THE CANTERBURY TALES: THE PROLOGUE
This is a modern version of the General Prologue. It is the opening of the poem. It is written in couplets, that is two successive rhymed lines of verse equal on length. We may divide it into two parts: from line 1 to line 18 and from line 19 to the end.
1-When in April the sweet showers fall
And pierce the drought of March to the root, and all
The veins are bathed in liquor of such power
As brings about the engendering of the flower,
5-When also Zephyrus with his sweet breath
Exhales an air in every grove and heath
Upon the tender shoots, and the young sun
His half-course in the sign of the Ram has run,
And the small fowl are making melody
10-That sleep away the night with the open eye
(So nature pricks them and their earth engages)
Then people long to go on pilgrimages
And palmers long to seek the strangers strands
Of far-off saints, hallowed in sundry lands,
15-And specially, from every shire’s end
Of England, down to Canterbury they wend
To seek the holy blissful martyr, quick
To give his help to them when they were sick.
It happened in that season that one day
20-In Southwark, at The Tabard, as I lay
Ready to go on pilgrimage and start
For Canterbury, most devout at earth,
At night there come into that hostelry
Some nine and twenty in a company
25-Of sundry folk happening then to fall
In fellowship, and they were pilgrims all
That towards Canterbury meant to ride.
The rooms and stables of the inn were wide;
They made us easy, all was of the best.
30-And, briefly, when the sun had gone to rest,
I’d spoken to them all upon the trip
And was soon one with them in fellowship,
Pledged to rise early and to take the way
To Canterbury, as you heard me say.
35-But none the less, while I have time and space,
Before my story takes a further pace,
It seems a reasonable thing to say
What their condition was, the fool array
Of each of them, as it appeared to me,
40-According to profession and degree,
And what apparel they were riding in;
And at a Knight I therefore will begin
The first part is a single long paragraph divided into two sub-paragraphs by the conjunction when: “When in April…..When also Zephyrus ….. Then people long to go on pilgrimage”. From line 1 to line 11, Chaucer describes the time of the year when the Pilgrimage takes place: an April day in spring time. He gives us a beautiful description of spring through various beautiful images of peace and serenity: “The sweet showers fall and pierce the drought of March to the root….. also Zephyrus with his sweet breath exhales an air in every grove …. the young sun his half-course in the sign of Ram has run… the small fowls are making melody …”. In the second sub-paragraph, from line 12 to line 18, the poet links the rebirth of nature with people’s “long to go on Pilgrimages “. After a long and cold winter mostly spent in their houses, people want to go out and amuse themselves. Spring is the suitable season of the year for pilgrimages. There is a new harmony between man and nature. They both are linked to regeneration after winter. As April with the sweet showers brings new life to nature, the pilgrimage brings new life to the soul of man. In the second part, from line 19 to line 34, Chaucer describes the setting to the action and gives us information about the pilgrims. He is at the Tabard Inn in Southwark “ready to go on pilgrimage and start for Canterbury” when “some nine and twenty in a company of sundry folk “ enters the Inn. They are pilgrims going to Canterbury, too. Chaucer makes friendship with them and decides to join them. Line 20 helps to identify the narrator, a first person singular narrator: “as I lay ready to go on pilgrimage”. The I person (= Chaucer), becomes a true eyewitness of the events and this adds credibility to his narration. From line 35 to the end, the poet tells us what he is going to deal with in the Prologue: “ Before my story takes a further pace, It seems a reasonable thing to say What their condition was, the full array Of each of them, as it appeared to me According to profession and degree, And what apparel they were riding in“.
1-There also was a Nun, a Prioress,
Her way of smiling very simple and coy.
Her greatest oath was only ‘By St. Loy!’
And she was known as Madam Eglantyne.
5-And well she sang a service, with a fine
Intoning through her nose,as was most seemly,
And she spoke daintily in French, extremely,
After the school of Stratford-atte-Bowe;
French in the Paris style she did not know.
10-At meat her manners were well taught withal;
No morsel from her lips did she let fall,
Nor dipped her fingers in the sauce too deep;
But she could carry a morsel up and keep
The smallest drop from falling on her breast.
15-For courtliness she had a special zest,
And she would wipe her upper lip so clean
That not a trace of grease was to be seen
Upon her cup when she had drunk; to eat
She reached a hand sedately for the meat.
20-She certainly was very entertaining,
Pleasant and friendly in her ways, and straining
To counterfeit a courtly kind of grace,
A stately bearing fitting to her place,
And to seem dignified in all her dealings.
25-As for her sympathies and tender feelings
She was so charitably solicitous
She used to weep if she but saw a mouse
Caught in a trap if it were dead or bleeding.
And she had little dogs she would be feeding
30-With roasted flesh, or milk, or fine white bread
And bitterly she wept if one were dead
Or someone took a stick and made it smart;
She was all sentiment and tender heart.
Her veil was gathered in a seemly way,
35-Her nose was elegant, her eyes glass-grey;
Her mouth was very small, but soft and red,
Her forehead certainly was fair of spread,
Almost a span across the brows, I own;
She was indeed by no means undergrown.
40-Her cloak, I noticed, had a graceful charm.
She wore a coral trinket on her arm,
A set of beads, the gaudies tricked in green,
Whence hung a golden brooch of brightest sheen
On which there first was graven a crowned A,
45-And lower, Amor vincit omnia.
In the description of the Nun we can appreciate Chaucer’s mastery in the use of satire. He treats satirically all the religious figures (the Nun, the Monk, the Pardoner, the Friar and so on) because he wants to make an indirect criticism of his own contemporary Church. The Prioress, a mother superior of a convent, is described with irony but Chaucer’s attitude towards her is sympathetic and he is not tough on her. She is described more as a lady with a bit of vanity than as a servant of Christ: “she is very entertaining, pleasant and friendly in her ways….” she wears a veil “gathered in a seemly way …..her cloak had a graceful charm….she wore a coral trinket….whence hung a golden brooch of brightest sheen”. She is more concerned with gentle manners and appearance than with religion: “At meat her manners were well taught withal …. For courtliness she had a special zest And she would wipe her upper lip so clean That not a trace of grease was to be seen, upon the cup when she had drunk “. As said before, Chaucer is very accurate in her description. He tells us her name, Madam Eglantine (a rose; in the Middle Ages symbol of Christ but also of passion), her social position (a prioress), her cultural background (she studied at Stratford-atte- Bowe and knew French). Then he describes her traits (elegant nose, glass-grey eyes, small soft red mouth, spread forehead, undergrown size) her clothes (a veil, a cloak and a coral trinket), her behaviour at table and her fondness for drinking and eating, her courtly grace and manners .She is not indifferent to the fashion of the time and goes against monastic rules keeping the veil higher to let her forehead and the sides of her face uncovered. Further, she has a golden brooch while monastic rules forbid nuns to wear jewels and ornaments. There is a certain ambiguity in Chaucer’s description because we may interpret her in various ways: pleasant and friendly but also affected and sophisticated; “charitably solicitous…all sentiment and tender heart” but more interested in her own pets than in human beings. The ambiguity is also increased by the Latin words “Amor vincit omnia” engraved on the brooch: they may refer to Christian love but also to a human sort of love and the brooch might be a present by a lover. Irony is achieved through contrasts: “Her greatest oath was only ‘By St Loy’ “( nuns shouldn’t swear); “ she spoke daintily in French, extremely after the school of Stratford-atte-Bowe ( a monastery near London)” but she didn’t know “ French in the Paris style”; “ at meat her manners were well taught” but she “dipped her fingers in the sauce “ even if not “ too deep”. Some critics stress the analogies with “Monaca di Monza” by the Italian novelist Alessandro Manzoni in his “Promessi Sposi”: they both were Prioress and they both are called “Madam/Signora”.
THE WIFE OF BATH
1 – A worthy woman from beside Bath city
Was with us, somewhat deaf, which was a pity.
In making cloth she showed so great a bent
She bettered those of Ypres and Ghent.
5 – In all the parish not a dame dared stir
Towards the altar steps in front of her,
And if indeed they did, so wrath was she
As to be quite put out of charity.
Her kerchiefs were of finely woven ground;
10 – I dared have sworn they weighed a good ten pound,
The ones she wore on Sunday, on her head.
Her hose were of the finest scarlet red
And gathered tight; her shoes were soft and new.
Bold was her face, handsome, and red in hue.
15 – A worthy woman all her life, what’s more
She’d five husbands, all at the church door,
Apart from other company in youth;
No need just now to speak of that, forsooth.
And she had thrice been to Jerusalem,
20 – Seen many strange rivers and passed over them;
She’d been to Rome and also to Boulogne,
St James of Campostella and Cologne,
And she was skilled in wandering by the way.
She had gap-teeth, set widely, truth to say.
