Geoffrey Chaucer Analysis

Other literary forms

(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

In addition to the early allegorical dream visions, the “tragedy” of Troilus and Criseyde, and the“comedy” The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer (CHAW-sur) composed various lyrical poems, wrote a scientific treatise in prose, and translated two immensely influential works from Latin and Old French into Middle English. The shorter works have received little attention from critics. “An ABC,” Chaucer’s earliest poem adapted from the French of Guillaume Deguilleville, and the various ballades, roundels, and envoys are in the French courtly tradition. They also reflect the influence of the Roman philosopher Boethius and often include moral advice and standard sententiae. Somewhat longer are the Anelida and Arcite and the complaints to Pity and of Venus and Mars, which develop the conventions of the languishing lover of romance.

The prose works include the interesting astrological study A Treatise on the Astrolabe (1387-1392), written for “little Lewis my son,” and the Boece (c. 1380), a translation of Boethius’s De consolatione philosophiae (523; The Consolation of Philosophy, late ninth century), which particularly influenced Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde and “The Knight’s Tale.” The prologue to The Legend of Good Women notes that Chaucer also translated Romaunt of the Rose (c. 1370). Certainly the great Old French dream vision, particularly the first part by Guillaume de Lorris, influenced Chaucer’s early dream allegories as well as his portrayal of certain characters and scenes in The Canterbury Tales—the Wife of Bath, for example, and the enclosed garden of “The Merchant’s Tale.” Scholars, however, are uncertain whether the extant Middle English version of Romaunt of the Rose included in standard editions of Chaucer is by the poet.


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Seldom has a poet been as consistently popular and admired by fellow poets, critics, and the public as has Geoffrey Chaucer. From the comments of his French contemporary Eustache Deschamps (c. 1340-1410) and the praise by imitation of the fifteenth century Chaucerians to the remarks of notable critics from John Dryden and Alexander Pope to Matthew Arnold and C. S. Lewis, Chaucer has been warmly applauded if not always understood. His poetic talent, “genial nature,” wit, charm, and sympathetic yet critical understanding of human diversity are particularly attractive. To D. S. Brewer, Chaucer “is our Goethe, a great artist who put his whole mind into his art.”

However, sometimes this praise has been misinformed, portraying Chaucer rather grandly as the founder of English literature and the prime shaper of the English language. In fact, English literature had a long and illustrious tradition before Chaucer, and the development of Modern English from the London East Midland dialect of Chaucer has little to do with the poet. Chaucer has also been credited with a series of firsts. G. L. Kittredge identified Troilus and Criseyde as “the first novel, in the modern sense, that ever was written in the world.” Its characters, to John Speirs, are also poetic firsts: Pandarus “the first rounded comic creation of substantial magnitude in English literature,” and Criseyde “the first complete character of a woman in English literature.” Others see Chaucer’s poetry as “Renaissance” in outlook, a harbinger of the humanism of the modern world. Such views reveal an element of surprise on the critics’ part that from the midst of Middle English such a poetic genius should emerge. In fact, typical discussions of Chaucer’s career, dividing it into three stages as it develops from French influence (seen in the dream allegories) to Italian tendencies (in Troilus and Criseyde, for example) and finally to English realism (in The Canterbury Tales), imply an evolutionary view not only of Chaucer’s poetry but also of English literary history. These stages supposedly reflect the gradual rejection of medieval conventionalism and the movement toward modern realism.

Whatever Chaucer’s varied achievements are, the rejection of conventions, rhetoric, types, symbols, and authorities is not among them. Charles Muscatine has shown, moreover, that Chaucer’s “realism” is as French and conventional as are his early allegories. Chaucer’s poetry should be judged within the conventions of his time. He did experiment with verse forms, 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. His talent, however, lies in manipulating the authorities, the rhetoric, and conventional “topics” and in his mastery of the “art poetical.” As A. C. Spearing notes, “Once we become aware of Chaucer’s ’art poetical,’ we gain a deeper insight into his work by seeing how what appears natural in it is in fact achieved not carelessly but by the play of genius upon convention and contrivance.”

