Geoffrey Chaucer.

The poems of Geoffrey Chaucer modernized online

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Day and night, and night and day,
Drifting on his dreary way,
With the solid darkness black
Closing round his vessel's track, &c.

Here we find two lines of eight syllables each, and
one containing nine, beautifully harmonizing with lines
of seven syllables. Surely this is incomparably supe-
rior to an undeviating sing-song governed by the fin-
gers' ends ? It is presumed that the problem of super-
fluous or deficient syllables is thus practically solved,
and the whole question of harmony thrown upon its
primitive elementary principle, — the rhythm. Nor is
this intended to apply only to lyrical metres,, but also


to the heroic — for in that metre is the last battle to
be fought of a question which was practically settled
by Chaucer and Milton in the most marked manner,
and more or less by all succeeding poets of what-
ever theory.

We have seen, by a previous extract, the serious
fears Chaucer entertained of future times missing his
metre. Here is one of his half modest, half humour-
ous touches on the subject, written in the same mea-
sure as the quotation just made from Shelley : —

God of science, and of light,

Apollo ! through thy great-e might,

This little last book now thou gie *,

Now that I will for maistrie

Here art poetical be shewde.

But, for the rime is light and lewdef,

Yet make it somewhat agree-able

Though some verse fayle in a syll-able,

And that I do no diligence

To shew-e craft-e — but sen-tence %.

* Thou gie, guide thou.

t Lewde, rude, inartificial. He chose to say this "of his meek courtesy" —
but his rime was most refined and skilful — the wonder and delight of his

t To show my skill, but some good sense.


He plainly means that he depends mainly, not upon
his polish of style, but the good matter he has to
offer : this is what he wishes his readers to attend
to, even though he should fail in a syllable. In the
following quotation his humour richly shows itself. It
is as though he expected what would happen to his
verses in the progress of time. He seems to be
laughing at us with quaint bonhomie as he thus honestly
propounds his case : —

Tell me this now, faithfully !

Have I not proved thus siniplee,

Without -en any subtlety

Of speeche — or great prolixity

Of term-es of philosophy —

Of figu-res of poetry —

Or' co-lours of rhetoricke —

Perdie ! it ought-e thee to like !

For hard lan-guage and hard matere,

Is incombrous for to here,

At on-es : wost thou not well this ?

And I answere-ed — and said, ' Yes !'

House of Fame.

This very plainly shows that his language was any-


thing but cumbersome in his own time, when the
particular quantity and accent of his words was fami-
liar to all ears. If his versification does not seem
melodious now, it is because we " miss his metres"
for " default of tongue," or from not knowing how
to read them — a misfortune to which Milton is always
liable under the same circumstances of his reader not
happening to have an ear sufficiently cultivated, and
acquainted with the structure of his verse.

Of the occasional deficiencies or " lameness" in his
verse, of which Chaucer has been accused, it is hoped
that little need now be said. In the first place, we
are to allow for his quantities, so far as we know
them, or can feasibly conjecture what they were. In
the second place, we are to give to a great poet who
has accomplished so much harmony which is manifest,
due credit for many instances where we are unable to
perceive it, from our deficiency of knowledge. Thirdly,
we are to allow for the errors of copyists, of whose
ungodly pens Chaucer shows himself to be in much


dread, — in his address to Adam Scrivener, his amanuen-
sis, and on other occasions. It might be suggested,
fifthly, that something should be allowed for the un-
settled condition of the English language at his time,
and that it was accounted an accomplishment for a man
to be able even to write his own name. But this con-
sideration T do not care to dwell upon in the case
of one who shows such mastery. The main ground of
defence exists in the examples given from modern
poets — whose rich and harmonious versification is fully
recognized — demonstrating that the occasional intro-
duction of lines which are short by half a foot, or
more (as well as those which pass the common bounds
of length), of the regular quantity of a particular metre,
may enhance the power or beauty of the rhythm .

A manly man to ben an abbot able.

Full many a dainty horse bad be in stable ;

And when he rode men might his bridle hear

Gingling in a wistling wind as clear

And eke as loud, as doth the chapel bell, &c.



