Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1340–1400)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Thomas Raynesford Lounsbury (1838–1915)
ENGLISH literature, in the strict sense of the word, dates its beginning from the latter half of the fourteenth century. Not but an English literature had existed long previous to that period. Furthermore, it reckoned among its possessions works of value, and a few which in the opinion of some display genius. But though the name was the same, the thing was essentially different. A special course of study is required for any comprehension whatever of the productions of that earliest literature; and for the easy understanding of those written even but a half-century or so before the period indicated, a mastery of many peculiar syntactical constructions is demanded and an acquaintance with a vocabulary differing in a large number of words from that now in use.  1
  But by the middle of the fourteenth century this state of things can hardly be said to exist any longer for us. Everything by that time had become ripe for the creation of a literature of a far higher type than had yet been produced. Furthermore, conditions prevailed which, though their results could not then be foreseen, were almost certain to render the literature thus created comparatively easy of comprehension to the modern reader. The Teutonic and Romanic elements that form the groundwork of our present vocabulary had at last become completely fused. Of the various dialects prevailing, the one spoken in the vicinity of the capital had gradually lifted itself up to a pre-eminence it was never afterwards to lose. In this parent of the present literary speech, writers found for the first time at their command a widely accepted and comparatively flexible instrument of expression. As a consequence, the literature then produced fixed definitely for all time the main lines upon which both the grammar and the vocabulary of the English speech were to develop. The result is that it now presents few difficulties for its full comprehension and appreciation that are not easily surmounted. The most effective deterrent to its wide study is one formidable only in appearance. This is the unfamiliar way in which its words are spelled; for orthography then sought to represent pronunciation, and had not in consequence crystallized into fixed forms with constant disregard of any special value to be attached to the signs by which sounds are denoted.  2
  Of the creators of this literature—Wycliffe, Langland, Chaucer, and Gower—Chaucer was altogether the greatest as a man of letters. This is no mere opinion of the present time: there has never been a period since he flourished in which it has not been fully conceded. In his own day, his fame swept beyond the narrow limits of country and became known to the outside world. At home his reputation was firmly established, and seems to have been established early. All the references to him by his contemporaries and immediate successors bear witness to his universally recognized position as the greatest of English poets, though we are not left by him in doubt that he had even then met detractors. Still the general feeling of the men of his time is expressed by his disciple Occleve, who terms him
  “The firste finder 1 of our fair langage.”
Yet not a single incident of his life has come down to us from the men who admired his personality, who enrolled themselves as his disciples, and who celebrated his praises. With the exception of a few slight references to himself in his writings, all the knowledge we possess of the events of his career is due to the mention made of him in official documents of various kinds and of different degrees of importance. In these it is taken for granted that whenever Geoffrey Chaucer is spoken of, it is the poet who is meant, and not another person of the same name. The assumption almost approaches absolute certainty; it does not quite attain to it. In those days it is clear that there were numerous Chaucers. Still, no one has yet risen to dispute his being the very person spoken of in these official papers. From these documents we discover that Chaucer, besides being a poet, was also a man of affairs. He was a soldier, a negotiator, a diplomatist. He was early employed in the personal service of the king. He held various positions in the civil service. It was a consequence that his name should appear frequently in the records. It is upon them, and the references to him in documents covering transactions in which he bore a part, that the story of his life, so far as it exists for us at all, has been mainly built. It was by them also that the series of fictitious events which for so long a time did duty as the biography of the poet had their impossibility as well as their absurdity exposed.
