The Host of Chaucer
By j doloris
The Host of Chaucer’s “Sentence”
Chaucer creates a near phenomenon for his time with the Canterbury Tales. The Tales weave lively characters varied in class and gender to create an end result that transcends the medieval setting to continuously intrigue modern critics. Of particular interest, the Host of the Canterbury Tales commands speculation from every angle: what is his function, how is he separate, did Chaucer give him more significance than the rest of the company? In Betty R. Taylor’s thesis of the Host’s aspects she notes that “the functions of the Host…are at once obvious; but, upon closer examination, they are quite subtle and complicated” (24). Noticeably, the Host does function as instigator of the tale-telling game, judge of their tales, and link between tales. The General Prologue depicts him as separate from the company because he assumes an immediate role and takes action as a character rather than a representative portrait. Still, these distinctions alone fall short of satisfying the intrigue over such a character. Chaucer creates the Host with stronger personality and more action than his character peers, but seems to intentionally center him in their midst. Unlike Chaucer the pilgrim, who obviously resides over his peers as observer, the Host does not act or think outside of his designated role within the pilgrimage. Analyzing the Canterbury Tales reveals that the Host did indeed act and think outside of his role, although unknowingly. Chaucer displays his own authorial knowledge and insight through the Host’s actions and thoughts. More specifically, Chaucer displays his deeper purpose for the Canterbury Tales through the Host. The Host, therefore, serves not only as guide to Canterbury but to Chaucer’s deeper subject of spiritual pilgrimage as well.
As a master craftsman, Chaucer overtly intertwines his spiritual subject with the structure of the text and its function. His allegory contains a “complexity of the hidden meaning that is not only important, it is essential” (29). It is essential because the structure and function of the text itself reveals and reflects the spiritual journey. Chaucer specifically uses two textual conventions to unveil the second meaning of the Canterbury pilgrimage. Both conventions exist through word signals, or double-meanings placed in the Host’s mouth by Chaucer to both disguise and indicate a deeper truth. Thus the Host serves as vehicle for Chaucer’s purpose of the Tales. The Host introduces the first convention while directing his company to choose either “sentence” or “solaas” as the purpose of their tales (GP Line 798). The second convention relates more to the overall structure of the Tales as the Host claims he “kan nat speke in terme,” or rhetoric (PhyT 311). By mere introduction, these statements by the Host seem little more than conversation to move the story along, and indeed Chaucer chooses words that fit naturally into the personality and function of the Host as bourgeois middle class and “right a myrie man.” However, Joseph E. Grennen points out that “since words carry their histories on their backs…the deeper implications are sometimes best understood as matters of explicit intention…” (19). Both instances of the Host’s seemingly natural comments become ironic in context. His call for either “sentence” or “solaas” critiques the whole structure of the Canterbury Tales and Chaucer’s mergence of both tales of enjoyment and tales of morality. Likewise, the Host’s claim “I kan nat speke in terme” directly contradicts his reputation of “a man who has shown himself capable of rising to every occasion with a remarkable range of verbal dexterity” (19). These ironies indicate Chaucer’s “deeper implications” beyond the surface of the Host’s functional conversation.
