"Of Chaucer truly I know not whether to marvel more, either that he in
that misty time could see so clearly, or that we in this clear age walk
so stumblingly after him."
(Philip Sidney, cir. 1581)
It was the habit of Old-English chieftains to take their scops with them
into battle, to the end that the scop's poem might be true to the outer
world of fact as well as to the inner world of ideals. The search for
"local color" is, therefore, not the newest thing in fiction but the oldest
thing in poetry. Chaucer, the first in time of our great English poets, was
true to this old tradition. He was page, squire, soldier, statesman,
diplomat, traveler; and then he was a poet, who portrayed in verse the
many-colored life which he knew intimately at first hand.
For example, Chaucer had to describe a tournament, in the Knight's Tale;
but instead of using his imagination, as other romancers had always done,
he drew a vivid picture of one of those gorgeous pageants of decaying
chivalry with which London diverted the French king, who had been brought
prisoner to the city after the victory of the Black Prince at Poitiers. So
with his Tabard Inn, which is a real English inn, and with his Pilgrims,
who are real pilgrims; and so with every other scene or character he
described. His specialty was human nature, his strong point observation,
his method essentially modern. And by "modern" we mean that he portrayed
the men and women of his own day so well, with such sympathy and humor and
wisdom, that we recognize and welcome them as friends or neighbors, who are
the same in all ages. From this viewpoint Chaucer is more modern than
Tennyson or Longfellow.
Chaucer's boyhood was spent in London, near Westminster,
where the brilliant court of Edward was visible to the favored
ones; and near the Thames, where the world's commerce, then
beginning to ebb and flow with the tides, might be seen of every
man. His father was a vintner, or wine merchant, who had enough
influence at court to obtain for his son a place in the house of
the Princess Elizabeth. Behold then our future poet beginning his
knightly training as page to a highborn lady. Presently he
accompanied the Black Prince to the French wars, was taken prisoner
and ransomed, and on his return entered the second stage of
knighthood as esquire or personal attendant to the king. He married
a maid of honor related to John of Gaunt, the famous Duke of
Lancaster, and at thirty had passed from the rank of merchant into
official and aristocratic circles.
Periods of Work
The literary work of Chaucer is conveniently, but not accurately,
arranged in three different periods. While attached to the court,
one of his duties was to entertain the king and his visitors in
their leisure. French poems of love and chivalry were then in
demand, and of these Chaucer had great store; but English had
recently replaced French even at court, and King Edward and Queen
Philippa, both patrons of art and letters, encouraged Chaucer to
write in his native language. So he made translations of favorite
poems into English, and wrote others in imitation of French models.
These early works, the least interesting of all, belong to what is
called the period of French influence.
Then Chaucer, who had learned the art of silence as well as of
speech, was sent abroad on a series of diplomatic missions. In
Italy he probably met the poet Petrarch (as we infer from the
Prologue to the Clerk's Tale) and became familiar with the works of
Dante and Boccaccio. His subsequent poetry shows a decided advance
in range and originality, partly because of his own growth, no
doubt, and partly because of his better models. This second period,
of about fifteen years, is called the time of Italian influence.
In the third or English period Chaucer returned to London and was a
busy man of affairs; for at the English court, unlike those of
France and Italy, a poet was expected to earn his pension by some
useful work, literature being regarded as a recreation. He was in
turn comptroller of customs and superintendent of public works;
also he was at times well supplied with money, and again, as the
political fortunes of his patron John of Gaunt waned, in sore need
of the comforts of life. Witness his "Complaint to His Empty
Purse," the humor of which evidently touched the king and brought
Chaucer another pension.
Two poems of this period are supposed to contain autobiographical
material. In the Legend of Good Women he says:
And as for me, though that my wit be lytė,
On bokės for to rede I me delytė.
Again, in The House of Fame he speaks of finding his real
life in books after his daily work in the customhouse is ended.
Some of the "rekeninges" (itemized accounts of goods and duties) to
which he refers are still preserved in Chaucer's handwriting:
For whan thy labour doon al is,
And hast y-maad thy rekeninges,
In stede of reste and newė thinges
Thou gost hoom to thy hous anoon,
And, also domb as any stoon,
Thou sittest at another boke
Til fully dawsėd is thy loke,
And livest thus as an hermytė,
Although thine abstinence is lytė.