  The exact date of Chaucer’s birth we do not know. The most that can be said is that it must have been somewhere in the early years of the reign of Edward III. (1327–77). The place of his birth was in all probability London. His father, John Chaucer, was a vintner of that city, and there is evidence to indicate that he was to some extent connected with the court. In a deed dated June 19th, 1380, the poet released his right to his father’s former house, which is described as being in Thames Street. The spot, however unsuitable for a dwelling-place now, was then in the very heart of urban life, and in that very neighborhood it is reasonable to suppose that Chaucer’s earliest years were spent.  4
  The first positive information we have, however, about the poet himself belongs to 1356. In that year we find him attached to the household of Lionel, Duke of Clarence, the third son of Edward III. He is there in the service of the wife of that prince, but in what position we do not know. It may have been that of a page. He naturally was in attendance upon his mistress during her various journeyings; but most of her time was passed at her residence in Hatfield, Yorkshire. Chaucer next appears as having joined the army of Edward III. in his last invasion of France. This expedition was undertaken in the autumn of 1359, and continued until the peace of Bretigny, concluded in May, 1360. During this campaign he was captured somewhere and somehow—we have no knowledge of anything beyond the bare fact. It took place, however, before the first of March, 1360; for on that date the records show that the King personally contributed sixteen pounds towards his ransom.  5
  From this last-mentioned date Chaucer drops entirely out of our knowledge till June, 1367, when he is mentioned as one of the valets of the King’s chamber. In the document stating this fact he is granted a pension—the first of several he received—for services already rendered or to be rendered. It is a natural inference from the language employed, that during these years of which no record exists he was in some situation about the person of Edward III. After this time his name occurs with considerable frequency in the rolls, often in connection with duties to which he was assigned. His services were varied; in some instances certainly they were of importance. From 1370 to 1380 he was sent several times abroad to share in the conduct of negotiations. These missions led him to Flanders, to France, and to Italy. The subjects were very diverse. One of the negotiations in which he was concerned was in reference to the selection of an English port for a Genoese commercial establishment; another was concerning the marriage of the young monarch of England with the daughter of the king of France. It is on his first journey to Italy of which we have any record—the mission of 1372–73 to Genoa and Florence—that everybody hopes and some succeed in having an undoubting belief that Chaucer visited Petrarch at Padua, and there heard from him the story of Griselda, which the Clerk of Oxford in the ‘Canterbury Tales’ states that he learned from the Italian poet.  6
  But Chaucer’s activity was not confined to foreign missions or to diplomacy; he was as constantly employed in the civil service. In 1374 he was made controller of the great customs—that is, of wool, skins, and leather—of the port of London. In 1382 he received also the post in the same port of controller of the petty customs—that is, of wines, candles, and other articles. The regulations of the office required him to write the records with his own hand; and it is this to which Chaucer is supposed to refer in the statement he makes about his official duties in the ‘House of Fame.’ In that poem the messenger of Jupiter tells him that though he has done so much in the service of the God of Love, yet he has never received for it any compensation. He then goes on to add the following lines, which give a graphic picture of the poet and of his studious life:—
  “Wherfore, as I said ywis, 2
Jupiter considereth this,
And also, beau sir, other things;
That is, that thou hast no tidings
Of Lovès folk, if they be glad,
Ne of nought ellès, that God made;
And nought only from far countree
That there no tiding cometh to thee,
But of the very neighèboúrs,
That dwellen almost at thy doors,
Thou hearest neither that nor this;
But when thy labor all done is,
And hast made all thy reckonings,
Instead of rest and newè things,
Thou goest home to thine house anon,
And also 3 dumb as any stone,
Thou sittest at another book,
Till fully dazèd is thy look.
