Was never eye did see that face,
Was never ear did hear that tongue,
Was never mind did mind his grace,
That ever thought the travail long;
But eyes and ears and every thought
Were with his sweet perfections caught.

(From Lowell’s Essay.)

This preface and this book are not meant for the scholar who reads his Middle English with ease, nor again for the student who wishes to delve into the grammar and the syntax of fourteenth-century English. Rather are they meant for those many people who have not read, who say they cannot read, Chaucer.

For, let writers deny it as they will, to the modern Englishman, and still more to the modern Englishwoman, Chaucer is a sealed book. A few lines here and there are clear enough—but then the reader is pulled up sharp and has to refer to notes and glossary; and the man who sets out for enjoyment, will not for long turn aside to notes and glossary, however well they may be supplied. If it were not so, if this contention were not true, Professor Skeat would not have thought it necessary to publish a modern version of the beautiful Knightes Tale.

The understanding of Chaucer and the love of him (the two go together) are not very old. Neither Addison nor Pope could appreciate him, and it is well known into what Dryden turned the tales. But attempts have been made to bring Chaucer nearer to the people. Charles Cowden Clarke “purified” him; others modernised his spelling; others again so altered him in modernising him that the poet was unrecognisable. Not one of these versions has succeeded. It is a bold thing to hope to prosper where so many have failed; but the present editor is bound to explain—and to defend—his method.

To begin with, certain tales, seven out of the twenty-four, have been left untouched. They are so broad, so plain-spoken, that no amount of editing or alteration will make them suitable for the twentieth century. To these my preface makes no further reference. But in regard to the other seventeen, I may say that, first, the spelling has been slightly modernised, modernised just enough to leave its quaintness and take away some of its difficulty. To take a well-known passage and compare the ordinary version with the present version:—

Ther saugh I first the derke imagining
Of felonye and al the compassyng;
The cruel ire reed as any glede;
The pykepurs and eek the pale drede;
The smyler with the knyf under the cloke;
The shepne brenning with the blake smoke;
The treson of the mordring in the bedde;
The open werre with woundes al bibledde;
Contek with blody knyf and sharp manace

Al ful of chirking was that sory place.
Ther saw I first the dark imaginyng
Of felony, and al the compassyng;
The cruel wrath, as eny furnace red;
The pickepurs, and eke the pale Dread;
The smyler with the knyf under his cloke;
The stables burnyng with the blake smoke
The treson of the murtheryng in the bed;
The open warres, with woundes al y-bled:
Conflict with bloody knyf, and sharp menace.
Al ful of shriekyng was that sory place.

Again, difficulties of vocabulary have been treated in the same way. There is no pretence that this version is the Chaucer of the scholar, or the Chaucer of any recognised text; and I give an instance as before, comparing the ordinary version with that printed in this volume:—

The sleere of him-self yet saugh I ther
His herte-blood hath bathed al his heer
The nayl y-driven in the shode a-night;
The colde deeth with mouth gaping upright.
Amiddes of the temple sat meschaunce
With discomfort and sory contenaunce
Yet saugh I woodnesse laughing in his rage
Armed complaint, out-hees, and fiers outrage
The careyne in the bush with throte y-corve
A thousand slayn and nat of qualm y-storve;
The tiraunt with the prey by force y-raft
The toune destroyed ther was nothing laft.
Yet saugh I brent the shippes hoppesteres;
The hunte strangled with the wilde beres;
The sowe freten the child right in the cradel
The cook y-scalded for al his longe ladel
Noght was foryeten by th’ infortune of Marte:
The carter over-riden with his carte
Under the wheel ful lowe he lay adoun.
The slayer of himself yet saw I ther,
His herte-blood hath bathèd al his hair;
The nayl y-dryven in the skull at nyght;
The colde deth, with mouth gapyng upright.
In midst of al the temple sat meschaunce,
With sory comfort and evil countynaunce.
Ther I saw madness

  By PanEris using Melati.

  Back Home Email this Search Discuss Bookmark Next chapter/page
Copyright: All texts on Bibliomania are © Ltd, and may not be reproduced in any form without our written permission. See our FAQ for more details.