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single poem, The Knight's Tale. Here, because he is the disciple of Boccaccio in an attempt to follow the epic tradition, and because this poem illustrates perhaps better than any other in English the peculiarities of the mediæval treatment of an antique heroic subject, he may be permitted to fall within our range.
Boccaccio, like Chaucer, viewed the chivalric romance with amused disdain, and turned, when he proposed to himself an epic, to classic models. With these he was familiar, for he had made Latin versions of both the Iliad and the Odyssey, and in his Teseide, the first epic in a modern language—a conscious imitation the most painstaking-omitted none of the traditional requirements such as Swift in the eighteenth century sarcastically enumerated in his Recipe to Make an Epic Poem. Deities, battles, episodes, similes—all the ingredients are there and duly mixed in their proper proportions. But the Teseide is a tale of love rather than war, for Boccaccio, like Virgil, was not at his best in war, to which “the hero tears himself away from king's daughters at the call of country.” His poem fixed for his more successful followers, Pulci, Boiardo, and Tasso, the metre —ottava rima—suited to their purposes and gave to Chaucer the suggestion for The Knight's Tale ; for the rest it hardly rose to distinction. Chaucer's poem, a more skilful narrative, reduces to less than three thousand the ten thousand lines of Boccaccio's epic, excels it in art and interest, but illustrates in the same vivid fashion the odd transformation of the classical into the mediæval, the cross lights of the feudal and chivalric conceptions playing across the life of the antique world.
Nothing can well be stranger to a reader fresh from the Iliad than the easy familiarity and gaiety of tone, as of one telling a story to children, with which Chaucer begins his narrative
“ Whylom, as olde stories tellen us,
This duk, of whom I make mencioun or the lightness of touch with which he passes over preliminary details
I have, God woot, a large feeld to ere
With what an unsophisticated air he takes his readers into his confidence, and puts to them the question
“ Yow loveres axe I now this questioun,
Who hath the worse, Arcite or Palamoun?" or inquires blandly, with humorous self-depreciation
Who coude ryme in English proprely
His martirdom? for soothe, it am nát I.” How novel too the heroic type now presented to us. The duke is “a trewe knight," " gentil," " of herte piteous," a philosopher
“ who ponders on the flux of human things
“ Considereth eek, how that the harde stone
Under our feet, on which we trede and goon,
Than may ye see that al this thing hath ende.”
“ Thanne is it wisdom, as it thinketh me,
To maken vertu of necessitee." Note too the feudal and heraldic accessories. The duke displays his banner, and by it is borne his pennon
“ Of gold ful riche, in which ther was y-bete
The Minotaur, which that he slough in Crete." With what pleasure Chaucer dwells upon "the riche array of Theseus paleys,” where “haukes sitten on the perche above ” and "houndes liggen on the floor adoun," the marble gates of the tourney ground, the oratories, the ways crowded with spectators, greedy of wonder and eagerly gossiping on the sights and probable issue of the contest in the lists—
Heer three, ther ten, holding bir question.” How he lingers over his description of the bustle and colour, the pageantry so loved by the Middle Age
“ And on the morwe, whan that day gan springe,
Of hors and harneys, noise and clateringe
The sheeldes brighte, testeres and trappures;
That in the bataille blowen bloody sounes.” How remote from the classical spirit and manner are the tapestried picturesqueness, the personified abstractions, the symbolism of the chapels of Venus, of Mars, and of Diana, as of oratories in a Gothic minster.
First in the temple of Venus maystow see
woodnesse laughing in his rage,
Saw I conquest sitting in greet honour.” 1 How remote too the amorous atmosphere of the tale, the references to May, to the lark, to the dolorous lover
“ Welcome be thou, faire freshe May—"
His hewe falwe, and pale as asshen colde,
And wailling al the night, making his mone.” 1 As Warton points out (History of English Poetry, vol. ii. p. 196) the groundwork of this description is taken from the Thebaid of Statius, a favourite author in the Middle Ages.
Love, the tyrant, is master of this tale, that Love which in the Argonautica refused sleep to Medea when she thought of Jason though it brought happy forgetfulness "to the mother of sons but lately dead "
"The God of love, A! benedicite,
How mighty and how great a lord is he!"
The lover's first sight of the lady is like a swift sword-thrust—
"He caste his eye upon Emelya,
And ther-with-al he bleynte, and cryde 'a!'
The lady herself is "fresher than the May," "fairer than the lilie upon his stalke grene." There is here matter for a Court of Love-whether the knight who first sees and loves the lady, but thinks her a goddess, or he who loves her second but knows her to be a human creature, is to be the fortunate lover? The delicacy of the final award is in the best manner of the subtle science; Chaucer with infinite art reverses Boccaccio's decision. In the Teseide Arcite first sees the lady, but his prize is not her hand-it is victory in the tourney and death. Chaucer gives the first sight of Emely to Palamon, and though to Arcite goes the triumph in the lists, it is by him who loved her first that the lady is finally won.
And behind Love, and behind the decorative classical deities, what dark power of Fate or Fortune in the stars presides over this tale told in Christian times?
"Sum wikke aspect or disposicioun
Of Saturne, by sum constellacioun,
Hath yeven us this, al-though we hadde it sworn;
What a self-concious touch is that in the description of Arcite's resolution
"And with that word he caughte a greet mirour
How refined are the chivalric manners when Arcite, about to fight to the death with his rival, offers to bring arms and armour for both
"And chees the beste, and leve the worste for me
and when the two knights with all gentleness assist each other
"As freendly as he were his owne brother."
And to what height of courtesy does the mortally-wounded Arcite rise in his last words, as he resigns Emely to his more fortunate rival
How the sentiment of pity dominates the tale, the badge of knighthood's flower
"For pitee renneth sone in gentil herte."
Exquisite the tale is, none more admirably wrought of pathos, of arms and amours," depicting a conflict between friendship and love, in which both are victorious, a tale delightful in its music to the ear, in its picturesqueness to the inner eye, in its delicacy of sentiment to the heart. It were hard to deny to it the title "heroic," though times and men and manners have all been transfigured. But behind it, as never in the older heroic poetry, there stands the author, gravely smiling at our pleasure, amused a little at his own success, and hinting now and again, with an engaging charm, at the humours of a piece not wholly serious.