Geoffrey Chaucer.

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should not, therefore, be omitted, but that he displays
no new features in his method. It only remains to
mention one more. Here is a specimen from Mr.
Brooke's ' Man of Law's Tale,' — and very like panto-
mime poetry it is.

Hence, Want ! ungrateful visitant, adieu,
Pale empress, hence, with all thy meagre crew ;
Sour discontent, and mortify'd chagrin ;
Lean hollow care, and self-corroding spleen ;
Distress and woe, sad parents of despair,
With wringing hands, and ever rueful air ;
The tread of dun, and bum's alarming hand,
Dire as the touch of Circe's circling wand, &c.

It will readily be apprehended, that for all this
modern low wit and trite verbiage there is no fraction


of authority in the original. That the circulation of such
trash from " bum's alarming hand," pretending to be
versions of the best songs of a poet imprisoned in an
obsolete dialect, may have contributed, in some degree,
to make the public indifferent to their first great au-
thor, is not unlikely. Believing these versions to be
" Chaucer refined," what must they have conceived of
the original ?

But whatever injury to the reputation of Chaucer
these productions may, or may not, have occasioned,
there can be no doubt of the mischief done by Mr.
Pope's obscene specimen, placed at the head of his list
of " Imitations of English Poets." It is an imitation of
those passages which we should only regard as the
rank offal of a great feast in the olden time. The
better taste and feeling of Pope should have imitated
the noble poetry of Chaucer. He avoided this " for
sundry weighty reasons." But if this so-called imi-
tation by Pope was " done in his youth," he should
have burnt it in his age. Its publication at the present


day among his elegant works, is a disgrace to modern
times, and to his high reputation.

The version given by Lord Thurlow of the ' Flower
and the Leaf is such, in its execution and fine appre-
ciation, as might be expected of a true poet. He
has, however, interpolated several lines in almost
every stanza. His translation of the ' Knight's Tale'
is admirable for its fidelity, generally, and for its
versification, — not on the model of that uniformity of
syllables and position of accents which may be regarded
as the school of Pope ; but he has quite given up the
peculiar harmonies of the rhythm of Chaucer. On the
latter subject it will be necessary to offer some remarks
in the course of the present inquiry.

Concerning the ' Prioress's Tale,' with which the
public have become acquainted in the works of Mr.
Wordsworth, it cannot be requisite to make any com-
ments, as the severe poetical fidelity of its execution
has long since been recognized by all true lovers of
Chaucer. A free version of the ■ Squire's Tale ' was
published by Mr. Leigh Hunt some years since ; the


translation; however, of that tale which appears in the
present volume is an entirely new production.

It only remains to mention the name of one more
gentleman, whose " loving labours" to make the public
of this day acquainted with the riches of Chaucer
are well known, but have been appreciated by far too
small a number of readers. About five years ago
Mr. Cowden Clarke produced a volume of selections
from Chaucer's poems, in which every objectionable
passage was omitted, and the greatest beauties retained.
The text was carefully collated ; many of the words
spelt as now in use ; a current glossary and notes
were given at the bottom of each page, to save the
trouble of continual reference and correcting, and the
words were accented, so as to enable the general
reader to get some notion of Chaucer's quantity and
rhythm. But the public recoiled, as heretofore, from
the obsolete dialect. The labours of this amiable author,
and the cordial co-operation of his publisher, received
no adequate encouragement.

Since therefore it appears manifest that the modern


public will not undertake the task of mastering the
dialect of the Father of English Poetry, and that the
pleasure derived from the original seems likely to
continue the exclusive possession of a small class of
readers, the projectors of the present undertaking are
anxious to adopt such means as may be in their
power of diffusing a portion of this pleasure. Thev
venture to hope that, while their labours may not be
unacceptable to the million, this publication may also
lead to an increase in the numbers of those who read
the noble original.

