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Geoffrey Chaucer
(ca. 1343-1400)
 Related Resources
• Our library of Medieval poets
 Elsewhere on the Web
• Chaucer page in Luminarium’s Middle English anthology
• Harvard’s Chaucer site
• Canterbury Tales, in middle and modern English, illustrated

Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales are (pick one): the tales told by pilgrims to pass the time as they journeyed towards Canterbury... a compendium of the literary style and forms of his time... a rollicking collection of stories... a cross-section of the medieval sociology in England... a rip-off of Boccaccio...

Geoffrey “Jolly Forth” Chaucer... yup, he started it: English, of the oldye variety. Canterbury Tales crosses geography, sociology and literary genres -- and bawdy?! Read Wife of Bath! Dear old Chaucer was one of the tribe of eight poets in our first Survivor Poet game here at About Poetry & made it to the third elimination round. He was represented in the game by the following selections from The Canterbury Tales. (In each case we’ve given you the original Middle English first & then a modern English translation. Try reading the original version aloud -- you will likely understand more of it and get a better feel of the poetry in Chaucer’s narrative this way, before you go on to the “cheater” translation.)

A portion of the ending of the Knight’s Tale, Chaucer’s courtly romance made from an ancient Greek story:

2174 Thanne may ye se that al this thyng hath ende.
2175 Of man and womman seen we wel also,
2176 That nedeth, in oon of thise termes two,
2177 This is to seyn, in youthe or elles age,
2178 He moot be deed, the kyng as shal a page.
2179 Som in his bed, som in the depe see,
2180 Som in the large feeld, as men may se;
2181 Ther helpeth noght, al goth that ilke weye,
2182 Thanne may I seyn that al this thyng moot deye.
2183 What maketh this, but Juppiter the kyng,
2184 That is prince and cause of alle thyng
2185 Convertyng al unto his propre welle
2186 From which it is deryved, sooth to telle,
2187 And heer agayns no creature on lyve
2188 Of no degree availleth for to stryve.
2189 Thanne is it wysdom, as it thynketh me,
2190 To maken vertu of necessitee,
2191 And take it weel, that we may nat eschue;
2192 And namely, that to us alle is due.
2193 And who so gruccheth ought, he dooth folye,
2194 And rebel is to hym that al may gye.
2195 And certeinly, a man hath moost honour
2196 To dyen in his excellence and flour,
2197 Whan he is siker of his goode name,
2198 Thanne hath he doon his freend ne hym no shame.
2199 And galdder oghte his freend been of his deeth,
2200 Whan with honour upyolden in his breeth,
2201 Than whan his name apalled is for age;
2202 For al forgeten is his vassellage.
2203 Thanne is it best as for a worthy fame,
2204 To dyen whan that he is best of name.

2174 Thus may we see the end to everything.
2175 Of man and woman just the same is true:
2176 Needs must, in either season of the two,
2177 That is to say, in youth or else in age,
2178 All men perish, the king as well as page;
2179 Some in their bed, and some in the deep sea,
2180 And some in the wide field- as it may be;
2181 There’s naught will help; all go the same way. Aye,
2182 Then may I say that everything must die.
2183 Who causes this but Jupiter the King?
2184 He is the Prince and Cause of everything,
2185 Converting all back to that primal well
2186 From which it was derived, ’tis sooth to tell.
2187 And against this, for every thing alive,
2188 Of any state, avalls it not to strive.
2189 Then is it wisdom, as it seems to me,
2190 To make a virtue of necessity,
2191 And calmly take what we may not eschew,
2192 And specially that which to all is due.
2193 Whoso would balk at aught, he does folly,
2194 And thus rebels against His potency.
2195 And certainly a man has most honour
2196 In dying in his excellence and flower,
2197 When he is certain of his high good name;
2198 For then he gives to friend, and self, no shame.
2199 And gladder ought a friend be of his death
2200 When, in much honour, he yields up his breath,
2201 Than when his name’s grown feeble with old age;
2202 For all forgotten, then, is his courage.
2203 Hence it is best for all of noble name
2204 To die when at the summit of their fame.

A selection from the Wife of Bath’s Prologue:

