As the title suggests, this set of notes is concerned with the scope of Chaucer’s work, what range that he was able to communicate with his literary works. Chaucer wrote Saints Lives, Moral Tales, Ribbles Tales, and classical stories. In other words, Chaucer wrote in every available genre at his point in the middle ages.
To illustrate Chaucer’s creative ability, it is necessary to understand the prime materials Chaucer wrote; Chaucer wrote five kinds of things: (1) Dream Poems, (2) Classical inspired poetry of a courtly nature, (3) Frame Tale Narratives (collections of stories within stories), (4) short form lyrics and personal poems, (5) and sustained translations from the Latin and the French.
Regarding the Dream Poem—it is arguably the most popular form of the poem in the middle ages. What happens in this poem? The narrator falls asleep and finds themselves in a fantastical landscape; invariably, it is spring time (April or May). The narrator usually wanders until they find some strange conversation, either between people that he cannot understand or between animals which he can understand, or even a conversation between things.
Dream poems are often debated poems. Creatures and life forms, differing religions, at odds objects… all and more are the subject of debate within such dream-debate poems, whose goal it is to exude virtue while condemning the other’s vices. Chaucer begins his poetic career as a dream poet; his Book of the Duchess, a fantastical tale about a deceased princess: John of Gaunt’s wife Blanche the Duchess. This poem, along with The Parliament of Fowls, The House of Fame, The Legend of Good Women are ranked as dream poems.
What sets Chaucer’s dream poems out from the normal medieval milieu is that his writings are not merely debates between opposing points of view, but a representation of the debate which Chaucer and his peers would have experienced in their own lives. It is a projection of reality onto a fictionalized surface and something rarely done with as much skill as Chaucer, if done at all.
The second such sort of poetry which Chaucer wrote— classically inspired poetry of a courtly nature—took aim at the predisposition of the medieval aristocrats who liked to view themselves as being in the world of antiquity—of Rome and Athens. Chaucer’s major work in this genre, Troilus and Crosiade, is of love, politics, and betrayal. Other narratives set within this paradigm: from The Canterbury Tales, “The Knight’s Tale,” “Anolita and Arsight.” Poems such as these would please the upper-class of medieval life.
The third of Chaucer’s poetic forms, the one which he devoted most of his time, the ‘Framed Tale Narrative,’ is the genre of The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer may have learned this genre on his travels, from his time with the Cameron of Bicarchio, where it is of people fleeing the Black Death. This genre is a series of tales focalized within an overarching narrative: for Chaucer, this unfolds within his seminal work as a group of pilgrims traveling to visit the resting place of Saint Thomas of Beckett in Canterbury, Kent. Only half-complete at the time of Chaucer’s death, The Canterbury Tales is widely considered to be Chaucer’s masterwork.
Chaucer’s fourth kind of writing, what we today would call ballads, or what in Chaucer’s day would have been called short lyrics; these poems would have been addressed to Chaucer’s contemporaries, his political or social circles. Such popular moral ballads were the most popular medieval texts and often imparted upright living.
But, above all, Chaucer was a translator. Producing several translations, one of his most sustained works being a translation of The Consolation of Philosophy, is about worldly desire and the putting aside of material goods. Ultimately, it is about putting aside fortune for faith. Chaucer translated it whole into English prose and became a cornerstone of the philosophical edifice in which he built his work.
Chaucer also translated the Romance of the Rose, an erotic dream vision, where a dreamer quests for his love, represented by a rose and desires to ‘pluck’ that rose. A very controversial medieval poem. Not only did this dream vision put on full-display erotic imagery but it condemned women. Indeed, Professor Lerer remarks, “If should any of you care to read this poem, I guarantee it is the most obscene poem you will ever read.” Quite the statement!
In translating the Romance of the Rose, Chaucer, in some circles, earned the title of ‘Great Translator,’ while being condemned and shut out by others. But, as Lerer remarks, he believes that Chaucer’s work should be considered as translations of a certain kind: in the Medieval Latin, ‘translatio’ literally meant a ‘carrying over’ of either a linguistic or cultural nature. Since Chaucer’s work was so heavily immersed in the culture of his time and his past, it is easy to see how his labors could be considered as ‘translations’ in this outdated sense of the word.
This is not to say that Chaucer is a plagiarist. Remember: in the medieval period, the notion of authorship was different than our own and writers were often judged by the skill in which they could utilize other texts in new manners. Since Chaucer was wholly bathed in the times of his life, this indicates that Chaucer was among the best of his time.