There may be several methods of rendering Chaucer
in modern English. It will be sufficient, however,
to mention the two extremes. The advocates of the
one argue — that in order to render Chaucer truly, it
must be done in the spirit rather than the letter ;
simply because so much of the letter, or words, of his
period differ both in sound and sense from those now in
use ; and that while everything is retained from the
original which can be regarded as an exception, the


large mass of the obsolete remainder must be re-
written, i. e. supplied by corresponding words and
rhythm to the best of the writer's ability. Hence, the
spiritual sense of the author is the ruling principle.
The advocates of the opposite method argue, that
all the substantial material and various rhythm of
Chaucer should be adopted as far as possible ; his
obsolete phrases, words, terminations, and gramma-
tical construction, translated, modernized, and hu-
moured, to the best of the writer's ability. To retain
or preserve the existing substance is the rule; to re-
write and paraphrase is the exception. The first
method, were its highest degree of success attainable,
would present little or none of the original material,
yet contain the essence of the whole : the greatest
success of the other method would be, that on com-
paring it with the original there should appear to
have been very little done, and yet the version be
not unacceptable to a modern reader. The first
method has its dangers ; the latter its disadvan-


tages. Bat, inasmuch as there is a large portion
of the original which needs but little alteration,
(except in the opinion of those who may consider
they best render Chaucer by merging his identity
in their own,) while at the same time there is so
large a portion which requires to be entirely re-
modelled, it seems plain that the greatest amount of
the original will be obtained from between these two
extremes ; the only distinguishing marks of the dif-
ferent methods being a general predominance of this
or that principle. What merits they may individually
possess it does not rest with us to determine ; but
it is only fair to state that no one among the con-
tributors to the present volume has attempted the
first method.

The safest method, as the most becoming, is mani-
festly that of preserving as much of the original sub-
stance as can be rendered available, " that which appears
quaint *, as well as that which is more modern ; in

* Polish away all the quaintness, and you erase a portion of the historical
from the portraiture. It is very curious, and not a little amusing, that this



short as much of the author — his nature — his own mode
of speaking and describing, as possible. By thus pre-
serving his best parts we should keep the model of
Nature, his own model, before us, and make modern
things bend to her, — not her, as is the custom of our self-
love, bend to every thing which happens to be modern.
It is possible, that something of a vapour, at least to
common eyes, might be thus removed from his glorious
face ; but to venture further, we are afraid, would be to
attempt to improve the sun itself, or to go and recolour
the grass it looks upon." (Round Table, vol. i.*)

word quaint should have been a term of some reproach in Chaucer's time.
He occasionally uses it in that sense himself:

" Colours of rhetorike ben to me queinte :
My spirit felet/i not of swiche matere !"

The Franklin's Prologue.

Chaucer himself is now considered quaint beyond measure. The old
dramatists are called quaint. At present, the word is sometimes used with
us, in the best sense, to express the straggles of genius with an unformed
language; Bometimes as the quiet humour of our ancestors; sometimes it
means an obsolete form of expression ; sometimes it expresses the resent-
ments of a modern ear; sometimes it means nothing — which is rather wors
than the thing complained of. All the best writers of the present age
will become quaint ; and as only the best will live to enjoy the necessary
odium, it would perhaps be but reasonable in future to attach a more chari-
table meaning to this unavoidable infirmity of old age.

* See also an admirable article on Chaucer, in the Retrospective Review,


With reference, however, to the omission of cer-
tain objectionable passages, and the interpolation of a
few lines to connect the thread of the interest, it is
presumed that this licence will be readily permitted, on
all sides, to the exigencies of the case. Another reason
for sundry omissions may occasionally exist. Chaucer
sometimes becomes very prolix, and disposed to
lengthy digressions. They are generally excellent
when humorous ; when learned and grave, they are
apt to become very tedious. He sometimes pauses
on the threshold of the highest interest to give a
long list of not very similar cases from history or
scholastic lore. On one of these occasions he makes
his heroine in her great anguish recount some
eighteen tragic stories, taken from Hieronymus contra
Jovinianum, 1. i. c. 39. " In the Troilus and Cres-
sida," observes Mr. Clarke, ** there constantly inter-
vene long see-saws of argumentative dialogue ; and,

vol. ix. part 1, where a modern version, undertaken upon the same principle
of restoring the original, is recommended as a desideratum in English literature.

