In the seventies, Caxton (14227-1491) learnt printing on the continent, probably at Cologne. After his return to England, he started a printing press at Westminster in 1476 and revolutionized the book trade in that country. Before he started his printing press, books were available only in the form of manuscripts and so naturally only a lucky few managed to have access to these books. With the introduction of the printing press, now it became possible to print hundreds and thousands of copies of a book, each copy exactly like the other, and to circulate these copies among the masses. This wide circulation of books not only led to a quick dissemination of knowledge, it also helped to stabilize and standardize certain dialectal forms of English and expedited the emergence of a standard literary medium.
When discussing the growth of the English language during the Middle English period, we must, however, consider Caxton not only as the first printer in England but also as someone who enriched the English language with his translations of a number of Latin and French classics. Sir Thomas Malory was another gifted prose-writer of the Middle English period. His famous book, Le Morte d’Arthur, presents in a poetic language the romantic and adventurous legends connected with Lancelot’s love for Guinevere and the legends connected with the battle between Lancelot and Arthur. It was perhaps the first prose book in Middle English that proved to be a very popular reading material for the common man and it can be said without any exaggeration that Malory was one of those stalwarts who laid the foundation of an effective prose style in English. Sampson (1970:85) has rightly observed that in the form of his book of Arthurian legends he “bequeathed a prose epic to literature” and that “his lively speech, which is both epic and lyrical, is so simple in its sincerity that it has baffled all the literary imitators”. Langland’s Piers Plowman is a long poem available in three versions (known as Text A, Text B and Text C). The poem begins with a vision seen in a dream as do many other poems of the Middle English period.
It is in Langland’s Piers Plowman that the English language for the first time undertakes the task of using personification, symbolism and allegory with so much of success. The tower in the vision symbolizes truth, the dungeon symbolizes falsehood, the “fair field full of folk” symbolizes the earth and Lady Mead symbolizes bribery. The metrical pattern of the poem is the pattern of alliterative verse in which there are three or four stressed syllables in every line and each stressed syllable begins with the same vowel or consonant. Langland inherited this metrical pattern from Old English literature. Like a flame that burns very brightly before being finally extinguished, this metrical pattern achieved a superb height of excellence in Piers Plowman and then disappeared for centuries until Hopkins (1844-1889) revived it in his poetry in the form of sprung rhythm. The poet who brought greater glory to the English language than any of his contemporaries is Chaucer (13407-1400), who is appropriately described as “the first English poet who is a first rate literary artist, the first English poet who takes by absolute right a place in the hierarchy of the world” (Sampson 1970:65). Chaucer’s contribution to the English language can be studied in terms of three phases of his development.
The first phase of his writings (1359- 1372) is the period of French influence, the period in which he uses the octosyllabic couplet. The Romaunt of the Rose and The Book of the Duchess were written during this first phase. The second phase of his writings (1372-1386) is the period of Italian influence, particularly the influence of Dante and Boccaccio. During this period he dissociates himself from the octosyllabic couplet and starts using the heroic stanza of seven lines known later as the rhyme-royal. Troilus and Criseyde and The Legend of Good Women were written during this second phase.
The third phase of his literary career (1386-1400), which is the period of superb maturity, is the period in which he uses the heroic couplet. His Canterbury Tales was written mainly during this period of maturity. The heroic couplet became the favourite form of expression later for Dryden in the seventeenth century and for Pope in the eighteenth but it was Chaucer who for the first time added respectability to this form of versification. If Dryden and Pope can be credited with giving perfection to the heroic couplet, the credit for adding energy and vitality to a verse medium which was hardly ever used in English before should go to Chaucer.
Chaucer in that sense is the honoured father of the heroic couplet. Malory developed further the narrative technique used in Beowulf, the technique used in telling tales of adventure and Langland enriched the device of personification, allegory and symbolism but it was Chaucer who for the first time effectively exploited the potential of English for highlighting the subtleties of character when narrating a story. It was Chaucer again who for the first time so successfully exploited the potential of the English language for creating a humour which is gentle, humane and kindly but never cruel.