Geoffrey Chaucer Poetry: British Analysis
When reading Geoffrey Chaucer’s works, one is struck by a sense of great variety. His poetry reflects numerous sources—Latin, French, and Italian—ranging from ancient authorities to contemporary poets and including folktales, sermons, rhetorical textbooks, philosophical meditations, and ribald jokes. Equally varied are Chaucer’s poetic forms and genres: short conventional lyrics, long romances, exempla, fabliaux, allegorical dream visions, confessions, saints’ legends, and beast fables. The characters he creates, from personified abstractions, regal birds, and ancient goddesses to the odd collection of the Canterbury pilgrims and the naïve persona who narrates the poems, are similarly varied. Finally, the poems present a wide variety of outlooks on an unusual number of topics. Like the Gothic cathedrals, Chaucer’s poetry seems all-inclusive. Not surprisingly, also like the Gothic cathedrals, his poems were often left unfinished.
“Experience, though no authority,” the Wife of Bath states in the prologue to her tale, “is good enough for me.” Unlike her fifth husband, Jankin the clerk, the Wife is not interested in what “olde Romayn gestes” teach, what Saint Jerome, Tertullian, Solomon, and Ovid say about women and marriage. She knows “of the woe that is in marriage” by her own experience. This implied contrast between, on one hand, authority—the established positions concerning just about any topic set forth in the past by Scripture, ancient authors, and the Church fathers and passed on to the present by books—and, on the other hand, the individual’s experience of everyday life is central to medieval intellectual thought. It is a major theme of Chaucer’s poetry. Often Chaucer appears to establish an authority and then to contrast it with the experience of real life, testing the expected by the actual. This contrast may be tragic or comic; it may cast doubt on the authority or further support it. Often it is expressed by paired characters—Troilus and Pandarus, for example—or by paired tales, the Knight’s and the Miller’s. The characters’ long recital of authorities may be ludicrous and pompous, Chaucer’s parody of the pedant, but the pedant may be right. After Chanticleer’s concern with what all the past has said about the significance of dreams, readers probably sympathize with Pertelote’s comment that he should take a laxative. Nevertheless, once the rooster is in the fox’s mouth, the authorities are proven correct. Similarly, the sum total of the Wife of Bath’s personal experience is merely the proving, in an exaggerated form, of the antifeminist authorities. As Chaucer states in the prologue to the Parlement of Foules, out of old fields comes new corn, and out of old books new knowledge.
Related to the contrast between authority and experience are a series of other contrasts investigated by Chaucer: theological faith versus human reason, the ideal versus the pragmatic, the ritual of courtly love versus the business of making love, the dream world versus everyday life, the expectations of the rule versus the actions of the individual, and the Christian teaching of free will versus humankind’s sense of being fated. Again, these contrasts may be treated seriously or comically, may be represented by particular characters, and may be brought into temporary balance. Seldom, however, does Chaucer provide solutions. The oppositions are implicit in human nature, in the wish for the absolute and the recognition of the relative. As novelist and critic Arthur Koestler comments on a modern political version of this dilemma (as represented by the extremes of the Yogi and the Commissar), “Apparently the two elements do not mix, and this may be one of the reasons why we have made such a mess of our History.” Chaucer’s poetic and highly varied treatment of these nonmixers may help to explain why his poetry continues to speak to readers today.
Chaucer’s concern with these topics—a fascination not unusual in the dualistic Gothic world—imbues his poetry with a sense of irony. Since the 1930’s, readers have certainly emphasized Chaucer’s ironic treatment of characters and topics, a critical vogue that may be due as much to the fashions of New Criticism as to the poetry itself. However, Chaucer’s characteristic means of telling his stories clearly encourages such readings. One can never be sure of his attitude because the poet stands behind a narrator whose often naïve attitudes simply cannot be identified with his creator’s. Perhaps the creation of such a middleman between the poet and his audience was necessary for a middle-class poet reading to an aristocratic audience, or perhaps it is the natural practice of a diplomatic mind, which does not speak for itself but for another. Whatever the reasons, Chaucer’s narrators are poetically effective. They provide a unifying strand throughout his varied work. Scholar A. C. Spearing notes that “the idiot-dreamer of The Book of the Duchess develops into the idiot-historian of Troilus and Criseyde and the idiot-pilgrim of The Canterbury Tales.” Later, he comments that when Chaucer assigns the doggerel poem “The Tale of Sir Thopas” to Chaucer the pilgrim as a joke, he “takes the role of idiot-poet to its culmination.”
