Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Chaucer's Contribution in English Language and Versification


Father of verse! who in immortal song
First taught the Muse to speak English tongue.

          When it is said that Chaucer is the father of English poetry and even the father of English literature, we broadly mean that his contribution to the evolution of English poetry or literature is much more significant than that of his contemporaries and predecessors.

          He has been acclaimed as the first realist, first humorist, the first narrative artist, the first great character painter, and the first great metrical artist in English literature. Further he has been credited not only the fatherhood of English poetry but he has also been hailed as the father of English drama before the drama was born, and the father of English novel before the novel was born.

          And what is more, his importance is not due to precedence alone, but due to excellence.

Contribution To Language

            If the Emperor Augustus found Rome a city of brick, he left it a city of marble. Similarly, Chaucer, as Lowell says, found his English a dialect and left it a language.

          Before Chaucer English language was divided into a number of dialects. The four of them vastly more prominent than the others were:

(1)  The Southern (2) The Midland (3) The Northern (4) The Kentish

          Chaucer employed in his work the East Midland dialect.

          Not only was Chaucer’s selection of one dialect out of four a happy one, but so was his selection of one of the three languages which were reigning supreme in England at that time—Latin, French, and English. In fact Latin and French were more fashionable than the poor vernacular English.

Contribution To Versification

            ‘With him is born our real poetry’, says Mathew Arnold.
The important features of the old measure which Chaucer disowned were:

1.    Irregularity in the number of syllables in each line
2.    The use of alliteration as the chief ornamental device
3.    The absence of end-rimes
4.    Frequent repetition to express vehemence and intensity of emotion

          Chaucer substituted the regular lines with end-rime. His lines were of the same number of syllables and there were absence of alliteration and frequent repetition.

          Not only this, Chaucer seems to be the first Englishman who realized and brought out the latent music of his language. Observes a critic

            ‘To read Chaucer’s verse is like listening to a clear stream, in a meadow full of sunshine, rippling over its bed of pebbles.’

The Content Of Poetry

            Not only did he give English poetry a new dress, but a new body and a new soul. His major contribution to the content of poetry is in his strict adherence to realism. His Canterbury Tales embodies a new effort in the history of literature, as it strictly deals with real men, manners, and life, which, before Chaucer, was lacking in poetry. He realized, to adopt Pope’s famous couplet,

                        Know then thyself: presume not dreams to scan
                        The proper study of mankind is man.

His Geniality, Tolerance, Humour And Freshness

            Chaucer’s tone as a poet is wonderfully instinct with geniality, tolerance, humour and freshness which are absent from that of his contemporaries and predecessors who are too dreamy or too serious to be interesting. In spite of his awareness of the corruption and unrest in the society of his age, Chaucer is never upset or upsetting. No one can read him without feeling that it is good to be alive in this world however imperfect may it be in numerous respects. Chaucer is a chronic optimist.

          He leaves didacticism to Langland and he, himself, peacefully coexists with all human imperfections. It does not mean that he is not sarcastic or satirical, but his sarcasm and satire are always seasoned with lively humour.

          And in the end to quote David Daiches, ‘With Chaucer the English language and English literature grew at a bound to full maturity. No other Middle English writer has his skill, his range, his complexity, his large humane outlook. His followers lack both his technical brilliance and his breadth of vision, leaving him the one undisputed master in Medieval English Literature'.