The Age of Chaucer

For a profound and comprehensive study of an author’s literary work is required, among other things, a thorough understanding of the age which produced and nurtured him. Without acquaintance with the historical context our evaluation and apprehension of literature is bound to be lop-sided, if not altogether warped and garbled. Every man is a child of his age. He is influenced by it though, if he is a great man, he may influence it also. A great writer like Shakespeare or Chaucer is generally said to be “not of an age, but of all ages.” But, in spite of his universal appeal, the fact remains that even he could not have escaped “the spirit of the age” in which he lived and moved and had his being.

So, for understanding him and his works in their fullness it is imperative to familiarize ourselves with the influential currents of thought and feeling and sensibility (not to speak of the socio-politico-economic conditions) obtaining in the times in which he flourished. Probably the Reverse of it is also true: we may acquire some understanding of these tendencies and currents, the ethos of the age, through the writerliimself. Emphasizing this point, W. H. Hudson says: “Every man belongs to his race and age; no matter how marked his personality, the spirit of his race and age finds expression through him” The same critic cogently expresses the relationship between history and literature. “Ordinary English history’ he says, “is our nation’s biography, its literature is its autobiography; in the’one we read the story of its actions and practical achievements; in the other the story df its intellectual and moral development.” Though Chaucer transcends the limits of his generation and creates something which is of interest to the future generation too, yet he represents much of what his age stands for. And therein lies his greatness.

Chaucer’s Age-Both Medieval and Modern:
Chaucer’s age-like most historical ages-was an age of transition. This transition implies a shift from the medieval to the modern times, the emergence of the English nation from the “dark ages” to the age of enlightenment. Though some elements associated with modernity were coming into prominence,-yet mostly and essentially the age was medieval-unscientific, superstitious, chivalrous, religious-minded, and “backward” in most respects. The fourteenth century, as J. M. Manly puts it in The Cambridge History of English Literature, was “a dark epoch fn the history of England“. However, the silver lining of modernity did”succeed in piercing, here and there, the thick darkness of ignorance and superstition. In fact, the age of Chaucer was not stagnant: it was inching its way steadily and surely to the dawn of the Renaissance and the Reformation, which were yet a couple of centuries ahead. We cannot agree with Kitteredge who calls Chaucer’s age “a singularly modern time”. For that matter, not to speak of the fourteenth, even the eighteenth century was not “modern” in numerous respects. What we notice in the fourteenth century is the start of the movement towards the modern times, and not the accomplishment of that movement, which was going to be a march of marathon nature. Robert Dudely French observes: “It was an age of restlessness, amid the ferment”of new life, that Chaucer lived and wrote. Old things and new appear side by sideiipon his pages, and in his poetry we can study the essential spirit, both of the age that was passing and of the age that was to come.” What are these “old things and new:’ and what made the age restless? The answer will be provided if we discuss the chief events and features of the age.
“The Hundred Years’ War”:
The period between 1337 and 1453 is marked by a long succession of skirmishes between France and England, which are collectively known as the “Hundred Years War”. Under the able and warlike guidance of King Edward III (1327-1377) England won a number of glorious victories, particularly at Crecy, Poietiers, and Agincourt. The French might crumbled and Edward was once acknowledged even the king of France. But later, after his demise and with the succession of the incompetent Richard II, the English might waned and the French were able to secure tangible gains. The war influenced fie English character in the following two ways:
(i)         the fostering of nationalistic sentiment; and
(ii)        the demolition of some social barriers between different classes of society.
It was obviously natural for the conflict to have engendered among the English a strong feeling of national solidarity and patriotic fervour. But, as Compton-Rickett reminds us, “the fight is memorable not merely for stimulating the pride of English men.” It is important, too, for the second reason given above. It was not the aristocracy alone which secured the victory for England. The aristocracy was vitally supported by the lowly archers whose feats with the bow were a force to reckon with. Froissart, the French chronicler, referring to the English archers says: “They, let fly their arrows so wholly together and so thick that it seemed snow”. The recognition of the services of the humble archers brought in a note of democratisation in the country, and the age-old “iron curtain” between the nobility and the proletariat developed a few chinks. This was an advance from medievalism to modernism.
The Age of Chivalry:
Nevertheless, the dawn of the modern era was yet far away. Compton-Rickett observes:”Chaucer’s England is ‘Still characteristically medieval, and nowhere is the conservative feeling more strongly marked than in the persistence of chivalry. This strange amalgam of love, war, and religion so far from exhibiting any signs of decay, reached perhaps its fullest development at this time. More than two centuries were to elapse before it was finally killed-by the satirical pen of Cervantes.” The Knight in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is typical of his kind. Even the tale he narrates concerns the adventures of two true knights-Arcite and Palamon.
The Black Death, Peasants’ Revolt, and Labour Unrest:
In the age of Chaucer most people were victims of poverty, squalor, and pestilence. Even well-educated nobles eyed soap with suspicion, and learned physicians often forbade bathing as harmful for health! That is why England was often visited by epidemics, especially plague. The severest attack of this dread epidemic came in 1348. It was called “the Black Death” because black, knotty boils appeared on the bodies of the hopeless victims. It is estimated that about a million human beings were swept away by this epidemic. That roughly makes one-third of the total population of England at that time.
One immediate consequence of this pestilence was the acute shortage of working hands. The socio-economic system of England lay hopelessly paralysed. Labourers and villains who happened to survive started demanding much higher wages. But neither their employers nor the king nor Parliament was ready to meet these demands. A number of severe regulations were passed asking workers to work at the old rates of payment. This occasioned a great deal of resentment which culminated in the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381 duringthe reign of Richard II. The peasants groaning under the weight of injustice and undue official severity were led to London by the Kentish priest John Ball. He preached the dignity of labour and asked the nobles:
When Adam delved and Eve span
Who was then the gentleman?
The king, overawed by the mass of peasantry armed with such weapons as hatchets, spades, and pitchforks, promised reform but later shelved his promise. The “Peasants’ Revolt” is, according to Compton-Rickett, “a dim foreshadowing of those industrial troubles that lay in the distant future.” Chaucer in his Nun’s Priest’s Tale refers in the following lines to Jack Straw who with Wat Tylar raised the banner of revolt:
Certes, he Jakke Straw and his meyne
Ne made nevere shoutes half so shrille,
When that they wolden any Flemyng kille
As thilke day was mad upon the fox.
R. K. Root thus sums up the significance of this uprising: “This revolt, suppressed by the courage and good judgment of the boy King, Richard II, though barren of any direct and immediate result, exerted a lasting influence on the temper of the lower classes, fostering in them a spirit of independence which made them no longer a negligible quantity in the life of the nation”. This was another line of progress towards modernism.
The Church:
In the age of Chaucer, the Church became a hotbed of profligacy, corruption, and materialism. The overlord of the Church, namely, the Pope of Rome, himself had ambitions and aptitudes otherthan spiritual. W. H. Hudson maintains in this connection: “Of spiritual zeal and energy very little was now left in the country. The greater prelates heaped up wealth, and lived in a godless and worldly way; the rank and file of the clergy were ignorant and careless; the mendicant friars were notorious for their greed and profligacy.” John Gower, a contemporary of Chaucer, whom he calls “moral Gower” (on account of his didactic tendency) thus pictures the condition of the Church in his Prologue to Confessio Amantis:
Lo, thus ye-broke is cristes Folde:
Whereof the flock without guide
Devoured is on every side,
In lacks of hem that been urrware
In chepherdes, which her wit beware
Upon the world in other halve.
Another contemporary has to say this about the priests  “Our priests are now become blind, dark and beclouded. There is neither shaven crown on their head, nor modesty in their words, nor temperance in their food, nor even chastity in their deeds.” If this was the condition of the ecclesiasts, we can easily imagine that of the laity. Well does Chaucer say in the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales: “If gold rust, what shall iron do?” Chaucer himself was indifferent to any reform, but his character-sketches of the ecclesiastical figures in The Canterbury Tales leave no uncertainty regarding the corruption which had crept into the ecclesiastical rank and file. The round-bellied epicurean monk, the merry and devil-may-care friar, and the unscrupulous pardoner are fairly typical of his age.
This widespread and deep-rooted corruption had already begun to provoke the attention of some reformists the most prominent of whom was John Wyclif (13207-84) who has been called “the morning star of the Reformation.” He started what is called the Lollards’s Movement. His aim was to eradicate the evil and corruption which had become a part and parcel of the Church. He sent his “poor priests” to all parts of the country for spreading his message of simplicity, purity, and austerity. His self-appointed task was to take Christianity back to its original purity and spirituality. He exhorted people not to have anything to do with the corrupt ministers of the Pope and to have faith only in the Word of God as enshrined in the Bible, To make the teaching of the Bible accessible to the common masses he with the help of some of his disciples translated the Bible from Latin into the native tongue. He also wrote a number of tracts embodying his teaching. His translation of the Bible was, in the words of W. H. Hudson, “the first translation of the scriptures into any modern vernacular tongue.” That Chaucer was sympathetic to the Lollards’ Movement is evident from the element of idealization which characterizes his portrait of the “Poor Parson” in the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales. The movement launched by Wyclif and his followers in the age of Chaucer was an adumbration of the Reformation which was to come in the sixteenth century to wean England from the papal influence.
Literary and Intellectual Tendencies:
Latin and French were the dominant languages in fourteenth-century England. However, in the later half of the century English came to its own, thanks to the sterling work done by Chaucer and some others like Langland, Gower, and Waclif who wrote in English and wrote well. The English language itself was in a fluid state of being, and was divided into a number of dialects. The Universities of Cambridge and Oxford employed Latin as the medium of instruction. Latin was also the language of the fashionable who cultivated it as a social necessity. We recall here Chaucer’s Summoner who “wolde speke no word but Latyn” after having drunk “well”! The contribution of Chaucer towards the standardization and popularization of the English language cannot be over-estimated. As regards his contribution to English poetry, he has well been characterised as the father of English poetry. No doubt there were other poets contemporaneous with him Langland, Gower, and a few more, but Chaucer is as head and shoulders among them as Shakespeare is among the Elizabethan dramatists. He stands like a majestic oak in a shrubbery. The English prose, too, was coming to itself. Mandeville’s travelogues and Wyclif s reformative pamphlets give one a feeling that the English prose was on its way to standardization and popular acclamation. As E. Albert puts it, “Earlier specimens have been experimental or purely imitative; how, in the works of Mandeville and MaJo/y, we have prose that is both original and individual The English prose is now ripe for a prose style.”
In another way, too, the age of Chaucer stands between the medieval and the modern life. There was in this age some sort of a minor Renaissance. The dawn of the real Renaissance in England was yet about two centuries ahead, yet in the age of Chaucer there are signs of growing influence of the ancients on native literature. Chaucer1 own poetry was influenced by the Italian writer Boccaccio (1313-75) and to a lesser extent, Petrarch (1304-74). The frameworks of Boccaccio’s Decameron and of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales are almost similar. However, it is somewhat doubtful if Chaucer had read the Italian writer. It was through the work of the two above-named Italian writers that humanism made its way into-English intellectual culture. Well does Compton-Rickett observe: “Chaucer’s world is medieval; but beneath his medievalism the leaven of the Renaissance is already at work.”

