The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer


Was never eye did see that face,

Was never ear did hear that tongue,

Was never mind did mind his grace,

That ever thought the travail long;

But eyes and ears and every thought

Were with his sweet perfections caught.

(From Lowell’s Essay.)

This preface and this book are not meant for the scholar who reads his Middle English with ease, nor again for the student who wishes to delve into the grammar and the syntax of fourteenth-century English. Rather are they meant for those many people who have not read, who say they cannot read, Chaucer.

For, let writers deny it as they will, to the modern Englishman, and still more to the modern Englishwoman, Chaucer is a sealed book. A few lines here and there are clear enough — but then the reader is pulled up sharp and has to refer to notes and glossary; and the man who sets out for enjoyment, will not for long turn aside to notes and glossary, however well they may be supplied. If it were not so, if this contention were not true, Professor Skeat would not have thought it necessary to publish a modern version of the beautiful Knightes Tale.

The understanding of Chaucer and the love of him (the two go together) are not very old. Neither Addison nor Pope could appreciate him, and it is well known into what Dryden turned the tales. But attempts have been made to bring Chaucer nearer to the people. Charles Cowden Clarke “purified” him; others modernised his spelling; others again so altered him in modernising him that the poet was unrecognisable. Not one of these versions has succeeded. It is a bold thing to hope to prosper where so many have failed; but the present editor is bound to explain — and to defend — his method.

To begin with, certain tales, seven out of the twenty-four, have been left untouched. They are so broad, so plain-spoken, that no amount of editing or alteration will make them suitable for the twentieth century. To these my preface makes no further reference. But in regard to the other seventeen, I may say that, first, the spelling has been slightly modernised, modernised just enough to leave its quaintness and take away some of its difficulty. To take a well-known passage and compare the ordinary version with the present version:—

Ther saugh I first the derke imagining

Of felonye and al the compassyng;

The cruel ire reed as any glede;

The pykepurs and eek the pale drede;

The smyler with the knyf under the cloke;

The shepne brenning with the blake smoke;

The treson of the mordring in the bedde;

The open werre with woundes al bibledde;

Contek with blody knyf and sharp manace

Al ful of chirking was that sory place.

Ther saw I first the dark imaginyng

Of felony, and al the compassyng;

The cruel wrath, as eny furnace red;

The pickepurs, and eke the pale Dread;

The smyler with the knyf under his cloke;

The stables burnyng with the blake smoke

The treson of the murtheryng in the bed;

The open warres, with woundes al y-bled:

Conflict with bloody knyf, and sharp menace.

Al ful of shriekyng was that sory place.

Again, difficulties of vocabulary have been treated in the same way. There is no pretence that this version is the Chaucer of the scholar, or the Chaucer of any recognised text; and I give an instance as before, comparing the ordinary version with that printed in this volume:—

The sleere of him-self yet saugh I ther

His herte-blood hath bathed al his heer

The nayl y-driven in the shode a-night;

The colde deeth with mouth gaping upright.

Amiddes of the temple sat meschaunce

With discomfort and sory contenaunce

Yet saugh I woodnesse laughing in his rage

Armed complaint, out-hees, and fiers outrage

The careyne in the bush with throte y-corve

A thousand slayn and nat of qualm y-storve;

The tiraunt with the prey by force y-raft

The toune destroyed ther was nothing laft.

Yet saugh I brent the shippes hoppesteres;

The hunte strangled with the wilde beres;

The sowe freten the child right in the cradel

The cook y-scalded for al his longe ladel

Noght was foryeten by th’ infortune of Marte:

The carter over-riden with his carte

Under the wheel ful lowe he lay adoun.

The slayer of himself yet saw I ther,

His herte-blood hath bathèd al his hair;

The nayl y-dryven in the skull at nyght;

The colde deth, with mouth gapyng upright.

In midst of al the temple sat meschaunce,

With sory comfort and evil countynaunce.

Ther I saw madness laughyng in his rage;

Armèd complaint, alarm and fierce outrage.

The body in the bushe, with throte y- bled:

A thousand slayne, and none of sickness dead;

The tiraunt, with the prey bi force y-refte;

The toune distroyèd, there was no thing lefte.

Ther burnt the shippes daunsyng up and doun;

Ther dyed the hunter by the wilde lion:

The sowe eatyng the child right in the cradel;

The cook y-skalded, for al his longe ladel.

Nought was forgot the ill-fortune of Mart;

The carter over-ridden by his cart,

Under the wheel ful lowe he lay adoun.

