Associate Professor and Head,
Department of English
Chaucer is regarded as the earliest of moderns. He wrote in the 14th century when the light of modernism was not yet visible. People used to live with medieval habits, beliefs and mindset. Even in that period Chaucer anticipated modern tastes and modern mind and in his poetry he successfully introduced qualities far advance of his times. He is the first national poet of England and his writings contain the germs of both novel and drama. Albert says that All the Chaucerian features help to create this modern atmosphere: the shrewd and placidly humorous observation, the wide humanity the quick aptness of phrase, the dexterous touch upon the metre, and above all the fresh and formative spirit, the genius turning dross into gold.
His contribution to English literature is undoubtedly praiseworthy. As a national poet, he expressed the hopes and aspirations of the people of his times and also presented the image of an organized nation: what as yet nowhere else had appeared in modern European literature. The foundation of his art lies in English life and English character. He was a keen observer and watched various tendencies of his time and his poetry reflected realistically his century not in fragments but as a whole. He presents across-section of English life of the 14th century. That is why it is said, Chaucer’s best descriptions of men and manners and places are of the first rank in their beauty, impressiveness and humour. Chaucer possessed modern outlook which is characterized by his wide humanity, tolerance, sympathy and forgiveness. In fact, a sense of comradeship is clearly visible in his poetry. He described fools and rascals with the same spirit with which he described wise and good mannered people. Cruelty and Chaucer are absolutely strangers “where Langland cries about in anger threatening the world with hell-fire, Chaucer looks on and smiles” (Aldous Huxley).
The creative output of Chaucer anticipates modern novels and modern drama. His characters are no longer shadowy figures but oval men and women whom we meet everywhere. Chaucer is well known as a humorist. His contribution is also praiseworthy in providing us with a language that is quite modern. He also introduced many modern meters. On the basis of this manifold contribution to English poetry he makes the deepest appeal to modern readers. In him, we recognize an essentially modern poet. The age in which Chaucer lived was essentially at the head of modern age, for it broke off with Middle Age and heralded the birth of a new age of Renaissance. He lived more at the beginning of a modern age than at the end of Middle Ages. He seems to be an exponent and of modern age and appeals to the modern readers as if he actually belonged to them.
The realism of Chaucer gets reflected in his portrayal of living men and women that makes an appeal to the modern reader. Through his Prologue to Canterbury Tales, he successfully creates contemporary world by portraying representatives of different classes. His characters are timeless creations on a time-determined stage and he has a unique power of exhibiting the universal in the particular. Most of characters may have changed their names, titles and habits but they are all here amidst us. We recognize in them our own kith and kin. The knight now commands a line regiment, the Square is in the Guards, the shipman was a rum-runner while prohibition lasted and many a smuggler still send constables and custom officials home through water. The Merchant is still active in black market and the affected Prioress is the Head Mistress of fashionable Girls School. The Miller, The Reeve and the Municipal have not changes the least. The Physician still loves gold in special and The Sergeant of Law seems busier than he actually is to win more fees.
The greatest appeal of Chaucer to modern times lies in his freshness of outlook, liberal attitude and in his spirit of comradeship. His senses of humor, tolerance and sympathy for individual differences have won for him a special place in modern readers’ hearts. His comments never tease or hurt us rather he laughs with us at follies of human nature. This aroma of vernal freshness in his pilgrims and their tales and their creator will continue to have an ever fascinating appeal to modern readers. Chaucer deals with men and manners and their problems which are not of his age only rather these exist even in the modern age.
He had always been sensitive to the prevailing evils in the world of his times and he commented on greed, corruption, profligacy rampant in the then society but his approach to these problems was not that of a medievalist preacher, gloomy and pessimistic. He accepted life as it was like a modern man. He neither ridiculed nor condemned the attitude of people. He never burned with the fanaticism of the puritan zeal of a moralist sinner. His approach in this regard was absolutely modern.
“Frank Virile and tolerant, he is amused rather than angry with the little kinks in human nature, and in his intellectual vision he has a wider sweep than most of our writers. The poet most a kin to him is Robert Browning”. “His religious temper had nothing of the Saxon’s narrow intensity, and his imaginative sympathies were clearly cosmopolitan”, Camptan Rickett.
Her heralds the birth of a new humanism and the dawn of the renaissance, and the same time he vividly brings before us the traditions and conventions which his age had inherited from the Middle Ages. His world is steeped in medievalism, but beneath it the spirit of Renaissance is also at work. Chaucer stands at the dividing of ways, linking himself with the old world of medievalism that was passing away, and heralding the birth of a new age that was peeping at the horizon. He was thus the morning star of this new age.
Thus, the reasons why Chaucer has such an appeal to the modern readers are many. The first , with all its vexing problems of Labour, democratic urge for equality, justice and freedom, revolt against unjust taxation, challenge to divine theory of Govt., the interest in education and revival of learning, the 14th century was much near to modern world than even 18th.Secondly, there is a flavour of reality in all his writings. Thirdly, he has the gift of exhibiting the universal in the particulars. All his pilgrims are vividly alive today and finally, what makes him most endearing to us is his humanism and freshness of outlooks. He feels gladness in everything he sees in life. Reading Chaucer provides relaxation as he comments like a mild spectator on God’s plenty.