Chaucer uses words with double meanings as signals in the Host’s mouth to reveal his two-fold “sentence” of the pilgrims’ spiritual journey. The Host, although worldly minded, speaks ironic truths throughout the Tales. The irony emerges because the Host himself does not recognize a second and deeper meaning to his own comments disguised as functional conversation. Grennen describes the Host’s unrealized double meanings as “the poet speaking to his audience over the heads of his characters” (19). The first of this two-fold intention appears in the Host’s condition for tales of “tales of best sentence and moost solaas” (GP 798). As the pilgrimage continues, he becomes much less interested in those tales having “sentence,” even asserting that a tale cannot include both but must be “either-or.” Obviously Chaucer would be concerned with this aspect of tale-telling as his conglomerate of tales attempt to emulate “solaas” while some include “sentence” as well. More importantly, the condition of either-or critiques the Canterbury Tales as a whole which are “knytte up” with “sentence” and a pious retraction of the previous “solaas” from Chaucer himself (ParsT 47). L. M. Leitch traces the Host’s transition from the original call for “sentence and solaas” to the condition of either “sentence” or “solaas.” Leitch also makes the direct connection between the Host’s comments and Chaucer’s intentions for the Tales. Rather than mere dictum the Host’s speech presents “the core of the thematic tension of the Canterbury Tales: the conflict between pleasure and edification extends to the tension between festivity and repentance” (5). The first conflict between pleasure and edification seems to be a self-critical statement by Chaucer of his own blend with pleasure and morality. Not only does he include merry and solemn tales, but he allows some characters to tell a merry tale then gloss an applicable moral. Such blending, as the Host unknowingly specifies, should not exist within Tales. As Harry Bailly further asserts against the Monk’s “tedious series of tragedies… ‘Whereas a man may have noon audience, / Nought helpeth it to tellen his sentence” (MkT 3991-92). If the tale’s “sentence” no longer holds an audience it also loses its significance no matter how important it may be. The Host argues for the practicality of pleasurable tales because purely spiritual tales “have noon audience.” Harry rebukes the Monk for his boring tale to a real and present audience of pilgrims “within the context of Chaucer’s fictional world – and very responsive gallery of fellow pilgrims” (5). Yet Chaucer’s loaded language directs the audience’s attention past that of the Host. Besides the audience of fellow literary pilgrims, the Host’s words apply to Chaucer’s art and his audience. Self-consciously Chaucer realizes (through the Host) the importance of pleasing the audience. The distinction lies between the Host’s mere preference for pleasure and Chaucer’s understanding that pleasure is necessary for an audience’s initial intrigue. Only when the reader enjoys the tale, can the author can begin to “glosse” a deeper moral.
The Host’s attitude of mirth originates from an archetype distinctly unlike Chaucer’s creation. This dissimilarity is crucial to Chaucer’s use of the Host’s obsession with mirth as a prelude to his spiritual moral. Mark Allen discusses the Host pattern of “Sir Myrthe” in The Romance de la Rose, making contrasts between the well-known prototype and Chaucer’s version. This comparison reveals intentional changes by Chaucer to the “Host of mirth” that further support his point of either-or. Allen begins by pointing out that “both provide their constituencies with diversion or “myrthe” (9). As Allen continues he mentions in passing that the paradisiacal garden of Romance de la Rose is “a place of solace” where Sir Myrthe and Gladnesse share “‘a gret love..atwixe hem two’” (10). Coupling Chaucer’s convention of solace with “gret love” separates Sir Myrthe’s purpose of merriment from that of Chaucer’s Host. Conversely, the Host “doon yow myrthe” as a distraction (GP 766). His “disport” therefore leads the company away from their original spiritual purpose. Where Sir Myrthe shares “gret love” in his garden of mirth, the Host disguises spirituality for the sake of pleasure. Furthermore, the mirth of Romance de la Rose arises from “‘Ydelnesse’ who invites the narrator into the garden of Myrthe…In direct contrast with idleness, the Host busily establishes the mirthful diversion of the tale-telling contest…hastening progress by reminding the pilgrims of the passage of time” (15). Again Chaucer places his Host in deliberate contradiction with his pattern to emphasize the nature of his mirth. Whereas Sir Myrthe lords in idleness of paradise, Harry Bailly lords in haste of “reality.” Using mirth to preoccupy the pilgrims, Harry’s “pleye” also occupies the reader’s attention from considering the pertinent reality underneath the frame of the road to Canterbury. Sir Myrthe lords in an idleness that “excludes all those who are sorrowful, and those included are attractive and without worry” (10). Once the Host pauses to lament the passing of time and ultimately the judgment, “It wol nat come again, withouten drede,” but immediately jerks his patrons from considering their journey from the perspective of passing time saying “Let us nat mowlen thus in ydelnesse” (MLT 29-32). Chaucer intentionally limits the Host to an earthly adaptation of mirth. Specifically, the Host’s mirth serves as a distraction rather than contemplation of spiritual truth. Allen describes the Host’s limitation in terms of Chaucer’s “manly” version of the gender-less pattern. Although his “masculinity is the major moving force of the pilgrimage…It may be insufficient to move the pilgrimage to completion” (21). The consequence of the earthly and incomplete Host renders him unable to complete the pilgrimage designed with a spiritual goal. Chaucer creates the Host to guide the company of pilgrims and readers to a gap between “the limitations of bourgeois masculinity” and “more exalted outlooks” (20). He intentionally voyeurs both the usefulness and problems of human mirth through the Host to display the need for a higher form of mirth. The Parson alleviates this gap between humanity and heavenly “supplant[ing] the insufficiency of the Host’s mirth with his spiritual ‘myrie tale in prose’”(20).
