Every professor has a procedure by which to direct students to study authors, the evidence method is one of them. Chaucer: English for Teachers: Poet characteristics Professor Neigh MacMinn 1947
We have chosen Chaucer because of all poets ‘long before Tennyson,’ he placed the kind heart above the coronet and faithfulness over claims of high descent.” The English society so colorfully described by Chaucer was a society of sharp contrasts: rich and poor; splendor and squalor, freedom and servitude. Coinciding with the new enthusiasm for learning the first great English public school, Winchester College was founded; printing was unknown and books were still to be copied by hand. In London architecture consisted of noblemen’s palaces, guild-halls, monasteries, churches of Gothic spires and the beautiful Westminster abbey. Elsewhere there were the gloomy Norman castles with moats, and well-fortified walls. News was spread by wandering peddlers, troubadours, and chapmen with their wares all of which are described three centuries later by Paul Bunyan in Pilgrim’s Progress. Through his father, a vintner for the court, Chaucer became a page in the king’s household and while living in France, was captured after the failed siege of Rheims, and held as a prisoner until ransomed by the Prince. He spent his young life studying the French writers and writing ballads, virelays and roundels about knights and ladies of King Edward’s court. He also spent some time in Italy as the king’s emissary of wines. During this “Italian period” he had already written Parlement of Fowls, Troilus and Creseide, House of Fame, and The Legend of Good Women.. Upon returning to English he completed The Canterbury Tales. It is upon these works that we discover much of the characteristics of the writing of Chaucer.
Our first characteristic is naturalness, sincerity.
“Chaucer is the most natural, as Pope is the most artificial of the great English poets. He now only observes truly and feels keenly, but he keeps his feeling free and unspoiled by his knowledge of books and of affairs...The study of books, in an age when study so often led to pedantry, left him as free and human as if found him...His simplicity is that of elegance, not of poverty. The quiet unconcern with which he says his best things is peculiar to him among English poets...He prattles inadvertently away, and all the while, like the princess in the story, lets fall a pearl at every other word. It is such a piece of good luck to be natural! It is the good gift which the fairy grandmother brings to her prime favorite in the cradle...He is always natural because it not always absolutely new, he is always delightfully fresh, because he sets before us the world as it honestly appeared to him and not a world as it seemed proper to certain persons that it ought...Reading him is like brushing through the dewy grass at sunrise...His first merit, the chief one in all art, is sincerity..He rids his hearers of all uncomfortable qualms by being himself the first to yawn...Poets have forgotten the way to be original is to be healthy;...The quiet unconcern with which he says his best things is peculiar to him among English poets, though Goldsmith, Addison, and Thackeray have approached it in prose.” Conversations on the Old Poets 1844 James Lowell
“There’s no other English author so absolutely free, not merely in effort but from the faintest suggestion of effort...no healthier nature can be found in the whole range of our literature among the poets...There is not a trace of morbid feeling in his lines, which still glow for us with all the freshness of immortal youth.” Studies in Chaucer 1892 Thomas R. Lounsbury
“His poetry resembles the root just springing from the ground rather than the full-blown flower...His muse is no babbling gossip of the air; but like the a stammerer or a dumb person that has just found the use of speech...crowds many things together with eager haste with anxious pauses and fond repetitions to prevent mistakes...There were none of the commonplaces of poetic diction in our author’s time, no reflected lights or fancy, no borrowed roseate tints; he was obliged to inspect things for himself, to look narrowly,...as in the obscurity of morning we partly see and partly grope our way.” Lectures on English Poets 1818 William Hazlitt
“No doubt this simplicity-naiveté...is one of the first delights that every reader experiences on his first introduction to Chaucer.” English Men of Letters 1903 Alfred Ainger
“Chaucer’s artlessness is half the secret of his wonderful ease in story-telling, and is so engaging that, like a child’s sweet unconsciousness, one would not wish it othewise.” From Chaucer to Longfellow 1894 Harold Beers
“Many of his verses come to us like the prattle of childhood.” Characteristics of English poets from Chaucer to Shirley 1889 William Minto.
“A charming freshness forms the atmosphere of all his work: he is perpetually new.” Lives of Famous Poets from Chaucer to Longfellow 1878 William M Rossetti.
A second characteristic would be pleasingly melodic.