And livest thus as an eremite,
Although thine abstinence is lyte.” 4
  In 1386 Chaucer was elected to Parliament as knight of the shire for the county of Kent. In that same year he lost or gave up both his positions in the customs. The cause we do not know. It may have been due to mismanagement on his own part: it is far more likely that he fell a victim to one of the fierce factional disputes that were going on during the minority of Richard II. At any rate, from this time he again disappears for two years from our knowledge. But in 1389 he is mentioned as having been appointed clerk of the King’s works at Westminster and various other places; in 1390 clerk of the works for St. George’s chapel at Windsor. Both of these places he held until the middle of 1391. In that last year he was made one of the commissioners to repair the roadway along the Thames, and at about the same time was appointed forester of North Petherton Park in Somerset, a post which he held till his death. After 1386 he seems at times to have been in pecuniary difficulties. To what cause they were owing, or how severe they were, it is the emptiest of speculations to form any conjectures in the obscurity that envelops this portion of his life. Whatever may have been his situation, on the accession of Henry IV. in September, 1399, his fortunes revived. The father of that monarch was John of Gaunt, the fourth son of Edward III. That nobleman had pretty certainly been from the outset the patron of Chaucer; it is possible—as the evidence fails on one side, it cannot be regarded as proved—that by his marriage with Katharine Swynford he became the poet’s brother-in-law. Whatever may have been the relationship, if any at all, it is a fact that one of the very first things the new king did was to confer upon Chaucer an additional pension. But the poet did not live long to enjoy the favor of the monarch. On the 24th of December, 1399, he leased for fifty-three years or during the term of his life a tenement in the garden of St. Mary’s Chapel, Westminster. But after the 5th of June, 1400, his name appears no longer on any rolls. There is accordingly no reason to question the accuracy of the inscription on his tombstone which represents him as having died October 25th, 1400. He was buried in Westminster Abbey. He was the first, and still remains perhaps the greatest, of the English poets whose bones have there found their last resting-place.  8
  This comprises all the facts of importance we know of Chaucer’s life. Before leaving this branch of the subject, however, it may be well to say that many fuller details about his career can be found in all older accounts of the poet, and in spite of the repeated exposure of their falsity still crop up occasionally in modern books of reference. Some are objectionable only upon the ground of being untrue. Of these are such statements as that he was born in 1328; that he was a student of Oxford, to which Cambridge is sometimes added; that he was created poet-laureate; and that he was knighted. But others are objectionable not only on the ground of being false, but of being slanderous besides. Of these the most offensive is the widely circulated and circumstantial story that he was concerned in the conflict that went on in 1382 between the city of London and the court in regard to the election of John of Northampton to the mayoralty; that in consequence of his participation in this contest he was compelled to seek refuge in the island of Zealand; that there he remained for some time, but on his return to England was arrested and thrown into the Tower; and that after having been imprisoned for two or three years he was released at last on the condition of betraying his associates, which he accordingly did. All these details are fictitious. They were made up from inferences drawn from obscure passages in a prose work entitled ‘The Testament of Love.’ This was once attributed to the poet, but is now known not to have been written by him. Even had it been his, the statements derived from it and applied to the life of the poet would have been entirely unwarranted, as they come into constant conflict with the official records. Not being his, this piece of spurious biography has the additional discredit of constituting an unnecessary libel upon his character.  9
  From Chaucer the man, and the man of affairs, we proceed now to the consideration of Chaucer the writer. He has left behind a body of verse consisting of more than thirty-two thousand lines, and a smaller but still far from inconsiderable quantity of prose. The latter consists mainly if not wholly of translations—one a version of that favorite work of the Middle Ages, the treatise of Boethius on the ‘Consolation of Philosophy’; another the tale of Melibeus in the ‘Canterbury Tales,’ which is taken directly from the French; thirdly, the Parson’s Tale, derived probably from the same quarter, though its original has not as yet been discovered with certainty; and fourthly, an unfinished treatise on the Astrolabe, undertaken for the instruction of his son Lewis. The prose of any literature always lags behind, and sometimes centuries behind, its poetry. It is therefore not surprising to find Chaucer displaying in the former but little of the peculiar excellence which distinguishes his verse. In the latter but little room is found for hostile criticism. In the more than thirty thousand lines of which it is composed there occur of course inferior passages, and some positively weak; but taking it all in all, there is comparatively little in it, considered as a whole, which the lover of literature as literature finds it advisable or necessary to skip. In this respect the poet holds a peculiar position, which makes the task of representation difficult. As Southey remarked, Chaucer with the exception of Shakespeare is the most various of all English authors. He appeals to the most diversified tastes. He wrote love poems, religious poems, allegorical poems, occasional poems, tales of common life, tales of chivalry. His range is so wide that any limited selection from his works can at best give but an inadequate idea of the variety and extent of his powers.  10
  The canon of Chaucer’s writings has now been settled with a reasonable degree of certainty. For a long time the fashion existed of imputing to him the composition of any English poem of the century following his death which was floating about without having attached to it the name of any author. The consequence is that the older editions contain a mass of matter which it would have been distinctly discreditable for any one to have produced, let alone a great poet. This has now been gradually dropped, much to the advantage of Chaucer’s reputation; though modern scholarship also refuses to admit the production by him of two or three pieces, such as ‘The Court of Love,’ ‘The Flower and the Leaf,’ ‘The Cuckoo and the Nightingale,’ none of which was unworthy of his powers. It is possible indeed that the poet himself may have had some dread of being saddled with the responsibility of having produced pieces which he did not care to father. It is certainly suggestive that he himself took the pains on one occasion to furnish what it seems must have been at the time a fairly complete list of his writings. In the prologue to the ‘Legend of Good Women’ he gave an idea of the work which up to that period he had accomplished. The God of Love, in the interview which is there described as having taken place, inveighs against the poet for having driven men away from the service due to his deity, by the character of what he had written. He says:—
              “Thou mayst it not deny:
For in plain text, withouten need of glose, 5
Thou hast translated the Romance of the Rose;
That is an heresy agains my law,
And makest wisè folk fro me withdraw.
