Imatges de pàgina
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ACCOUNT OF THE SOURCES

OF THE

CANTERBURY TALES.

THE NINE GROUPS.

§ 1. The idea of joining together a series of Tales by means of fitting them into a common frame-work is a very old one, and doubtless originated in the East. There is an English collection of this character known as “The Seven Sages,’ of which various versions have come down to us. The earliest of these, as published in the second volume of Weber's Metrical Romances, has been dated about 1320 ; and is, at any rate, older than any of Chaucer's poems. Another collection, of a similar character, and likewise of Eastern origin, is a Latin work by Petrus Alphonsus, a converted Spanish Jew, entitled De Clericali Disciplina. See Dunlop's History of Fiction, chap. vii. From one of these Chaucer may have taken the general idea of arranging his tales in a connected series; and we must not forget that his Legend of Good Women, which was the immediate forerunner of his greater work, is likewise, practically, a collection of Tales, though sadly lacking in variety, as he discovered for himself in the course of writing it. It is highly improbable that he was indebted for the idea to Boccaccio's Decamerone, as has been sometimes hastily suggested; since we might, in that case, have expected that he would also have drawn from that collection the plot of some one of his tales; which is not found to be the case. The Clerk's Tale occurs, indeed, in the Decamerone; but we know it to have been borrowed from Petrarch's Latin version of it. The Franklin's Tale has some resemblance to another tale in the same collection, but was evidently not taken from it directly, and the same is true in other cases; so that we are quite justified in supposing that Chaucer was wholly unacquainted, at first hand, with Boccaccio's work. § 2. It was suggested by Professor Seeley that we may profitably compare the form of Chaucer's Prologue with that of the somewhat similar Prologue to William's Vision concerning Piers the Plowman, a work which was very popular in England just at the same time. William introduces us to a Vision, in which he first of all beholds a Field full of Folk, and describes, in succession, the various sets of folk of which the company consisted ; such as ploughmen, anchorites, hermits, chapmen, minstrels, beggars, pilgrims, palmers, friars, a pardoner, parish-priests, bishops, lawyers, and stewards. Chaucer seized upon the happy idea of limiting each class to a single individual, and the still happier idea of combining them into a company with a common object which allowed them to associate together on nearly equal terms. And having thus chosen his representative of each class, he employed his wonderful dramatic power in producing an exact description of each; so that, to quote the words of Dryden, “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.’ § 3. As to the date when this idea of forming a continuous series of tales was first entertained, we can hardly be wrong in dating it from 1386 or 1387 onwards. As it was left in an incomplete state, it was most likely in hand up to the time of his death, though he probably neglected it towards the last. The year 1385 is, almost certainly, the date of his Prologue to the Legend of Good Women, and of his first attempt to write in heroic couplets ". He was then full of the idea of writing a series of stories concerning ‘Good Women,” and himself tells us that he intended to write stories of nineteen Women, to be followed by the Legend of Alcestis ; but we find him suddenly desisting from his task without completing his ninth Legend, that of Hypermnestra.

* 1385 is also the date of the latest allusion in the Canterbury Tales; see note to B 3589.

