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Chaucer’s Use of Satire, Irony, and Humour
Geoffrey Chaucer, the father of English poetry, is one of the first English short story-tellers and the greatest humorists in English literature. He is considered realist as he depicts the accurately unbiased and neutral picture of his society. His “The Prologue to The Canterbury Tales” comes out mainly in the form of satire, irony and humour. He is very much witted and sharp and his interest lies in portraying the characters rather than in exposing. His object is to point life as he sees it, to hold up the mirror to society, and, as has justly been said, “a mirror has no tendency, it reflects, but it does not, or should not, distort”. Chaucer has shown hatred for none of his characters but as humanist has portrayed them genially as Legouis and Cazamian remark “of all writers of genius Chaucer is one with whom it is easiest to have a sense of comradeship.”
Definitions of Satire
According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, the great English lexicographer Samuel Johnson defines satire as “a poem in which wickedness or folly is censured.” It can be seen in many English poems such as The Prologue to The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer, Absolom and Achitophel by Dryden, The Rape of the Lock by Pope, and The Paradise Lost by John Milton. In all poems, mentioned poets have criticized the impiety and immorality of their subject. Chaucer has depicted depravity of the members of his society. Milton has harshly exposed the sinfulness of the characters of his poem.
Explaining about satire, Thrall, et al describe it as “a literary manner which blends a critical attitude with humour and wit to the end that human institutions or humanity may be improved.”. Chaucer’s attempt in illustrating the characters of knight or prioress or monk in the prologue provides others the chance of laughing at them with the purpose of their correction. The Rape of The Lock exhibits Pope’s approach of humiliating the follies of his characters i.e. the theft of lock of heroin Blenda and then war between two noble families, is very thoughtful effort for their improvement. More humour is added by comparing it to the world of the classical gods.
Conferring satire, it is mentioned in Encyclopaedia Britannica that the satire is a verbal caricature that shows a deliberately distorted image of a person, institution or a society. Milton’s portrayal of heaven and hell with the related characters is really exaggerated for immense effects. Dryden’s most important satirical poem, Absalom and Achitophel, concerning the royal court of the monarch, Charles II and the political intrigues surrounding his illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth depicts distorted image of monarchy.
Satire is a bitter form of criticism in the way that it has a definite moral purpose. The satirist directly hits the fouls and corruptions of his subject. He intentionally separates our sympathies from those whom he describes and ends by finding anger and hatred overpower his sense of the ridiculing.
Examples of Satire in the Prologue
One of the corrupt pilgrims is the Monk. He is fond of hunting, he keeps a large number of fine horses in his stable, he finds the rules of monastic discipline to be old and therefore out of date thus he disregards the rules that govern monasteries. Chaucer is referencing the book of rules when he states:
” But thilke text heeld he nat worth an oystre;
And I seyde his opinioun was good. “
The poet really doesn’t agree with the Monk’s opinion that the rules are outdated. He is using sarcasm to make his point that the Monk chooses not to follow the rules because they hamper his lifestyle of hunting, owning possessions, and eating fine foods.
Chaucer likewise uses the Pardoner to satirize the hypocrisy of the Church’s selling of pleasures for the forgiveness of sins, a practice in which giving a certain amount of money to the Church could wipe out sins even sins a person has not yet committed. The Pardoner always begins his “preche” by telling worshippers that the love of money is the root of all evil and the preche he utters in order to get the money he wants from them.
“For wel he wiste, whan that song was songe,
He moste preche, and wel affile his tonge
To wynne silver, as he ful wel koude;
Therefore he song the murierly and loude.”
Another member of the Church Chaucer satirizes is the Friar. Friars were not allowed to deliver judgment for profit, so this is another way he is a corrupt member of the Church. It shows that Friar allows sinners to pay him for forgiveness when they are deeply depressed for their sins. This kind of behaviour represents friar as a beggar as Chaucer states about him:
” He was the beste beggere in his hous; “
This statement has double meaning. The Friar is a successful beggar because he makes such a good living begging from the wealthy people in his district. Instead of helping the poor, he uses this income for himself. In this way he is also a “fine” beggar as it helps him to own expensive clothes and luxuries.
Chaucer exaggeratingly satirizes the Prioress’s sentimentality and pretensions of being from a higher class. The awkward thing that she does for it is that she speaks French in English manner as Chaucer states;
“And Frenssh she spak ful faire and fetisly,
After the scole of Stratford atte Bowe,
For Frenssh of Parys was to hire unknowe.”