Surely no lover of fine poetry would wish to change
the music of the fourth line, because it is only nine
syllables. To do that would lose the very effect for
which the line has always been admired.

I see well that ye have on my distress
Compassion, my faire Canacd —


Is there not a charm in the simplicity of that second
line, the effect of which might be injured by adding
the two syllables of which it seems deficient according to
what is called strict metre ? But here is a more dif-
ficult example to deal with — the most difficult, indeed,
that I can find.

For though I had you to-mdrdw again,
I might as well holde Aprill from rain
As hold-e you to maken stedfast.


The first line may be made metrical in various ways
of accentuation ; the second may be nine syllables or
ten, according as we call " Aprill," A-prill, and accent


the e in " holde," or not ; but the third line seems a
clear case of intentional shortness, in order to produce
the sound of an abrupt and fixed decision. Neverthe-
less, as " stedfast" may have been sometimes pronounced
stedefaste (stede- e-fast) shall we suppose that this is
likely to be one of the many words which must in
all probability have been wrongly copied in some of
the manuscripts, or that the line has been otherwise
mutilated ? The accidental omission of the word
" you" which might have been repeated in the manu-
script, would settle the matter at once, —

As hold-e you to maken you stedfast.

Even if nothing were allowed for the " wear and
tear" of several hundred years, something must be
conceded to the habitual skill of a great poet, who
is scarcely ever found really " halting" in his verse,
notwithstanding all the disadvantages of his long jour-
ney down to us, and the changed ears of modern times.
Again ; can we not by a similar process — though it is
to be feared even the imaginary change may be dis-


agreeable to some of the lovers of Chaucer — restore the
two previous examples of short lines to their full ten
syllables, by reading, in the one, gingeling for " gin-
gling," or else winde for " wind ?" and in the other,
giving the quantity most commonly attached to such
words by Chaucer, and sounding " compassion" as

I see well that ye have on my distress
Compas-si-on, my fair-e Canace.

This latter I believe to be the quantity intended by
Chaucer — an opinion justified by his habitual practice.
To be brief, I cannot but believe that the alleged defi-
ciency in some of Chaucer's heroic verses is founded on
thoroughly fallacious grounds, and that out of any five
thousand heroic lines in the ' Canterbury Tales,' there
cannot be produced more than five examples of short
lines, which may not be reconciled by accentuation on
Chaucer's usual method ! Surely, if this be found true,
these five may be allowed to the lapse of four or five
hundred years, and the errors of copyists ? Of the
short lines introduced in the octo-syllabic and other


measures, enough has been said to show the music
which may result from such a disposition of quantities.
But in the heroic, it is my opinion, after long exami-
nation, that almost all, if not all, Chaucer's rhythmic
variations are produced by a trifling increase in the syl-
lables, and a change in the position of the accents ; not
by any shortening of his numbers. The following illus-
trations are highly characteristic : —

His brother weepeth and waileth privily —

The quantity is thus accommodated, —

His brother weep'th and waileth privily —

Read thus,

His brother weepethand waileth privily.

This movement of the line is finely suited to the aban-
donment of a secret grief. It would have no such
effect if reduced to order by cutting out the word " and,"
according to the modern ideas of metre. One of the
first rules to be laid down for the right reading of



Chaucer, is not to expect him to obey the law of Mr.

Pope, and lay his strongest accent upon the fourth or

fifth syllable.

That sin I see the gret-e gentilesse

Of him, and eke I see well your distress,

That him were lever have* shame (and that were ruth)

Than ye to me should broken thus your truth —

The third line is thus justified, —

That him were lev'r'ave shame (and that were ruth)
The words "lever have" should be read rapidly, as
if only two syllables, in order to convey the vehemence
of the feeling, —

That him were leverhave shame — and that were ruth —

Our last illustration is one of singular energy, —

This ilk-e text held he not worth an oyster !

And I say his opi-ni-on was good.

Whatf ahulde he studie, and make himselven wood +

Upon a book in cloister alway to pore !

* Lever have, rather have.

f What, is often used for "What is this?" "For what.'" " Why..''

t Wood, wild, mad, furious.


The variation is thus reducible, —

What shulde he studi 'nd make himselven wood
Upon a book in cloist'ralway to pore !

The words " study and" are thus to be pronounced
as two syllables instead of three ; and the four syllables
of " cloister alway " are to be given in the time of three
syllables. Yet, be it again observed, this contraction
is not to be harshly given ; but all the words of what
we may term the appoggiatara, fairly and clearly enun-
ciated, though in a more rapid manner. One of the best
general rules for reading such passages, especially when
of such vigour as the foregoing, is to read with an un-
hesitating and thorough- going purpose, to the utter
defiance of old metrical misgivings, and that thrumming
of fingers' ends, which is utterly destructive of all har-
monies not comprised in the common chord. This ra-
tional boldness will furnish the best key to the impulse
which directed the poet in writing such lines. The
couplet in question may be thus modernized :
e 2


Whi/ should he study, and make himself half mad.
Upon a book iu cloister ever to pore !

It hence appears that the secret of Chaucer's
rhythm in his heroic verse, which has been the
baffling subject of so much discussion among scholars *,
is pimply a trifling increase in the syllables, occasion-
ally introduced for variety, and founded upon the same

* A writer on the subject, endeavouring to show that Chaucer did not
write in pentameters, says, " witness this couplet;"—
" Tragedy is to sayn a certain story
As olde bookes maken us memorie."
Which he thus scans, —

Tra | gedie | is to | sayn a | certain | storie
As | old-e | book-es | maken | us me- | morie.
He treats the "pretended iambics" of the following with contempt, a.-
things not to be endured by the ear, even with a monosyllable at the end of
the line : —

Trage | dy is | to sayn | a cer- | tain story | &c.

Let us throw the lines into a brisk canter, —

Trag-e-dy | is-to-sayn | a-cer-tain | story
As-old-e | book-es-ma | ken-us me | morie.

It is not more preposterous than the other attempts. I submit that this
is an arbitrary matter, mainly dependent on the difference of cars and scho
lastic fancies, and that this system of scanning,— all the talk about hexameters
and pentameters, iambics and trochees, dactyls and spondees, ami othei
pickings of dry bones,— are totally inapplicable to the fundamental principle
of English verse. It would be far nearer the truth were we to call our
scanning gear by such terms as systole and diastole, — metre being understood
as muscle, and pulsation as rhythm,— varying with every emotion.


laws of contraction by apostrophe, syncope, &c. as those
followed by all modern poets ; but employed in a more
free and varied manner, all the words being fully written
out, the vowels sounded, and not subjected to the dis-
ruption of inverted commas, as used in after times.
An additional remark is necessary to the full under-
standing of this theory by Chaucer's practice. He
throws the first pause or accent in his line upon even
syllables generally, and very often, in heroic verse, upon
the fourth or fifth (as with nearly all subsequent poets
in that metre), but he varied this by sometimes throw-
ing the pause or accent upon uneven syllables, and
in other parts of the line, so as to produce an
ambling movement — a cantabile effect — sometimes that
of a dance — sometimes an impression of energy of
thought or action. Milton adopted the same principle,
but used it in a way that produced a towering and
bounding — a magnificent, or a desolating effect. One
of the chief reasons why the heroic versification of
Chaucer has not been hitherto understood, is because


the same rhythmic principle of variety which governed his
octosyllabic metre, he also applied, at proper intervals, to
his heroic metre. We all understand the application of
this rhythm to the octo-syllabic metre (as displayed in
the old Ballads, and by Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, &c),
but we are not prepared for its occurrence in heroic
verse; and, endeavouring to force a rhythm of this
kind into the law of Papal regularity, we are apt to
place the accents on the wrong words, even when in
direct opposition to the sense, and thus render the line
unaccountably obdurate to all metrical harmonies.

