Write a critical note on Chaucer's art of portraiture in The General Prologue.

The Canterbury Tales

Question

Write a critical note on Chaucer's art of portraiture in The General Prologue.

 

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Answer

The most celebrated of the whole body of Chaucer’s work is “The Canterbury Tales”. Geoffrey Chaucer, the Father of English poetry represented versatility and greatness as a poet. In many ways he looked at the world in a tolerant and amused manner and wrote in the native dialect. He is a storyteller, a novelist, a descriptive poet as well as narrative poet. Chaucer has introduced realism, humor, irony and satire to English Literature. He has been acclaimed as the first narrative realist, as the first humorist, , the first narrative artist, the first great character painter, and the first great metrical artist of English Literature. Chaucer was pioneer in many respects. Mathew Arnold says

“ With him is born our real poetry”.


Framework

The prologue to the Canterbury Tales has been called a veritable picture gallery by a famous critic Legouis. The various characters in the prologue are as observed by Arthur Taff as “man like figures in a Tapestry”. Blake remarked about the variety of characters in the prologue “As Newton numbered the stars, as lynxes numbered the classes of men”. Chaucer has varied the heads and forms of his personages into all nature’s variety. He has taken into his compass the various manners and humours of the whole English nation into his age. There is such a variety of characters that John Dryden remarked “Here is God’s plenty”. His prologue may be described as a novel in miniature. Owing to this, George Puttenhem had identified Chaucer as the Father of the English literary canon. The thirty or so pilgrims are in fact a fair sample of society in general with the exception of the nobility that wouldn’t join package tour and the poorest labourers who could not afford to go. Here we have the representative of the church and laity (person’s not representing church) country men and town’s

men.


Realism to Characterization

Chaucer’s zest for actual life is revealed not only in the plenty and variety of his pilgrims but especially in their normality. Nevill cloqhill rightly points out that Chaucer did not exaggerate or look for freaks. He delighted in the world as he found it. Chaucer is a detacher observer. He treats his characters objectively. This objectivity helps him to present his characters in realistic and frank mood. He adds flesh and blood to the characters of his story. His portraits are vivid, colourful, well contrasted and complete. It is through such a blend of the individual and typical that Chaucer’s portrait attains a high degree of effectiveness. A.C. Baugh writes, “They act in such a way that they reveal their personal lives and habits, their changing moods and prevailing impositions, and their qualities”.


Characters as Types

It is significant that Chaucer presents in the prologue one Knight, one squire, one yeoman one Monk, one Frat and so on. This indicates that Chaucer wished each figure to be a type and that is what it actually is. Maurice Hussey has demonstrated how each character whether secular or religious represents his class. The Monk represents a general decline in the devotion to religion and the deserves of his class to live a life of comfort and luxury. The doctor represents the typical reliance on herbal medicines and on astronomy and astrology. He also reveals the typical greed of his fellow professionals making profits out of plague.


Universality

Dryden has complemented Chaucer for the universality of his characters. Blake observed that Chaucer’s pilgrims are the characters which compose all ages and nations. As one age falls another rises, different to mortal sight but to immortals only the same. Some of the names or titles are altered by time but the characters themselves forever remain unaltered. Every age is a Canterbury pilgrimage.


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