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The impression left on my mind by the perusal of the two forms of the Prologue is that Chaucer made immediate use of the comparative liberty accorded to him on the 17th of February, 1385, to plan a new poem, in an entirely new metre, and in the new form of a succession of tales. He decided, further, that the tales should relate to women famous in love-stories, and began by writing the tale of Cleopatra, which is specially mentioned in B. 566 (and A. 542)! The idea then occurred to him of writing a preface or Prologue, which would afford him the double opportunity of justifying and explaining his design, and of expressing his gratitude for his attainment of greater leisure. Having done this, he was not wholly satisfied with it; he thought the expression of gratitude did not come out with sufficient clearness, at least with regard to the person to whom he owed the greatest debt. So he at once set about to amend and alter it ; the first draught, of which he had no reason to be ashamed, being at the same time preserved. And we may be sure that the revision was made almost immediately; he was not the man to take up a piece of work again after the first excitement of it had passed away? On the contrary, he used to form larger plans than he could well execute, and leave them unfinished when he grew tired of them. I therefore propose to assign the conjectural date of the spring of 1385 to both forms of the Prologue; and I suppose that Chaucer went on with one tale of the series after another during the summer and latter part of the same year till he grew tired of the task, and at last gave it up in the middle of a sentence. An expression of doubt as to the completion of the task already appears in l. 2457.
§ 3. COMPARISON OF THE TWO FORMS OF THE PROLOGUE. A detailed comparison of the two forms of the Prologue would extend to a great length. I merely point out some of the more remarkable variations.
The first distinct note of difference that calls for notice is at line A. 89 (B. 108), p. 72, where the line
• When passed was almost the month of May'
1 I think lines 568, 569 (added in B.) are meant to refer directly to Il. 703, 704.
· The Knightes Tale is a clear exception. The original Palamon and Arcite was too good to be wholly lost; but it was entirely recast in a new metre, and so became quite a new work.
is altered to
• And this was now the firste morwe of May.'
This is clearly done for the sake of greater definiteness, and because of the association of the ist of May with certain national customs expressive of rejoicing. It is emphasized by the statements in B. 114 as to the exact position of the sun (see note to the line). In like manner the vague expression about 'the Ioly tyme of May'in A. 36 is exchanged for the more exact--whan that the month of May Is comen'; B. 36. In the B-text, the date is definitely fixed ; in ll. 36-63 we learn what he usually did on the recurrence of the May-season ; in Il. 103-124, we have his (supposed) actual rising at the dawn of May-day; then the manner in which he spent that day (Il. 179-185); and lastly, the arrival of night, his return home, his falling asleep, and his dream (11. 197-210). He awakes on the morning of May 2, and sets to work at once (1l. 578, 579).
Another notable variation is on p. 71. On arriving at line A. 70, he puts aside A. 71-80 for the present, to be introduced later on (p. 77); and writes the new and important passage contained in B. 83-96 (p. 71). The lady whom he here addresses as being his very light,' one whom his heart dreads, whom he obeys as a harp obeys the hand of the player, who is his guide, his lady sovereign,' and his earthly god,' cannot be mistaken. The reference is obviously to his sovereign lady the queen; and the expression earthly god' is made clear by the declaration in B. 387) that kings are as demi-gods in this present world.
In A., the Proem or true Introduction ends at l. 88, and is more marked than in B., wherein it ends at l. 102.
The passage in A. contained in 11. 127-138 (pp. 75, 76) is corrupt and imperfect in the MS. The sole existing copy of it was evidently made from a MS. that had been more or less defaced; I have had to restore it as I best could. The B-text has here been altered and revised, though the variations are neither extensive nor important; but the passage is immediately followed by about 30 new lines, in which Mercy is said to be a greater power than Right, or strict Justice, especially when Right is overcome through innocence and ruled curtesye’; the application of which expression is obvious.
In B. 183-187 we have the etymology of daisy, the declaration
that she is the empress of flowers, and a prayer for her prosperity, i. e. for the prosperity of the queen.
In A. 103 (p. 73), the poet falls asleep and dreams. In his dream, he sees a lark (A. 141, p. 79) who introduces the God of Love. In the B-text, the dream is postponed till B. 210 (p. 79), and the lark is left out, as being unnecessary. This is a clear improvement.
An important change is made in the ‘Balade' at pp. 83, 84. The refrain is altered from ‘Alceste is here' to 'My lady cometh.' The reason is twofold. The poet wishes to suppress the name of Alcestis for the present, in order to introduce it as a surprise towards the end (B. 518)'; and secondly, the words 'My lady cometh'are used as being directly applicable to the queen, instead of being only applicable through the medium of allegory. Indeed, Chaucer takes good care to say so; for he inserts a passage to that effect (B. 271-5); where we may remember, by the way, that free means 'bounteous' in Middle-English. We have a few additional lines of the same sort in B. 296–299.