Such are the scanty facts concerning England's first great poet,
the more elaborate biographies being made up chiefly of guesses or
doubtful inferences. He died in the year 1400, and was buried in
St. Benet's chapel in Westminster Abbey, a place now revered by all
lovers of literature as the Poets' Corner.
On Reading Chaucer
Said Caxton, who was the first to print
Chaucer's poetry, "He writeth no void words, but all his matter is
full of high and quick sentence." Caxton was right, and the modern
reader's first aim should be to get the sense of Chaucer rather
than his pronunciation. To understand him is not so difficult as
appears at first sight, for most of the words that look strange
because of their spelling will reveal their meaning to the ear if
spoken aloud. Thus the word "leefful" becomes "leveful" or
"leaveful" or "permissible."
Next, the reader should remember that Chaucer was a master of
versification, and that every stanza of his is musical. At the
beginning of a poem, therefore, read a few lines aloud, emphasizing
the accented syllables until the rhythm is fixed; then make every
line conform to it, and every word keep step to the music. To do
this it is necessary to slur certain words and run others together;
also, since the mistakes of Chaucer's copyists are repeated in
modern editions, it is often necessary to add a helpful word or
syllable to a line, or to omit others that are plainly superfluous.
This way of reading Chaucer musically, as one would read any other
poet, has three advantages: it is easy, it is pleasant, and it is
far more effective than the learning of a hundred specifications
laid down by the grammarians.
Rules for Reading
As for Chaucer's pronunciation, you will not get that accurately
without much study, which were better spent on more important
matters; so be content with a few rules, which aim simply to help
you enjoy the reading. As a general principle, the root vowel of a
word was broadly sounded, and the rest slurred over. The
characteristic sound of a was as in "far"; e was
sounded like a, i like e, and all diphthongs
as broadly as possible,--in "floures" (flowers), for example, which
should be pronounced "floorės."
Another rule relates to final syllables, and these will appear more
interesting if we remember that they represent the dying
inflections of nouns and adjectives, which were then declined as in
modern German. Final ed and es are variable, but the
rhythm will always tell us whether they should be given an extra
syllable or not. So also with final e, which is often
sounded, but not if the following word begins with a vowel or with
h. In the latter case the two words may be run together, as
in reading Virgil. If a final e occurs at the end of a line,
it may be lightly pronounced, like a in "China," to give
added melody to the verse.
Applying these rules, and using our liberty as freely as Chaucer
used his, [Footnote: The language was changing rapidly in Chaucer's
day, and there were no printed books to fix a standard. Sometimes
Chaucer's grammar and spelling are according to rule, and again as
heaven pleases.] the opening lines of The Canterbury Tales
would read something like this:
Whan that Aprille with his shoures sote
Whan that Apreelė with 'is shoorės sohtė
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the rote,
The drooth of March hath paarcėd to the rohtė
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
And bahthėd ev'ree vyne in swech lecoor,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Of whech varetu engendred is the floor;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Whan Zephirus aik with 'is swaite braith
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
Inspeerėd hath in ev'ree holt and haith
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
The tendre croopės, and th' yoongė sonnė
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne,
Hath in the Ram 'is hawfė coors ironnė,
And smale fowles maken melodye,
And smawlė foolės mahken malyodieė,
That slepen al the night with open ye
That slaipen awl the nicht with open eė
(So priketh hem nature in hir corages)
(So priketh 'eem nahtur in hir coorahgės)
Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages.
Than longen folk to goon on peelgrimahgės.
Early Works of Chaucer
In his first period, which was dominated by French
influence, Chaucer probably translated parts of the Roman de la
Rose, a dreary allegorical poem in which love is represented as a
queen-rose in a garden, surrounded by her court and ministers. In
endeavoring to pluck this rose the lover learns the "commandments" and
"sacraments" of love, and meets with various adventures at the hands of
Virtue, Constancy, and other shadowy personages of less repute. Such
allegories were the delight of the Middle Ages; now they are as dust and
ashes. Other and better works of this period are The Book of the
Duchess, an elegy written on the death of Blanche, wife of Chaucer's
patron, and various minor poems, such as "Compleynte unto Pitee," the
dainty love song "To Rosemunde," and "Truth" or the "Ballad of Good
Characteristic works of the second or Italian period are The House of
Fame, The Legend of Good Women, and especially Troilus and
Criseyde. The last-named, though little known to modern readers, is one
of the most remarkable narrative poems in our literature. It began as a
retelling of a familiar romance; it ended in an original poem, which might
easily be made into a drama or a "modern" novel.
