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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

§ 3. Early Editions

This concludes the list of what we may, without too much presumption, call authenticated works, or at least titles, which is rather different. Not all even of these were printed by Caxton or by his immediate successors; but Caxton gave two editions of The Canterbury Tales, and added others of Triolus and Criseyde, of The Parliament of Fowls, of The House of Fame, etc., confining himself to, though not reaching, the limit of the authenticated pieces. Pynson, in 1526, outstripped this by including La Belle Dame sans Merci. It was not till 1532 that the first collected edition appeared, under the care of William Thynne, clerk of the kitchen to Henry VIII, who was assisted by Sir Brian Tuke, and who, apparently, took great trouble to consult all the MSS. that he could lay hold of. This volume occupies an important position and has recently been reprinted in facsimile. It contains thirty-five several poems enumerated in its table of contents, with a few short pieces which seem to have been afterthoughts, and are of no mark or likelihood. One of these is actually assigned to Gower and one to Scogan, though it contains work of Chaucer. But the rest seem to have been considered Chaucer’s by Thynne, though he excuses himself by a saving phrase. They are The Canterbury Tales, The Romaunt of the Rose, Troilus and Criseyde, The Testament and Complaint of Cresseid, The Legend of Good Women, A Goodly Ballade of Chaucer, Boethius, The Dream of Chaucer [The book of the Duchess], The Envoy to Bukton, The Assembly [Parliament] of Fowls, The Flower of Courtesy, The Death of Pity, La Belle Dame sans Merci, Anelida and Arcite, The Assembly of Ladies, the Astrolabe, The Complaint of the Black Knight, A Praise of Women, The House of Fame, The Testament of Love, The Lamentation of Mary Magdalen, The Remedy of Love, The Complaints of Mars and Venus, The Letter of Cupid, A Ballade in Commendation of our Lady, The Cuckoo and the Nightingale, Steadfastness, Good Counsel of Chaucer, Fortune, The Envoy to Scogan, Sapience, the Empty Purse and a poem on Circumstance.

In 1542, a new edition of Thynne’s collection appeared with one piece added, The Plowman’s Tale (a piece of Lollardy not in the least like Chaucer), and a third followed, with alterations of order, in 1550. It was not long after this that [Sir] Thomas Wilson in his Rhetoric (1553) declared that “the fine courtier will speak nothing but Chaucer.” In 1561, a fresh admission of new matter was made under the guidance of John Stow, the antiquary. The new pieces were chiefly short ballades, and the like, but one very important poem of length, The Court of Love, appeared for the first time; and, nearly forty years later, in 1597–8, Thomas Speght, in a fresh edition, thought also to represent Stow, published another notable piece, The Flower and the Leaf, together with a new Chaucer’s Dream, indicating also two other things, Jacke Upland and Chaucer’s A B C. There were editions in 1602 and 1687; but nothing further of importance was added till the edition begun by Urry and published after his death in 1721. Here appeared The Tale of Gamelyn, The Pardoner and Tapster, an account of what happened after the pilgrims had reached Canterbury, and The Second Merchant’s Tale or Tale of Beryn. “The whole dissembly” of Chaucer’s works, genuine and spurious, had now appeared except a very few short pieces, probably genuine, which have recently been unearthed. The process of wholesale agglomeration was ended; but it was some time before the inevitable reaction of meticulous scrutiny and separation was to begin. In fact, though Dryden, at the very juncture of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, had, on all but metrical points, done the fullest justice to Chaucer, his own imitations had rather obscured the original; and even Spenser fared better than his predecessor. Except Dryden himself, the last intelligent enthusiasts for Chaucer, who, up to Spenser’s own death, had united the suffrages of all the competent, were Sir Francis Kynaston (an eccentric and minor but true poet, whose worship took the odd form of translating Troilus into Latin, keeping the rime royal) and the earl of Leicester, Algernon Sidney’s elder brother (the “lord Lisle” of the Commonwealth, but no regicide), who, as Dryden himself tells us, dissuaded him from modernising out of reverence for the original. By most writers, for the greater part of a century—Addison himself being their spokesman—Chaucer was regarded as an antiquated buffoon, sometimes coarsely amusing, and a convenient pattern for coarseness worse than his own.