Her extreme gentleness is out of genuine sensibility as she pretends to be very tender and delicate according to the following verses:
“She was so charitable and so pitous
She wolde wepe if that she saugh a mous
Kaught in a trappe, if it were deed or bledde.
Of smale houndes hadde she, that she fedde”
But the tale told by her is quite opposite to this personality depiction in which a Jew cuts the throat of a Christian boy and throws him into a cesspool. One can imagine how harsh and cruel this story is.
Definitions of Irony
While explaining irony, the famous philosopher of nineteenth century, James Robert Boyd describes “The expression of strong reproof or censure, under the appearance of praise.” It is quite true and is most obvious when we come across verbal ironies. For instance in Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Mr. Darcy says of Elizabeth Bennet that she is not “handsome enough to tempt me” but falls in love with her.
Thrall, et al describe irony as “a figure of speech in which the actual intent is expressed in words which carry the opposite meaning” such as if somebody has stepped out in a flooding situation and is saying, “What a nice weather we have!” Othello is a great example of it when Othello resolves to murder his loving and innocent wife because of the secret sinful scheme of Iago.
An American critic, W. Ginsberg has defined irony as “the figure that joins negation and plentitude together” Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the audience knows that Juliet is imitating to be dead but Romeo does not know and thinks she is really dead.
Irony is a method of humorous or sarcastic expression in which the intended meaning of the words used is the direct opposite of their usual sense. It is also the state of ignorance in argument. It speaks a gross exaggeration or a falsehood, knowing it to be exaggerated or false, but announcing it as serious truth. Listening to it, intelligent men think, “That cannot be true. He cannot possibly mean that.” They realise that the speaker means the reverse of what he says.
Examples of Irony in the Prologue
Though a devout Christian, Chaucer nonetheless subscribed to a widely-held conviction in the Middle Ages that the Church was hopelessly worldly, hypocritical, and corrupt. Irony in The Canterbury Tales is not simply used for comic effect; it has a clear moral purpose too.
Despite being at religiously high and honourable rank, the monk does not wish to drive himself made by studying too much. The worldliness of his mind set is clearly exposed by ironic means through these lines:
“What sholde he studie and make hymselven wood,
Upon a book in cloystre alwey to poure,
Or swynken with his handes and labóure,
As Austyn bit? How shal the world be served?”
Moreover he is also objecting the holy scriptures by calling it old and strict that is again very ironic when considered in terms of faith and belief:
“The reule of seint Maure or of seint Beneit,
By-cause that it was old and som-del streit,”
When monk is defined as:
“A manly man, to been an abbot able”
At a superficial level this is high praise but as ironist Chaucer is very gently suggesting here that worldliness is the required eligibility for becoming an abbot. The monk is also proved luxurious by describing him as a good hunter and by owning greyhounds. His lavish dress is also explained in following verses:
“I seigh his sleves y-púrfiled at the hond
With grys, and that the fyneste of a lond;
And for to festne his hood under his chyn
He hadde of gold y-wroght a curious pyn;”
In addition, the monk is guilty of the cardinal sin of gluttony as Chaucer writes that he enjoys:
“A fat swan loved he best of any roost.”
Irony is employed in the portrait of the Friar, too. Here are the most ironical lines:
“And over-al, ther as profit sholde arise,
Curteis he was and lowely of servyse.
Ther nas no man nowher so vertuous.”
These verses are very boldly telling that he is the most “Virtuous” about his profit and gain and being vigilant about personal benefit is the standard of being virtuous.
Furthermore friar’s being familiar with all available sources to get something from or every good host is ironically used to prove him a worthy man.
“He knew the tavernes wel in every toun,
And everich hostiler and tappestere
Bet than a lazar or a beggestere;
For unto swich a worthy man as he”
Chaucer’s irony throughout his tales is enclosed in mocking tone. As these poems were written from the perspective of one of the travelers, sharing what they heard and said, are mostly in the form of verbal irony. Mostly it is found in the form of description of the characters by themselves and exaggerating their personalities.
Definitions of Humour
According to Encyclopaedia Britannica humour is the only form of communication in which a stimulus on a high level of complexity, produces a stereotyped, predictable response on the physiological reflex level. It is well observed in the form of clowns in Elizabethan dramas like Twelfth Night or Henry IV.