Story of Troilus
The scene opens in Troy, during the siege of the city by the
Greeks. The hero Troilus is a son of Priam, and is second only to
the mighty Hector in warlike deeds. Devoted as he is to glory, he
scoffs at lovers until the moment when his eye lights on Cressida.
She is a beautiful young widow, and is free to do as she pleases
for the moment, her father Calchas having gone over to the Greeks
to escape the doom which he sees impending on Troy. Troilus falls
desperately in love with Cressida, but she does not know or care,
and he is ashamed to speak his mind after scoffing so long at love.
Then appears Pandarus, friend of Troilus and uncle to Cressida, who
soon learns the secret and brings the young people together. After
a long courtship with interminable speeches (as in the old
romances) Troilus wins the lady, and all goes happily until Calchas
arranges to have his daughter brought to him in exchange for a
captured Trojan warrior. The lovers are separated with many tears,
but Cressida comforts the despairing Troilus by promising to
hoodwink her doting father and return in a few days. Calchas,
however, loves his daughter too well to trust her in a city that
must soon be given over to plunder, and keeps her safe in the Greek
camp. There the handsome young Diomede wins her, and presently
Troilus is killed in battle by Achilles.
Such is the old romance of feminine fickleness, which had been written a
hundred times before Chaucer took it bodily from Boccaccio. Moreover he
humored the old romantic delusion which required that a lover should fall
sick in the absence of his mistress, and turn pale or swoon at the sight of
her; but he added to the tale many elements not found in the old romances,
such as real men and women, humor, pathos, analysis of human motives, and a
sense of impending tragedy which comes not from the loss of wealth or
happiness but of character. Cressida's final thought of her first lover is
intensely pathetic, and a whole chapter of psychology is summed up in the
line in which she promises herself to be true to Diomede at the very moment
when she is false to Troilus:
"Allas! of me unto the worldės ende
Shal neyther ben ywrķten nor y-songė
No good word; for these bookės wol me shende.
O, rollėd shal I ben on many a tongė!
Thurghout the world my bellė shal be rongė,
And wommen moste wol haten me of allė.
Allas, that swich a cas me sholdė fallė!
They wol seyn, in-as-much as in me is,
I have hem doon dishonour, weylawey!
Al be I not the firste that dide amis,
What helpeth that to doon my blame awey?
But since I see ther is no betre wey,
And that too late is now for me to rewé,
To Diomede, algate, I wol be trewé."
The Canterbury Tales
The plan of gathering a company of people and letting
each tell his favorite story has been used by so many poets, ancient and
modern, that it is idle to seek the origin of it. Like Topsy, it wasn't
born; it just grew up. Chaucer's plan, however, is more comprehensive than
any other in that it includes all classes of society; it is also more
original in that it does not invent heroic characters but takes such men
and women as one might meet in any assembly, and shows how typical they are
of humanity in all ages. As Lowell says, Chaucer made use in his
Canterbury Tales of two things that are everywhere regarded as
symbols of human life; namely, the short journey and the inn. We might add,
as an indication of Chaucer's philosophy, that his inn is a comfortable
one, and that the journey is made in pleasant company and in fair weather.
An outline of Chaucer's great work is as follows. On an evening in
springtime the poet comes to Tabard Inn, in Southwark, and finds it
filled with a merry company of men and women bent on a pilgrimage
to the shrine of Thomas ą Becket in Canterbury.