One result of the use of such narrators is that, in contrast with the contemporary dream vision, The Vision of William, Concerning Piers the Plowman (c. 1362, A Text; c. 1377, B Text; c. 1393, C Text; also known as Piers Plowman)—with its acid attacks on English society, the failures of government, and the hypocrisy of the church—Chaucer’s poetry seems aware of human foibles yet accepting of human nature. He implies rather than shouts the need for change, recognizing that in this world, at least, major reform is unlikely. His essentially Christian position, hidden behind the naïve narrator and his concern with surface details, naturalistic dialogue, and sharp description, is implied by the poem’s larger structures. They often provide symbolic patterning. The contrasts in the Parlement of Foules between the steamy atmosphere of the temple of Venus and the clear air of Nature’s dominion or in Troilus and Criseyde between the narrator’s introductory devotion to the god of love and his concluding epilogue based on Troilus’s new heavenly point of view imply Chaucer’s position concerning his favorite topic, human love. Similarly, the traditional Christian metaphor identifying life as a pilgrimage and the Parson’s identification of Canterbury with the New Jerusalem suggest that the pilgrimage from a pub in Southwark to a shrine in Canterbury is a secular version of an important traditional religious theme. The reader of Chaucer, while paying careful attention to his realism that has been found so attractive, should also be aware of the larger implications of his poetry.
Behind the medieval interest in dreams and the genre of dream visions lies a long tradition, both religious and secular, originating in biblical and classical stories and passed on in the Middle Ages in the works of Ambrosius Theodosius Macrobius and Boethius. As a literary type, the dream vision, given impetus by the Romaunt of the Rose, was particularly popular in fourteenth century England. The obtuse dreamers led by authoritative guides found in such works as Piers Plowman and The Pearl (c. 1400) are typical of dream visions and may have suggested to Chaucer the creation of his characteristic naïve narrator. Certainly Chaucer’s four dream visions, as different as they are from one another, already develop this narrative voice as well as other typical Chaucerian characteristics.
Book of the Duchess
The earliest of Chaucer’s very long poems, Book of the Duchess (1,334 lines), is a dream elegy in memory of the duchess of Lancaster. The poem begins with the narrator reading in bed about dreams, specifically the Ovidian story of the tragic love of Ceyx and Alcyone. After her husband’s death, Alcyone is visited in a dream by Ceyx, leading to Alcyone’s eventual brokenhearted death. This introductory section, which as usual refers to numerous authorities on dreams, combines Chaucer’s concern with both dreams and love. These authorities provide background for the narrator’s experience in a dream. After praying to Morpheus, the narrator falls asleep to dream of another couple divided by death, a man in black (John of Gaunt) and his lost lover, “faire White” (Blanche). The dreamer’s foolish and tactless questions allow the grieving knight to express his love and sense of loss, sometimes by direct statement, on other occasions by such elaborate devices as describing a game of chess in which fortune takes his queen. The traditionally obtuse dreamer is here used in a remarkably original way. The poet is able to place the praise of the dead and the feelings of anguish in the mouth of the bereaved. Thus, this highly conventional poem, with its conscious borrowing from Ovid, Romaunt of the Rose, Jean Froissart, and Guillaume de Machaut, is an effective elegy in the restrained courtly tradition.
