Chaucer's Humour: A Short Note
Chaucer, the father of English poetry, is called the first great English humourist. The current of good humour flows in all his poetry. It has great variety. It is subtle, sly, spontaneous, natural, paradoxical and commonplace. No other writer of his age equals him in this field. He is highly praised for his fantastic humour. In this respect he is compared with Shakespeare and Dickens.
Chaucer's humour is based on his deep insight and sympathetic attitude. His laughter is never the laughter of contempt. It is because this great poet has no scorn for idiots. He has no strong feeling of distaste for rascals. It is the laughter that springs from the frailties and foibles of mankind.
The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales is full of humour and the laughter echoes on all sides. It is the result of the poet's keen observation of everyday life. Sometimes negligible becomes significant for the poet. The insignificant things like the Squire's coat, the Wife of Bath's hat, the Monk's bridle and the Reeve's thin legs become very important for the poet. He describes all these things in such a way that they evoke much laughter.
Chaucer's humour is multi-angled and of wide range. With the help of this humour the poet laughs at all. He spares none. He is never perceptive but critical. Sometimes his attack is like the strike of a whip. With a good humoured laugh the humourist ridicules the vices of the church and churchmen. In this contest we can quote the following lines that describe the Monk's attitude:
' He yaf nat of that text a pulled hen,
That seith that hunters ben nat hooly men.'
Paradox is one of the important features of Chaucer's humour. It offers us laughter and smile. When the poet is ridiculing the weaknesses of the Wife of Bath, it seems that he is making her praise. The character of Harry Bailly is paradoxical. During the journey he controls a number of pilgrims but he appears as a lamb before his wife at home.
The description of characters raises irresistible laughter. The physical peculiarities of these characters are humourous. The presentation of their dresses also evokes good laughter. But sometimes Chaucer's humour is categorised as sly humour. This humour slyly reveals the weakness of certain characters. The best example of this humour can be found in the character of the Prioress:
' Full weel she soong the service dyvyne,
Entuned in hir nose ful semely.'
Chaucer's humour is full of pathos. It shows no trace of anger and it has no sign of cruelty. It is always genial. It has a tinge of pity for natural human weakness. Sympathy and forgiveness are the important qualities of such humour. It produces tears in happiness and smile in misery. In this context we can compare Chaucer with Dickens.
Thus Geoffrey Chaucer is rightly called the first great humorist. His faith in humanism and realism makes his humour remarkable and powerful. It effectively serves the poet's purpose. In short, Chaucer's humour is praiseworthy.