Chaucer is the first great poet we meet in English literature. He is regarded as the “Father” of English poetry and of English language. He was the first poet to introduce the metrical form, including rhyme and stress, the iambic pentameter and the first to use it in the heroic couplets. He was also the first great poet to use the East Midland dialect, which was to become the official language of the country (it was the language spoken in the region which comprises London, the two Universities of Oxford and Cambridge and the Royal Home) and the first to introduce psychological and human qualities in depicting his characters, thus starting a new era of psychological portrayal in English literature. He was also the first English poet to be buried in Westminster Abbey Poet’s corner.
Chaucer literary activity is commonly divided into three periods: the French, the Italian and the English period. The French period is characterized both by the influence of French literature ( he knew French and several translations of verse romances have been attributed to him ) and by the influence of classical writers such as Ovid and Virgil. To this period belongs The Book of the Duchess, a dream-vision poem written to praise and commemorate the death of Blanche, Duchess of Lancaster, killed by the plague. He also translated into English the Roman de la Rose.
Chaucer first contact with Italian literature was in 1372. He went to Genoa and Florence. He was in Italy again in 1378. In the period of Italian influence Chaucer wrote the unfinished The House of Fame,The Parliament of Fowls, Troilus and Criseyde and The Legend of Good Women. The House of Fame is a dream vision.It is divided into three books. In each book he visits a different place. In the first he is in a temple of glass where each glass has got stories of the famous persons of the past: Cupid, Venus, Vulcan, Aeneas, women betrayed by their lovers (Dido), Achilles, Medea, Hercules, Dyanira, Theseus and others. In the second book he is taken by an eagle, which reminds us of the eagle in Dante’s Purgatory, to the House of Fame on a high rock. In the house he sees the Goddess Fame:a creature with partridge wings and countless tongues, eyes and ears. The eagle explains how Fame works. There is no real virtue or reason that causes men to rise to fame: Fame decides by whim. At the beginning of the third book he enters the house of fame where nine groups of persons try to meet the goddess of Fame for favours. Then he is taken to the House of Rumour where he hears a crowd of people telling each other news and gossip, lies and truth. The book reflects the influence of Dante’s Divine Comedy . In The Parliament of Fowls the poet is taken on the temple of Venus on Saint Valentine’s day. The goddess Nature has assembled the birds there to choose their mates ( according to an old belief connected with Valentine’s day, every bird chooses his own mate in this day). Troilus and Criseyde is considered Chaucer’s greatest achievement before The Canterbury Tales. Based on Boccaccio’s Il Filostrato, it tells the tragic story of Troilus’ love for the beautiful Criseyde, how she proves unfaithful to him and how he finds in death an end to his sufferings. The Legend of Good Women is taken from Heroides of Ovid and The Claris Mulieribus of Boccaccio. It consists of a prologue and of nine stories of women notable for their faithfulness in love, such as Dido, Cleopatra, Lucretia and so on. Chaucer wrote it probably because he was attacked by women for having written about the unfaithful Criseyde and he wanted to apologize. The Italian phase was important because it showed him that a vernacular language, the Tuscan , could be used to create literature and reach an importance equal to that of a classical language.
In the English period Chaucer tried to elevate English language as a literary language, and wrote his masterpiece: The Canterbury Tales. It is a collection of stories, preceded by a Prologue, written both to give his country a literature of its own and to give his countrymen a book that was a mirror of England, a book in which they could really recognize themselves. Chaucer gives a perfect picture of the society of his time. The work is unfinished. Of the 120 stories only 24 are extant. The occasion that he chose was the traditional pilgrimage to Canterbury where there was the shrine of a Saint-Martyr, Thomas à Becket , archbishop of Canterbury, who had been murdered in his Canterbury Cathedral by four knights sent by the king Henry II (T.S.Eliot’s historical verse play Murder in the Cathedral deals with this subject). Chaucer’s pilgrims are going there to beseech his protection from the plague that was devastating the country. Pilgrimages were both religious and recreational events undertaken by people belonging to different social classes and took place every year in spring
The 29 pilgrims stop at the Tabard Inn in Southwark. Chaucer is in the Inn, too. He makes friends with them and, as they have the same destination, he decides to join them. The host proposes that, to pass the time, they may have a storytelling competition: each of them would tell two stories on the way to and two on the way back. The winner of the best tale will have a free supper on the return to London.
The book is divided into a Prologue, in which the characters are introduced and described, and the set of stories. The Prologue starts describing spring, the best season for pilgrimages, and then describing pilgrims. All classes have representatives except Nobles, who did not like to mix with other people and went on pilgrimage on their own, and peasants, who couldn’t’ afford it because they didn’t have the money. The pilgrims are connected with the feudal world ( the Knight, the Squire, the Yeoman), the Church ( the Prioress, The Nun, the Monk, the Friar, the Parson ), the mercantile and professional middle class (the Lawyer, the Physician, the Merchant, the Wife of Bath, the Student and so on). They are presented in order of social importance: first the members of the orders of chivalry, then the ones of the religious orders, the members of the rising middle class and lastly the lowest members of society. Chaucer describes them giving us details about their behaviour along the road, their private life, their habits, their character and social standing, their clothes and tools and even the kind of horse they ride. Many of them are often described morally, too, and the reader comes to know their qualities and weaknesses. They are ironically depicted with a fault but with humorous tolerance. His tone is uncritical, sometimes comic but never offensive. He respects virtues and attacks vices with sharp irony. Chaucer liked women and enjoyed their company. Sometimes he makes fun of them and uses irony but only to point out their human weaknesses. He treats satirically all the religious figures only because he wants to make an indirect criticism of the corruption of the Church in his own time.
The range of tales which follows the Prologue is very wide. It includes every type of medieval stories and is considered a remarkable anthology of medieval literature. It goes from a classical subject to a religious one, from the courtly romance to the dirty stories with unfaithful wives and betrayed husbands. It deals with various themes: love, marriage, corruption, hypocrisy and chivalry. The tales are structured as a series of interlinked stories. They are linked to one another by the fact that they are told by pilgrims on the way to Canterbury. Most of the individual tales have a prologue and an epilogue. The prologue links the teller’s tale to the previous one and contains the theme of the tale and the teller’s point of view. The epilogue helps the narrative to the introduction of the next tale.
CHAUCER/BOCCACCIO: We don’t know whether during his travel in Italy Chaucer read Boccaccio’s Decameron. It was once thought that Chaucer might have taken the plan of his work from Boccaccio, borrowing from him the idea of a social event as a pretext for bringing various people together, but now a lot of scholars agree that Chaucer didn’t know Decameron since, if he had known it, he would certainly have used some of its stories. There are some similarities but also many differences between the Decameron and The Canterbury Tales. The similarities are: both works are written in a vernacular language spoken by ordinary people; both books have a narrative frame with a main narrative story that sets the scene for shorter stories (the occasion in Boccaccio’s Decameron is the description of the plague that stroke Florence in 1348); both Chaucer’s characters and Boccaccio’s ones tell a story to pass the time pleasantly. The main differences are: Chaucer writes in verse while Boccaccio writes in prose; Boccaccio’s characters are young aristocrats, while Chaucer’s ones belong to various social classes and include members of the clergy; Chaucer’s characters are better described and more psychologically detailed; Boccaccio describes the effect of the epidemics on society while Chaucer focuses his attention on the pilgrims.