Chaucer’s second of the two-fold “sentence” directly correlates with the first aspect, deeming rhetoric and poetry as insufficient forms to attain divine Truth. Another example of Chaucer’s speaking over the heads of his characters shows up in the Host’s comments on rhetoric. The Host admits “I kan nat speke in terme” as the learned physician could. As Edwin Stieve exposes, “terme” is one of these double-meaning words that Chaucer uses in the mouth of the Host as a loaded symbol. Stieve explains that “‘terme’ can mean both rhetorical and medical terminology.” In fact, Plato melds the two meanings to create a new connotation of rhetoric as spiritual medicine (7). The Host’s very ‘preciseness,’ Stieve cites, indicates that he is quite capable of speaking in the technical sense of the word “terme.” In fact, Chaucer draws attention to the Host’s speech through out the Tales beginning in the General Prologue introducing the Host’s “bolde speche” which Harry later exemplifies through “his habitual use of blasphemous oaths” (Burnley 211). J.D. Burnley concludes that “there is consistency in Chaucer’s conception of Harry Bailly, but it is a consistency not of personality but of voice” (211). Because the Host obviously can use rhetoric in its technical sense, Chaucer must be referring to this second meaning in relation to the Host’s inadequacy. Chaucer turns the second meaning constructed by Plato on its head by placing it in the Host’s mouth. No, the Host cannot speak in the rhetoric “analogous to that of healing” because Chaucer did not agree that rhetoric could achieve a spiritual objective. Burnley cites “Plato’s Timaeus as an authority that plain speech and proper usage encourage clear communication” (212). Chaucer deliberately twists meanings or uses “words which diverge sharply from Chaucer’s ordinary usage” (208). Instead of using Plato’s method of “clear communication” he uses the Host’s divergent vocabulary to disguise his actual meaning. The Host’s dynamic characterization layers a second disguise to the interpretation of meaning because such “bolde speche” could just be attributes of a complex personality (GP 755). Yet the pilgrims of Canterbury lack evidence of developed personalities where as Chaucer amplifies “treatment of moral themes” (213). This emphasis on theme over characterization suggests that “Chaucer will breach verisimilitude in pursuance of a theme, placing words with thematic import inappropriately in the mouths of characters” (213). Burnley goes on to clarify that Chaucer draws no distinction between vocabulary to enhance a personality and vocabulary that highlights a theme. This very lack of distinction appears strongest in the Host, who claims the most dynamic personality, but also uses vocabulary with the most double meanings. Chaucer purposefully characterizes the Host beyond the other characters to draw attention to his speech. He also uses this strong characterization as a disguise of the thematic elements behind his speech such as spiritual pilgrimage. Therefore Chaucer’s use of rhetoric as an attribute of the Host actually functions “as a mouthpiece for the poet” (213).
