The canterbury tales, p.3
The Canterbury Tales,
The careful reader of the Canterbury Tales learns to recognize a series of echoes, reminiscences and internal allusions that link the tales together without ever settling into a definitive or fixed pattern. Rather, they suggest that life itself is repetitive, constantly offering new variations on recurring themes, and through such repetitions we can see how narrative context creates individual meanings. In some other, transcendental, world, where the ceaseless process of change that characterizes human life could be arrested, a final and all-encompassing meaning might take shape. In the life we know, however, the kaleidoscope is all we have, and ultimate meaning appears only as a tantalizing possibility suggested in the motifs on which the constantly varying patterns seem to converge.
The repetitions and reminiscences that run through the Canterbury Tales point the reader towards the major themes suggested by these motifs. In the rest of this Introduction, I shall briefly sketch out the most important of these themes and the key words that serve to focus them. Once again, their different narrative embodiments give the reader a sense of simultaneous sameness and difference, of plural versions of experience, each providing a perspective that is distinct and yet somehow in touch with the rest.
At the core of the Chaucerian vision of the world is the notion of chance, for which Chaucer most often uses the word ‘aventure’; other words associated with this idea are the nouns ‘hap’, ‘cas’, ‘grace’, and the verbs ‘felle’ and ‘befelle’. The role of chance in human affairs is a major obstacle in the way of determining a satisfactory meaning for the vicissitudes of life, since it challenges both the notion that men and women can control their destinies by their own agency, and the notion that a divine ruler dispenses happiness or unhappiness in just proportion to human deserts. The Knight’s Tale focuses on the problem of chance with particular sharpness. Chaucer continually emphasizes the role of ‘aventure’ in the events of the narrative, altering his Boccaccian source to this end. 25 It thus seems entirely arbitrary that Arcite ends up dead, while Palamon is happily married to Emily; the reader may well agree with Egeus that life is merely a random succession of joy and woe (2841). Theseus’s speech at the end of the tale both is and is not an answer to this problem: he asserts that the First ‘Moevere’, who, in this pagan universe, takes the place of the Christian God, has ‘of his wise purveiaunce’ ordained life in such a way that all earthly things must have an end (2994–3016). Change is an ineradicable part of life.
The word ‘purveiaunce’ (providence) implicitly invokes Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, a philosophical work that Chaucer translated and whose influence is apparent throughout his writings. 26 It takes the form of a debate between Boethius, at the point of his life when he was disgraced and imprisoned, and the personified figure of Philosophy. Like Palamon and Arcite, Boethius complains of the injustice of human life and the arbitrary malevolence of Fortune. Palamon’s anguished question – ‘What governaunce is in this prescience | That giltelees tormenteth innocence?’ (1313–14) – directly echoes the complaint that drives Boethius’s work. If God is ‘governor’ of the world, why does he allow Fortune to hold sway, so that the innocent suffer and the guilty prosper (I m.5)? Lady Philosophy’s long answer to Boethius’s complaint ultimately rests on a discrimination between the divine and the human perspectives. Divine providence, she explains, surveys all things together in an eternal present; this eternal whole is, however, executed in the world of time by an ‘ordinance’ that she calls ‘destiny’ (IV pr.6). Destiny is to providence as the line is to the circle; through the linear process of time it weaves the pattern that is eternally contemplated in its entirety by the divine intelligence. God does not ‘foresee’ events, he merely ‘sees’ them in his atemporal present, and his knowledge does not, therefore, constrain human freedom to act. Similarly, ‘destiny’ does not predetermine the course of events; it is simply the name given to the shape into which events fall. The apparently random changeability that is all that human beings can see from their narrower perspective is the stuff from which this larger pattern is made. So, in the Knight’s Tale, the ‘aventures’ that make up the lives of Palamon and Arcite link themselves into a final pattern, joyful in one case and tragic in the other. Chance too is a matter of perspective, as Philosophy explains: ‘hap’, or ‘aventure of fortune’, is merely the name we give to events that are unforeseen by human agents. So if a man finds some gold in a field, the event has a cause, in that some other man buried it there, but because the burying was unknown to the finder, he sees the event as ‘chance’ (V pr.1–m.1).
