The Monk’s Tale analysis

Although the Host demands a merry tale from the Monk, the Monk instead gives a series of cameo tragedies, all of which deal with the role of fortune in a man’s life. The Monk catalogues the fickleness of Fortune through a series of abbreviated tales about such people as Lucifer, Adam, Hercules, Samson, Nero, and so on — all who were initially favored but eventually abandoned by Fortune. The Monk concludes when the Knight interrupts him and pleads for a merry tale.

The Monk’s series of little tragedies report the gloomy news that all wealth and position in the world are pure illusion, and nothing can prevent the fall of the proud. The Monk sums up his theme in the introductory stanza: “For sure it is, if fortune decides to flee, / No man may stay her course or keep his hold; / Let no one trust a blind prosperity.” (“For certein, whan that Fortune list to flee, / Ther may no man the cours of hire withhholde. / Lat no man truste on blynd prosperitee….”) Why Chaucer wrote these stories for the Monk is unclear. They are monotonous, and the inevitable moral of each — one cannot depend on fickle fortune — comes as no surprise to the reader. This tale is often thought to be one of Chaucer’s early writings. Certainly it has none of the subtly of most of his other tales. Some authorities believe that Chaucer at one time considered writing a book of tragedies, and since he never completed his book of tragedies, this perhaps accounts for the their inclusion in The Canterbury Tales. They were simply available and seemed suitable for the Monk to relate.

Monk’s Tale stanza, a stanza of eight five-stress lines with the rhyme scheme ababbcbc. The type was established in “The Monk’s Tale” from Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. It bears some similarity to the French ballade form and is one of the forms thought to have influenced the Spenserian stanza.

Chaucer uses this ababbcbc form in his Monk’s Tale, as well as in his Marian lyric, the ABC, and hence it is often called a “Monk’s Tale stanza”. It may be that Chaucer arrived at this stanza form as an adaptation of the Italian ottava rima stanza (rhyming abababcc) used by Boccaccio for his Teseida and Filostrato. Catherine Addison discusses the form in an excellent article on ‘The Effects of the Stanza on Poetic Narrative’. She describes it as ‘a rather unsatisfactory stanza, being anticlimactic because everything seems leading up to and away from the middle couplet […] Though a stanza such as this may serve an unsettling, bathetic function, which is perhaps its purpose in the abortive anecdotes of the Monk’s Tale, it is not in itself especially memorable or pleasing, for it arouses expectations without entirely satisfying them.

Though this form is dysfunctional in one way, in another it is entirely usable and even authoritative. As well as the possible Italian source for this stanza, there is also a native tradition, established by the later fourteenth century, of writing political and religious verse in English in eight-line stanzas of four-stress lines rhyming ababbcbC (the capital Chere indicating that each stanza ends with the same refrain line).

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