Chaucer's Poetry



Chaucer wrote in continental accentual-syllabic meter, a style which had developed since around the 12th century as an alternative to the alliterative Anglo-Saxon metre.[24] Chaucer is known for metrical innovation, inventing the rhyme royal, and he was one of the first English poets to use the five-stress line, a decasyllabic cousin to the iambic pentameter, in his work, with only a few anonymous short works using it before him.[25] The arrangement of these five-stress lines into rhyming couplets, first seen in his The Legend of Good Women, was used in much of his later work and became one of the standard poetic forms in English. His early influence as a satirist is also important, with the common humorous device, the funny accent of a regional dialect, apparently making its first appearance in The Reeve's Tale.

The poetry of Chaucer, along with other writers of the era, is credited with helping to standardise the London Dialect of the Middle English language from a combination of the Kentish and Midlands dialects.[26] This is probably overstated; the influence of the court, chancery and bureaucracy—of which Chaucer was a part—remains a more probable influence on the development of Standard English. Modern English is somewhat distanced from the language of Chaucer's poems owing to the effect of the Great Vowel Shift some time after his death. This change in the pronunciation of English, still not fully understood, makes the reading of Chaucer difficult for the modern audience. The status of the final -e in Chaucer's verse is uncertain: it seems likely that during the period of Chaucer's writing the final -e was dropping out of colloquial English and that its use was somewhat irregular. Chaucer's versification suggests that the final -e is sometimes to be vocalised, and sometimes to be silent; however, this remains a point on which there is disagreement. When it is vocalised, most scholars pronounce it as a schwa. Apart from the irregular spelling, much of the vocabulary is recognisable to the modern reader. Chaucer is also recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary as the first author to use many common English words in his writings. These words were probably frequently used in the language at the time but Chaucer, with his ear for common speech, is the earliest manuscript source. Acceptable, alkali, altercation, amble, angrily, annex, annoyance, approaching, arbitration, armless, army, arrogant, arsenic, arc, artillery and aspect are just some of the many English words first attested in Chaucer.


Widespread knowledge of Chaucer's works is attested by the many poets who imitated or responded to his writing. John Lydgate was one of the earliest poets to write continuations of Chaucer's unfinished Tales while Robert Henryson's Testament of Cresseid completes the story of Cressida left unfinished in his Troilus and Criseyde. Many of the manuscripts of Chaucer's works contain material from these poets and later appreciations by the romantic era poets were shaped by their failure to distinguish the later "additions" from original Chaucer. Writers or the 17th and 18th centuries, such as John Dryden, admired Chaucer for his stories, but not for his rhythm and rhyme, as few critics could then read Middle English and the text had been butchered by printers, leaving a somewhat unadmirable mess.[27] It was not until the late 19th century that the official Chaucerian canon, accepted today, was decided upon, largely as a result of Walter William Skeat's work. Roughly seventy-five years after Chaucer's death, The Canterbury Tales was selected by William Caxton to be one of the first books to be printed in England.


Chaucer is sometimes considered the source of the English vernacular tradition. His achievement for the language can be seen as part of a general historical trend towards the creation of a vernacular literature, after the example of Dante, in many parts of Europe. A parallel trend in Chaucer's own lifetime was underway in Scotland through the work of his slightly earlier contemporary, John Barbour, and was likely to have been even more general, as is evidenced by the example of the Pearl Poet in the north of England.

Although Chaucer's language is much closer to Modern English than the text of Beowulf, such that (unlike that of Beowulf) a Modern English-speaker with a large vocabulary of archaic words may understand it, it differs enough that most publications modernise his idiom. Following is a sample from the prologue of "The Summoner's Tale" that compares Chaucer's text to a modern translation:

Original Text Modern Translation
This frere bosteth that he knoweth helle, This friar boasts that he knows hell,
And God it woot, that it is litel wonder; And God knows that it is little wonder;
Freres and feendes been but lyte asonder. Friars and fiends are seldom far apart.
For, pardee, ye han ofte tyme herd telle For, by God, you have ofttimes heard tell
How that a frere ravyshed was to helle How a friar was taken to hell
In spirit ones by a visioun; In spirit, once by a vision;
And as an angel ladde hym up and doun, And as an angel led him up and down,
To shewen hym the peynes that the were, To show him the pains that were there,
In al the place saugh he nat a frere; In all the place he saw not a friar;
Of oother folk he saugh ynowe in wo. Of other folk he saw enough in woe.
Unto this angel spak the frere tho: Unto this angel spoke the friar thus:
Now, sire, quod he, han freres swich a grace "Now sir", said he, "Have friars such a grace
That noon of hem shal come to this place? That none of them come to this place?"
Yis, quod this aungel, many a millioun! "Yes", said the angel, "many a million!"
And unto sathanas he ladde hym doun. And unto Satan the angel led him down.
--And now hath sathanas,--seith he,--a tayl "And now Satan has", he said, "a tail,
Brodder than of a carryk is the sayl. Broader than a galleon's sail.
Hold up thy tayl, thou sathanas!--quod he; Hold up your tail, Satan!" said he.
--shewe forth thyn ers, and lat the frere se "Show forth your arse, and let the friar see
Where is the nest of freres in this place!-- Where the nest of friars is in this place!"
And er that half a furlong wey of space, And before half a furlong of space,
Right so as bees out swarmen from an hyve, Just as bees swarm out from a hive,
Out of the develes ers ther gonne dryve Out of the devil's arse there were driven
Twenty thousand freres on a route, Twenty thousand friars on a rout,
And thurghout helle swarmed al aboute, And throughout hell swarmed all about,
And comen agayn as faste as they may gon, And came again as fast as they could go,
And in his ers they crepten everychon. And every one crept into his arse.
He clapte his tayl agayn and lay ful stille. He shut his tail again and lay very still.[28]

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