Chaucer’s Art of Humour OR Chaucer as a Humorist
A humorist is a quick and vigilant perceiver of the funny side of all the things present around him. He has enough room in his mind and heart to laugh and make others laugh at what is absurd, ridiculous and incongruous. He accepts mankind as it is and loves it in spite of all its foibles, flaws and shortcomings. Even if he uses satire, it is in the form of tender shafts. It neither hurts nor blights. Malice, meanness, spite or hostility are completely absent from his attitude as a satirist. We have observed so many humorists in the history of literature. Though some were bitter in their style, their main purpose was the amendment of vices by correction. These great humorists were Shakespeare, Fielding, and Pope, etc. Chaucer is one of them.
Chaucer is the first great English humorist. Before him, we find no English literary work which reveals humour in the modern sense. Lowes remarks: “Long before Balzac, Chaucer conceived the human comedy.” Humour is the stuff and substance of his art. His literary writings would be incomplete without his humour. A critic says: “Chaucer is a born humorist.” His literary works reflect his perfection in the field of humour. His masterpiece “Nun’s Priest’s Tale” is full of comical touches. Cock’s abduction at the hands of Fox seems humorous. Chanticleer and Pertelote have been addressed as Sir and Madam.
In “The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales”, Chaucer maintains his quality of humour and no character has escaped from his humour because of his ‘Seeing Eye’ and sharp memory. The study of the book brings to us many qualities of Chaucer as a humorist. Let us study these qualities one by one.
The first quality of Chaucer’s humour is that it is spontaneous and fresh and not the result of deliberate efforts. He is never bitter and unsympathetic when he ridicules the absurdities and follies of his age. No doubt, he uses pure irony when he depicts two culprits i.e. the Pardoner and the Summoner but his first and foremost aim is to entertain us by his art of narration. Except for the depiction of these two characters, there is no sting in “The Prologue” in Chaucer’s ever-sympathetic humour. In his handling of the Wife of Bath, he criticizes her but not in a bitter way but rather in a humorous way. In this way, he reminds us of Shakespeare’s treatment of Sir Toby in Twelfth Night and of Falstaff in Henry 4. That’s why, he never tends to be a satirist, a moralist, or a preacher because he does not wish to instruct and preach. He observes his age sympathetically, humorously, and liberally. He does not superficially criticize any institution of his age as his contemporary Langland did against the church. That’s why, Chaucer is a precursor of an essentially spontaneous English humour. Shakespeare and Fielding followed his footsteps and enriched the comic literature of the world.
Second, Chaucer’s humour has great variety and is many-sided. All his writings have an abundance of variegated shapes. The Canterbury Tales is the best example of his many-sided humour. It is kind and patronizing in the case of the Clerk. It is semi-farcical in the case of the Wife of Bath. It is pointed and satirical in the case of the Pardoner and the Summoner. The prevailing feature of Chaucer’s humour is its urbanity. It is in this context that Masefield calls Chaucer “A great Renaissance gentleman mocking the Middle Ages.”
Third, Chaucer’s humour contains humanity because he appears before us as a philanthropist not as a misanthropist. He is essentially the poet of MAN. He is deeply and intensely interested in man and his affairs. It is the quality of the greatest humorists like Shakespeare and Fielding. There is no sign of disdain for fools and no sign of disgust for rascals. While gently disclosing the roguery of rogues, he is grateful to them for the pleasure they provide him. He loves to speak and write about their funny traits and looks at their pranks and tricks with amused delight. Thus, Chaucer’s humour is the result of large humanity and catholicity of temper and there is no grain of malice or meanness in his attitude towards MAN.
The fourth quality of Chaucer as a humorist is the use of paradox in his humour. The suggestiveness of his humour becomes paradoxical. He says something but suggests just the opposite to it. We can say, Chaucer often speaks with his tongue in cheek. Whenever he praises, it is not the praise rather it is criticism in disguise. For example, the character of the Monk is a true example of it. The Monk does not give any importance to the text which condemns hunting but Chaucer says, “And I said his opinion was good.” Similarly, the Pardoner is also a swindler with flattering deceits and tricks. He carries pardons and relics whose authenticity is doubtful. There is a touch of paradoxical satire when Chaucer calls him ‘noble ecclesiaste /clergyman.’ He does not mean more than what he says; sometimes he means just the opposite of what he says. Thus, Chaucer accepts the paradox in life and mirrors it in his paradoxical manner.
