Chaucer is admitted on all hands to be a great poet, but, by the general public at least, he is not frequently read. He is like a cardinal virtue, a good deal talked about, a good deal praised, honoured by a vast amount of distant admiration, but with little practical acquaintance. And for this there are many and obvious reasons. He is an ancient, and the rich old mahogany is neglected for the new and glittering veneer. He is occasionally gross; often tedious and obscure; he frequently leaves a couple of lovers, to cite the opinions of Greek and Roman authors; and practice and patience are required to melt the frost of his orthography, and let his music flow freely. In the conduct of his stories he is garrulous, homely, and slow-paced. He wrote in a leisurely world, when there was plenty of time for writing and reading, long before the advent of the printer’s devil or of Mr. Mudie. There is little of the lyrical element in him. He does not dazzle by sentences. He is not quotable. He does not shine in extracts so much as in entire poems. There is a pleasant equality about his writing; he advances through a story at an even pace, glancing round him on everything with curious, humourous eyes, and having his say about everything. He is the prince of story-tellers, and however much he may move others, he is not moved himself. His mood is so kindly that he seems always to have written after dinner, or after hearing good news,—that he had received from the king another grant of wine, for instance,—and he discourses of love and lovers’ raptures, and the disappointments of life, half sportively, half sadly, like one who has passed through all, felt the sweetness and the bitterness of it, and been able to strike a balance. He had his share of crosses and misfortune, but his was a nature which time and sorrow could only mellow and sweeten; and for all that had come and gone, he loved his “books clothed in black and red,” to sit at good men’s feasts; and if silent at table, as the Countess of Pembroke reported, the “stain upon his lip was wine.” Chaucer’s face is to his writings the best preface and commentary; it is contented-looking, like one familiar with pleasant thoughts, shy and self-contained somewhat, as if he preferred his own company to the noisy and rude companionship of his fellows; and the outlines are bland, fleshy, voluptuous, as of one who had a keen relish for the pleasures that leave no bitter traces. Tears and mental trouble, and the agonies of doubt, you cannot think of in connexion with it; laughter is sheathed in it, the light of a smile is diffused over it. In face and turn of genius he differs in every respect from his successor, Spenser; and in truth, in Chaucer and Spenser we see the fountains of the two main streams of British song: the one flowing through the drama and the humourous narrative, the other through the epic and the didactic poem. Chaucer rooted himself firmly in fact, and looked out upon the world in a half-humourous, half-melancholy mood. Spenser had but little knowledge of men as men; the cardinal virtues were the personages he was acquainted with; in everything he was “high fantastical,” and, as a consequence, he exhibits neither humour nor pathos. Chaucer was thoroughly national; his characters, place them where he may,—in Thebes or Tartary,—are natives of one or other of the English shires. Spenser’s genius was country-less as Ariel; search ever so diligently, you will not find an English daisy in all his enchanted forests. Chaucer was tolerant of everything, the vices not excepted; morally speaking, an easy-going man, he took the world as it came, and did not fancy himself a whit better than his fellows. Spenser was a Platonist, and fed his grave spirit on high speculations and moralities. Severe and chivalrous, dreaming of things to come, unsuppled by luxury, unenslaved by passion, somewhat scornful and self-sustained, it needed but a tyrannous king, an electrical political atmosphere, and a deeper interest in theology to make a Puritan of him, as these things made a Puritan of Milton. The differences between Chaucer and Spenser are seen at a glance in their portraits. Chaucer’s face is round, good-humoured, constitutionally pensive, and thoughtful. You see in it that he has often been amused, and that he may easily be amused again. Spenser’s is of sharper and keener feature, disdainful, and breathing that severity which appertains to so many of the Elizabethan men. A fourteenth-century child, with delicate prescience, would have asked Chaucer to assist her in a strait, and would not have been disappointed. A sixteenth-century child in like circumstances would have shrunk from drawing on herself the regards of the sterner-looking man. We can trace the descent of the Chaucerian face and genius in Shakspeare and Scott, of the Spenserian in Milton and Wordsworth. In our day, Mr. Browning takes after Chaucer, Mr. Tennyson takes after Spenser.
Hazlitt, writing of the four great English poets, tells us, Chaucer’s characteristic is intensity, Spenser’s remoteness, Milton’s sublimity, and Shakspeare’s everything. The sentence is epigrammatic and memorable enough; but so far as Chaucer is concerned, it requires a little explanation. He is not intense, for instance, as Byron is intense, or as Wordsworth is intense. He does not see man like the one, nor nature like the other. He would not have cared much for either of these poets. And yet, so far as straightforwardness in dealing with a subject, and complete though quiet realisation of it goes to make up intensity of poetic mood, Chaucer amply justifies his critic. There is no wastefulness or explosiveness about the old writer. He does his work silently, and with no appearance of effort. His poetry shines upon us like a May morning; but the streak over the eastern hill, the dew on the grass, the wind that bathes the brows of the wayfarer, are not there by haphazard: they are the results of occult forces, a whole solar system has had a hand in their production. From the apparent ease with which an artist works, one does not readily give him credit for the mental force he is continuously putting forth. To many people, a chaotic “Festus” is more wonderful than a rounded, melodious “Princess.” The load which a strong man bears gracefully does not seem so heavy as the load which the weaker man staggers under. Incompletion is force fighting; completion is force quiescent, its work done. Nature’s forces are patent enough in some scarred volcanic moon in which no creature can breathe; only the sage, in some soft green earth, can discover the same forces reft of fierceness and terror, and translated into sunshine, and falling dew, and the rainbow gleaming on the shower. It is somewhat in this way that the propriety of Hazlitt’s criticism is to be vindicated. Chaucer is the most simple, natural, and homely of our poets, and whatever he attempts he does thoroughly. The Wife of Bath is so distinctly limned that she could sit for her portrait. You can count the embroidered sprigs in the jerkin of the squire. You hear the pilgrims laugh as they ride to Canterbury. The whole thing is admirably life-like and seems easy, and in the seeming easiness we are apt to forget the imaginative sympathy which bodies forth the characters, and the joy and sorrow from which that sympathy has drawn nurture. Unseen by us, the ore has been dug, and smelted in secret furnaces, and when it is poured into perfect moulds, we are apt to forget by what potency the whole thing has been brought about.