b 2


above all things in such a narrative, a discourse
extending to upwards of a hundred lines upon the
doctrine of Predestination is put into the mouth of
Troilus ! The same defect of tediousness applies to
some of the other extended compositions." Chaucer
is also very fond of repeating the same things upon
different occasions — and upon the same occasion.
Whenever he alludes to a recent event in his narra-
tive, he either tells it nearly all over again, or apolo-
gizes for not doing so, pleading that there is "no
need." Sometimes with humorous petulancy he ab-
ruptly announces that he will not repeat the matter
any more — as though he considered the reader wished
to exact it from him. This peculiarity is solely attri-
butable to the period at which Chaucer wrote — a period
of religious and political controversies, while knowledge
was so new that the difficulty of acquiring suggested
proportionate fears of inability to communicate it effi-
cjentlv.. and induced all sorts of repetitions in order to
prevent misunderstandings. This is why Chaucer's


poetry often reminds us of remote times, and even
suggests old age in the writer : in every other respect
he is the most invariably fresh and youthful poet ever
given to the world. His poetry not only has the fresh-
ness of morning in it, but gives the impression of the
youngest heart enjoying that freshness.

It is necessary to enter into some examination of
the versification and rhythm adopted by Chaucer.
The subject is fraught with difficulties ; and when to
this is added the consideration that it must involve
the whole theory of the structure of English poetry,
on which no satisfactory essay has ever yet been
written, many indulgences may be solicited of the
reader in any attempts which may be made to " break
up the ground" for future disquisitions *.

* The learned and elaborate " Essay on the Language and Versification of
Chaucer," by Tyrwhitt, may be regarded as one of the main foundations
on -which future developments should be built. But while he discourses
on metres very much in the usual classical way, his notions of rhythm are
very limited. It is clear that he has a practical knowledge of the rhythm of
Chaucer, yet in principle he generally reverts to the pedantries of metre,
which require strict regularity in numbers and position of accents. Other-
wise his Essay is a valuable work, clearly written, and not at all stuffed with
learned words and Greek and Roman distinctions. There has been enough


Our position is, that Chaucer was a most harmo-
nious and melodious poet, and that he was a perfect
master of the various forms of versification in which
he wrote ; that the principle on which his rhythm
is founded fuses and subjects within itself all the
minor details of metre ; that this principle, though
it has been understood only by the few, and never
systematically explained, is, more or less, inseparable
from the composition of an harmonious versification
in the English language ; and that he, the first man,
if not unrivalled in the varied music of his verse,
has scarcely been surpassed by any succeeding poet.

In opposition to this, before proceeding to such
demonstrations of the foregoing positions as may be

of this : the fundamental principle is what is now wanted. An article
" On Dramatic Versification," recently appeared in the Monthly Chronicle, in
which was displayed a spiritual comprehension of the question ; but it failed
in its effect, by carrying the technicalities to such a pitch as to give a series of
stanzas as illustrations, from which all the words were excluded, and only the
long and short accents given " in rank and file " of verse — like music to be
imagined and understood by the sight of the figures of thorough-bass. The
following position, however, is satisfactory. " The English language adapts
itself to verse, not as in the Latin, by quantity, but (as the present writer
conjectures was the case with the Greeks) by rhythm."


in our power, let us quote a note from Mr. Tyrwhitt's
' Essay on the Language and Versification of Chaucer,'
in which the argument against us is fairly, though
not fully, stated by a poet, whose name is justly
honoured by his country.

" The verse of Chaucer. I confess," says Dryden in the Pre-
face to his Fables, " is not harmonious to us. They icho lived
icith him, and some time after him, thought it musical ; and it con-
tinues so, even in our judgment, if compared with the numbers of
Lydgate and Gower, his contemporaries : there is a rude sweet-
ness of a Scotch tune in it, which is natural and pleasing, though
not perfect. It is true I cannot go so far as he who published
the last edition of him (Mr. Speght), for he would make us
believe the fault is in our own ears, and that there were really
ten syllables in a terse where we find but nine. But his opinion
is not worth confuting ; 'tis so gross and obvious an error,
that common sense (which is a rule in everything but matters
of Faith and Revelation) must convince the reader that equa-
lity of numbers in every verse which we call heroick, was either not
known, or not always practised in Chaucer's age. It were an easy
matter to produce some thousands of his verses which are lame
for leant of half afoot, and sometimes a whole one, and which no
pronunciation can make otherwise."

This peremptory decision has never since, that I know of, been
controverted, except by Mr. Urry, whose design of restoring the


metre of Chaucer, by a collation of MSS., was as laudable as his
execution of it has certainly been unsuccessful *.

l^yrvchitt, vol. i.

The foregoing quotation affords us undeniable proof
of the reason why Chaucer was considered, then and
ever since, as a writer of rugged verses, which few
(except his contemporaries, who understood the quan-
tity he attached to his words, and the rhythm he
adopted) could read so as to discover their con-
tinuous music. No doubt but Dry den was right in
opposition to Mr. Speght. There are not ten syllables
in every heroic verse of Chaucer : occasionally, but
very rarely indeed, there are only nine ; sometimes
there are eleven, reckoning a double syllable or double

* — " The perplexing, corrupted, and arbitrarily innovated edition of Mr.
Urn,-, who has marred by injudicious interpolations the rhythmus he pre-
tended to amend, counting bis lingers to the distraction of his ears (the
common vice of all mechanical editors) and has perverted in many instances
the very meaning of his author by conjectural readings, and has still further
perplexed the orthography by a mode of spelling which is neither that of the
days of Chaucer, of our own, nor of any intermediate age with which we are
acquainted." — Retrospective Review, vol. xiv. p. 314.

Severe as tins censure may appear, it is thoroughly just. The only good
thing in Urry's edition is the " Glossary," which is by another hand.


rhyme at the end, as two ; but continually there are
eleven, without a final double syllable, — -and this was
Chaucer's favourite variation. But to assert that the
poet's verse is rendered unmusical by any of these
variations is a mistake, resulting from not perceiving
the principle of his rhythm, a principle which is
inseparable from a full or fair exercise of the genius of
our language in versification. Every poet of eminence
since his age, who has written heroic verses, has oc-
casionally introduced lines of eleven syllables with me-
lodious effect; those who wrote in the octo-syllabic
measure have continually introduced lines of seven syl-
lables with good effect ; while the lyrical writers, who
have adopted the octo-syllabic, have often introduced
lines of seven syllables, eleven, and upwards ; but their
verses, so far from being rendered lame or inharmoni-
ous, became exquisitely musical chiefly from that cir-
cumstance. A few examples will render this sufficiently
manifest ; previous to which, however, let us turn to
a passage in ' Troilus and Cressida,' where, with a


simplicity which is very touching, the Father Poet de-
voutly expresses his fears that, from the want of any
fixed character in the language, the elements of w T hich
he was collecting and amalgamating, future times
would not easily be enabled to do justice to his
primitive labours' — his meaning might be misunderstood,
his measures appear unmusical.

And, for there is so great diversitie

In English, and in writing of our tongue,

So pray I to God that none mis-writ-e thee,
Ne thee mis-metre for default oftongui ;

And read whereso thou be, or cle's sung,
That thou be understood, God I beseech.

In this quotation, which conveys a very serious
warning to all whom it may chiefly concern, an instance
occurs of the introduction of the eleventh syllable.
As the word write, in the third line, was pronounced
with a soft intonation of the final e (as in the Italian),
the word to would be regarded, on the principle of
Dryden and Pope, as a superfluous syllable in the verse ;


and, certainly, if read on their general principle of
laying an accent upon the fourth or fifth syllable of
every line, it would sound lame enough. But " So
prav I to God, &c." was not Chaucer's rhythm : he
meant the line should be read as though it were
written —

So pray I | t' God | that none mis-write e'thee.

Or thus :—

So pray-I to-God, &ac.

It will therefore be perceived, that there is an implied
partial contraction and junction of the two syllables
" pray I" into the sound or time of one syllable ; or,
a contraction of the next two words by the elision of a
vowel. Let us take another more striking example : —

There was also a Nun — a Prioress,

That of her smiling was full simple and coy.

