Chaucer’s Humanism | Discuss Chaucer’s Humanism

Chaucer’s Humanism | Discuss Chaucer’s Humanism

Chaucer’s Humanism


The effect of humanism on literature was really great. It glorified man and opened his eyes to the beauties of the brave new world’. The full flowering of this movement is to be seen in the sixteenth century England, though it had started in Italy in the fourteenth century. It has been said: “While Italy was on fire with the new sun-rise it was still for England merely a streak of light upon the horizon.” and that light can  be seen in the work of Chaucer.

Chaucer and the Renaissance :

Chaucer paid his first visit to Italy in 1372. “Italy was then approaching the zenith of her artistic energy, in the full splendor of that illumination which had followed the intellectual twilight of the Middle Ages, and which we know as the Renaissance or “New Birth”, (Moody and Lovett) The leaders of the Renaissance movement were two celebrated Italian writers, Petrarch (304-74) and Boccaccio (1313-75). It was through their work that the influence of humanism passed into England. Chaucer’s visit to Italy had a tremendous influence on his literary career. In the words of Moody and Lovett, when Chaucer reached Italy “Petrarch, the grave, accomplished scholar and elegant poet, was passing his closing years at his villa of Arqua, near Padua, Boccaccio, poet, tale-writer, pedant and worldling, was spending the autumn of his life among the cypress and laurel slopes of Fiesale, above Florence. The world which lay open to Chaucer’s gaze when he crossed The Alps, therefore, one calculated to fascinate and stimulate him in the highest degree.”

Chaucer and the Spirit of New Learning –

The great books Chaucer had come to know in Italy gave him incentive to write similar works in his own language. He began to take great interest and delight in life around him. He introduced in his works a free seclar spirit and a quickened sense of beauty. He has been rightly called ‘the Morning Star of the Renaissance.’ through the character of the Clerk of Oxford, he has presented interest that the people of his age had began to take in classical writers. His Clerk has.

at his beddes head

Twenty books, clad in blak or reed,

Of Aristotle and his philosophie.

Chaucer’s Humanism –

Chaucer was influenced more by the secular aspect of the humanist movement that by its scholarly or stylistic aspects. He accepted human life and human values without caring for the religious ideals of the Middle Ages. He developed an attitude of tolerance towards human foibles and follies. He took immense delight in the motely crowd of men and women. The high and the low, the good and the bad, rub shoulders with one another in Chaucer’s works. Chaucer was essentially a poet of man and this world. He had a wide sympathy for all sorts of people. He did not merely look at the mud on the road, he also glanced at the flowers that grew by the wayside. If he portrays rogues and rascals, he also depicts the virtuous and the ideal. But he nowhere expresses a desire for more virtuous world. His attitude is different from that of his contemporary Langland who was motivated by a reformist zeal. Chaucer had a kindly tolerance even for the wocked and the depraved. He percived evel in the world, but he hever set himself consciously to remove it or to correct it. He would have never cried like the Prince of Denmark.

“The time is out of joint, accursed spite.

That ever I was born to set it right”

He said the corruption of the Church and recognized the evil of it, but he was not driven like Wyclif into an open revolt. He simply laughed at the shocking state of things which existed in the religious world of his time. Little touched by the religious and social movements of his time, ‘he responded readly to the influence of Italian humanism, and it is through him that its free secular spirit first expresses itself in English poetry”

Chaucer’s Interest in Life At Large –

Though Chaucer was a courtier, he kept his head above the political happenings of his time. He knew that political upheavals were of an ephemeral nature. He, therefore, did not pay much attention to the Black Death, the Peasant’s Revolt and the Lollard’s Movement. These events had no poetical importance for him. He was mainly interested in life at large. His main aim in the Canterbury Tales was to represent a microcosm of English society. He wanted to represent the wide and variegated life of his times. He saw that the world was full of avarice, treachery and violence, but that was the world where man had to live in. He, therefore, depicted this world and its inhabitants in a calm, amused and delightful manner. He was not a moral prig to take a serious view of things. He was a man of jovial gay and tolerant disposition. He enjoyed himself and his world without being haunted by the shadows of horror and dismay. He felt himself quite at home in his society. He painted life as he saw it. His works are invested with the deepest human interest. His humour also springs from his human sympathy and breadth of outlook. It is mostly in the form of a sympathetic and kindly laughter and sometimes in the form of playfull irony.

Conclusion –

R.K. Koot has rightly pointed out. “We turn to Chaucer not primarily for moral guidance and spiritual sustenance, nor yet that our emotions may be deeply and powerfully moved, we turn to him rather for refreshment that our eyes and ears may be opened anew to the varied beauty and interest of the world around us, that we may come again into healthy living contact with the smiling green earth and with the hearts of men, that we may shake off for a while the burden of the mystery of all this unintelligent world,” and share in the kindly laughter of the gods, that we may breathe the pure, serene air of equanimity.”

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About the author

Kumud Singh

M.A., B.Ed.

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