|Back||1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22||Next|
Again, it is virtually certain that the poem of the "Canterbury Tales" was left in an unfinished and partially unconnected condition, and it is altogether uncertain whether Chaucer had finally determined upon maintaining or modifying the scheme originally indicated by him in the "Prologue." There can accordingly be no necessity for working out a scheme into which everything that he has left belonging to the "Canterbury Tales" may most easily and appropriately fit. Yet the labour is by no means lost of such inquiries as those which have with singular zeal been prosecuted concerning the several problems that have to be solved before such a scheme can be completed. Without a review of the evidence it would however be preposterous to pronounce on the proper answer to be given to the questions: what were the number of tales and that of tellers ultimately designed by Chaucer; what was the order in which he intended the "Tales" actually written by him to stand; and what was the plan of the journey of his pilgrims, as to the localities of its stages and as to the time occupied by it--whether one day for the fifty-six miles from London to Canterbury (which is by no means impossible), or two days (which seems more likely), or four. The route of the pilgrimage must have been one in parts of which it is pleasant even now to dally, when the sweet spring flowers are in bloom which Mr. Boughton has painted for lovers of the poetry of English landscape.
There are one or two other points which should not be overlooked in considering the "Canterbury Tales" as a whole. It has sometimes been assumed as a matter of course that the plan of the work was borrowed from Boccaccio. If this means that Chaucer owed to the "Decamerone" the idea of including a number of stories in the framework of a single narrative, it implies too much. For this notion, a familiar one in the East, had long been known to Western Europe by the numerous versions of the terribly ingenious story of the "Seven Wise Masters" (in the progress of which the unexpected never happens), as well as by similar collections of the same kind. And the special connexion of this device with a company of pilgrims might, as has been well remarked, have been suggested to Chaucer by an English book certainly within his ken, the "Vision concerning Piers Plowman," where in the "fair field full of folk" are assembled among others "pilgrims and palmers who went forth on their way" to St. James of Compostella and to saints at Rome "with many wise tales"--("and had leave to lie all their life after"). But even had Chaucer owed the idea of his plan to Boccaccio, he would not thereby have incurred a heavy debt to the Italian novelist. There is nothing really dramatic in the schemes of the "Decamerone" or of the numerous imitations which it called forth, from the French "Heptameron" and the Neapolitan "Pentamerone" down to the German "Phantasus." It is unnecessary to come nearer to our own times; for the author of the "Earthly Paradise" follows Chaucer in endeavouring at least to give a framework of real action to his collection of poetic tales. There is no organic connexion between the powerful narrative of the Plague opening Boccaccio's book, and the stories chiefly of love and its adventures which follow; all that Boccaccio did was to preface an interesting series of tales by a more interesting chapter of history, and then to bind the tales themselves together lightly and naturally in days, like rows of pearls in a collar. But while in the "Decamerone" the framework in its relation to the stories is of little or no significance, in the "Canterbury Tales" it forms one of the most valuable organic elements in the whole work. One test of the distinction is this: what reader of the "Decamerone" connects any of the novels composing it with the personality of the particular narrator, or even cares to remember the grouping of the stories as illustrations of fortunate or unfortunate, adventurous or illicit, passion? The charm of Boccaccio's book, apart from the independent merits of the Introduction, lies in the admirable skill and unflagging vivacity with which the "novels" themselves are told. The scheme of the "Canterbury Tales," on the other hand, possesses some genuinely dramatic elements. If the entire form, at all events in its extant condition, can scarcely be said to have a plot, it at least has an EXPOSITION unsurpassed by that of any comedy, ancient or modern; it has the possibility of a growth of action and interest; and (which is of far more importance, it has a variety of characters which mutually both relieve and supplement one another. With how sure an instinct, by the way, Chaucer has anticipated that unwritten law of the modern drama according to which low comedy characters always appear in couples! Thus the "Miller" and the "Reeve" are a noble pair running in parallel lines, though in contrary directions; so are the "Cook" and the "Manciple," and again and more especially the "Friar" and the "Summoner." Thus at least the germ of a comedy exists in the plan of the "Canterbury Tales." No comedy could be formed out of the mere circumstance of a company of ladies and gentlemen sitting down in a country-house to tell an unlimited number of stories on a succession of topics; but a comedy could be written with the purpose of showing how a wide variety of national types will present themselves, when brought into mutual contact by an occasion peculiarly fitted to call forth their individual rather than their common characteristics.
For not only are we at the opening of the "Canterbury Tales" placed in the very heart and centre of English life; but the poet contrives to find for what may be called his action a background, which seems of itself to suggest the most serious emotions and the most humorous associations. And this without anything grotesque in the collocation, such as is involved in the notion of men telling anecdotes at a funeral, or forgetting a pestilence over love-stories. Chaucer's dramatis personae are a company of pilgrims, whom at first we find assembled in a hostelry in Southwark, and whom we afterwards accompany on their journey to Canterbury. The hostelry is that "Tabard" inn which, though it changed its name, and no doubt much of its actual structure, long remained both in its general appearance, and perhaps in part of its actual self, a genuine relic of mediaeval London. There, till within a very few years from the present date, might still be had a draught of that London ale of which Chaucer's "Cook" was so thorough a connoisseur; and there within the big courtyard, surrounded by a gallery very probably a copy of its predecessor, was ample room for
--well nine and twenty in a company
|Back||1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22||Next|
Chaucer -by- Adolphus William WardBottom Content goes here. Wikipedia content requires these links..... Wikipedia content is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License.