House of Fame
The House of Fame, Chaucer’s second dream vision, breaks off suddenly after 2,158 lines. It creates a series of allegorical structures and figures in an analysis of the relationship between love, fame, rumor, fortune, and poetry. The dreamer is here provided with a guide, Jupiter’s eagle, that probably derives from Dante’s Purgatorio 9. In book 1 he relates the romance of Aeneas and Dido, two lovers of some poetic fame whose story is portrayed in panels on a temple of glass dedicated to Venus. This temple is contrasted with the house of Fame that the dreamer sees in book 3 when the eagle rather unceremoniously whisks him into the heavens. In this second allegorical structure, the dreamer views the goddess Fame surrounded by the great poets of antiquity on pedestals. They represent the authorities who, like Vergil, record the stories of such lovers as Aeneas and Dido. The dreamer realizes, however, that Fame (and thus presumably the poets of Fame) deals out good and bad at random, suggesting that there is little relationship between actuality and reputation. He next sees the house of Rumor. Full of noise and whispering people, it is perhaps an allegorical representation of the character of everyday life. In any case, this chaotic structure is no more attractive than the house of Fame. Still searching for “tydinges of Loves folk,” the dreamer sees “a man of greet auctoritee,” but the poem breaks off before the man can speak. The reader, like the dreamer, is left in the air; the poem is left without an ending. As Muscatine comments, “It is hard to conceive of any ending at all that could consistently follow from what we have.” In fact, the poem lacks a sense of unity. Its multiple topics and elaborate descriptions are best studied as set pieces. Of particular interest is the often comic dialogue between the dreamer and the eagle in book 2.
Parlement of Foules
The Parlement of Foules (699 lines) is a more satisfactory poem, although it shares much in common with House of Fame, including a series of allegorical portraits and locales, a guide who tends to shove the dreamer around, and birds as characters. A poem describing the mating of birds on Saint Valentine’s day, the Parlement of Foules begins, like the Book of the Duchess, with the narrator reading a book about a dream. The book is Cicero’s “Dream of Scipio,” the standard textbook on dreams, found in the last part of De republica (51 b.c.e.; On the State, 1817). Its guide, Scipio Africanus the elder, becomes the dreamer’s guide in the Parlement of Foules. He dreams of the typical enclosed garden of romance, guarded by a gate. The gate’s contrasting inscriptions alluding to the gates of Dante’s Inferno suggest the dual nature of love: bliss, fertility, and “good aventure” on one hand, and sorrow, barrenness, and danger on the other. Within the garden, the dreamer again sees two versions of love, although, as naïve as ever, he seems bewildered and unsure of what he witnesses.
Like the Renaissance masterpiece painting of “Sacred and Profane Love by Titian,” the poem contrasts two traditional ideals of love. One is symbolized by Venus, whose entourage includes Flattery, Desire, and Lust as well as Cupid, Courtesy, and Gentleness. Her religion of love is the subject of the poets and ancient authorities whom the narrator so often reads. Her palace is dark and mannered, painted with the tragic stories of doomed lovers. In contrast, the dreamer next sees in the bright sunlight “this noble goddesse Nature,” who presides over the beauty of natural love and mating of the birds. These ceremonies include description of all levels of the hierarchy of the birds, from the pragmatic arrangements of the goose and the love devotion of the turtledove to the courtly wooing of the former by the eagles. The language of the birds, often comic, similarly ranges from the sudden “kek, kek!” and “kukkow” to elaborate Latinate diction. Although lighthearted and sometimes chaotic, the openness and social awareness of Nature’s realm is clearly to be preferred to the artificiality and self-absorption of the temple of Venus. The poem ends under Nature’s skillful guidance as the birds sing a song of spring, which awakens the dreamer. In the prologue, the narrator states that he wishes to learn of love. This dream has provided much to learn, yet he seems in the end unchanged by his experience and once again returns to his authorities.
The Legend of Good Women
Of great interest as a forerunner of The Canterbury Tales, The Legend of Good Women is Chaucer’s first experiment with decasyllabic couplets and with the idea of a framed collection of stories. Like the much grander later collection, it begins with a prologue and then relates an unfinished series of stories. Although the prologue plans nineteen stories, the poem breaks off near the conclusion of the ninth, after 2,723 lines. Unlike “The General Prologue” to The Canterbury Tales, with its detailed portraits of the pilgrims set in the Tabard Inn, the prologue to The Legend of Good Women is set as yet another dream. It presents the god of love and his daisy queen in conversation with the Chaucerian narrator. Once again, the narrator is a reader of books eager to learn from life about love. More interesting, he is here also a writer of books and is harassed by the god of love for not presenting lovers in a good light in his poetry. Specific reference is made to his translation of the Romaunt of the Rose and to Troilus and Criseyde. As penance for his grievous sins against the religion of love, the narrator promises to write about the faithful lovers of ancient legend.