It is mentioned in The New Caxton Encyclopedia that according to Greek philosophy, humour is temporary imbalance [in the four basic liquids of a person’s body] would produce a corresponding change of mood… especially if they were fanciful, or odd or silly. If we focus on the purpose and impacts of using humour it seems quite true as it changes the mood of the reader/audience instantly and brings him/her in a totally different sphere.
Feibleman explains it, “Humour… means a talent for being able to put oneself at will into a certain frame of mind in which everything is estimated on lines that go quite off the beaten track (a topsy-turvy view of things) and yet online that follow certain principles… “
Humour is the concerned approval of the comic, the faculty which enables us to love while we laugh. It is the humour which enables us to see the person’s point of view, to distinguish between crimes and bad behaviour. Above all, it is humour which points out those enduring peculiarities, those little shortcomings and harmless weaknesses which give a character a warm place in our affections. This is a very strong device that is most powerfully used in different genres. It has been a compulsory part of tragedies. There is no sting in humour, no consciousness superiority. On the contrary, it contains an element of tenderness.
Examples of Humour in the Prologue
Humor is a vital part of Chaucer’s verse and the spine of “The Prologue and The Canterbury Tales”. All the characters in The Prologue have been cleverly portrayed. Humor, infact, makes Chaucer’s characterization different. As humorist he is fast to see the interesting side of the things as he has the ability to laugh quietly and makes other giggle at what is ridiculous or crazy or incoherent. While depicting the picture of Friar he says:
His eyen twynkled in his heed aryght
As doon the sterres in the frosty nyght.
When portraying the Monk, Chaucer says:
His heed was balled, that shoon as any glas,
About the Oxford Clerk Chaucer says:
But al be that he was a philosophere,
Yet hadde he but litel gold in cofre.
Not least among the demonstration of Chaucer’s humour is the quality of exaggeration. The merry Friar with his twinkling eyes is the best beggar in his friary; the Franklin has not his equal; in all the world there was none like the Doctor of Physic; the Shipman had no peer from ‘Hulle to Cartage’; and in cloth-making the Wife of Bath excelled even the matchless weavers of Ypres and Ghent.
Chaucer even does not extra himself and says:
“My wit is short, ye may well understonde”
His humor has refined and complex touches and it doesn’t insult anyone. For instance, when he lets us know that Prioress is so genial and charming in her conduct that she takes paints to copy the behavior of the court we can’t know whether he is lauding her or giggling at her warmth:
And full pleasant and amiable of port;
And peyned hire to counterfete cheere
Of court, and been es’attich of manere,
Anyway his humor is of the finest sort. It is average and thoughtful on the grounds that he is a man of charming temperament. He realizes that each individual has one sort of imperfection or others. He pinpoints the deformity in a light way with a perspective to cure them, not for corrupting the exploited person. His disposition is sure.
To conclude, Chaucer is one of the greatest assets of his poetic art and we find that highlighting the follies is the most prominent ingredient in Chaucer’s characterization of the pilgrims in “The Prologue”. This lends a most distinctive quality to his character-sketches.
Thus Chaucer’s satire, either through irony or through humour, is not aimed against contemporary morals, but against the comic self-ignorance which gives man two identities, the person he is, and the more notable and mysterious person he imagines himself to be. He acts as a medieval satirist whose method was to have a villain describe his own tricks. Two of these Prologues are the Pardoner’s and the Wife of Bath’s. The former, like lago and Richard III in Shakespeare, expresses himself out and out telling the pilgrims about his sensuality, greed, hypocrisy and deceitfulness. The theme of the Wife of Bath’s prologue is tribulation in marriage, particularly the misery she has caused her five husbands.
- Legouis, E., and Cazamian, L., (1964), Legouis and Cazamian’s History of English Literature, J.M.
Dent & Sons Limited: England.
- Thrall, W. F., Hibbard, A., and Holman, C. H. eds.,(1960), A Handbook to Literature. Odyssey Press:
- Boyd, J.R., (1845), Elements of Rhetoric and Literary Criticism, with copious practical exercises and
examples. For The Use of Common Schools and Academies. Including also A Succinct History of the English language, and of British and American Literature from the Earliest to the Present Times. Harper: New York.
- Feibleman, J.K., (1962), In praise of comedy, a study in its theory and practice, Russell & Russell: New
- Encyclopaedia Britannica: Macropaedia Knowledge in depth, (1975), Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc.:
- The New Caxton Encyclopedia, (1975), The Caxton Publishing Company Limited London: England.
- Ginsberg, W., (2002), Chaucer’s Italian Tradition, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
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