After supper appears the jovial host, Harry Bailey, who finds the
company so attractive that he must join it on its pilgrimage. He
proposes that, as they shall be long on the way, they shall furnish
their own entertainment by telling stories, the best tale to be
rewarded by the best of suppers when the pilgrims return from
Canterbury. They assent joyfully, and on the morrow begin their
journey, cheered by the Knight's Tale as they ride forth under the
sunrise. The light of morning and of springtime is upon this work,
which is commonly placed at the beginning of modern English
As the journey proceeds we note two distinct parts to Chaucer's record. One
part, made up of prologues and interludes, portrays the characters and
action of the present comedy; the other part, consisting of stories,
reflects the comedies and tragedies of long ago. The one shows the
perishable side of the men and women of Chaucer's day, their habits, dress,
conversation; the other reveals an imperishable world of thought, feeling,
ideals, in which these same men and women discover their kinship to
humanity. It is possible, since some of the stories are related to each
other, that Chaucer meant to arrange the Canterbury Tales in
dramatic unity, so as to make a huge comedy of human society; but the work
as it comes down to us is fragmentary, and no one has discovered the order
in which the fragments should be fitted together.
The Prologue is perhaps the best single fragment of the Canterbury
Tales. In it Chaucer introduces us to the characters of his drama: to
the grave Knight and the gay Squire, the one a model of Chivalry at its
best, "a verray parfit gentil knight," the other a young man so full of
life and love that "he slept namore than dooth a nightingale"; to the
modest Prioress, also, with her pretty clothes, her exquisite manners, her
And Frensh she spak ful faire and fetisly,
After the scole of Stratford attė Bowė,
For Frensh of Paris was to hir unknowė.
In contrast to this dainty figure is the coarse Wife of Bath, as garrulous
as the nurse in Romeo and Juliet. So one character stands to another
as shade to light, as they appear in a typical novel of Dickens. The
Church, the greatest factor in medieval life, is misrepresented by the
hunting Monk and the begging Friar, and is well represented by the Parson,
who practiced true religion before he preached it:
But Christės lore and his apostles twelvė
He taughte, and first he folwėd it himselvė.
Trade is represented by the Merchant, scholarship by the poor Clerk of
Oxenford, the professions by the Doctor and the Man-of-law, common folk by
the Yeoman, Frankelyn (farmer), Miller and many others of low degree.
Prominent among the latter was the Shipman:
Hardy he was, and wys to undertakė;
With many a tempest hadde his berd been shakė.
From this character, whom Stevenson might have borrowed for his Treasure
Island, we infer the barbarity that prevailed when commerce was new,
when the English sailor was by turns smuggler or pirate, equally ready to
sail or scuttle a ship, and to silence any tongue that might tell tales by
making its wretched owner "walk the plank." Chaucer's description of the
latter process is a masterpiece of piratical humor:
If that he faught and hadde the hyer hond,
By water he sente hem hoom to every lond.
Variety of Tales
Some thirty pilgrims appear in the famous Prologue, and as each was to tell
two stories on the way to Canterbury, and two more on the return, it is
probable that Chaucer contemplated a work of more than a hundred tales.
Only four-and-twenty were completed, but these are enough to cover the
field of light literature in that day, from the romance of love to the
humorous animal fable. Between these are wonder-stories of giants and
fairies, satires on the monks, parodies on literature, and some examples of
coarse horseplay for which Chaucer offers an apology, saying that he must
let each pilgrim tell his tale in his own way.
A round dozen of these tales may still be read with pleasure; but, as a
suggestion of Chaucer's variety, we name only three: the Knight's romance
of "Palamon and Arcite," the Nun's Priest's fable of "Chanticleer," and the
Clerk's old ballad of "Patient Griselda." The last-named will be more
interesting if we remember that the subject of woman's rights had been
hurled at the heads of the pilgrims by the Wife of Bath, and that the Clerk
told his story to illustrate his different ideal of womanhood.
The Charm of Chaucer
The first of Chaucer's qualities is that he is an
excellent story-teller; which means that he has a tale to tell, a good
method of telling it, and a philosophy of life which gives us something to
think about aside from the narrative. He had a profound insight of human
nature, and in telling the simplest story was sure to slip in some nugget
of wisdom or humor: "What wol nat be mote need be left," "For three may
keep counsel if twain be away," "The lyf so short, the craft so long to
lerne," "Ful wys is he that can himselven knowe,"
The firste vertue, sone, if thou wilt lere,
Is to restreine and kepen wel thy tonge.
