Friday, January 15, 2010

Geoffrey Chaucer

The poetry reading I’ve been doing lately is different from my usual dips in short-to-medium-length poems. No, I’ve been cozying up to my old friend Chaucer.

I’m not here to scold you for your failure to plow through all of the Canterbury Tales in un-annotated Middle English. I’m not even going to scold you if you failed to make it through the General Prologue in your freshman-year survey of English lit course. Rather, I’d like to encourage you that Chaucer is more entertaining and rewarding than he might initially seem.

I did major in English, so you can take my opinion with a little grain of salt, but reading him in Middle English is not so hard as you might think if you have a good edition with sufficient explanatory notes. As per usual, I favor The Norton Critical Edition. It doesn't contain the complete tales, but honestly: are you likely to go beyond the “greatest hits” any time soon?

I understand that there are plenty of “translations” of Chaucer into contemporary English out there, but it seems perverse to read them when the original is really – I swear – not beyond your powers of comprehension. You’re unlikely to want to cozy up to all of the tales at a go, but I find that dipping into the tales is soothing and fosters the sort of sustained, engaged concentration that I both cherish and find difficult to cultivate in my media-saturated life.

This is a little snipped from the General Prologue, which sets the scene for the tales and establishes the temperaments and foibles of the narrators. Chaucer was one of those authors capable of creating speakers who are venal or despicable without denuding them of appeal. Some of the “worst” characters get the most entertaining, most-read sections (cf. the Miller’s Tale or the Tale of the Wife of Bath’s Prologue).

I pulled this excerpt from this web page, which uses (mostly) contemporary spelling but otherwise keeps Chaucer’s language intact. The internet contains so many wonders!

This is Chaucer’s description of the Clerk, which is sort of the medieval equivalent of a doctoral student or scholar. I love academics, and I have a strong sense Chaucer shared my bias. This is one of the least snarky character sketches and perhaps not the most colorful choice, but it shows that Chaucer was capable of fondness as well as satire.  I haven't included the liner notes from the web page, so don't despair if you find this a bit opaque -- as discussed, most Middle English editions will have notes adjacent the text to help you work out the mystifying bits.

A CLERK there was of Oxenford also
That unto logic hadd long y-go.
As lean was his horse as is a rake,
And he was not right fat, I undertake,
But lookd hollow, and thereto soberly.
Full threadbare was his overest courtepy,
For he had gotten him yet no benefice
Nor was so worldly for to have office,
For him was lever have at his bed's head
Twenty books clad in black or red
Of Aristotle and his philosophy
Than robs rich or fiddle or gay psalt'ry.
But albeit that he was a philosopher,
Yet hadd he but little gold in coffer,
But all that he might of his friends hent
On books and on learning he it spent,
And busily gan for the souls pray
Of them that gave him wherewith to scholay.
Of study took he most care and most heed.
Not one word spoke he more than was need,
And that was spoke in form and reverence,
And short and quick and full of high senténce.
Sounding in moral virtue was his speech,
And gladly would he learn and gladly teach.

Chaucer on Wikipedia

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