Chaucer as the chronicler of the society of his time

Well does Compton-Rickett observe: “Chaucer symbolises, as no other writer does, the Middle Ages. He stands in much the same relation to the life of his time as Pope does to the earlier phases of the eighteenth century, and Tennyson to the Victorian era; and his place in English literature is even more important than theirs….”

Now what is the character of the relation which Pope and Tennyson have with their respective ages? It is a truism of literary criticism that of all writers these two are the perfect exponents and representatives of their respective ages. Their importance is twofold:
(i)         Their views and “philosophy of life” are, more or less, characteristic of their respective ages.
(ii)        Their works build up a picture of their contemporary life.
These two points are more tenable in the case of Chaucer than either Pope or Tennyson.
So far as religious belief is concerned, Pope was not a representative of his age. He was a Roman Catholic whereas the majority of Englishmen were Protestants, with a fair sprinkling of Puritans among them. However, Pope never asserts his religion anywhere in his work. His compositions among themselves build up a fairly authentic picture of the social, literary, and intellectual life of the early eighteenth century which he dominated so effectively. His chief works, namely, The Essay on Criticism, The Essay on Man, The Rape of the Lock, and The Dunciad are imbued with the spirit of the age. The Essay on Criticism is a body of critical principles borrowed from Horace and Boileau, which were recognized as infallible in his age, set forth in memorable verse. The Essay on Man is, likewise, an attempt to present the philosophical and intellectual principles of the times. Much of what Pope gives is borrowed from others, which makes his work all the more representative of the age. In The Rape of the Locfche satirically portrays the frivolous pursuits and affected life of the upper-class ladies of his age in the person and activities of Belinda. As a critic says, “the artificial tone of the age, the frivolous aspect of femininty is nowhere more exquisitely pictured than in The Rape of the Lock.”
Apart from Pope’s indulgence in personalities, The Dunciad, as John Butt emphasizes, is a satire on the falling standards of literature. It pictures how the literary scene in the age of Pope was crowded with hacks who were denizens of the ill-famed Grub Street.
Lord Tennyson was as representative of the early Victorian era as Pope was of the early eighteenth century. It stands to reason (Compton-Rickett perhaps assumes it does not) whether Tennyson as a poet was greater than Browning and Matthew Arnold who were his well-known contemporaries. Modern critical opinion is inclined to place Browning and even Arnold above Tennyson. But whether or not Tennyson was greater than Browning and Arnold, it is indisputable that he was much more representative of his age than they. Let us quote a critic: “It is doubtful whether any other writer of that century [the nineteenth] has reflected so clearly and broadly in his verse or prose the characteristics of that period. The dreams and aspirations, the conflicts and disappointments, the aesthetic ideals and scientific discoveries, its doubts in religion and its dogmatism in private life, its social enthusiasm and zeal for education, its curious learning and its ethical earnestness, its enthusiasm for peace and commerce and its ardour for military conquests and imperialism-may all be found mirrored in Tennyson’s poetry.” Let us consider some of his major works as regards their representative value. In Locksley Hall of 1842 Tennyson effectively presents the optimistic belief of the age in the idea of progress and the potentiality of science in ushering in a brilliant future. In The Palace of Art he concerns himself with the burning question of the day whether art was for the sake of art or life. He rejected the philosophy of new aestheticism which glorified the worship of beauty at the cost of even morality. As for Maud, it gives, as a critic observes, “a dramatic rendering of the revolt of a cultured mind against the hypocrisy and corruption of a society degraded by the worship of Mammon”. In his Idylls of the King, as Sir Ifor Evans observes, “Tennyson has reduced the plan of the Arthurian stories to the necessities of Victorian morality.” InMemoriam, which is perhaps Tennyson’s noblest work, had for its overt purpose the lamentation of the early demise of his dear friend, Arthur Hailam; but there is more of Tennyson’s age than Hailam in the poem. As a poetic statement of the religious doubts of the time it exercised a powerful hold over Tennyson’s generation. In The Princess he associated himself with the suffragist movement of his time and made a plea for the education and better placement of women in society. All this shows, to quote G. H. Mair that “Tennyson represents more fully than any other poet this essential spirit of the age.”
Chaucer’s Importance:
What Pope and Tennyson were to do for their respective ages, Chaucer did for his own. Chaucer hated insularism. All his life he was in the thick of men and affairs. He lived in no ivory tower of his own. He saw much of life. He was well acquainted with all classes and conditions of men. He also travelled abroad. All this trained him for “a poet of man” as he appeared eventually in The Canterbury Tales. His earlier works are too bookish being modelled upon Italian and French works; but in The CanlerburyTales he fixed up the spirit of his age for future generations to observe and appreciate. He was as truly the unofficial chronicler of England in the fourteenth century as Froissart was the official French chronicler of the military events of the same time. Other poets of the same age reveal it in a few of its many aspects. It is the singular achievement of Chaucer that he captures his age almost in its totality, more effectively than even Pope and Tennyson did theirs. Comparing him with his contemporaries Legouis remarks:
“All the writers of this time reveal some aspect of contemporary life and of prevailing feeling and thought. The author of Pearl shows us the mysticism of refined minds, Langland the anger which was threatening the abuse of governments and the vices of the clergy, Wyclif the ardour for religious reform which already might amount to Protestantism, Gower the fear aroused in the wealthier class by the Peasant Rising. Barbour the break between the literature of Scotland and of England and the advent of patriotic Scottish poetry. Each had his own plan, his dominant and. on the whole, narrow passion, a character which was local and of his time         His [Chaucer’s] work reflects his century not in fragments, but completely.”
Two Limitations:
Chaucer’s work has almost a documentary value for whoever desires to reconstruct the actual life of fourteenth-century England. But there are two major “limitations” to Chaucer’s work as a delineator ofthe contemporary life and manners:
(I)        Chaucer is almost silent about the very stirring and historic events of his age such as:
(a)        The Anglo-French conflicts commonly known collectively as the Hundred Years War, which began in 1338.
(b)        The Black Death or the terrible plague of 1348-49.
(c)        The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.
(d)        The Lollards’ Movement started by John Wyclif in 1377 for the reformation ofthe Church.
(e)        The struggle ofthe House of Lancaster against Richard II ending in his deposition and succession by Henry IV in 1399.
Chaucer does of course casually referto someofthese events, but there is no full-length treatment of any of them. The Peasants’ Revolt is referred to in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale. The battles of Crecy and Poietiers are glanced at elsewhere. The allusion to the Black Death comes in Chaucer’s character-sketch ofthe Doctor of Physic in the Prologue to The Canterbwy Tales:
He kepte that he wan in pestilence.
There is then a latent reference to Lollardism in the delineation ofthe “Poor Parson” who like a Lollard (one of Wyclif s disciples) believed in simple living and high thinking. But all these references are inexpressive, being almost casual. All this makes William Vaughan Moody assert: “The peasant rebellion and the Lollard agitation give us glimpses of an England which Chaucer, in spite of the many-sidedness of his work, did not reveal. The Canterbury Tales contains few references to the plague, only one to the peasant uprising, and only one to Lollardy, and these references are casual or jesting. Chaucer wrote for the court and cultivated classes to whom the sufferings ofthe poor were a matter of utmost indifference.” It is indeed true that Chaucer like Shakespeare had a rather undemocratic distrust of the proletariat, and especially the mob. His avoidance ofthe treatment of the popular movements ofthe times has, however, another reason too. Let us quote here Muriel Bowden’s words: “The most important reason for Chaucer’s silence about political affairs-and national events undoubtedly lies in the very-mature of his genius : trie poet’s magnificent Human Comedy is the more hiiman-it is’drenched in life,’ as John Livingstone Lowes has said-in that it is without the immediate, and is concerned with the universal and the timeless.” Herein lies the crux of the matter. Before impeaching Chaucer for his neglect of the important events of his age we must understand the difference between the poet and the historian. Whereas the latter is concerned with the events and movements which can be dated, the former deals with the dateless and universal aspects of human nature wliich lie at the core of these events and movements. Chaucer was no topical versifier. If he were, like a chronicler, to versify the events and movements-however important—of his times he would better have been forgotten by us. What we read The Canterbury Tales for is the authentic and panoramic vision it gives us of the social life of the age of Chaucer, not for an account of the topical events which happened to befall in that age.
(II)       The second “limitation” of Chaucer in portraying his age is, if viewed differently, a positive asset. It is his avoidance of literalism (exact and unimaginative rendering of reality). Chaucer’s is no Kodak-camera realism. What he gives us in The Canterbury Tales is, of course, very much near reality though ‘it is not perfect reality. There is some exaggeration here and some extenuation there. For instance there is an obvious element of idealism in his characterization of the Knight, the Plowman, and the poor Parson. These characters are too good to be literally possible and, naturally enough, they are exeriipted from those naughty strokes of irony which we find levelled against all their fellow-pilgrims. They are, according to David Daiches, “nostalgic portraits” of the people who were non-existent, but who were desired by Chaucer to exist. For the rest, however. Chaucer records as he finds, not mechanically, however, but with the additional advantage of his fresh and sly commentary of which his irony is the soul and the spice. In a word, though Chaucer is a realist yet he is not a literal transcriber of reality.
Medieval Chivalry:
Chaucer’s England was predominantly medieval in spirit. And the most outstanding feature of the Middle Ages was chivalry. Chaucer’s Knight is a true representative of the spirit of medieval chivalry which was a blend of love, religion, and bravery. He has been a champion of not fewer than fifteen battles in the defence of Christianity. Even the tale that he tells is, like him, imbued with the spirit of medieval chivalry-though nominally it has the ancient Greece for its setting and has for its two important characters the two Greek heroes who’are said-to have flourished in an unspecified ” period of history. Chaucer almost completely medievalizes this story to enable us to have a taste of the chivalry of his age.
We must, however, point out here that the spirit of true chivalry was breathing its last in the age of Chaucer. The Knight, in fact, is a representative of an order which was losing its ground. The true representative of the new order is his young son, the Squire, who has as much taste for revelry as for chivalry. He is “a lover and a lusty bachelor.” He is singing and fluting all the day and love-struck as he is, he sleeps “no more than a nightingale.” However, we justly wonder if he could have proved himself another Arcite or another Palamon. At any rate, he truly represents the marked change in the world of chivalry which was fast coming over the age of Chaucer.
A Cross-section of Society:
The Canterbury Tales gives us a fairly authentic and equally extensive picture of the socio-political conditions prevailing in England in the age of Chaucer. Each of the thirty pilgrims hails from a different walk of life, and among themselves they build up an epitome of their age. Each of them is a representative of a section of society as well as an individual. Even though the chief events of the age are not dealt with exhaustively by Chaucer, the thirty pilgrims provide us with the taste of life in the England of Chaucer. Chaucer was not a reformer but a delineator of reality. Legouis remarks  “What he has given is a direct transcription of daily life, taken in the very act,” as it were, and in its most familiar aspects. Chaucer’s work is the most precious document for whoever wishes to evoke a picture of life as it then was….”
Trade, Commerce, and Craft:
For the first time in history the trading and artisan sections of society were coming to their own in the age of Chaucer. With the fast expansion in trade and commerce merchants had become prosperous and so had the craftsmen whose goods they traded in. We are told by Chaucer that the Haberdasher, the Carpenter, the Weaver, the Dyer, and the Tapicer were well clothed and equipped. Their weapons were not cheaply trimmed with brass, but all with silver. They were so respectable-looking that
Well seined each of them a fair burgeus
 To sitten in a yeldhalle, on a days.
They were no longer despised by the nobility. The Merchant is a typical representative of his class, and the forefather of Sir Andrew Freeport, the merchant who is a member of the Spectator Club as delineated by Addison and Steele in the eighteenth century. His character-sketch as done by Chaucer exudes prosperity. He is always talking about the increase in his income and knows well how to make money in the market place. The countrymen and merchants have always made the two most common objects of humour and satire. But Chaucer lets the Merchant go without much of satire, perhaps in recognition of the importance that his class had gained in his age.
Chaucer’s portrait of the Doctor of Physic is fairly representative of the theory and practice of medicine in his age. The knowledge of astronomy (rather astrology) was a must for a physician as all the physical ailments were supposed to be the consequences of the peculiar configurations of stars and planets. That is why the Doctor, too, was, “grounded in astronomy.” However, ”his study was but little on the Bible” perhaps because he had not much time to spare from his professional studies. He had amassed a fortune in the year of the great plague and was keen to keep it with him:
He fcepte that he wan in pestilence.
For gold in phisik is a cordial,
Therefore he lovede gold in special.
Gold in the form of a colloidal solution was administered as a tonic fay physicians. However, Chaucer has a sly dig at the Doctor in his reference to his gold-loving nature.
The Church:
Through the ecclesiastical characters in The Canterbury Tales Chaucer constructs a representative picture of the condition of the Church and her ministers in his age. The Church had then become a hotbed of profligacy, corruption, and rank materialism. The Monk, the Friar, the Summoner, the Pardoner, and the Prioress are all corrupt, pleasure-loving, and materialistic in outlook. They forget their primary duty of guiding and edifying the masses and shepherding them to the Promised Land. The Monk is a fat. sporting fellow averse to study and penance. The Friar is a jolly beggar who employs his tongue to carve out his living. The Prioress bothers more about modish etiquette than austerity. The Pardoner is a despicable parasite trading in letters of pardon with the sinners who could ensure a seat in heaven by paying hard cash. The Summoner is, likewise, a depraved fellow. These characters fully signify the decadence that had crept into the Church. The only exception is the “Poor Parson’ apparently a follower of Wyclif who revolted against the corruption of the Church.
The New Learning:
Though Chaucer’s age was essentially medieval, yet some sort of a minor Renaissance was evident. The French and Italian contemporary writers influenced considerably the course of English literature and thought. Petrarch arid Boccaccio, the two Italian writers, in particular, exerted this influence. The seeds of humanistic culture of the ancient Greeks, too, can be identified in this age. The “Clerk of Oxenford” represents the “new” intellectual culture which had percolated .into fourteenth-century England long before the Renaissance. He is an austere scholar who prefers twenty books of Aristotle’s philosophy on his bed’s head to gay clothes and musical instruments.

