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William Blake (1757–1827). The Poetical Works. 1908.

From Blake’s ‘Descriptive Catalogue’

Sir Geffrey Chaucer and the Nine and twenty Pilgrims on their journey to Canterbury


THE TIME chosen is early morning, before sunrise, when the jolly company are just quitting the Tabarde Inn. The Knight and Squire with the Squire’s Yeoman lead the Procession; next follow the youthful Abbess, her Nun, and three Priests; her greyhounds attend her:
  • ‘Of small hounds had she that she fed
  • With roast flesh, milk, and wastel bread.’
  • Next follow the Friar and Monk; then the Tapiser, the Pardoner, and the Sompnour and Manciple. After these ‘Our Host’, who occupies the centre of the cavalcade, directs them to the Knight as the person who would be likely to commence their task of each telling a tale in their order. After the Host follow the Shipman, the Haberdasher, the Dyer, the Franklin, the Physician, the Ploughman, the Lawyer, the Poor Parson, the Merchant, the Wife of Bath, the Miller, the Cook, the Oxford Scholar, Chaucer himself; and the Reeve comes as Chaucer has described:

  • ‘And ever he rode hinderest of the rout.’
  • These last are issuing from the gateway of the Inn; the Cook and the Wife of Bath are both taking their morning’s draught of comfort. Spectators stand at the gateway of the Inn, and are composed of an old Man, a Woman, and Children.

    The Landscape is an eastward view of the country, from the Tabarde Inn in Southwark, as it may be supposed to have appeared in Chaucer’s time, interspersed with cottages and villages. The first beams of the Sun are seen above the horizon; some buildings and spires indicate the situation of the Great City. The Inn is a Gothic building, which Thynne in his Glossary says was the lodging of the Abbot of Hyde, by Winchester. On the Inn is inscribed its title, and a proper advantage is taken of this circumstance to describe the subject of the Picture. The words written over the gateway of the Inn are as follow: ‘The Tabarde Inn, by Henry Baillie, the lodgynge-house for Pilgrims who journey to Saint Thomas’s Shrine at Canterbury.’

    The characters of Chaucer’s Pilgrims are the characters which compose all ages and nations. As one age falls, another rises, different to mortal sight, but to immortals only the same; for we see the same characters repeated again and again, in animals, vegetables, minerals, and in men. Nothing new occurs in identical existence; Accident ever varies, Substance can never suffer change nor decay.

    Of Chaucer’s characters, as described in his Canterbury Tales, some of the names or titles are altered by time, but the characters themselves for ever remain unaltered; and consequently they are the physiognomies or lineaments of universal human life, beyond which Nature never steps. Names alter, things never alter. I have known multitudes of those who would have been monks in the age of monkery, who in this deistical age are deists. As Newton numbered the stars, and as Linnaeus numbered the plants, so Chaucer numbered the classes of men.

    The Painter has consequently varied the heads and forms of his personages into all Nature’s varieties; the horses he has also varied to accord to their riders; the costume is correct according to authentic monuments.

    The Knight and Squire with the Squire’s Yeoman lead the Procession, as Chaucer has also placed them first in his Prologue. The Knight is a true Hero, a good, great and wise man; his whole-length portrait on horseback, as written by Chaucer, cannot be surpassed. He has spent his life in the field, has ever been a conqueror, and is that species of character which in every age stands as the guardian of man against the oppressor. His son is like him, with the germ of perhaps greater perfection still, as he blends literature and the arts with his warlike studies. Their dress and their horses are of the first rate, without ostentation, and with all the true grandeur that unaffected simplicity when in high rank always displays. The Squire’s Yeoman is also a great character, a man perfectly knowing in his profession:

  • ‘And in his hand he bare a mighty bow.
  • Chaucer describes here a mighty man, one who in war is the worthy attendant on noble heroes.

    The Prioress follows these with her female Chaplain:

  • ‘Another Nonne also with her had she,
  • That was her Chaplaine, and Priests three.’
  • This Lady is described also as of the first rank, rich and honoured. She has certain peculiarities and little delicate affectations, not unbecoming in her, being accompanied with what is truly grand and really polite; her person and face Chaucer has described with minuteness; it is very elegant, and was the beauty of our ancestors till after Elizabeth’s time, when voluptuousness and folly began to be accounted beautiful.

