What are the key features of 14th-century English poetry?

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Salient features of fourteenth-century English poetry include the standardization of language that formed the basis for modern English. Another feature is the more realistic approach to content that depicts ordinary people from a broad range of backgrounds and a stylistic approach that led to the adoption of continental accentual-syllabic meter, which was used by most English poets from the Renaissance through the nineteenth century.

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There are many salient features of English poetry that emerged in the fourteenth century. For instance, the period saw the further evolution of what eventually became modern English, as well as a more universal and realistic approach to content and a new stylistic approach that led to an innovative rhyming scheme.

Geoffrey Chaucer is perhaps the most famous poet of the period. He is generally credited with being the first poet to demonstrate the poetic beauty of the English language. Moreover, he helped standardize the Middle English of London and the south of England that became the foundation for today’s modern English.

Another salient innovation was that he also introduced a new rhyming scheme. For example, The Canterbury Tales, perhaps his best-known work, is composed of ten-syllable rhyming couplets. He is therefore credited with introducing continental accentual-syllabic meter as a viable option instead of alliterative Anglo-Saxon meter. According to the Poetry Foundation, such accentual-syllabic verse was used by "the majority of English poems from the Renaissance to the nineteenth century are written according to this metrical system."

The Canterbury Tales also moves the content from the realm of lofty heroes that dominated Greek epic literature to people who are more recognizable. Chaucer therefore is also credited with bringing a sense of realism to English poetry. He retains the Middle Ages concept of chivalry and knights. However, by introducing newer characters (the Squire, for example), Chaucer also shifts from the world of pure chivalry to a more realistic world that encompasses many types of people, feelings and actions, including a sense of bawdiness and ribaldry.

Just as Chaucer held a mirror up to the end of the concept of pure chivalry, he also held a mirror up to the social reality of the period. The pilgrims that he portrays in The Canterbury Tales each come from different social strata, as England evolved from an agrarian society under an aristocratic so-called chivalrous elite to a more urbanized one that included many social spheres or ordinary people of his day. As The New York Times notes,

For him the hackneyed route to the nation's most popular shrine is the perfect path to an understanding of ordinary human nature … His loquacious band might at first be taken to be a collection of the stereotypes of his age, a miller, a priest, sexy students, prim and bawdy ladies, etc. … The reader, with something of a shock, finds himself very much in the presence of men and women who breathe and fib and boast and laugh as he does.

In addition to showing the reader the rise and legitimacy of a variety of people from different walks of life, including the merchant class (Chaucer, who was born in London in about 1343 and came from a long line of London wine merchants), by painting a more realistic picture of the Church, he also foreshadows the feelings that would result in the Protestant reformation just about a century later.

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