189 But yet I praye to al this compaignye,
190 If that I speke after my fantasye,
191 As taketh not agrief of that I seye,
192 For myn entente nis but for to pleye.
193 --Now sire, now wol I telle forth my tale,
194 As evere moote I drynken wyn or ale,
195 I shal seye sooth, tho housbondes that I hadde,
196 As thre of hem were goode, and two were badde.
197 The thre men were goode, and riche, and olde;
198 Unnethe myghte they the statut holde
199 In which that they were bounden unto me--
200 Ye woot wel what I meene of this, pradee!
201 As help me God, I laughe whan I thynke
202 How pitously anyght I made hem swynke.
203 And by my fey, I tolde of it no stoor,
204 They had me yeven hir gold and hir tresoor;
205 Me neded nat do lenger diligence
206 To wynne hir love, or doon hem reverence,
207 They loved me so wel, by God above,
208 That I ne tolde no deyntee of hir love.
209 A wys womman wol sette hire evere in oon
210 To gete hire love, ther as she hath noon.
211 But sith I hadde hem hoolly in myn hond,
212 And sith they hadde me yeven all hir lond,
213 What sholde I taken heede hem for to plese,
214 But it were for my profit and myn ese?
215 I sette hem so a-werke, by my fey,
216 That many a nyght they songen weilawey.
217 The bacoun was nat fet for hem, I trowe,
218 That som men han in Essex at Dunmowe.
219 I governed hem so wel after my lawe,
220 That ech of hem ful blisful was, and fawe
221 To brynge me gaye thynges fro the fayre.

189 But yet I pray of all this company
190 That if I speak from my own phantasy,
191 They will not take amiss the things I say;
192 For my intention’s only but to play.
193 Now, sirs, now will I tell you forth my tale.
194 And as I may drink ever wine and ale,
195 I will tell truth of husbands that I’ve had,
196 For three of them were good and two were bad.
197 The three were good men and were rich and old.
198 Not easily could they the promise hold
199 Whereby they had been bound to cherish me.
200 You know well what I mean by that, pardie!
201 So help me God, I laugh now when I think
202 How pitifully by night I made them swink;
203 And by my faith I set by it no store.
204 They’d given me their gold, and treasure more;
205 I needed not do longer diligence
206 To win their love, or show them reverence.
207 They all loved me so well, by God above,
208 I never did set value on their love!
209 A woman wise will strive continually
210 To get herself loved, when she’s not, you see.
211 But since I had them wholly in my hand,
212 And since to me they’d given all their land,
213 Why should I take heed, then, that I should please,
214 Save it were for my profit or my ease?
215 I set them so to work, that, by my fay,
216 Full many a night they sighed out ‘Welaway!’
217 The bacon was not brought them home, I trow,
218 That some men have in Essex at Dunmowe.
219 I governed them so well, by my own law,
220 That each of them was happy as a daw,
221 And fain to bring me fine things from the fair.

A portion of the General Prologue:

Here bygynneth the Book
of the tales of Caunterbury

1: Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
2: The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
3: And bathed every veyne in swich licour
4: Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
5: Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
6: Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
7: Tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
8: Hath in the ram his halve cours yronne,
9: And smale foweles maken melodye,
10: That slepen al the nyght with open ye
11: (so priketh hem nature in hir corages);
12: Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
13: And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
14: To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
15: And specially from every shires ende
16: Of engelond to caunterbury they wende,
17: The hooly blisful martir for to seke,
18: That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.
19: Bifil that in that seson on a day,
20: In southwerk at the tabard as I lay
21: Redy to wenden on my pilgrymage
22: To caunterbury with ful devout corage,
23: At nyght was come into that hostelrye
24: Wel nyne and twenty in a compaignye,
25: Of sondry folk, by aventure yfalle
26: In felaweshipe, and pilgrimes were they alle,
27: That toward caunterbury wolden ryde.
28: The chambres and the stables weren wyde,
29: And wel we weren esed atte beste.
30: And shortly, whan the sonne was to reste,
31: So hadde I spoken with hem everichon
32: That I was of hir felaweshipe anon,
33: And made forward erly for to ryse,
34: To take oure wey ther as I yow devyse.

Here begins the Book
of the Tales of Canterbury

1: When April with his showers sweet with fruit
2: The drought of March has pierced unto the root
3: And bathed each vein with liquor that has power
4: To generate therein and sire the flower;
5: When Zephyr also has, with his sweet breath,
6: Quickened again, in every holt and heath,
7: The tender shoots and buds, and the young sun
8: Into the Ram one half his course has run,
9: And many little birds make melody
10: That sleep through all the night with open eye
11: (So Nature pricks them on to ramp and rage)--
12: Then do folk long to go on pilgrimage,
13: And palmers to go seeking out strange strands,
14: To distant shrines well known in sundry lands.
15: And specially from every shire’s end
16: Of England they to Canterbury wend,
17: The holy blessed martyr there to seek
18: Who helped them when they lay so ill and weal
19: Befell that, in that season, on a day
20: In Southwark, at the Tabard, as I lay
21: Ready to start upon my pilgrimage
22: To Canterbury, full of devout homage,
23: There came at nightfall to that hostelry
24: Some nine and twenty in a company
25: Of sundry persons who had chanced to fall
26: In fellowship, and pilgrims were they all
27: That toward Canterbury town would ride.
28: The rooms and stables spacious were and wide,
29: And well we there were eased, and of the best.
30: And briefly, when the sun had gone to rest,
31: So had I spoken with them, every one,
32: That I was of their fellowship anon,
33: And made agreement that we’d early rise
34: To take the road, as you I will apprise.

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