    Her companion and her three Priests were no doubt all perfectly delineated in those parts of Chaucer’s work which are now lost; we ought to suppose them suitable attendants on rank and fashion.

    The Monk follows these with the Friar. The Painter has also grouped with these the Pardoner and the Sompnour and the Manciple, and has here also introduced one of the rich citizens of London—characters likely to ride in company, all being above the common rank in life, or attendants on those who were so.

    For the Monk is described by Chaucer, as a man of the first rank in society, noble, rich, and expensively attended; he is a leader of the age, with certain humorous accompaniments in his character, that do not degrade, but render him an object of dignified mirth, but also with other accompaniments not so respectable.

    The Friar is a character of a mixed kind:

  • ‘A friar there was, a wanton and a merry;’
  • but in his office he is said to be a ‘full solemn man’; eloquent, amorous, witty and satirical; young, handsome and rich; he is a complete rogue, with constitutional gaiety enough to make him a master of all the pleasures of the world:
  • ‘His neck was white as the flour de lis,
  • Thereto strong he was as a champioun.
  • It is necessary here to speak of Chaucer’s own character, that I may set certain mistaken critics right in their conception of the humour and fun that occur on the journey. Chaucer is himself the great poetical observer of men, who in every age is born to record and eternize its acts. This he does as a master, as a father and superior, who looks down on their little follies from the Emperor to the Miller, sometimes with severity, oftener with joke and sport.

    Accordingly Chaucer has made his Monk a great tragedian, one who studied poetical art. So much so that the generous Knight is, in the compassionate dictates of his soul, compelled to cry out:

  • ‘Ho,’ quoth the Knyght, ‘good Sir, no more of this;
  • That ye have said is right ynough, I wis,
  • And mokell more; for little heaviness
  • Is right enough for much folk, as I guesse.
  • I say, for me, it is a great disease,
  • Whereas men have been in wealth and ease,
  • To heare of their sudden fall, alas!
  • And the contrary is joy and solas.’
  • The Monk’s definition of tragedy in the proem to his tale is worth repeating:

  • ‘Tragedie is to tell a certain story,
  • As old books us maken memory,
  • Of hem that stood in great prosperity,
  • And be fallen out of high degree,
  • Into miserie, and ended wretchedly.’
  • Though a man of luxury, pride and pleasure, he is a master of art and learning, though affecting to despise it. Those who can think that the proud huntsman and noble housekeeper, Chaucer’s Monk, is intended for a buffoon or burlesque character, know little of Chaucer.

    For the Host who follows this group, and holds the centre of the cavalcade, is a first-rate character, and his jokes are no trifles; they are always, though uttered with audacity, and equally free with the Lord and the Peasant—they are always substantially and weightily expressive of knowledge and experience; Henry Baillie, the keeper of the greatest Inn of the greatest City, for such was the Tabarde Inn in Southwark near London, our Host, was also a leader of the age.

    By way of illustration I instance Shakespeare’s Witches in Macbeth. Those who dress them for the stage, consider them as wretched old women, and not, as Shakespeare intended, the Goddesses of Destiny; this shows how Chaucer has been misunderstood in his sublime work. Shakespeare’s Fairies also are the rulers of the vegetable world, and so are Chaucer’s; let them be so considered, and then the poet will be understood, and not else.

    But I have omitted to speak of a very prominent character, the Pardoner, the Age’s Knave, who always commands and domineers over the high and low vulgar. This man is sent in every age for a rod and scourge, and for a blight, for a trial of men, to divide the classes of men; he is in the most holy sanctuary, and he is suffered by Providence for wise ends, and has also his great use, and his grand leading destiny.

    His companion the Sompnour is also a Devil of the first magnitude, grand, terrific, rich, and honoured in the rank of which he holds the destiny. The uses to society are perhaps equal of the Devil and of the Angel; their sublimity who can dispute?