Again, some care has been taken to preserve Chaucer’s melody. The italicised “e” is to be very lightly sounded, so lightly that the sound is hinted at rather than heard, and the pronunciation of this gently- dropping “e” is the pronunciation of the “a” in the word “china,” when the reader whispers the word “china.” With this simple rule, the Chaucerian line, an ordinary line of ten syllables, will be found to be generally musical and again and again to be music itself. For, to be thoroughly appreciated, the Tales must be read aloud.

I have now explained my offence. I have done no more than many other modernising editors, except for this, that the version I submit to the reader is, I hope, nearer to Chaucer than theirs. And to the modern reader I leave it, adding the beautiful words which Lowell says should be the inscription on Chaucer’s works — words which, from Chaucer’s own pen, best describe the pleasure that awaits in every age the reader of the “Canterbury Tales”:—

Through me men go into that blisful place

Of hertes helth, and dedly woundes cure;

Through me men go unto the welle of Grace

Where grene and lusty May shal ever endure.

This is the way to al good aventure.

Be glad, then, reader, and thy sorrow off-caste,

Al open am I, pass in and speed thee faste.

Of Geoffrey Chaucer little is known. He is said to have been born in 1340, and his life ended with the century. At the age of seventeen he was in the service of an aristocratic house, and two years later he was fighting in France, where the Hundred Years War had began. He was taken prisoner, but was soon ransomed, and before the age of thirty he had married (probably a lady whose sister was John of Gaunt’s wife) and was again fighting in France. Thus, already, courtly houses, captivity, the humours and horrors of war were known to him by experience; and of all of them he writes vividly in the Knightes Tale and in many other places. Very soon afterwards we find Chaucer engaged on foreign missions — sometimes in Italy, sometimes in France; and his first civil employment was that of Comptroller of Customs in London. At the age of forty-six Chaucer sat in the Parliament as a knight of the shire for Kent, and later he received an appointment as Clerk of the King’s Works. From this time to his death he was again and again in straits for money, and he seems always to have been anticipating or selling such pensions as he had. He died in 1400. The piety of Nicholas Brigham (1556) built or rebuilt his tomb in Westminster Abbey, and no more fitting line could have been engraved on it than the one chosen, “Requies aerumnarum mors”: or as Chaucer himself writes it:—

Deth is the end of every worldly sore.

The motto and the other lines on the tomb sadly need regilding. Above the tomb is the Chaucer window.

It is customary to speak in all prefaces of Chaucer’s humour and of his power as a narrator; now and then a critic like Lowell (in “My Study Windows”) lays deserved stress on the melody of his verse. But it is difficult to know where to begin when we enumerate Chaucer’s excellencies, and instead of this, let us see him as he is. In the Tales he stands self-revealed; and the rest of this introduction is but an attempt to show the real Chaucer, by calling attention to a few lines in which his own heart speaks.

Before all else we must recognise his delight in life:—

When that Aprille with his showres swoot

When smale fowles maken melodie.

and again:—

Herken these blisful briddes how they sing,

And see the fresshe floures how they spring.

Ful is mine heart of revel and solas.

Spring is part of him:—

The busy larke, the messenger of day,

Saluteth in her song the morning gray;

And fyry Phœbus ryseth up so bright

That al the orient laugheth for the sight;

And with his stremes drieth in the greeves

The silver dropes hanging on the leeves.

Although on ordinary days he may sit over his book “as dumb as any stone,” yet when nature smiles he is up and away:—

Farewel, my book — and my devocioun.

Other poets write about the beauties of the outer world. To none of them does Chaucer yield, and as a lover of sunlight, of birds, of the golden world he stands with the Psalmists and with Wordsworth. Along with this gladness are the deeper notes. How strange to find in Chaucer the sadness of life and the wistful outlook on “the sombre sides of man’s destiny”:—

What is this world? what asken men to have?

Now with his love, now in the colde grave

Alone, withouten any company.

The old man, weary of his life, cries to the young revellers:—

And deth, alas, he wil not have my life,

Thus walk I like a resteless caitiff;

And on the ground which is my mothers gate

I knocke with my staf both erly and late,

And say, “O deere mother, let me in.”

The dying knight, who has won all that he desired and who died in sight of his heaven, is one more instance of the sadness of destiny:—

Dusked his eyen two and failed his health,

But on his lady yet he caste his eye.

His laste word was, “Mercy, Emelye.”

Throughout the Tales “man goeth forth to his work and to his labour — until the evening.” Yet nothing escapes Chaucer’s humour. He will not even let himself escape: he must needs give us a humorous description of Geoffrey Chaucer:—

What man art thou? quoth he,

That lookest as thou woldest finde an hare,

For ever upon the ground I see thee stare.

