I was intrigued by Sidney’s claim that poetry is superior to history. He states that historians are “so tied, not to what should be but to what is, to the particular truth of things and not to the general reason of things, that his example draweth no necessary consequence and therefore a less fruitful doctrine” (89). While I might never have so boldly claimed that literature (or poetry) is better than history, I have always believed that literature has its own way of teaching people history. Literature not only teaches facts, such as the daily interactions and common routines of the people of the time, it also, as Sidney states, teaches the general reason. When the Miller rudely interrupts the host to declare that it is in fact his turn, Chaucer is commenting on the rising social status of the working middle class. Although crude, the Miller has money in his own way. He is part of a guild, which in this time is like a labor union but with the owners instead of the workers. No longer does only the old money of the nobles have influence. While the Miller might not be as refined as the Knight, who’s tale proceeds him, he is boldly taking a stand by proclaiming his right to follow the Knight’s tale. Not only does he intend to follow the Knight, he claims that he will “quyte” (line 19) him. He believes that he can both answer and outdo the previous story. While the middle class might not have the etiquettes of the nobles, the actions of the Miller represent their rise in influence.
By claiming that his story will “quyte” the Knight’s tale, he is also claiming that his characters are more true and realistic. His Alison is made to be a more interesting woman than the knight’s damsel. She is a “real” woman who “real” men want, whether they are noble or common. If one digs deep, Chaucer also has a moral aspect to the tale. In Dr. Scheye’s English History class, we discussed how there is a correlation between Noah’s flood, which is a purification of sins, and the water that Nicholas calls for at the end. In both cases, water is used for a pseudo baptism. Through the Miller, Chaucer might be commentating on how it is necessary for society to cleanse its sins. This is similar to how Aristophanes’ Lysistrata had an underlying moral meaning to his comedic, and often bawdy, words. Just as Sidney states, authors can draw consequences from their historical works.
Sidney believes that poetry, by “pretending no more [than a fun and interesting experience], doth intend the winning of the mind from wickedness to virtue.” I agree with this argument for literature in general. As we have seen in Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, greater morals can, and should, be found when reading. Literature lures people in on the pretext of being just an enjoyable diversion, but in the end it can teach a valuable lesson. Literature, or poetry, is a jack of all trades: it can teach history, philosophy, science, and so many other fields of learning.