The New Edition of Chaucer

ENGLISH scholars of this generation, in England, Germany, and America, are certainly endeavoring to do their duty toward Chaucer. They have already done far more for him, both in quantity and quality, than was done in the four preceding centuries. Only a little more than ten years have gone by since the Chaucer Society of London was founded by F. J. Furnivall, Esq., to do honor to Chaucer, and to let the lovers and students of him see how far the best unprinted manuscripts of his works differ from the printed texts, thus affording them the requisite facilities for settling, as far as may be, the many questions of metre, pronunciation, orthography, etymology, etc., which attach to his works and the language which he employed ; and in addition to the publication of numerous texts of Chaucer’s several works, to publish such originals and analogues of and essays on these as can be procured, with other illustrative treatises and supplementary tales.

The cheerful and hearty response which the call for coöperation to these ends has met with, from scholars in all parts of the world where the English language is spoken and studied, and its great literature read and cherished, has proved the ripeness of the time for the fullest realization of the society’s comprehensive scheme. But apart from the ripeness of the time, much must be credited to the energetic administration of the affairs of the society by its founder, who is a hard, untiring, and self-sacrificing worker himself, and has a peculiar faculty for keeping other scholars aroused and getting good work out of them.

The publications of the society already number many volumes, consisting of texts (exact reprints of the best manuscripts), essays, originals and analogues of the tales, etc. The Canterbury Tales must ever rank as Chaucer’s masterpiece, and to this work general readers will chiefly, and almost exclusively, confine themselves, great as are the merits of the other works ; and it is a gratifying fact that abundant material exists for the production of a final text, — a text which will occasion but little question among future scholars. The six texts printed by the Chaucer Society exhibit a remarkable uniformity in their readings, the variations being more in spelling than in words. The variations in words are really very few, — so few that what Chaucer, in all cases, actually wrote may be established to an almost dead certainty. Take any of the best texts of any plays of Shakespeare, Julius Cæsar, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest, or Much Ado about Nothing, for example, the text of each of these plays being but, comparatively little open to question, and each will be found to contain more uncertain readings than are to be found in all the Canterbury Tales. Good and sufficient reasons can be given for this. We are indeed more certain of what Virgil and Horace actually wrote than we are of what Shakespeare wrote, in numerous cases. The variations in the spelling of the several manuscripts are rather favorable than otherwise for determining, proximately, the pronunciation of the time. They are often rude attempts on the part of the scribes toward representing by letters the spoken word.

A hasty glance at what had been done for Chaucer, in the way of text, commentary, dissertation, etc., previous to the founding of the Chaucer Society may not be superfluous. Up to the time of Tyrwhitt’s edition (in 1775), three centuries and three quarters after the death of the poet, next to nothing had been done. The editions by Caxton, Pynson, Godfrey (long the standard edition), Thynne, Stowe, Speght, and Urry have no intrinsic value as editions ; the interest attaching to them at this day being almost exclusively bibliographical. Them texts are, without exception, extremely corrupt. But it does not seem to have occurred to any of these editors, if editors they can be called, that they were not doing the right thing. Exception, however, should be made in the case of Caxton. He shows in the preface to his second edition great reverence for the poet. When he discovered that he had printed one of the most faulty of manuscripts, in which some things were omitted which Chaucer had written, and some things were added which he had not written, his sense of the injustice he had done the poet caused him to get out another edition, printed from a manuscript which a certain gentleman had procured for him and recommended as “ very trewe, and accordyng unto his [Chaucer’s] owen first book by hym made ; ” and he acknowledges, with a charming naïveté, the mistake he had made, and gives expression to the conscientious care he had exercised in this second edition, “ to satisfy the auctour where as tofore by ygnoraunce I erryd in hurtyng and dyffamyng his book in dyverce places, in setting in somme thynges that he never sayd ne made, and leving out many thynges that he made, whyche been requysite to be sette in it.” But for all his honest purpose to make amends, the text of this second edition fell far short of fairly representing the poet’s language.

