The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Miller’s Tale” is a comic narrative of lust, deception, and infidelity. The second of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, it follows directly upon the tale of chivalry told by the Knight. Although the Host expects to call upon the Monk to tell an edifying tale, the Miller, by now quite drunk on the “ale of Southwerk,” thwarts Harry Bailly’s plans, insisting instead on telling his story, much to the irritation of its intended target, the Reeve.

Over the Reeve’s objections, the Miller begins his tale of John, a prosperous but gullible carpenter; his young, robust wife Alisoun; and her two admirers—the fastidious clerk Absolon and the clever Nicholas, also a clerk. John and Alisoun have enterprisingly rented their upstairs room to Nicholas, a student of astronomy, who has outfitted the chamber with sweet-smelling herbs, his favorite books, and his “gay sautrye” (a harp-like instrument). Nicholas is understandably attracted to Alisoun, a licorice-eyed lass of considerable charm. Bored with John and feeling trapped by his jealous vigilance, Alisoun soon succumbs to Nicholas’s amorous overtures, and the two conspire to find a time when they can be alone.

Their relationship and their plans, however, are complicated by the presence of Absolon, a parish clerk, also in pursuit of Alisoun. Absolon is an accomplished dancer who emulates the refined manners of the court. Like the courtly lovers whom he admires,...

(The entire section is 592 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

For the Miller, Chaucer chooses a fabliau, a form of comic or satiric verse narrative that he composes in iambic pentameter couplets. Bawdy in subject matter, the fabliau was popular in twelfth and thirteenth century France and flourished in England in the fourteenth century. Early examples of this form could be quite obscene, dwelling on the misadventures of lecherous clerics, wayward wives, and jealous husbands. Often the fabliau portrays the cuckolding of a rather stupid husband by a clever wife. This form seems right for the Miller, who is known as a teller of lewd stories. Chaucer would use the form again for the Reeve, Cook, Merchant, and Shipman.

In Chaucer’s hands the fabliau rises from a bit of verse to brilliant portraiture. Characters in “The Miller’s Tale” are so highly individualized that, as one critic said, the characters seem to motivate the plot, creating a tale bursting with vitality, a far cry from the simple vulgar stories from which it derives. Absolon, the parish clerk, whose name suggests the biblical figure known for his beauty, is notable for his feminine ways. His hair is carefully parted and dressed, his stockings are elegant, and his shoes are elaborately carved. Chaucer adds that he is squeamish of vulgar manners, preparing the way for Alisoun’s infamous kiss—the ultimate vulgar act—perfect in its ironic suitability.

Alisoun finds Absolon’s fancy city ways unappealing. She is a country girl,...

(The entire section is 574 words.)