He had a very fine ear for the music of verse and the tale and the verse go together like the voice and the music. Indeed, so softly flowing and bright are they that to read them is like listening in a meadow full of sunshine to a clear stream rippling over its bed of pebbles.” Stopford Brooke. English Literature from the Beginnings to the Norman Conquest 1898.
“He was...one of the best versifiers that ever made English trip and sing with a gayety that seemed careless, but where every foot beat s time to the time of thought....He found our language lumpish, stiff, unwilling, too apt to speak Saxonly in grouty monosyllables; he left it enriched with longer measure of the Italian and Provencal poets. He reconciled, in the harmony of his ver, the English bluntness with the dignity and elegance of the less homely Southern speech.” James Russell Lowell Conversations on the Old Poets 1844.
“Chaucer’s versification, considering the time at which he wrote, and that versification is a thing in a great degree mechanical, is not one of his least merits. It has considerable strength and harmony, and its apparent deficiency in the latter respect arises chiefly from the alterations which have since taken place in the pronunciation or mode of accenting words of the language.” William Hazlitt Lectures on English Poets 1884.
“A little long they may be; all the writings of this age, French or imitated from the French are born of too prodigal minds; but how they glide along! A winding stream which flows smoothly on level sand glitters now and again in the sun, is the only image, we can find. Hippolyte Taine speaking of The Canterbury tales in Histoire de la Litterature Anglaise 1864
“It would be difficult to find a parallel in Italian verse of any date to the easy and thoroughly English fluency of Chaucer’s facile riding rhyme.” Francis Turner Palgrave Landscape in Poetry 1897
“The master who uses our languge with a power, a freedom, a variety, a rhythmic beauty, that in five centuries, not ten of his successors have been found able to rival...There is in his verse a music which hardly ever loses itself...Chaucer is the father of our splendid English poetry ... by his lovely charm of his movement, he makes a epoch and founds a tradition.” Thomas Humphry Ward English Poets 1895
“No student of the poet’s writings needs now to be told that the art of versification was an art in which he was supremely interested, and to which he gave the most careful study. The result is that he became one of the greatest masters of melody that our literature has on its rolls.” Thomas Raynesford Lounsbury Studies in Chaucer 1891
“He has an exquisite ear for music, and pays great attention to the melodious flow of his verse” Walter Skeat The Student’s Chaucer 1895
William Minto writes on Chaucer and humor. “All his best work as a poet was done at the instigation of love and humor. It is remarkable that, while both his serious and his comic productions are founded, in most cases, on pre-existing works of art, in the serious pieces he follows his original much more closely than in the comic. Chaucer’s humor is the most universally patent and easily recognized of his gifts. The smile or laugh that he raises, by refined irony or by broad jest and incident is conspicuously genial. The great criterion of good nature, the indispensable basis of humor, is the power of making and sustaining a jest at one’s own expense and none of our humorists bears this test so well as Chaucer.”
“A hearty laugh and a thrust in the ribs are his weapons. He makes fun of you to your face; and even if you wince a little, you cannot help joining in his mirth...In Chaucer’s poetry the humor is playing all the time round the horizon like heat lightning. It is unexpected and unpredictable; but as soon as you turn away from watching for it, behold it flashes again as innocently and softly as ever...There is no touch of cynicisms in all he wrote...His humor...in its suavity, its perpetual presence, and its shy unobtrusiveness, is something wholly new in literature.” James Lowell
“The most striking thing about Chaucer’s humor is its great kindliness. He laughs, but not maliciously. He has nothing of the partisan, for he looks at the whole world with the same ; mirthful gaze. Nothing is too high for his laughter nothing too low...He does not run after a jest; he does not joke merely for the sake of joking. He has his humor under such perfect control that he can shift his humorous point of view as he changes from one speaker to another.” Oliver Wendell Holmes from Essays The Professor and the Poet 1859-1872
“The native bent of his genius, the hilarity of his temper, betrays itself by playful strokes of raillery and concealed satire when least expected. His fine irony may have sometimes left...even the objects of his admiration, in a very ambiguous condition.” Benjamin Disraeli Amenities of Literature 1858
For a fourth characteristic we find Chaucer a sympathetic individual. He writes in The Man of Lawes:
What saith others:
“In depth of simple pathos and intensity of conception, never swerving from his subject, I think no other writer comes near him, not even the Greek Tragedians.” William Hazlitt
“The deepest pathos of the drama...while in narrative it is more or less suffused with pity, a feeling capable of prolonged sustention. This presence of the author’s own sympathy is noticeable in all Chaucer’s pathetic passages...When he comes to the sorrow of his story, he seems to croon over his thoughts, to soothe them and dwell upon them with a kind of pleased compassion, as a child treats a wounded bird which he fears to grasp too tightly, and yet cannot make up his mind wholly to let it go.” James Russell Lowell
“Pity for inevitable suffering is a note of Chaucer’s mind which forever distinguishes him from Boccaccio and makes him out as the true forerunner of the poet of Hamlet and Othello...He is overcome by ‘pity and truth’ as he reads of suffering, and his eyes ‘was foul and sore’ as he prepares to tell of its infliction.” Thomas Humphrey Ward English Poets 1880
A fifth characteristic is his gracious approach to womanhood. Not surprising in an era of knighthood:
“Ther seyde oones a clerk in two vers, ‘what is bettre than Gold? Jaspre. What is bettre than Jaspre? Wisdom. And what is bettre than Wisdom? Womman. An what is bettre than a good Womman? No Thyng.” Canterbury Tales - Melibeus
What the others say:
“Chaucer, alone in his time, felt the whole beauty of womanhood, and felt it most in it most perfect type - in wifehood, with the modest graces of the daisy, with its soothing virtues, and its power of healing inward wounds. Physicians in his day ascribed such power to the daisy, which by Heaven’s special blessing, was made common to all, and was the outward emblem also of innocence...As the range of Shakespeare from Imogen to Dame Quickly and lower, so the range of girlish innocence and grace of Emelie in the Knight’s Tale to the Wife of Bath and lower; and in each of these great poets the predominating sense is of the beauty and honor of true womanhood. If there were many Englishmen who read what we have of the Canterbury Tales straight through, it would not be necessary to say that, even in the fragment as it stands, expression of the poet’s sense of the worth and beauty of womanhood, very greatly predominates over his satire of the weaknesses of women...In a sense he takes the daisy for his flower, and rises high above all poets of his age in honor to marriage and praise of the purity of the wife’s ‘white daisy crown ‘ “. Henry Morley English Writers 1890
“We have no hesitation in placing him very hight in the list of those who have exalted our ideal of the womanly character.” Alfred Ainger Lectures and Essays Vol. II The Influence of Chaucer upon his Successors 1905
“His works show that he was not likely to fail in that respectfulness that women are said to love. He is on all occasions the champion of ‘gental woman, gentle creatures’ and however sly fun he makes of their foibles, he compensates amply by frequently expressed indignation at the wrongs and by praises of their many virtues...Chaucer’s works show that he was most intimately pervaded by chivalrous sentiment...It is womanhood in distress that enters his heart with the keenest stroke...His gallery of distressed heroines was as wide as the range of legend and history that was known to him...The thought of their suffering agitates him, destroys his composure; he cannot proceed without stopping to express his compassion or to appeal to Heaven against the caprice of Fortune or the wickedness of men.” William Minto Characteristics of English Poets: Chaucer to Shirley 1874
A sixth charactersitic would be his love of nature. We read:
“How joyously he watches the daisy nd the ‘vyolet al newe and fresche perwynke, and the liley on her stalke grene, and the may blossoms partie whyte and rede.’ How he notes the glimpsing of eyes through the leaves, the squirrels sitting on the branches making feasts, the hives of bees, the foot stamping for eels, the rooks’ nests on the great trees and the thousand things showing so strong a love of country sights and sounds, animal and birds, and such knowledge of them that we half suspect that he was not brought up as a boy in London Town.” H. R. Haweis probably Winged Words 1885
“He was the first who made the love of nature a distinct element in our poetry...the delightful simple familiarity of the poet with the meadows, brooks, and birds, and his love of them, has the effect of making every common aspect of nature new; the May morning transfigured by his enjoyment of it; the grass of the field is seen as those in Paradise beheld it; the dew lies on our heart as we go forth with the poet in the dawning, and the wind blows past our ear like the music of an old song heard in the days of childhood.” Stopford Brooke History of English Literature 1892