But villainously and often ingeniously corrupt as these early editions were, the serene light of Chaucer’s genius must nevertheless have shone through them to many loving students ; it was his metrical excellence which was most obscured thereby. But it would be, perhaps, more correct to say that the conditions on which that metrical excellence largely depends were not understood and complied with ; the early texts were not so much at fault, bad as they were, as were those who read them. Dryden certainly appreciated and loved Chaucer more than did anybody else of his time. He professes to hold him in the same degree of veneration as the Greeks held Homer, and the Romans Virgil. “ He is,” he says, “ a perpetual fountain of good sense ; learned in all sciences, and therefore speaks properly on all subjects ; as he knew what to say, so he knows also when to leave off, a continence which is practiced by few writers, and scarcely by any of the ancients, excepting Virgil and Horace.” But in spite of this gushing laudation, so characteristic of him when in the vein, Dryden failed to discover the metrical excellence of Chaucer’s verse, which at this day is unqualifiedly admitted by everybody entitled to an opinion thereupon, and was unwilling to admit that the fault was in himself. Unacquainted with the syllabication of the English of the fourteenth century, thousands of verses appeared to him lame for want of half a foot, and sometimes a whole one ; and he consoled himself with the reflection that this in other respects great poet lived in the infancy of our poetry, and that nothing is brought to perfection at the first. We must be children, he says, before we grow men, and our numbers were in their nonage till Waller and Denham appeared ! Strange is it, indeed, that Dryden’s native sagacity did not penetrate to some of the secrets of the old poet’s harmonies, which, it is evident, he went to his grave without knowing ; and stranger still that he was not visited by some dim suspicion that a soul of such exquisite susceptibility as was Chaucer’s (a susceptibility which he must have recognized) might have had, through some special favor of Providence, as good physical ears as men of later times were provided with, not even excepting those of Waller, whose miserable conceits and feeble verses and forced and imperfect rhymes have consigned their perpetrator to a deserved oblivion. But it does not appear that he was visited by any such suspicion. If he had been, he would certainly have set about to test the truth of it, and, in doing so, might have detected in the poet’s verse something of that delicate metrical sensibility with which he is credited in these days, — a metrical sensibility hardly inferior to that of the greatest of living poets, the greatest, indeed, so far as an unerring sense of form is concerned, Alfred Tennyson.

Tyrwhitt was in fact the first editor of Chaucer, in a strict sense. Though he constructed his text on a false principle, and though his knowledge of the grammatical forms of the English of the fourteenth century was deficient, especially in the case of the final e (the residual of various Anglo-Saxon inflections) and of the singulars of strong preterites (the forms his text presents being generally plurals), the large body of illustrative and explanatory notes and the elaborate glossary of his edition will always be valuable. So, too, will the introductory matter, his Essay on the Language and Versification of Chaucer, and his Introductory Discourse to the Canterbury Tales. There has been with some Chaucer scholars of the present day a disposition to underrate Tyrwhitt’s labors, just as there has been with some Shakespeare scholars a disposition to underrate and oven to sneer at the pioneer labors of the eighteenthcentury editors. Thomas Wright, in his introduction to the Harleian text, first published by the Percy Society in 1847, makes the sweeping assertion that “ Tyrwhitt’s entire ignorance of the grammar of the language of Chaucer is exhibited in almost every line, few of which could possibly have been written by the poet as he has printed them.” But the defects of Tyrwhitt’s edition were in no case due to his slovenliness, as are numerous defects of Mr. Wright’s very extensive and various editorial labors. Tyrwhitt was careful and cautious, and extremely sagacious withal, as Mr. Gilman has shown in the Advertisement to his edition. On page ix he says, “ A comparison of texts that were not available by Tyrwhitt has shown both the wisdom and the accuracy of the scholarship that he displayed.” And on page x he says, “ The reader who is curious regarding Tyrwhitt’s judicious treatment of the text will be interested to compare with the present text certain instances in which he made emendations. He will find that the latest investigations sustain that editor to a remarkable extent. In the first volume of the Aldine Chaucer, Mr. Skeat quotes (page 174) ten lines which Tyrwhitt emended, namely, lines 1510, 1516, 1535, 1654, 1734, 1973, 2103, 2493, 2928, and 2996. Of these changes eight are supported by the Ellesmere text, and the remaining two are shown to have been unnecessary.”

After the publication of Tyrwhitt’s edition in 1775—78, nothing was done toward placing Chaucer on a sounder basis for seventy years. There were some modernizations, but these rather obstructed than promoted a taste for his poetry. There is no poetry whose peculiar aura can be more easily dispelled than that of Chaucer’s. The slightest meddling with it is often fatal. Matthew Arnold, in the preface to a selection of the poems of Wordsworth, recently published, says, “ Wordsworth’s poetry, when he is at his best, is inevitable, — as inevitable as Nature herself. It might seem that nature not only gave him the matter for his poem, but wrote his poem for him.” This may be said with equal truth of the most characteristic portions of Chaucer’s poetry ; and it is as easily made not itself as, for example, Wordsworth’s Three Years she Grew could be. Certainly, the best and most cautious of the modernizations of Chaucer’s poetry is that, by Wordsworth himself, of the Prioress’s Tale (of the Christian child slain by Jews). But even that is far, very far, from the real thing. And that tale can be less easily spoiled than, for example, the Nun’s Priest’s, of the Cock and the Fox, especially the description of the cock. How Dryden has traduced it!

The Harleian text of the Canterbury Tales was published, as has been said, in 1847, by the Percy Society. It is in many respects the best existing text. It has been reproduced in whole and in part a number of times since, and Professor Child based upon it his valuable Observations on the Language of Chaucer. But Mr. Furnivall, with the concurrence of other experienced Chaucerians, has given the preference to the Ellesmere text, and it has been made the basis of the Rhyme-Index published by the Chaucer Society, and of the Concordance to the Works of Chaucer in course of preparation. Mr. Furnivall, in his Temporary Preface to the sixtext edition of the Canterbury Tales, has, in addition to the presentation of a few of the specialties of the six manuscripts, compared them one with the other, and with the Harleian. The peculiar merits of the latter can there be easily got at.

Mr. Gilman has adopted the Ellesmere text, and has not departed from it except in the very few places where there were weighty reasons for doing so. The reader is always informed, at the foot of the page, of these departures; but he is not always informed where the substitutions came from. The editor has in no case, however, made unauthorized substitutions. They are always to be found in some one or more of the other texts. It is a gratification to a reader — or at least it should be — to know that he is reading one good text of a poet like Chaucer, and not a text that represents an editor’s individual taste as to which is the best reading out of various texts. What a medley some of the so-called critical texts of Shakespeare of the present day present, swinging as they do between quartos and folios, according as the editors think they should swing! Morris and Skeat in their texts of Chaucer are a little too much disposed to imitate the example of Shakespeare editors. But fortunately Chaucer editors cannot disport themselves amid various readings to the extent that Shakespeare editors can, for the various readings are comparatively few.

It would be, of course, a too slavish adherence, and one of no advantage whatever, to follow the contractions in which each and every manuscript abounds. But some question may be raised as to the propriety of substituting certain letters for others used in the manuscripts : for example, the two obsolete characters (a loss to our alphabet), for both of which th is now used; the semi-Saxon g (a modification of the Anglo-Saxon g), for which y, g, and gh are used ; the use of u and v as both vowels and consonants, etc. The use of these characters is, indeed, very irregular in the manuscripts, and Mr. Gilman says, pages v and vi, that, “in the absence of any rule or custom on the part of the ancient scribes, it only confuses the general reader if their irregular example is followed.” On page viii he says, “ There is a positive loss when povre — Italian povero, French pauvre — is printed in an old author ‘poure,’ and poverte—poverta, pauvreté — is printed ‘ pouerte.’ This is true also when iape, ioye, iade, iuge, take the places of jape, joye, jade, juge. On the contrary, the poet suffers no detriment when these words are presented with the letters which make the impression upon nineteenth-century readers that the other ones made upon readers accustomed to them in the fourteenth century.”