Comparisons with The Canterbury Tales are perhaps unfair, but the poem, lacking the dynamic characters and varied tales of the later collection, seems grievously repetitious. Its recital of love tragedies is borrowed from Ovid and other authorities. Nevertheless, the legends do encompass a wider range of classical stories than might at first be expected, including the stories of Cleopatra and Medea, who to the modern reader, at least, hardly qualify as “good women.” The luscious yet natural scenery of the prologue is superb. Furthermore, the work is fulfillment of Chaucer’s poetic development in the courtly tradition. Whatever the poem’s weaknesses, it is unlikely that Chaucer would have agreed with Robert Burlin’s judgment that the poem was “a colossal blunder.”
Troilus and Criseyde
In his elaborate panegyric, the French poet Émile Deschamps refers to Chaucer as a “Socrates, full of philosophy, Seneca for morality . . . a great Ovid in your poetry.” The poem that most fully deserves such praise is Troilus and Criseyde, Chaucer’s longest complete poem (8,259 lines) and, to many readers, his most moving work. Here for the first time in a long poem, Chaucer turns from the dream-vision form and the participating narrator but not from his concern with authorities and the nature of love. He now adds, however, a Boethian philosophical touch. Although it is a poem about love, Fortuna rather than Venus is the controlling goddess of Chaucer’s “little tragedy.” Although the career of Troilus is based on Boccaccio’s Filostrato (c. 1335-1340), it would seem that The Consolation of Philosophy exerted the greatest influence on the poem.
The five books of Troilus and Criseyde, rather than being, as modern critics like to assert, the first novel or a drama in five acts, represent the various stages of Troilus’s tragic love affair. Describing the “double sorrow” of Troilus, the son of King Priam of Troy, the poem begins with his initial love-longing, then traces his increasingly successful courtship of Criseyde culminating in their fulfilled love, the intervention of the Trojan War in the midst of their happiness, their forced separation, Criseyde’s eventual acceptance of the Greek Diomede, and finally Troilus’s gallant death at the hand of Achilles. While telling this story, Chaucer paints a series of scenes, both comic and serious, sometimes absurd, often movingly romantic, examining various outlooks on human love. Troilus’s excessive idealism seems to parody the courtly lovers of French romances, whereas the pragmatic, often cynical attitudes of Pandarus, the uncle of Criseyde and confidant of Troilus, remind one of the waterfowl in the Parlement of Foules and the later fabliaux of The Canterbury Tales. Criseyde’s views of love shift between these two extremes, varying according to her feelings and the exigencies of circumstance.
Calling Troilus and Criseyde Chaucer’s “great failure,” Ian Robinson (Chaucer and the English Tradition, 1972) believes that the poem includes “many great parts but they don’t cohere into a great whole.” However, the poem does have a unifying structure, based on the rising and falling stages of the Wheel of Fortune. The notion of Fortune turning a wheel that sometimes takes humans to the height of success and sometimes drags them down to failure is standard in medieval thought and very popular in both literature and art. The stages of the wheel, along with the poem’s narrative units, are set forth in the invocations that introduce the books of Troilus and Criseyde. In the first, when Troilus is at the bottom of the wheel, the narrator invokes Tesiphone, “thou cruel fury.” As Morton Bloomfield comments (“Distance and Predestination in Troilus and Criseyde”), Tesiphone was characterized as the “sorrowful fury” who laments her torments and pities those whom she torments. The choice is thus appropriate for the description in book 1 of the hero’s initial love torments and for the events of the entire poem. The Chaucerian narrator presents himself as “the sorrowful instrument” of love, required to tell the “sorrowful tale.”