And of Cressid thou hast said as thee list;
That makest men to women lessè trist, 6
That be as true as ever was any steel.”
  Against this charge the queen Alcestis is represented as interposing to the god a defense of the poet, in which occurs the following account of Chaucer’s writings:—
  “Albeit that he cannot well endite,
Yet hath he makèd lewèd 7 folk delight
To servè you, in praising of your name.
He made the book that hight 8 the House of Fame,
And eke the Death of Blanche the Duchess,
And the Parliament of Fowlès, as I guess,
And all the love of Palamon and Arcite
Of Thebes, though the story is knowen lyte; 9
And many an hymnè for your holy days
That highten 10 ballades, roundels, virelays;
And for to speak of other holiness,
He hath in prosè translatéd Boece,
And made the Life also of Saint Cecile;
He made also, gone sithen a great while, 11
Origenes upon the Maudelain: 12
Him oughtè now to have the lessè pain;
He hath made many a lay and many a thing.”
  This prologue is generally conceded to have been written between 1382 and 1385. Though it does not profess to furnish a complete list of Chaucer’s writings, it can fairly be assumed that it included all which he then regarded as of importance either on account of their merit or their length. If so, the titles given above would embrace the productions of what may be called the first half of his literary career. In fact, his disciple Lydgate leads us to believe that ‘Troilus and Cressida’ was a comparatively early production, though it may have undergone and probably did undergo revision before assuming its present form. The ‘Legend of Good Women’—in distinction from its prologue—would naturally occupy the time of the poet during the opening period of what is here termed the second half of his literary career. The prologue is the only portion of it, however, that is of distinctly high merit. The work was never completed, and Chaucer pretty certainly came soon to the conclusion that it was not worth completing. It was in the taste of the times; but it did not take him long to perceive that an extended work dealing exclusively with the sorrows of particular individuals was as untrue to art as it was to life. It fell under the ban of that criticism which in the ‘Canterbury Tales’ he puts into the mouth of the Knight, who interrupts the doleful recital of the tragical tales told by the Monk with these words:—
  “‘Ho,’ quoth the knight, ‘good sir, no more of this:
That ye have said is right enow, ywis, 13
And muchel 14 more; for little heaviness
Is right enow to muchel folk, I guess.
I say for me it is a great disease, 15
Where-as men have been in great wealth and ease,
To hearen of hir sudden fall, alas!
And the contráry is joy and great solas, 16
As when a man hath been in poor estate,
And climbeth up and waxeth fortunate,
And there abideth in prosperity.
Such thing is gladsome, as it thinketh 17 me,
And of such thing were goodly for to tell.’”
Accordingly, from the composition of pieces of the one-sided and unsatisfactory character of those contained in the ‘Legend of Good Women,’ Chaucer turned to the preparation of his great work, the ‘Canterbury Tales.’ This gave him the fullest opportunity to display all his powers, and must have constituted the main literary occupation of his later life.