  • ‘In daunger had he at his own gise,
  • The young girls of his diocese,
  • And he knew well their counsel, &c.’
  • The principal figure in the next group is the Good Parson; an Apostle, a real Messenger of Heaven, sent in every age for its light and its warmth. This man is beloved and venerated by all, and neglected by all: he serves all, and is served by none. He is, according to Christ’s definition, the greatest of his age: yet he is a Poor Parson of a town. Read Chaucer’s description of the Good Parson, and bow the head and the knee to Him, Who in every age sends us such a burning and a shining light. Search, O ye rich and powerful, for these men and obey their counsel; then shall the golden age return. But alas! you will not easily distinguish him from the Friar or the Pardoner; they also are ‘full solemn men’, and their counsel you will continue to follow.

    I have placed by his side the Sergeant-at-Lawe, who appears delighted to ride in his company, and between him and his brother the Ploughman; as I wish men of law would always ride with them, and take their counsel, especially in all difficult points. Chaucer’s Lawyer is a character of great venerableness, a Judge and a real master of the jurisprudence of his age.

    The Doctor of Physic is in this group; and the Franklin, the voluptuous country gentleman, contrasted with the Physician, and, on his other hand, with two Citizens of London. Chaucer’s characters live age after age. Every age is a Canterbury Pilgrimage; we all pass on, each sustaining one of these characters; nor can a child be born who is not one or other of these characters of Chaucer. The Doctor of Physic is described as the first of his profession, perfect, learned, completely Master and Doctor in his art. Thus the reader will observe that Chaucer makes every one of his characters perfect in his kind; every one is an Antique Statue, the image of a class and not of an imperfect individual.

    This group also would furnish substantial matter, on which volumes might be written. The Franklin is one who keeps open table, who is the genius of eating and drinking, the Bacchus; as the Doctor of Physic is the Æsculapius, the Host is the Silenus, the Squire is the Apollo, the Miller is the Hercules, &c. Chaucer’s characters are a description of the eternal Principles that exist in all ages. The Franklin is voluptuousness itself, most nobly portrayed:

  • ‘It snewed in his house of meat and drink.’
  • The Ploughman is simplicity itself, with wisdom and strength for its stamina. Chaucer has divided the ancient character of Hercules between his Miller and his Ploughman. Benevolence is the Ploughman’s great characteristic; he is thin with excessive labour, and not with old age as some have supposed:

  • ‘He would thresh, and thereto dike and delve,
  • For Christe’s sake, for every poore wight,
  • Withouten hire, if it lay in his might.’
  • Visions of these eternal principles or characters of human life appear to poets in all ages; the Grecian gods were the ancient Cherubim of Phoenicia; but the Greeks, and since them the Moderns, have neglected to subdue the gods of Priam. These gods are visions of the eternal attributes, or divine names, which, when erected into gods, become destructive to humanity. They ought to be the servants, and not the masters of man or of society. They ought to be made to sacrifice to man, and not man compelled to sacrifice to them; for, when separated from man or humanity, who is Jesus the Saviour, the Vine of Eternity? They are thieves and rebels, they are destroyers.

    The Ploughman of Chaucer is Hercules in his supreme Eternal State, divested of his Spectrous Shadow, which is the Miller, a terrible fellow, such as exists in all times and places for the trial of men, to astonish every neighbourhood with brutal strength and courage, to get rich and powerful, to curb the pride of Man.

    The Reeve and the Manciple are two characters of the most consummate worldly wisdom. The Shipman, or Sailor, is a similar genius of Ulyssean art, but with the highest courage superadded.