Chaucer as A Realist

Legouis in his History of English Literature (written by him in collaboration with Cazamian) pays a high, but just, tribute to Chaucer’s realism and his self-effacement in his observation and recording of the life of his age. That he has effectively captured for us the body and soul of his age has been universally recognized. One reason why his work is so authentic and impressive is that he has a tendency to efface himself. Were he more obtrusive and more self-centred, or more didactic and reform-minded, his work would have been proportionally less realistic, less interesting, and less convincing.

Chaucer’s Chosen Field:
The vivid and authentic portrayal of the life and manners of his age was Chaucer’s chosen field for which nature and experience had equipped him so exquisitely. But Chaucer came to this field after a long journey in the dim valleys of allegory and dream poetry based on his contemporary French and Italian models. It was orily when he was about fifty that he realized that his real field lay elsewhere.
With The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer’s aim and practice as a poet underwent a sea change. He descended from the ethereal regions of romance and allegory and the dream-world of conventional literature, and planted his feet firmly on the ground. Here, to quote an opinion, “the fantastic world of romance and allegory melts away; Troy and Thebes, palaces made of glass and temples of brass,, allegorical gardens and marvellous fountains evaporate, and in their place we see the whole stream of English society in the fourteenth century.” In The Canterbury Tales Nature herself became Chaucer’s model. He saw what was, and painted that he saw.
No Complete Self-effacement:
Chaucer could have claimed like Fielding that he gave “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” He was decidedly the first realist in English literature. Much of his realism is indebted to his tendency towards self-effacement which is necessary for a dramatist and very desirable for a novelist. The dramatist himself does not appear on the stage. He reveals his characters through what they say and do and does not offer to interpret for the reader or the spectator their words and deeds. The novelist does likewise, though he is much freer than the dramatist. Chaucer has well been called the first novelist even before the appearance of the novel, as also the first dramatist before the appearance of the drama in England.
Nevertheless, it must be emphasized that so far as The Canterbury Tales is concerned, Chaucer does not efface himself completely, though he does see what is and does paint it as he sees it. It is particularly true of the Prologue where he himself seems to be very much present like the guide in a picture gallery, nudging the spectator with his elbow and directing his attention to this or that feature of one portrait or the other. In the tales proper, however, the writer disappears completely and presents himself only as a reporter of the words and -deeds of the pilgrims on the road, who go jostling and story-telling and raising a cloud of dust behind them. Thus, whereas in the Prologue Chaucer adopts the static mode of characterization, in the tales he adopts the dramatic mode. In the Prologue it is he who is supposed to be enlightening us about the dress, appearance, habits, and salient traits of the pilgrims; in the tales he lets them do it for themselves.
The Prologue:
Irrespective of the question whether Chaucer effaces himself for not the Prologue, it is commonly conceded tha| the characters he draws are thoroughly realistic. All of them seem to have been, drawn from life. His portraits show how penetratingly observant an eye he possessed. His record of the minutest details of the appearance,, dress, and behaviour of the pilgrims makes their portraits disarmingly convincing. Consider, for instance, the description of the Miller:
is herd as any sowe or fox was rede,
and thereto brode, as though it wer a spade.
“What makes these portraits all the more realistic is the seeming spontaneity with which Chaucer draws them. When Chaucer is telling us something about a pilgrim it seems that he or she is standing right before him and he is looking at what is and painting what he is looking at. Chaucer uses that greatest of arts which lies in concealing all semblance of art. “No small part of the realism of these portraits,” says W. H: Clawson, “is their informality, their lack of regular order.” The details about the pilgrims seem to be coming from him without any method or design, and that is exactly what induces in the reader a strong feeling of the actuality of the characters who are being so described.
Another relevant point to be kept in view is Chaucer’s broadmindedness, his lack of prejudice, and his real sympathy with all classes and conditions of people. Irrespective of the feet whether he is dealing with a rascal or a saint, an angel or a devil, he shows no trace of either anger and bitterness or excessive reverence. He rejects nothing but likes all. He leaves the task of improving the world to his contemporaries such as Langland, Wyclif, and the “moral Gower.” As for himself, he accepts the world as he finds it. He paints many rascals indeed .(most of the pilgrims are in fact rascals), without pillorying or strongly indicting any one of them. He is too indulgent and tolerant for that. His all-embracing human sympathy prevents him from standing between the portrait and the spectator. Let the spectator himself judge and arraign, if he likes, the characters whose portraits he has drawn; the painter’s work is over. We may also notice the happy absence of idealization from Chaucer’s character-portrayal. The characters of the Knight, the Plowman, and the poor Parson are the only exceptions.
On the whole, the characters are so lifelike that some critics have suggested that Chaucer might have painted from real life. J. M. Manly, for instance, opines that Chaucer had in mind some “definite persons” while portraying the pilgrims in the Prologue. It will be an ideal pastime to contest issues with this critic. We should not approach literature with the attitude of a detective to search into the raw material which a creative artist employs. It is enough for us to recognize the fact that Chaucer’s characters are very lifelike. His characters, in the words of Palgrave, are
Seen in his mind soyividly, that we
Know them, more’dearly than the men we see.
What we should insist on is not the “actuality” of a writer’s work, but its verisimilitude. What a writer gives may not (and should not) be a literal transcription of reality, but only a semblance of it. Aristotle considers poetry more philosophical and more real than history, and he is quite right. To say that Chaucer copied real characters from life will be underrating his literary genius. His is not a mechanic art. Well does A. C. Ward remark : “It would of course be foolish to suppose that everything in the Prologue is ‘from the life.’ Chaucer was too good an artist and had too lively an imagination to be a mere copyist, even of life itself. Life was only his raw material, to which he could on occasion give a more convincing and satisfying shape than Nature’s own. So we can only guess at how far Chaucer drew upon imparted information and how far upon his own sense of probability.”
The Tales:
Unlike in the Prologue, in the tales proper Chaucer effaces himself completely like a perfect dramatist. He is there, of course, and he is one of the pilgrims, too; but he is there as a spectator and an authentic reporter. In the tales the portraits walk out of their frames, as it were, and reveal themselves through the tales they narrate, the comments which they make on each other’s tales, and their mutual exchanges and even skirmishes. It is in the tales that the author disappears completely. Right in the beginning of the Prologue Chaucer takes pains to emphasize his role as a mere reporter. He feigns even to have reproduced the very words spoken by the pilgrims in the narration of their tales
For this ye knowen also wel as I,
Who-so shall tell a tale aftere a man,
He moot reherce, as ny as evere he can,
Everich a word, if it be in his charge,
Al speke he never so rudelie and large;
Or elles moot tells, his tale untrewe,
Orfeyne things orjynde -words newe.
So the author bows out of the scene and assumes the role of a spectator and reporter. Each story is intended to reveal its narrator. Legouis maintains: “It then behoves the author to conceal himself, to sacrifice his own literary talent and sense of proportion, and give place to another, who may be ignorant, garrulous, clumsy, foolish, or coarse, or moved by enthusiasms and prejudicesTinshared by his creator.” And what a sacrifice! Says the same critic: “The Canterbury Tales the element of the poet’s personality has been subdued, superseded, by pleasure in observing and understanding. Hitherto this degree of peaceful, impartial spectatorship had never been reached by poets.”
It is interesting to note how the tale of each pilgrim is in comformity with his or her character a glimpse of which is provided by the poet in the Prologue. In many a case the story gives finishing touches to the portrait of the. narrator as initially set forth in the Prologue. Chaucer here seems to have followed the classical principle of decorum without being aware of it. And it is not only the content of each story but also its diction which reveals its narrator. The Prioress, being an ecclesiastic, tells, appropriately enough, the story of a Christian saint murdered by the “cursed Jews”. The Knight comes out with a tale of chivalry. The merry, sporting Monk, on being exhorted by the Host to tell a “merry” tale, revengefully narrates a long melancholy tale of the fall of Lucifer, Adam, Samson, Hercules, and many more, but he is shut up mid way by the fervent words of the Host:
Sire Monk, no moore of this, so Godyow blesse!
Your tale anoyeth al this compaignye.
He asks the Monk to narrate instead a story of hunting, but the latter does not oblige, and retires sullenly. The tipsy Miller offers to tell a bawdy story of the seduction of a carpenter’s wife by a clerk. The Reeve (who does the work of a carpenter also) protests at the Miller’s “lewed dronken harlotrye”:
It is a synne and eek a greet folye
To apeyren any man, or hym defame,
And eek to bryngen wyves in swichfame
Thou maystynogh of other thynges seyn.
But the Miller ignores his protest and tells his ribald story. The Reeve in retaliation narrates trie story of the seduction of a miller’s wife and daughter by two Cambridge scholars. The Friar tells the story of a roguish summoner who is carried by the Devil to hell. The Summoner in reply comes out with the story of a greedy friar who is humbled on account of his greed. The Nun tells a story of miracles. Chaucer himself comes out with perhaps the dullest of talesT His boring narrative is cut short by the Host after he has proceeded to the extent of some thirty stanzas:
“Namoore of this, for Coddes dignitee,”
Quod owe Hooste, “for thou makest me
So wery of thy verray lewednesse
That, also wisly God my soule bless,
Myne eres aken of thy drasty speche… “
Chaucer’s choice of the dullest tale for himself is a refreshing example of self-directed irony. Only a great humorist can laugh at himself; and Chaucer is.certainly among the greatest humorists. He is really delightful in his laughter at his own expense. How can we believe that he was the least skilled of all the narrators?
As a man, Chaucer depicts himself, in the words of the Host, as ashy, unobtrusive, self-effacing, and shoe-contemplating person. This is the Host addresses him:
And sayde thus, “What man artow?” quod he:
“Thou lookest as thou woldestfynde an hare,
For ever upon the ground I se thee stare.”
On being asked to come out with a “tale of mirth” by the Host he pleads his ignorance very politely:
“Hoostee”, quod I, “ne beth natyvele apayd,
For other tale certes
kan I noone.
But of a rhym I lerned long agoone. “
Whether or not Chaucer was as unobtrusive a man as he presents himself in The Canterbury Tales, it is true that as an artist he followed the principle of least interference with his material. The degree of his self-effacement is really surprising. He does not project the tint of his likes and dislikes, fads and fetishes, views and prejudices on what he paints. He is no moralist either. “Like Shakespeare”, says Compton-Rickett, “he makes it his business, in The Canterbury Tales, to paint life as he sees it, and leaves others to draw the moral.” Thus, to conclude, “Chaucer sees what is and paints it as he sees it.” And what is more, “he effaces himself in order to look at it better.”