  It will be noticed that two of the works mentioned in the prologue to the ‘Legend of Good Women’ are translations, and are so avowed. One is of the ‘Roman de la Rose,’ and the other of the philosophical treatise of Boethius. In regard to the version of the former which has come down, it is sufficient to say that there was not long ago a disposition to deny the genuineness of all of it. This now contents itself with denying the genuineness of part of it. The question cannot be considered here: it is enough to say that in the opinion of the present writer, while the subject is attended with certain difficulties, the evidence is strongly in favor of Chaucer’s composition of the whole. But setting aside any discussion of this point, there can scarcely be any doubt that Chaucer began his career as a translator. At the period he flourished he could hardly have done otherwise. It was an almost inevitable method of procedure on the part of a man who found neither writers nor writings in his own tongue worthy of imitation, and who could not fail to be struck not merely by the excellence of the Latin classic poets but also by the superior culture of the Continent. In the course of his literary development he would naturally pass from direct translation to adaptation. To the latter practice he assuredly resorted often. He took the work of the foreign author as a basis, discarded what he did not need or care for, and added as little or as much as suited his own convenience. In this way the 5704 lines of the ‘Filostrato’ of Boccaccio became 8246 in the ‘Troilus and Cressida’ of Chaucer; but even of the 5704 of the Italian poet, 2974 were not used by the English poet at all, and the 2730 that were used underwent considerable compression. In a similar way he composed the ‘Knight’s Tale,’ probably the most perfect narrative poem in our tongue. It was based upon the ‘Theseide’ of Boccaccio. But the latter has 9896 lines, while the former comprises but 2250; and of these 2250 fully two-thirds are entirely independent of the Italian poem.  14
  With such free treatment of his material, Chaucer’s next step would be to direct composition, independent of any sources, save in that general way in which every author is under obligation to what has been previously produced. This finds its crowning achievement in the ‘Canterbury Tales’; though several earlier pieces—such as the ‘House of Fame,’ the ‘Parliament of Fowls,’ and the prologue to the ‘Legend of Good Women,’—attest that long before he had shown his ability to produce work essentially original. But though in his literary development Chaucer worked himself out of this exact reproduction of his models, through a partial working over of them till he finally attained complete independence, the habits of a translator clung to him to the very end. Even after he had fully justified his claim to being a great original poet, passages occur in his writings which are nothing but the reproduction of passages found in some foreign poem in Latin, or French, or Italian, the three languages with which he was conversant. His translation of them was due to the fact that they had struck his fancy; his insertion of them into his own work was to please others with what had previously pleased himself. Numerous passages of this kind have been pointed out; and doubtless there are others which remain to be pointed out.  15
  There is another important thing to be marked in the history of Chaucer’s artistic development. Not only was poetic material lacking in the tongue at the time of his appearance, but also poetic form. The measures in use, while not inadequate for literary expression, were incapable of embodying it in its highest flights. Consequently what Chaucer did not find, he had either to borrow or to invent. He did both. In the lines which have been quoted he speaks of the “ballades, roundels, and virelayes” which he had composed. These were all favorite poetical forms in that Continental country with whose literature Chaucer was mainly conversant. There can be little question that he tried all manner of verse which the ingenuity of the poets of Northern France had devised. As many of his shorter pieces have very certainly disappeared, his success in these various attempts cannot be asserted with positiveness. Still, what have survived show that he was a great literary artist as well as a great poet. His feats of rhyming, in particular in a tongue so little fitted for it as is ours, can be seen in his unfinished poem of ‘Queen Anelida and False Arcite,’ in the ‘Complaint to Venus,’ and in the envoy which follows the Clerk’s Tale. In this last piece, though there are thirty-six lines, the rhymes are only three; and two of these belong to fifteen lines respectively.  16
