Write an essay on Chaucer's comic vision in the 'Prologue' to The Canterbury Tales

The General Prologue of Canterbury Tales.

( long answer type question )


Write an essay on Chaucer's comic vision in the 'Prologue' to The Canterbury Tales


Humour is the sympathetic appreciation of the comic, the faculty which enables us to love while we laugh. It is the humour which enables us to see the person's point of view, to distinguish between crimes and misdemeanours.

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 and Humour

When we think of Chaucer’s poetry, we are immediately reminded of its broad comedy, subtle irony and gentle satire. We are struck by the tolerant humour colouring his lines. 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”.

R.K. Root terms Chaucer's humour as “protean in its variety", ranging from broad farce and boisterous horseplay in the tales of the Miller and the Summoner to the sly insinuations of Knight's Tale and the infinitely graceful burlesque of Sir Thopas.

Chaucer's whole point of view is that of the humorist. He is a comic poet who saunters gaily through life pausing the notice every trifle as he passes. He views the world as the unaccustomed traveller views a foreign country. He possesses the faculty of amused observation in a pre-eminent degree. Again and again he contrives to invest some perfectly trifling and commonplace incident with an air of whimsicality, and by so doing to make it at once realistic and remote.

The humour of Chaucer is invigorating and delighted. His humour is part of his rich humanity and it sometimes almost startles us with its realism. Humour is indeed the soul of all comedy as we find in Chaucer as Walter Raleigh says “His joy is chronic and irrepressible”.

Chaucer's Broad Vision

Chaucer did not possess, or did not want to present in his art, a religious temperament like Wycliff or Langland. His vision of life is not restricted by a narrow moral bias. His lively sense of humour refused to be depressed at the sight of the evil and ugly. He looked upon the world and its sorrows and evil with a tolerant eye. The little and bigger frailites of human nature amused him. They did not whip up intense moral indignation in his heart as they did in Langland or Wycliff. His vision, essentially comic, embraced a wide spectrum of life. His superiority over his contemporaries lies in his broad vision of life. We come to agree with Aldous Huxley’s comment that Chaucer has none of that strong ethical bias which is usually present in the English mind. Chaucer, alone among his contemporaries, refused to treat art as a medium of propaganda..

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The portraits he draws become true to life interesting and enjoyable as life always is. In the whole prologue there are characters that are good and others that are bad. The latter are more in number than the former. But humour for the sake of humour is the underlying attitude of Chaucer. So it is safer to say that great deal of the vivacity and picture of life is due to this all pervading humour. No one can deny the fact that most of Chaucer’s humour is perfectly innocent fun. But critics may be divided in opinion as Chaucer is rightly called the Father of English poetry but there can be no question that he is the first great English Humorist. Chaucer's vision is, consequently, free, of cynicism. Not expecting perfection from human nature, and quite willing to take the good along with the bad in his stride Chaucer presents in his work a genial kindliness as well as a shrewd insight into human nature. So we can sum up the discussion in the words of Compton Rickett “There are tragedies as well as comedies in the tales, some are grave and subdued, others ablaze with colour and merriments, but the thread of lones and kindly laughter run through them all, serious and gay alike”.

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