And, with his noticing eyes, into what a brilliant, many tinted world was Chaucer born! In his day life had a certain breadth, colour, and picturesqueness which it does not possess now. It wore a braver dress, and flaunted more in the sun. Five centuries effect a great change on manners. A man may nowadays, and without the slightest suspicion of the fact, brush clothes with half the English peerage on a sunny afternoon in Pall Mall. Then it was quite different. The fourteenth century loved magnificence and show. Great lords kept princely state in the country; and when they came abroad, what a retinue, what waving of plumes, and shaking of banners, and glittering of rich dresses! Religion was picturesque, with dignitaries, and cathedrals, and fuming incense, and the Host carried through the streets. The franklin kept open house, the city merchant feasted kings, the outlaw roasted his venison beneath the greenwood tree. There was a gallant monarch and a gallant court. The eyes of the Countess of Salisbury shed influence; Maid Marian laughed in Sherwood. London is already a considerable place, numbering, perhaps, two hundred thousand inhabitants, the houses clustering close and high along the river banks; and on the beautiful April nights the nightingales are singing round the suburban villages of Strand, Holborn, and Charing. It is rich withal; for after the battle of Poitiers, Harry Picard, wine-merchant and Lord Mayor, entertained in the city four kings,—to wit, Edward, king of England, John, king of France, David, king of Scotland, and the king of Cyprus; and the last-named potentate, slightly heated with Harry’s wine, engaged him at dice, and being nearly ruined thereby, the honest wine-merchant returned the poor king his money, which was received with all thankfulness. There is great stir on a summer’s morning in that Warwickshire castle,—pawing of horses, tossing of bridles, clanking of spurs. The old lord climbs at last into his saddle and rides off to court, his favourite falcon on his wrist, four squires in immediate attendance carrying his arms; and behind these stretches a merry cavalcade, on which the chestnuts shed their milky blossoms. In the absence of the old peer, young Hopeful spends his time as befits his rank and expectations. He grooms his steed, plays with his hawks, feeds his hounds, and labours diligently to acquire grace and dexterity in the use of arms. At noon the portcullis is lowered, and out shoots a brilliant array of ladies and gentlemen, and falconers with hawks. They bend their course to the river, over which a rainbow is rising from a shower. Yonder young lady is laughing at our stripling squire, who seems half angry, half pleased: they are lovers, depend upon it. A few years, and the merry beauty will have become a noble, gracious woman, and the young fellow, sitting by a watch-fire on the eve of Cressy, will wonder if she is thinking of him. But the river is already reached. Up flies the alarmed heron, his long blue legs trailing behind him; a hawk is let loose; the young lady’s laugh has ceased as, with gloved hand shading fair forehead and sweet gray eye, she watches hawk and heron lessening in heaven. The Crusades are now over, but the religious fervour which inspired them lingered behind; so that, even in Chaucer’s day, Christian kings, when their consciences were oppressed by a crime more than usually weighty, talked of making an effort before they died to wrest Jerusalem and the sepulchre of Christ from the grasp of the infidel. England had at this time several holy shrines, the most famous being that of Thomas à Becket at Canterbury, which attracted crowds of pilgrims. The devout travelled in large companies: and, in the May mornings, a merry sight it was as, with infinite clatter and merriment, with bells, minstrels, and buffoons, they passed through thorp and village, bound for the tomb of St. Thomas. The pageant of events, which seems enchantment when chronicled by Froissart’s splendid pen, was to Chaucer contemporaneous incident; the chivalric richness was the familiar and every-day dress of his time. Into this princely element he was endued, and he saw every side of it,—the frieze as well as the cloth of gold. In the “Canterbury Tales” the fourteenth century murmurs, as the sea murmurs in the pink-mouthed shells upon our mantelpieces.
