In an age when authors announce with pride when their book has continuously been in print for twenty years, there cannot be enough said about the significance of The Canterbury Tales, which has been with us for six centuries. It is the first poem written in the English language and is therefore given much credit for actually inventing modern English, recording words and phrases that were commonly spoken but had never been put on paper before. As the first English poet, Chaucer is considered the model and inspiration for the grand history of English poetry that followed him. Because it uses the overall narrative structure of the pilgrimage to hold all of the individual tales together, The Canterbury Tales is also considered to be the first English novel, with sharply defined characters that remain consistent throughout.
Over time, thousands of essays have been written about Chaucer, but, as Thomas C. Stillinger points out in his introduction to a recent collection of Critical Essays on Geoffrey Chaucer most recent criticism can be broken down into two categories: “he is an ancient writer, his texts silent monuments of a lost world; and, at the same time, he is a living poetic voice.” One of the principle reasons that Chaucer is still studied so actively today is that critics can find such a wide range of things to say about him. Lee Patterson, in a brief review of the criticism written in the twentieth century about The Canterbury Tales, cited a 1906 essay by Robert Root as saying that “we turn to [Chaucer] . . . for refreshment, that our eyes and ears may be opened anew to the varied interest and beauty of the world around us.” Patterson also includes the thoughts of other important critics:
some fifty years after Root’s book, one of the greatest of the next generation of Chaucerians, E. Talbot Donaldson, described Chaucer as possessed of “a mind almost godlike in the breadth and humanity of its ironic vision.”
Patterson also shares Derek Pearsall’s introduction to his excellent Chaucer study by insisting that “The Canterbury Tales neither press for [n]or permit a systematic kind of ideological interpretation.” In short, critics continue to find issues of both human behavior and historical significance in this complex work.
In some cases, such universal approval can dull critics’ understanding of an author, as the British novelist and essayist G. K. Chesterton pointed out in his 1932 essay “The Greatness of Chaucer.” Chesterton felt that critics tended not to take Chaucer seriously:
there has been a perceptible, in greater or less degree, an indescribable disposition to patronize Chaucer. Sometimes he is patted on the head like a child because all our other poets are his children. Sometimes he is treated as the Oldest Inhabitant, partially demented and practically dead, because he was alive before anybody else in Europe to certain revolutions of the European mind. Sometimes, he is treated as entirely dead; a bag of dry bones to be dissected by antiquarians, interested only in matters of detail.
Chesterton’s observation about the danger of patronizing critics is even more relevant today, in a world that is moving forward so quickly that there is hardly time to give the past its due consideration; still, The Canterbury Tales, which was there at the beginning of the English language, is likely to be there until the end.