The Canterbury Tales: Poem or Prose?

Instructor: Katherine Garner

Katie teaches middle school English/Language Arts and has a master's degree in Secondary English Education

This lesson will explore whether Geoffrey Chaucer's 'The Canterbury Tales' is considered poetry, prose, or a bit of both. The reasons behind why Chaucer chose to write in the style he did are also discussed.

Poetic Style

The majority of The Canterbury Tales is written in verse, meaning that poetic elements such as a particular rhythm and rhyme pattern are utilized. Chaucer wrote his verse with lines that contain ten syllables and often had rhyming pairs of lines called couplets. The meter, or rhythm, formed with ten syllables per line eventually evolved into the meter called iambic pentameter, the meter that Shakespeare wrote his plays in.

Sections in Prose

Though the majority of the writing in The Canterbury Tales is in verse and is usually categorized as poetry, there are two tales that are written in prose, or non-poetic writing with no rhythm, rhyme, or other poetic structures. These two stories are ''The Parson's Tale'' and ''The Tale of Melibee.'' Chaucer's choice to switch from poetry to prose probably is a reflection on the characters telling the story.

The parson actually says that he does not approve of fiction or verse, feeling that it is frivolous, or indulgent. Instead of a real story, he ends up giving a sermon on sin and penance, or doing work/praying for forgiveness.

Image of the parson from a Canterbury Tales manuscript
Image of the parson from one of the Canterbury Tales manuscripts

For ''The Tale of Melibee,'' it is actually the narrator of The Canterbury Tales, which may be seen as Chaucer himself, telling the story. He begins to tell a tale in verse but the host and innkeeper, Harry Bailly, interrupts him and tells him he does not like his rhymes. He asks him to tell a story in prose instead. Chaucer agrees and the story that follows is a very long and, some argue, boring story. Some readers believe that Chaucer purposely told the longest and most boring story as a way to get back at Harry Bailly for insulting his first story.

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