A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Poem of the Day: Geoffrey Chaucer

From The Wife of Bath's Prologue
If you're not up to tackling the Middle English unaided, there's a parallel-text version (Middle English and modern English) here


"Experience, though noon auctoritee
Were in this world, is right ynogh for me
To speke of wo that is in mariage;
For, lordynges, sith I twelve yeer was of age,
Thonked be God that is eterne on lyve,
Housbondes at chirche dore I have had fyve, --
If I so ofte myghte have ywedded bee, --
And alle were worthy men in hir degree.
But me was toold, certayne, nat longe agoon is,
That sith that Crist ne wente nevere but onis
To weddyng, in the Cane of Galilee,
That by the same ensample taughte he me
That I ne sholde wedded be but ones,
Herkne eek, lo, which a sharp word for the nones,
Biside a welle, Jhesus, God and man,
Spake in repreeve of the Samaritan,
'Thou hast yhad fyve housbondes,' quod he,
'And that ilke man that now hath thee
Is noght thyn housbonde,' thus seyde he certeyne.
What that he mente therby, I kan nat seyn;
But that I axe, why that the fifthe man
Was noon housbonde to the Samaritan?
How manye myghte she have in mariage?
Yet herde I nevere tellen in myn age
Upon this nombre diffinicioun.
Men may devyne and glosen, up and doun,
But wel I woot, expres, withoute lye,
God bad us for to wexe and multiplye;
That gentil texte kan I wel understonde.
Eek wel I woot, he seyde myn housbonde
Sholde lete fader and mooder, and take to me.
But of no nombre mencion made he,
Of bigamye, or of octogamye;
Why sholde men thanne speke of it vileynye?
   Lo, heere the wise kyng, daun Salomon;
I trowe he hadde wyves more than oon.
As wolde God it were leveful unto me
To be refresshed half so ofte as he!
Which yifte of God hadde he for alle his wyvys!
No man hath swich that in this world alyve is.
God woot, this noble kyng, as to my wit,
The firste nyght had many a myrie fit
With ech of hem, so wel was hym on lyve,
Yblessed be God that I have wedded fyve!
Welcome the sixte, whan that evere he shal,
For sothe, I wol nat kepe me chaast in al.
Whan myn housbonde is fro the world ygon,
Som Cristen man shal wedde me anon,
For thanne, th'apostle seith that I am free
To wedde, a Goddes half, where it liketh me.
He seith that to be wedded is no synne;
Bet is to be wedded than to brynne
What rekketh me, thogh folk seye vileynye
Of shrewed Lameth and his bigamye?
I woot wel Abraham was an hooly man,
And Jacob eek, as ferforth as I kan;
And ech of hem hadde wyves mo than two,
And many another holy man also.
Where can ye seye, in any manere age,
That hye God defended mariage
By expres word? I pray yow, telleth me.
Or where comanded he virginitee?
I woot as wel as ye, it is no drede,
Th'apostle, when he speketh of maydenhede,
He seyde that precept thereof hadde he noon.
Men may conseille a womman to been oon,
But conseillyng is no comandement.
He putte it in our owene juggement;
For hadde God comanded maydenhede,
Thanne hadde he dampned weddyng with the dede.
And certes, if ther were no seed ysowe,
Virginitee, thanne whereof sholde it growe?
Poul dorste nat comanden, atte leeste,
A thyng of which his maister yaf noon heeste,
The dart is set up for virginitee:
Cacche whoso may, who renneth best lat see.
.....
My fourthe housbonde was a revelour;
This is to seyn, he hadde a paramour;
And I was yong and ful of ragerye,
Stibourn and strong, and joly as a pye.
How koude I daunce to an harpe smale,
And synge, ywis, as any nyghtyngale,
Whan I had dronke a draughte of sweete wyn!
Metellus, the foule cherl, the swyn,
That with a staf birafte his wyf her lyf,
For she drank wyn, thogh I hadde been his wyf,
He sholde nat han daunted me fro drynke!
And after wyn on Venus most I thynke,
For al so siker as cold engendreth hayl,
A likerous mouth moste han a likerous tayle.
In wommen vinolent is no defence, --
This knowen lecchours by experience.
   But, Lord Crist! what that it remembreth me
Upon my yowthe, and on my jolitee,
It tikleth me aboute myn herte roote.
Upon this day it dooth myn herte boote
That I have had my world as in my tyme.
But age, allas! that al wol evenyme,
Hath me biraft my beautee and my pith,
Lat go, farewel! the devel go therwith!
The flour is goon, ther is namoore to telle;
The bren, as I best kan, now moste I selle.

