By Chet Yarbrough
Geoffrey Chaucer is a master of ambiguity. Michael Drout, in the Modern Scholar series, offers an informative and laudatory appreciation of Chaucer as the Bard of the Middle Ages. Drout notes that Chaucer’s view of life is best revealed in The Canterbury Tales.
Drout offers high praise for Chaucer, suggesting The Canterbury Tales seeds centuries of fictional narratives; in part because of Chaucer’s prescient understanding of human nature but also because of life’s ambiguous truths. Drout considers Chaucer equal to William Shakespeare, the greatest poet and playwright of all time.
Drout gives a brief narrative about what is known of Chaucer’s life. Chaucer mingles with all classes of society. From an upper middle-class upbringing as a son of a wine merchant, Chaucer bridges lower and upper-class English life. Chaucer went to war for England in France. He was captured but freed with the payment of ransom because of his family’s royal connections. Through marriage and familiarity, Chaucer begins a career in the English court.
Drout explains that Chaucer’s wide social experience and ability to charm the upper class and appeal to the general public affords him income as an appointed representative of the government. He works as a diplomat, and later Justice of the Peace. His positions allow him time to observe and write about English life. The culmination of Chaucer’s observations about life is in The Canterbury Tales. Though Drout touches on other Chaucer works, particularly Troilus and Cressida, Drout’s primary focus is on The Canterbury Tales.
In reviewing The Canterbury Tales, Drout notes how Chaucer cleverly conceals his opinions by distancing himself from the characters he creates. One can look at the tales and see an underlying criticism of the church, support for women’s rights, seeds of class conflict, and nascent relativism. One clearly sees how Chaucer must have been an extraordinary diplomat. All of these tales suggest seditious acts; each in opposition to the culture of Chaucer’s time. If not presented in the entertaining and ambiguous guise of The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer may have been ridiculed rather than lauded by royalty.
Though Drout does not suggest Chaucer endorses cultural’ transgressions, it appears Chaucer is ambiguous about his character’s opinions. Drout suggests Chaucer may have been repentant in The Parson’s Tale (the last of The Canterbury Tales that endorses religion of Chaucer’s era) because he is nearing the end of his life. In any case, it is clear that Chaucer is ahead of his time; earned his place in West Minster Abbey (the first poet to be buried there), and deserves his reputation as the Father of English Literature.
Drout gives his audience an excellent summary of Chaucer’s contribution to literature in these lectures; however, Chaucer is best represented by his own writing. Every listener/reader reaches their own opinion after experiencing Chaucer’s work; that is what makes The Canterbury Tales a classic.