Is there a tradition in English humouristic literature extending from Chaucer to Wodehouse?

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Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

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Yes, there is in fact a long tradition of humor in English literature that extends from Geoffrey Chaucer to P. G. Wodehouse and beyond. The Encyclopedia of British Humorists: Chaucer to John Cleeshe (Editor, Steven H. Gale) provides a long chronology of British humorists beginning with Chaucer and including Wodehouse. Some names included in the Encyclopedia are Chaucer, The Pearl Poet, William Shakespeare, Jonathan Swift, Fielding, John Gay, Edward Sucking, Fanny Burney, Jane Austen, Robert Browning, and P. G. Wodehouse.

Wodehouse found humor in the social and cultural idiosyncrasies of individuals and groups of people representative of English life, from amateur golf players to landed country gentlemen who understand their hounds and roses better than they understand society and people of society. Wodehouse made humor of understatement and made ironic juxtaposition of realism and idiosyncrasy humorous, from My Man Jeeves to Blandings Castle.

Chaucer was not the originator of humor in English literature--the Encyclopedia gives that honor to the "Beowulf writer"--but he was certainly the one to perfect it in literature written in English vernacular (he was the first to write fiction in Middle English as it developed after the Conquest).

Chaucer had a particular leaning toward and talent for gently self-deprecating humor, humor that gently poked fun at him and at his poetic endeavors. Critics attribute this to both (1) his personality and mental outlook on life and to (2) his audience of nobility and royalty, many of whom commissioned (asked for and paid for) his works. It is conjectured that it was deemed wisest to keep a humble and light-hearted demeanor since he was experimenting in verse in English when the norm was verse in Latin or French. In addition to his trademark self-deprecation, Chaucer was adept at ironic and situational humor as he demonstrates so exceedingly well in The Canterbury Tales.

These brief overviews prove that there is a tradition of humor in British Literature that spans from Chaucer to P. G. Wodehouse.

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