Geoffrey Chaucer's The General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales

By Harold Bloom | Go to book overview

History and Form in the General
Prologue to the Canterbury Tales

Loy D. Martin

Is the form of the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales new or old? Critical sentiment seems on the whole to favor newness; yet there has always remained a sense of craftsmanship and conventionality about the poem which continually reinvigorates the search for a strong antecedent genre. In recent years, a few attempts have been persuasive, notably J. V. Cunningham's structural analysis of the Prologue as a dream vision. Cunningham begins with the assumption that there must be an available generic "tradition" which functions intact to shape a poet's experience into poetry, but even his most convinced reader must wonder why Chaucer's use of that tradition escaped notice until the twentieth century.I think this suggests that Cunningham's ideal notions of tradition and genre cause him to overstate his case, but I also think there are very good reasons why he perceived such a strong affinity between the Prologue and the form of the dream vision. In order to save his valuable intuition, then, while offering an alternative set of assumptions about genre formation, I should like to turn briefly to an idea offered by Alastair Fowler in an essay called " The Life and Death of Literary Forms."

Fowler notices that genres, after complex developments in time, often do not simply disappear. Rather they break up into what he calls "modes," methods of writing, like satiric language, which are still recognizable but which can no longer account for the formal properties of entire works. This is a very simple and useful observation; it is undoubtedly true. The question

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From ELH 45, no. 1 (Spring 1978). © 1978 by the Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore/ London.

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