Chaucer and Beyond — Poetry Then and Now

©2014 Mary Crockford
John Dryden called Geoffrey Chaucer “the father of English poetry,” impressive praise from a poet himself noted “after John Donne and John Milton” as “the greatest English poet of the 17th century” (Poetry Foundation, Para 1). Chaucer’s contributions to the poetic tradition were those of an innovator and originator, for his departure from the previously accepted Germanic syllabic stress in favor of the French-inspired Romantic stress; new metric and rhyme scheme made possible for the first time by that shift; and a new boldness in characterization that made social and political satire both appealing and popular. For the people of the Middle Ages, Chaucer used poetry to speak on behalf of his society, creating a “new” brand of commentary that brought social and political concerns to light in way that, by virtue of his numerous poetic innovations, could not be dismissed.
In their 1966 article, “Chaucer and the Study of Prosody,” Halle and Keyser reconstructed the path Chaucer’s poetry followed, beginning with the appearance of “the accentual-syllabic meter known as iambic pentameter” (187). One facet of his poetry that clearly demonstrates his metric innovation is the sudden appearance of second-syllable stress that broke with the previous English convention of little or no stress on second syllables, favoring instead the Romantic stress convention so that the final words in adjoining verses rhymed. Halle and Keyser cite this as the point of creation of the “perfect iambic pentameter” that would come to be “used by English poets from Geoffrey Chaucer to the present” (189). They further state that Chaucer deliberately executed this stress shift “for metrical purposes to rhyme words” (188). This result is easily seen throughout Canterbury Tales, where last-word emphasis in each line, heavily influenced by French pronunciations, closes the metric foot and serves as the rhyming mechanism of the couplets:

“Taketh the fruyt, and lat the chaf be stille./Now goode God, if that it be thy
wille,/ As seith my lord, so make us alle goode men,/And brynge us to his
heighe blisse. Amen.” (677-780)

In the 17 century, John Milton adapted iambic pentameter to the use of non-rhyming or blank verse, while Shakespeare adopted this metric scheme to one of alternately rhyming couplets in much of his poetry, proving the lasting influence and adaptability of Chaucer’s innovation to poets after him:

“Of Man’s first disobedience, and the fruit/Of that forbidden tree whose mortal
taste/ Brought death into the World, and all our woe,/With loss of Eden, till
one greater Man/” (Milton, Paradise Lost, 1:1-4)

“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?/Though art more lovely and more
temperate./Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,/And summer’s
lease hath all too short a date.” (Shakespeare, Sonnet 18, Verse 1-4)

From the Chaucerian iambic pentameter developed further innovations like varying iambic meter, which when paired with the rhyming couplet, produced longer, emotionally charged narratives from poets like Walt Whitman, whose “dark verse” about Abraham Lincoln’s assassination brought a larger-than-life character and societal concerns of death and cultural renewal to life in the dirge, O Captain! My Captain!:

“O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;/Rise up—for you the flag
is flung—for you the bugle trills,/For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for
you the shores a-crowding,/For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager
faces turning;” (Verses 9-12)

In addition to Chaucer’s technical and stylistic contributions, his introduction of vivid, even flamboyant characters populating his tales also influenced Milton and Shakespeare, as well as modern poets that would come centuries later. His facility for biting satire, rich characterization, and humor mixed with sympathy were based in his “large humanity” and an artistic foundation steeped in “English life and character” (Rahman Para 1-3). The audacity and compassion with which he viewed his fellows acted as a sort of “permission” for future poets to express their views of the world and people around them with courage and wit. His meter and rhyme schemes lent themselves well to elements of burlesque and musicality that made poems like “Canterbury” so unforgettable. This “sing-song” tradition can be seen today in a seemingly endless variety of poetry, including that of the late Theodore Geisel, or Dr. Seuss. Dr. Seuss’s “trademark” meter is actually Chaucer’s meter, and his rhyming and characterization trace their roots to Chaucer as well. A Canterbury-esque parade of Seussian animal, human, and alien creatures share human emotions and experiences with young readers, ranging from environmental concerns in “The Lorax,” separation anxiety and single parenthood in “The Cat in the Hat,” and social prejudice in “The Sneetches”:

“When the Star-bellied children went out to play ball,/Could the Plain-bellies
join in their game? Not at all!/You could only play ball if your belly had stars,/
And the plain-bellied children had none upon thars.”

As Mahfujur Rahman writes in “Why is Chaucer the father of English Poetry,” Chaucer was “a keen observer of his times” and “the first great English humorist.” As “modern poetry is characterized by realism,” Rahman also states that “English language and literature became full in maturity with Chaucer” (Para 4-6). Modern poetry owes its inventions, reinventions and traditions to the Canterbury poet. Poetry accessible to and beloved by generations of humanity came to life with Chaucer, and because of his brilliance, remains a source of light that can not be extinguished.

Works Cited

Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Nun’s Priest’s Prologue and The Nun’s Priest’s Tale.” From Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales”, The Nun’s Priest’s Tale, Lines 40-54. Librarius, n.d. Web.
Geisel, Theodore. “The Sneetches By Dr Seuss.” Wattpad. W.P. Technology, Inc., n.d. Web.
Halle, Morris, and Samuel Keyser. “Chaucer and the Study of Prosody.” College English 28.3 (1966): 187-219. University of California Los Angeles. Web.
“John Dryden.” Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation, 2014. Web.
Rahman, Mahfujur. “Why Is Chaucer Called the Father of English Poetry?” About Literature. Blogger. Web.
Shakespeare, William. “Shall I Compare Thee to a Summers Day? Sonnet 18.” Famous Literary Works Online, n.d. Web.
Whitman, Walt. “O Captain! My Captain! by Walt Whitman.” Walt Whitman Poems.waltwhitmanpoems.com, n.d. Web.

 

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