Chaucer and the Common People

That Chaucer wrote for a coterie and not for the commonalty is essentially correct. He catered to the taste of the court and the aristocracy and not that of the common masses. He had only a selected circle of readers. Hudson observes: “He was a court poet who wrote for cultured readers and a refined society.”

All this is fairly true. It is also true that to his readers -“the court and cultivated classes” —”the sufferings of the poor were a matter of the utmost indifference.” But it would be extremely unfair to maintain that Chaucer himself remained indifferent to the sufferings of the poor. In fact, Chaucer’s human sympathy and cordiality are all-embracing. He is responsive with the same alacrity to the Knight as to the Plowman or the Parson. The one characteristic of Chaucer which endears him so readily to every reader is the extensive nature of his understanding and fellow-feeling in which he is seldom found wanting. Therein he comes close to Shakespeare himself. Chaucer is not, admittedly, “a poet of the masses” (which means, commonly, in modern parlance, an exponent of communism or some form of radica Fsocialism). But nor. is Shakespeare “a dramatist of the masses”. Each uses for his raw material life itself in all its manifestations. Chaucer is a poet of humanity though not a poet of the masses. He is not only of his age but of all ages. He is an exponent of not a narrow view of things, but of the permanent values of life. He makes a pleanot for the ascendency of one class of society over the others, but of truth and justice. He views life not in bitspbut as a whole, and he has abundant sympathy with all kinds and conditions ofhumanity.

 If Chaucer wrote for the elite, so did all his contemporaries. He wrote at a time when literacy was limited to a few. Even the art of printing in England was yet decades ahead. Books were all read and circulated as manuscripts. Necessarily enough, the circle of readers was very narrow. Why should then Chaucer alone be singled out as a writer who catered to the tastes of “the court and cultivated classes”?
Contemporary Upheavals:
Nevertheless, what strikes one so forcefully about Chaucer is his aloofness from.the popular movements and upheavals of his times. The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 led by Jack Straw and Wat Tylar posed substantial danger to the English feudal system and terrified a number of people. The plague epidemic of 1348-49 (commonly known as “The Black Death”) wiped away almost one-third of the total population of the country. With the consequent decrease in. the number of working hands, the workers started a widespread agitation for an increase in their wages. The agitation was put down with a heavy hand by the authorities, but the resentment of the labourers could not be dispelled. At the same time John Wyclif, “the morning star of the Reformation”, and his followers, called the Lollards, raised a powerful voice against the corruptions of the Church officials, which incidentally implied a protest against the financial exploitation of the poor and superstitious masses by the hirelings of the Pope. It must be clear that Chaucer’s age. was an age of turrhoii and agitation. The common people. long exploited by feudal overlords and Popish agents, had reached the end of their patience and could not but let out their unrest through a chain of movements and agitations against the ruling and influential classes. Evidently enough all was not well with the world. It would have really been astonishing if a writer could have shut his eyes sojfirmly on the contemporary scene. But that is what Chaucer seems to have done~at least, to some critics. Let us quote Hudson again: “The great vital issues of the day never inspired his verse. He made his appeal to an audience composed of the favoured few, who wanted to be amused by comedy, or touched by pathos, or moved by romantic sentiment but who did not wish to be disturbed by painful reminders of plague, famines, and popular discontent. Thus, though he holds the mirror up to the life of his time, the dark underside of it is nowhere reflected by him”.
Comparison with Langland and Cower:
The comparison of Chaucer with his contemporaries in this connection will be substantially rewarding. Langland and Gower were the most eminent of the poets contemporaneous with Chaucer. Both of them exhibit in their important works much wider and intenser awareness of the burning questions of the day. Hudson calls William Langland (13307-1400) “essentially a poet of the people.” His most important work The Vision of William Concerning Piers the Plowman (commonly known as Piers the Plowman) displays the poets’ wide and intimate contact with the people, their miseries, privations, their exploitation and tyrannization by the ruling classes, and their seething discontent with the feudal junta and even the royalty. Rather than their splendour and glamour, the enormous poem acquaints us with the seamy sides of medieval England-its “rents, rags and uncleanliness.” Whereas Chaucer represents in The Canterbury Tales the “merry England” of the fourteenth century, Langland’s scene is very melancholy, disturbed, and bedevilled by a thousand ailments. According to Kenneth Sisam, Piers Plowman “stands alone as a revelation of the ignorance and misery of the lower classes whose multiplied grievances cameto a head in the Peasants Revolt of 1381”. “It is’to this Vision”, points out Hudson, “that we have to turn if we would complete Chaucer’s picture of fourteenth century England by putting in the dark shadows.” And Legouis exclaims: “How national it is! How near the people! It must be borne in mind that Langland did not appeal to one particular class of people. He did not, for instance urge the masses to rise against the ruling class and the utterly depraved ecclesiastics. Even if he was a poet of the people, he appealed to all the classes of society alike and tried to take stock of the prevailing situation and to mend it.
Unlike Langland, John Gower (13257-1408) did not champion the cause of the people but, even then, he expressed a keen awareness of the popular feelings and their possible repercussions on the society of his time. One of his three most important poetical works Vox Clamantis-a Latin poem of some ten thousand lines-was most probably written immediately after the Peasants’ Revolt of 13 81 of which it gives a vivid account. In general the poem deals with the evils of entire society-the clergy, knighthood, and peasantry. Gower himself was a wealthy landlord and was terrified by the rising of the workers against their masters. He lived in Kent where the rebellion broke out. He is a conservative and supports “reform within the established order.” He is critical of even the Lollards’ Movement. He is didactic, too (he was addressed as “moral Gower” by his friend Chaucer in his dedication of Troilus and Cryseyde) in his other two important poems Mirowdel ‘Omme (French) and Confessio Amantis (English) though in these works there are not many direct references to contemporary events.
Chaucer’s “Indifference”:
In contrast to the practice of Langland and Gower, Chaucer leaves the agitating questions of the day untouched. He obviously lacks the scorching earnestness of Langland and the didactic tendency of Gower. In spite of his awareness of the distress and grinding poverty of the masses he seems to believe complacently that:
Gods’s in His Heaven All’s right with the world!
He welcomes things as they are, and almost desires them to be no better. In Jhis works there are very few direct references to the contemporary upheavals and the deplorable plight of the commonalty. Says Moody:”The peasant rebellion and the Lollard agitation give us glimpses of an England which Chaucer, in spite of the many-sidedness of his work, does not reveal. The Canterbury Tales contains few references to the plague, only one to the peasant uprising, and only one to Lollardry, and these references are casual or jesting”. Moody continues with the words which form the body of the question we are endeavouring to answer at present. Chaucer’s only reference to the Peasants’ Revolt is in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale written perhaps about ten years after the rising. Chaucer makes a less than complimentary allusion to Jack Straw, one of the leaders of the Revolt:
Certes, he Jakkes Straw and his meynee
Ne made nevere shoutes half so shrille
When that they wolden any Flemyng kille,
As thilke days was mad upon the fox.
In the Clerk’s Tale Chaucer indicts the unthinking mob:
O stormy people! unsad and even untrewe As undiscreet and changing as a vave.
Elsewhere, too, Chaucer expresses his anti-mob sentiment-not only through the mouths of the pilgrims, but personally and directly.
Chaucer’s Broad Human Sympathy:
But in his anti-rabble sentiments Chaucer is not being more undemocratic than Shakespeare. The fickle mob, the “unthinking Hydra”, has earned the wise contempt of most English writers. In spite of his too palpable indifference to the sufferings of the poor and the downtrodden, Chaucer is never-failing in showing sympathy for all human beings irrespective of their social standing. He recognizes few barriers in this respect. He has malice towards none. Among all the pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales if some do escape his naughty irony, they are, along with the Knight, “the poor Parson” and the still poorer Plowman. In Piers the Plowman the poor Plowman is employed by Langland as a symbol of Christ himself. But then Chaucer’s Plowman, too, is Christ-like in his “poverty”, his honesty, and his fellow-feeling. This shepherd worries much about the sheep, and not at all about their “‘fleece”. Evidently enough, the Parson is a Wyclifite, and through him Chaucer indirectly expresses his sympathy for the Lollards’ Movement. In the Parson’s Tale Chaucer gives voice to almost egalitarianistic sentiments:
“Of swich seeds as cherles spryngen of swich seed spryngen lordes. As wel may the cherl be saved as the lordI rede thee, certes, that thou, lord werke in swich wise with thy cherles that they rather love thee than drede…”
Is it not startlingly radical to have suggested the demolition of the well-recognized medieval barrier between “churls” and “lords”? Further, we may refer to the well-known passage against tyrants inxthe preface to the Legend of Good Women in which the king is urged to be compassionate towards his poor subjects.
Why Indifference to Contemporary Events?:
After all is said and done, it remains to be explained as to why Chaucer remained indifferent to the upheavals of his age-at least in his literary works. A critic defends Chaucer quite trenchantly. According to him, “to be bold in one’s utterance in the Middle Ages was to gamble with death, and Chaucer’s temperament was not a martyr’s.” But we may relevantly ask: “What about Gower and Langland? Both of them were “bold” enough in their “utterances” though they championed mutually opposite sides. The reason lies else where Chaucer was not a journalist, a pamphleteer, or an occasional versifier.
He wrote not for his age, but for all ages. He was sure that the burning topics of his day would become the dead topics of the next. Had he busied himself with the topical and the ephemeral his poetry would have had little appeal for the succeeding generations. He delved deep from the topical to the universal. He gives us not the trappings but the body and soul of fourteenth-century England, superadded with universal connotations. We admire and appreciate Langland and Gower less partly because they are more concerned with the issues of their day. Muriel Bowden observes: “The most important reason for Chaucer’s silence about political affairs and national events undoubtedly lies in the very nature of his genius. The poet’s magnificent human comedy is the more human in that it is without the immediate, and is concerned with the universal and the timeless.”             

