Geoffrey Chaucer's The General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales

By Harold Bloom | Go to book overview

Creation in Genesis and Nature
in Chaucer's General Prologue 1-18

Jane Chance

Literary antecedents of the opening lines of the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales include works of classical, medieval Latin, and Italian literature, and, more generally, the vernacular European lyric and the dream vision. But no scholar has yet fully realized, except in a general way, the specific thematic and structural indebtedness of these lines to the hexameral creation of the cosmos and its inhabitants in the book of Genesis—granted the caveat that no one source seems prototypical of the passage. This interest in the creation gained artistic currency as an ordering principle when it was used in the twelfth century to structure the Chartrian Cosmographia of Bernard Silvester , a work divided into two books to describe in the first the creation of the macrocosm and in the second that of the microcosm man. However, whereas Bernard employed the mythic figures of Noys [intelligence] and Endelechia [World Soul] to accomplish the initial creation of the Chain of Being in book 1, Megacosmus, and of Natura, Physis, and Urania to accomplish the initial creation of its crown, Man, in book 2, Microcosmus, Chaucer returns to a less fabulous and more biblical framework for the Prologue. Ending with the Revelation-like allusion to the Holy Jerusalem in the Parson's Prologue (followed appropriately by Chaucer's "Retraction," as if in fear of the Last Judgment), he begins equally appropriately with a Genesis‐ like opening.

The general correspondence between these first eighteen lines and the Hexameron and Fall is supported both by the time and purpose of the

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From Papers on Language and Literature 14, no. 4 (Fall 1978). © 1978 by the Board of Trustees of Southern Illinois University.

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