One of the keys to Chaucer’s continued critical success is the scope and diversity of his work, which extends from romance to tragedy, from sermon to dream vision, from pious saints’ lives to bawdy fabliaux. Each century’s readers have found something new in Chaucer and have learned something about themselves, as well.
Chaucer was recognized even in his own time as the foremost of English poets. A ballad written by the French poet Eustache Deschamps in 1386, well before the works for which Chaucer is now remembered, identifies him as the “great translator, noble Geoffrey Chaucer” (probably thinking of his translation of the Romaunt of the Rose) and praises his work extravagantly, as do the contemporary English writers Thomas Usk and John Gower. Chaucer’s most important creative output consists of six major narrative poems, although his translations and short poems are also of high quality and considerable interest. These six are The Canterbury Tales and Troilus and Criseyde, his two masterpieces, and the four “major minor” poems, Book of the Duchess, Parlement of Foules, House of Fame (1372-1380), and The Legend of Good Women.
All four of the major minor poems are structured by the devices of the dramatized first-person narrator and the dream vision. In the earliest of these poems, Book of the Duchess, the evidently lovesick and therefore (by the conventions of courtly love) insomniac narrator reads the classical myth of Ceyx and Alcyone to help him sleep. After finishing the tale, he does in fact fall asleep and has a dream in which he follows a group of hunters on a chase. He is eventually led by a small dog into a clearing in the woods, where he comes upon a grieving knight dressed all in black. At first uncomprehending, the narrator comes to realize that the Black Knight’s grief has been caused by the death of his incomparable lady-love and the end of their blissful life together. The poet then wakes and resolves to write the story of his experience, presumably the very poem that the reader has just read. The poem is a sensitive elegy on the death of John of Gaunt’s wife Blanche, but it is also of great interest in its own right as a work of art.
While the framing device of the dream vision had long been a standard tool for medieval poets, especially for the presentation of allegorical subjects, Chaucer’s innovative grafting of the character of the narrator onto this stock technique creates additional levels of psychological and dramatic depth. The narrator’s naïve questions, the result of his failing to understand the Black Knight’s poetic and allusive speeches about his loss, provide the knight with a sympathetic, if obtuse, listener and enable him to talk his way through his grief and achieve a measure of consolation. Some critics prefer to read the poem with a slightly different emphasis, arguing that the dreamer-narrator only pretends to be naïve in order to help the knight work through his grief to a catharsis. Some see the dramatic irony as the effect of the distance between Chaucer the author and his naïve narrator; others interpret it as a result of the distance between the sophisticated narrator and the bumbling persona that he creates for the knight’s benefit. In either case, the key narrative function—achieved through the unreliable persona who accurately records, but inaccurately interprets, the events that he narrates—is already present in Chaucer’s first extended work. This narrative persona would appear in one guise or another in all Chaucer’s major narratives and would become one of the poet’s most distinctive stylistic trademarks.
Parlement of Foules follows Book of the Duchess closely in structure if not in time. Chaucer combines the motifs of the dream vision and limited narrator with the popular conventions of the council or parliament of birds and the demande d’amour, the “question of love,” which calls for the solution of delicate and usually involved problems of etiquette in courtly love. As in the earlier poem, the narrator, having lamented his own inaptitude for love, reads a book (this time one on dreams) and falls asleep. After being shown around an allegorical landscape by one of the characters in the book that he had been reading, the narrator is taken to a beautiful park near the temple of Venus, where the birds of the parliament are gathered before the goddess of Nature on Saint Valentine’s Day for the purpose of choosing their mates. A female “formel” eagle is claimed by three different suitors, who present in turn their arguments for deserving her love. The issue is then subjected to a lively debate among the general assembly of birds, which eventually deteriorates into bickering and name-calling. Nature takes charge at this point and leaves the decision to the formel eagle herself, who chooses to defer her choice until next year’s Valentine’s Day gathering. The shouting of the birds at this decision wakes the dreamer, who returns to his books, still hoping to learn from them something about love. Critics have been unable to agree about the interpretation of the poem. It has been read variously as a serious debate about the conventions of courtly love, as a satire mocking those conventions, as an allegory (either about love and marriage in general or, more specifically, about the suit of Richard II for the hand of Marie of France in 1377 or the hand of Anne of Bohemia in 1381), and as a political and social satire (with the birds representing different social classes).
