It is well-known fact that literature has universal appeal but a representation of culture and people of the class is something that can never be underestimated when a poet writes poetry. Geoffrey Chaucer was the first who wrote something in English literature. Like other writers and poets, his poetry also sheds light on different classes of his era. Every poet in one way or the other represents his own age in fiction. For instance, Alexander Pope wrote about the follies of his fellow people and represented the eighteenth-century aristocratic society of England in “Rape of the Lock”. Likewise, Geoffrey Chaucer also wrote about people of his own age and he becomes their representative.
French once wrote:
In his [Chaucer’s] poetry we find the essential spirit both of the age that was passing and of the age that was to come.French
According to him, Chaucer’s poetry represents two ages; his own age and the age that was to come. We must agree that he is true to the extent that we find the essential spirit of the age in which Chaucer was living. “The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales” is a remarkable example of it. As regards the upcoming age, it is already said that literature has a universal appeal.
Geoffrey Chaucer belongs to the medieval era and can only be called representative of his age if we find a genial representation of the life of medieval times in his poetry. Two elements of Chaucer’s work are amusing and keep his work fresh. The first one is that he was a good storyteller. Secondly, his imagery is realistic. It is because Geoffrey Chaucer is representative of his age and he has introduced real people to us. He presents every class of his society. However, he missed two classes. The elite class of kings and the extremely low class of beggars.
No fictional Character:
We hardly find any fictional character in the poetry of Geoffrey Chaucer. In fact, no fictional character does exist in his poetry. It is evident from “The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales”. Each and every character is realistic due to which the book is called a picture gallery of all classes of his contemporaries. Imitation is an essential element of poetry but it does not limit a poet to portray imaginative characters only; he can present reality in his literature. Modern poets talk about real problems and thus write realistic poetry. Geoffrey Chaucer did so centuries ago and people called him representative of his age.
None of the characters from “The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales” is unrealistic or fictional. They seem alive. It is, therefore, critics call these characters “Chaucer’s Lively Creations”. We do not only see them but also feel and listen to their stories. They talk, laugh, crack jokes and tell stories on their way to Canterbury. Hence, they seem realistic from every angle. It strengthens the stance that Geoffrey Chaucer is the representative of his age because he portrays realistic characters and representation of realistic characters is possible only if a poet sketches actual life.
Geoffrey Chaucer as Class Representative of His Age:
Chaucer, in “The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales”, presents at least one person from every class. It is enough to call Geoffrey Chaucer a representative of his age. One can witness the typical medieval age of Chaucer through “The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales”. Each character shows a different perspective of the life of that age. Chaucer has presented the following major classes:
- Chivalry class.
- Class of liberal professions.
- Class of traders/merchants.
- Landed interest.
- Cunning class.
- Middle class.
- Religious class.
Except for the elite and lowest class, Chaucer has left no class. He represents chivalry class through knight, squire and the yeoman; liberal professions through the doctor, the man of law, clerk and himself (Chaucer); landed interest through the ploughman, miller, reeve and Franklin; traders through merchants and shipman; crafts through the wife of bath, carpenter, weaver, dyer and the Tapicer; secular clergy class through parson, summoner and cannon; monastic order through monk, prioress, nun, friar and the pardoner. In this way, Geoffrey Chaucer completes his age by way of depicting each character from every class.
Chaucer has presented his whole nation but it does not mean that he gives biased opinions. In fact, “The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales” is entirely opinionless. He may be patriotic but he does not stop himself to reveal the corruption of his era. He presents dishonest merchants, corrupt summoners, unkind doctors and incompetent lawyers but at the same time balances his book through brave knights, charitable parsons and knowledgeable clerks. This unbiased attitude of Chaucer forces us to believe in his realistic character through which we can get acquainted with his age.
No Political and Social Problem:
It is also a matter of fact that Chaucer does not talk about the ups and downs of his age. He has nowhere demonstrated the social problems of his society nor has he mentioned the political breakdown of his age. He presents the common life of every person no matter in which profession he is. Chaucer has no concern with the political and social systems. He puts every character in front of his readers as it is. He does not give his opinion but uses the technique of satire freely.
Every class has some typical qualities. For example, Knights felt pleasure in standing behind their masters at mealtimes. Women tried to find new ways of temptation as evident from the character of “Wife of Bath”. The majority of the religious classes took interest in making money by hook or crook. Traders were also interested in money while dishonestly trading goods. Similarly, doctors also earned a huge amount of money due to the plague. They become rich during the pestilence. In this way, Geoffrey Chaucer becomes representative of each class of his own age while demonstrating their typical classic qualities.
“The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales” is about an epic contemporary society of the 14th Century. Geoffrey Chaucer is a close observer of human nature and sketched reality in his book, hence, he is called representative of his age. In real meaning, he gives us a convincing gallery of his era in “The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales”.