Such an approach to Chaucer will recognize his achievement as the greatest poet of medieval England, not as a forerunner of modernism. It will note his remaking of French, Latin, and Italian sources and treatment of secular and religious allegory as being, in their own way, as original as his creation of such characters as the Wife of Bath and the Pardoner. Chaucer’s achievement is in his ability to juxtapose various medieval outlooks to portray complex ideas in human terms, with wit and humor, to include both “heigh sentence” and “solaas and myrthe,” and to merge the naturalistic detail with the symbolic pattern. In this attempt to synthesize the everyday with the supernatural and the homely with the philosophical, and in his insistence on inclusiveness—on presenting both the angels and the gargoyles—Chaucer is the supreme example of the Gothic artist.

Other Literary Forms

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

In addition to the works listed above, Geoffrey Chaucer composed Boece (c. 1380), a translation of Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy (523), which Boethius wrote while in prison. Chaucer also wrote an astrological study, A Treatise on the Astrolabe (1387-1392), and a miscellaneous volume entitled Works (1957).


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Geoffrey Chaucer is generally agreed to be the most important writer in English literature before William Shakespeare. Recognized internationally in his own time as the greatest of English poets and dubbed “the father of English poetry” by John Dryden as early as 1700, his central position in the development of English literature and even of the English language is perhaps more secure today than it has ever been. One of the keys to Chaucer’s continued critical success is the scope and diversity of his work, which extends from romance to tragedy, from sermon to dream vision, from pious saints’ lives to bawdy fabliaux. Readers from every century have found something new in Chaucer and learned something about themselves.

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Geoffrey Chaucer is classified as a poet. Does the evidence of his work suggest that a writer with his capacities today would be primarily a short-story writer?

The pilgrims never get to Canterbury, never return, and the storytelling contest suggested by Harry Bailly never occurs. Are not these too many defects to impose upon the reader?

The Canterbury Tales is an account of a Christian pilgrimage involving several characters with religious vocations, some of them unworthy representatives, and one of them, the Parson, exceptional. Are critics and readers today ill-equipped to appreciate the poem’s religious significance?

Consider the statement that Chaucer’s outrageous characters in The Canterbury Tales, such as the Wife of Bath and the Pardoner, are his most interesting ones.

Give several examples of Chaucer’s pilgrims’ contentions with each other.

Critics disagree about whether Criseyde is to be admired and pitied or she is to be condemned. Which view seems best supported by the evidence of the poem Troilus and Criseyde?


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Ackroyd, Peter. Chaucer. New York: Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2005. A biography of Chaucer that brings the medieval world to life and relates Chaucer’s life to his poetry.

Blamires, Alcuin. Chaucer, Ethics, and Gender. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. This volume examines not only Chaucer’s treatment of women, but also how gender affects the moral tone of his works. Blamires offers a new perspective on Chaucer’s writing as he uses philosophical questions of ethics and morality to view the traditionally fixed notions of gender in Chaucer’s works. With his lucid writing style, Blamires makes the difficult subject matter easy to fathom and puts a new spin on issues of gender in Chaucerian studies.

Borroff, Marie. Traditions and Renewals: Chaucer, the Gawain-Poet, and Beyond. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2003. A collection of essays that provide a fresh and different analysis of Chaucer’s work.

Brewer, Derek. The World of Chaucer. Rochester, N.Y.: D. S. Brewer, 2000. An illustrated look at Chaucer’s work and the intellectual life of his time. Includes bibliography and index.

Brown, Peter, ed. A Companion to Chaucer. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2000. Part of the Blackwell Companions to Literature and Culture series. Offers broad and detailed essays by scholars of Chaucer and his era.

Condren, Edward I. Chaucer and the Energy of Creation: The Design and the Organization of “The Canterbury Tales.” Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1999. Examines the motives behind Chaucer’s layout of the stories.

Hirsh, John C. Chaucer and the “Canterbury Tales”: A Short Introduction. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2003. An introduction to The Canterbury Tales for the general reader.

Lynch, Jack, ed. The Canterbury Tales. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2010. Original essays and classical criticism provide a unique insight into Chaucer’s tales.

Rossignol, Rosalyn. Chaucer A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Works. New York: Facts On File, 1999. An indispensable guide for the student of Chaucer.

West, Richard. Chaucer, 1340-1400: The Life and Times of the First English Poet. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2000. A discussion of the history surrounding Chaucer’s achievements and the events of his life. Chapters take up such matters as the Black Death’s impact on the anti-Semitism evident in “The Prioress’s Tale” and the impact of the great English Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 on Chaucer’s worldview.