(lines 1-76, 462-478)
--Geoffrey Chaucer 


Watch an episode of "Jeopardy!" that has a literature category, especially one dealing with literature before 1900, and you'll see that even highly educated, highly literate people are unfamiliar with literary references that our grandparents used to assume were essential mental furniture. It's a consequence in part of our efforts at universal literacy: The more people there are who can read, the more diverse their backgrounds, the more books there are available to them, the less likely it is that they'll have the same books in common. It used to be that every literate person was familiar with figures like The Wife of Bath, Falstaff, Pickwick -- touchstones of the human comedy. Today, calling someone Falstaffian or Pickwickian, or saying "she's as raunchy as the Wife of Bath" will probably get you a blank stare. 


But this lack of a common literary background doesn't just include the moldy oldies of Chaucer, Shakespeare and Dickens. Make an allusion to more recent literature, to Yossarian or Holden Caulfield or Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, and somebody in the room isn't going to get it. This is not meant as a rant against contemporary education. I'm no admirer of E.D. Hirsch's campaign for "cultural literacy" or even of Harold Bloom's canon-building. It's just to explain why I bothered to post a chunk of Chaucer here: because I think it's worth the effort, because it shines a light on a too often neglected corner of the literary experience. 


I think Chaucer is worth knowing because he was taught to me by a master, the late B.J. Whiting, whose Chaucer course used to fill the largest lecture room in Sever Hall at Harvard. Today, I bet you can't get enough students to fill a seminar room for a Chaucer course at most universities.


I've written about Chaucer before, in a review of the late Donald R. Howard's Chaucer biography. It appeared in the Mercury News in 1987. It says pretty much everything I have to say about the writer I think of as the second-greatest poet in the English language. 


CHAUCER: His Life, His Works, His World
By Donald R. Howard
E.P. Dutton, 704 pp., $29.95 


IT doesn't surprise me that, according to one of those recent gloom-and-doom studies of American education, half of American high school seniors don't know who wrote "The Canterbury Tales." I'm just glad half of them do. 


But I wonder how many of the people who did the survey and the editorial writers who agonized over its findings have actually read Chaucer. Or have read him since their English 101 survey courses. 


I'm talking about Chaucer in his own language, Middle English. So-called translations don't work because maybe two-thirds of his language doesn't need translating. It's not grammar and syntax so much as vocabulary that makes reading Middle English laborious. Take the opening couplet of the "Canterbury Tales" prologue, for example: 


Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote . . . 


A word-for-word translation would go: 


When that April with his showers sweet
The drought of March hath pierced to the root . . . 


But that messes up the meter and wrecks the rhyme. The syntax now sounds quaintly "poetic." But the translator who tries to render these lines in something resembling the original's metrical and rhyme schemes inevitably drives away some of their ease and spontaneity. And all this effort goes just to make sure a reader doesn't think those showers are sooty instead of sweet. 


The reader of Chaucer has to put up with footnotes, not only to translate Middle English words, but also to explain the political, social and religious beliefs Chaucer took for granted. And the trouble with that is, as Samuel Johnson observed,"The mind is refrigerated by interruption." 


So no wonder people are ignorant of Chaucer. Which is unfortunate, because he's probably the second-greatest English poet. The only other serious contender for best-after-Shakespeare is Milton. And for me, Chaucer is to Milton as Mozart is to Beethoven. Both are great, but the tie-breaker is which artist can both strike terror in your soul and make you laugh. Chaucer and Mozart can do that; Milton and Beethoven are long on terror, short on laughter. 


A quarter-century after my own course in Chaucer, I still smile when I recall Alisoun's giggle in "The Miller's Tale," the eagle's bluster in "The House of Fame" or the barnyard fowls' banter in "The Nun's Priest's Tale." And thinking of Criseyde's despair and the fate of the rascals in "The Pardoner's Tale" gives me a frisson. 