“The Troubadour hailed the return of spring; but with him it was a piece of empty ritualism. Chaucer took a true delight in the new green of the leaves and the return of the singing-birds...He has neer so much as heard of the ‘burthen and mystery of all this unintellilgible world’. His flowers and trees and birds have never bothered themselves with Spinoza. He himself sings more like a bird than any other pot because it never occurred to him, as to Goethe, that he ought to do so. He pours himself out in sincere joy and thankfulness. He is the first great poet who really loved outward nature as the source of conscious pleasurable emotion...Chaucer took a true delight in the new green of the leaves and the delight of singing birds-a delight as simple as that of Robin Hood.” James Russell Lowell Conversations on Some of the Old Poets 1893
“Chaucers descriptions of natural scenery...have a local truth and freshness which gives the very feeling of the air, the coolness or moisture of the ground.” William Haslitt Lectures On English Poets 1884
“No poet ever loved nature more than Chaucer did; but it was with a simple, unreflective, child-like love...It was nature in her first intention her most obvious aspects, that attracted him...It is not on nature as a great whole, much less as an abstraction, that his thought usually dwells. It is the outer world in its most concrete forms and objects with which he delights to interweave his poetry...the homely scenes of South England, the oaks and other forest trees, the great castles where the nobles dwelst...And his favorite season it is the May time. Of this he is never tired of singing.” John Shairp Aspects of Poetry - Lectures Delivered at Oxford 1882
A seventh characteristic is Chaucer as that of a story teller
“The one distinguishing trait that makes him a great story-teller of the English language is that he seizes upon the central points of interest, and lets everything else bo by that does not contribute to the effectiveness of their representation.” Thomas Lounsbury Introduction to Parliament of Foules 1877
Chaucer is like a jeweller with his hands full: pearls and glass beads, sparkling diamonds and common agates, black jet and ruby roses, all that history and imagination had been able to gather and fashion during three centuries in the East, in France, in Wales, in Provence, in Italy...He holds in his hands, arranges it, composes therefrom a long sparkiling ornament, with twenty pendants, a thousand facets, which by its splendor, varietires, contrasts may attract and satisfy the eyes of those most greedy for amusement and novelty.” Hippolyte Taine Histoire de la Litterature Anglaise 1863
“Chaucer is a great narrative poet...The pleasure Chaucer takes in telling his stories has in itself the effect of consummate skill... His best tales run on like one of our inland rivers, sometimes hastening a little and turning upon themselves in eddies that dimple without retarding the current...” James Russell Lowell Conversations with Old Poets 1893
“Our greatest story-teller in verse. All the best tales are told easily, sincerely, with great grace, and yet with so much homeliness that a child would understand them.” Stopford Brooke
“A great poet by virtue of his natural gifts, he was the greatest of narrative poets by virtue of his knowledge of mankind.” R. H. Stoddard.
Our final characteristic is that of character description.
“When Chaucer describes anything, it is commonly by one of those simple and obvious epithets or qualities that are so easy to miss. He tells us that she is ‘fresh’; that she as glad eyes; that every dy her beauty newed...Sometimes he describes amply by the merest hint as where the Friar, before setting himself softly down, drives away the cat. Chaucer is the frist to break away from the dreary traditional style and give us not merely stories but the lively pictures of real life ...His parson is still unmatcher, though Dryden and Goldsmith have both tried their hands on him.” James Russell Lowell Conversations on Some Old Poets 1893
“He observes characters, notes their differences, studies the coherence of their parts, endeavors to bring forward living and distinct persons unheard of is his time, but which the renovators in the sixteenth century, and first among them Shakespeare, will do afterwards” Hippolyte Taine A History of English Literature 1870
“It is the first time in English poetry that we are brought face to face, not with characters or allegories or reminiscences of the past, but with living and breathing men, men distinct in temper and sentiment as in face or costume or mode of speech; and with this distintness of each maintained throughout the story by a thousand shades of expression and action...And it is life that he loves the delicacy of its sentiment, the breadth of its farce, its laughter and its tears, the tenderness of its Griseldis or its Smollett...It is this largeness of heart, this wide tolerance, which enables him to reflect man for as none but Shakespeare has ever reflected him and to this with a pathos, a shrewd sense and kindly humor ... the even Shakespeare has not surpassed.” John Richard Green History of the English People 1879
We end with this excerpt from Prologue to the Translation of Boccacio’s Fall of Princes: