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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.

VII. Chaucer

§ 11. The Canterbury Tales

That he found what he wanted in the scheme of The Canterbury Tales, and that, though these also are unfinished (in fact not half finished according to their apparent design), they are one of the greatest works of literature—everybody knows. Of the genesis of the scheme itself nobody knows anything. As Dickens says, “I thought of Mr. Pickwick”: so, no doubt, did Chaucer “think of” his pilgrims. It has been suggested—and denied—that Boccaccio, so often Chaucer’s immediate inspirer, was his inspirer in this case also, by the scheme and framework of The Decameron. It is, indeed, by no means unlikely that there was some connection; but the plan of collecting individually distinct tales, and uniting them by means of a framework of central story, was immemorial in the east; and at least one example of it had been naturalised in Europe, under many different forms, for a couple of centuries, in the shape of the collection known as The Seven Sages. It is not necessary to look beyond this for general suggestion; and the still universal popularity of pilgrimages provided a more special hint, the possibilities of which it certainly did not require Chaucer’s genius to recognise. These fortuitous associations—masses of drift-wood kept together for a time and then separated—offer almost everything that the artist, desirous of painting character and manners on the less elaborate and more varied scale, can require. Though we have little of the kind from antiquity, Petronius shows us the germs of the method; and, since medieval literature began to become adult in Italy, it has been the commonest of the common.

To what extent Chaucer regarded it, not merely as a convenient vehicle for anything that he might take a fancy to write, but as a useful one to receive anything of the less independent kind that he had already written, is a very speculative question. But the general tendency has been to regard The Knight’s Tale, that of the Second Nun and, perhaps, others, as examples of this latter process, while an interesting hypothesis has been started that the capital Tale of Gamelyn—which we find mixed up with Chaucer’s works, but which he cannot possibly have written—may have been selected by him and laid by as the subject of rehandling into a Canterbury item. But all this is guesswork; and, perhaps, the elaborate attempts to arrange the tales in a consistent order are a little superfluous. The unquestionable incompleteness of the whole and of some of the parts, the irregular and unsystematic character of the minor prologues and framework-pieces, alike preclude the idea of a very orderly plan, worked out so far as it went in an orderly fashion. In fact, as has been hinted above, such a thing is repugnant to Chaucer’s genius as manifested not merely here but everywhere.

Fortunately, however, he was able to secure a sufficient number of happy moments to draw the main part of the framework—The Prologue, in which the plan of the whole is sketched, the important characters delineated and the action launched—without gap or lapse. For it would be short-sighted to regard the grouping of certain figures in an undescribed batch as an incompleteness. Some writers of more methodical disposition would, probably, have proceeded from this to work out all the framework part, including, perhaps, even a termination, however much liberty they might reserve to themselves for the inset tales. But this was not Chaucer’s way. There have been controversies even as to the exact number of tales that he originally promises or suggests: and the incident of the canon’s yeoman shows that he might very well have reinforced his company in numbers, and have treated them to adventures of divers kinds. In fact, the unknown deviser of the The Pardoner and the Tapster,though what he has produced is quite unlike Chaucer in form, has been much less out of the spirit and general verisimilitude of the whole work than more modern continuators. But it is most probable that the actual frame-stuff—so much of it as is genuine (for there are fragments of link in some MSS. which are very unlikely to be so)—was composed by its author in a very haphazard manner, sometimes with the tale he had in his mind, sometimes to cobble on one which he had written more or less independently. The only clear string of connection from first to last is the pervading personality of the host, who gives a unity of character, almost as great as the unity of frame-story, to the whole work, inviting, criticising, admiring, denouncing, but always keeping himself in evidence. As to the connection of origin between individual tales and the whole, more hazardous conjectures in things Chaucerian have been made than that the couplet-verse pieces were all or mostly written or rewritten directly for the work, and that those in other metres and in prose were the adopted part of the family. But this can never be known as a fact. What is certain is that the couplets of The Prologue, which must be of the essence of the scheme, and those of most parts of it where the couplets appear, are the most accomplished, various, thoroughly mastered verse that we find in Chaucer himself or in any English writer up to his time, while they are not exceeded by any foreign model unless it be the terza rima of Dante. A medium which can render, as they are rendered here, the manners-painting of The Prologue, the comic monodrama of The Wife of Bath and the magnificent description of the temple of Mars, has “handed in its proofs” once for all.

Whether, however, it was mere impatience of steady labour on one designed plan, or a higher artistic sense which transcended a mere mechanical conception of unity, there can be no doubt of the felicity of the result. Without the various subject and quality, perhaps even without the varied metre, of the tales, the peculiar effect of “God’s plenty” (a phrase itself so felicitous that it may be quoted more than once) would not be produced; and the essential congruity of the tales as a whole with the mixed multitude supposed to tell them, would be wholly impossible. Nothing is more remarkable than the intimate connection between the tales and The Prologue. They comment and complete each other with unfailing punctuality. Not only is it of great importance to read the corresponding portion of The Prologue with each tale; not only does each tale supply, as those of the Monk and the Prioress especially, important correction as well as supplement; but it is hardly fantastic to say that the whole Prologue ought to be read, or vividly remembered, before reading each tale, in order to get its full dramatic, narrative and pictorial effect. The sharp and obvious contrasts, such as that of The Knight’s Tale with the two that follow, though they illustrate the clearness with which the greatest English men of letters appreciated the value of the mixture of tragedy or romance with farce or comedy, are less instructive, and, when properly appreciated, less delightful, than other contrasts of a more delicate kind. Such is the way in which the satire of Sir Thopas is left to the host to bring out; and yet others, where the art of the poet is probably more instinctive than deliberate, such as the facts that nobody is shocked by the The Wife of Bath’s Prologue (the interruption by the friar and summoner is of a different character), and (still more incomprehensible to the mere modern) that nobody is bored by The Tale of Melibeus. Of the humour which is so constantly present, it will be more convenient to speak presently in a separate passage. It cannot be missed, though it may sometimes be mistaken. The exquisite and unlaboured pathos which accompanies it, more rarely, but not less consummately, shown, has been acknowledged even by those who, like Matthew Arnold, have failed to appreciate Chaucer as a whole. But, on the nature and constitution of that variety which has also been insisted on, it may be desirable to say something here and at once.

It is no exaggeration or flourish, but a sound and informing critical and historical observation, to say that The Canterbury Tales supply a miniature or even microcosm, not only of English poetry up to their date, but of medieval literature, barring the strictly lyrical element, and admitting a part only of the didactic, but enlarged and enriched by additional doses, both of the personal element and of that general criticism of life which, except in Dante, had rarely been present. The first or Knight’s Tale is romance on the full, if not on the longest, scale, based on Boccaccio’s Teseide, but worked out with Chaucer’s now invariable idiosyncrasy of handling and detail; true to the main elements of “fierce wars and faithful loves”; possessing much more regular plot than most of its fellows; concentrating and giving body to their rather loose and stock description; imbued with much more individuality of character; and with the presence of the author not obtruded but constantly throwing a shadow. That it is representative of romance in general may escape those who are not, as, perhaps, but a few are, thoroughly acquainted with romance at large—and especially those who do not know the man of the twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth centuries regarded the heroes of the Charlemagne and Arthur stories, and those of antiquity, as absolutely on a par.

With the high seriousness and variegated decoration of this romance of adventure and quality contrast the two tales that follow, one derived from a known fabliau, the other, possibly, original, but both of the strict fabliau kind—that is to say, the story of ordinary life with a preferably farcical tendency. If the morals are not above those of the time, the nature and the manners of that time—the nature and manners no longer of a poetic Utopia, localised, for the moment, in France or Britain or Greece or Rome or Jerusalem or Ind, but of the towns and villages of England—are drawn with a vividness which makes their French patterns tame. What threatens a third story of this same kind, The Cook’s Tale, is broken off short without any explanation after about fifty lines—one MS. asserting that Chaucer “maked namore” of it. The Man of Law’s Tale, the pathetic story of the guiltless and injured Constance, returns to a favourite romance-motive and treats it in rime royal—the most pathetic of metres—while The Shipman falls back on the fablian and the couplet. But Chaucer was not the man to be monotonous in his variety. The next pair, The Prioress’s Tale and Chaucer’s own Sir Thopas, indeed, keep up the alternation of grave and gay, but keep it up in quite a different manner. Approximately in every way, the beautiful and pathetic story of the innocent victim of Jewish ferocity is an excursion into that hagiology which was closely connected with romance, and which may even, perhaps, be regarded as one of its probable sources. But the burlesque of chivalrous adoration is not of the fabliau kind at all: it is parody of romance itself, or, at least, of its more foolish and more degenerate offshoots. For, be it observed, there is in Chaucer no sign whatever of hostility to, or undervaluation of, the nobler romance in any way, but, on the contrary, great and consummate practice thereof on his own part. Now, parody, as such, is absolutely natural to man, and it had been frequent in the Middle Ages, though, usually, in a somewhat rough and horseplayful form. Chaucer’s is of the politest kind possible. The verse, though sing-song enough, is of the smoothest variety of “romance six” or rime couée (664664 aabccb); the hero is “a very parfit carpet knight”; it cannot be proved that, after his long preparation, he did not actually encounter something more terrible than buck and hare; and it is impossible not to admire his determination to be satisfied with nobody less than the Fairy Queen to love par amours. But all the weak points of the weaker romances, such as Torrent and Sir Eglamour, are brought out as pitilessly as politely. It is one of the minor Chaucerian problems (perhaps of as much importance as some that have received more attention), whether the host’s outburst of wrath is directed at the thing as a romance or as a parody of romance. It is certain that uneducated and uncultivated people do not, as a rule, enjoy the finer irony; that it makes them uncomfortable and suspicious of being laughed at themselves. And it is pretty certain that Chaucer was aware of this point also in human nature.

