Voices in the General
Prologue to The Canterbury Tales
Chaucer gives us no explicit portrait headed "A Poet ther was" in the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales. Yet the entire Prologue, like so many vernacular invitations to narrative from the twelfth century on, is designed to introduce the poet, describe his task, and gain the goodwill of the audience. Scholars generally agree that the later medieval practice of composing prologues depended on the grammar school study of rhetorical handbooks and classical poetry. By the fourteenth century a self-reflexive prologue conforming to handbook definitions had become more or less de rigueur for aristocratic narrative, both secular and religious. Chaucer's Prologue, though longer and more complex than most, is no exception. It raises expectations in just the areas the handbooks propose, promising to take up important matters of natural and social order, moral character, and religion and outlining the organization the work will follow. Above all, the poet presents himself, as the handbooks direct, to ingratiate himself with his listeners or readers and render them receptive to his argument.
Chaucer's Prologue, however, meets these generic expectations in entirely unexpected ways. Most recent critics have recognized that it does not provide a neat, straightforward portrait of the poet. Chaucer's authority remains elusive, exceeding the requirements of the humility topos. Furthermore, whatever potential there may be for coherence in his self-presentation tends to be undermined by the several abrupt changes of style and subject. In fact, the parts of the General Prologue seem to function as____________________