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Chaucer’s Contribution to English Language & Literature
It was Rev. John Dart, who called Chaucer as the father of poetry in the history of English literature due to his unforgettable contributions to the English language and literature. There is something in the literary works of Chaucer that John Dart was compelled to compose a very lengthy poem in his praise. He praises Chaucer in the following lines:
To Chaucer's Name eternal Trophies raise.
And load the antique Stone with wreaths of Bays.
Father of Verse! who in immortal Song,
First taught the Muse to speak the English Tongue.
(Westminster Abbey by Rev. John Dart)
Similarly, Mathew Arnold has gone to the extent by saying that “With him is born our real poetry.” Chaucer has been regarded as the pioneer in poetry, drama, novel, characterization, versification, realism, and humour. Now let’s explore how he contributed to various fields of literature:
Chaucer’s Contribution to Language
One of the most important contributions that Chaucer made is his contribution to the English language. It was all due to his treatment of English language in his poetry that English secured a prominent position amongst the languages of the world not only today but in that time as well. It was Chaucer, who preferred English language over Latin and French. It was a fashion and vogue of the time to use Latin and French languages in church, courts and in any literary work, but Chaucer refused to adopt these languages for his poetry. Though, the English language was in raw form, yet he ventured upon using the English Language for his poetry. It was not as polished and full of vocabulary as Latin and French. Lowell says in this regard:
“Chaucer found his English a dialect and left it a language.”
He transformed the East Midland dialect into a full-fledged language of England. Chaucer knew that Latin and French, due to its complex grammar, would lag behind English language. He was pretty sure about the bright future of English language. That is why; he adopted English language in his poetry. Sir Walter Raleigh remarks that “he purified the English of his time from its dross! He shaped it into a fit instrument for his use.”
Chaucer’s Contribution to Poetry
Chaucer’s second and prominent contribution to the English language & literature is his contribution to the English poetry. In the age of Chaucer, most of the poets used to compose allegorical poetry. It was a poetry, which had no relationship with the reality of the time. In the beginning, Chaucer also followed his predecessor and wrote poetry in their manner. But later on, he came to know that any piece of literature must deal with real life. That is why; The Canterbury Tales is the product of this change. It deals directly with life as it was in his age. He describes every character in its true colours. He does not exaggerate or underrate any character. Rather, he paints every character in words as it was before him. Grierson and Smith are of the opinion that Chaucer’s pilgrims “are all with today, though some of them have changed their names. The king now commands a line regiment, the squire is in the guards, the shipman was a rum-runner, while prohibition lasted and is active now in the black market, the friar is a jolly sporting publican, the pardoner vends quack medicines or holds séances, and the prioress is the headmistress of a fashionable girl’s school.”
Chaucer’s Contribution to Versification
In the field of versification, the English poets owe much to Chaucer. He was the first poet, who tried his hands on English poetry. During his time, poetry was in its raw shape. He made several experiments in versification and gave it a new shape. His contemporaries were sued to too much alliteration in their poetry. Chaucer could not withstand with it and brought about drastic changes in alliteration. In the old fashioned alliteration, the number of syllables was irregular. Chaucer discarded this method of alliteration and introduced a new one, which had regular number of syllables, end rhyme and absence of frequent repetition.
In Chaucer’s poetry, we also find that he has used lines of ten syllables and the lines are in couplets. Every line in a couplet rhyme with each other. Chaucer is also famous for his new form of stanza, which is called Chaucerian stanza. He was the first poet, who introduced it into the English literature. It is a stanza of seven lines having octosyllabic meter. Its rhyme scheme is aba bb cc. Chaucer used this type of stanza in The Books of the Duchesse. Chaucer is also regarded as the originator of heroic couplet. Heroic couplet is widely used in The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer and later on by his successors like Pope and Dryden. Pope and Dryden perfected the Heroic Couplet to a great extent.
Chaucer’s Contribution to Drama
Chaucer’s another contribution that resulted in the birth of secular drama was his contribution to the drama. His poetry had something that contributed to the development of drama. Characterization in The Canterbury Tales is said to be the first element of drama that gave rise to drama. Drama is a collection of dialogues through the mouths of living characters. Characters in The Canterbury Tales are free to talk about everything and the author has very little intervention in their dialogues. This sort of feature is certainly an important element of drama. In drama, the author does not intervene in the dialogues of characters. A critic asserts in this regard:
“A dramatist in all but the fact if the drama had been known in Chaucer’s time as a branch of living literature, he might have attained as highly an excellence in comedy as any English Continental writer.”
Which contribution of Chaucer is the most important one?
Chaucer’s Contribution to Novel
Though, there were no signs of novel in the age of Chaucer, yet he was the first poet who augured the era of novel. His poetry is replete with such elements as characterization, plot construction, narration, realism, humour and pictorial qualities that fit into the genera of modern novel. G.K Chesterton asserts in this regard:
“If Chaucer is the father of English poetry, he is certainly the grandfather of the English novel.”
Like a modern novelist, his description, narration and ways of storytelling are aligned with any novelist. He does not lag behind them at any stage. That is why; The Canterbury Tales is regarded as the prologue to modern fiction. It has almost all the characteristics that we find in any novel. It has vivid characterization, point of view, humour, realism, pictorial quality and much more that may fit into the genera of novel. Chaucer’s Troilus and Cryseyde is considered a novel in verse. It has everything that we associate with novel. It has characterization, plot construction, action, conflict, physiological analysis and setting, which we normally find in any novel. S.D Neill has the opinion that:
“ Had Chaucer written in prose, it is possible that his Troilus and Cryseyde and not Richardson’s Pamela would be celebrated as the first English Novel.”
Chaucer’s Contributions: Other Aspects
Chaucer’s major contributions also contain his lavish use of humour in his poetry. He may be regarded as the best and first humourist in the history of English literature. His Canterbury Tales reflect his tendency for humour to a great extent. In every characterization, he finds something humourous, which compels him to make fun of him. He makes fun of Fiar, Prioress and other characters in such a manner that the reader cannot help laughing. Aldous Huxley says in this regard:
“Where Langland’s cries aloud in anger threatening the world with hell fire, Chaucer looks on and smiles.”
Unlike his contemporary poets, Chaucer does not follow the way of didacticism. He wants to bring about smiles on the faces of his readers. That is why; he endeavours to refrain from didacticism in his poetry.
Thus, the above discussion reveals clearly Chaucer’s contribution to the English language and literature.
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