Approche near and loke up merrily.

Now ware you, sirs, and let this man have place,

He in the waist is shaped as wel as I;

This were a poppet in the arm to embrace

For any womman smal and fair of face.

He admits he has written on several subjects:—

But Chaucer though he can but ignorantly

On metres and on ryming craftily

Hath said it — in such English as he can.

Yet when he consents to tell the rest of them a tale, obviously a travesty of medieval romances, the Host stops him in the middle of a line:—

No more of this, for Goddes dignitee,

Quoth oure hoste, for thou makest me

So weary of thy verray lewednesse

Mine eares achen at thy drasty speche

This may wel be rime doggerel, quoth he.

Chaucer has not done laughing at himself, for he proceeds to tell in his own person the Tale of Melibeus — long, dull, and in prose. Did ever poet so trouble to hold himself up to ridicule? His sly eye roves over all his world and even over the animals — the Prioresse’s smale houndes, the fox, the crow, the chanticleer who reads Dan Cato and who quotes Latin, all supply him with mirth. But how he delights in making fun of his woman world. The Prioresse herself, the immortal Wife of Bath, and the fierce wife of the Host are all in turn butts for his quiet arrows. The termagant mistress Host is doughtier far than her husband.

When I bete my knaves,

She bringeth me forth the grete clobbed staves

And crieth, “Slay the dogges every one

And break them bothe back and every bone.

Allas,” she saith, “that ever I was shape

To wed a milksop or a coward ape.

By corpus bones I will have thy knife

And thou shalt have my distaff and go spinne.”

Chaucer knows the frailty, the wrath, the vengeance of women: he knows too what they want above any earthly thing:—

Some saide women loven best richés,

Some saide honour, some saide jollinesse.

But he knows better:—

“My liege lady, generally,” quoth he,

“Women desiren to have Sovereigntee,

As wel over their husband as their love

And for to be in mastery them above.”

It is quite true: the women themselves acknowledge it:—

In al the court there was not wif or mayde

Or widow that contraried what he saide.

But he hastens elsewhere to apologise:—

I can no harm of no woman divine.

The whole of the Pardoner’s Tale, prologue, tale, and epilogue, is a masterpiece of Chaucerian humour. The Pardoner in his prologue gives away his profession and pours ridicule upon himself; then he tells an excellent story, and with the very last word turns his own preaching into a farce. Indeed, all of Chaucer’s “church gallery” laugh at themselves or make us laugh at them; Friar, Pardoner, Summoner, Prioresse, Monk; only in pathetic and earnest contrast is the poor Parson, who wrought first and taught afterwards.

The descriptions in the Prologue teem with humorous touches. The Prioresse speaks excellent “Stratford” French; the Monk doesn’t care a plucked hen for the text that contemns the worldly prelate; “and I said his opinion was good.” The Friar’s eyes twinkle like stars when he has sung one of his love songs; the merchant always profits by money-exchange; the Clerk is as lean as a rake; the Lawyer seems busier than he is; the Sailor rides “as he could”; the Doctor believes in prescribing “gold” in sickness; the Wife of Bath has been five times married “withouten other companye in youthe”; the Miller (drunk) brings them out of town to the sound of a baggepipe; the Summoner has three words of Latin — which he ventures on when he has had his “strong wyn red as blood”; the Pardoner’s pockets are full of relics come from Rome al hot. Here are but a few phrases. It is as though the poet said, “Come, laugh with me: life is merry. Come, weep with me: life is sad. Come, love with me: life is short.”

For this is Chaucer’s secret: he loves; and it is this that makes him so lovable a poet. No student of the Canterbury Tales can escape from this reflection. Chaucer loves the Knight and the young Squire and the poor Parson. He loves and understands children, and in this respect he stands almost alone among the poets. The death of the little child in the Prioresses Tale wrings from him passionate tears; the girl Griselda, the child of Constance, are but two in his child gallery. He loves good women: he loves the Virgin Mary: and he loves Jesus Christ. Respect, admiration, even worship we find in many writers: in Chaucer they are all there, but above all Amor vincit omnia.

Mention has been made of Chaucer’s good-humoured laughter at the Wife of Bath: but, if one trait stands out above all others in his work it is his worship of good women. No one can read the Canterbury Tales without being struck with the idealism which has created Griselda, Constance, Emelye. We may find rarely in Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, pictures which crowd to the memory when Chaucer is describing the ladies of his dreams. All of them pale, of course, before Griselda, of whom he writes the immortal verses:—

And shortly forth this tale for to chase

I say that to this newe marquisesse

God hath such favour sent her of his grace

That it seemed not by any likeliness

That she was born and fed in rudenesse

As in a cottage or an oxestalle

But nourished in an emperoures halle.