On the other hand, Chaucer suppressed the long and interesting passage in A. 258–264, 267–287, 289-312, for no very obvious reason, But for the existence of MS. C., it would have been wholly lost to us, and the recovery of it is a clear gain, Most interesting of all is the allusion to Chaucer's sixty books of his own, all full of love-stories and personages known to history, in for every
bad woman, mention was duly made of a hundred good ones (A. 273-277, p. 88) Important also is his mention of some of his authors, such as Valerius, Livy, Claudian, Jerome, Ovid, and Vincent of Beauvais.
If, as we have seen, Alcestis in this Prologue really meant the queen, it should follow that the God of Love really meant the king. This is made clear in B. 373-408, especially in the comparison between a just king (such as Richard, of course) and the tyrants of Lombardy. In fact, in A. 360–364, Chaucer said
It is amusing to see that Chaucer forgot, at the same time, to alter A. 422 (=B. 432), in which Alcestis actually tells her name. The oversight is obvious.
· Line A. 277 reappears in the Canterbury Tales in the improved form• And ever a thousand gode ageyn oon badde.' This is the 47th line in the Milleres Prologue, but is omitted in Tyrwhitt's edition, together with the line that follows it.
a little too much about the duty of a king to hear the complaints and petitions of the people, and he very wisely omitted it in revision. In A. 355, he used the unlucky word 'wilfulhed’as an attribute of a Lombard tyrant; but as it was not wholly inapplicable to the king of England, he quietly suppressed it. the comparison of the king to a lion, and of himself to a fly, was in excellent taste; so no alteration was needed here (p. 94).
In his enumeration of his former works (B. 417-430), he left out one work which he had previously mentioned (A. 414, 415, p. 96). This work is now lost', and was probably omitted as being a mere translation, and of no great account. Perhaps the poet's good sense told him that the original was a miserable production, as it must certainly be allowed to be, if we employ the word miserable with its literal meaning (see p. 307).
At pp. 103, 104, some lines are altered in A. (527-532) in order to get rid of the name of Alcestis here, and to bring in a more immediate reference to the Balade. Line B. 540 is especiall curious, because he had not, in the first instance, forgotten to put her in his Balade (see A. 209); but he now wished to seem to have done so.
In B. 552-565, we have an interesting addition, in which Love charges him to put all the nineteen ladies, besides Alcestis, into his Legend; and tells him that he may choose his own metre (B. 562). Again, in B. 568-577, he practically stipulates that he is only to tell the more interesting part of each story, and to leave out whatever he should deem to be tedious. This proviso was eminently practical and judicious.
§ 4. THE SUBJECT OF THE LEGEND. We learn, from B. 241, 283, that Chaucer saw in his vision Alcestis and nineteen other ladies, and from B. 557, that he was to commemorate them all in his Legend, beginning with Cleopatra (566) and ending with Alcestis (549, 550). As to the names of the nineteen, they are to be found in his Balade (555).
Upon turning to the Balade (p. 83), the names actually mentioned include some which are hardly admissible. For example, Absalom and Jonathan are names of men; Esther is hardly
I.e. with the exception of the stanzas which were transferred from that work to the Man of Lawes Prologue and Tale; see the “Account of the Sources,' &c. p. 407, and the last note on p. 307 of the present volume.
a suitable subject, whilst Ysoult belongs to a romance of medieval times. (Cf. A. 275, p. 88.) The resulting practicable list is thus reduced to the following, viz. Penelope, Marcia, Helen, Lavinia, Lucretia, Polyxena, Cleopatra, Thisbe, Hero, Dido, Laodamia, Phyllis, Canace, Hypsipyle, Hypermnestra, and Ariadne. At the same time, we find legends of Medea and Philomela, though neither of these are mentioned in the Balade. It is of course intended that the Balade should give a representative list only, without being exactly accurate.
But we are next confronted by a most extraordinary piece of evidence, viz. that of Chaucer himself, when, at a later period, he wrote the Introduction to the Man of Lawes Prologue (see vol. iv. p. 131). He there expressly refers to his Legend of Good Women, which he is pleased to call the Seintes Legende of Cupide,' i. e. the Legend of Cupid's Saints. And, in describing this former work of his, he introduces the following lines :
'Ther may be seen the large woundes wyde
Of thilke wikke example of Canacee'; &c. We can only suppose that he is referring to the contents of his work in quite general terms, with a passing reference to his vision of Alcestis and the nineteen ladies, and to those mentioned in his Balade. There is no reason for supposing that he ever wrote complete tales about Deianira, Hermione, Hero, Helen, Briseis, Laodamia, or Penelope, any more than he did about Alcestis. But it is highly probable that, just at the period of writing his Introduction to the Man of Lawes Prologue, he was seriously intending to take up again his 'Legend,' and was planning how to continue it. But he never did it.