The Glasgow Review Issue 3

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Chaucer from The Anthology of Prefaces

Alasdair Gray

This extract from The Anthology of Prefaces is a marginal commentary to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, which follows the Prologue to Piers Ploughman and precedes the one to Wyclif's vernacular Bible. Written in 1990 it is not yet in its final form. the author has signed a contract which he hopes will enable him to finish the anthology in 1998.

A writer's character (or unique way of putting things) is known by sound, sentence and breath pattern, sometimes called accent, grammar and rhythm. These three are bonded in every voice like Father, Son and Holy Ghost in an old formula for God, like oxygen, nitrogen and carbon dioxide in a chemical formula for air. Langland's urgent, percussive speech has the sound/sentences/rhythm of a strong lean man holding Christian truth tight with one hand and a world that defies it with the other. In the old Anglo-Saxon way he rhymes letters at the start of words, and as these are mostly consonants his accent is sharp, throaty and close to lowland Scots.

But Chaucer's voice is more southern as well as more northern than the British queen's accent today. He uses the speech of a court which spoke French as readily as English, and worshipped God in Latin services chanted with Italian accents - over 400 years of close dealing between the churches of Rome and Britain ensured that. On the left pages I try to suggest Chaucer's singing lilt by signs over vowels we now neglect. I suggest the northern sharpness by putting ch for the neglected gh, as most of us can read how it used to sound at the end of loch and Bach. All translations hint at the original by a more or less cranky blending of sense and sound. The crankiness of my version should turn you to the original quite quickly.

Chaucer's first sentence is a whole verse of nine rhymed couplets. Their rhythm is not the jog- trot of the Mandeville rhymer's couplets, not the martial stride of Barbour's. Chaucer's lines are nearly as long as the lines of the Gawain poet and Langland, so like them each line holds two well balanced phrases. In a long rhyming couplet the second line usually sounds so final that Shakespeare only used such couplets singly, to conclude his sonnets and play scenes. Poets in the Age of Reason (1689-1789) liked sounding conclusive, so wrote big poems of long couplets that mostly sound monotonous now. But Chaucer's rhymes aid, not interrupt, a varied and sparkling speech through an eighteen-line sentence that never runs out of breath or sense, though it takes us far into a social spring holiday in Chaucer's modern England. Chaucer seems to do it easily because his rhythm rides mainly on buoyant vowels inside his lines.

The describing voice of the first verse arrives bodily in the second among some folk in a south London inn. He seems a modest likeable man - a good inquirer and listener. He says nothing about himself but is soon so friendly with twenty-nine strangers that he can tell us all about them, their trades, looks, clothes and natures. The party contains folk from every class in England around 1380 except royalty and landless labourers. Said Dryden of Chaucer in 1700: 'He has taken into the Compass of his Canterbury Tales the various Manners and Humours (as we now call them) of the whole English Nation, in his Age. Not a single character has escap'd him.'

Blake, in 1809, went further: 'The characters of Chaucer's Pilgrims are the characters which compose all ages and nations _ for we see the same characters repeated again and again, in animals, vegetables, minerals, and in men _ As Newton numbered the stars, and Linnaeus numbered the plants, so Chaucer numbered the classes of men.'

Chaucer depicts folk with a relish suggesting his world is good, that (quoting Dryden again) 'Here is God's plenty.' The Tales, like Piers Plowman, first show us the country in a lovely season and then, through the person of the poet, show the human state of England. At first sight the Englands of Chaucer and Langland differ as much as their accents. Langland deals with folk in mobs: his priests, ploughmen, nobles etc. jostle, toil, dispute in field, court and highway. Chaucer approaches them politely, one at a time. They are on holiday, at ease, ready to talk about themselves to friendly, admiring Mr Chaucer who passes the news straight to us.

The knight (for example) explains that he loves chivalry, truth, freedom etc. and has been fighting abroad in wars arranged by his feudal overlord. Nobody has gone further than he in warfare, none of his rank have won more honour by it. He has fought with Christians against Christians, with Christians against heathens, for a heathen against heathens; he has been in fifteen battles and three tournaments, has always killed his enemy, has always been well paid for it or won rich booty, for though a bonny fighter he's a wise man too, with manners as meek as a young girl's. He's never said a bad word to any one in his life. A perfect gentleman!

There is mischief here, the kind of mischief we meet later when Chaucer presents a great chef who confects tasty sweets and soups, is a master of roasting, stewing, baking, has a wet ulcer on his knee and makes excellent blancmange. Chaucer's admiration can plant a sting as deep as Langland's open satire, a sting so fine that readers miss it. James Winny, in a fine modern essay on this prologue, says the knight (with the poor parson and ploughman) is one of the three ideally good people among the pilgrims. None have read this prologue more closely than William Blake who wrote: 'The Knight is a true Hero, a good, great, and wise man; his whole length portrait on horseback, as written by Chaucer, cannot be surpassed. He has spent his life in the field; has ever been a conqueror, and is that species of character which in every age stands as the guardian of man against the oppressor.'

I think this seems more like Sir Galahad than an absentee landowner enriched by killing foreigners. The poem does not say the knight guarded men against oppressors, only that he fought in his lordes warres, and at least one of the wars mentioned - the raid on Latvia - was a homicidal attack on civilian people because they were not Christians. I think that, even as a fighter, Chaucer's knight sounds too good to be true. Can he have boasted a little to guileless, admiring Mr Chaucer? Maybe not. Like the pirate chief in Don Juan he may indeed be the mildest mannered man / That ever cut a throat or scuttled ship. Whether we like or suspect or detest this officer and gent, Blake is right to see him as a type who has lived, will perhaps live as long as mankind. Chaucer, using a form of himself as bait, has caught the type alive. Langland and Dante, Proust and James Joyce, put sharp self-portraits into their books to let us see and hear them openly shift the action. Chaucer's self-portrait is a mild social surface, a nearly static detail of scenery behind which someone else runs the show. The voice of this ventriloquist sounds everywhere. Blake and I can't agree where he stands. Who WAS Chaucer? Legal records show:

He was born to a dynasty of London wine merchants circa 1342 when ENGLISH ROYALTY SEEK LOYAL LADS FROM PROFESSIONAL CLASS TO GATHER REVENUE, KEEP ACCOUNTS ETC. NO CLERGY NEED APPLY. (For nearly 200 years church and state, king and pope, have disagreed about power and revenue. Ask Thomas à Becket.)

Between 1357 and his death in 1400 Chaucer was:

Page to royal princess.
Soldier in France. (Captured by enemy. Ransom paid by King Edward.)
Valet of the King's Household.
Diplomat in Genoa, Pisa, Florence.
Controller of the port of London.
Secret agent in Flanders.
Diplomat in France. (Negotiated peace treaty.)
Controller of wool and customs, London.
Member of Parliament for Kent.
Clerk of works. (Saw to repairing Thames embankment, bridges, sewers, Tower of London, various royal palaces.)
Head keeper of royal forest.

So Chaucer lived in the middle of state business, not at the dangerous top or hard-pressed foot. True, his wife's sister married John of Gaunt, the cat of the court who toyed with the bourgeois mice in Langland's poem. Gaunt ruled nearly all England when King Edward went senile. But Chaucer's sister-in-law was not great gentry, had been nurse of Gaunt's children by two earlier wives - the second died of plague. Chaucer got pensions from King Edward, King Richard and King Henry, though Henry (Gaunt's son deposed Richard and had him murdered. This civil servant whose career can be followed in royal account books fits the self-portrait in the Tales: an agreeable listener who only knows what others tell him. This is the safest surface if you work for autocrats.

But Chaucer was about forty-five when he began the Tales, and polite society already knew him as the best reader, understander, and MAKER of Britain's reborn English literature. He had read his poems aloud before royalty. The rich had ordered copies of them. In a little poem to Adam, his secretary, he hoped the screever got a scabby head if Chaucer had to scratch out more mistakes in copies of his Boethius and Troilus. Comical! He puts a grimmer self-portrait into prefaces of his earlier work. The earliest we can date, written eight years after his wedding, said that for eight years he had cared for nothing, felt for nothing, had had no appetite; the only one (who he could not mention) was able to cure him; that fantasies and sorwful imagynaciouns so filled his head that he dreaded death from lack of sleep, and soothed insomnia by reading. Poets who declared themselves disappointed lovers had been a convention since the French troubadours three centuries earlier, but a good poet only uses a convention because of its truth. Chaucer's account of his mental illness is as genuine as Coleridge's ode Dejection, and terser. It introduced an allegorical dream poem sorrowing for the death of John of Gaunt's second wife. In a later preface he said that he shut his accounts book at the end of the day's work and hurried home to sit dumb as a stone over another book, setting his wits to turn other writers' love stories into poems and songs until his head was fuddled, his looks dazed. Elsewhere he said that in dede he was no lover, but love used him as her secretary, as he had written (in English) the great romances she caused. In at least four allegorical poems using stories and images from Italian, French and classical romance, he had described himself as a bookworm using other folk's ideas. He had decanted into English speech:

