Monday, February 3, 2014

History vs. Poetry

Chaucer’s The Miller’s Tale walks the talk of Sidney’s An Apology for Poetry. In stating that the difference between a historian and a poet is that “[a poet does not labor] to tell you what is, or is not, but what should or should not be” Sidney portrays an idealist’s pursuit of perfection and guards poetry from a culture that obsesses with the weighing of strict, factual evidence (97). In this context, he encourages the reader to look at Chaucer’s work as a case study of human weakness, rather than a limited historical moment one can pinpoint on a timeline. While history is limited to what actually happened, poetry explores ways of learning, reflection, and growth.

On the same note of betterment and the pursuit of perfection, The Miller’s Tale, as comedies usually do, portrays people as worse than they are.  In order to find out how to better oneself, one must first set standards. Using characters, instead of portraits, particularly the unfaithful wife, the jealous husband, and the shameless suitor, Chaucer demonstrates how poets’ “naming of men is but to make their picture the more lively, and not to build any history” (97). This further supports the advantages of poetic license over historical fact. While history usually needs a date, eye-witness accounts, and even archaeological evidence (depending on how far back you’re looking), etc, poetry has the liberty to incite emotional responses and include moral commentary. In consideration of the way the tale is framed, the framing imitates the idea that poetry entertains. Chaucer creates the Miller, who is drunk, who tells the host and company a story of a carpenter of his wife. The story within the story portrays Sidney’s idea of poetry as “imitation…a speaking picture…to teach and delight” (86). Areas of interpretation are limitless in consideration of The Miller’s Tale. The portrayal of human weakness is digestible in poetry form. If presented as a historical event, in the local news perhaps, the story would be less digestible. Therefore, poetry is the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine that is human fallibility go down… in a most delightful way.

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