The invocation in book 2, to Clio the Muse of history, suggests that the second stage represents a rather neutral and objectively historical description of the rise of Troilus on the wheel, whereas the invocation to Venus in book 3 is appropriate for the stage when the lovers are at the top of the wheel and consummate their love. As all readers of Boethius know, however, if one chooses to ride to the top of the wheel, one in all fairness cannot be surprised when the wheel continues to turn downward. Thus, book 4 begins with an invocation to Fortune and her wheel, which throws down the hero and sets Diomede in his place. There is also an appropriate reference to Mars, suggesting the growing influence of the war on the romance. Book 5 follows without an invocation, probably because it is a continuation of the fourth book and implying that the downward movement of the wheel is one continuous stage. Certainly the poem’s last book does not introduce any new elements. Its major concerns are Troilus’s fatalism and the details of the Trojan War.
This pattern clearly interweaves two problems that dominate the poem: the perplexities of human love and humanity’s sense of being fated. Troilus is the character overwhelmed by both problems. Although many critics are fascinated by the inscrutable Criseyde and attracted by the worldly-wise Pandarus, Troilus is the poem’s central figure. Readers may become frustrated by his passive love-longing and swooning and his long-winded and confused discussion of predestination and free will; however, he is treated sympathetically and his situation must be taken seriously. One can argue, using Boethius as support, that the solution to the human predicament is simply never to accept the favors of Fortune—to stay away from her wheel—but what man would not do as Troilus did for the love of Criseyde? Similarly, one can agree with the moralizing narrator at the poem’s conclusion that the solution is to avoid worldly vanity and the love associated with Venus and to look instead to heavenly love.
Certainly Troilus recognizes this view as his soul ascends to the seventh sphere. However, the poem as a whole hardly condemns the love of the two Trojans. On the contrary, it describes their long-awaited rendezvous in bed with great sensitivity and poetic beauty, with warmth and sensuous natural imagery. As Spearing states, “There is probably no finer poetry of fulfilled love in English than this scene.” In this great tragic romance, Chaucer seems to juxtapose human and divine love and to intermingle the sense of predestination and the Christian teaching of free will; not until the end does he speak as the moralist and condemn worldly vanity. Perhaps the tragedy of Troilus and of the human situation in general is that the distinctions are not sufficiently clear until it is too late to choose.
The Canterbury Tales
Near the end of Troilus and Criseyde, Chaucer associates his “little tragedy” with a long line of classical poets and then asks for help to write “some comedie.” Donald Howard and others have seen this as a reference to the poet’s plans for The Canterbury Tales. Whether Chaucer had this collection planned by the time he had completed Troilus and Criseyde, The Canterbury Tales can certainly be understood as his comedy. If, as the Monk notes at the beginning of his long summary of tragic tales, a tragedy deals with those who once “stood in high degree, and fell so that there was no remedy,” in the medieval view comedy deals with less significant characters and with events that move toward happy endings. The Canterbury Tales is thus a comedy, not because of its comic characters and humorous stories—several tales are actually tragic in tone and structure—but because its overall structure is comic.
Like Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320, 3 volumes; The Divine Comedy, 1802), which traces the poet’s eschatological journey from Hell through Purgatory to Heaven, shifting from a pagan guide to the representatives of divine love and inspiration, and concluding with the beatific vision, Chaucer’s comedy symbolically moves from the infernal to the heavenly. From the worldly concerns of the Tabard Inn in Southwark and the guidance of the worldly-wise Host, through a variety of points of view set forth by differing characters on the pilgrimage road, the poem moves to the religious goal of the saint’s shrine in Canterbury Cathedral and the Parson’s direction of the pilgrims to “Jerusalem celestial.”
Although with differing effects, since the Christian perspective of Troilus and Criseyde lies beyond the narrative itself, Chaucer’s tragedy and comedy thus share a similar moral structure. Like the tragedy, The Canterbury Tales moves from an ancient story of pagan heroes to a Christian perspective. In Troilus and Criseyde, the narrator develops from being the servant of the god of love to being a moralist who condemns pagan “cursed old rites” and advises the young to love him who “for love upon a cross our souls did buy.” The collection of tales similarly moves from the Knight’s “old stories” set in ancient Thebes and Athens and relating the fates of pagan lovers to the Parson’s sermon beginning “Our swete lord god of hevene.” In contrast with the earlier poem, The Canterbury Tales is a comedy because its divine perspective is achieved within the overall narrative. As in the earlier poem, however, this divine perspective at the end does not necessarily cancel out the earlier outlooks proposed. The entire poem with its multiplicity of characters and viewpoints remains.