Such diversity of critical opinion represents the norm, rather than the exception, in studies of Chaucer, and there has been even less agreement about interpretation of his two remaining major minor poems, House of Fame and The Legend of Good Women, at least in part because neither appears to have ever been completed. House of Fame presents an especially heterogeneous set of materials, recounting the dreamer’s vision of the story of Dido and Aeneas in book 1, an airborne journey to the House of Fame in the talons of a talking eagle in book 2, and a visit to the House of Fame and the House of Rumor in book 3. None of the critical explanations offered of the poem’s overall theme or meaning has been widely accepted, and the diversity of the different parts may preclude such unifying readings. The poem does succeed, however, as an often brilliantly comic literary experiment. The Legend of Good Women presents a prologue, which exists in two versions, in which the god of love demands that the narrator write a series of tales about good women to atone for his many tales about unfaithful women. The nine tales that follow are not among Chaucer’s best efforts, and he apparently lost interest and abandoned the idea without completing the poem. The device of a prologue and dramatic frame enclosing a series of stories, however, may well have helped him conceive the structure of The Canterbury Tales.
The Canterbury Tales
First published: 1387-1400
Type of work: Poetry
A motley group of travelers on a pilgrimage agree to take turns telling stories to one another along the way.
The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer’s best-known and most important literary achievement, consists of twenty-four tales, some with prologues and epilogues, which range over a wide variety of styles, subjects, and genres. The work avoids becoming merely a loose collection of unrelated stories because of Chaucer’s ingenious development of the framing device of the pilgrimage and his ability to suit his diverse tales to the personalities of their tellers. Chaucer’s ideas about the book apparently evolved over a period of decades, with some tales (the Second Nun’s Tale, parts of the Monk’s Tale) possibly written as early as the 1370’s, and others (the Nun’s Priest’s Tale, the Parson’s Tale) probably written in the later 1390’s, not long before his death. The imaginative breakthrough that made the work possible—his conceiving of the framing narrative that lends coherence to the stories—seems to have occurred some time in the 1380’s, when he must have written an early version of the General Prologue. The work is evidently unfinished, though the flexible nature of the framing device allows for considerable diversity of opinion as to Chaucer’s final plans for the poem’s overall structure.
The Canterbury Tales begins with the General Prologue, which opens with a lyrical evocation of springtime in England, the time for folk to go on pilgrimages to holy shrines to thank the saints for their good fortune of the past year. It then proceeds to a series of portraits of a particular group of pilgrims assembled at the Tabard Inn in Southwark, near London, where they are preparing to leave on their pilgrimage to Canterbury. The ostensibly random assemblage of pilgrims actually provides a fairly complete spectrum of the middle classes of fourteenth century England, omitting the higher nobility and the poorer peasants but representing a substantial number of the social gradations between the Knight and the Plowman. These characters are not merely representative abstractions, however, but are provided with vividly individual traits to the degree that they become distinct characters for the reader.
One of the most interesting of the characters is the unnamed first-person narrator, who meets the group at the inn on his way to Canterbury, decides to join their party, and describes them for the reader. Critics usually call the narrator “Chaucer the Pilgrim” to differentiate him from the author, whose point of view often seems to diverge considerably from that of his mouthpiece. While the naïve narrator approves of the worldly Prioress and Monk and is amused by the villainous Shipman, the reader is able to see beyond his uncritically approving point of view to their serious faults. The technique of the unreliable narrator leaves all direct storytelling and commentary to speakers whose point of view is suspect to various degrees and calls for the reader to infer the implicit truth from the information provided. If Chaucer did not originate this method of narration, he certainly developed it to a greater extent than any other writer before him. The device of the unreliable narrator has had an influence on later narrative writing, especially in the twentieth century, that would be difficult to overestimate, and much of this influence may be traced directly to Chaucer’s own refinement of the technique.
The proprietor of the Tabard Inn, Harry Bailly, is so struck by the conviviality of the group that he decides to join them on the condition that they agree to participate in a storytelling contest, with himself as leader and judge of the contest. Each pilgrim will tell four stories, two on the way to Canterbury and two on the way back, and the winner will get a free dinner at the inn at the other pilgrims’ expense. The travelers agree and draw lots for the telling of the first tale. The lot falls to the Knight, who begins the sequence of tales. No pilgrim actually tells more than one tale (with the exception of Chaucer the Pilgrim, discussed below), and at one time it was thought that Chaucer must have originally planned some 120 tales (four each for thirty pilgrims). More recently, critics have argued that the scheme for 120 tales is proposed by Harry Bailly, not Chaucer, and that The Canterbury Tales as a whole may be fairly close to its final form. While the work is clearly not finished in a strict traditional sense (the pilgrims never arrive at Canterbury or return, and the winner of the contest is never revealed), it does seem to have a coherence of effect that is just as satisfying aesthetically as a more rigid closure would have been.