Much more remains to be said of the ultimate
capacities of rhythm in our language. Let us hope
that we may receive this from the hand most com-
petent, by his own practice, to instruct us in the very
marked change which has been for some years dawning
upon the realms of English versification. The poets who
have in our own times made the greatest advances in
rendering our language malleable to varied lyrical mo-
dulations, are Coleridge, Shelley, Leigh Hunt, and


Tennyson. But the " Legend of Florence" developes
principles of rhythm, which appear to be scarcely
amenable to the same laws. It contains abundant ex-
amples of verses which are precisely on the principle
of Chaucer's rhythm, — followed by others which do not
belong to any known principle, and yet are rhythmical.
The proof of the mastery and the success, is that few
people have discovered in it any particular difference to
other blank verse, except that it seemed to flow on more
freely ; and no one has " complained of his ear." It is
a refinement upon the rhythm adopted chiefly by Beau-
mont and Fletcher, but used discriminately, and with
taste and judgment. Yet many of the lines, which seem
perfectly licentious as to metre, are not so in reality.

Whose only shallow intent is to delay.

Or to divert, the sole dire subject — me.

Soh ! you would see the spectacle ! you who start, &c.

Legend of Florence.

The second line contains the regular syllables j the
first and third have each eleven ; yet the first is exactly


the rhythm of Chaucer, while the third is of a different
rhythm altogether, only reducible by some barbarous
pronunciation of " spectacle," as specfcle, — and there-
fore not to be reduced.

But never feeble enough to want the strength, &c.


This also is Chaucer's rhythm, the words " feeble "
and " enough" uniting in the sound of feeblenough.

The fire of the heavenward sense of my wrongs crowns me !

The voice of the patience of a life cries out of me !

Every thing warns me : I will not return !


The first line is in strict accordance with old prin-
ciples, (" the heavenward, " or th' heav'nward ;) the
second is a novel metre. The third line, though
containing ten syllables, has the sound of a short line
— an abrupt jar, as of a sudden pause, and a question
settled by passionate emotion. This admirable effect
is accomplished by the force with which the accents
are thrown on the first and third syllables, the second


being scarcely sounded ; but which effect would not be
so great were it not for the lengthened vigour of the
two preceding lines. But the novelty of the metre of
the second is chiefly that of its relative position : it
bears a close resemblance to the beautiful prose rhythm
in which many parts of the Bible are written. The
change which the introduction of this latter rhythm
may bring about is likely, as Mr. Darley anticipates,
" to entail important consequences on our National
Poetry ;" but not dangerous consequences, I think *.
It will only be the introduction of a new metre — the

* " What a refined language like ours most needs, is precisely strength,
not elegance: civilization has a corruptive, enervating influence, and dis-
solves the vigour of language into a voluble feebleness soon enough, without
our special aid, &'c." — Barley's Introduction to Beaumont and Fletcher.

This is the only argument that can be adduced against the cultivation of
the new metre in question ; and it might be applied with almost equal force
to lyrical compositions, and to all attempts to improve and dulcify the very
harsh and obstinate genius of the English language, so as to render it harmo-
nious and flowing. But power will be power, in any form of verse it adopts ;
and since strength can take care of itself, why not give free way to all possi-
ble beauty and elegance ? When strength dies out among us, it will be from
" the enervating influence of civilization " — and not for the want of a close
attention to ten syllables. I submit, with every respect for tbe reasons which
influence Mr. Darley, that the " Legend of Florence" should be " taken in
evidence" of the profound philosophy, strength of passion, and pure heart,
which may co-exist with elegance and a flowing rhythm.


Composite upon the Corinthian order of hlank verse
— in which some will succeed, and others make them-
selves ridiculous ; just as we find with respect to the
metres now in use, only far more conspicuously from
the novelty, and therefore far more easily checked.
Nevertheless, as we learn from all experience, that
the verses " written in early youth," whether we speak
of their matter or their modulation, are only fit for
early youth to read ; that the same fact is perceptible
as it graduates into the vapid level of a " prize poem ;"
and that, however easy it may be to acquire the art of
writing with unbroken regularity in heroic (or any
other) metre, it still appears that scarcely any one
has ever mastered this art, so as to express profound
thoughts, and powerful images, with the three great
requisites of clearness, conciseness, and suitable rhythm,
in a less period than twenty years of practice, (not in-
cluding juvenile attempts,) so I should be disposed to
join Mr. Darley in a warning against the too hasty
departure from the fundamental structure of the ten


syllables. Nor do I fear the imputation of any me-
tliodistical bigotry to " the common metre," in adding,
that even the variable modulations to which the heroic
verse is legitimately open, (the rhythm of Chaucer,
Shakspeare, and Milton, being all different, yet all
founded on a constant recognition of the original
structure) should be adopted only with the greatest
care of ear, and very gradual practice.

