illustrated portrait of English poet and author Geoffrey Chaucer

Geoffrey Chaucer

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Discuss Chaucer as a modern poet.

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Another important step toward modern literature that Chaucer takes in The Canterbury Tales is his use of irony.

Every writer is a product of his/her time, in one way or another.  Chaucer reacts against the literature of his time. 

In "The Pardoner's Tale," for instance, he takes a didactic (preachy, or designed only to teach), allegorical form, and reverses it, turns it upside down, so to speak.  He takes an often-told tale usually used to didactically preach about the evils of greed, and turns it back on to the tellers themselves. 

He does so by using the stock, usual characters--death, drunkards, good-for-nothings--in the story itself, as so many others did before him, but having the story told by a Pardoner that is himself greedy and despicable and sly.  This makes the focus of the tale the Pardoner himself, rather than the greedy drunkards in the tale.

This turns medieval, didactic, church-oriented, mostly low-quality literature into brilliant irony. 

That's Chaucer.  That's why he's still in the text books.  That's why his works are a big step toward modern literature.


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Well, for starters, Chaucer is not a Modern Poet. Modernism began in the late 19th century and lasted up until about World War I, but those dates vary. However, I’m always one for using techniques, theories and criticism of one period to analyze texts of another. In fact, it would be in the spirit of Modernism, and even more in Postmodernism, to revisit older texts with these newer historical perspectives.

So, we are either looking at Chaucer’s work through Modernist lenses (as pretentious as that sounds) or we could just pretend that Chaucer is alive and writing today or during the Modernism period, so let’s just do that. What does he do that is characteristically Modern or ‘modern’ in the more general sense of our present time, 2011?

First thing he does that is characteristically modern is having multiple narrators. His work would probably be created to someone like William Faulkner who redefined narrative with his use of multiple narrators. You could also note his cultural diversity in presenting different speech patterns according to different social classes (the Knight is more eloquent than the Pardoner). Maybe you could go so far to say that Chaucer was making an allegorical comment on social classes and come to the conclusion that Chaucer employing a Marxist analysis of a Feudal system in 14th century England; and this wandering and storytelling was an alternative to facing the lack of possible upward mobility. Ok, so this may be a stretch, but that’s the point.

The theme of Christianity is prevalent and you could compare that to a resurgence of fundamental Christians in the political right in America and the emergence of religious fundamentalism in other parts and other religions of the world. If you go this route, (still pretending that Chaucer is writing today), maybe Chaucer is mocking them in a satire; or maybe he’s promoting them. But satire is more fun.

In the Nun’s Priest’s Tale, he uses animals to tell the story. There is nothing essentially Modern or Ancient about this. So, what Modern works do this? Disney movies? Cartoons? Adult Swim?

Pretending aside, Chaucer is still being read and discussed. This makes him, by definition, a Modern poet because he is still relevant. If he wasn’t relevant he wouldn’t be read or discussed. Living in the modern world, today’s readers can’t help but read him with a Modernist bias. In other words, it is difficult (maybe impossible) to read Chaucer as a 14th century Englander. You can’t help but put your own spin on any historical text you read. This is the premise of New Historicism. The goal is to separate the Modern conceptions of Chaucer’s work and what his work meant in its own context, in its own time.

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