Geoffrey Chaucer.

The poems of Geoffrey Chaucer modernized online

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Online LibraryGeoffrey ChaucerThe poems of Geoffrey Chaucer modernized → online text (page 1 of 18)
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i&toffvts ©fiance*,


That noble Chaucer, in those former times,
"Who first enriched our English with his rhymes,
And was the first of ours that ever broke
Into the Muse's treasures, and first spoke
In mighty numbers ; delving in the mine
Of perfect knowledge.






gilbert & rivington, printers,
st. jomn's square.

PR I55r




Introduction By R. H. Horse

Life of Chaucer.

Eulogies on Chaucer.

/By Professor Leonhard
I Schmitz cvii

/By his Contemporaries
\ and Others cxxxix

Prologue to the Canterbury Tales By R. H. Horne ]

The Cuckoo and the Nightingale By William Wordsworth 3,5

The Legends of Ariadne, Philomene, | ByThqmas Pqwell ..

AND i HILLIS • •>■••••• J

The Manciple's Tale By Leigh Hunt 87

The Rime of Sire Thopas By Z. A. Z 107

Extract from Troilus and Cresida By William Wordsworth 125

The Reye's Tale By R. H. Horne 137

The Flower and the Leaf By Thomas Powell 161

The Friar's Tale By Leigh Hunt 193

The Complaint of Mars and Venus. ...By Robert Bell 211

Queen Annelida and false Arcite By Elizabeth B. Barrett 235

The Squire's Tale By Leigh Hunt 259

The Franklin's Tale By R. H. Horne 289

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For out of the olde fieldes, as men sayth,
Cometh all this new corn from year to year ;
And out of olde bookes, in good faith
Cometh all this new science that men lere.


The present publication does not result from an anti-
quarian feeling about Chaucer, as the Father of English
Poetry, highly interesting as he must always be in that
character alone ; but from the extraordinary fact, to
which there is no parallel in the history of the literature
of nations, — that although he is one of the great poets
for all time, his works are comparatively unknown to
the world. Even in his own country, only a very small
class of his countrymen ever read his poems. Had
Chaucer's poems been written in Greek or Hebrew.,
they would have been a thousand times better known.


They Avould have been translated. Hitherto they have
had almost everything done for them that a nation
could desire, in so far as the most careful collation of
texts, the most elaborate essays, the most ample and
erudite notes and glossaries, the most elaborate and
classical (as well as the most trite and vulgar) para-
phrases, the most eloquent and sincere admiration and
comments of genuine poets, fine prose writers, and
scholars — everything, in short, has been done, except
to make them intelligible to the general reader.

Except in the adoption of a modern typography,
Chaucer's poems have always appeared hitherto, under
no better auspices for modern appreciation than on their
first day of publication, some three centuries and a half
ago. Concerning the various attempts to render several
of his poems available to the public, which have been
made at intervals by poets and lovers of Chaucer, a
few remarks will shortly be submitted. With what-
ever reverence or admiration these latter may have
been received by the readers of those poets who intro-


duced such specimens among their own works, it is
certain that they produced no perceptible effect in the
popularity of the original author.

Whether there has been a feeling in the public about
Chaucer, amounting to a sort of unconscious resent-
ment at the total inability to read his poems without
first bestowing the same pains upon his glossary, which
has been more willingly accorded to poetry and prose
in the Scottish dialect ; or whether on account of cer-
tain passages which in the present stage of refine-
ment appear offensive to a degree that the good folks
of Chaucer's time, as well as the poet himself, could
never have contemplated, it is not necessary to deter-
mine. Such an antipathy to the study of his language
does exist; and — while we, curiously enough, find
Chaucer sometimes apologizing, with meek humility
and gentilesse, for using some expressions which are
now in common use, but which were considered very
improper in his day — it is undeniable that various pas-
sages and expressions occur here and there, in his


works, which are calculated to startle a modern reader,
and make him doubt his eyes. Howbeit, this great fact
is sufficiently apparent, — that Chaucer is a poet, and a
founder of the language of his country ; (taking rank,
as such, with Homer and with Dante, and being the
worthy forefather of Shakspeare, Spenser, and Milton ;)
whose poetry is comparatively unread and unknown
even in his own country. The simple statement of
such a fact will sufficiently explain the feeling which, in
all sincerity and reverent admiration, has prompted
those who have united in the present undertaking.

From what has been said, it will be readily appre-
hended, that this attempt at a translation, or trans-
fusion of Chaucer into modern English, is by no
means intended for the reading of those, who, being
learned in the black letter, or familiar with the dialect
of the period, can and do read the great poet with
facility and delight. Tt is expressly intended for all
that vast majority of our countrymen, and of foreigners
acquainted with the English and English literature,


who are unable to do this ; and who, either from
indisposition, or the want of sufficient leisure, have
never given the study requisite for a right appreciation
of the author's meaning, but who, at the same time,
having a genuine love for noble poetry, would rejoice
to find such labours superseded by a faithful version
of the great poet, bereft of his obsolete dialect. The
project has already received demonstration of the
utmost sympathy from many high quarters at home
and abroad, while the work was going through the
press ; and we have at present only met with one
individual of literary eminence who boldly declared,
that he still wished - to keep Chaucer for himself
and a few friends."

