Matthew Arnold’s view of Chaucer | Write a short note on Matthew Arnold’s view of Chaucer

Matthew Arnold’s view of Chaucer

Chaucer is nourished on the early poet of France. He has got words, rhyme, a metre from his poetry. But his poetry is superior to France poetry. Because it is so rich in substance and in texture. His large face, simple, clear yet kindly views off human life marks all the distinction.
In the study of poetry Mathew Arnold refers to Chaucer and seeks to establish a real estimate of his poetry. He says that the poetical importance of Chaucer does not need the assistance of the historic estimate.hHe is a genuine source of joy.He admits that the language is a cause of difficult for us, but he believes that it is a difficulty to be unhesitatingly accepted and overcome.
According to Matthew Arnold (in his essay The Study of Poetry), Chaucer’s criticism of life has largeness, freedom, shrewdness and benignity, but it lacks “high seriousness”. The term “high seriousness” which Arnold says marks the works of Homer. Dante and Milton and Wordsworth apparently implies a sustained magnificence of artistic conception and execution accompanied by deep moral and spiritual values.
It must be remembered that Arnold laid a great deal of importance on the “actions, human actions” a “high seriousness” is inevitably bound up with this. His concept of poetry being a “criticism of life” is quite satisfied by Chaucer. Chaucer’s poetry is steeped with life, and yet there is basic sanity and order in his vision which Arnold should not have missed.
The fun and comedy in Chaucer’s writing often blind one to his basic greatness. His vision is truly Christian in its broad and forgiving tolerance. His vision of the earth ranges from one of amused delight to one of grave compassion. His fresh goodwill and kindly common sense, his sense of joy and warmth are communicated through his poetry especially in The Canterbury Tales. But behind the fun and tolerance there is a sane moral view. Chaucer’s tolerance is not born of moral leniency or from a desire to excuse or mitigate the worldliness of the characters as he saw them. The Monk’s travesty of the cloister in the name of gracious living finds no exoneration from Chaucer, nor is Chaucer appreciative of the wickedness of the Summonier and the Pardoner. His tolerance is based on deep conviction of human fraility, and his medium of looking at it is irony, not inventive.
When we read the pen portraits of the pilgrims, we can see how clearly Chaucer has suggested the values they live by and what they look for. In these values—the chivalry of the Knight, the Monk’s love for hunting, the Doctor’s love of gold, the poor Parson’s holy thought and work, the Clerk’s love for learning and teaching—lies Chaucer’s subtle moral judgement.
When Arnold quotes a line from Chaucer as truly classic, he chooses a line expressive of stoic resignation. “O martyr seeded to virginity” from the Prioress’s tale. Indeed, all the lines quoted by Arnold as “touchstones” have the ring of stoic resignation. Thus, Arnold’s own view seems biased in favour of the obviously solemn and didactic. In fact, Arnold’s concept of poetry does not seem to include the genre of comedy. The term “high seriousness” has been interpreted to mean seriousness in the more obvious sense. The poet’s criticism of life is not only to be serious but also seen to be serious. Arnold seems to demand solemn rhetoric. If we interpret “high seriousness” in this light, we can only say that Chaucer’s poetry lacks it, for Chaucer was anything but “solemn”. However, if we consider “high seriousness” in a broader light, Chaucer’s observation of life, his insight into its passions and weaknesses, its virtues and strength is truly great. If we strictly accept Matthew Arnold’s contention, then we will have to deny “high seriousness” to all comic writers, even to Moliere and Cervantes.
And yet Chaucer is not one of the great classics. His poetry transcends and effaces, easily and without effort, all the romance-poetry of Catholic Christendom; it transcends and effaces all the English poetry contemporary with it, it transcends and effaces all the English poetry subsequent to it down to the age of Elizabeth. Of such avail is poetic truth of substance, in its natural and necessary union with poetic truth of style. And yet, I say, Chaucer is not one of the great classics. He has not their accent. What is wanting to him is suggested by the mere mention of the name of the first great classic of Christendom, the immortal poet who died eighty years before Chaucer,—Dante. The accent of such verse as
In la sua volontade è nostra pace . . .
is altogether beyond Chaucer’s reach; we praise him, but we feel that this accent is out of the question for him. It may be said that it was necessarily out of the reach of any poet in the England of that stage of growth. Possibly; but we are to adopt a real, not a historic, estimate of poetry. However, we may account for its absence, something is wanting, then, to the poetry of Chaucer, which poetry must have before it can be placed in the glorious class of the best. And there is no doubt what that something is. It is the spoudaiotes, the high and excellent seriousness, which Aristotle assigns as one of the grand virtues of poetry. The substance of Chaucer’s poetry, his view of things and his criticism of life, has largeness, freedom, shrewdness, benignity; but it has not this high seriousness. Homer’s criticism of life has it, Dante’s has it, Shakespeare’s has it. It is this chiefly which gives to our spirits what they can rest upon; and with the increasing demands of our modern ages upon poetry, this virtue of giving us what we can rest upon will be more and more highly esteemed. A voice from the slums of Paris, fifty or sixty years after Chaucer, the voice of poor Villon out of his life of riot and crime, has at its happy moments (as, for instance, in the last stanza of La Belle Heaulmière) [“The name Heaulmière is said to be derived from a head-dress (helm) worn as a mark by courtesans. In Villon’s ballad, a poor old creature of this class laments her days of youth and beauty . . . . ”—Arnold’s note.] more of this important poetic virtue of seriousness than all the productions of Chaucer. But its apparition in Villon, and in men like Villon, is fitful; the greatness of the great poets, the power of their criticism of life, is that their virtue is sustained.
To our praise, therefore, of Chaucer as a poet there must be this limitation; he lacks the high seriousness of the great classics, and therewith an important part of their virtue. Still, the main fact for us to bear in mind about Chaucer is his sterling value according to that real estimate which we firmly adopt for all poets. He has poetic truth of substance, though he has not high poetic seriousness, and corresponding to his truth of substance he has an exquisite virtue of style and manner. With him is born our real poetry.

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