Chaucer's poetry on the social life of his sly and genial humour.

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      The age of Chaucer is essentially an age of transition from the mediaevalism to the modern time, In this age many forces were at work which paved the path for the Renascence that attained its flowering in the age of Elizabeth and thus ushered in the modern age. These are "a sharper spirit of criticism, a more searching interest in man's affairs and a less childlike faith in, and a less complacent acceptance, of the established order". The impatient, progressive spirit of criticism displayed itself in the attitude of the people to the church, to the social order and other established customs and practices.

      The church was the first to be attacked. Rich in its tradition of moral and intellectual culture, the church in the age had steadily shown signs of decadence and weakness. Hence the general affairs of the country was resented and undermined. The overlordship of the Pope was repudiated by the English King Edward III and the ground was made ready for the separation of the English church from Rome which was later on completed by Henry VII, The preachings of John Wycliffe and the Lollards further contributed to this weakening of the church. Langland's Piers Plowman is a powerful work of social protest. It is a bitter satire on the abuses of the church. The old social order too was slowly losing its grip. The common people, the working classes asserted themselves. There was the peasants revolt, which was the first democratic and agrarian revolution in England. But chivalry as an ideal still persisted and reached its fullest development in the age. In this respect, the age of Chaucer remained mediaeval. Though everything was in its melting pot, no signs of a clear reconstruction were yet visible. Mediaevalism was dying but the modern age was still powerless to be born.

The age of Chaucer is an age of transition from the mediaevalism to modern time, he stood between old and new, pointing fingers to the future
Geoffrey Chaucer

      Chaucer lived and wrote in this period of transition. He stood between the old and the new, pointing his fingers to the future. He reflects and symbolises the age almost as completely as Tennyson does the Victorian age. But there was nothing of the dreamer and reformist in him. He made it his business in poetry to paint the life as he found it and left others to draw the morals. As the painter of the contemporary life he is accurate, vivid, faithful and realistic.

      The age lives in the pages of the Canterbury Tales. He was essentially a man of the world who had an unbounded interest in fellow-beings and mixed with all classes of his society. His observation of the men and women of the time was deep, acute, minute and clear eyed. Knights, Squires, merchants, sailors, scholars, doctors, monks, labourers and even knaves in fact, all classes of society jostle together in the "picture gallery that he has created in his Prologue to the Canterbury Tales. Each character is endowed with such vitality and reality that it seems to be looking at us from the gallery, as we read the pages. It is Chaucer's distinction that his imagination penetrated to the core of the characters beneath the surface to the everlasting springs of human action. His pictures have therefore a truth which is of all times and places. In portraying these, Chaucer adopted the method of a dramatist. He does not directly comment on or criticise them.
      The characters reveal themselves through their actions, deeds and the stories they tell and in their mutual criticisms. The stories are adapted to the characters of the tellers the knight tells a tale of chivalry, the monk a scriptural story, etc. The author always remains in the background. Some of these characters have a wonderful complexity and are drawn in the round e.g, the Wife of Bath. The poet shows them moving jauntily on the way of Canterbury, calling to each other, criticising or approving each other and above all squabbling. Thus a veritable drama of comedy is going on as the twenty nine pilgrims are riding to Canterbury. Indeed, the drama and the novel of the future ages are foreshadowed in these pictures of Canterbury life.

      The Tales are not high flown and sentimental but homely stories of everyday life. There are occasional moralising indulged in by the story-teller's but as in a drama these comments are of the story-teller's not the poet's. As a rule Chaucer keeps himself aloof from these. The tales are also illuminated by a genial, tolerant humour and sometimes by considerable pathos. Chaucer is indeed the first great humorist in the language and this is the most attractive feature of his Tales for the modern readers. His humour is rich, profound and sane; it is completely free from spite and malice. Only a gentle simile on the lips brings out the humorous element in his creations. He does not laugh uproariously; there is no crackling of the thorns under the pot in his humour. It is a humour born of sympathy and a jewel of many facets. To quote Albert "The humour, which steeps nearly all his poetry has great variety, kindly and patronising as in the case of the Clerks of Oxford; broad and semi farcical as in the Wife of Bath; pointedly satirical as in the Pardoner and the Summoner; or coarse, as happens in the tales of the Miller, the Reeve and the Pardoner. It is seldom that the satirical intent is wholly lacking as it is in the case of the Good Parson, but except in rare cases, the satire in good humoured and well-meant.

      The prevailing feature of Chaucer's humour is its urbanity; the man of the world's kindly tolerance of the weaknesses of his erring fellow-mortals". To quote some of the examples of his humour we may rater to the Prioress who spoke the Anglo-Saxon French of Stratford Atte Bowe, for French of Paris was to her unknown; or the dig at the Doctor of Physic, who, as usual in those days, was a priest but his studies was but little on the Bible and he loved gold in special for gold in physic is a cordial: or the vivacious Wife of Bath, who has had five husbands, but as experience teaches her that husbands are transient blessings, she has fixed her mind on a sixth. The humour of these descriptions is almost Shakespearean in its genial kindliness.

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