The grand obstacle to be surmounted in reading
Chaucer has, of course, been always, that of his obso-
lete dialect ; but one of the main causes of his poems
remaining so long without modernizing, (for they have
hitherto been only paraphrased in a very free manner) is
because they are all in rhyme. Here begins the first
and most trying difficulty in rendering his poems avail-


able to the public of the present time. To translate his
poems into blank verse, would be losing a characteristic
feature of the original ; to give the rhymes he uses
is often impossible, because the words themselves,
or the grammatical structure of the terminations, are
obsolete ; to substitute rhymes of similar quantity and
sound can seldom be successfully accomplished, because
it has a tendency, while you are struggling to obtain
the sense of the passage, to induce a mechanical
awkwardness ; and to supply new rhymes generally re-
quires that a whole line, if not the couplet, must be
changed in rhythm, or totally remodelled. In the
attempts, therefore, which have been hitherto made
(with the exception of two of the Tales, modernized by
Lord Thurlow and Mr. Wordsworth) the whole substan-
tial materiel of Chaucer has been left as it stood, and
the leading ideas only being adopted, a new poem has
been written with more or less ability and verisimilitude,
according to the genius and talent of the individual and
the principle on which he proceeded.

The versions of Chaucer which have been given by


Dryden and Pope, are elaborate and highly-finished
productions, reading exactly like their own poems, and
not bearing the slightest resemblance to Chaucer.
Even his finest lines and couplets, which often require
little or nothing more than a change in the orthography,
have scarcely ever been retained. Everything was
paraphrased, made fluent, sounding, and full of ' effects ;'
though it is equally true, that Chaucer occasionally
received a very noble present from Dryden, for which
nothing more than a suggestion is traceable in the
original*. Their versions of several of the Canterbury
Tales, bearing the dates of 1699 and 1711, were sub-
sequently adopted by Ogle, together with some of his
own, and of sundry other writers, and published in
three volumes in 1741. The same versions, with

* " Did the interest to be derived from Chaucer's works arise solely from
their poetical merits, and did not their historical interest, as descriptive of
contemporary manners and opinions, enter at all into the question, the criti-
cisms of Dryden upon his remodincations of Chaucer might be regarded as
just. But, as it is, the improvements and additions of Dryden are in fact
blemishes fully as great as his omissions." — Hippisley's Early English
Literature, Cap. II.


additions, were collected by Lipscombe, and published
in 1795. As it is impossible to praise these editions
for any resemblance to the original, it would be far
more agreeable to pass them without further remark ;
but our readers will naturally expect some proofs in
support of the judgment thus hazarded. It is earnestly
requested, however, that the following brief review may
not be understood as given for the sake of criticism, but
solely out of reverence towards Chaucer, who has not
been fairly treated.

With every respect, then, for the genius, and for
everything that belongs to the memory of Dryden, the
grand charge to which his translations from Chaucer
are amenable is that he has acted upon an erroneous
principle. While it is manifest that much of Chaucer
needs l>ut little more than modern orthography and an
occasional transposition of words, in order to retain such
portions as entire and as intelligible as the productions
of the most lucid writer of the present time, — Dryden
considered that nothing whatever of the original substance


should be retained. He translates Chaucer, without
any exceptions, as he would Ovid, Virgil, or Homer,
and there seem no characteristic differences. Some idea
may be formed of the manner in which Chaucer's
foundation is built over, by the fact that the charac-
ter of the poor Parson in the Prologue to the Can-
terbury Tales contains only fifty- two lines, — while
Dryden's version of it occupies one hundred and
forty lines. However the execution may be admired,
it is quite clear that the grand and sonorous pomp
of the style is directly opposite to the extreme sim-
plicity of the original. Chaucer says of his poor
Parson, that, —

To drawen folk to heaven with faireness,
By good ensample, was his business.

Dryden says of his, —

For, letting down the golden chain from high,
He drew his audience upward to the sky !

The lofty idea here suggested of a figure standing
in the clouds, and letting down " the golden chain"


for his audience, can surely never be received as the
companion or representative of the meek and unos-
tentatious man of God who went in all weathers to
visit his sick parishioners, —

Upon his feet, and in his hand a staff.

In Dryden's version of the ' Knight's Tale' these
lines occur : —

Next stood Hypocrisy, with holy fear ;
Soft smiling and demurely looking down,
But hid the dagger underneath the gown :
The assassinating wife, the holy fiend ;
And far the blackest there, the traitor-friend.

The original of all this is one line, —

The smiler with the knife under the cloak.

It is hard to lose such a line for the sake of a
trifling matter of spelling. The " obsolete" outcast
is merely this, —

The smiler with the knif under the cloke.

There is in Chaucer the strength of a giant com-
bined with the simplicity of a child. The latter is quite


metamorphosed in Dryden's swelling verse. Whenever
he attempts simplicity, which is very rarely, he fails.
Let the reader compare his account of the death of
Arcite with Chaucer's profound pathos. The follow-
ing is one of his closest imitations of the original : —

Yet could he not his closing eyes withdraw,

Though less and less of Emily he saw ;

So, speechless, for a little space he lay ;

Then grasp'd the hand he held, and sigh'd his soul away.


