The barrier of obsolete speech is the occasion and the apology for this rendering of the Canterbury Tales in English easily intelligible to-day. Whether this barrier be real, or but generally assumed, matters little, for the assumption itself is obstructive and tends equally to the resultant fact, that—in spite of the immensely widened interest in Chaucer and the diffused knowledge of his works due to labours of profound scholarship in the last fifty years—a very large proportion of the educated public still receives its impressions of the poet at second hand, from literary hearsay, or the epitomising essays of critics.
To present, therefore, a representative portion of Chaucer’s unfinished masterpiece in such form as shall best preserve for a modern reader the substance and style of the original, is the chief aim of this book. When the publishers asked me to carry out this object, the nature of the appropriate form presented itself for solution. As modernisation, the undertaking is not new. At various epochs, and with varying scope of design, poets such as Dryden, Pope, Leigh Hunt, Elizabeth Barrett, Wordsworth, have contrived metrical versions of the Canterbury Tales in the literary forms of their own day. Lesser poets and writers of the past two centuries have executed the like. Their versions possess in common the aim of substituting modern English verse for Chaucer’s, often as an alleged latter-day improvement. All, as Professor Lounsbury has shown, “had a direct tendency at the time to divert men from the study of the original.” The present rendering, therefore, which is rather a modified form than a modernisation of Chaucer’s tales, is believed to differ from all the aforesaid versions in method and, largely, in motive. For the form adopted is prose; it preserves, as closely as possible, the very words of Chaucer and his characteristic constructions; it aims by faithful accuracy to present a text which shall be efficient in promoting the study of the original. In working principle, it has taken advice from the poet himself in his Prologue:
“For this ye knowen al-so wel as I,
Who-so shal telle a tale after a man,
He moot reherce, as ny as ever he can,
Everich a word, if it be in his charge,
Al speke he never so rudeliche and large;
Or elles he moot telle his tale untrewe,
Or feyne thing, or finde wordes newe.”
Briefly, then, the method followed has been to present, so far as possible, Chaucer’s ipsissime verba; to err rather in the direction of literal fidelity than literary license. No archaisms, however, have been retained which are not fairly intelligible. The necessary changes which have been made are: first, omissions on the score of propriety, of intelligibility (as when a long paraphrase would have been required for a trivial matter), and (very seldom) of redundancy; secondly, rare and slight rearrangements for the sake of clearness; thirdly, translation and paraphrase required by clearness and the necessities of prose-style. Proper names have been altered to their classical or modern forms only in the case of historical characters or places fairly familiar to-day. The text of Professor Skeat has been followed almost always and his notes very largely.
The number of tales selected is the result of the particular scope of this volume, which, as I have said, seeks only to present a representative part of the Canterbury Tales. The choice of the tales has been further limited by the expediency of selecting from among those which are neither too broad (as the Summoner’s), nor too prolix (as the Parson’s). To the ten tales chosen have been added those prologues, epilogues, and links which directly pertain to them in the Chaucerian design. The Squire’s Tale, though unfinished, has been included for the sake not only of its own romantic charm, but of that familiar citation of its author by which Milton has immortalised its very incompleteness, and taught us of the after-time still to
“Call up him that left half-told
The story of Cambuscan bold.”
There remains for me to express—what I should have preferred to signify, in other wise, on the title-page—my grateful acknowledgment of the vital assistance given to this book by Dr. John S. P. Tatlock of the University of Michigan. He has read all the text in manuscript, or proof, and in very few instances have I dissented from his emendations. The insight and supervision of his thorough scholarship have been of the utmost benefit to this undertaking.
Cornish, New Hampshire,
- August, 1904.