DE CONSOLATIONE PHILOSOPHIAE The author of this was Boethius, a rich Roman senator jailed in 523 on a charge of plotting to restore Italian liberties. Before being executed he applied the thoughts of Plato, Seneca, and the Christian church to his miseries in a work of closely reasoned imagination. For at least a thousand years this Latin classic was the best known book of philosophy in the Christian West, and in some countries the only one. King Alfred translated it into the English of his day, so did Chaucer.

ROMAN DE LA ROSE In polite intellectual circles this was the most famous French poem for over two centuries. The first half described a loved woman religiously, as a private garden which ennobled the man who humbly, politely, sought to pluck her innermost rose. The writer, de Loris, died before showing how the rose got plucked, and the poem was completed by de Meun, a cynical free-thinker with scientific tastes. The whole work thus summed up nearly all that could be said about sexual love.

FILOSTRATO This Italian love story, realistic and modern, though set in the Trojan War, was written by Boccaccio, Chaucer's contemporary. In translating it, Chaucer's creative imagination enlarged and deepened the characters and story till it became Troilus and Criseyde, the first psychological novel in the English tongue. By this time Chaucer was at the height of his powers, but all his other work had been CONVENTIONAL: the feelings of polite, rich people shown through allegorical visions. Yet this author with the huge appetite for other men's work had been soldier, merchant and judge, knew all the powerful people in London and many on the Continent, made money by collecting the King's debts, got beaten and robbed when carrying the King's money, dealt personally with ship's captains and common workmen, was once released by a lady from a charge of raptu, which means either physical rape or kidnapping. He must have known Wyclif, who John of Gaunt also patronized. He certainly knew 'The Lollard Knights' who upheld Wyclif's plans to reform the church. He lived through the Peasants' Revolt which the Lollards were accused of starting. What a lot Chaucer knew which could not be used in his polite allegories! And while he was writing them the earliest versions of Piers Plowman were circulating in a London whose population was less than that of modern Paisley, whose reading public (if we include those who listened to work read aloud) was maybe a third of that. Of course Chaucer knew Langland's work - though I cannot prove it.

In Chaucer's Europe the greatest modern book was Dante's poem which contains all Christian Europe then knew of classical scholarship, hell, purgatory, heaven, and the people and politics of the Italian states. He called it The Divine Comedy. Six centuries later Balzac wrote The Human Comedy, a vast novel about France which is less spiritually lofty, but wonderfully broad. Dante and Balzac had encyclopaedic minds which wanted to put everything they knew into a single work. So had Chaucer, though I think he was middle-aged before he saw how to do it, and Langland showed him the way. The Human Comedy would be a very good name for The Canterbury Tales. Before he conceived the plan of it, Chaucer had freely translated stories from French and Italian which he wanted to put in one book. Boccaccio had made a book out of several stories in The Decameron. An old way of linking a lot of separate stories is to put them into the mouth of an imaginary teller - see The Arabian Nights. In The Decameron Boccaccio put a number of tales into the mouths of some rich people, entertaining each other in a pleasant place while hiding from the plague. To say Decameron + Piers Plowman = Canterbury Tales is too simple. To conceive of putting all the good stories he knew, of every sort, into the mouths of nearly all the kinds of people he knew in England, was a wholly new act of the imagination, but Langland helped him make it. All the people in Langland's crowded prologue appear in this one, but singly and in close-up, and SPEAKING to us. There are 24 stories in the Tales. Chaucer meant at the start to give 116. He brought it out in popular instalments. And Chaucer puts himself in the poem, but incognito. The other travellers do not know he is the famous writer, for the lawyer shortly before telling one of Boccaccio's stories says it is impossible now to tell a story that Chaucer has not put into some book or other.

I have harped on what Chaucer and Langland have in common, and the last is a sad one. Langland's poem is as concerned with the state of his soul as the state of his country. The last episode of The Canterbury Tales was written by one who knew he would be writing no more. It is spoken by the poor parson who says he is unable to talk in rhyme but will tell a myrie tale in prose, and his merry tale turns out to be a detailed sermon on Christian doctrine, after which Chaucer, speaking for himself, asks the reader to pray God to forgive him his guilts for everything he has written, except the Boethius Consolations and some Lives of the Saints.