Chaucer’s Contribution to English Language and Literature

Father of verse! who m immortal song
First taught the Muse to speak the English tongue.
It is somewhat idle to talk of “fathers” in the history of literature, for it is questionable if a particular person can be wholly credited with in the founding of a new literary genre.

Literature is generally subject to the ‘law of evolutionary development. And though a man may do more than others by way of contributing to this development we should be chary of inferring upon him the medal of fatherhood. When it is said that Chaucer is the father of English poetry, and even the father of English literature we broadly mean that his contribution to the evolution of English poetry or literature is much more significant than that of his contemporaries and predecessors, and to be similarly rated is his introduction of so many novel features into it.

That Chaucer was a pioneer in many respects should be readily granted. “With him is born our real poetry,” says Matthew Arnojd. He has been acclaimed as the first realist, the first humorist, the first narrative artist the first great character-painter, and the first great metrical artist in English literature. Further, he has been credited not only with the “fatherhood” of English poetry but has also been hailed as the father of English drama before the drama was bom, and the father of English novel before the novel was born. And, what is more, his importance is not due to precedence alone, but due to excellence. He is not only the first English poet, but a great poet in his own right. Justly has he been called “the fountain-source of the vast stream of English literature.”
Contribution to Language:
Well does Lowell say that “Chaucer found his English a dialect and left it a language.” Borrowing Saintsbury’s words about the transformation which Dryden effected in English poetry, we may justly say that Chaucer found the English language brick and left it marble. When Chaucer started his literary career, the English speech, and still less, the English of writing was confusingly fluid and unsettled. The English language was divided into a number of dialects which were employed in different parts of the country. The four of them vastly more prominent than the others were:
(i)         The Southern
(ii)        The Midland
(iii)       The Northern or Northumbrian
(iv)       The Kentish
Out of these four, the Midland or the East Midland dialect, which was spoken in London and its surrounding area, was the simplest in grammar and syntax. Moreover, it was the one patronised by the aristocratic and literary circles of the country. Gower used this dialect for his poem Confessio Amantis and Wyclif for his translation of the Bible. But this dialect was not the vehicle of all literary work. Other dialects had their votaries too. Langland in his Piers Plowman, to quote an instance, used a mixture of the Southern and Midland dialects. Chaucer employed in his work the East midland dialect, and by casting the enormous weight of his genius balance decided once for all which dialect was going to be the standard literary language of the whole of the country for all times to come. None after him thought of using any dialect other than the East Midland for any literary work of consequence. It is certain that if Chaucer had adopted some other dialect the emergence of the standard language of literature would have been considerably delayed. All the great writers of England succeeding Chaucer are, in the words of John Speirs, “masters of the language of which Chaucer is, before them, the great master.”
Not only was Chaucer’s selection of one dialect out of the four a happy one, but so was his selection of one of the three languages which were reigning supreme in England at that time-Latin, French, and English. In fact. Latin and French were more fashionable than the poor “vernacular” English. Latin was considered “the universal language” and was patronised at the expense of English by the Church as well as the learned. Before Wyclif translated it into the “vulgar tongue”, the Bible was read in its Latin version called the Vulgate. French was the language of the court and was used for keeping the accounts of the royal household till as late as 1365. Perplexed by the variety of languages offering themselves for use, Chaucer’s friend and contemporary Gower could not decide which one of them to adopt. He wrote his Mirour del’Omme in French, Vox Clamantis in Latin, and Confessio Amantis in English, perhaps because he was not quite sure which of the three languages was going to survive. But Chaucer had few doubts abputthe issue. He chose English which was a despised language, and asjthe legendary king did to the beggar maid, raised her from the dust, draped her in royal robes, and conducted her coronation. That queen is ruling even now.
Contribution to Versification:
Chaucer’s contribution to English versification is no less striking than to the English language. Again, it is an instance of a happy choice. He sounded the death-knell of the old Saxon alliterative measure and firmly established the modern one. Even in the fourteenth century the old alliterative measure had been employed by such a considerable poet as Langland for his Piers khe Plowman, and the writer of Sir Gawayne and the Grene Knight. Let us give the important features of the old measure which Chaucer so categorically disowned:
(i)         There is no regularity in the number of syllables in each line. One line may have as few as six syllables and another as many as fourteen.
(ii)        The use of alliteration as the chief ornamental device and as the lone structural principle. All the alliterative syllables are stressed.
(iii)       The absence 01 end-rimes; and
(iv)       Frequent repetition to express vehemence and intensity of emotion.
Chaucer had no patience with the “rum, ram, ruf’ of the alliterative measure. So does he maintain in the Parson’s Tale:
But trusteth wel, I am a southern man,
I cannot geste-rum, ram, ruf,-by lettere,
Ne, God wot, rym holde I but litel bettere.
For that old-fashioned measure he substituted the regular line with end-rime, which he borrowed from France. The new measure has the following characteristics:
(i)         All lines have the same number of syllables,
(ii)        End-rime,
(iii)       Absence of alliteration and frequent repetition.
After Chaucer, no important poet ever thought of reverting to the old measure. Thus, Chaucer may be designated “the father of modern English versification.” Chaucer employs three principal metres in his works. In The Canterbury Tales he mostly uses lines of ten syllables each (with generally five accents); and the lines run into couplets; that is, each couple of lines has its end-syllables rhyming with each other. For example:
His eyes twinkled in his heed aright
As doon the sterres in the frosty night.
In Troilus and Cryseyde he -uses the seven-line stanza of decasyllabic lines with five accents each having the rhyme-scheme a b abb c c. This measure was borrowed by him from the French and is called the rhyme-royal or Chaucerian stanza. The third principal metre employed by him is the octosyllabic couplet with four accents and end-rime. In The Book of the Duchesse this measure is used. The measures  thus adopted by Chaucer were seized upon by his successors. The decasyllabic couplet known as the heroic couplet, was to be chiselled and invigorated to perfection three centuries later by Dryden and Pope. Apart from those three principal measures Chaucer also employed for the first time a number of other stanzaic forms in his shorter poems.
Not only this, Chaucer seems to be the first Englishman who realised and brought out the latent music of his language. “To read Chaucer’s verse,” observes a critic, “is like listening to a clear stream, in a meadow full of sunshine, rippling over its bed of pebbles.” The following is the tribute of a worthy successor of his:
The morning star of song, who made
His music heard below,
Don Chaucer, the first -warbler, whose sweet breath
Preluded those melodious bursts thatfiU”,
The spacious times of great Elizabeth
With sounds that echo still
He made English a pliant and vigorous medium of poetic utterance. His astonishingly easy mastery of the language is indeed remarkable. With one step the writings of Chaucer carry us into a new era in which the language appears endowed with ease, dignity, and copiousness of expression and clothed in the hues of the imagination.
The Content of Poetry:
Chaucer was a pioneer not only in the linguistic and prosodic fields, but was one in the strictly poetic field also. Not only the form of poetry, but its content, too, is highly indebted to him. Not only did he give English poetry a new dress, but a new body and a new soul. His major contribution towards the content of poetry is in his advocacy of and strict adherence to realism. His Canterbury Tales embodies a new effort in the history of literature, as it strictly deals with real men, manners, and life. In the beginning of his literary career Chaucer followed his contemporaries and immediate predecessors, and wrote allegorical and dream poetry which in its content was as remote from life as a dream is from reality. But at the age of about fifty he realised that literature should deal first-hand with life and not look at it through the spectacles of books or the hazy hues of dreams and cumbersome allegory. He realised, to adopt Pope’s famous couplet (with a little change) :
Know then thyself: presume not dreams to scan,
The proper study of mankind is man.
And the product of this realisation was The Canterbury Tales. This poem, as it were, holds a mirror to the life of Chaucer’s age and shows its manners and morals completely, “not in fragments.” Chaucer replaces effectively the shadowy delineations of the old romantic and allegorical school with the vivid and pulsating pictures of contemporary life.
And Chaucer does not forget the universal beneath the particular, the dateless beneath the dated. The portraits of the pilgrims in the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales constitute not only an epitome of the society of fourteenth-century England, but the epitome of human nature in all climes and all ages. Grierson and Smith observe about Chaucer’s pilgrims: “They are all with us today, though some of them have changed their names. The knight now commands a line regiment, the squire is in the guards, the shipman was a rum-runner while prohibition lasted and is active now in the black market, the friar is a jolly sporting publican, the pardoner vends quack medicines or holds seances, and the prioress is the headmistress of a fashionable girls’ school. Some of them have reappeared in a later literature. The poor parson was reincarnated in the Vicar of Wakefield, the knight in Colonel Newcome and the Monk nrArchdeacon Grantly.”
His Geniality, Tolerance, Humour, and Freshness:
Chaucer’s tone as a poet is wonderfully instinct with geniality, tolerance, humour, and freshness which are absent from that of his contemporaries and predecessors who are too dreamy or too serious to be interesting. In spite of his awareness of the corruption and unrest in the society of his age Chaucer is never upset or upsetting. He experiences what the French cally’oz’e de vivre, and communicates it to his is iders. No one can read Chaucer without feeling that it is good to be alive in this world however imperfect may it be in numerous respects. He is a chronic optimist. He is never harsh, rancorous, bitter, or indignant, and never falls out with his fellow men for their failings. He leaves didacticism to Langland and “moral Gower” and himself peacefully coexists with all human imperfections. It does not mean that he is not sarcastic or satirical, but his satire and sarcasm are always seasoned with lively humour. In fact his forte is irony rather than satire. Aldous Huxley observes: “Where Langland cries aloud in anger threatening the world with hell fire, Chaucer looks on and smiles.” The great English humorists like Shakespeare and Fielding share with Chaucer the same broad human sympathy which he first introduced into literature and which has bestowed upon his Canterbury Tales that character of perennial,-vernal freshness which appears so abundantly on its every page,
Contribution to the Novel:
The novel is one of the latest courses in the banquet of English literature. But in his narrative skill, his gift of vivid characterization, his aptitude for plot-construction, and his inventive skill Chaucer appears as a worthy precursor of the race of novelists who come centuries afterwards. If Chaucer is the father of English poetry he is certainly, to use G. K. Chesterton’s phrase, “the grandTafher of&ie English novel.” His Tales are replete with intense human interest, and though he borrows his materials from numerous sundry sources, his narrative skill is all his own. That could not have been borrowed. His narration is lively and direct, if we make exception for the numerous digressions and philosophical and pseudo-philosophical animadversions having little to do with the tales proper, introduced after the contemporary fashion. It is difficult to find him flagging or growing dull and monotonous. It is perhaps only Burns who in Tom O’ Shanter excels Chaucer in the telling of “merry tales.'”
Chaucer’s Prologue to The Canterbury Tales has been rightly called “the prologue to modern fiction.” It has characters if not plot, and vivid characterization is one of the primary jobs of a novelist. A novel, according to Meredith, should be “a summary of actual life.” So is, indeed, the Prologue. Several of the tales, too, are novels in miniature and hold the attention of the reader from the beginning to the end, which, alas! very few novels of today do.
As regards Chaucer’s Troilus and Cryseyde, it has been well called “a novel in verse.” And it has all the salient features of a novel. It has plot, character, unravelling action, conflict, rising action, and denouement-every thing. Though the background of the action is the legendary Trojan war, and though some elements have been borrowed from the Italian writer Boccaccio, yet it is all very modern and close to life. It is not devoid even of psychological interest which is a major characteristic of the modern novel. “Its heroine,” as a critic observes, “is the subtlest piece of psychological analysis in medieval fiction: and the shrewd and practical Pandarus is a character whose presence of itself brings the story down from the heights of romance to the plains of real life.” S. D. Neill opines that “had Chaucer written in prose, it is possible that his Troilus and Cryseyde and not Richardson’s Pamela would have been celebrated as the first English novel.” A. W. Pollard facetiously~observes that Chaucer was a compound of “thirty per cent of Goldsmith, fifty of Fielding, and twenty of Walter Scott.” This means, in other words, that as a story-teller Chaucer had some of the sweetness of Goldsmith, the genial ironic attitude and realism of Fielding, and the high chivalrous tone of Sir Walter Scott. But, after al 1 is said and done. Chaucer is Chaucer himself and himself alone.
Contribution to the Drama:
Chaucer wrote at a time when, like the novel, secular drama had not been born, and yet his works have some dramatic elements which are altogether missing in the poetry before him. His mode of characterisation in the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales is, no doubt, static or descriptive, but in the tales proper it is dynamic or dramatic. There the characters reveal themselves, without the intervention of the. author, through what they say and what they do. Even the tales they narrate, in most cases, are in keeping with their respective characters, avocations, temperaments, etc. In this way Chaucer is clearly ahead of his “model” Boccaccjo, who in his Decameron allots various tales to his ladies and gentlemen indiscriminately, irrespective of their conformity or otherwise to their respective characters. The stories in The Decameron could without violence be re-distributed-among the characters. But not in The Canterbury Tales where they-serve as a dramatic device of characterisation: and in the drama, pace Aristotle, character is all-important. In their disputations and discussions and comments upon each other’s tales and their general behaviour, too, the pilgrims are^made by Chaucer to reveal themselves and to provide finishing touches to the character-portraits already statically (or non-dramatically) set forth in the Prologue. Chaucer is abundantly showing here the essential gift of a dramatist. A critic goes so far as to assert that Chaucer is “a dramatist in all but the fact”, and again : “If the drama had been known in Chaucer’s time as a branch of living literature, he might have attained as high an excellence in comedy as any English or Continental writer.”
Chaucer’s Limitations:
Let us round off our discussion by briefly referring to some of Chaucer’s limitations or what as “the father of English poetry” he could not give to it. Matthew Arnold feels in Chaucer’s work the absence of “high seriousness” which is the characteristic of all great poetry. Then, Chaucer has, unlike Dante, no burning message to give. Again as Hudson avers, he is not the poet of the people. Moody and Loyett maintain that “Chaucer wrote for the court and cultivated classes to whom the sufferings of the poor were a matter of the utmost indifference.” Still another critic finds missing from Chaucer’s poetry those “mysterious significances” which are characteristics of all great poetry. All this is, in a measure, true. But those who charge Chaucer with the absence of pathos may well read the following passage from The-Knight’s Tale in which ‘Arcite laments his separation, consequent upon his death, from his lady-love:
Alas the woe! alas the paines strong
That I for you have suffered, and so long!
Alas the death: alas, mine Emilie!
Alas, departing of our company!
Alas, mine hertes queen! alas my wife!
Mine hertes lady, ender of my life.
WJiat is this world? What asken men to have?
Now with his love; now in his colde grave,
Alone, withouten any company!
Farewell my sweet! farewell mine Emilie!
And softe take me in your armes rwey,
Fore love of God and heakeneth what I say.