There are literally hundreds of such "good things" which make Chaucer a
constant delight to those who, by a very little practice, can understand
him almost as easily as Shakespeare. Moreover he was a careful artist; he
knew the principles of poetry and of story-telling, and before he wrote a
song or a tale he considered both his subject and his audience, repeating
to himself his own rule:
Ther nis no werkman, whatsoever he be,
That may bothe werkė wel and hastily:
This wol be doon at leysur, parfitly.
A second quality of Chaucer is his power of observation, a power so
extraordinary that, unlike other poets, he did not need to invent scenes or
characters but only to describe what he had seen and heard in this
wonderful world. As he makes one of his characters say:
For certeynly, he that me made
To comen hider seydė me:
I shouldė bothė hear et see
In this place wonder thingės.
In the Canterbury Tales alone he employs more than a score of
characters, and hardly a romantic hero among them; rather does he delight
in plain men and women, who reveal their quality not so much in their
action as in their dress, manner, or tricks of speech. For Chaucer has the
glance of an Indian, which passes over all obvious matters to light upon
one significant detail; and that detail furnishes the name or the adjective
of the object. Sometimes his descriptions of men or nature are microscopic
in their accuracy, and again in a single line he awakens the reader's
imagination,--as when Pandarus (in Troilus), in order to make
himself unobtrusive in a room where he is not wanted, picks up a manuscript
and "makes a face," that is, he pretends to be absorbed in a story,
and fand his countenance
As for to loke upon an old romance.
A dozen striking examples might be given, but we shall note only one. In
the Book of the Duchess the poet is in a forest, when a chase sweeps
by with whoop of huntsman and clamor of hounds. After the hunt, when the
woods are all still, comes a little lost dog:
Hit com and creep to me as lowė
Right as hit haddė me y-knowė,
Hild down his heed and jiyned his eres,
And leyde al smouthė doun his heres.
I wolde han caught hit, and anoon
Hit fleddė and was fro me goon.
Next to his power of description, Chaucer's best quality is his humor, a
humor which is hard to phrase, since it runs from the keenest wit to the
broadest farce, yet is always kindly and human. A mendicant friar comes in
out of the cold, glances about the snug kitchen for the best seat:
And fro the bench he droof awey the cat.
Sometimes his humor is delicate, as in touching up the foibles of the
Doctor or the Man-of-law, or in the Priest's translation of Chanticleer's
evil remark about women:
Mulier est hominis confusio.
Madame, the sentence of this Latin is:
Woman is mannes joye and al his blis.
The humor broadens in the Wife of Bath, who tells how she managed several
husbands by making their lives miserable; and occasionally it grows a
little grim, as when the Maunciple tells the difference between a big and a
little rascal. The former does evil on a large scale, and,
Lo! therfor is he cleped a Capitain;
But for the outlawe hath but small meynee,
And may not doon so gret an harm as he,
Ne bring a countree to so gret mischeef,
Men clepen him an outlawe or a theef.
Freedom from Bias
A fourth quality of Chaucer is his broad tolerance, his absolute
disinterestedness. He leaves reforms to Wyclif and Langland, and can laugh
with the Shipman who turns smuggler, or with the worldly Monk whose
"jingling" bridle keeps others as well as himself from hearing the chapel
bell. He will not even criticize the fickle Cressida for deserting Troilus,
saying that men tell tales about her, which is punishment enough for any
woman. In fine, Chaucer is content to picture a world in which the rain
falleth alike upon the just and the unjust, and in which the latter seem to
have a liberal share of the umbrellas. He enjoys it all, and describes its
inhabitants as they are, not as he thinks they ought to be. The reader may
think that this or that character deserves to come to a bad end; but not so
Chaucer, who regards them all as kindly, as impersonally as Nature herself.
So the Canterbury pilgrims are not simply fourteenth-century Englishmen;
they are human types whom Chaucer met at the Tabard Inn, and whom later
English writers discover on all of earth's highways. One appears unchanged
in Shakespeare's drama, another in a novel of Jane Austen, a third lives
over the way or down the street. From century to century they change not,
save in name or dress. The poet who described or created such enduring
characters stands among the few who are called universal writers.