Such an approach to The Canterbury Tales assumes that, although unfinished, the poem is complete as it stands and should be judged as a whole. Like the Corpus Christi cycles of the later Middle Ages, which include numerous individual plays yet can (and should) be read as one large play tracing salvation history from creation to doomsday, The Canterbury Tales is more than the sum of its parts. “The General Prologue,” that masterpiece of human description with its fascinating portraits of the pilgrims, establishes not only the supposed circumstances for the pilgrimage and the competition to tell the best story but also the strands that link the tales to the characters and to one another. Although only twenty-four tales were finished, their relationship to one another within fragments and their sense of unity within variety suggest that Chaucer had an overall plan for The Canterbury Tales.
The famous opening lines of “The General Prologue,” with the beautiful evocation of spring fever, set forth both the religious and the secular motivations of the pilgrims. These motivations are further developed in their description by the pilgrim Chaucer. He again is the naïve narrator whose wide-eyed simplicity seems to accept all, leaving the discriminating reader to see beyond the surface details. Finally, in his faithful retelling of the stories he hears on the way to Canterbury—for once his experience has become an authority to which, he explains, he must not be false—the narrator again unwittingly implies much about these various human types. Several of the prologues and tales that follow then continue to explore the motivations of the individual pilgrims. The confessional prologue of “The Pardoner’s Tale” and its sermon filled with moral exempla, for instance, ironically reflects the earlier description of the confidence man, Pardoner, as one “with feigned flattery and tricks, made the parson and the people his apes.”
It would be a mistake, however, to interpret the various tales simply as dramatic embodiments of the pilgrims. Certainly Chaucer often fits story to storyteller. The sentimental, self-absorbed, and prissy Prioress tells, for example, a simplistic, anti-Semitic tale of a devout little Christian boy murdered by Jews. The implications of her tale make one question the nature of her spirituality. The tales given the Knight, Miller, and Reeve also reflect their characters. The Knight tells at great length a chivalric romance, a celebration of his worldview, whereas the Miller and Reeve tell bawdy stories concerning tradesmen, clerks, and wayward wives.
However, these tales also develop the larger concerns of The Canterbury Tales implied by Chaucer’s arrangement of the tales into thematic groups. “The Knight’s Tale,” with its ritualized action and idealized characters, draws from Boethian philosophy in its symmetrically patterned examination of courtly love, fate, and cosmic justice. The Miller then interrupts to “quite” or answer the Knight with a bawdy fabliau. Developing naturalistic dialogue and earthy characters, it rejects the artificial and the philosophical for the mundane and the practical. In place of the Knight’s code of honor and courtly love, elaborate description of the tournament, and Stoic speech on the Great Chain of Being, the drunken Miller sets the stage for sexual conquest, a complex practical joke, and a “cherles tales” involving bodily functions and fleshly punishment. In “The Miller’s Tale,” justice is created not by planetary gods but by human action, each character getting what he deserves. The Reeve, offended by both the Miller and his tale, then follows with another fabliau. His motivations are much more personal than those of the Miller: The Reeve feels that the Miller has deliberately insulted him, and he insists on returning the favor. However, even in this tale Chaucer provides another dimension to the issues originally set forth by the Knight.