Fifteenth-Century English Poetry

The fifteenth century was a period of singular barrenness as regards literary production, particularly poetry. No poet of the century comes anywhere near Chaucer who dominated the previous century like a colossus.

We have in the fifteenth century a number of “sons of Geoffrey”, or, what we call the Chaucerian who professedly frmlaietf the great master. Imitation in its broader implications is not .a bad or despicable activity; but we find that the Chaucerians of the fifteenth century imitated Chaucer too slavishly and mechanically so that their imitations could capture only the trappings and not the vigorous body or the subtle soul of Chaucer’s poetry. Moreover, very few of these Chaucerians thought of imitating the best work of Chaucer, namely The Canterbury Tales. They restricted their attention to his allegorical and dream poetry which is far below his best.

As regards “drama” and prose the age was not so unproductive, however. Sir Thomas Malory and Caxton, in particular, contributed not meanly to the development and fixation of English prose. A sense of style also came in. Caxton is an important figure in the history of English literature as it was he who initiated the art of printing in England. In his prefaces to his publications he wrote a refreshing, natural and personal style which has earned for him a secure place in the history of English prose. The introduction of the art of printing in England made books available at cheap prices to the commonalty. Literacy also increased considerably and literature, hitherto a privileged pursuit of the elite, became more “popular” in the true sense of the word. Let us discuss the salient features and trends of the poetry of the fifteenth century.
Allegorical and Dream Poetry:
As we have mentioned above, most of the imitators of Chaucer set their sights on imitating his minor work and not the neplus ultra of his poetic art, namely. The Canterbury Tales. The works of Chaucer which most readily came in for imitation were the following three:
(i)         The Parliament of Fowls;
(ii)        The Book of the Duchess; and
(iii)       The House of Fame.
All these works are but mediocre in quality and were written by Chaucer obviously in imitation of the well-known tradition of dream and allegory so popular with the medieval English poets. None of them displays any direct, first-hand contact with life or reality as The Canterbury Tales so abundantly and so superbly does. The work of Chaucer’s imitators is. naturally enough, remote from reality. The lesson of The Canterbury Tales and the “fresh woods and pastures new” opened up by Chaucer seem to have held no attraction for the Chaucerians. For the most part entrenched in the medieval tradition, they fail to capture the real-life freshness of Chaucer’s poetry. The poet usually found himself dreaming and taken to a garden, and there involved in some stock incidents in which figured such stock characters as the Goddess of Love and various Virtues and Vices in personified forms. William Dunbafs The Golden Targe and Lydgate’s Temple ofGlas are poems of this kind. In the former the poet falls asleep on a May morning in a garden and dreams of a ship full of a hundred allegorical ladies of King Cupid’s court. Reason with his golden targe (shield) tries unsuccessfully to protect the poet from the arrows of Love. Stephen Hawes in his Example of Virtue relates the-story of a youth who led by Reason succeeds finally in marrying Purity, the daughter of the King of Lpve. His Past time of Pleasure and Dunbar’s The Thistle and the Rose provide some more examples of the allegorical dream-poetry. Some of these poems might have provided Spenser with some germinal hints. It was only Hoccleve, perhaps, who to some extent continued the tradition of English city life as it was sketched in The Canterbury Tales. His picture of London in La Male Regie is not uninteresting.
Satire and Didacticism:
Fifteenth-century poets followed Langland and “moral Gower”, too, in their practice of satire and didacticism. Chaucer had nothing of the reformer or the preacher in him, and his forte was not satire but naughty irony. But Langland in Piers the Plowman and Gower in all his major works aimed at different effects. Their lead is more particularly accepted by John Skelton, the rugged satirist of the fifteenth century. He hits very crudely, indeed, though he hits very hard. He is well known for his satires on the clergy, but is best known for the boldness with which he attacked the all-powerful Wolsey. William Dunbar continued the satiric tradition in a major part of his poetic output. His satire is generally of the nature of jovial invective but sometimes takes up the colour of Rebelaisian grotesquery as. for instance, in his Dance of the Seven Deadly Sins.
The Eclogue:
The fifteenth century is known for the appearance of the Virgilian eclogue as a new genre in English literature. An eclogue is, generally, a short poem, especially a pastoral dialogue (generally between shepherds and shepherdesses), written in the manner of Virgil and Theocritus. The man who introduced the eclogue in England was Alexander Barclay, the translator of the famous work of the German poet Sebastian Brant, entitled by him The Ship of Fools. His eclogues ‘were mainly modelled upon tjiose of the Italian poet Mantuanus and have elements of satire which we find absent from those of Virgil. Barclay’s forte is his mastery of detail and his very effective handling of the dialogue between his shepherds. Further his work contains plentiful references to current English affairs.
The ballad is another gift of the fifteenth century to English literature. Ballads constituted a considerable parti of English folk literature. Thev were’transmitted orallv from one generation to the next. Most of the ballads in England remain anonymous, and according to the older critical opinion as represented by F. B. Gummere in The Beginnings ofPoetiy (1901) they had a communal origin: that is, they were authored not by individuals but by the community as a whole. Modern critical opinion, however, is inclined against the communal theory of the origin of the ballad.’
The ballad originally existed as some song accompanying a folk dance. But later it came to signify a short narrative poem told impersonally with some dramatic interest in more or less a traditional metrical form. Most-commonly, the stanza employed by it consists of four lines, the second and fourth rhyming together. The first and the third lines contain four stresses, and the other two, three each. See for instance, the opening verse of Sir Patric Spens.[1]