  But far more important than such attempts, which prove interest in versification rather than great poetic achievement, are the two measures which he introduced into our tongue. The first was the seven-line stanza. The rhyming lines in it are respectively the first and third; the second, fourth, and fifth; and the sixth and seventh. At a later period this was frequently called “rhyme royal,” because the ‘Kingis Quair’ was written in it. For fully two centuries it was one of the most popular measures in English poetry. Since the sixteenth century, however, it has been but little employed. Far different has been the fate of the line of ten syllables, or rather of five accents. On account of its frequent use in the ‘Canterbury Tales’ it was called for a long period “riding rhyme”; but it now bears the title of “heroic verse.” As employed by Chaucer it varies in slight particulars from the way it is now generally used. With him the couplet character was never made prominent. The sense was not apt to end at the second line, but constantly tended to run over into the line following. There was also frequently with him an unaccented eleventh syllable; and this, though not unknown to modern verse, is not common. Still, the difference between the early and the later form are mere differences of detail, and of comparatively unimportant detail. The introduction of this measure into English may be considered Chaucer’s greatest achievement in the matter of versification. The heroic verse may have existed in the tongue before he himself used it. If so, it lurked unseen and uninfluential. He was the first to employ it on a grand scale, if not to employ it at all, and to develop its capabilities. Much the largest proportion of his greatest work is written in that measure. Yet in spite of his example, it found for two centuries comparatively few imitators. It was not till the end of the sixteenth century that the measure started on a new course of life, and entered upon the great part it has since played in English versification.  17
  The most important of what are sometimes called the minor works of Chaucer are the ‘Parliament of Fowls,’ the ‘House of Fame,’ ‘Troilus and Cressida,’ and the ‘Legend of Good Women.’ These are all favorable examples of his genius. But however good they may be in particular portions and in particular respects, in general excellence they yield place unquestionably to the ‘Canterbury Tales.’ It seems to have been very clearly the intention of the poet to embody in this crowning achievement of his literary life everything in the shape of a story he had already composed or was purposing to compose. Two of the pieces, the love of Palamon and Arcite and the Life of St. Cecilia, as we know from the words of his already quoted, had appeared long before. The plan of the work itself was most happily conceived; and in spite of most painstaking efforts to find an original for it or suggestion of it somewhere else, there seems no sufficient reason for doubting that the poet himself was equal to the task of having devised it. No one certainly can question the felicity with which the framework for embodying the tales was constructed. All ranks and classes of society are brought together in the company of pilgrims who assemble at the Tabard Inn at Southwark to ride to the shrine of the saint at Canterbury. The military class is represented by the Knight, belonging to the highest order of the nobility, his son the Squire, and his retainer the Yeoman; the church by the Abbot, the Friar, the Parson, the Prioress with her attendant Nun, and the three accompanying Priests, and less distinctly by the Scholar, the Clerk of Oxford, and by the Pardoner and the Summoner. For the other professions are the Doctor of Physic and the Serjeant of Law; for the middle-class landholders the Franklin; and for the various crafts and occupations the Haberdasher, the Carpenter, the Weaver, the Dyer, the Upholsterer, the Cook, the Ploughman, the Sailor, the Reeve, the Manciple, and (joining the party in the course of the pilgrimage) the assistant of the alchemist, who is called the Canon’s Yeoman. Into the mouths of these various personages were to be put tales befitting their character and condition. Consequently there was ample space for stories of chivalry, of religion, of love, of magic, and in truth of every aspect of social life in all its highest and lowest manifestations. Between the tales themselves were connecting links, in which the poet had the opportunity to give an account of the incidents that took place on the pilgrimage, the critical opinions expressed by the hearers of what had been told, and the disputes and quarrels that went on between the various members of the party. So far as this portion of his plan was finished, these connecting links furnish some of the most striking passages in the work. In one of them—the prologue to the Wife of Bath’s Tale—the genius of the poet reaches along certain lines its highest development; while the general prologue describing the various personages of the party, though not containing the highest poetry of the work as poetry, is the most acute, discriminating, and brilliant picture of men and manners that can be found in our literature.  18
  Such was the plan of the work. It was laid out on an extensive scale, perhaps on too extensive a scale ever to have been completed. Certain it is that it was very far from ever reaching even remotely that result. According to the scheme set forth in the prologue, the work when finished should have included over one hundred and twenty tales. It actually comprises but twenty-four. Even of these, two are incomplete: the Cook’s Tale, which is little more than begun, and the romantic Eastern tale of the Squire, which, in Milton’s words, is “left half told.” To those that are finished, the connecting links have not been supplied in many cases. Accordingly the work exists not as a perfect whole, but in eight or nine fragmentary parts, each complete in itself, but lacking a close connection with the others, though all are bound together by the unity of a common central interest. The value of what has been done makes doubly keen the regret that so much has been left undone. Politics, religion, literature, manners, are all touched upon in this wide-embracing view, which still never misses what is really essential; and added to this is a skill of portrayal by which the actors, whether narrating the tales themselves, or themselves forming the heroes of the narration, fairly live and breathe before our eyes. Had the work been completed on the scale upon which it was begun, we should have had a picture of life and opinion in the fourteenth century more vivid and exact than has been drawn of any century before or since.  19
