his statements have an air of clear finality. "He was a verray parfit, gentil knyght", sums up the Knight in simple and direct words. Some of the words which Chaucer uses frequently to intensify and emphasise a point, are ful, wd, al, certainly. They are all affirmative and positive terms. It seems to indicate a stylistic device through which Chaucer associates himself with the positive and generous outlook on life.
The Monk is "a lord ful fat and in good poynt" and "certainly he was a fair prelate". The Frankin had "full many a fat partrirch" in his house to satisfy his epicurean taste. The use of these intensive adjectives is at its most effective in the description of the five Guildsmen. Though they are described collectively, they are given a sharper reality by the emphasis implied in the terms, ful and al.
Ful fresshe and newe hir geere apiked was;
hir knives were chaped noght with bras
Bill al with silver; wrought ful clene and wel.
Chaucer emphasises on a point at times through arranging words in a way, which is not the normal manner :
God loved he best with al his hoote herte
The medieval stylistic device of alliteration is also to be found in Chaucer's poetry :
Ful long were his legges and ful lene
Ful byg he was of brawn, and eek of bones.
It gives the lines a musical effect. There are some words which Chaucer seems very fond of and which he uses fairly often. ‘Wel koude he', wel knew he,' 'ful byg, etc., occur quite a few times in his poetry. Mostly, ‘wel', 'ful', etc., are employed to enhance the metrical effect of the lines.
Conclusion
If there is a defect in Chaucer's style, it is his garrulity or his inability or unwillingness to condense. At times, his style seems to lack the toughness demanded by certain situations. There are places where his poetry seems slow and awkward. But his good humour and artless manner overcome defects. In conclusion, his style is direct, plain, conversational and even personal at times. His imagery is likewise direct and vivid, drawn from common and familiar fields of experience. He has a masterly ability of making a smooth transition from the ‘high' to the colloquial style, without losing any fluidity of movement. He shows a sure judgement and confidence in the choice of the right words. The charm of fluent simplicity and perfect appropriateness of word to thought, make Chaucer's style an important aspect of his poetry.

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