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Humour is an essential ingredient of Geoffrey Chaucer‘s poetry and the back-bone of “The Prologue and The Canterbury Tales”. All the characters in The Prologue have been humorously described. Humour, infact, makes Chaucer’s characterization distinct. A humorist is one who is quick to perceive the funny side of the things and who has the capacity to laugh and makes other laugh at what is absurd or ridiculous or incongruous.
Chaucer is called the first humorist of English literature. No English literary work before him reveals humour in the modern sense. And Chaucer is a greater humorist than Boccaccio. Chaucer’s humour is consistent all pervasive and intense as we find in Shakespeare’s plays. He paints all the characters in “The Prologue” in a humorous manner. The Knight is as gentle as a maid; the Squire is too sentimental in his love to sleep at night; the Friar has relations with the bar-maids instead of the poor; the Parson is too innocent and Clerk is too studious. Chaucer even does not spare himself and says:
My wit is short, ye may well understonde
His humour has refined and sophisticated touches and it does not offend anybody. For example, when he tells us that Prioress is so amiable and pleasant in her manners that she takes paints to imitate the manners of the court we cannot know whether he is praising her or laughing at her affection:
And full pleasant and amiable of port;
And peyned hire to counterfete cheere
Of court, and been es’attich of manere,
But his humour is of the finest type. It is pleasant and sympathetic because he is a man of pleasant temperament. He knows that every human being has one type of defect or others. He pinpoints the defect in a light manner with a view to cure them, not for degrading the victim. His attitude is positive. So, when he says that the Friar lisps a little out of affection and when he plays on a harp, his eyes twinkles in his head like sparkling stars on the frosty night, we do not hate him or his affection, rather we just laugh at him at this weakness.
Chaucer’s humour is also tinged with pity. It makes us thoughtful of the weakness of his victim and we start pitying him. For example, when he tells us that the Monk is more interested in riding, hunting and other worldly pursuits than in religious activities we pity him and wish him better. It means that his humour carries a sound message.
Chaucer’s humour is, of course, satirical but it is sugar coated. Hs purpose is to awake the people against realities of life. His age is of romantic idealism and people are blind to the realities of life. His satire is not corrosive but gentle and mild. Secondly, he is not a zealous reformer. He satirizes only these characters that cannot be reformed at any cost, e.g. the Summoner, and the Pardoner who are extremely corrupt. Here he openly passes remarks about their dishonesty and corruption.
Most of the time, Chaucer’s humour takes the form of irony because it relieves the bitterness of satire. For example, the use of the world “Worthy” for the most unworthy characters brings a tickling irony except for the “Worthy” Knight. Chaucer employs different sorts of irony. He has made an ample use of irony by contract in “The Prologue”. For example, after talking about the bravery, skill, experience and grandeur of the Knight, he tells us that in his behaviour he is as gentle as a maid and cannot harm anyone.
And of his port as meeke as is a mayde
He also employs irony be exaggeration when he says the Prioress has all the manners of eating because she knows how to carry a morsel and how to keep. She does not let any morsel fall from her mouth and she does not dip her fingers deep in the sauce. This is all exaggeration because these things do not account for manner and everyone knows them well.
He creates irony by situation too. For example, he describes those qualities of the Monk, which are not worth of his religious rank i.e. he is a good rider and brave man.
A monk there was, a fair for the maistrie,
An outridere, that lovede venerie;
A manly man, to been an abbot able.
In this way, he creates an ironical situation, which makes us think since he is a Monk, he should not do this. His actions are set in contrast with is situation as a Monk.
Chaucer’s humour is wide in range. It covers all kinds of humour from downright jokes to good-natured strokes when he paints the physical appearances of characters. For example, he describes Reeve:
Ful longe were his legges and ful lene,
Y-lyk a staf, ther was no calf y-sene
Then, he says, that the Doctor of Physic is the greatest physician because he has the knowledge of astronomy.
In the description of the Shipman, he creates humour by incongruity when he says that he is a good fellow because he steals wine and has no prick of conscience.
In conclusion, we can say that critics may be divided in opinion as to Chaucer’s right to be called the father of the English poetry, but there can be no question that he is the first great English humorist.