Now, if it were true that an heroic verse must be
incorrect whenever there is an inequality of syllables,



and if that by the term of " correct metre," which
we find in continual use at the present time, is
meant this literal equality, or conformity to a fixed
number of syllables, then the second line of the
above couplet must be considered quite incorrect in
metre. But as any schoolboy who has learned to
make heroic verses with his fingers' ends could in-
stantly put this into the " correct metre" by the era-
sure of a word and a slight transposition (" That of
her smiling simple was, and coy"), it is not to be
supposed that a great poet, who had practised his
art for some fifty years, could not have done the
same, on this, and every other occasion, had he not
chosen to adopt a more musical rhythm. A partial
contraction of the three syllables of " simple and"
into the sound of two syllables, is implied — that is,
by a delicate modulation of the voice, as in the
Italian ; not with a harsh mechanical strictness. The
line would then read thus : —

That of her smiling was full simpl'mul coy.


There seems little doubt that Chaucer adopted this
delicate gliding of one word into another from the
French — peuple — aimable, &c. ; nor might it be un-
aptly illustrated by the effects of the slur, the glisse,
or the appoggiatura, in musical notation.

This noble ensample to his sheep he yaf.

The line may be read, —

This nobl' ensample to his flock he gave.

That is to say, it should be read with a feeling or
instinct of the latent contraction ; giving both words
their fair utterance, but with a graceful blending of
the vowels at their point of union.

That the same principle has been acted upon, whe-
ther consciously or unconsciously, by all succeeding
English poets, is easy of demonstration. In all heroic
poems eleven syllables will occasionally be found ;
there being either a manifest or implied contrac-
tion by apostrophe or syncope, — a modification of the
principle of Chaucer, and far from an improvement, as


it tends to the elision of vowels, instead of melodiously
blending them : —

" This omen pleas'd, and as the flame aspires
With odorous incense Arcite heaps the fires."

" Wandering, I walk'd alone, for still methought
To some strange end so strange a path was wrought."

" Nine worthies were they call'd of different rites,
Three Jews, three Pagans, and three Christian knights."

" Such is not man, who, mixing better seed
With worse, begets a base degenerate breed."

" But fire, th' enlivener of the general frame,
Is one, its operation is the same,
Its principle is ha itself : while ours
Works as confederates war, with mingled powers."

In the first of the foregoing quotations, it will be
observed that there are eleven syllables in the second
line ; but that the word of three syllables, " odorous," is
no more to the ear than a word of two syllables — being
read in the same time as if it were spelt oderus,
though not pronounced so, (which would have a bar-


barous effect,) but rather as oderus. In the second
example there are eleven syllables in the first line ;
" wandering" being three syllables which are read in
the time of two ; and the same applies to the words
occurring in the next two examples — " different" and
" degenerate" — each of which contain a syllable which
is not reckoned in the ten that comprise the foundation
of the verse. In the first line of the last example there
are thirteen syllables ; one of these is visibly con-
tracted by an apostrophe ; but the others have been
suffered to remain because the ear does not require the
words " enlivener" and '* general" to be palpably short-
ened into " enliv'ner" and gen'ral." But the strict
metrical law propounded by various scholars would
scarcely admit, one would think, such deviations, and
yet refuse a similar license to Chaucer. All the
foregoing quotations are taken from Dryden. They
occur, among abundance of like examples in the
course of his translation, or rather his paraphrase, of
Chaucer's poems ; though the reader would be puzzled



to bring any of them home to Chaucer. The same
remarks will apply to Pope, from whose original poems,
and elaborate paraphrases of Chaucer, similar examples
may be collected.

Since, then, it is manifest that such masters of heroic
versification upon the strictest classical model as were
Dry den and Pope, could not avoid the introduction of
these unobtrusive superfluities in their lines, it only
remains to show that the difference between their method
and that of Chaucer is not in principle, but only in

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Online LibraryGeoffrey ChaucerThe poems of Geoffrey Chaucer modernized → online text (page 2 of 18)