Having come up to the Romantic Age, with which this series started, in my 52nd essay, I had thought to conclude it, with a year gone by. But I realized that I should not omit the beginnings of English poetry, or rather the beginning of what can be attributed to a known writer.
I refer to Geoffrey Chaucer, whose Canterbury Tales began the whole business, and which still stands as one of the most remarkable poems in the language. When I say the language, I use the term loosely, for Chaucer wrote before the age of print. It was print that set language in stone as it were, so that we can readily understand what Shakespeare wrote, though 400 years have passed. There were only 200 years between Chaucer and Shakespeare, but the language they used is poles apart. So reading Chaucer now in the original is only possible for dedicated students of English Literature.
I think this would have put me off, for I found extremely painful having to read the other string to Chaucer’s bow, Troilus and Cressida, for my Advanced Levels. But fortunately I had been introduced previously to Chaucer by perhaps the most inspiring teacher in my time at S. Thomas’, Anton Tissera, who had one period a week with us when we were not yet teenagers. He would read from the literature he enjoyed, which was not always to the taste of my fellow students. So sometimes the class seemed a private lesson between him and me, and I cannot thank him enough for the wonders to which he introduced us, nearly half a century ago.
Amongst these was the Coghill translation of Chaucer, and I went out and found myself a copy straight away, and devoured it. Some of the stories were not as jolly as the sample he had introduced us to, but much of it was wonderful, with a range of styles and subject matter, including mildly pornographic stuff which was most welcome at that age.
The tales were those told, to pass the long journey, by a range of pilgrims to the shrine of Thomas Beckett at Canterbury. The tellers ranged from the lordly knight to the lusty miller, with clerics of all shades and hues thrown in. Nearly all the tales are worth reading, but I shall be able here only to cite a few lines from a few of the tales. And it is perhaps even more fascination to read some of the descriptions Chaucer uses to bring his various characters to life.
Most notable perhaps was the Wife of Bath, a jolly housewife who could more than hold her own with the men –
A worthy woman from beside Bath city Was with us, somewhat deaf, which was a pity. In making cloth she showed so great a bent She bettered those of Ypres and of Ghent. In all the parish not a dame dared stir Towards the altar steps in front of her, And if indeed they did, so wrath was she As to be quite put out of charity. Her kerchiefs were of finely woven ground; The ones she wore on Sunday, on her head. Her hose were of the finest scarlet red And gartered tight; her shoes were soft and new. Bold was her face, handsome, and red in hue. A worthy woman all her life, what’s more She’d had five husbands, all at the church door, Apart from other company in youth; No need just now to speak of that, forsooth. And she had thrice been to Jerusalem, Seen many strange rivers and passed over them; She’d been to Rome and also to Boulogne, St. James of Compostella and Cologne, And she was skilled in wandering by the way. She had gap-teeth, set widely, truth to say. Easily on an ambling horse she sat Well wimpled up, and on her head a hat As broad as is a buckler or a shield; She had a flowing mantle that concealed Large hips, her heels spurred sharply under that. n company she liked to laugh and chat And knew the remedies for love’s mischances, An art in which she knew the oldest dances.
In marked contrast was the Prioress, who is the subject of Chaucer’s sharpest irony, given the elegance with which she dresses, and the unusual nature of the motto she flaunts –
There also was a Nun, a Prioress, Her way of smiling very simple and coy. Her greatest oath was only “By St. Loy!” And she was known as Madam Eglantyne. And well she sang a service, with a fine Intoning through her nose, as was most seemly, And she spoke daintily in French, extremely, After the school of Stratford-atte-Bowe; French in the Paris style she did not know. At meat her manners were well taught withal; No morsel from her lips did she let fall, Nor dipped her fingers in the sauce too deep; But she could carry a morsel up and keep The smallest drop from falling on her breast. For courtliness she had a special zest, And she would wipe her upper lip so clean That not a trace of grease was to be seen Upon the cup when she had drunk; to eat, She reached a hand sedately for the meat. She certainly was very entertaining, Pleasant and friendly in her ways, and straining To counterfeit a courtly kind of grace, A stately bearing fitting to her place, And to seem dignified in all her dealings. As for her sympathies and tender feelings, She was so charitably solicitous She used to weep if she but saw a mouse Caught in a trap, if it were dead or bleeding. And she had little dogs she would be feeding With roasted flesh, or milk, or fine white bread. And bitterly she wept if one were dead Or someone took a stick and made it smart; She was all sentiment and tender heart. Her veil was gathered in a seemly way, Her nose was elegant, her eyes glass-gray; Her mouth was very small, but soft and red, Her forehead, certainly, was fair of spread, Almost a span across the brows, I own; She was indeed by no means undergrown. Her cloak, I noticed, had a graceful charm. She wore a coral trinket on her arm, A set of beads, the gaudies tricked in green, Whence hung a golden brooch of brightest sheen On which there first was graven a crowned A, And lower, Amor vincit omnia. (Latin for “Love conquers all”)