These remarks are plausible enough, but perhaps we are not yet ready fully to decide on them. They are, at any rate, sufficiently just with reference to such an edition as the one before us, designed, as it is, for the general reader rather than for the special student. The editor, it appears, does not mean his remarks to apply beyond the representation of certain characters used in the manuscripts by certain others of the modern alphabet. We are certainly not ready to decide, and perhaps never shall be, upon some one spelling of such of Chaucer’s words as present in the manuscripts a multiform spelling, —such words, for example, as the preterite of see, which is spelled in more than thirty ways, representing the usual AngloSaxon form, seah. Mr. Gilman gives on page viii the following forms : sauh, saugh, seigh, sigh, segh, sihe, sauhe, sawh, sagh, sy, sie, sey, say, seygh. The glossary to Forshall and Madden’s edition of the Wycliffite Scriptures gives the following: say, saie, saye, saig, sauge, sawe, sawg, sag, seeg, seig, seige, sig, sige, syg (the italicized g representing the semi-Saxon g). Other variations are presented by the plural forms. The writer of this article has noted several other forms still in the Harleian text of the Canterbury Tales. So the usual Anglo-Saxon form micel, or mycel, has numerous representatives. Mr. Gilman instances moche, mokel, muchel, machel, myche, mychel, michel; but there are many more. Now how are we to decide upon any standard form, in such cases ? — and they do not constitute a small minority, by any means, of the words of the manuscripts. Perhaps the only way to cut the Gordian knot, or rather to get along without cutting it, is after Mr. Furnivall’s fashion. In his Temporary Preface to the six-text edition of the Canterbury Tales, pages 113115, he says (space obliges us to make some omissions) : " There are some men to whom the irregularities of nature and facts, the waywardness of growth, are a perpetual irritation. Trained mostly in classics themselves, they cannot bear the thought of Chaucer’s words being spelt with less regularity than Virgil’s or Horace’s. They do not stop to inquire whether the (to them) beautifully uniform spelling they have was that of Rome or Greece itself at any time, or that of an Italian Renaissance of the fifteenth century ; they swallow the orthography of their text-books, without question, as the genuine article, thank the Lord for its delightfulness, and say they must and will make Chaucer and our early men conform to the like smooth rotundity. . . . As regards Chaucer, I have never yet seen or heard of a fourteenth century manuscript, autograph or not, which is uniform in its spelling ; and I am entitled to conclude that no such manuscript of any length ever existed. . . . To force a uniform spelling on Chaucer, by whatever process arrived at, would be to force a lie on him and on the history of the English language. . . . Before him for hundreds of years is no uniformity; after him for centuries none. Why in the works of him, the free and playful, above all others, are letters to lose their power of wandering at their own sweet will; why are words to be debarred their rightful inheritance of varying their forms ? . . . I repeat my words of 1861 : ‘ Far more experienced readers and better judges than I have condemned the attempt to impose on a language constantly changing in words, inflections, and spelling, written often by half-lettered men, a rigid rule applicable only to the well-settled speech and literature of a cultivated nation.’ (Early English Poems and Lives of Saints, Philol. Soc., page vi.) ”

What Mr. Gilman remarks (pages viii, ix) is substantially the same, in a milder form : “ Any concession to modern precision would misrepresent the orthography of Chaucer, and none is attempted in the present work. The editor’s rule has been to follow in this respect the usage of the scribe, who had the advantage of living at least four centuries nearer the time of the author that he represents.”

For the benefit of the uninitiated in manuscripts, Mr. Gilman might have been somewhat more explicit in regard to the manuscripts which were taken as the bases of Chaucer’s works other than the Canterbury Tales. On page iv he says of the Ellesmere manuscript, “ It forms the body of the text now presents ed to the lovers of the great poet.” He moans, of course, the text of the Tales, but he does not say so. The manuscripts followed in the texts of the other works are not characterized, or designated.

It is perhaps to be regretted that the publication of this edition was not deferred until after the printing of the manuscripts, by the Chaucer Society, of the Troylus and Cryseyde, that the editor might have availed himself of them in the preparation of his text. Mr. Furnivall, in his Eighth Report, August, 1879, states that he hopes to get into type before next summer the whole of the Troylus, in three parallel texts, — the Campsail manuscript (which he pronounces the handsomest early one he has ever seen), Harleian 2280 (ed. by Dr. Morris), both complete, and the Gg. 4. 27, unhappily incomplete, though very good. But Mr. Gilman has, nevertheless, given us a good text. A collation of the text with that of the Aldine edition, by Dr. Morris, has shown that he has followed the latter, which, the editor states, is printed entirely from a single manuscript, Harleian 2280, collated with Harleian manuscripts 1239, 2392, 3943, and additional 12,044. The society’s leading text, on which the concordance will be based, will be that of the Campsall manuscript.