25 – Easely on an ambling horse she sat
Well wimpled up, and on her head a hat
As broad as is a buckler or a shield;
She had a flowing mantle that concealed
Large hips, her heels spurred sharply under that.
30 – In company she liked to laugh and chat
and knew the remedies for love’s mischances,
An art in which she knew the oldest dances
The Wife of Bath is another female pilgrim. As in the previous description of the Nun, Chaucer gives us detailed information on her: jobs, social status, clothes, physical appearance, personality, interests and behaviour with people. She was a middle-aged, sensual, handsome woman from Bath: “Bold was her face, handsome and red in hue… she had gap-teeth….. large hips “.She was a skilled cloth maker. She was wealthy as we can see from her clothes: “Kerchiefs…of finely woven ground……scarlet red stockings …” soft new shoes, a large hat, a flowing mantle and spurred sharp heels. Chaucer’s opinion on her is positive: “a worthy” self-confident woman and her interests are not judged negatively. She was a very religious woman and went to Mass every Sunday. She was the first to go to the altar. She was interested in travelling and men: She had been on pilgrimage to Rome, Boulogne (Boulogne sur-Mer, a French town where there was an image of the Virgin), St James of Compostela (in the West of Spain, Galicia, where there is the shrine of St James the Greater), Cologne (in Germany to visit the shrine of the three Magi) and three times to Jerusalem, in the Holy Land. Chaucer makes us realize that religion played a minor role: how she behaves in church is not real devotion but ostentation; she wants to be the centre of attraction and loves to be respected in public ( “In all the parish not a dame dared stir Towards the altar steps in front of her “) and to show she was proud of her position in society; she went on pilgrimages more for recreational reasons than for spiritual ones. Love played an important part in her life: “She’d had five husbands ….apart from other company in youth….knew the remedies for love’s mischances, an art in which she knew the oldest dances”. Her attitude towards people was friendly and extroverted: “in Company she liked to laugh and chat “. Chaucer describes her as a very sensual woman. She had gap-teeth which, according to popular beliefs, was associated to lechery. As for the Nun, Chaucer is ironic but not hard on her. He liked woman and enjoyed their company. Sometimes he makes fun of them and uses irony to describe their human weakness. As far as irony we can find it in line 2 ( “somewhat deaf, which was a pity”), line 10 ( “ I dared have sworn they weighed a good ten pound”, line 17 ( “ Apart from other company in youth “), line 23 (“ And she was skilled in wandering by the way” ), in lines 26 -27 ( “ and on her head a hat As broad as is a buckler or a shield “ ) and in lines 31-32 ( “ and knew the remedies for love’s mischances An art in which she knew the oldest dances “).
THE WIFE OF BATH’S PROLOGUE
The Wife of Bath is seen as a free woman who loves adventures and the company of men. Critics have often tried to consider the Wife as one of the first feminist characters in literature and a woman ahead of her times. She denies the common belief that women should be submissive, especially in matters of sex. Marriage and women’s sovereignty are the main themes in the Prologue. Her opinion is very authoritative because she has had five husbands since her first marriage at the tender age of twelve. “….Marriage is a misery and a woe” she says, but notwithstanding that, she has married five times only because she can’t stay without a husband. She also tells us that she flirted with other men. The Wife used marriage to increase her wealth and better her own social status. Her first four husbands were all wealthy men; when she eventually marries her fifth husband, she is sufficiently wealthy. She uses her sexual power as an instrument to control her husbands and bring them to total submission.
The following extract is part of her prologue. She speaks about her fifth husband.
‘Now of my fifth, last husband let me tell. God never let his soul be sent to Hell! And yet he was my worst, and many a blow
He struck me still can ache along my row
Of ribs , and will until my dying day.
‘But in our bed he was so fresh and gay,
So coaxing , so persuasive… Heaven knows
Whenever he wanted it – my belle chose
Though he had beaten me in every bone
He still could wheedle me to love, I own.
I think I loved him best, I’ll tell no lie.
He was disdainful in his love, that’s why.
‘When my fourth husband lay upon his bier
I wept all day and looked as drear as drear,
As widows must, for it is quite in place,
And with a handkerchief I hid my face.
Now that I felt provided with a mate
I wept but little, I need hardly state .
‘To church they bore my husband on the morrow
With all the neighbours round him venting sorrow,
And one of them of course was handsome Johnny.
So help me God, I thought he looked so bonny
Behind the coffin! Heavens, what a pair
Of legs he had! Such feet, so clean and fair!
I gave my whole heart up, for him to hold.
He was, I think, some twenty winters old,
And I was forty then, to tell the truth.
But still, I always had a coltish tooth .
Yes, I’m gap-toothed; it suits me well I feel,
It is the print of Venus and her seal .
So help me God I was a lusty one,
Fair, young and well-to-do, and full of fun!
And truly, as my husbands said to me
I had the finest quoniam that might he.
For Venus sent me feeling from the stars
And my heart’s boldness carne to me from Mars.
Venus gave me desire and lecherousness
And Mars my hardihood , or so I guess,
Born under Taurus and with Mars therein.
Alas, alas, that ever love was sin!
I ever followed natural inclination
Under the power of my constellation
And was unable to deny, in truth,
My chamber of Venus to a likely youth.
The mark of Mars is still upon my face
And also in another privy place .
For as I may be saved by God above,
I never used discretion when in love
But ever followed on my appetite,
Whether the lad was short, long, black or white.
Little I cared, if he was fond of me,
How poor he was, or what his rank might be.
Her fifth husband was the worst: “He struck me still can ache along my row
Of ribs ….” but notwithstanding that, she loved him because “in our bed he was so fresh and gay, so coaxing, so persuasive…..Heaven knows whenever he wanted it – my belle chose – Though he had beaten me in every bone he still could wheedle me to love…”.
Then she tells the occasion when she has fallen in love with him: the funeral of her fourth husband! One of the neighbours behind the coffin was “handsome Johnny”. She was struck by him: “… I thought he was so bonny behind the coffin!… Heavens, what a pair of legs he had! Such feet so clean and fair!” She admits that she couldn’t resist him: “I gave my full heart up, for him to hold”. He was younger than she: “He was, I think, some twenty winters old, and I was forty then, to tell the truth”, but this was not a problem for her because she had still “a coltish tooth “, a youthful sexual appetite. She is well aware of her sensuality: “yes, I’m gap-toothed: it suits me well, I feel …. I was a lusty one, Fair, young and well-to-do, and full of fun”. To justify herself she gives the fault to the influence of Venus and Mars and of the stars. She had “the print of Venus and her seal ……Venus gave me desire and lecherousness”. Mars endowed her with boldness and the stars determined her natural inclination to passion. The Wife believes her character to have been determined by her horoscope: “under the power of my constellation (I) was unable to deny my chamber of Venus to a likely youth“. Following her own appetite, she had all the men she liked with no shame and without caring “Whether the lad was short, long, black or white…..if he was fond of me, how poor he was, or what his rank might be”. The language she uses is straightforward and realistic. She uses vulgar connotations to refer to the feminine organ: belle chose, quoniam, chamber of Venus, privy place… She is not ashamed. She only wants to entertain the other pilgrims.
The themes introduced in the Prologue are present in the Tale that provides an answer to the question “What do women most desire?” She uses the tale to confirm her theory on the supremacy of wives in a marriage. The answer is: to have the supremacy over their husbands. She is persuaded that a happy marriage is one in which the wife has control. It is positive for husbands too because giving sovereignty to wives is good for both partners in a marriage.
The Tale: a knight raped a girl and is condemned to death. The queen and other ladies offer to save him on the condition to tell them what women desire most. The queen gives him a year to find the answer. He looks for an answer everywhere but nobody except a very ugly woman can help him. She wants in return that he has to marry her. He accepts and has the answer: women want most to have the mastery over their husbands and lovers. The answer is correct and he is spared, but is also obliged to marry the ugly woman. He is desperate but, on the wedding night his wife gives him a choice: he has to choose whether to have her old and ugly but also loyal, faithful and humble or young and pretty but unfaithful. He does not choose and leaves her wife the choice: “My lady and my love, my dearest wife, I leave the matter to your wise decision. You make the choice yourself for the provision of what may be agreeable and rich in honour of us both, I don’t care which: Whatever pleases you suffices me”. Thus, when he lets her make the decision, he has abandoned the male’s sovereignty in favor of the woman’s rule. The tale has a happy ending: “….you shall have me both, that is, both fair and faithful as a wife……. cast up the curtain, husband. Look at me! ….and she was young and lovely”.arri-stark.deviantart.com
The tale ends with three wishes of the Wife of Bath: “May Jesus Christ send us husband meek and fresh in bed ….cut short lives of those who won’t to be dominated by their wives….. “and send a pestilence to people who keep their money and hate spending.