For this we may reasonably assign two causes; he was probably already somewhat weary of his self-imposed task, and he also began to see his way to a still grander collection, on a larger scale. It is important to observe that Chaucer was, throughout life, haunted by great ideas; and especially, by the desire to leave behind him at least some one great work which would attract general attention. Thus it was that he attempted a translation of the huge French poem of Le Roman de La Rose, which he probably never finished, though we do not know how far he proceeded. He planned the poem of Troilus and Criseyde, which terminates rather suddenly, but not until it had extended to the great length of more than eight thousand lines. Next he planned the House of Fame, which was to be largely a work of imagination; but here once more he was dissatisfied, and abandoned it whilst still incomplete. Almost at once he took up the Legend of Good Women, with its Prologue and twenty stories, but again abandoned it for a larger scheme. It is also tolerably clear that the Monkes Tale originally took its rise from a similar desire to write a succession of lives of illustrious men; and that the first conception of this idea preceded that of the Canterbury Tales. We thus see our author constantly striving after the endeavour to produce some great original work; and the Canterbury Tales was, in fact, the result of the latest and greatest of these endeavours. To assign any exact date for the Man of Lawes Prologue, which mentions April 18, is difficult. Yet we must exclude 1389, when that day was Easter Sunday, a day unsuitable for travelling and telling tales; as well as 1390, when April 17 was Sunday, which would have prevented the pilgrims, at any rate, from making an early start (Prol. 822–5). The year 1391 is certainly too late; so that only 1386, 1387, and 1388 are left for consideration. But in 1386, Easter-day fell on April 22, and Good Friday on April 20 ; and we cannot suppose that the pilgrimage could have taken place in Passion-week, when the Parson and others would be much in request for the duties which the season imposed upon them. In 1387 and 1388, however, Easter fell early, and left the pilgrims free to take a holiday. In 1388, April 18 was a Saturday, so that the pilgrims must have travelled on Sunday, since they certainly stopped one night on the road at Ospringe, and probably also stopped elsewhere ; and surely, if Sunday travelling had been intended, something would have been said about the hearing of mass'. But in 1387, everything comes right; they assembled at the Tabard on Tuesday, April 16, and had four clear days before them. And when we consider how particular our author is as to dates, we shall do well to consider the probability that this result is correct. We should remember, at the same time, that this date is, for other reasons, more likely than any other. The fact that the Legend of Good Women, begun in 1385, terminates so suddenly, points to the inception of a still greater work, probably in 1386; and this leads up to 1387 as the date when the supposed times assigned to the various Tales were being arranged. And I still think that we ought to attach some significance to the fact (pointed out by me in 1868) that the year 1387 suits the scheme of days mentioned in the Knightes Tale. See note to A 1850, in vol. v. § 4. Chaucer tells us, in his Prologue, ll. 791-795, that it was his intention to make each of the pilgrims tell four tales, two on the way to Canterbury” and two on the return-journey. But so far from fulfilling his proposed plan, he did not even complete so much as a quarter of it, since the number of tales do not even suffice to go once round, much less four times. No pilgrim tells two stories, though the poet represents himself as being interrupted in his Rime of Sir Thopas, and telling the tale of Melibeus in its stead ; and we have no story from the Yeoman, the Haberdasher, the Carpenter, the Weaver, the Dyer, the Tapiser, or the Ploughman *. The series being thus incomplete, it only remains to investigate to what degree of completeness the author succeeded in attaining. § 5. It is easy to see that Chaucer may have had a good deal of material in hand before the idea of writing a connected series of tales occurred to him. The Prologue, answering somewhat to a preface, is one of his very latest works, and in his best manner; and before writing it, he had in some measure arranged a part of

* King John of France travelled from Canterbury to Dover (16 miles) on Sunday, July 5, 1360; but he heard mass in the cathedral before starting.— Temporary Pref. to the Six-text Edition, p. 131.

* Tyrwhitt says “at least one Tale'; but see Prol. 792. The fact is that Chaucer himself tacitly modified his plan afterwards, and altered the two tales to one; see the Parson's Prologue, I 16–29.

* Warton wrongly adds, or the Host. But the Host was the umpire, not a tale-teller himself.

his materials. His design was to make a collection of tales which he had previously written, to write more new tales to go with these, and to unite them all into a series by means of connecting links", which should account for the change from one narrator to the next in order. In doing this, he did not work continuously, but inserted the connecting links as they occurred to him, being probably well aware that this was the best way of avoiding an appearance of artificiality. The result is that some links are perfectly supplied, and others not written at all, thus affording a series of fragments or Groups, complete in themselves, but having gaps between them. A full account of these Groups, showing which tales are inseparably linked together, and which are not joined at all, is given in Dr. Furnivall's Temporary Preface to the Six-text Edition of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, published for the Chaucer Society in 1868. The resulting Groups are mine. Between these are distinct gaps, and it is by no means clear that the order of the Groups relatively to each other was finally determined upon. This relative order is, however, settled to some extent by occasional references to places passed on the road, and to times of the day. We are also perfectly certain that the Knight was to tell the first tale, and the Parson the last of the whole or partial series, thus leaving us only seven Groups to arrange. Another question at once arises, however, which must be settled before we can proceed, viz. whether the pilgrimage was intended to be performed all in one day, or in two, or three, or more. Any one who knows what travelling was in the olden time must be well aware that the notion of performing the whole distance in one day is out of the question, especially as the pilgrims were out more for a holiday than for business, that some of them were but poorly mounted (Prol. 287,541), and some of them but poor riders (Prol. 390, 469, 622) *. In fact, such

* The term “link,’ and such terms as ‘head-link,’ ‘end-link,' and the like, are to be found in the Six-text edition published by the Chaucer Society, whence I have copied them.

* In 1749, the coach from Edinburgh to Glasgow, forty-four miles, took two days for the journey. Twenty miles a day was fast. We may allow the pilgrims about fifteen miles a day. See Chambers' Book of Days, ii. 228. Once more, it is absurd to suppose Chaucer capable of proposing to crowd about sixty tales or so into a single day! A day of ten hours would, with interruptions, leave each speaker less than ten minutes apiece. See also Temporary Pref. to the Six-text, p. 119, shewing that Queen Isabella, in 1358, arrived at Canterbury from London in three or four days; stopping at Dartford, Rochester, and Ospringe. From the same, p. 129, we find that King John of

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