” The king sits in Dumferling toune,
Drinking the blude-red wine:
“O whar will I get a guid sailor,
To sail this ship of mine? “
The themes of most of the ballads are love, domestic tragedy, war, history, and the supernatural. The popular ballads (some thirty in number) concerning Robin Hood and his “merry men” are a class by themselves. Robin Hood is, in Albert C. Baugh’s words, “the people’s counterpart of aristocratic heroes like Sir Gawain”. He is honest and God-fearing but bosses over and robs the cruel rich to mitigate the penury of the poor. The most popular ballads dating from the fifteenth century are The Nutbrown Maid and Chevy Chase. The former is of the nature of a “true love” poem and the latter concerns itself with the heroic fight between the English Sir Percy and the Scottish Sir Douglas. Even in the “cultured” eighteenth century these ballads were acclaimed as wonderful literature. Prior based his Henry and Emma upon The Nut-brown Maid, and Addison in his Spectator brought out the beauties of Chevy Chase. Chevy Chase is couched in the traditional ballad metre referred to above, but The Nut-brown Maid is written in stanzas of twelve lines each. Along with the ballads in the fifteenth century there was a great outpouring of lyric verse dealing with both religious and secular themes.
As regards versification, all the poets of the fifteenth century looked back to Chaucer for guidance. Very few new prosodic forms were adopted by them. In fact, instead of advancement, the prosodic part of English poetry showed signs of retrogression, if not outright decadence. Very few poets seem to have had an ear for music. Chaucer was perhaps the first English poet who instinctively grasped the hidden music of English words, but fifteenth-century Chaucerians did not benefit from the shining example before them. Much confusion and disharmony were created when the finale was dropped in the fifteenth century. That put before the poets a garbled version of Chaucer’s poetry, which, inaccurately read, started jarring upon the ear. His followers mis­read and mis-copied Chaucer. Their own poetry shows a lamentable neglect, if not ignorance, of all the basic laws of prosody. Lydgate was the most egregious offender in this respect, and was frank enough to admit: “I took none heed neither of short nor long.” Skelton and Hawes were other notable offenders. The former, indeed, admitted that his “rime” was “ragged” and “jagged”. In his contempt of all verbal music he might have given a cue to Donne and his fellow-metaphysicals. All the three principal metres employed by Chaucer, namely, the heroic couplet, the octosyllabic couplet with four stresses in each line, and the Chaucerian stanza were widely employed by the poets of the fifteenth century but none of them exhibited in his handling of these measures the easy facility and unforced mastery of Chaucer.
Let us now discuss briefly the work of the more important English and Scottish Chaucerians of the fifteenth century.
(1)        Thomas Occleve or Hoccleve (1370-1450):
A consistent follower of Chaucer, he represented himself as “the stupid scholar of an excellent master.”
My’ dere maister-God his soule quyte And fader Chaucer, fayne wold have me taught,
But I was dulle, and lerned lyte or naught.
Occleve was a satirist and moralist, but his most refreshing contribution to English poetry is the addition of the autobiographical touch. A. C. Ward calls him “one of England’s earliest biographers”. His main autobiographical work is La Male Regie de T. Occleve which is of the nature of a confession. The poet describes how debauched he was as a young man when he used to visit the taverns in Westminster. He gives some vivid pictures of the London of those times. His chief work as a poet, however, is his verse translation (in Chaucer’s rhyme-royal) of Aegidius’s De Regimine Principum (Regimen of Princes) written for the guidance of Prince Henry who later became King Henry V. In his tone of earnest didacticism Occleve is nearer “moral Gower” than his acknowledged master, Chaucer.
(2)        John Lydgate (1370-1449):
He is the dullest and the most voluminous of English Chaucerians. Compton-Rickett suggests that Occleve’s confessional -A-ords, “But I was dulle” could have been uttered by Lydgate also and, we may suggest, with greater appropriateness. He follows mostly the tradition of allegorical and dream poetry we have already referred to. His poetic work extant runs to more than 30,000 lines! We wonder %vhy he was not included by Pope among his dullards in The Dunciad! He has no ear for music and violates egregiously even the basic principles of prosody. Nor does he have the spirit or the magic touch which Chaucer brought to bear upon his work. However, in their heyday, his principal works, The Troy Book, The Story of Thebes, The Fall of Princes and The Pilgrimage of the Life of Man (something like The Pilgrim’s Progress) pleased numerous readers. His Complaint of the Black Knight was once ascribed to Chaucer. His most lively and the least dull work is his London Lackpenny which describes the woes of a poor man in the streets of London. Modern investigators have, however, come to the conclusion that this work was in fact written by some one else. Lydgate was a Benedictine monk of no mean learning; but learning is no substitute for real poetry. Legouis pertinently questions “whether this Benedictine ever had time to lift his eyes from his books and papers and look at nature.”
(3)        Stephen Hawes (1475-1525):
He belongs to a later generation than Lydgate and Occleve. A. C. Ward observes about him : “He looked upon himself as a follower of Chaucer, though he was in fact a belated medievalist using verse as a medium for sermonical allegories uneasily wedded to chivalrous romance.” He had a wonderful memory and could recite the works of many poets. He admired Lydgate, too, and referred to him as “my^ master’. His most important work was The Passtyme of Pleasure, or The History of Graunde Amoure and La Belle Pucel which appeared at the end of the fifteenth, or the beginning of the sixteenth, century. It is Chaucerian more in prosody than in spirit or content. Hawes uses, no doubt, rhyme royal and decasyllabic couplets, but his avowed intention is the training of a perfect knight and lover with the help of the narration of his allegorical struggles with giants and monsters. Spenser, as Ward avers, was definitely indebted to Stephen Hawes, “for it is evident that The Faerie Queene does perfectly what Hawes had tried but ponderously failed to do; on the other hand it is no longer seriously held that Hawes’ Passtyme of Pleasure was vitally influential in the making of Spenser’s masterpiece.”
(4)        Alexander Barclay/ (1474-1552):
He is best known for his translation of the work of the German poet Sebastian Brant, which he entitled The Ship of Fools. The translation was not direct, but through the medium of a Latin and a French translation. He describes the various personified vices which make voyage in a ship. He satirises the vices of the clergy and the layman alike, but his keenest satire is reserved for the vice of usury. Barclay’s name is also notable in the history of English literature for his introduction of a new genere-the eclogue. He wrote some five eclogues, but he followed not Virgil but Mantuanus. As Legouis observes, his eclogues “have nothing of the idyll, but are moral satires.”
(5)        John Skelton (14607-1529):
He is best known for his coarse and pungent satires which put one in mind more of Langland than Chaucer. His verses are rough, unchiselled, and unmusical. He himself wrote:
Though my rime be ragged,
Tatter’d and jagged,
Rudely rain-beaten,
Rusty and moth-eaten,
If ye taken wel therewith,
It hath in it some pith.
This “pith” is generally very lively and mordant satire which has for its target, very often, the clergy. He is perhaps the only Chaucerian who experimented with new prosodic measures. He was a great scholar but had, like Samuel Butler, a keen taste for grotesqueries. In Colin Clout he lashed the vices of the clergy. In Why come ye not to Court he displayed grit enough to attack the all-powerful Wolsey. The Bouge of Court is an allegorical satire of the kind of The Ship of Fools. It is couched in rhyme royal of Chaucer’s invention.
It is a pleasure passing from the English to the Scottish poetry of the fifteenth century. In fact, the fifteenth century is the most glorious period of old Scottish poetry. Scottish Chaucerians captured more effectively the spirit of Chaucer’s poetry than their English counterparts and what is still more creditable, they exhibited a keener sense of originality in their works. Their poetry is not retrogressive but progressive. Let us consider briefly the work of the most eminent Scottish Chaucerians.
(1)        James I of Scotland (1394-1437):
He is known for his Kings Quair (“King’s Book”) which he wrote while in the captivity of the English. It commemorates a romantic incident of his own life. It was at the age of eleven that the king was captured by the English to remain a prisoner in England for more than eighteen years. During his captivity he once happened to have through his window a glimpse of the stunning beauty of Joan Beaufort, daughter of the Earl of Somerset. On his release in 1424 he was married to her. In his poem he narrates the story of his love sincerely no doubt, but not with the dramatic realism of Chaucer. He mixes much allegory with reality. And then there is the dream (after Chaucer’s Hous of Fame) in which he is wafted to the palace of Venus and counselled by Minerva. James uses the pentameter stanza of seven lines with the rhyme-scheme a b abbe c which Chaucer first employed in his Troilus andCryseyde. As James I (a king) had also used it, it came to be known as “rhyme-royal”.
(2)        Robert Henryson (1425-1500):
He is best known for his Testament ofCresseid in which he recast the conclusion of Chaucer’s Troilus and Ciyseyde. In Chaucer’s poem Cresseid betrays Troilus for Diomede, and Troilus dies heart­broken. Henryson keeps Troilus alive and makes Diomede betray the inconstant Cresseid who is struck by leprosy and goes about begging. Troilus accidentally comes across her and without recognising her gives her alms. But Cresseid knows who he is, and after he is gone, falls to the ground, but before dying writes her will bequeathing a ring to Troilus who later erects a “tomb of marble grey” above her grave. Henryson’s poem is written in the same measure (rhyme-royal) as Chaucer’s and shows the same correctness and musical quality as Chaucer’s poem. His other important work comprises some thirteen Aesopean fables and a version of the Greek legend of Orpheus and Eurydice.
(3)        William Dunbar (1465-1530):
He is a more arresting figure than even Henryson. He is sometimes called “the Chaucer of Scotland”, and not unjustly. He is the greatest British poet between Chaucer and Spenser. His poems are usually short. Many of them, as Legouis observes, are cast in medieval frames. He lacks the observation of Chaucer and Henryson. “But he has to a rare degree-one never reached before him and seldom since- virtuosity of style and versification…He dazzles the eyes and ravishes the ears.” Dunbar” s work falls into three categories as follows. 
(i)         formal allegorv;
(ii)        comic and satirical; and
(iii)       religious poetry.
The. Golden Targe is the best work of the first category and has been already referred to. Other such works are The Thrisseiandihe Rois celebrating the marriage of James IV and Margaret Tudor, sister of Henry VII of England; and Bewty and the Prisoner. Among the poems’of the second category the most prominent and most characteristic of Dunbar is The Drfnce of the Seven Deidly Synns. The poem is more full of grotesquery and macabre buffoonery than religious edification. It is indeed a weird extravaganza Thirdly, there are many hymns written by him,
(4)        Gavin Douglas (1475?-1522?):
He is well known for his two allegorical poems The Police of Honour and King Hart and his verse translation of Virgil. The former is written in intricate nine-line stanzas and too obviously imitates Chaucer’s Hous of Fame. The latter uses the eight-line stanza of The Monk’s Tale. The only novelty of Douglas is his mixing of humour and pathos in his allegory. His translation of Virgil’sAeneid is in heroic couplets, but he is little worried about correctness or music. His verses jar upon the ear very rudely. His translation seems to be more of the nature of a parody than a translation.