On the subject of Chaucer's rhymes, together with his
lyrics, or ballads and romances, more remains to be
said ; but as this would occupy a larger space than
can now be spared, it must be deferred to the Second
Division of this work.

The writings of Chaucer present so many topics of
great interest which are comparatively new to the mass
of the public, that it is impossible to compress them all
within our present bounds. Out of the five volumes of
Tyrwhitt's work, in the last edition, which contain no
other poems but the ' Canterbury Tales, 5 two volumes and
a half are devoted to comments, notes, glossary, &c. —


all needful, — and incomplete. The voluminous labours
of Godwin are also well known, yet how much has he
left undone, and even unapproached * !

All that can be said at present with regard to Chau-
cer's rhymes, must be confined to noticing the great
abundance of rhyming materials collected by the Father
Poet, with his vigorous freedom in the mode of working
them up and using them, he being his own rhyme-
founder and law -giver. His antipathy to the formal
tie of a series of couplets, is a striking peculiarity.
The necessity which the majority of writers in the
heroic rhyme have entailed upon themselves of always
bringing the sense to a completion at the end of a
couplet, thus neatly enclosing everything in separate
bivalve cells, has been aptly designated by Mr. Words-
worth as " an oyster-shell confinement." Chaucer
very seldom places a full stop in the body of a

* None of the Poems of Chaucer — contradistinguished from the Tales-
have hitherto been made known to the public, even by a paraphrase, except
the ' Flower and the Leaf.' This circumstance will explain the motive which
has influenced the selection and arrangement comprised in this First Division
of his works.


line, but continually breaks the monotony of the
couplet- effect by placing a full stop at the end of the
first line. He is also very fond of ending a paragraph,
or division, with the first line of a couplet, the
answering rhyme being given as the opening of the
next division. He adopted this from the old French

The genius of Chaucer was equally great in the
profoundest pathos, and the richest humour. The
one sends a broad ray of laughing light through the
proximate vistas and long dormitories of our general
knowledge ; the other goes direct to the depths of
the human heart, leaving all its pulses aching and
trembling, till the very soul seems lost in bitter tears.
His knowledge of character was so extensive, and so
deep, that his men and women, in all essential prin-
ciples, are as true and fresh at the present day as
when he drew their portraits. His sympathy was
universal. Universality of sympathy does not preclude
some antipathies ; at all events those who feel strongly,
cannot feel equally for all things — good, bad, mixed,


or half empty — and yet, I think it would not only
be impossible to find any downright, personified, and
well-followed-up antipathy in all Chaucer, but that no
objectionable men or things can be found in his writing
without their " one touch of nature," which brings
them within the range of human sympathy. After
portraying the most impudent, gross, and unprincipled
dog that could well be conceived, the poet suddenly turns
round and assures you that " A better fellow should a
man not find !" — and then proceeds to recount the good
qualities, which, under his circumstances, render him
not so bad as we fancied. Even the Devil is sometimes
brought home to human sympathies. The ' Frere's
Tale ' presents a striking instance ; and in speaking of
the anguish of a lover, who is lying in torment amidst
the flames of a hopeless passion, Chaucer tells us
that "he languisheth as doth a fury in hell." He
introduces Death in a dramatic scene as a very poor
old man, too old to live, yet who cannot escape from
life, and beats upon his mother, the earth, praying
to be let in !


Of the ludicrous anachronisms in Chaucer, it will be
sufficient to say that they by no means resulted from
want of knowledge. It was a habit of the old imagina-
tive writers; and all writers of imagination have a
strong tendency to the same merging of time, place, and
circumstance, in universal truth. He grafts the age of
chivalry on the antique tree of time. It is therefore
presumed that the reader will be wisely pleased on his
first introduction to Mars the knight ; Phoebus the chi-
valrous bachelor ; Saint Venus, &c.

Extraordinary as were the comic and humorous

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Online LibraryGeoffrey ChaucerThe poems of Geoffrey Chaucer modernized → online text (page 4 of 18)