Of his life we do not know much. In his youth he studied law and disliked it,—a circumstance common enough in the lives of men of letters, from his time to that of Shirley Brooks. How he lived, what he did when he was a student, we are unable to discover. Only for a moment is the curtain lifted, and we behold, in the old quaint peaked and gabled Fleet Street of that day, Chaucer thrashing a Franciscan friar (friar’s offence unknown), for which amusement he was next morning fined two shillings. History has preserved this for us, but has forgotten all the rest of his early life, and the chronology of all his poems. What curious flies are sometimes found in the historic amber! On Chaucer’s own authority, we know that he served under Edward III. in his French campaign, and that he for some time lay in a French prison. On his return from captivity he married; he was valet in the king’s household, he was sent on an embassy to Genoa, and is supposed to have visited Petrarch, then resident at Padua, and to have heard from his lips the story of “Griselda,”—a tradition which one would like to believe. He had his share of the sweets and the bitters of life. He enjoyed offices and gifts of wine, and he felt the pangs of poverty and the sickness of hope deferred. He was comptroller of the customs for wools; from which post he was dismissed,—why, we know not; although one cannot help remembering that Edward made the writing out of the accounts in Chaucer’s own hand the condition of his holding office, and having one’s surmises. Foreign countries, strange manners, meetings with celebrated men, love of wife and children, and their deaths, freedom and captivity, the light of a king’s smile and its withdrawal, furnished ample matter of meditation to his humane and thoughtful spirit. In his youth he wrote allegories full of ladies and knights dwelling in impossible forests and nursing impossible passions; but in his declining years, when fortune had done all it could for him and all it could against him, he discarded these dreams, and betook himself to the actual stuff of human nature. Instead of the “Romance of the Rose,” we have the “Canterbury Tales” and the first great English poet. One likes to fancy Chaucer in his declining days living at Woodstock, with his books about him, and where he could watch the daisies opening themselves at sunrise, shutting themselves at sunset, and composing his wonderful stories, in which the fourteenth century lives,—riding to battle in iron gear, hawking in embroidered jerkin and waving plume, sitting in rich and solemn feast, the monarch on the dais.
Chaucer’s early poems have music and fancy, they are full of a natural delight in sunshine and the greenness of foliage; but they have little human interest. They are allegories for the most part, more or less satisfactorily wrought out. The allegorical turn of thought, the delight in pageantry, the “clothing upon” of abstractions with human forms, flowered originally out of chivalry and the feudal times. Chaucer imported it from the French, and was proud of it in his early poems, as a young fellow of that day might be proud of his horse furniture, his attire, his waving plume. And the poetic fashion thus set retained its vitality for a long while,—indeed, it was only thoroughly made an end of by the French Revolution, which made an end of so much else. About the last trace of its influence is to be found in Burns’ sentimental correspondence with Mrs. M’Lehose, in which the lady is addressed as Clarinda, and the poet signs himself Sylvander. It was at best a mere beautiful gauze screen drawn between the poet and nature; and passion put his foot through it at once. After Chaucer’s youth was over, he discarded somewhat scornfully these abstractions and shows of things. The “Flower and the Leaf” is a beautiful-tinted dream; the “Canterbury Tales” are as real as anything in Shakspeare or Burns. The ladies in the earlier poems dwell in forests, and wear coronals on their heads; the people in the “Tales” are engaged in the actual concerns of life, and you can see the splashes of mire upon their clothes. The separate poems which make up the “Canterbury Tales” were probably written at different periods, after youth was gone, and when he had fallen out of love with florid imagery and allegorical conceits; and we can fancy him, perhaps fallen on evil days and in retirement, anxious to gather up these loose efforts into one consummate whole. If of his flowers he would make a bouquet for posterity, it was of course necessary to procure a string to tie them together. These necessities, which ruin other men, are the fortunate chances of great poets. Then it was that the idea arose of a meeting of pilgrims at the Tabard in Southwark, of their riding to Canterbury, and of the different personages relating stories to beguile the tedium of the journey. The notion was a happy one, and the execution is superb. In those days, as we know, pilgrimages were of frequent occurrence; and in the motley group that congregated on such occasions, the painter of character had full scope. All conditions of people are comprised in the noisy band issuing from the courtyard of the Southwark inn on that May morning in the fourteenth century. Let us go nearer, and have a look at them.
There is a grave and gentle Knight, who has fought in many wars, and who has many a time hurled his adversary down in tournament before the eyes of all the ladies there, and who has taken the place of honour at many a mighty feast. There, riding beside him, is a blooming Squire, his son, fresh as the month of May, singing day and night from very gladness of heart,—an impetuous young fellow, who is looking forward to the time when he will flesh his maiden sword, and shout his first war-cry in a stricken field. There is an Abbot, mounted on a brown steed. He is middle-aged, his bald crown shines like glass, and his face looks as if it were anointed with oil. He has been a valiant trencher-man at many a well-furnished feast. Above all things, he loves hunting; and when he rides, men can hear his bridle ringing in the whistling wind loud and clear as a chapel bell. There is a thin, ill-conditioned Clerk, perched perilously on a steed as thin and ill-conditioned as himself. He will never be rich, I fear. He is a great student, and would rather have a few books bound in black and red hanging above his bed than be sheriff of the county. There is a Prioress, so gentle and tender-hearted that she weeps if she hears the whimper of a beaten hound, or sees a mouse caught in a trap. There rides the laughing Wife of Bath, bold-faced and fair. She is an adept in love-matters. Five husbands already “she has fried in their own grease” till they were glad to get into their graves to escape the scourge of her tongue. Heaven rest their souls, and swiftly send a sixth! She wears a hat large as a targe or buckler, brings the artillery of her eyes to bear on the young Squire, and jokes him about his sweetheart. Beside her is a worthy Parson, who delivers faithfully the message of his Master. Although he is poor, he gives away the half of his tithes in charity. His parish is waste and wide, yet if sickness or misfortune should befall one of his flock, he rides, in spite of wind, or rain, or thunder, to administer consolation. Among the crowd rides a rich Franklin, who sits in the Guildhall on the dais. He is profuse and hospitable as summer. All day his table stands in the hall covered with meats and drinks, and every one who enters is welcome. There is a Ship-man, whose beard has been shaken by many a tempest, whose cheek knows the kiss of the salt sea spray; a Merchant, with a grave look, clean and neat in his attire, and with plenty of gold in his purse. There is a Doctor of Physic, who has killed more men than the Knight, talking to a Clerk of Laws. There is a merry Friar, a lover of good cheer; and when seated in a tavern among his companions, singing songs it would be scarcely decorous to repeat, you may see his eyes twinkling in his head for joy, like stars on a frosty night. Beside him is a ruby-faced Sompnour, whose breath stinks of garlic and onions, who is ever roaring for wine,—strong wine, wine red as blood; and when drunk, he disdains English,—nothing but Latin will serve his turn. In front of all is a Miller, who has been drinking over-night, and is now but indifferently sober. There is not a door in the country that he cannot break by running at it with his head. The pilgrims are all ready, the host gives the word, and they defile through the arch. The Miller blows his bagpipes as they issue from the town; and away they ride to Canterbury, through the boon sunshine, and between the white hedges of the English May.
