Home  »  Volume II: English THE END OF THE MIDDLE AGES  »  § 16. His Humour

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume II. The End of the Middle Ages.

VII. Chaucer

§ 16. His Humour

Of the matter, as well as of the languages, forms and sources of his knowledge, a little more should, perhaps, be said. It has been by turns exalted and decried, and the manner of its exhibition has not always been wisely considered. It has been observed above, and the point is important enough for emphasis, that we must not look in Chaucer for anything but the indiscriminateness and, from a strictly scholarly point of view, the inaccuracy, which were bred in the very bone of medieval study; and that it would be hardly less of a mistake to expect him not to show what seems to us a singular promiscuousness and irrelevancy in his display of it. But, in this display, and possibly, also, in some of the inaccuracies, there is a very subtle and personal agency which has sometimes been ignored altogether, while it has seldom been fully allowed for. This is the intense, all-pervading and all but incalculable presence of Chaucer’s humour—a quality which some, even of those who enjoy it heartily and extol it generously, do not quite invariably seem to comprehend. Indeed, it may be said that even among those who are not destitute of the sense itself, such an ubiquitous, subterranean accompaniment of it would seem to be regarded as an impossible or an uncanny thing. As a matter of fact, however, it “works i’s the earth so fast” that you never can tell at what moment it will find utterance. Many of the instances of this are familiar, and some, at least, could hardly fail to be recognised except by portentous dulness. But it may be questioned whether it is ever far off; and whether, as is so often the case in that true English variety of the quality of which it is the first and one of the most consummate representatives, it is not mixed and streaked with seriousness and tenderness in an almost inextricable manner. “Il se moque,” says Taine of another person, “de ses émotions au moment même où il s’y livre.” In the same way, Chaucer is perpetually seeing the humorous side, not merely of his emotions but of his interests, his knowledge, his beliefs, his everything. It is by no means certain that in his displays of learning he is not mocking or parodying others as well as relieving himself. It is by no means certain that, seriously as we know him to have been interested in astronomy, his frequent astronomical or astrological lucubrations are not partly ironical. Once and once only, by a triumph of artistic self-restraint, he has kept the ludicrous out altogether—in the exquisite Prioress’s Tale, and even there we have a sort of suggestion of the forbidden but irrepressible thing in

  • As monkes been, or elles oghten be.
  • Of this humour, indeed, it is not too much to say (borrowing Coleridge’s dictum about Fuller and the analogous but very different quality of wit) that it is the “stuff and substance,” not merely of Chaucer’s intellect, but of his entire mental constitution. He can, as has been said, repress it when art absolutely requires that he should do so; but, even then, he gives himself compensations. He has kept it out of The Prioress’s Tale; but he has indemnified himself by a more than double allowance of it in his description of the prioress’s person in The Prologue. On the other hand, it would have been quite out of place in the description of the knight, for whom nothing but respectful admiration is solicited; and there is no need to suspect irony even in

  • And though that he were worthy, he was wys.
  • But in The Knight’s Tale—which is so long that the personage of the supposed teller, never obtruded, may be reasonably supposed forgotten, and where the poet almost speaks in his won person—the same writ does not run; and, towards the end especially, we get the famous touches of ironic comment on life and thought, which, though they have been unduly dwelt upon as indicating a Voltairian tone in Chaucer, certainly are ironical in their treatment of the riddles of the painful earth.

    Further, it is desirable to notice that this humour is employed with a remarkable difference. In most great English humorists, humour sets the picture with a sort of vignetting of arabesquing fringe and atmosphere of exaggeration and fantasy. By Chaucer it is almost invariably used to bring a higher but a quite clear and achromatic light on the picture itself or parts of it. The stuff is turned rapidly the other way to show its real texture; the jest is perhaps a burning, but also a magnifying and illuminating, glass, to bring out a special trait more definitely. It is safe to say that a great deal of the combination of vivacity and veracity in Chaucer’s portraits and sketches of all kinds is due to this all-pervading humour; indeed, it is not very likely that any one would deny this. What seems, for some commentators, harder to keep in mind is that it may be, and probably is, equally present in other places where the effect is less immediately rejoicing to the modern reader; and that medieval pedantry, medieval catalogue-making, medieval digression and irrelevance are at once exemplified and satirised by the operation of this extraordinary faculty.

    That the possession of such a faculty almost necessarily implies command of pathos is, by this time, almost a truism, though it was not always recognised. That Chaucer is an instance of it, as well as of a third quality, good humour, which does not invariably accompany the other two, hardly will be disputed. He is not a sentimentalist; he does not go out of his way for pathetic effect; but, in the leading instances above noted of The Clerk’s and Prioress’s Tales, supplemented by many slighter touches of the same kind, he shows an immediate, unforced, unfaltering sympathy which can hardly be paralleled. His good humour is even more pervading. It gives a memorable distinction of kindliness between The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and the brilliant following of it by Dunbar in The Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo; and it even separates Chaucer from such later humorists as Addison and Jane Austen, who, though never savage, can be politely cruel. Cruelty and Chaucer are absolute strangers; indeed, the absence of it has brought upon him from rather short-sighted persons the charge of pococurantism, which has sometimes been translated (still more purblindly) into one of mere courtliness—of a Froissart-like indifference to anything but “the quality,” “the worth,” as he might have put it himself. Because there is indignation in Piers the Plowman, it is thought that Chaucer does not well not to be angry: which is uncritical.

    This curious, tolerant, not in the least cynical, observation and relish of humanity gave him a power of representing it, which has been rarely surpassed in any respect save depth. It has been disputed whether this power is rather that of the dramatist or that of the novelist—a dispute perhaps arguing a lack of the historic sense. In the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century, Chaucer would certainly have been the one, and in the mid-nineteenth the other. It would be most satisfactory could we have his work in both avatars. But what we have contains the special qualities of both craftsman in a certain stage of development, after a fashion which certainly leaves no room for grumbling. The author has, in fact, set himself a high task by adopting the double system above specified, and by giving elaborate descriptions of his personages before he sets them to act and speak up to these descriptions. It is a plan which, in the actual drama and the actual novel, has been found rather a dangerous one. But Chaucer discharges himself victoriously of his liabilities. And the picture of life which he has left us has captivated all good judges who have given themselves the very slight trouble necessary to attain the right point of view, from his own day to this.