Much of the humour in the Prologue springs from Chaucer’s use of irony in General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer’s whole point of view is that of the humorist. He is a comic poet who saunters casually through life, pausing the notice every trifle as he passes. He views the world as the unaccustomed traveler views a foreign country. He possesses the faculty of amused observation in a pre-eminent degree. Again and again he contrives to invest some perfectly trifling and commonplace incident with an air of whimsicality, and by doing so to make it at once realistic and remote.
Chaucer’s humour is his distinct quality. His is invigorating and delightful. His humor in the Prologue derives from the fact that he is himself one of the pilgrims, one of the original twenty-nine. He is both actor and spectator and both he and his audience enjoy the antics which this clever arrangement enables him to perform. As pilgrim-narrator, he often discloses to his readers something about a character which none of the other pilgrims could possibly know, but which adds something important to our impression of the person concerned. For example, he reveals to the delight of the readers that the Merchant was in debt and the Prioress sang the divine service intoning through the nose while she would not like to do so outside her convent.
Chaucer’s humour in the Prologue is also due to his unconventional descriptive style. He deliberately departs from the artificial, lifeless forms of traditional portraiture and addresses himself to strikingly realistic or lifelike portrayals which by their very realism of speech and idiom make the incident or the object delightful.
Chaucer’s humour is one of the greatest assets of his poetic art. As Compton-Rickett says, indeed for all his considerable power, pathos, his happy fancy, his lucid imagination, it is as a great humorist that he lingers longest in our memories, with humour, rich, profound and sane, devoid of spite and cynicism, irradiated by a genial kindliness and a consummate knowledge of human nature.
Chaucer’s kinship as a satirist is however not with Dryden or Pope or Swift but with Fielding. Chaucer hates no one, not even the Pardoner, as whole-heartedly as Fielding hates Master Blifil but the Pardoner’s Tale affords the best instance of the satirical bent of the poet’s humour when he is brought face to face with a scheming rogue. His genius is like that of Shakespeare, having a high degree of negative capability. Hence, Chaucer gives us no impression of being a great satirist, although in his writings, especially in the portraits of the Prologue we have sharp little sallies of satire.
The painfulness and rough comedy of the life of the great mass of the really poor find no place, and again their two representatives are idealized portraits. The characters of highest and lowest ranks were not suitable for comic treatment, while in any case Chaucer seems to have had relatively little intimate knowledge of the poor, as we at once realize when we compare him with Langland. In the Prologue we mainly see the middling people, and we see them through Chaucer’s eyes from a slightly superior moral and social station. As several characters in his stories say, God makes nothing in vain. Men are not angels, but neither are they devils. Chaucer gives us a vision of men and women in the world, and most of them have some relish of absurdity when looked at carefully—especially when they require neither our loyalty nor our fear.
The pervasive element of social satire in the General Prologue—most prominent in his account of the ecclesiastical figures—suggests Chaucer’s serious concern at the debasing of moral standards, and at the materialistic outlook which had taken hold of society. There are moments, as when he records the Friar’s sneering contempt for the poor, which seem to show Chaucer’s habitual good temper revolting against the cynical opportunism which had become widespread in ecclesiastical life. Such moments are rare and uncharacteristic of Chaucer. His usual attitude towards the moral weakness which he discloses is one of mocking; not so much at men’s often absurd shortcomings as at their incompatibility with the picture of himself which he presents to the world.
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 feigning of ignorance in argument. The voice of the satirist speaking out of a mask is subtle irony. Behind the mask his face may be dark with fury or writhing with contempt, but his voice is calm, sometimes seriously earnest, sometimes lightly amused. The lips of the mask and its features are persuasive, almost real, perfectly controlled. Some of those who hear the voice, and see the suave lips from which it issues, are persuaded that it is the utterance of truth and that the speaker believes everything he say. In actuality, however, the voice speaks a gross exaggeration or a falsehood, knowing it to be exaggerated or false, but announcing it as serious truth.
Gentle irony and wounding sarcastic irony can be used as weapons in all types of satire. They are, however, most effective in monologue, where a skillful satirist can, now and then, allow the real truth to flash through the mildly-colored cloud of dissimulation. The finest example of this in Chaucer is, as has been mentioned above, in the Pardoner’s prologue to his tale. Here, Chaucer lets the whole truth come out of the mouth of the villain himself.
Chaucer has been frequently ironic that in many respects for Chaucer irony is what metaphor is for later poets. Both irony and metaphor put into the same set of words a double meaning: whereas in the metaphor they are linked by comparison, in irony they are linked by contrast. The linkage is important. In each case the two elements of the double meaning, modify each other, though one may be dominant. In the case of irony the superficial ‘false’ meaning is still part of the total meaning. It modifies the “true” meaning, if only by asserting that even the underlying meaning is not the only competitor for our assent; or by establishing a limited validity even for simple mindedness. The obvious meaning is the contribution innocence makes to experience. More generally the duality of irony contributes a certain kind of uncertainty, and hence a need for toleration, not least for the poet himself, who uses irony to evade responsibility.
The greatest risk of this kind of writing is fragmentation, or a serial dissipation of effect, or self-contradictory, self-destructive inconsistencies. The attempt at variety, the implication of several possible points of view, may shatter unity. Yet most of us rarely feel that Chaucer is disintegrated, even when our rational processes, working with inappropriate models, reproach him for his inconsistencies. It is not with Chaucer’s world, as it seems with ours, that ‘the centre cannot hold’. In the form of the poems the poet’s speaking voice, for all the occasional multiplicity of what is implied, holds together the poem and his audience in a complex of relationships. Leaving aside such idealization as the Knight, the Parson and the Plowman, it may be undeniably asserted that Chaucer takes men as he finds them, obtaining that kind of amusement in the ironic yet sympathetic observation of his fellows which yields itself only to the artist’s vision. Although he has a loving relish for human behavior and human weakness, it is wrong, as some critics tend to do, to play down his irony. A high proportion of his pilgrims are rascals, and Chaucer knows that they are. Nor can we ignore his clear attack on corruption in the Church, though here again the attack is done obliquely through the presentation of individual characters. The Monk and the Friar and the Summoner are amusing enough characters as Chaucer describes them, but the behavior of the latter two, brilliantly presented and magnificently comic though it is, is the behavior of petty blackguards. The Pardoner, perhaps Chaucer’s greatest masterpiece of character drawing, implies a whole world of moral hypocrisy.