Had Chaucer spent his whole life in seeking, he could not have selected a better contemporary circumstance for securing variety of character than a pilgrimage to Canterbury. It comprises, as we see, all kinds and conditions of people. It is the fourteenth-century England in little. In our time, the only thing that could match it in this respect is Epsom down on the great race-day. But then Epsom down is too unwieldy; the crowd is too great, and it does not cohere, save for the few seconds when gay jackets are streaming towards the winning-post. The Prologue to the “Canterbury Tales,” in which we make the acquaintance of the pilgrims, is the ripest, most genial and humourous, altogether the most masterly thing which Chaucer has left us. In its own way, and within its own limits, it is the most wonderful thing in the language. The people we read about are as real as the people we brush clothes with in the street,—nay, much more real; for we not only see their faces, and the fashion and texture of their garments, we know also what they think, how they express themselves, and with what eyes they look out on the world. Chaucer’s art in this Prologue is simple perfection. He indulges in no irrelevant description, he airs no fine sentiments, he takes no special pains as to style or poetic ornament; but every careless touch tells, every sly line reveals character; the description of each man’s horse-furniture and array reads like a memoir. The Nun’s pretty oath bewrays her. We see the bold, well-favoured countenance of the Wife of Bath beneath her hat, as “broad as a buckler or a targe”; and the horse of the Clerk, “as lean as is a rake,” tells tales of his master’s cheer. Our modern dress is worthless as an indication of the character, or even of the social rank, of the wearer; in the olden time it was significant of personal tastes and appetites, of profession, and condition of life generally. See how Chaucer brings out a character by touching merely on a few points of attire and personal appearance:—
I saw his sleeves were purfiled at the hand
With fur, and that the finest of the land;
And for to fasten his hood under his chin
He had of gold ywrought a curious pin.
A love-knot in the greater end there was;
His head was bald, and shone as any glass,
And eke his face as if it was anoint.
What more would you have? You could not have known the monk better if you had lived all your life in the monastery with him. The sleeves daintly purfiled with fur give one side of him, the curious pin with the love-knot another, and the shining crown and face complete the character and the picture. The sun itself could not photograph more truly.
On their way the pilgrims tell tales, and these are as various as their relaters; in fact, the Prologue is the soil out of which they all grow. Dramatic propriety is everywhere instinctively preserved. “The Knight’s Tale” is noble, splendid, and chivalric as his own nature; the tale told by the Wife of Bath is exactly what one would expect. With what good-humour the rosy sinner confesses her sins! how hilarious she is in her repentance! “The Miller’s Tale” is coarse and full-flavoured,—just the kind of thing to be told by a rough, humourous fellow who is hardly yet sober. And here it may be said that although there is a good deal of coarseness in the “Canterbury Tales,” there is not the slightest tinge of pruriency. There is such a single-heartedness and innocence in Chaucer’s vulgarest and broadest stories, such a keen eye for humour, and such a hearty enjoyment of it, and at the same time such an absence of any delight in impurity for impurity’s sake, that but little danger can arise from their perusal. He is so fond of fun that he will drink it out of a cup that is only indifferently clean. He writes often like Fielding, he never writes as Smollett sometimes does. These stories, ranging from the noble romance of Palamon and Arcite to the rude intrigues of Clerk Nicholas,—the one fitted to draw tears down the cheeks of noble ladies and gentlemen; the other to convulse with laughter the midriffs of illiterate clowns,—give one an idea of the astonishing range of Chaucer’s powers. He can suit himself to every company, make himself at home in every circumstance of life; can mingle in tournaments where beauty is leaning from balconies, and the knights, with spear in rest, wait for the blast of the trumpet; and he can with equal ease sit with a couple of drunken friars in a tavern laughing over the confessions they hear, and singing questionable catches between whiles. Chaucer’s range is wide as that of Shakspeare,—if we omit that side of Shakspeare’s mind which confronts the other world, and out of which Hamlet sprang,—and his men and women are even more real, and more easily matched in the living and breathing world. For in Shakspeare’s characters, as in his language, there is surplusage, superabundance; the measure is heaped and running over. From his sheer wealth, he is often the most undramatic of writers. He is so frequently greater than his occasion, he has no small change to suit emergencies, and we have guineas in place of groats. Romeo is more than a mortal lover, and Mercutio more than a mortal wit; the kings in the Shakspearian world are more kingly than earthly sovereigns; Rosalind’s laughter was never heard save in the Forest of Arden. His madmen seem to have eaten of some “strange root.” No such boon companion as Falstaff ever heard chimes at midnight. His very clowns are transcendental, with scraps of wisdom springing out of their foolishest speech. Chaucer, lacking Shakspeare’s excess and prodigality of genius, could not so gloriously err, and his creations have a harder, drier, more realistic look, are more like the people we hear uttering ordinary English speech, and see on ordinary country roads against an ordinary English sky. If need were, any one of them could drive pigs to market. Chaucer’s characters are individual enough, their idiosyncrasies are sharply enough defined, but they are to some extent literal and prosaic; they are of the “earth, earthy;” out of his imagination no Ariel ever sprang, no half-human, half-brutish Caliban ever crept. He does not effloresce in illustrations and images, the flowers do not hide the grass; his pictures are masterpieces, but they are portraits, and the man is brought out by a multiplicity of short touches,—caustic, satirical, and matter of fact. His poetry may be said to resemble an English country road, on which passengers of different degrees of rank are continually passing,—now knight, now boor, now abbot: Spenser’s, for instance, and all the more fanciful styles, to a tapestry on which a whole Olympus has been wrought. The figures on the tapestry are much the more noble-looking, it is true; but then they are dreams and phantoms, whereas the people on the country road actually exist.
