General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales Analysis

Geoffrey Chaucer

The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In the early months of 1387 Philippa Chaucer lay ill; she would die that summer or early fall. Her husband of twenty years, the courtier and author Geoffrey Chaucer, may have resolved to invoke spiritual aid for Philippa by journeying some sixty miles from their home of Kent to the cathedral at Canterbury, with its shrine to Saint Thomas Becket, murdered in 1170 and canonized three years later. By the late fourteenth century it had become one of the most popular pilgrimage sites in Europe. As the English winter yielded to spring in mid-April, perhaps Chaucer joined other pilgrims “the hooly blisful martir for to seke,/ That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke [sick].”

A genuine journey may thus underlie the most famous fictional pilgrimage in English literature, the one recounted in The Canterbury Tales. The “General Prologue” sets the scene for this jaunt. The action unfolds in mid-April, a month that inspires both lust and wanderlust. In England both impulses lead people to venture to Becket’s shrine.

The tone of the first sentence of eighteen lines of iambic pentameter rhymed couplets, which provides the setting, is formal and objective. Like the pilgrimage itself, this stately mood quickly vanishes in the subjective and colloquial. In homely language, though still in rhymed couplets, the narrator explains that he is preparing to embark on a journey to Canterbury. To that end he has lodged for the night at the...

(The entire section is 552 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The “General Prologue” is analogous to a Gothic processional with individual portraits. The roll call of characters accords with the medieval dedication to hierarchy, beginning with the Knight, proceeding through those of middle state, and concluding with the corrupt Summoner and Pardoner. This party of some thirty divides into various smaller groups: the Knight, Squire, and Squire’s Yeoman; the Prioress, Second Nun, and three priests; the Reeve and Miller; and the Summoner and Pardoner. In some instances the figures in the subgroup coexist peacefully. The Squire carves his father’s meat, which the Squire’s Yeoman apparently catches. The Summoner and Pardoner may be lovers. The Miller and Reeve, on the other hand, clearly are antagonists. The Miller leads the procession out of town, while the Reeve brings up the rear. The Miller is as fat as the Reeve is lean. These differences foreshadow a future falling out between the two. Chaucer recognized that he could enhance the interest of his anthology by allowing the narrators to interact with each other, to comment on both tales and tellers. No exchanges occur within the “General Prologue,” but the groupings here anticipate later affinities and antipathies.

The poet Chaucer places the pilgrim Chaucer at the end of the hierarchically arranged catalogue to suggest that the Chaucer within the poem will not be omniscient. He has total recall of what is said, but he never learns all the pilgrims’...

(The entire section is 422 words.)