Of The tale of Melibeus something has been said by a hint already. There is little doubt that, in a double way, it is meant as a contrast not merely of grave after gay, but of good, sound, serious stuff after perilously doubtful matter. And it is appreciated accordingly as, in the language of Tennyson’s farmer, “whot a owt to ’a said.” But the monk’s experience is less happy, and his catalogue of unfortunate princes, again strongly indebted to Boccaccio, is interrupted and complained of, not merely by the irrepressible and irreverent host but by the knight himself—the pattern of courtesy and sweet reasonableness. The criticism is curious, and the incident altogether not less so. The objection to the histories, as too dismal for a mixed and merry company, is not bad in itself, but a little inconsistent considering the patience with which they had listened to the woes of Constance and the prioress’s little martyr, and were to listen (in this case without even the sweetmeat of a happy ending) to the physician’s story of Virginia. Perhaps the explanation is meant to be that the monk’s accumulation of “dreriment”—disaster heaped on disaster without sufficient detail to make each interesting—was found oppressive: but a subtler reading may not be too subtle. Although Chaucer’s flings at ecclesiastics have been exaggerated since it pleased the reformers to make arrows out of them, they do exist. He had thought it well to atone for the little gibes in The Prologue at the prioress’s coquettishness of way and dress by the pure and unfeigned pathos and piety of her tale. But he may have meant to create a sense of incongruity, if not even of hypocrisy, between the frank worldliness of the monk—his keenness for sport, his objection to pore over books, his polite contempt of “Austin,” his portly person—and his display of studious and goody pessimism. At any rate, another member of the cloth, the nun’s priest, restores its popularity with the famous and incomparable tale of the Cock and the Fox, known as far back as Marie de France, and, no doubt, infinitely older, but told here with the quintessence of Chaucer’s humour and of his dramatic and narrative craftsmanship. There is uncertainty as to the actual order here; but the Virginia story, above referred to, comes in fairly well, and it is noticeable that the doctor, evidently a good judge of symptoms and of his patient’s powers of toleration, cuts it short. After this, the ancient and grisly but powerful legend of Death and the robbers strikes a new vein—in this case of eastern origin, probably, but often worked in the Middle Ages. It comes with a sort of ironic yet avowed impropriety from the pardoner: but we could have done with more of its kind. And then we have one of the most curious of all the divisions, the long and brilliant Wife of Bath’s Prologue, with her short, and by no means insignificant but, relatively, merely postscript-like, tale. This disproportion, and that of the prologue itself to the others, seems to have struck Chaucer, for he makes the friar comment on it; but it would be quite a mistake to found on this a theory that the length was either designed or undesigned. Vogue la galère seems to have been Chaucer’s one motto: and he let things grow under his hand, or finished them off briefly and to scale, or abandoned them unfinished, exactly as the fancy took him. Broadly, we may say that the tales display the literary and deliberately artistic side of his genius; the prologues, the observing and dramatic side; but it will not do to push this too hard. The Wife of Bath’s Prologue, it may be observed, gives opportunity for the display of reading which he loves, as well as for that of his more welcome knowledge of humanity: the tale is like that of Florent in Gower, but the original of neither is known