The “Knight’s Tale”—which is the first told on the way to Canterbury—is a chivalrous legend, full of hunting, battle, and tournament. Into it, although the scene is laid in Greece, Chaucer has, with a fine scorn of anachronism, poured all the splendour, colour, pomp, and circumstance of the fourteenth century. It is brilliant as a banner displayed to the sunlight. It is real cloth of gold. Compared with it, “Ivanhoe” is a spectacle at Astley’s. The style is everywhere more adorned than is usual, although even here, and in the richest parts, the short, homely, caustic Chaucerian line is largely employed. The “Man of Law’s Tale,” again, is distinguished by quite a different merit. It relates the sorrows and patience of Constance, and is filled with the beauty of holiness. Constance might have been sister to Cordelia; she is one of the white lilies of womanhood. Her story is almost the tenderest in our literature. And Chaucer’s art comes out in this, that although she would spread her hair, nay, put her very heart beneath the feet of those who wrong her, we do not cease for one moment to respect her. This is a feat which has but seldom been achieved. It has long been a matter of reproach to Mr. Thackeray, for instance, that the only faculty with which he gifts his good women is a supreme faculty of tears. To draw any very high degree of female patience is one of the most difficult of tasks. If you represent a woman bearing wrong with a continuous unmurmuring meekness, presenting to blows, come from what quarter they may, nothing but a bent neck, and eyelids humbly drooped, you are in nine cases out of ten painting elaborately the portrait of a fool; and if you miss making her a fool, you are certain to make her a bore. Your patient woman, in books and in life, does not draw on our gratitude. When her goodness is not stupidity,—which it frequently is,—it is insulting. She walks about an incarnate rebuke. Her silence is an incessant complaint. A teacup thrown at your head is not half so alarming as her meek, much-wronged, unretorting face. You begin to suspect that she consoles herself with the thought that there is another world, where brutal brothers and husbands are settled with for their behaviour to their angelic wives and sisters in this. Chaucer’s Constance is neither fool nor bore, although in the hands of anybody else she would have been one or the other, or both. Like the holy religion which she symbolises, her sweet face draws blessing and love wherever it goes; it heals old wounds with its beauty, it carries peace into the heart of discord, it touches murder itself into soft and penitential tears. In reading the old tender-hearted poet, we feel that there is something in a woman’s sweetness and forgiveness that the masculine mind cannot fathom; and we adore the hushed step and still countenance of Constance almost as if an angel passed.
Chaucer’s orthography is unquestionably uncouth at first sight; but it is not difficult to read if you keep a good glossary beside you for occasional reference, and are willing to undergo a little trouble. The language is antique, but it is full of antique flavour. Wine of excellent vintage originally, it has improved through all the years it has been kept. A very little trouble on the reader’s part, in the reign of Anne, would have made him as intelligible as Addison; a very little more, in the reign of Queen Victoria, will make him more intelligible than Mr. Browning. Yet somehow it has been a favourite idea with many poets that he required modernisation, and that they were the men to do it. Dryden, Pope, and Wordsworth have tried their hands on him. Wordsworth performed his work in a reverential enough spirit; but it may be doubted whether his efforts have brought the old poet a single new reader. Dryden and Pope did not translate or modernise Chaucer, they committed assault and battery upon him. They turned his exquisitely naïve humour into their own coarseness, they put doubles entendre into his mouth, they blurred his female faces,—as a picture is blurred when the hand of a Vandal is drawn over its yet wet colours,—and they turned his natural descriptions into the natural descriptions of “Windsor Forest” and the “Fables.” The grand old writer does not need translation or modernisation; but perhaps, if it be done at all, it had better be reached in that way. For the benefit of younger readers, I subjoin short prose versions of two of the “Canterbury Tales,”—a story-book than which the world does not possess a better. Listen, then, to the tale the Knight told as the pilgrims rode to Canterbury:—
“There was once, as old stories tell, a certain Duke Theseus, lord and governor of Athens. The same was a great warrior and conqueror of realms. He defeated the Amazons, and wedded the queen of that country, Hypolita. After his marriage, the duke, his wife, and his sister Emily, with all their host, were riding towards Athens, when they were aware that a company of ladies, clad in black, were kneeling two by two on the highway, wringing their hands and filling the air with lamentations. The duke, beholding this piteous sight, reined in his steed and inquired the reason of their grief. Whereat one of the ladies, queen to the slain King Capeneus, told him that at the siege of Thebes (of which town they were), Creon, the conqueror, had thrown the bodies of their husbands in a heap, and would on no account allow