Dusked his eyen two, and faill'd his breth,

But on his ladie yet cast he his eye ;

His last-e word was ' Mercy, Emelie !'

His spirit changed house — Cliaucer.

The fact is, Dryden's version of the ■ Knight's Tale'
would be most appropriately read by the towering
shade of one of Virgil's heroes, walking up and down
a battlement and waving a long gleaming spear to
the roll and sweep of his sonorous numbers.

Of the highly finished paraphrase, by Mr. Pope, of the
' Wife of Bath's Prologue,' and the ' Merchant's Tale,'


suffice it to say that the licentious humour of the
original being divested of its quaintness and obscurity,
becomes yet more licentious in proportion to the fine
touches of skill with which it is brought into the
light. Spontaneous coarseness is made revolting by
meretricious artifice. Instead of keeping in the distance
that which was objectionable by such shades in the
modernizing as should have answered to the hazy
appearance of the original, it receives a clear outline,
and is brought close to us. An ancient Briton, with
his long rough hair and painted body, laughing and
singing half naked under a tree, may be coarse, yet
innocent of all intention to offend ; but if the ima-
gination, (absorbing the anachronism,) can conceive
him shorn of his falling hair, his paint washed off, and
in this uncovered state introduced into a drawing-
room full of ladies in rouge and diamonds, hoops and
hair-powder, no one can doubt the injury thus done
to the ancient Briton. This is no unfair illustration
of what was done in the time of Pope, and by these


editions of Ogle and Lipscombe. They are not mo-
dernized versions — which implies modern delicacy, as
well as modern language — they are vulgarized ver-
sions. The public of the present day would certainly
never tolerate any similar proceeding, even were it
likely to be attempted.

But if such poets and artists as Dryden and Pope,
are open to objections for their unceremonious para-
phrases, what shall be said of the presumption of
Messrs. Ogle, Lipscombe, and others, in following
their example. Perhaps the worst of these specimens
are from the pens of Mr. Betterton and Mr. Cobb.
Their modern grossness and vulgarity are astonishing.
In their execution of the finest passages of pathos or
of humour there is, at best, only such a vestige remain-
ing of the original as serves to show the difference of
men's minds in contemplating the same objects.

Let the reader, who is not familiar with the portrait
and character of Absolon, in the * Miller's Tale,' imagine
a jolly parish clerk of these olden times — with a ruddy



complexion, and thick golden locks " strouting " out
behind, like a " broad fan " — his dress neat and close,
with red stockings, and " St. Paul's windows carved
upon his shoes ;" a kirtle thick with points and tags ;
and a " gay surplice " over all, as " white as is the
blossom upon the thorn." This jolly parish clerk,
smitten with the charms of the wife of a carpenter,
sends her all sorts of presents, and serenades her con-
tinually with voice and instrument. But finding all his
efforts to attract her love or admiration ineffectual, he
has recourse to a more dignified proceeding. He brings
a small scaffolding or stage (probably drawn by a mule)
before her window, — mounts it, and enacts the part of
Herod in one of the Miracle plays ! This most ludicrous
and matchless climax- is vulgarized by Mr. Cobb in these
lines ; not one word of which belongs to Chaucer any
more than the sense of them, —

"Sometimes he gearamouch'd it all on hie,
And harlequin'd it with activity :
Betrays the lightness of his empty head,
And how he gould cut capers * * '* ."


But it is not only the loss of this unexampled picture,
as a piece of rich graphic humour, that constitutes the
ground of complaint, but the loss of the historical in-
formation involved in the original description. This
performance of the part of Herod by the jolly parish
clerk is a proof of the kind of plays that were acted in
the reigns of Edward III. and Richard II., viz. Miracle
Plays; since called, erroneously, Mysteries and Moralities.

When the Pardoner is describing how he stands up
" like a clerk in his pulpit," to preach the money out
of the pockets of his deluded audience, by "an hundred
japes" or knaveries, the following most graphic picture
is given : —

Then paine I me to stretchen forth my necke,
And east and west upon the people I beck
As doth a dove, sitting upon a barn !


Then forth with painful toil my neck I stretch,
And east and west my arms extended reach.
So on a barn's long roof yon might have seen
A pouting pigeon woo his feather' d queen !

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In the quotation from Chaucer, be it observed, all
the words are his own, and only one spelt differently,
An old man, (who is Death in disguise) tired of life
through decrepitude and loss of his faculties, is thus
described : —

And on the ground, which is my mother's gate,

I knock-e with my staff, early and late,

And say to her, * Leave, mother ! — let me in ! '

Here at my mother earth's deaf sullen gate,
My staff, sad sole support, early and late
Knocks with incessant stroke, but knocks in tain,
For nought she hears though sadly I com)>l

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Online LibraryGeoffrey ChaucerThe poems of Geoffrey Chaucer modernized → online text (page 1 of 18)