The fifth quality of Chaucer as a humorist is his use of satire but in “The Prologue” his attitude is not didactic but rather secular, not satirical but humorous. Hugh Walker admits: “In The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, the prevailing spirit is not at all satirical but humorous.”The satirical tone is present in the characters of the Monk, The Friar, the Prioress and the Summoner, etc. Then, we have another satirical portrait of Franklin who is described as Epicurus own son, and the Saint Julian of his country.
“For he was Epicurus owene sone, —-
Saint Julian he was in his contree.”
A point to be noted in this satire is that his victim is the individual, not the institution. Even, his satire is friendly and sympathetic. Certainly, no bitter satirist would have created such an impression as that uttered by Legouis: “Amongst the writers of genius the one who strikes us soonest as a friend is Chaucer.”
The sixth quality of Chaucer as a humorist is his use of irony. Most of the time, his humour takes the form of irony because it overwhelms the bitterness of satire. He employs different sorts of irony. In the depiction of the Knight’s character, first, he talks about his bravery, skill and adventures but then he tells us that the Knight is as gentle as a maid. He cannot harm anybody. “And of his port as meeke as is a mayde.”
Similarly, he exaggerates the character of the Prioress. He tells that the Prioress does not let any morsel fall. She also does not let her fingers dip in the sauce. Her table manners clearly show that she is brought up in an environment far away from the monastic life.
“Hir over-lippe wiped she so clene
That in hir coppe ther was no ferthyng sene
Of Greece, when she drunken hadde hir draughte.”
He also depicts before us irony of situation. He tells us the qualities of the Monk which actually do not suit his religious rank.
“A Monk there was, a fair for the maistrie,
An outridere, that lovede venerie;
A manly man, to been an abbot able.”
Another quality of Chaucer’s humour is that it has a sound theme. When we read the details of a character and think of its flaws and shortcomings, we start to take pity on the character. When we read that the Friar is a clever beggar and can cheat people through his dialogues, we think that he must not be what he is. Similarly, in “Nun’s Priest’s Tale”, most of the humorous situations contain pathos. When we read that Madam Pertelote imposes convictions on her husband, we feel that such behaviour contains pathos. Similarly, The Wife of Bath has many love affairs in her youth except for five husbands. No doubt, Chaucer’s style is humorous but we feel pity on such a woman who is a stigma on womanhood and does not have the husband of her liking even after marrying five times.
The height of tolerance comes when a writer makes fun of himself also. This is exactly what Chaucer does. He takes delight in laughing at himself. In most of his, masterpieces, he has given a humorous description of himself. These masterpieces include “The Prologue to the Tale of Sir Thopas”, “The House of Fame”, “The Prologue to the Legend of Good Women” and “The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales.” In all these writings, he cracks many a jest at his own self. In “The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales”, he refers to himself as a simple and unlettered man: “My wit is short, as you may well understand.”
To sum up, we can say that humour is the most conspicuous and important element of Chaucer’s poetry. It is humour that gives prominent quality to his poetry. It is part and parcel of his poetry because he has the keenest sense of the ludicrous manners and circumstances as he is so extremely diverted himself. He is gifted with the power of ridiculing the follies and the hypocrisies of his day but never like Swift and Langland. His object is to paint life as he sees it and like Henry Fielding to hold up to the mirror which reflects and does not distort the image. True humour enables us ‘to love’ while we ‘laugh with’ others, and do not ‘laugh at’ others. Most of Chaucer’s humour is perfectly based on innocent fun. The critics may be divided in opinion to call Chaucer the father of English poetry but without any doubt and fear of contradiction, he is the pioneer and “The First Great English Realist as well as Humorist” in the world of English literature. (Words: 1653)