them to be buried, so that their limbs were mangled by vultures and wild beasts. At the hearing of this great wrong, the duke started down from his horse, took the ladies one by one in his arms and comforted them, sent Hypolita and Emily home, displayed his great white banner, and immediately rode towards Thebes with his host. Arriving at the city, he attacked boldly, slew the tyrant Creon with his own hand, tore down the houses,—wall, roof, and rafter,—and then gave the bodies to the weeping ladies that they might be honourably interred. While searching amongst the slain Thebans, two young knights were found grievously wounded, and by the richness of their armour they were known to be of the blood royal. These young knights, Palamon and Arcite by name, the duke carried to Athens and flung into perpetual prison. Here they lived year by year in mourning and woe. It happened one May morning that Palamon, who by the clemency of his keeper was roaming about in an upper chamber, looked out and beheld Emily singing in the garden and gathering flowers. At the sight of the beautiful apparition he started and cried, ‘Ha!’ Arcite rose up, crying, ‘Dear cousin, what is the matter?’ when he too was stricken to the heart by the shaft of her beauty. Then the prisoners began to dispute as to which had the better right to love her. Palamon said he had seen her first; Arcite said that in love each man fought for himself; and so they disputed day by day. Now, it so happened that at this time the Duke Perotheus came to visit his old playfellow and friend Theseus, and at his intercession Arcite was liberated, on the condition that on pain of death he should never again be found in the Athenian dominions. Then the two knights grieved in their hearts. ‘What matters liberty?’ said Arcite,—‘I am a banished man! Palamon in his dungeon is happier than I. He can see Emily and be gladdened by her beauty!’ ‘Woe is me!’ said Palamon; ‘here must I remain in durance. Arcite is abroad; he may make sharp war on the Athenian border, and win Emily by the sword.’ When Arcite returned to his native city he became so thin and pale with sorrow that his friends scarcely knew him. One night the god Mercury appeared to him in a dream and told him to return to Athens, for in that city destiny had shaped an end of his woes. He arose next morning and went. He entered as a menial into the service of the Duke Theseus, and in a short time was promoted to be page of the chamber to Emily the bright. Meanwhile, by the help of a friend, Palamon, who had drugged his jailer with spiced wine, made his escape, and, as morning began to dawn, he hid himself in a grove. That very morning Arcite had ridden from Athens to gather some green branches to do honour to the month of May, and entered the grove in which Palamon was concealed. When he had gathered his green branches he sat down, and, after the manner of lovers (who have no constancy of spirits), he began to pour forth his sorrows to the empty air. Palamon, knowing his voice, started up with a white face: ‘False traitor Arcite! now I have found thee. Thou hast deceived the Duke Theseus! I am the lover of Emily, and thy mortal foe! Had I a weapon, one of us should never leave this grove alive!’ ‘By God, who sitteth above!’ cried the fierce Arcite, ‘were it not that thou art sick and mad for love, I would slay thee here with my own hand! Meats, and drinks, and bedding I shall bring thee to-night, tomorrow swords and two suits of armour: take thou the better, leave me the worse, and then let us see who can win the lady.’ ‘Agreed,’ said Palamon; and Arcite rode away in great fierce joy of heart. Next morning, at the crowing of the cock, Arcite placed two suits of armour before him on his horse, and rode towards the grove. When they met, the colour of their faces changed. Each thought, ‘Here comes my mortal enemy; one of us must be dead.’ Then, friend-like, as if they had been brothers, they assisted each the other to rivet on the armour; that done, the great bright swords went to and fro, and they were soon standing ankle-deep in blood. That same morning the Duke Theseus, his wife, and Emily went forth to hunt the hart with hound and horn, and, as destiny ordered it, the chase led them to the very grove in which the knights were fighting. Theseus, shading his eyes from the sunlight with his hand, saw them, and, spurring his horse between them, cried, ‘What manner of men are ye, fighting here without judge or officer?’ Whereupon Palamon said, ‘I am that Palamon who has broken your prison; this is Arcite the banished man, who, by returning to Athens, has forfeited his head. Do with us as you list. I have no more to say.’ ‘You have condemned yourselves!’ cried the duke; ‘by mighty Mars the red, both of you shall die!’ Then Emily and the queen fell at his feet, and, with prayers and tears and white hands lifted up, besought the lives of the young knights, which was soon granted. Theseus began to laugh when he thought of his own young days. ‘What a mighty god is Love!’ quoth he. ‘Here are Palamon and Arcite fighting for my sister, while they know she can only marry one, Fight they ever so much, she cannot marry both. I therefore ordain that both of you go away, and return this day year, each bringing with him a hundred knights; and let the victor in solemn tournament have Emily for wife.’ Who was glad now but Palamon! who sprang up for joy but Arcite!
