What is Geoffrey Chaucer's influence on English and English literature?

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robertwilliam eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This is a huge question - and people have written whole books in order to answer it. I can provide you with the main points though:

  • Chaucer considerably expanded the word-stock of English, being one of the first poets in the language to utilise its tremendous variety, bringing in words from a variety of languages which were converging with English during the Middle Ages. Chaucer's "first instances" of words include words from Greek, Latin, Arabic, German and French - and the following regularly-used words: acceptable, altercation, annoyance, arbitration, army, arrogant, arsenic, arc, and aspect.

  • Chaucer made several metrical innovations to the way poetry and verse were written in English.

    • He was one of the first poets to consistently break out of the medieval alliterative tradition and write in accentual-syllabic metre (lines constructed around both the number of syllables and where the accents on those lines fall).
    • Chaucer was one of the first to use the five-stress line, which led the way to the iambic pentameter of Shakespeare adn Marlowe. "The Legend of Good Women" is one of the first times five-stress lines appear in rhyming couplets - a form which then became a norm in English poetry.
  • You can also see the influence on Chaucer on a whole load of writers. To give one example, Shakespeare's "Troilus and Cressida" owes much to Chaucer's "Troilus and Criseyde".
thanatassa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Geoffrey Chaucer (1343 – 1400) is often described as the founder of English literature. The reason for this is that his work marks a radical transition in literary history. 

Before Chaucer, there were two major types of literary works in English. First, there were devotional, heroic, and minor works written in Old English, mainly using alliterative meter. Second, among the educated population, the dominant literary language was Latin, and many English authors wrote in Latin. After the Norman conquest, while the neo-Latin tradition continued intact, the English vernacular rapidly shifted due to the French influence, marking a transition from Old English or Anglo-Saxon to Middle English (the precursor of modern English). 

Chaucer is one of the first and arguably most important poets to create a new vernacular literature in Middle English. His work, rather than employing Old English accentual meter or the quantitative meters of classical verse, adapts accentual-syllabic meter to the English vernacular. His Canterbury Tales are notable for adapting the epic genre to describing the lives of ordinary people. He also used many new phrases and words, which have since become part of the common vocabulary of English. 

His works combine metrical and generic innovation with the early development of a distinctive English vernacular literary tradition.