The English Ballad

Strictly speaking, the ballad has no place in a history of English literature. To treat of it as one of the literary forms-such .as the epic, the ode, or the sonnet-is quite erroneous. The true ballad is “lore” rather than what is known as “literature”.

It had its origin and growth at a time before literature, or even the .alphabet, came to be written and read. To find the ballad by the side of such literary genres as the epic and the sonnet is as disturbing as finding the pre-historic ichthvosaur ifi the company of other animals in a.modern zoo. The ichthyosaur has had its y, and so has the ballad. The ballad dies when literature comes, just as the ichthyosaur was extinct before the more highly developed forms of life came to theif own. The ballad flourishes as long as the means of communication are wholly oral. The arrival of the alphabet and literature, written literature, is a herald of the death of the ballad-as of the rest of folk literature whose dissemination and preservation depend entirely on oral means. But what about the ballads “written'” by the poets such as Rossetti, Coleridge, and Scott? These ballads may be’caHed literary ballads but they are not ballads proper, because they do not have folk origin, which is synonymous with a peculiar kind of anonymity.

We have emphasized above the folk origin of the true ballad. But when that is said, still there is need for clarification. In fact the origin of the true ballad is shrouded in a nebula, and is more a matter of conjecture than of scientific demonstration. If we examine the etymology of the word “ballad”, we may be helped a little in the job of ascertaining the origin of the ballad. Let us see how. The word “ballad” is derived from the word “bailer,” which means “to dance.” What is exactly the connexion between the ancient ballad and dancing? This question takes us further backwards, to the wider consideration of the origin of all folk literature.
One can easily recognize the universal human instinct for accompanying all regular bodily movements with vocal expressions. This instinct is more clearly marked when regular bodily movements are being made by a group of people, but is to be seen even when a lonely individual is involved. Thus a man singing in a bathroom, even as he is performing the job of cleaning his body with more or less regular movements, can be easily imagined. A group of men heaving at a log or reaping the harvest or of women weaving together break almost invariably and involuntarily into ejaculations with or without meaning. Dancing, as will be readily granted, involves more regular bodily movements than anything else. Group-dancing practised by ancient communities to celebrate this or that festival then must have come to be accompanied by vocal ejaculations, which later must have assumed a more coherent shape. This is how folk literature and the ballad must have originated. Thus the connexion between dancing and the ballad has to be considered in this perspectives.
So the ballad must be taken as a later, and more sophisticated, form of the primitive communal song sung to the accompaniment of ritual dancing in celebration of some occasions. But one important point-which has been controversial-needs elucidation still : the one concerning the authorship of the old ballads. The question is : are these ballads the product of collective effort or that of some particular individuals? It is even today a moot point. But there is another point-and one allied to this one-about which there is no controversy: that the ballad, as it has some sophistication about it which is not shared by the communal song, requires for its conception and writing a kind of artistry, individual or communal. What strikes one about an ancient ballad so abundantly is its downright “impersonality” or “anonymity.” Not that the authorship of these ballads, which have survived the mutations of taste for numerous centuries is indeterminable rather (it is so said by a school of critics) they did not have individual writers as their authors. The whole of the community is credited by these critics with the authorship of these ballads. They contend that a ballad, unlike a literary composition, is not written down by a writer once and for all; rather, on account of being transmitted down the generations by wholly oral means, it is modified by every new generation in accordance with its own predilections. Thus the latest version of a ballad, even though highly different from its original one, is to be considered as authentic as the original. Jeanroy, Abercrombie, and Child, for example, favour this view which emphasizes the impersonality of the ballad, ascribing to it communal rather than individual authorship.
But this view, quite sound fundamentally, yet errs to an extreme and has now been wholly discarded. Legouis points out: “It has even been supposed that a ballad is the spontaneous and joint composition of a group of people. Reflection shows, however, that this theory has little plausibility. There could be agreement forthe purposes of poetry among a number of people only in the sharing of a passion, and the work of an artist or several successive artists has to be recognized in a ballad of any length. It was artist, however primitive, who interpreted the multitude.” We may agree with F. J. Child that so far as a ballad is concerned, “the author counts for nothing” but we cannot say that a ballad has no definite author or authors. A barlad is impersonal in one sense only, namely, that the personality of its author or authors is of little importance in understanding and interpreting it. It expresses the personality not of an individual but of a community. The author never uses personal pronouns nor does he reveal”his personality by comments on the action or characters. Still he does count for something.
Stylistic and Other Conventions:
A ballad is always a narrative which is told in a particular way in accordance with some conventions. As a narrative it generally confines itself to a single episode. In this respect it is easily distinguished from an epic which covers a plethora of episodes spread over a number of years. A ballad, though narrative, is often dramatic in effect, for it has that condensation which is peculiar to drama, and not the sprawling diffuseness of the epic, whose material would, as Aristotle says, suffice for a number of tragedies. The ballad, to quote a critic, “sought to impress by the vivid representation of a single event. To bring home to the hearer its wonder, its pathos, its fatefulness or its horror.” As it was oral literature (something to be sung and heard rather than written and read) it depended for its emotional effect upon music. The refrain sung by the chorus was its peculiar feature. The singer after having sung a few lines was followed by the chorus singing the refrain. The refrain is of more frequent occurrence in the Continental ballads than the English, because the latter were generally of the chronicle type in which the narrative did not allow too frequent interruptions.
Apart from the regular refrain, frequent repetitions are also a common feature of the ancient ballad. Such repetitions, dexterously handled, make for a peculiar intensification of emotional effect rather than simple embellishment of style. Note the use of repetition in the following lines from Clerk Sounders:
“Is there any room at your head, Saunders?
Is there any room at your feet?
Or any room at your side, Saunders,
Where fain I would sleep? “
“There’s no room at my head,
Marg’ret. There’s no room at my feet;
My bed it is full lovely now,
Among the hungry worms I sleep. “
The pathos of these lines does not need any comment.
The style of the ancient ballads is altogether down-to-earth, absolutely free from literary ornament, attitudinization, or empty bow­wow. Its very simplicity and directness are its intrinsic strength. Even such a sophisticated man of letters of Renaissance England as Sir Philic Sidney was compelled to pay a special tribute to the rude strength and simple directness of old English ballads. Writing in his Apology for Poetry about the ballad of Chevy Chase he confided that his heart was moved by it “more than with a trumpet.” And Joseph Addison, the sophisticated “Mr Spectator” writing in the Augustan age, was also full of admiration for the same qualities of thisiballad.
As regards metre and versification also, the ballad has the qualities of simplicity and directness. A ballad follows one of the several traditional stanzaic patterns. The more usual ballad stanza consists of fourj-ines, of eight and six syllables alternately. The second and the fourth lines generally rhyme, and the lines usually follow the iambic movement, but variations are not infrequent
Themes of most ballads are provided by the more usual human passions in their intense and unsophisticated form-such as love, lust, hate, and jealousy. As most ancient ballads are the product of a basically pagan, even though nominally Christian culture, very few of them (such as Dives and Lazarus) have religious or biblical themes. One-third of them are about love. Quite a few of them are frankly about the supernatural-such as evil spirits, mermaids, ghouls, and even the Devil himself.Thus in The Demon Lover we have the account of a beautiful woman betrayed by an evil spirit who comes to her in the shape of a handsome man. Some of the ballads indulging in the supernatural keep things shrouded in mystery but still strike the reader with a sense of wonder. Thus in James Harris we meet a woman who in the absence of her husband for seven years marries a carpenter but is lured by an evil spirit who appears to her in the guise of her (presumably) dead husband:
And so together away they went
From off the English shore.
Where they went and with what consequences, and even why, are questions left completely unanswered.
Love and strong but baser human passions provide the usual themes for most ballads. The proverbial jealousy of the stepmother, the cruelty of brothers-usually seven in number-of the woman who desires the love of a man against their wishes, the treachery of a confidant, etc. are to be met with quite often in the old ballads. In Clerk Saunders the lover is killed while asleep by the side of the heroine by her seven brothers. She finds him murdered only when she gets up next morning. In Young Hunting the strong-minded heroine kills her lover after becoming convinced of his infidelity, but he comes in the form of a bird to reveal the murder. In The Cruel Sister we have a sister who kills another out of sheer rivalry. Babylon is the story of an outlaw who tries to make love to two sisters and kills them both on being rejected. He learns that they are his own sisters and then kills himself. A number of ballads called the “Border Ballads” deal with the English-Scottish skirmishes on the border between England and Scotland, bringing out the bravery of the heroes on both sides.
Another group of ballads-some thirty in number-called “Robin Hood Ballads” deals with the exploits of the kind and generous outlaw named Robin Hood and his followers who believed in a kind of socialism. Robin Hood is presented as a friend of the poor and an enemy of the rich whom he robs for the sake of the former. He is a patriot but does not scruple to live on the king’s deer. He rescues women being married to the grooms they hate, to restore them tojheir sweethearts. He corrects the wrongs of justice by hanging the Sheriff and rescuing the men wrongly condemned. And so on.