Monday, February 3, 2014

Crime and Punishment

In his essay detailing the art of poetry, Sir Philip Sidney says of the poet, “he goeth hand in hand with Nature, not enclosed within the narrow warrants of her gifts, but freely ranging only within the zodiac of his own wit.” (Sidney 85). This is quite a bold statement to declare about the power of poetry and of the poet. However, if we take Sidney for his word it very much makes sense that poetry would find its way into “Banned Literature.” As Sidney suggests, the power of the poet is that he defies nature and operates in his own sphere. He simultaneously lives within nature and comments on it. This places poets on a grand stage through which their message can reach widespread audiences. Sidney believes Chaucer to be the pinnacle of writing in the English language and as such, Chaucer has certain social responsibilities. Sidney believes poets, “ask whether it be possible to find any path so ready to lead a man to virtue as that which teacheth what virtue is…also by making known his enemy, Vice” (88). Sidney asserts that the responsibility of the poet is too teach his readers about vice and virtue. This lens can easily be transferred and played out in studying the Miller’s Tale.
On a basic level it is easy to see why some would ban the Canterbury Tales, specifically the Miller’s Tale. Apart from being overtly lewd, Chaucer also offers brutal and occasionally offensive depictions of the various classes. While this may have been one of his intentions, I also think Chaucer tried to fulfill Sidney’s assigned mission to poets. The Miller’s Tale presents readers with four characters who are guilty of vice. The carpenter represents jealousy, Nicholas represents pride (and the pursuit of unworldly knowledge, in the form of his astronomy), Absolon represents vanity, and Alison is guilty of lust. Chaucer punishes each of these characters in a way that fits their various crimes. John’s wife commits adultery, Alison is “used” by Nicholas and made into an object, Nicholas is made to look like a fool, and Absolon is ridiculed. At the end of the tale the Miller describes the townspeople gathered around laughing at the four vices before them saying, “The folk gan laughen at his fantasye;/ Into the roof they kiken and they cape,/ And turned al his harm unto a jape.” (Chaucer 77). The townspeople laugh because the punishment fits the crime and on one level Chaucer does want his readers to see the humor in the tale. However, as we discussed with Lysistrata, humor is an effective method of conveying a message that is otherwise distasteful. Readers can learn the difference between vice and virtue simply by practicing religion. But Chaucer presents it to them in a way that is entertaining and unforgettable. While the Canterbury Tales is certainly a commentary on class structure it can also be read as a lesson on vice and virtue and crime and punishment.

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