|"Chaucer's Prologue to Pilgrimage: The Two Voices" Arthur W. Hoffman
from The Norton Critical Edition of The Canterbury Tales
The portraits in the General Prologue are like figures in a tapestry.
Internal relationships between the portraits exist.
By exploring the juxtaposition of opposite traits in the tapestry, between characters and within the characters themselves, we discover Chaucer's central purpose:
through the power of the poetic imagination, an aspect of the divine
spirit is revealed:
opposites can be resolved,
contradictory character traits can be integrated
a new vision of human nature emerges, complex and unpredictable
the medieval notion of determined character types explodes
- the seeming chaos of human nature's conflicting desires finds harmony in God's love.
From the outset the poem explores the dual nature of our earthly pilgrimage.
- The pilgrimage is made in response to the up-thrust and burgeoning of life in Springtime.
- This pilgrimage is also a particular outpouring of individuals in a particular time and place.
Yet the pilgrims (and the season) also respond to the call of the supernatural: the saint whose shrine is the final destination of the journey.
Close Reading of first twenty five lines:
the impregnating of March by April
- a marriage of holt and heath, of air and earth
the focus moves from the general to the specific, from a universal celebration of Spring to the particular celebration of that event in England
- it moves from nature and amor (secular life) to the embrace of the holy blissful martyr and amor dei
- the season brings the restoration of the sick, the watering of the dry earth, and the restoration of the human heart
- reading the poem imaginatively can accomplish the same religious purpose.
The double view of the pilgrimage is enhanced and extended by the portraits:
there is a range of motivation for joining the pilgrimage from sacred to profane
- Knight and Parson vs. Summoner and Pardoner
- The Prioress vs. the Wife of Bath
- a fundamental and inescapable ambiguity exists as part of the human condition, yet these opposites are joined:
|- origins vs. ends
- matter vs. spirit
- comic resolution and harmony in the end reveal how the purposes of nature and supernature are one
Knight vs Squire:
Age vs. youth
Amor dei vs. amor
Delicately poised ambiguity which will open into emphatic discrepancy in the Monk and the Friar: a designed sequence in the portraits
- What kind of woman is the Prioress? What kind of prioress is the woman?
- The Prioress should be obligated to cloistered piety and has been enjoined against going on pilgrimages, yet she goes.
- The portrait emphasizes the physical attributes of woman: the individual set against the sacred purpose of her office:
Blue eyes, red mouth, finely shaped nose, width of forehead,
- Eglentyne- a name from Romance tradition, 'simple and coy' can be read any number of ways
- The coral beads and green gauds of her rosary
- Her gold brooch is a religious emblem
- She wears a fashionable nun's habit
- Her speech possesses a Stratford accent but she also has a beautiful singing voice.
- She possesses vanity for talent, but it serves God's glory.
- "Amor vincit omnia." Saint Venus yet a religious symbol
- Earthly love vs.Heavenly Love
- Amor is meant to be taken as both earthly and divine love.
- How does God's love make the Prioress' religious devotion valid despite all her vanities, shallowness and limitations?
- The Secular impulse is overcome by a sacred redemptive will.
The Parson and The Ploughman (with The Knight, idealized figures.)
The Parson is brother to the Ploughman
- The sacred and the secular linked
- The conflicts of the sacred and secular resolved.
The Summoner and The Pardoner
The illumination of the links between sacred and secular are intensified and refracted by dark surfaces.
- Love is made sinister and distorted
- The lecherous Summoner harmonizes in song with the impotent Pardoner, the eunuch: "Come hider, love, to me!"
- Love's dual aspects- denied both- but which each desperately needs
- The Summoner
|- Office of divine justice operating on Earth
- "Questo quod iuris"- not just the sum of his knowledge but the true substance of his office.
- "significavit"- the opening word of the writ of excommunication: the ultimate judgment
- fiery physical features: not just indications of a decadent lifestyle, but also remind us of the power of God at the Last Judgment: voice like a trumpet
|- The ostensible instrument of divine mercy and love
- He makes appeals for charity to God's mercy and love
- His pardons are inferior versions of the ultimate pardon: Christ's sacrifice
The Pardoner and The Summoner together:
- two aspects of supernature:
- divine justice and divine love are powerful even over these debased instruments
- natural love and celestial love
The poem explores how the opposites which exist simultaneously in human nature can be miraculously resolved by the restorative power of Love.
- The poem explores how even in the most debased characters the existence of God's love still persists if only in perverse forms.