    The Citizens and their Cook are each leaders of a class. Chaucer has been somehow made to number four citizens, which would make his whole company, himself included, thirty-one. But he says there was but nine-and-twenty in his company:

  • ‘Full nine and twenty in a company.’
  • The Webbe, or Weaver, and the Tapiser, or Tapestry Weaver, appear to me to be the same person; but this is only an opinion, for ‘full nine and twenty’ may signify one more or less. But I daresay that Chaucer wrote ‘A Webbe Dyer’, that is a Cloth Dyer:

  • ‘A Webbe Dyer and a Tapiser.’
  • The Merchant cannot be one of the Three Citizens, as his dress is different, and his character is more marked, whereas Chaucer says of his rich citizens:

  • ‘All were yclothed in o liverie.’
  • The characters of Women Chaucer has divided into two classes, the Lady Prioress and the Wife of Bath. Are not these leaders of the ages of men? The Lady Prioress in some ages predominates; and in some the Wife of Bath, in whose character Chaucer has been equally minute and exact; because she is also a scourge and a blight. I shall say no more of her, nor expose what Chaucer has left hidden; let the young reader study what he has said of her: it is useful as a scarecrow. There are of such characters born too many for the peace of the world.

    I come at length to the Clerk of Oxenford. This character varies from that of Chaucer, as the contemplative philosopher varies from the poetical genius. There are always these two classes of learned sages, the poetical and the philosophical. The Painter has put them side by side, as if the youthful clerk had put himself under the tuition of the mature poet. Let the Philosopher always be the servant and scholar of Inspiration, and all will be happy.

    Such are the characters that compose this Picture, which was painted in self-defence against the insolent and envious imputation of unfitness for finished and scientific art, and this imputation most artfully and industriously endeavoured to be propagated among the public by ignorant hirelings. The Painter courts comparison with his competitors, who, having received fourteen hundred guineas and more from the profits of his designs in that well-known work, Designs for Blair’s Grave, have left him to shift for himself; while others, more obedient to an employer’s opinions and directions, are employed at a great expense to produce works in succession to his by which they acquired public patronage. This has hitherto been his lot—to get patronage for others and then to be left and neglected, and his work, which gained that patronage, cried down as eccentricity and madness—as unfinished and neglected by the artist’s violent temper: he is sure the works now exhibited will give the lie to such aspersions.

    Those who say that men are led by interest are knaves. A knavish character will often say: ‘Of what interest is it to me to do so-and-so?’ I answer: ‘Of none at all, but the contrary, as you well know. It is of malice and envy that you have done this; hence I am aware of you, because I know that you act not from interest but from malice, even to your own destruction.’ It is therefore become a duty which Mr. B. owes to the Public, who have always recognised him and patronized him, however hidden by artifices, that he should not suffer such things to be done, or be hindered from the public Exhibition of his finished productions by any calumnies in future.

    The character and expression in this picture could never have been produced with Rubens’ light and shadow, or with Rembrandt’s, or anything Venetian or Flemish. The Venetian and Flemish practice is broken lines, broken masses, and broken colours. Mr. B.’s practice is unbroken lines, unbroken masses, and unbroken colours. Their art is to lose form; his art is to find form, and to keep it. His arts are opposite to theirs in all things.

    As there is a class of men whose whole delight is in the destruction of men, so there is a class of artists whose whole art and science is fabricated for the purpose of destroying Art. Who these are is soon known: ‘by their works ye shall know them.’ All who endeavour to raise up a style against Raphael, Mich. Angelo and the Antique; those who separate Painting from Drawing, who look if a picture is well drawn, and, if it is, immediately cry out that it cannot be well coloured—those are the men.

    But to show the stupidity of this class of men, nothing need be done but to examine my rival’s prospectus.

    The two first characters in Chaucer, the Knight and the Squire, he has put among his rabble; and indeed his prospectus calls the Squire ‘the fop of Chaucer’s age’. Now hear Chaucer:

  • ‘Of his Stature, he was of even length,
  • And wonderly deliver, and of great strength;
  • And he had be sometime in Chivauchy,
  • In Flanders, in Artois, and in Picardy,
  • And borne him well, as of so litele space.’
  • Was this a fop?
  • ‘Well could he sit a horse, and faire ride,
  • He could songs make, and eke well indite,
  • Just, and eke dance, pourtray, and well write.’
  • Was this a fop?
  • ‘Curteis he was, and meek, and serviceable,
  • And kerft before his fader at the table.’
  • Was this a fop?

    It is the same with all his characters; he has done all by chance, or perhaps his fortune, money, money. According to his prospectus he has three Monks: these he cannot find in Chaucer, who has only one Monk, and that no vulgar character, as he has endeavoured to make him. When men cannot read, they should not pretend to paint. To be sure Chaucer is a little difficult to him who has only blundered over novels and catchpenny trifles of booksellers; yet a little pains ought to be taken, even by the ignorant and weak. He has put the Reeve, a vulgar fellow, between his Knight and Squire, as if he was resolved to go contrary in everything to Chaucer, who says of the Reeve:

  • ‘And ever he rode hinderest of the rout.’
  • In this manner he has jumbled his dumb dollies together, and is praised by his equals for it; for both himself and his friend are equally masters of Chaucer’s language. They both think that the Wife of Bath is a young beautiful blooming damsel; and H—— says that she is the ‘Fair Wife of Bath’, and that ‘the Spring appears in her cheeks’. Now hear what Chaucer has made her say of herself, who is no modest one:

  • ‘But Lord! when it remembereth me
  • Upon my youth and on my jollity,
  • It tickleth me about the heart root.
  • Unto this day it doth my heart boot
  • That I have had my world as in my time;
  • But age, alas, that all will envenime,
  • Hath me bireft, my beauty and my pith
  • Let go; farewell! the devil go therewith!
  • The flower is gone; there is no more to tell:
  • The bran, as best I can, I now mote sell;
  • And yet, to be right merry, will I fond
  • Now forth to tell of my fourth husbond.’
  • She has had four husbands, a fit subject for this painter; yet the painter ought to be very much offended with his friend H——, who has called his ‘a common scene’, ‘and very ordinary forms’; which is the truest part of all, for it is so, and very wretchedly so indeed. What merit can there be in a picture of which such words are spoken with truth?

    But the prospectus says that the Painter has represented Chaucer himself as a knave who thrusts himself among honest people to make game of, and laugh at them; though I must do justice to the Painter, and say that he has made him look more like a fool than a knave. But it appears in all the writings of Chaucer, and particularly in his Canterbury Tales, that he was very devout, and paid respect to true enthusiastic superstition. He has laughed at his knaves and fools, as I do now; but he has respected his true Pilgrims, who are a majority of his company, and are not thrown together in the random manner that Mr. S—— has done. Chaucer has nowhere called the Ploughman old, worn out with ‘age and labour’, as the prospectus has represented him, and says that the picture has done so too. He is worn down with labour, but not with age. How spots of brown and yellow, smeared about at random, can be either young or old I cannot see. It may be an old man; it may be a young one; it may be anything that a prospectus pleases. But I know that where there are no lineaments there can be no character. And what connoisseurs call touch, I know by experience must be the destruction of all character and expression, as it is of every lineament.

    The scene of Mr. S——’s picture is by Dulwich Hills, which was not the way to Canterbury; but perhaps the Painter thought he would give them a ride round about, because they were a burlesque set of scarecrows, not worth any man’s respect or care.

    But the Painter’s thoughts being always upon gold, he has introduced a character that Chaucer has not—namely, a Goldsmith, for so the prospectus tells us. Why he has introduced a Goldsmith, and what is the wit of it, the prospectus does not explain. But it takes care to mention the reserve and modesty of the Painter. This makes a good epigram enough:

  • ‘The fox, the owl, the spider, and the mole,
  • By sweet reserve and modesty get fat.’
  • But the prospectus tells us that the Painter has introduced a ‘Sea Captain’; Chaucer has a Shipman, a sailor, a trading master of a vessel, called by courtesy Captain, as every master of a boat is; but this does not make him a Sea Captain. Chaucer has purposely omitted such a personage, as it only exists in certain periods: it is the soldier by sea. He who would be a soldier in inland nations is a sea-captain in commercial nations.

    All is misconceived, and its mis-execution is equal to its misconception. I have no objection to Rubens and Rembrandt being employed, or even to their living in a palace; but it shall not be at the expense of Raphael and Michael Angelo living in a cottage, and in contempt and derision. I have been scorned long enough by these fellows, who owe to me all that they have: it shall be so no longer.

  • I found them blind, I taught them how to see;
  • And now they know me not, nor yet themselves.