Chaucer does however give praise where praise is due, as in the case of the Parson – though he cannot help noting here what not so good priests get up to –
A holy-minded man of good renown There was, and poor, the Parson to a town, Yet he was rich in holy thought and work. He also was a learned man, a clerk, Who truly knew Christ’s gospel and would preach it Devoutly to parishioners, and teach it. Benign and wonderfully diligent, And patient when adversity was sent (For so he proved in much adversity) He hated cursing to extort a fee, Nay rather he preferred beyond a doubt Giving to poor parishioners round about Both from church offerings and his property; He could in little find sufficiency. Wide was his parish, with houses far asunder, Yet he neglected not in rain or thunder, In sickness or in grief, to pay a call On the remotest, whether great or small, Upon his feet, and in his hand a stave. This noble example to his sheep he gave That first he wrought, and afterward he taught; And it was from the Gospel he had caught Those words, and he would add this figure too, That if gold rust, what then will iron do? For if a priest be foul in whom we trust No wonder that a common man should rust; And shame it is to see—let priests take stock— A shitten shepherd and a snowy flock. The true example that a priest should give Is one of cleanness, how the sheep should live. He did not set his benefice to hire And leave his sheep encumbered in the mire Or run to London to earn easy bread By singing masses for the wealthy dead, Or find some Brotherhood and get enrolled. He stayed at home and watched over his fold So that no wolf should make the sheep miscarry. He was a shepherd and no mercenary. Holy and virtuous he was, but then Never contemptuous of sinful men, Never disdainful, never too proud or fine, But was discreet in teaching and benign. His business was to show a fair behavior And draw men thus to Heaven and their Savior, Unless indeed a man were obstinate; And such, whether of high or low estate, He put to sharp rebuke, to say the least. I think there never was a better priest. He sought no pomp or glory in his dealings, No scrupulosity had spiced his feelings. Christ and His Twelve Apostles and their lore He taught, but followed it himself before.
It is difficult to find suitable sort passages from the Tales themselves, but the conclusion of one of the best known, that of the cock who was flattered by a fox about his sweet voice, is sharp and swift – and shows Chaucer in a kind mood, for Chanticleer escapes –
This Chanticleer stood high upon his toes,
Stretching his neck, and both his eyes did close,
And so did crow right loudly, for the nonce;
And Russel Fox, he started up at once,
And by the gorget grabbed our Chanticleer,
Flung him on back, and toward the wood did steer…..
And now, good men, I pray you hearken all.
Behold how Fortune turns all suddenly
The hope and pride of even her enemy!
This cock, which lay across the fox’s back,
In all his fear unto the fox did clack
And say: “Sir, were I you, as I should be,
Then would I say (as God may now help me!),
‘Turn back again, presumptuous peasants all!
A very pestilence upon you fall!
Now that I’ve gained here to this dark wood’s side,
In spite of you this cock shall here abide.
I’ll eat him, by my faith, and that anon!'”
The fox replied: “In faith, it shall be done!”
And as he spoke that word, all suddenly
This cock broke from his mouth, full cleverly,
And high upon a tree he flew anon.
This translation, it should be noted, is not Coghill’s, nor the last one. For it would not do to conclude without a taste of Chaucer at his bawdy best. This is from the Miller’s tale, about the tricking of a carpenter by his young lodger, who convinced him that another flood was coming, and that he should sleep in a boat tied to the ceiling. When the old man was asleep
Down by the ladder crept this Nicholay, And Alison, right softly down she sped. Without more words they went and got in bed Even where the carpenter was wont to lie. There was the revel and the melody! And thus lie Alison and Nicholas, In joy that goes by many an alias,
But there is more, for when Alison’s other admirer comes to the window and a commotion arises which I have no room to explain, the carpenter suddenly awakes and cuts down the boat
This carpenter out of his sleep did start, Hearing that “Water!” cried as madman would, And thought, “Alas, now comes down Noel’s flood!” He struggled up without another word And with his axe he cut in two the cord, And down went all