To every wight she waxed is so dear

And worshipful that folk where she was born

And from her birthe knew her year by year

Scarce trowed they but durst have boldly sworn

That to Janicle of which I spak biforn

No daughter was she for as by cónjecture

They thought she was another créature.

For though that ever vertuous was she,

She was encreasèd in such excellence

Of maners goode i-set in high bountee,

And so discret and fair of eloquence,

So benigne and so digne of reverence,

And coude so the peples hert embrace

That ech her loveth that loketh in her face.

Nought only of Saluces in the toun

Publisshèd was the bountee of her name,

But eek byside in many a regioun

If one sayd wel, another sayd the same.

So spredde wide her bountee and her fame,

That men and wommen, as wel younge as olde,

Go to Saluces upon her to byholde.

Not only this Griseldes through her witte

Knew al the ways of wifly homlynesse,

But eek when that the tyme required it

The comun profit coude she wel redresse.

There was no discord, rancour, or hevynesse

In al that lond that she coude not appese,

And wisly bring them alle in rest and ese.

Though that her housband absent were anon,

If gentilmen or other of her countree

Were wroth, she wolde brynge them at one,

So wyse and rype wordes hadde she

And judgement of so gret equitee.

That she from heven sent was, as men wende,

Peple to save and every wrong to amende.

The reason, I think, can easily be found. All good women are to Chaucer reflections of the Virgin Mary, who is “the lady bright,” the “haven of refuge,” the “bright star of day,” the “glory of motherhood.” She is eternal womanhood in heaven. The Clerkes Tale alone lifts the woman of the Middle Ages above the eleganices of Herrick, above the passion of Byron, above the calm honours of Tennyson, and the critical or whole-hearted admiration of Browning. Not even in Shakespeare do we find such an abandonment of worship as we do here. Women have not yet learnt to study the women of Chaucer, their own poet, their defender, and their glory. If apology be needed for the poet’s coarseness, let the white figures of Constance, Emelye, and Griselda atone.

From whom are we to get the truer Chaucer? From the biographers or from the Tales themselves? I think from the latter. If so, what do we find? A man liking a broad tale (as men generally do) and able to say it in language which does not suit our more decent century; a man revelling in the sunlight; a hero worshipper, but far more a heroine worshipper; laughing with, at, and against himself and his characters; full of good advice intended for any who will take it — including himself; a moralist, but no preacher; a lover of life and joy, of sorrow and of death; an aristocrat sympathising with the poor and the downtrodden; the burden of whose cheery teaching may be given in his own lines:—

That thee is sent, receive in buxomnesse,

The wrestling with the world axeth a fal

Hold the high way and let thy spirit thee lead

And Truth shall thee deliver, it is no drede.

A. Burrell.


Scholars are not agreed on all points as regards the chronology of Chaucer’s works. The following arrangement is that given conjecturally by Prof. Skeat in his edition of the poet’s works:—

Romaunt of the Rose, in part preserved, and the ABC, early poems; Book of the Duchess, Life of Saint Cecyle, 1369; Palamon and Arcite, Complaint to Pity, Anelida and Arcite, 1372–3; Translation of Boethius, 1377–8; Complaint of Mars, 1379 (?); Troylus and Cryseyde, 1379–83; Parlement of Foules, 1382; House of Fame, 1383–4; Legend of Good Women, 1385–6; Canterbury Tales, begun 1386; Treatise on the Astrolabe, 1391. Two early works are lost, and one partly preserved in the Man of Law’s Tale.

Many minor poems are included in Chaucer’s works.

Works: Thynne, 1532; Tyrwhitt, 1775, etc.; Skeat, 6 vols., 1894, and “Student’s Chaucer,” 1895; Pollard, Heath, Liddell, McCormick, 1901.

The Chaucer Society has published parallel texts of Chaucer’s works, and autotype editions of some of the chief MSS., also “Chronology of Chaucer’s Works,” by Koch, 1890.

Life: J.Saunders, 1845; T.Markly, “Life and Poetry of Chaucer,” Lecture, 1858; Ward (English Men of Letters), 1879; Lennsbury, “Studies in Chaucer,” etc., 1892; “Life-Records of Chaucer,” Chaucer Society, 1900; Ames, “Chaucer Memorial Lectures,” 1900; Tuckwell (Miniature Series of Great Writers), 1904. See also the “Dictionary of National Biography” and editions of works.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:52