Born at a time when serious poetry was produced across the Channel, Chaucer would live to put the English language on the literary map. He began with the spoken word, pioneering the use of English in the royal court in a... [more]
Born at a time when serious poetry was produced across the Channel, Chaucer would live to put the English language on the literary map. He began with the spoken word, pioneering the use of English in the royal court in a time when French was the tongue of choice. In the transition to writing, Chaucer helped fix standardized spellings and forms onto what had been a shifting medium. His new structure bridged the gap between a living, uncalcified language and the classical traditions he absorbed from overseas.
Reading Chaucer is like tracing a map of literary concerns past and future -- Dickensian character, Proustian attention to dress, Homeric listing. His multilayered, self-reflexive works prefigure the satire of the eighteenth century and the Postmodern narrative. Like Shakespeare and Joyce, he exhibited an amazing ability to pair the lofty with the lowly, to render humanity's flaws as fascinatingly as its glories. His most famous work in this vein is "The Canterbury Tales," a thick tome written over the last 15 years of his life.
"The Tales" is a collection of stories told by various characters traveling together on a religious pilgrimage. Each narrator tells a different kind of story; dirty anecdotes sit back-to-back with straightforward histories. Filled with philosophical musings, bits of everyday wisdom, and delicious naughtiness, these accounts vibrate with a real-life humanity. Readers still giggle at "The Miller's Tale," a hilarious fabliau of a carpenter cuckolded by his mischievous, 18-year-old wife. Such ribald trials and tribulations stand up to and disarm even contemporary jadedness.
Characters who narrate stories in their own voices was not new -- Boccacio did the same in the "Decameron" -- but the way Chaucer's tellers come alive as they speak gives unusual depth to his work. We see a cross-section of humanity and hear the same situation told from more than one perspective. In addition, the device let Chaucer get away with more scandalous content than if he had written in his own voice. Chaucer had spent much of his writing career currying favor with the aristocracy and ensuring good marriages for his offspring -- some transgression was certainly forgivable, but not too much.
Indeed Chaucer ends "The Tales" with a devout disclaimer of any evil that may lurk in his stories of "worldly vanitees." Since he wrote this retraction in 1400, the very year he died, it might be read as a sincere effort to save his soul after writing so indulgently about lasciviousness. But the retraction is too clever for that. It proclaims Chaucer's official alliance with religious morality, while getting in one last wink at readers who know better.
Chaucer's mastery of his form sometimes shows itself as a mastery in the making -- he was as an artist playing with a speedily developing technology. There is a joyous lavishness in his use of words, and no care for boundaries on the untilled field of the English language. His unstinting attention to detail and elaborate treatment of even the most banal topics -- such as the way the Prioresse lifts a morsel of food to her mouth -- established a style to English literature. Swift, Pope, even Shakespeare all followed in Chaucer's footsteps. [show less]