  The selections given are partly of extracts and partly of complete pieces. To the former class belong the lines taken from the opening of the ‘Canterbury Tales,’ with the description of a few of the characters; the description of the temples of Mars, of Venus, and of Diana in the Knight’s Tale; and the account of the disappearance of the fairies at the opening of the Wife of Bath’s Tale. The complete pieces are the tales of the Pardoner, and of the Nun’s Priest. From the first, however, has been dropped the discourse on drunkenness, profanity, and gambling, which, though in keeping with the character of the narrator, has no connection with the development of the story. The second, the tale of the Nun’s Priest, was modernized by Dryden under the title of the ‘Cock and the Fox.’ All of these are in heroic verse. The final selection is the ballade now usually entitled ‘Truth.’ In it the peculiar ballade construction can be studied—that is, the formation in three stanzas, either with or without an envoy; the same rhymes running through the three stanzas; and the final line of each stanza precisely the same. One of Chaucer’s religious poems—the so-called ‘A B C’—can be found under Deguileville, from whose ‘Pèlerinage la de Vie Humaine’ it is translated.  20
  Chaucer’s style, like that of all great early writers, is marked by perfect simplicity, and his language is therefore comparatively easy to understand. In the extracts here given the spelling has been modernized, save occasionally at the end of the line, when the rhyme has required the retention of an earlier form. The words themselves and grammatical forms have of course undergone no change. There are two marks used to indicate the pronunciation: first, the acute accent to indicate that a heavier stress than ordinary is to be placed on the syllable over which it stands; and secondly, the grave accent to indicate that the letter or syllable over which it appears, though silent in modern pronunciation, was then sounded. Thus landès, grovès, friendès, knavès, would have the final syllable sounded; and in a similar way timè, Romè, and others ending in e, when the next word begins with a vowel or h mute. The acute accent can be exemplified in words like couráge, reasón, honoúr, translatéd, where the accent would show that the final syllable would either receive the main stress or a heavier stress than is now given it. Again, a word like cre-a-ture consists, in the pronunciation here given, of three syllables and not of two, and is accordingly represented by a grave accent over the a to signify that this vowel forms a separate syllable, and by the acute accent over the ture to indicate that this final syllable should receive more weight of pronunciation than usual. It accordingly appears as creàtúre. In a similar way con-dit-i-on would be a word of four syllables, and its pronunciation would be indicated by this method conditìón. It is never to be forgotten that Chaucer had no superior in the English tongue as a master of melody; and if a verse of his sounds inharmonious, it is either because the line is corrupt or because the reader has not succeeded in pronouncing it correctly.  21
  The explanation of obsolete words or meanings is given in the foot-notes. In addition to these the following variations from modern English that occur constantly, and are therefore not defined, should be noted. Hir and hem stand for ‘their’ and ‘them.’ The affix y- is frequently prefixed to the past participle, which itself sometimes omits the final en or -n, as ‘ydrawe,’ ‘yshake.’ The imperative plural ends in -th, as ‘dreadeth.’ The general negative ne is sometimes to be defined by ‘not,’ sometimes by ‘nor’; and connected with forms of the verb ‘be’ gives us nis, ‘is not’; nas, ‘was not.’ As is often an expletive, and cannot be rendered at all; that before ‘one’ and ‘other’ is usually the definite article; there is frequently to be rendered by ‘where’; mo always means ‘more’; thilke means ‘that’ or ‘that same’; del is ‘deal’ in the sense of ‘bit,’ ‘whit’; and the comparatives of ‘long’ and ‘strong’ are lenger and strenger. Finally it should be borne in mind that the double negative invariably strengthens the negation.  22
Note 1. Poet. [back]
Note 2. Certainly. [back]
Note 3. As. [back]
Note 4. Little. [back]
Note 5. Commentary. [back]
Note 6. Trust. [back]
Note 7. Ignorant. [back]
Note 8. Is called. [back]
Note 9. Little. [back]
Note 10. Are called. [back]
Note 11. A great while ago. [back]
Note 12. Origen upon Mary Magdalen. [back]
Note 13. Certainly. [back]
Note 14. Much. [back]
Note 15. Discomfort. [back]
Note 16. Solace. [back]
Note 17. Seems. [back]

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