The interruption by the friar of The Wife of Bath’s Prologue, and a consequent wrangle between him and the summoner, lead to a pair of satiric tales, each gibing at the other’s profession, which correspond to the earlier duel between the miller and reeve. The friar’s is a tale of diablerie as well as a lampoon, and of very considerable merit; the summoner’s is of the coarsest fabliau type with a farcically solemn admixture. There is no comment upon it; and, if The Clerk’s Tale was really intended to follow, the contrast of its gravity, purity and pathos with the summoner’s ribaldry is, no doubt, intentional. For the tale, introduced by some pleasant rallying from the host on the clerk’s shyness and silence, and by a most interesting reference of the clerk’s own to “Francis Petrarch the laureate poet,” is nothing less than the famous story of Griselda, following Petrarch’s own Latin rendering of Boccaccio’s Italian. Some rather unwise comment has been made (in a purely modern spirit, though anticipated, as a matter of fact, by Chaucer himself) on the supposed excessive patience of the heroine. But it is improbable that Griseldas ever were, or ever will be, unduly common; and the beauty of the piece on its own scheme and sentiment is exquisite. The indebtedness to Boccaccio is still more direct, and the fabliau element reappears, in The Merchant’s Tale of January and May—with its curious fairy episode of Pluto and Proserpine. And then romance comes back in the “half-told” tale of the squire, the “story of Cambuscan bold”; which Spenser did not so much continue as branch off from, as the minor romances of adventure branch off from the Arthurian centre; of which Milton regretted the incompleteness in the famous passage just cited; and the direct origin of which is quite unknown, though Marco Polo, the French romance of Cléomadès and other things may have supplied parts or hints. The romantic tone is kept up in The Franklin’s Tale of Arviragus and Dorigen, and the squire Aurelius and the philosopher-magician, with their strange but fascinating contest of honour and generosity. This is one of the most poetical of all the tales, and specially interesting in its portrayal—side by side with an undoubted belief in actual magic—of the extent of medieval conjuring. The Second Nun’s Tale or Life of St. Cecily is introduced with no real link, and has, usually, been taken as one of the poet’s insertions of earlier work. It has no dramatic or personal interest of connection with the general scheme; but this is largely made up by what follows—the tale of the follies and rogueries of alchemy told by the Yeoman of a certain canon, who falls in with the pilgrims at Boughton-under-Blee, and whose art and mystery is so frankly revealed by his man that he, the canon, “flees away for very sorrow and shame.” The exposure which follows is one of the most vivid parts of the whole collection, and shows pretty clearly either that Chaucer had himself been fleeced, or that he had profited by the misfortunes of his friends in that kind. Then the host, failing to get anything out of the cook, who is in the drowsy stage of drunkenness, extracts from the manciple The Tale of the Crow and the reason that he became black—the whole ending with the parson’s prose tale, or, rather, elaborate treatise, of penitence and the seven deadly sins. This, taken from both Latin and French originals, is introduced by a verse-prologue in which occur the lines, famous in literary history for their obvious allusion to alliterative rhythm,

  • But trusteth wel, I am a southren man,
  • I can nat geste rum, ram, ruf by lettre,
  • and ending with the “retraction” of his earlier and lighter works, explicitly attributed to Chaucer himself, which has been already referred to.

    Of the attempts already mentioned t distribute the tales according to the indications of place and time which they themselves contain, nothing more need be said here, nor of the moot point whether, according to the host’s words in The Prologue, the pilgrims were to tell four stories each—two on the way to Canterbury and two on the return journey—or two in all—one going and one returning. The only vestige we have of a double tale is in the fragment of the cook’s above referred to, and the host’s attempt to get another out of him when, as just recorded, the manciple comes to the rescue. All these matters, together with the distribution into days and groups, are very problematical, and unnecessary, if the hypothesis favoured above be adopted, that Chaucer never got his plan into any final order, but worked at parts of it as the fancy took him. But, before speaking shortly of the general characteristics of his work, it will be to notice briefly the parts of it not yet particularised. The Parson’s Tale, as last mentioned, will connect itself well with the remainder of Chaucer’s prose work, of which it and The Tale of Melibeus are specimens. It may be observed that, at the beginning of Melibeus, and in the retraction at the end of The Parson’s Tale, there are some curious fragments of blank verse.