The Knight tells one of the longest and most formal tales, a chivalric romance with philosophical overtones set in ancient Thebes, treating of courtly love and ceremonial combat among the nobility. This somewhat idealized tale of aristocratic life is followed by an abrupt change of pace when the Miller, so drunk that he can hardly sit on his horse, insists on telling the next tale, which addresses the rather less courtly love of a college student and his elderly landlord’s young wife. The tale is one of the finest examples of the fabliau, a short comic tale, usually obscene, depicting illicit love and practical jokes among lower-and middle-class characters. The tale contains a number of parallels to the Knight’s Tale and may be viewed in part as a parody of it. In addition to connecting with the preceding tale, the Miller’s Tale provides the impetus for the next. The Reeve, who bears a number of similarities to the foolish carpenter cuckolded by the student, takes the Miller’s Tale personally and repays him with another fabliau, this one about a miller whose wife and daughter are comically seduced by two college students. The Cook’s Tale, which follows, is an incomplete fragment that would evidently have been another fabliau.
These four tales follow the General Prologue and one another in all the major manuscripts of The Canterbury Tales and are collectively referred to as part (or fragment) 1 (or A). Depending on the manuscripts followed, modern editions usually recognize ten distinct parts; while the order of tales within each part is fixed, the parts themselves are not always arranged in the same order. None of the arrangements offered is without its problems, and it may well be the case that Chaucer had not decided on a final order. The most commonly followed arrangement is that of the Ellesmere manuscript, and that will be observed here, as well.
After part 2, which consists of the Man of Law’s tale of the saintly Constance and her several tribulations, come parts 3 through 5, a textually and thematically connected series that has come to be called the Marriage Group, as several of the tales seem to be pursuing what amounts to a running debate on the proper roles of the man and woman in marriage. In the Wife of Bath’s lengthy prologue, as well as in her tale, she argues that the woman should have the mastery of the man in marriage. While most of her arguments are drawn from traditional antifeminine satire, and while the stock character type of the bawdy older woman had existed since classical times, Chaucer combines these elements to original effect. Alison of Bath is developed into a much more rounded and sympathetic character than any of her predecessors, and her humorous and lively account of her methods of outwitting and dominating men seems, at least to modern readers, more feminist than antifeminist. After an exchange of fabliaux between the Friar and the Summoner (each telling a tale that degrades the other’s profession), the Clerk tells a tale about a pure and virtuous wife, perhaps by way of replying to the Wife of Bath, and then the Merchant tells a tale of an unfaithful wife. After a short and incomplete attempt at a chivalric romance by the youthful Squire (whose tale does not measure up to that of his accomplished father, the Knight), the Franklin tells a tale of mutual respect and forbearance by a married couple, a tale that is usually seen as concluding the marriage debate with a compromise. Part 6, one of the more difficult parts to place in the sequence, contains the brief Physician’s tale of Appius’s sacrifice of his daughter Virginia and the justly renowned Pardoner’s prologue and tale of greed and murder, frequently anthologized and often called one of the first great short stories in English literature.
Part 7 is the longest and most varied of the parts. It begins with the Shipman’s crude fabliau and the Prioress’s sentimental saint’s legend. Chaucer the Pilgrim starts to recount an inept romance about Sir Thopas, but his story is so bad that he is interrupted and told to stop. Chaucer the Pilgrim then tells the Tale of Melibee, a lengthy prose sermon. After the Monk recounts a series of brief tragic anecdotes, and is also interrupted, the Nun’s Priest tells his tale. The latter is based on the popular stories of Reynard the Fox, in which the fox tries to outwit and capture the cock, Chauntecleer. Chaucer fuses the genre of the beast fable with that of the mock epic, telling his story of barnyard animals in the elevated rhetoric of courtly romance, and makes the cock into a somewhat bombastic orator whose digressive and encyclopedic argument with his wife over dreams almost overshadows the plot of the story. Because of its comedy and stylistic range, the Nun’s Priest’s Tale is widely considered by modern readers to be the one that ought to have been awarded the prize at the end of the pilgrimage.