“When the twelve months had nearly passed away, there was in Athens a great noise of workmen and hammers. The duke was busy with preparations. He built a large amphitheatre, seated, round and round, to hold thousands of people. He erected also three temples,—one for Diana, one for Mars, one for Venus; how rich these were, how full of paintings and images, the tongue cannot tell! Never was such preparation made in the world. At last the day arrived in which the knights were to make their entrance into the city. A noise of trumpets was heard, and through the city rode Palamon and his train. With him came Lycurgus, the king of Thrace. He stood in a great car of gold, drawn by four white bulls, and his face was like a griffin when he looked about. Twenty or more hounds used for hunting the lion and the bear ran about the wheels of his car; at his back rode a hundred lords, stern and stout. Another burst of trumpets, and Arcite entered with his troop. By his side rode Emetrius, the king of India, on a bay steed covered with cloth of gold. His hair was yellow, and glittered like the sun; when he looked upon the people, they thought his face was like the face of a lion; his voice was like the thunder of a trumpet. He bore a white eagle on his wrist, and tame lions and leopards ran among the horses of his train. They came to the city on a Sunday morning, and the jousts were to begin on Monday. What pricking of squires backwards and forwards, what clanking of hammers, what baying of hounds, that day! At last it was noon of Monday. Theseus declared from his throne that no blood was to be shed, that they should take prisoners only, and that he who was once taken prisoner should on no account again mingle in the fray. Then the duke, the queen, Emily, and the rest, rode to the lists with trumpets and melody. They had no sooner taken their places than through the gate of Mars rode Arcite and his hundred, displaying a red banner. At the self-same moment Palamon and his company entered by the gate of Venus, with a banner white as milk. They were then arranged in two ranks, their names were called over, the gates were shut, the herald gave his cry, loud and clear rang the trumpet, and crash went the spears, as if made of glass, when the knights met in battle shock. There might you see a knight unhorsed, a second crushing his way through the press, armed with a mighty mace, a third hurt and taken prisoner. Many a time that day in the swaying battle did the two Thebans meet, and thrice were they unhorsed. At last, near the setting of the sun, when Palamon was fighting with Arcite, he was wounded by Emetrius, and the battle thickened at the place. Emetrius, is thrown out of his saddle a spear’s length. Lycurgus is overthrown, and rolls on the ground, horse and man; and Palamon is dragged by main force to the stake. Then Theseus rose up where he sat, and cried, ‘Ho! no more; Arcite of Thebes hath won Emily!’ at which the people shouted so loudly that it almost seemed the mighty lists would fall. Arcite now put up his helmet, and, curveting his horse through the open space, smiled to Emily, when a fire from Pluto started out of the earth; the horse shied, and his rider was thrown on his head on the ground. When he was lifted, his breast was broken, and his face was as black as coal. Then there was grief in Athens; every one wept. Soon after, Arcite, feeling the cold death creeping up from his feet and darkening his face and eyes, called Palamon and Emily to his bedside, when he joined their hands, and died. The dead body was laid on a pile, dressed in splendid war gear; his naked sword was placed by his side; the pile was heaped with gums, frankincense, and odours; a torch was applied; and when the flames rose up, and the smoky fragrance rolled to heaven, the Greeks galloped round three times, with a great shouting and clashing of shields.”
The Man of Law’s tale runs in this wise:
“There dwelt in Syria once a company of merchants, who scented every land with their spices. They dealt in jewels, and cloth of gold, and sheeny satins. It so happened that while some of them were dwelling in Rome for traffic, the people talked of nothing save the wonderful beauty of Constance, the daughter of the emperor. She was so fair that every one who looked upon her face fell in love with her. In a short time the ships of the merchants, laden with rich wares, were furrowing the green sea, going home. When they came to their native city they could talk of nothing but the marvellous beauty of Constance. Their words being reported to the Sultan, he determined that none other should be his wife; and for this purpose he abandoned the religion of the false prophet, and was baptised in the Christian faith. Ambassadors passed between the courts, and the day came at length when Constance was to leave Rome for her husband’s palace in Syria. What kisses and tears and lingering embraces! What blessings on the little golden head which was so soon to lie in the bosom of a stranger! What state and solemnity in the procession which wound down from the shore to the ship! At last it was Syria. Crowds of people were standing on the beach. The mother of the Sultan was there; and when Constance stepped ashore, she took her in her arms and kissed her as if she had been her own child. Soon after, with trumpets and melody and the trampling of innumerable horses, the Sultan came. Everything was joy and happiness. But the smiling demoness, his mother, could not forgive him for changing his faith, and she resolved to slay him that very night, and seize the government of the kingdom. He and all his lords were stabbed in the rich hall while they were sitting at their wine. Constance alone escaped. She was then put into a ship alone, with food and clothes, and told that she might find her way back to Italy. She sailed away, and was never seen by that people. For five years she wandered to and fro upon the sea. Do you ask who preserved her? The same God who fed Elijah with ravens, and saved Daniel in the horrible den. At last she floated into the English seas, and was thrown by the waves on the Northumberland shore, near which stood a great castle. The constable of the castle came down in the morning to see the woful woman. She spoke a kind of corrupt Latin, and could neither tell her name nor the name of the country of which she was a native. She said she was so bewildered in the sea that she remembered nothing. The man could not help loving her, and so took her home to live with himself and his wife. Now, through the example and teaching of Constance, Dame Hermigild was converted to Christianity. It happened also that three aged Christian Britons were living near that place in great fear of their pagan neighbours, and one of these men was blind. One day, as the constable, his wife, and Constance were walking along the sea-shore, they were met by the blind man, who called out, ‘In the name of Christ, give me my sight, Dame Hermigild!’ At this, on account of her husband, she was sore afraid; but, encouraged by Constance, she wrought a great miracle, and gave the blind man his sight. But Satan, the enemy of all, wanted to destroy Constance, and he employed a young knight for that purpose. This knight had loved her with a foul affection, to which she could give no return. At last, wild for revenge, he crept at night into Hermigild’s chamber, slew her, and laid the bloody knife on the innocent pillow of Constance. The next morning there was woe and dolour in the house. She was brought before Alla, the king, charged with the murder. The people could not believe that she had done this thing; they knew she loved Hermigild so. Constance fell down on her knees and prayed to God for succour. Have you ever been in a crowd in which a man is being led to death, and, seeing a wild, pale face, know by that sign that you are looking upon the doomed creature?—so wild, so pale looked Constance when she stood before the king and people. The tears ran down Alla’s face. ‘Go fetch a book,’ cried he; ‘and if this knight swears that the woman is guilty, she shall surely die.’ The book was brought, the knight took the oath, and that moment an unseen hand smote him on the neck, so that he fell down on the floor, his eyes bursting out of his head. Then a celestial voice was heard in the midst, crying, ‘Thou hast slandered a daughter of Holy Church in high presence, and yet I hold my peace.’ A great awe fell on all who heard, and the king and multitudes of his people were converted. Shortly after this, Alla wedded Constance with great richness and solemnity. At length he was called to defend his border against the predatory Scots, and in his absence a man-child was born. A messenger was sent with the blissful tidings to the king’s camp; but, on his way, the messenger turned aside to the dwelling of Donegild, the king’s mother, and said, ‘Be blithe, madam; the queen has given birth to a son, and joy is in the land. Here is the letter I bear to the king.’ The wicked Donegild said, ‘You must be already tired; here are refreshments.’ And while the simple man drank ale and wine, she forged a letter, saying that the queen had been delivered of a creature so fiendish and horrible that no one in the castle could bear to look upon it. This letter the messenger gave to the king; and who can tell his grief! But he wrote in reply, ‘Welcome be the child that Christ sends! Welcome, O Lord, be thy pleasure! Be careful of my wife and child till my return.’ The messenger on his return slept at Donegild’s court, with the letter under his girdle. It was stolen while in his drunken sleep, and another put in its place, charging the constable not to let Constance remain three days in the kingdom, but to send her and her child away in the same ship in which she had come. The constable could not help himself. Thousands are gathered on the shore. With a face wild and pale as when she came from the sea, and bearing her crying infant in her arms, she comes through the crowd, which shrinks back, leaving a lane for her sorrow. She takes her seat in the little boat; and while the cruel people gaze hour by hour from the shore, she passes into the sunset, and away out into the night under the stars. When Alla returned from the war, and found how he had been deceived, he slew his mother, in the bitterness of his heart.
“News had come to Rome of the cruelty of the Sultan’s mother to Constance, and an army was sent to waste her country. After the land had been burned and desolated, the commander was crossing the seas in triumph, when he met the ship sailing in which sat Constance and her little boy. They were both brought to Rome, and although the commander’s wife and Constance were cousins, the one did not know the other. By this time, remorse for the slaying of his mother had seized Alla’s mind, and he could find no rest. He resolved to make a pilgrimage to Rome in search of peace. He crossed the Alps with his train, and entered the city with great glory and magnificence. One day he feasted at the commander’s house, at which Constance dwelt; and at her request her little son was admitted, and during the progress of the feast the child went and stood looking in the king’s face. ‘What fair child is that standing yonder?’ said the king. ‘By St. John; I know not!’ quoth the commander; ‘he has a mother, but no father that I know of.’ And then he told the king—who seemed all the while like a man stunned—how he had found the mother and child floating about on the sea. The king rose from the table and sent for Constance; and when he saw her, and thought on all her wrongs, he could not refrain from tears. ‘This is your little son, Maurice,’ she said, as she led him in by the hand. Next day she met the emperor her father in the street, and, falling down on her knees before him, said, ‘Father, has the remembrance of your young child Constance gone out of your mind? I am that Constance whom you sent to Syria, and who was thought to be lost in the sea.’ That day there was great joy in Rome; and soon afterwards Alla, with his wife and child, returned to England, where they lived in great prosperity till he died.”
Smith, Alexander. “Geoffrey Chaucer.” 1863. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 15 Sep 2007. 26 May 2013 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/smith_a/geoffrey_chaucer/>.
Quotidiana site founder Patrick Madden has just published a book of his own personal essays, including pieces formerly published in the Best American Spiritual Writing and Best Creative Nonfiction anthologies. If you enjoy the classical essays on this site, you'll enjoy these contemporary ruminations as well. Soon there'll be a web page here with further information, but for now, you can find out more (and perhaps purchase a copy) at Amazon.com.
"Patrick Madden is an essayist of verve, passion, wit, and dependable moral compass. Quotidiana drew me in powerfully, from page to page and from pleasure to pleasure." —Ian Frazier
Friend of Quotidiana Kim Dana Kupperman's Welcome Table Press is hosting a one-day symposium at Fordham University on Saturday, October 15th, 2011. In Praise of the Essay: Practice & Form will feature talks and discussions by Phillip Lopate, Robin Hemley, Barbara Hurd, and more.
Changes are happening beneath the hood of Quotidiana. Sign up for our Facebook group to stay up to date on site and essay news.
He exists in a region to which rumour and conjecture have never penetrated. He was long neglected by his countrymen, and was brought to light as if by accident.
The man's attitude towards a book of poetry which is tough to him, is to drop it, even as the gods would have him do; the woman's is to smother it in a sauce of spurious explanation, and gulp it down.
[Charles Lamb] does not march boldly along with the crowd, but steals off the pavement to pick his way in the contrary direction.
I don't believe we really love each other, but we cling to each other out of ennui.
A man’s power in literature, as in everything else, is best measured by his accomplishment, just as his stature is best measured by his coffin.