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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume II. The End of the Middle Ages.

VIII. The English Chaucerians

§ 10. The Tale of Beryn or The Second Merchant’s Tale

The professed sequels to The Canterbury Tales themselves are shut off from the rest of the last group by a formal peculiarity, the neglect of which, by those who composed them and those who admitted them, is a curious indication of the uncritical attitude of the time. All The Canterbury Tales proper are written in very strict metre, regularly handled. The Merchant’s Prologue and Tale are in a peculiar doggerel, half-way between the fourteeners or run-on ballad measure of Gamelyn, and the much more doggerellised medium of the early interludes. Not unfrequently the lines can be forced into decasyllables; but the only satisfactory general arrangement is that of “the queen was in her parlour” with a more or less strong stop in the middle. This metre or quasimetre Chaucer never uses or approaches in any of the works certainly, or even in those probably, his; and it is, of course, unlikely that he should have arranged in it “prologue” matter which, in every one of the other numerous cases of its occurrence, is in irreproachable “riding rime” or decasyllabic couplet. The single MS.—the duke of Northumberland’—relied on for the tale is put at before 1450, but we have no other indication of origin, personal or temporal. The most curious thing, however, is that the unknown author, while making this singular blunder as to his form—a blunder which he could only have exceeded by going directly in the teeth of the disclaimer of alliterative rhythm in The Parson’s Prologue—is not by any means so un-Chaucerian in matter and temper. The prologue, which is a fairly lively account of how the pilgrims occupied themselves when they reached Canterbury, busies itself especially with the adventures of the pardoner and his beguilement by an insinuating but treacherous “tappestere” or barmaid. The substance of this is not looser than that of The Miller’s and Reeve’s Tales, and the narrative power is by no means inconsiderable. As for The Second Merchant’s Tale, which starts the homeward series, it is a story (drawn from a French original) of commercial adventure and beguilement in foreign parts which, though rather long and complicated, by no means lacks interest or, again, narrative power, and fully deserves the pains spent upon it by Furnivall, Clouston and others in the Chaucer Society’s edition; indeed, it is to be regretted that it is not included in Skeat’s edition of Chaucer any Chauceriana. But Chaucer’s own it cannot possibly be—any more than Gamelyn itself, which was, possibly, its model.