Much of the delight Chaucer has given me came rushing back as I read Donald R. Howard's biography of him. Actually, "biography" is too narrow a genre to stuff Howard's book into, for it's a work of history as well as of biography, and one built on imagination as well as scholarship. What we know for sure about Chaucer is mostly dry-as-dust stuff from official records of the 14th century English court, about the doings of a Geoffrey Chaucer who was first a page, then a soldier, then a diplomat and a civil servant. These records don't even tell us what year Chaucer was born or what day he died. We know he married one of the queen's attendants, but not how many children they had. We even know he was once accused of rape; we don't know whether that means abduction or sexual assault or whether he was guilty of the charge. We have only circumstantial evidence, in fact, that the Chaucer of these records is also Chaucer the poet. 


Faced with not only such scanty evidence but also the webs of conjecture that scholars have woven about Chaucer over the centuries, Howard nevertheless puts together a coherent and convincing picture of Chaucer the man. And he also uses what we know of Chaucer's life and his poetry to shed light on his world. 


That's quite an accomplishment, for the 14th century is almost as alien to ours as an imaginary civilization created by a sci-fi writer. Think, for example, of a world not only without television, movies or radio, but without print. 


Newspapers and magazines didn't exist; books were few and precious. It was a world not only without the internal combustion engine, but without road maps -- and there were precious few roads. As Howard points out, our word "travel" comes from the French travail, meaning "toil." To travel the distance from San Jose to San Francisco would take more than a day. A trip from England to Italy, such as the one Chaucer took in which he encountered Italian culture at the dawn of the Renaissance, took months, and was a trek through an uncharted wilderness in which one relied on strangers to point the way. 

Before you get too swept away by the idea of a world without commuting and traffic jams, without talk shows and commercials, remember that it was also a world ignorant of microbiology, without antiseptics, with no clear sense of how disease was transmitted, let alone how it should be treated. Small wonder that the Black Death killed a third to a half of the population of England during Chaucer's lifetime. 


It's tempting to compare Howard's book with Barbara Tuchman's best-selling A Distant Mirror, another portrait of what Tuchman calls "The Calamitous 14th Century." Each book explores the age through the life of a representative man. Chaucer and Tuchman's central figure, Enguerrand de Coucy VII, lived at about the same time -- the last 60 years of the century. But I think, for us moderns, Chaucer is a better guide to the age than Tuchman's French nobleman. For Chaucer was not only a poet, he was also a professional man, a sort of medieval middle manager, born to the merchant class and educated into the service of the courts of Edward III and Richard II. He had the opportunity to explore not only England, France and Italy, but also several levels of society, and with Howard's help, we explore them with him. 


Howard also crafts a full portrait of Chaucer himself, making us abundantly aware of Chaucer's achievements. He helped transform English culture by introducing to it what he had encountered in France and Italy. When the literature of pre- Norman Conquest Britain -- such as "Beowulf" and the Anglo-Saxon lyrics -- had been swept away, not to be recovered for centuries, Chaucer created works that are the fountainhead of English literature. Even the language of Chaucer's England was unsettled, as the Germanic stream of Anglo-Saxon crossed with the Romance stream of Norman French. The court stuck to French, and the language of learning was Latin, but Chaucer forged the vernacular, what we now call Middle English, into a powerful poetic instrument. 


Howard's book will probably be heavy going for the general reader only in its analysis of Chaucer's less-familiar works. Nobody but scholars spends much time with "The Book of the Duchess" or "The Parliament of Fowls" these days. Even "The House of Fame," which has wonderful sections, is too allegorical for the modern temperament. But Howard's commentary will be invaluable for anyone who wants to dust off the old anthology and read a few "Canterbury Tales," or to venture into Chaucer's greatest work, "Troilus and Criseyde." 

Howard, a professor of English at Stanford, died of complications from AIDS, which it's too facile to call the Black Death of our age. This book is as fine a memorial as any writer could want, but there is an almost unbearable poignancy to its final sentence, in which Howard reflects on Chaucer's attitude toward death: "One must think of the world while one is in the world; facing eternity, our thoughts become closed within the self, our words become silence, and all our works upon this little spot of earth seem like the waves of the sea."

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