How satirists attempt to reconcile literature and criticism. Essay

Submitted By gabrieldorey
Words: 3218
Pages: 13

Literature, as an art form, must justify itself through the worthiness of its beauty. If one cannot see its artistic merits whilst ignoring the impetus and aims of its composition, it is not autotelic, but terminal and meaningless – one’s perception of an artwork’s meaning can vary, but it can never influence the quality. As soon as this happens, the art loses what it truly is – self-justifying – and becomes what it is not, which is truth and logic. This is the problem in the hands of a satirist, for the genre is deeply rooted in a desire for social change, as is any act of criticism. Pointing out societal problems is the tool of a satirist, who thus suggests that things ought to be done differently. Wherefore, a conflict is in the hands of the writer: how are the aesthetic requirements, the beautiful aspects, of a piece and the philosophical points within it to be reconciled? No other field of literature is so saturated by both entities, and although they may seem mutually exclusive, they can co-exist in the form of satire.
Chaucer’s ‘Miller’s Tale’ is Horatian in its nature: charming, witty and light-hearted; with an absence of moral vitriol in the story it closely examines the follies of certain people. Large tracts of the text are just descriptive, predominately offering portraiture of the characters – the neutrality of Alisoun’s “filet brood of silk and set ful hye” and “likerous yë”, Absolon’s courtly trussing up “hise lokkes brode”, through to Nicholas’ “augrim-stones layen faire apart” does not display any abhorrence of their actions, but an interest in a well presented tale. It merely shows them as they are, and does not make the leap as to explaining why they are; nonetheless, only the bare bones of a description are given (“she was wilde and yong, and he was old”, “Fair was this yonge wyf”, “Ful often blessed was his mery throte”, “This Absolon, that jolif was and gay”) - imagination is required to picture their faces. In doing so, Chaucer blurs the sense of reality in the poem, reminding us that this is not a real place with real occurrences.
What is more, however foolish the conduct of the person, no objective opinion will be offered by the narrator; we can see that this is intentional from his comfortable intimacy with the audience elsewhere: “This tale is doon, and God save al the route!” If he wanted to share his opinion, he would be, unfettered by a form which accepts it. Nonetheless, we can still see passages with a sense of justice as certain people are physically reprimanded for their foolishness. The case in point here would be that of the Carpenter’s fall “Upon the floor”, with a “brosten... arm.” The connotations to the Original Fall show Chaucer’s reaction to “his jalousye” and utter ignorance of the affair between his wife and lodger. There are even examples of malicious distortion of the sense of his words in order to emphasise his foolishness, hence the wrong pronunciation of “astromye” and the manipulation of the exclamation, “Where wentestow, seynt Petres soster?” in order to fit the rhyme scheme.
We therefore have to on the one hand consider the necessity of the purely descriptive passages; these represent the need for a poem to be visually and audibly pleasing – they are purely aesthetic, and the reader need not take a step further to consider their didactic qualities – the “maketh” of “melodye” and the “bisinesse of mirthe and of solas” does not require a further mental leap. On the other hand, Chaucer creates characters with moral failings and does not condone their actions. Both these factors taken at face value negate one another, and it is there are other reasons as to how they can fit in with each other in this tale. It can be suggested that Chaucer adopts a tone of moral distaste because the form of satire itself demands it – in order to maintain factors such as humour, the collusion of the audience and thus enjoyment, he has created a person who is the easiest of targets for mockery: