Why is Chaucer called the father of English poetry?

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Geoffrey Chaucer is called the father of English literature because he was the first to write what became generally well-known and recognized poems and stories in the language of the common people of his time - medieval English. Until that time, the language of the educated and of written literature...

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Geoffrey Chaucer is called the father of English literature because he was the first to write what became generally well-known and recognized poems and stories in the language of the common people of his time - medieval English. Until that time, the language of the educated and of written literature in England was Latin or French. Chaucer wrote a great many works that were well-received during his lifetime and that continue to be recognized as masterpieces, but the defining factor that sets him apart was the fact that they were written in English.

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Chaucer is given this title for a few reasons.  First, he is one of the first English poets that we know by name.  During this time period, it was common not to know the author's name and label it as "anonymous," largely due to the tradition of passing stories along orally through time from one generation to the next.

Second, we give him the title because of his accomplishments.  His largest and best known is The Canterbury Tales.  In this work (which is not finished as he died before its completion), Chaucer creates a frame story with his poetry.  The outer story is the pilgrimmage that the group is taking to pay homage to Thomas Becket at Canterbury.  The inside story is a collection of short stories (the first of its kind which morphs into the short story as we know it today) focusing on the individual travelers.

Third, Chaucer, through his own life experiences, is able to give us a picture of life in his age for all levels of society.  His Tales give us the knight (highest ranking of the travelers) to the plowman (revered in Chaucer's time for their importance in providing food for the public, but certainly not considered as a wealthy or sophisticated member of society).  Not many authors have ever been able to do this well, and it was several hundred years before Shakespeare came along and was also able to successfully represent all members of society in a straightforward and truthful way while still being entertaining.

 

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Apart from the fact that The Canterbury Tales and Troilus and Criseyde are outstanding works artistically, there are several reasons Geoffrey Chaucer is considered the father of English literature.

Over a period of 300 years, from the Norman Invasion to Chaucer's time, the English language had undergone a seismic transformation due to the huge number of loan words incorporated into it either from French or directly from Latin and Greek. Despite differences in spelling, pronunciation, and vocabulary, in Chaucer we see the language in a form surprisingly close to our own. Many fine translations have been made of his works into modern English, but it's still possible for us to read Chaucer in the original, with the help of footnotes and a glossary, and to recognize that this is essentially our own language. Even when The Canterbury Tales are read aloud with the correct Middle English vowel sounds and the pronunciation of the final 'e' now silent, the words still are obviously recognizable as English and can be largely understood. In fact, one can even say that it is especially when Chaucer's verse is read aloud that it sounds so natural to us, because it's written basically in a conversational tone. The Canterbury pilgrims are talking to each other, much as people on a trip or a tour would do today.

Another basic reason Chaucer is the fountainhead of our literature is that the London dialect in which he wrote became the standard form of the English language. In all European countries, different dialects of the common language were and are spoken. In Italy, the Tuscan language, the dialect of Florence, became standard Italian because of the greatness and prestige of Dante's writings. In England, Chaucer played approximately the same role. No previous author in England had written works of such high artistic value as those of Chaucer, and, unsurprisingly, the speech of Londoners became the literary standard.

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There are several reasons why Chaucer is called the "father of English poetry." The first is that histories of literature for many centuries had preferred, primarily for pedagogical reasons, to create small canons of monumental poets rather than trying to teach a wider range of poets. This was in part designed to create a shared cultural canon. More recent critics would argue that there is no one "father" of English poetry but a cluster of poets who were important during the period of the formation of middle English literature. Older works of criticism, though, still cleave to the notion of the individual genius (usually a white male) who serves as a "father" to a literary movement.

Chaucer was especially important in his contributions to the evolution of iambic pentameter as the predominant meter of English verse. Metrically, this meant synthesizing the Anglo-Saxon strong stress tradition, a form in which lines consisted of two accented syllables, a caesura, and two more accented syllables, with any number of unaccented syllables and a fixed alliterative pattern, with the syllabic patterns of French verse. This led to the accentual-syllabic prosody still used today.

He was also important for the sheer variety and volume of his work and for being one of the poets instrumental in the rise and refinement of the vernacular as a medium for poetry.

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Considered the preeminent English poet of the Middle Ages, Geoffrey Chaucer was well versed in other languages; in fact, he translated two tremendously influential works from Latin and Old French into Middle English. And, while he was not veritably the only one who wrote poetry in English, he was extremely influential in promoting English from something other than the "vulgar" language that it was considered to be.  His poetry that reflects Latin, Italian, and French sources--he wrote much French poetry--evolved into the verses that he wrote for The Canterbury Tales.  Clearly, his remaking of French, Latin, and Italian sources and treatment of secular and religious allegory into his delightful tales brings the vernacular of English in The Canterbury Tales to a new respectability.  Perhaps, then, for this reason, that he brought legitimacy to the vernacular English when the dominant literary languages were Latin and French, Chaucer is somewhat mistakenly credited with being "The Father of English Poetry."

With the publication of The Canterbury Tales in English, then, Chaucer made a strong contribution to shaping English literature. With English, Chaucer realistically shaped the speech of the pilgrims while also realistically satirizing their manners, thus creating what was to become a popular literature among people of the same social types. In short, Chaucer brought literature to all levels of society, not just the nobilty and elite.

In addition, Chaucer experimented with different forms of verse,

...establishing a decasyllabic line that, to become the iambic pentameter of the sonnet, blank verse, and heroic couplet, is English poetry’s most enduring line.

This experimentation which left a lasting mark upon English poetry is a contribution of Chaucer's that is also cause for considering him the father of English poetry.

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