The clearest example of Chaucer’s thematic grouping of tales is the so-called Marriage Cycle. First noted by G. L. Kittredge and discussed since by various critics, the idea of the cycle is that Chaucer carefully arranged particular tales, told by suitable pilgrims, so that they referred to one another and developed a common theme, as in a scholarly debate. The Marriage Cycle examines various viewpoints on love and marriage, particularly tackling the issue of who should have sovereignty in marriage, the husband or the wife. The cycle is introduced by the Wife of Bath’s rambling commentary on the woes of marriage and her wishful tale of a young bachelor who rightly puts himself in his wife’s “wyse governance.” After the Friar and Summoner “quite” each other in their own personal feud, the cycle continues with an extreme example of wifely obedience, “The Clerk’s Tale” of patient Griselda. Such an otherworldly portrait of womanly perfection spurs the Merchant, a man who is obviously unhappy in marriage, to propound his cynical view of the unfaithful wife. The saint’s legend of the scholarly Clerk is thus followed by the fabliau of the satirical Merchant, and the debate is no nearer conclusion. Finally, the Franklin appears to “knit up the whole matter” by suggesting that in marriage the man should be both dominant as husband and subservient as lover. However, the Franklin’s view is hardly followed by the characters of his tale. Interestingly, the two solutions to the issue of sovereignty proposed—those of the Wife of Bath and of the Franklin—are developed in Breton lays, short and highly unrealistic romances relying heavily on magical elements. Is it the case that only magic can solve this typically human problem? Chaucer, at least, does not press for a definitive answer.
The great sense of variety, the comic treatment of serious issues, the concern with oppositions and unsuccessful solutions, and the lively and imaginative verse that so typifies The Canterbury Tales are best exemplified by “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale.” A beast fable mocking courtly language and rhetorical overabundance, the tale at once includes Chaucer’s fascination with authorities, dreams, fate, and love and marriage, and suggests his ambivalent attitudes toward the major philosophical and social concerns of his day. The elevated speeches of Chanticleer are punctuated by barnyard cries, and the pompous world of the rooster and hen are set within the humble yard of a poor widow.
Here the reader is provided with a comic version of the detached perspective that concludes Troilus and Criseyde. After deciding that dreams are to be taken seriously and refusing to take a laxative, Chanticleer disregards his dream and its warning and makes love to his favorite wife in a scene that absurdly portrays chickens as courtly lovers. Interestingly, Chanticleer now cites a standard sentiment of medieval antifeminism: In principio/ Mulier est hominis confusio (“In the beginning woman is man’s ruin”), which alludes to the apostle John’s famous description of the creation (John 1:1). The learned rooster, moreover, immediately mistranslates the Latin as “Womman is mannes ioye and al his blys,” perhaps the Priest’s subtle comment on the Nun he serves or the rooster’s joke on Pertelote. The joke ultimately is on Chanticleer when “a colfox ful of sley iniquitee” sneaks into this romance “garden.” Noting that the counsel of woman brought woe to the world “And made Adam from paradys to go,” the Nun’s Priest then relates the temptation and fall of Chanticleer and the subsequent chasing of the fox and rooster out of the barnyard. The adventure is full of great fun, a hilarious scene, yet strangely reminiscent of the biblical story of the Fall of Man. It is not clear what one is to make of such a story.
Although Chaucer was not the first author to create a framed collection of stories, The Canterbury Tales is assuredly the most imaginative collection. Earlier the poet had experimented with a framed collection in The Legend of Good Women. His Italian contemporary, Boccaccio, also created a collection of stories in The Decameron (c. 1348-1353), although scholars cannot agree whether Chaucer knew this work. Earlier collections of exempla and legends were probably known by the poet, and he certainly knew the great collection of Ovid, Metamorphoses (c. 8 c.e.; English translation, 1567). Like Ovid’s collection, The Canterbury Tales is organized by thematic and structural elements that provide a sense of unity within diversity. Chaucer’s choice of the pilgrimage as the setting for the tales is particularly effective, since it allows the juxtaposition of characters, literary types, and themes gathered from a wide range of sources and reflecting a wide range of human attitudes.
Here, perhaps, is the key to Chaucer’s greatness. Like the medieval view of the macrocosm, in which constant change and movement take place within a relatively unchanging framework, Chaucer’s view of the microcosm balances the dynamic and the static, the wide range of individual feeling and belief within unchanging human nature. The Canterbury Tales is his greatest achievement in this area, although earlier poems, such as the Parlement of Foules, with its portrayal of the hierarchy of birds within nature’s order, already show Chaucer’s basic view. Ranging over human nature, selecting from ancient story and supposed personal experience, with a place for both the comic and the tragic, Chaucer’s poetry mixes mirth and morality, accomplishing very successfully the two great purposes of literature, what the Host calls “sentence and solas,” teaching and entertainment.