VOL. XLV. - NO. 267. 8

Since the founding of the Chaucer Society, the chronological order of Chaucer’s works has been quite conclusively determined, and some poems that were for centuries attributed to him have been shown to be spurious. That chronological order, with the exception of the Canterbury Tales (which are given first, according to the society’s arrangement of them), is followed in this edition, and the apocryphal poems are given together in the third volume. They are The Romaunt of the Rose, The Court of Love, The Flower and the Leaf, The Cuckow and the Nightingale, A Goodly Ballade of Chaucer, A Praise of Women, Chaucer’s Dream, Virelai, Chaucer’s Prophesy, and Go forth, King.

A well-written introduction of 108 pages is devoted to The Times and the Poet (I. The Outer Life II. The Social Life. III. The Poet’s Life. IV. The Poet’s Works. V. The Poet’s Genius), the Reading of Chaucer (the more important peculiarities of his language being noticed, and the pronunciation given of the vowels and consonants, where it differs from that of modern English), Astrological Terms and Divisions of Time (an important section), and Biblical References. In the Life, the editor has embodied whatever of new has been brought to light by recent researches. In the section on reading Chaucer, he rather slights the important subject of the final e as a metrical element in the verse, and what he says is perhaps liable to give the inexperienced reader a wrong impression, or at least an inadequate impression, of its importance. He says, page xcix, ” In pronouncing Chaucer it is necessary to remember that spelling was in some respects more nearly phonetic than it now is, and that syllables now unpronounced were formerly heard. The final e was, for example, pronounced in many cases, and in verse it often perfects the metre and adds to the musical effect.”

The phrases “ in many cases ” and “ often perfects the metre ” must certainly convey the impression to the uninitiated reader, hardly designed by the editor, of the final e’s having an exceptional rather than a normal use in the verse. But every experienced reader of Chaucer knows that it is the rule for the final e (that is, when it properly belongs to a word, and has not been hitched on by the scribe without authority) to make a syllable. The exception is where it is absorbed by a following vowel (absorbed is the word, not elided), or where it is followed by the pronominal words beginning with h (he, his, him, hir, hire, hem), hath or has, and, it may be, have and had. Before other words beginning with h it is generally sounded. Perhaps in the words named the h was either silent or very faint; hem appears to have been pronounced em very early. The final e, too, at the end of the verse was, there can be but little doubt, sounded, the verse being, as a rule, hendecasyllabic.

A good feature of this edition are the head-lines, those on the left-hand page giving the title of the current tale or poem, and those on the right-hand page indicating the subject of the page, often in the poet’s own words. The lines of the Canterbury Tales are numbered continuously, and, as the order of the Tales is different from that of every previous edition, following, as it does, the society’s arrangement, Tyrwhitt’s numberings are given in parentheses at short intervals. This will be a convenience in comparing the text with Tyrwhitt’s, or in referring to Tyrwhitt’s notes and glossary.

The foot-notes, explanatory, for the most part, of the words of the text, are quite numerous, — as numerous, perhaps, as the intended scope of the edition allowed ; but the general reader will often, no doubt, wish that more help of the kind had been furnished, and, in the absence of explanations, he may pass over the meaning of many words and phrases without being aware that he does not understand them. There are many words in Chaucer, still in the language, which make sense if taken in their present acceptation, but whose meanings in Chaucer are now obsolete. Such words the inexperienced reader needs particularly to have his attention called to. The work is furnished with a good index of fifty-two pages, of subjects and proper names, with references to volume and page. The punctuation of the text is not always strictly critical. A reading of the Prologue, with reference thereto, showed a need of some half score of changes in and additions to the punctuation.

This edition must do much towards making Chaucer a more general favorite, as he is destined erelong to be. No poet in the literature possesses more of the elements requisite for a popular favorite than Chaucer. All that is necessary to make him such is to clear away the obstructions to the appreciation and enjoyment of his works with which they have been beset.

  1. The Poetical Works of Geoffrey Chaucer. To which are appended Poems attributed to Chaucer. Edited by ARTHUR GILMAN, M. A. In three volumes. Boston: Houghton, Osgood & Co. The Riverside Press, Cambridge.