William Franke draws out Chaucer’s limitation of rhetoric and poetry further by analyzing how Chaucer’s poem of spiritual journey differs from Dante’s archetype of spiritual journey. Franke claims that “unlike Dante [Chaucer] believed this truth to be beyond the range of poetry” (88). Dante uses the course of the Divine Comedy to reveal truer love to his protégé character. Somehow “the sensible world from which poetic imagery is drawn is capable of offering signs by which the human intellect may apprehend divine reality…albeit only in part and indirectly,” and somehow the pilgrim finds divine Truth by relating to these metaphorical descriptions in poetry (89). Although Chaucer would have been familiar with Dante’s structure and use of poetry as a guide to the divine, the Canterbury Tales resemble an inversion of Dante’s method. The afterthought of “only in part and indirectly” roots Chaucer’s own idea of poetry as insufficient to “apprehend divine reality.” Whereas Dante employs his poetry to remedy incomplete perception of spiritual truth, Chaucer resigns poetry to this incompleteness. Franke explains Chaucer’s poetic method as:
the gaining of a perspective on the whole spectrum
of human folly and its travesty of truth, its
inevitable untruth, and this sort of knowledge may
be taken as a first step towards orienting oneself
to what emerges in the end, beyond all human making,
as true. (88)
Chaucer uses poetry, like rhetoric, as a divergence from divine Truth. He still attains revelation of the divine, but through contrast rather than poetic comparison. The Canterbury Tales, therefore, do not admit a divine orientation but a worldly one. Franke clarifies Chaucer’s poetry in relation to Dante’s, “Chaucer is not writing about the other world like Dante. Yet this fact nevertheless conditions all that he does write” (91). If Chaucer’s goal is the divine and his poetry removes the reader from the divine, the Host likewise reflects the removal from spiritual truth. The Host’s worldliness, evident in his abrasive curses and pleasure with bawdy tales, sets him up as an ironic guide for the pilgrimage. Also, Veda Mae Sample argues that the Host “intended to benefit fully from that trip” (13). This distinction as the only “pilgrim” in a position to gain should signal the reader to his function as a false guide. Ingeniously, Chaucer has embodied the intention of his poetry in the Host: a complex and functional distraction from the deeper meaning of a text or a pilgrimage. The reader and the company of pilgrims alike allow the distraction until “the sonne wole adoun” (ParsT 70). Suddenly, as the journey draws to an end the company remembers the significance of such a journey, thus urging the Host to invite the Parson to tell his tale. The exchange of guides from Host to Parson signals the reader to compare the two guides and their qualifications. The Host has successfully fulfilled his promise of “doon yow ese” but his service fails to guide them to their spiritual destination of “Caunterbury…The blissful martir quite yow youre meede!” (GP 770). In fact, as the original purpose of the pilgrimage reappears, the contrast of the pilgrims’ previous jocular discussions and tales become shameful. The Host as instigator of the fleshly “pleye” also stands condemned. Chaucer’s distinction between the function of poetry and prose materializes as the Parson replies to the invitation by asserting his tale “wol nat glose--/ I wol yow telle a myrie tale in prose” (ParsT 46). The necessity of transition from Host to Parson proves “there is no continuum between earthly and divine love,” or between earthly poetry and divine truth (99). Earthly poetry functions merely as a perspective, far removed from “the final word…conspicuously not poetic” (99). Chaucer leads the reader thus far in poetry only to prove its uselessness for his “sentence” by a dramatic shift into prose by the Parson. Immediately following the Parson’s “virtuous sentence” Chaucer’s Retraction disclaims his “translacions and enditynges of worldly vanitees” causing the reader to also retract the worldly pleasure gained from such tales (ParsT 1084). The retraction, like the Parson’s Tale, responds directly the gap created between poetry, the Host’s guidance and Chaucer’s “sentence” of spiritual pilgrimage. By the end of the Tales Chaucer has fleshed out the inverted structure by responding to his earth-bound poem with the Parson’s tale in prose immediately before his own retraction. He did not exercise poetry as a guide to the divine but he uses poetry, like the Host, to lead the reader ultimately to a silence or incompleteness. The preliminary signals of a deeper meaning prepare the pilgrimage for the Parson-Retraction conclusion. Because poetry cannot transcend to the divine, Chaucer must silence both his Host and his poetry to reveal the true implications of the pilgrimage to Canterbury. Franke illumines the relationship of Chaucer’s poetry and his conclusion saying, “Poetry…does not lead us to the truth but to tragedy, after which we can start over in the opposite direction to seek after truth” (99). Chaucer’s poem of a fictional host and pilgrimage reveals the falseness of the world and thus, from this perspective, turns the reader away from the simple pleasure of poetry to take on the spiritual pilgrimage.
The ingenuity of structure often distracts critics from Chaucer’s ultimate subject. In fact, this distraction becomes a key element of his “sentence.” The creation of his host to intentionally preoccupy the Canterbury pilgrims mirrors the reader’s own journey through the Tales. Thus the Host carries Chaucer’s deeper subject of spiritual journey by contrast of his own speech and actions. Chaucer employs the Host with word signals that hold layered meanings and therefore can fit into the Host’s character while speaking on a deeper level. The very structure of the Tales in which the Host functions reveals the false intention of the Host to lead his company on their spiritual journey and the faulty intention of poetry to achieve divine truth. The Host guides both company and reader to the realization that truth lies in the opposite direction, thus Chaucer responds with the Parson’s Tale and the Retraction to reveal his true purpose of spiritual pilgrimage in The Canterbury Tales.
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© j doloris