The Canterbury Tales
by Geoffrey Chaucer
translated by Burton Raffel
Modern Library, 672 pages, $36
Chaucer is bawdy, and Chaucer is religious—somehow both merciless and merciful, cruel and gentle, practical and absurd, slapstick and profound. You can find in The Canterbury Tales the origins of Charles Dickens' sentimental heart, and Henry Fielding's lascivious comedy, and James Joyce's play with words—and more, besides. Really, it comes down to the fact that Chaucer is humane: the most humane of all our authors, with a deep wisdom about both the silliness and the significance of the human condition.
The key, however, may be that word our. Chaucer is an English author, the font of English literature, and his language is our own. If you need a translation to learn about how from every shires ende / Of Engelond to Caunterbury they wende, then you probably aren't ready to read Chaucer, even in translation.
Think, for instance, of the famous opening to the set of stories that a group of pilgrims tells one another as they wind their way toward the tomb of St. Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. The example is a fair one, since Burton Raffel, the latest translator of The Canterbury Tales, explicitly cites it as something unintelligible to modern readers:
Whan that Aprill with his shoures sote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the rote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne;
And smale fowles maken melodye,
That slepen al the night with open yë—
So priketh hem Nature in hir corages—
Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages.
Maybe this needs a marginal note or two to help over such words as sote (sweet) and corages (hearts). And maybe a longer footnote to say that the yonge sonne / Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne means that it's springtime, when the sun is halfway through Aries, the zodiacal sign of the Ram. But how much more does a reader need?
A lot, says Raffel, and he opens his new Modern Library edition this way:
When April arrives, and with his sweetened showers
Drenches dried-up roots, gives them power
To stir dead plants and sprout the living flowers
That spring has always spread across these fields,
And the God of Winds blows his gentle seeds
In every wood and hearth of England,
Feeding tender crops, as the sun, still young in the sky,
Compels small birds to sing their melodies,
Creatures who sleep at night with open eyes
(Exactly as Nature frames their lives' short ages).
Then people think of holy pilgrimages.
This is verse, I guess, but it is not Chaucer. Throughout the book, Raffel varies his half-rhymes from the consonance of traditional poetry to the assonance of pop music, with a steady ignoring of a terminal s. That is, when he bothers to rhyme at all. And where are these triplets coming from? Showers / power / flowers, and fields / seeds / England—this just isn't English poetry.
And English poetry is why Chaucer matters. He practically invented the thing, showing us many of the formal features that would come to define English prosody. Just look at those famous introductory lines and you'll see the regular pentameter that constitutes the break from the loose tetrameter of Anglo-Saxon verse. You'll see the basic iambic beat, the range of acceptable substitutions in meter, the use of headless lines, and a willingness to mix masculine and feminine rhymes.
Mostly, though, you'll see the couplets—the mark of English poetry, the well to which the literature returns again and again. Raffel's triplets aren't just incompetent. They're alien, and if they are, as he claims, necessary for the modern reader to understand Chaucer, then it's not just Chaucer's poetry that is dead to us. English poetry itself has died.
Burton Raffel is something of a one-man translating industry. Over the years, he's brought the Nibelungenlied out of German and Voltaire's Candide out of French. He's done “Seven Centuries of Greek Poems and Fragments” for the Modern Library, together with Chrétien de Troyes' old French tales of chivalry. He's even translated Beowulf—and that may be part of what is wrong with this new translation of The Canterbury Tales. There is an important line to be drawn between the poetry of the tenth century and the poetry of the fourteenth century.
It's hard to describe just what the difference is. It involves a changing orthography, of course—with runic letters such as thorn (þ) and Irish borrowings such as eth (ð) disappearing along the way. So, too, it involves the Norman conquest, with the subsequent introduction of romance verse forms that rule by French-speaking overlords entailed. For that matter, it involves the completion of Christian conversion in the British Isles and the appearance of a literature based on that metaphysical and social foundation.
It involves most of all, however, the birth of a new language. A deep knowledge of French would certainly help us learn the mother language, Latin, but French and Latin remain different tongues. In the same way, a deep knowledge of English would help us learn the language in which Beowulf is written, but we can read The Canterbury Tales without having to learn another language. We can read it merely by deepening our knowledge of our own.
If you must take Chaucer in translation, Nevill Coghill's 1951 edition for Penguin catches something of the fluency and astonishing neatness that are the marks of Chaucer's pentameter:
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,
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
That sleep away the night with open eye
(So nature pricks them and their heart engages)
Then people long to go on pilgrimages.
But Coghill was of that British generation of which J.R.R. Tolkien was the leader—the generation that rediscovered and brought into public view the Icelandic, Germanic, and Scandinavian roots of English literature. Along the way, however, they blurred the line that distinguishes English from its parents and cousins. For such scholars as Coghill and Tolkien, the Eddas were as transparent as the Canterbury Tales, and if people needed a translation of the one, then they certainly needed a translation of the other.
Burton Raffel, to his credit, includes in this new translation the two prose pieces—“The Tale of Melibee” and “The Parson's Tale”—that are typically left out of editions of Chaucer. There's a reason to leave them out, of course: One of the great artistic mysteries of English literature is how a poet as sprightly as Chaucer could write such turgid, dull prose. Still, “The Parson's Tale” has an architectonic point at the end of Chaucer's narrative, preparing the soul for the arrival in Canterbury, and it deserves to be presented, if only so the reader can skip over it.
In one sense, English had been developing as a literary vehicle before Chaucer, and he was hardly alone as a writer in his own time: Langland, Gower, and the unknown author of The Pearl were all near-enough contemporaries. But Chaucer nonetheless succeeded, where they did not, in creating a genuine English literature. It was the breadth of spirit in his work, more than anything else. He could be simultaneously bawdy and religious, and see no contradiction. He could be both merciless and merciful, cruel and gentle, practical and absurd, slapstick and profound. Not till Shakespeare would English find anyone to match him.
Joseph Bottum is editor of First Things.