In part 8, the Second Nun tells a saint’s legend, and the Canon Yeoman delivers an exposé of the fraudulent practices of medieval alchemists. Part 9 contains only the Manciple’s version of a tale from Metamorphoses (c. 8 c.e.) by Ovid, Chaucer’s favorite classical author. Part 10 contains the Parson’s long prose sermon and, perhaps, Chaucer’s Retraction, a listing and retraction of his worldly writings, which some critics see as a part of the text and an ironic advertisement for the works, and which others see as a sincere extrafictional address to posterity.
While The Canterbury Tales may be unfinished, the very openness of its structure has increasingly come to be seen as one of the sources of the work’s complexity and richness. The poem is unified to the degree that, read as a whole, it can draw the reader into the creative process of interpretation and discovery that it demands. Yet it is designed freely enough that the tales may also be appreciated as individual works outside the context of the frame.
Troilus and Criseyde
First published: 1382
Type of work: Poem
Troilus and Criseyde meet and fall in love in the besieged city of Troy but after three years of happiness are separated.
Troilus and Criseyde is Chaucer’s longest complete work and in many ways his most polished; he wrote it at the peak of his creative powers and may well have expected it to endure as his most important literary achievement. Indeed, it has only been in the last century or two that readers have come to rank it a step beneath the incomplete and somewhat experimental The Canterbury Tales. His combining of the conventional setting and plot of medieval romance with realistic insights into character and motivation have led critics to debate whether it is more properly considered a sophisticated medieval romance or the first modern psychological novel.
The story of the Trojan War had long been a popular one in England, partly because of the popular legend that Britain had been founded by the Trojan hero Brut. It is not surprising, therefore, that Chaucer, like many of his contemporaries, wrote a book dealing with aspects of the Troy story. Chaucer’s interest lies not so much in the Trojan War itself (though political events caused by the siege affect the personal events that constitute his focus) as in the love story between the two title characters, both members of the Trojan aristocracy. Troilus and Criseyde do not appear as characters in the original version of the legend of Troy, Homer’s Iliad (c. 750 b.c.e.; English translation, 1611); Chaucer’s immediate source is the contemporary Italian poet Giovanni Boccaccio’s Il filostrato (c. 1335; The Filostrato, 1873), but Chaucer expands the poem considerably (from 5,740 to 8,239 lines) and changes the plot and characters so freely that the poem becomes distinctively his own creation.
The bare outline of the plot is relatively simple: The young nobleman Troilus, son of the Trojan king Priam, falls in love with the widow Criseyde, suffering all the pains of unrequited love specified in the courtly love tradition. He reveals his love for her to his friend Pandarus, who is also Criseyde’s uncle and whose machinations eventually unite the two as lovers. Criseyde’s father, Calchas, a soothsayer who has foreseen the Trojan defeat and has deserted to the Greek camp, arranges for his daughter to be exchanged for a Trojan prisoner and to be sent to join him. His well-intentioned effort to save his daughter from the destruction of the city has tragic consequences for the two lovers. Before leaving Troy, Criseyde promises to Troilus that she will escape and return to him; this proves difficult, however, and in time her resolve weakens, and she takes a new lover, the Greek soldier Diomede. Troilus eventually recognizes that she has been unfaithful and, having been killed by the Greek hero Achilles, looks down from the heavens and laughs at the mutability of earthly love as compared to the more durable joys of divine love.
The roles of Pandarus and Criseyde are far more complex in Chaucer’s version than in Boccaccio’s, and their treatment shifts the emphasis of the plot. Chaucer changes Pandarus from a nondescript comrade of Troilus to Criseyde’s elderly uncle, creating tension between his dual roles as Troilus’s friend and adviser and Criseyde’s guardian. Criseyde is the most complex of the characters, and her actions are less clearly reprehensible. Whereas Boccaccio’s tale is focused on Troilus, who represents the author’s own disappointment in love, the role of Criseyde comes to dominate Chaucer’s poem. Chaucer’s greater insight into Criseyde’s character creates a balance between the actions that result from the outside pressures of fate and society upon Criseyde and the actions that result from her own free will. While she does prove unfaithful to Troilus, the narrator is generally sympathetic to her, and it is difficult to see what else she could have done to survive under the circumstances in which she finds herself. As a result, critics are divided over whether her portrayal is meant to be admired and pitied or condemned as faithless and perhaps immoral.