Chaucer; the Romantic
On Chaucer as a Romantic Writer,
A Presentation by Timothy Kimball
Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1343- 25
October, 1400) is one of the most
prominent English authors and is
considered the “Father of English
Literature.” Born into the middle-class,
he rose to nobility after working as a
nobleman‟s page, then as a courtier,
diplomat, and civil servant, eventually
working for the King himself
(Greenblatt, 239-40). Historical records
lack sufficient data to pinpoint exactly
when Chaucer began his writing
career, but it is certain that it was
penned during the now infamous One
Hundred Years War and following the
style of The Decameron, by Giovanni
The Canterbury Tales
Presented by Chaucer (both as a the
author and the narrator), The Canterbury
Tales follows a group of pilgrims as they
prepare to go to Canterbury, but the
story is more focused on the stories each
of the pilgrims present to pass the time
rather than the pilgrimage itself. This
work has been hailed by many to be
Chaucer‟s most significant work and
contribution to the written English
language. Within this work then, his
“magnum opus,” there is adequate
evidence to support the claim that
Chaucer was indeed a “Romantic Writer.”
But wait… What qualifies as
To be sure, the popular notions of romance are as far-reaching as people‟s
tastes, so there must be some criteria that are to be met before a work or
author can be considered „romantic.‟ These qualities can be summarized
-It is a genre of narrative,
-”Its fundamental characteristic… is structural, not stylistic” (Greenblatt, 141),
-It can be broken down into three main stages of plot structure, a moment of great
change that sends the protagonist away from his home, a quest to discover their
true meaning and disposition, and finally a test which serves to demonstrate their
either passing or failure to become uphold their own values and objectives,
ending in their homecoming or reunion.
-*It is also worth noting that the Romantic tradition once set the tale in one of
three setting locations: ancient Greece, France with Charlemagne, or in England
with King Arthur.
“The Knight‟s Tale”
The first story to be told following the “General Prologue” is “The Knight‟s
Tale,” a story that meets the romantic criteria, albeit without the far-flung
ideas of adventure that had come to be seen as “mandatory.”
In the tale (which the author of this presentation presumably assumes
needs no synopsis) the setting is placed in the antiquated Greek city of
Athens, Palamon falls in love with Emily (the moment he is set on a
quest), he is to battle his cousin Arcite (who also loves Emily) for her hand,
and prays to Venus to be wed to Emily (his test), before eventually (after a
surprising series of eventful happenstances) marrying her (his
homecoming and conclusion to his original objective).
This tale, which fails to satisfy the more bland and expected events, is
notable however in that “that Chaucer subverts romance adventure as it is
conventionally understood not because adventure is too “masculine” but
because it names for him what is predictable and debased about the mass
of English Romances” (Wadiak, 164).
“The Miller‟s Tale”
In continuing his “subversion of romance,” Chaucer immediately follows
“The Knight‟s Tale” with the overtly sexual and crude “Miler‟s Tale,” a story
about a carpenter and his wife who is fantasized about by two clerks, one
of which lives with them in their spare room and succeeds in sleeping with
her while the other clerk does not, but does catch them in the act and
burns the successful suitor.
While the Miller originally states that he is drunk and cannot be held for
what he says, Chaucer still uses this obscene tale to portray romanticism,
although it is considerably less noble in nature than expected. It can be
argued that Chaucer created another subverted romance through this tale
by including less-than-savory characters (both the Miller and the
characters in his story) and this can be supported through the
“ambivalence (of) Chaucer‟s fabliau” which “resembles a number of fairy
tales” (read romantic tales), (Jordan, 87). The clerk who sleeps with his
desired object (the carpenter‟s wife) still was faced with a challenge, went
on a quest to obtain it, and succeeded even though he failed the ultimate
test when he was caught and burned.
“The Squire‟s Tale”
If the desire to evidence Chaucer as a romance writer were to be
even one more step removed from the narrator to the actual
author, the (laughably romantic) “Squire‟s Tale” shows just one
more degree of just how romantic Chaucer actually was in his
writing. His aspirations for the romantic tale are so bold and
envisioned that he cannot even complete the tale within the
parameters of the larger work. The story digresses several times
into the finer details, includes sub-plots among a multitude of
characters, and is so entombed with the many variations of the
romantic tale that the plot is seemingly unintelligible.
As well known Chaucer critic M. C. Seymour writes, “the satiric
markers set unambiguously in the tale show it to be a parody of a
courtly romance, written specifically and dramatically for the
Squire, not yet grown to his knightly maturity” (312)
Connecting the Dots
So if Chaucer were really the romantic writer as claimed, then
why did he bother with so many subversions, variations,
complications, and poetic interpretations?
One critic rightfully claims that “far from creating an English
verse-form in a vacuum, Chaucer took many elements of the
English verse popular in his day and refined it to an instrument
suitable to his artistic abilities” (Haymes, 42).
It may also be noteworthy that Chaucer could have been so in
awe of and inspired by the romance tradition that he felt he
must pay homage to it with his first tale, add (if he could) to its
remarkable tradition, and then alter it to be distinctly his own.
While easily regarded as a foremost author of the English
language, the subtleties and varied nuances of Chaucer‟s work
continue to provide considerable amount of academic
speculation and inspection.
After considering the many references to and repeated motifs
of romantic literature, it is evident that Chaucer was at the very
least highly influenced by romantic literature, the very greatest
an admirer and hopeful romantic writer himself.
Greenblatt, Stephen, and M. H. Abrams. "Geoffrey Chaucer." The Norton
Anthology of English Literature. 9th ed. Vol. A. New York: W.W. Norton &,
2012. 238-243. Print.
Haymes, Edward R. "Chaucer and the English Romance Tradition." South
Atlantic Bulletin 4 (1972): 35. JSTOR Arts & Sciences III. Web. 26 Oct.
Jordan, Tracey. "Fairy Tale and Fabliau: Chaucer's the Miller's Tale."
Studies In Short Fiction 21.2 (1984): 87. Academic Search Complete.
Web. 25 Oct. 2013.
Seymour, M.C. "Some Satiric Pointers in the Squire's Tale." English
Studies 70.4 (1989): 311. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 26 Oct. 2013.
Wadiak, Walter. "Chaucer's Knight's Tale and the Politics of Distinction."
Philological Quarterly 89.2/3 (2010): 159-184. Academic Search
Complete. Web. 27 Oct. 2013.