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HIS book has been written with the desire to present Chaucer's great masterpiece in a fairly popular form to young folks and ordinary readers, in the hope that by means of it they may be led of their own accord to go to “the Poet of Geoffrey chaucer, the Dawn,” “the Well of English undefiled,” and by their study of the riches of the Canterbury Tales, become rich themselves in their knowledge of beautiful stories, illustrative of high and noble thoughts, and expressed in verse whose melody has never been surpassed.
It is certainly the case that Chaucer is not read nearly so widely as he ought to be. The Prologue, perhaps, is fairly well known, as it now usually forms part of the work of our secondary schools; but the Tales and the Incidents of the Journey are little known; and even the Prologue, delightful as it is, is generally presented to young folks so much encumbered with unnecessary “notes,” drawn up for examination purposes, and often more difficult to understand than the text itself, that the poem is regarded by them as a task, and thrown aside at the earliest possible opportunity. Then, too, it is thought that the verse is antiquated and difficult to read, while the fact is, that after a very little practice, the beautiful musical flow of the lines, sweet yet firm and vigorous, constitutes one of the main charms of the poetry.
Lovers of the poet must ever feel deeply grateful to the members of the Chaucer and Early English Text Societies, who have done valuable service in disclosing much about him which, but for them, would have remained unknown; but, on account of the manner in which his works have to be studied in schools, there is reason to fear that what he has given us is being regarded as of mere dry philological value, and that his splendid power of characterisation and the fascinating interest which, as a story-teller, he is able to command, are being largely lost sight of. It has therefore been my object to try to present a free translation of the Prologue, and sketches of the several tales, and of the incidents which befell the pilgrims on their way to the sacred shrine, in a manner which may, perhaps, tempt those for whom the book is intended, to become better acquainted with the poem as a whole; although I know well that work of this nature must always be more or less unsatisfactory, and that the poet's quaintness, his skilful management of minute details—in a word, the charming personnel, which pervades his poetry all through, must be largely sacrificed.
In speaking of the “Squire's Tale,” which was left “half told,” I have alluded to the fact that one of the greatest of those whose names are on “Fame's eternal beadroll” has attempted to continue the story. Spenser prefaces his attempt with a beautiful stanza expressive of the veneration which he felt towards his great predecessor; and veneration must be the feeling which, sooner or later, every one of Chaucer's readers must cherish regarding him—veneration coupled with perfect trust in his goodness, and keen delight in his rich and kindly humour. It is no doubt the case that certain phases of human folly and weakness are held up to view and spoken of by him in a manner much more direct and open than is customary nowadays, and hence care has to be taken in selecting what of him it is fitting to present to young people; but those who can understand him find very little indeed to be regretted in Chaucer's poetry. He was evidently a man whose heart's delight was in all that is “true, and honest, and lovely, and of good report,” and who hated with the full strength of a noble nature whatever is base, and mean, and double-dealing, and oppressive; and the cowardly bully who unworthily uses the circumstances of his position for the purpose of causing unhappiness to others, along with the tools whom he finds mean enough to be willing to play into his hands, have never in all the range of our English literature been subjected to greater castigation, or held up to more deserved opprobrium, than by him. As is the case with several of our greatest men in by-past times, we know very little of Chaucer's earlier days. He was born in London, but we cannot tell the date of his birth, though it was, in all likelihood, somewhere about the end of the thirties or the beginning of the forties of the fourteenth century. We know that he died in 1400; and his life thus extends over the greater part of the reign