CHAUCER AS A MODERN POET
A critic observes:
“Chaucer is a modern among the medieval and medieval among the moderns.”
Chaucer is the father of English poetry and the earliest of the great modern writers and poets. When Chaucer started writing poetry, the light of modernism was not visible at that time. It was Chaucer who finished the chapter of old traditions and introduced a new era of great modern period of English literature. Just like Dante, he is a bridge between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. He is romantic as well as a realist. His modernism consists of the following themes.
First element of modern poetry is observation and realism. This element of modernism is one of the important features of Chaucer’s poetry. This quality has made him the first great observer and realist of English poetry. Actually, before him the writers were living in the world of dreams but “with him is born our real poetry” says Mathew Arnold. He was a great observer and a painter in portraying his life-like characters. He had the great power to analyze and observe keenly and minutely to depict what he observed around him. The best example to see his realism and the power to penetrate into the psychology of his character can be best observed in “The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales.” The details of each character show as if his eyes were wandering here and there noticing each and every detail. He depicts each pilgrim’s appearance, dressing, manners and the qualities of head and heart root and branch. He notices that the Franklin’s beard is “white as daisy” and he has a “syngywnn” complexion. Similarly, he observes the yellow hair of the Pardoner, the ulcer on the Cook’s skin and the nose of “The wife of the Bath” which is “of fyn scarlet reed”. She is “gap-toothed” and somewhat deaf. These details clearly show and make us feel that the pilgrims depicted by Chaucer were real human beings and other literary work of his age has this quality of realism. “No other literary work before Chaucer portrays the society so clearly as he does.” That’s why, after reading the book, we can construct the 14th century of England through these pilgrims. Another critic observes: “Chaucer rescued literature from the morass of convention and placed it on the solid ground of realism.”
Second major quality of modern poetry is objectivity and detachment. We can observe this quality of detachment and objectivity in his verses. He does not show any partiality or prejudice in portraying his characters. He is not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and presenting facts around him. He observes the flaws, frailties, and foibles of the people with his intellect, detachment and penetration and shares their feelings and is ready to become one with them for the time being. He does not try to describe them according to his own thinking, rather he describes them as they really are. In doing so, whether the people around him or good or bad, he does not show any hatred, malice, meanness, bitterness, and disgust for them, rather he enjoys their company and is thankful to them for the pleasure they are providing him. The characters like the wife of Bath, the Summoner and the Pardoner are contemptible members of society of his time because of their follies but neither he hates them nor has the zeal to reform his society. A critic observes: “Chaucer has a philosophy of universal tolerance.”
Third main quality of modern literature is Renaissance. Renaissance gives great consideration to the individual characterization. That’s why, it is one of the important features of modern writers for their writings. We can easily find that the characterization of individual character is the trait of Chaucer’s poetry and it makes him a modern poet. That’s why, even when he criticizes, his attack is on the individuals not the institutions. He gives the details of each and every character separately and distinguishes them through their dresses, gestures, physical appearances and feelings.
Fourth main feature of modern writings is use of humour. We should not feel any hesitation to say:“Chaucer is the first great English humorist in English literature.” It is Chaucer who first time wrote human comedy and introduced it in the form of poetry. No doubt, there was element of humorous touches in the poetry launched by other writers but it was Chaucer and only Chaucer who conferred maturity to humour. His humour is free of any partiality, prejudice, bitter ridicule, cynical sneer, biting sarcasm or corrosive satire. He exposes the vanities and absurdities of the Prioress, the worldly interests of the Monk and the Friar, the lucrative attitude of the Summoner and the double standard of the Pardoner. He ironically portrays the Doctor’s deep love for gold. “For gold in medicine is a cordial.” This quality of humour is also the main characteristic of great English writers like Shakespeare and Fielding. That’s why, Chaucer becomes a modern poet. E. Albert says: “In the literature of his time, when so few poets seem to have any perception of the fun in life, the humour of Chaucer is invigorating and delightful.”
Fifth main feature of modern writings is corresponding in style and infirmity. Chaucer is modern in his colloquial style movement. He combines ironic suggestions with concrete precision. He is modern poet because his mind is not limited to something special. Rather he has in his mind the problems of poetry, history, science, philosophy and intellectual culture of his time. It is Chaucer who raised a dialect language and transformed it into the language of literature. In the age, when English poetry was in the dire need of changes to find some energy, he made the English language a first rate literary medium through “The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales.”
Another major quality of modern writings is that they emphasize on human emotions. Chaucer is also distinguished and uncrowned monarch in this field. We know that human emotions haven’t got any change even after the lapse of so many years, Chaucer’s poetry also contains touches of emotions. That’s why, his portraits are the portraits belonging to all the ages, groups and nations. We come across the characters which think and feel as we do. In this sense, he can be called the forerunner of modern novel of character. G.K. Chesterton calls him, “The Grand-father of the English Novel.”
Another quality of modern writings is the dramatic element. Chaucer’s works are replete with dramatic elements. He has been called “A Complete Dramatist.” We all know that he has never written a drama or a novel, but his works have the touches of dramatic elements which are introduced in drama and novel. There is no use of personification and allegory in his writings and he introduces life and vigour in his narration. He enlivens an old story to expose the complexities and complications of sentiments by his soft touches as a dramatic observer. All the dramatic elements in his tales can be observed clearly. These elements include story, dialogues, conflict, characterization and settings, etc. One of the most sustained dramatic characters is of the Host. Further, some stories can be culled to perform on the stage. No doubt, there are some critics who raise objection on Chaucer as a dramatist. These critics include Stop Ford, Brooke, Lowell and many others. They think that there are so many stories which have no adjustment to the narrators. There are some stories which when begin give no reference to the teller. The story of the Shipman is the best example to prove it. He starts speaking all of a sudden as if he had been a woman. Same is the case with the “Priest.” The conversation made by the Priest does not show that a Priest is speaking there. Kenneth Sisam also adds saying: “The author is the only actor. He is intruding his own opinions and peeping round the curtain to show himself to the audience or to see how they like his work a serious defect in a dramatist.” He further says: “A dramatist ought to be objective and Chaucer is quite often not so.” However, A.C. Ward calls Chaucer “A Born Dramatist.” According to him, “He is not only a superb narrator but a dramatic genius as well. The blend of his peculiar narrating style makes his literary work unique, credible and plausible.” Speirs calls “The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales” “The Human Comedy of the Middle Ages.” Kittredge says that the pilgrims are the dramatist personae of this comedy, and their stories are comparable to the soliloquies of Othello or Iago. The stories exist but only to give us an insight into the character of the narrators. “The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales” does not have a definite plot like that of a drama but it has a brilliant exposition in the form of prologue.
The last and major quality of Chaucer as a modern poet is that he combines different conventional genres in a single text, which abounds in Chaucer’s poetry, is also a defining feature of Modernism. Some texts of this movement are made up of a juxtaposition of different pieces of text, each of which is in a specific genre. This technique is known as “Collage”, something that can be clearly seen, for instance, in T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.”
To sum up, no doubt Chaucer is rightly called “The Evening Star” of the medieval day and “The Morning Star” of the Renaissance. He is truly a modern poet because his works have all the elements of modern writings. He has realism, catholicity, humour, Renaissance spirit, and style which are the prominent features of modernism. We fully agree with the remarks of a critic who observes: “If we take 30 percent of Goldsmith, 50 percent of Fielding and 20 percent of Walter Scott and vitalize this compound with the spirit of 14th century, perhaps we should get fairly near to another Chaucer.” (Words: 1670)