In Boethius, Lady Philosophy’s explanation answers the problem of chance on a philosophical level, but it does not greatly help in telling people how they should live their lives. For the divine perspective that will weave all causes together and reveal a meaningful pattern in human existence is necessarily and by definition unavailable to the human beings who are bound to the world of time. It is for this reason that the disruptive effects of chance, and the arbitrary see-sawing of joy and woe, remain problems not only in the pagan world of the Knight’s Tale but also in the Christian world of the Man of Law’s Tale. In this tale, Boethius’s complaint that humankind is ‘turmented in this see of fortune’ (I m.5) is realized in the narrative, as Constance is twice cast out to sea in a rudderless boat and carried where ‘aventure’ takes her (465). The constable who is forced to consign her to the second of these journeys echoes Boethius’s questioning of God’s justice, given the suffering of the innocent and the prosperity of the wicked (813–16). Divine agency directly intervenes in this tale, miraculously protecting Constance from death and striking down her accuser (668–76), but the operations of this miraculous power are as shrouded in mystery as the workings of chance. If the Chaucerian narrator insists on God’s ‘mighty werkes’, he also insists that what God does is often ‘ful derk’ to human comprehension; his ‘prudent purveiaunce’ is unknown and unknowable (478–83).
The workings of ‘aventure’ are not always disruptive, however. In the Franklin’s Tale, Dorigen too questions God’s ‘purveiance’ and ‘governance’ of the world (865–6) as she contemplates the black rocks that threaten her husband’s life, and Aurelius might well complain of the ‘aventure’ (940) that causes him to fall in love with a woman already married. Yet in the happy resolution of the tale, when Aurelius releases Dorigen from her promise to give herself to him and renounces his love for her, ‘aventure’ plays a benign role. Twice within the space of a few lines, Chaucer emphasizes that their meeting on the way to the garden took place by chance (‘Of aventure happed hir to meete’: 1501; ‘thus they mette, of aventure or grace’: 1508). Since the coincidence is not so very extraordinary (Aurelius has been watching for her to leave the house, and is following her to the garden), the emphasis on chance seems to attach itself to the transformation that the meeting brings about: Aurelius’s miraculously gratuitous change of heart. The workings of chance – as Theseus too acknowledges – leave open the possibilities of fresh beginnings, of openings towards happiness as well as lapses into disaster. If joy is not inevitable, neither is woe.
And then again, like all serious notions in the Canterbury Tales, ‘aventure’ can appear in comic, bathetic or travestied forms. The word does not appear in the Miller’s Tale and the Reeve’s Tale, and it may seem that in the everyday world of these tales human beings are able to dictate the course of their own lives, calculating the means to achieve the ends they desire. ‘Purveiaunce’ here refers to human, rather than divine, activity, and is downscaled to refer only to practical preparations for an envisaged event (Miller’s Tale 3566). But in both tales – with Nicholas’s cry of ‘Water!’ in the Miller’s Tale, and the moving of the cradle in the Reeve’s Tale – chance intervenes to send events spiralling out of human control as surely as in the Knight’s Tale or the Man of Law’s Tale. The neatness of the denouement does not bring with it any revelation of a deeper meaning (poetic justice, say); the clockwork precision
Patience and Pity
Since human knowledge and human control are both of necessity limited, wise action takes on a responsive rather than a directive character. For this reason Chaucer’s tales often focus on the virtues of patience and pity. Patience is central to Chaucer’s Tale of Melibee: Prudence persuades Melibee to bear the wrongs that have been done to him because ‘pacience is a greet vertu of perfeccioun’ (1517). The Parson’s Tale adds a Christian dimension to the concept, offering Christ as an example of patient suffering, and quoting a variation of the proverb ‘Patience conquers’: ‘If thow wolt venquisse [vanquish] thin enemy, lerne to suffre’ (661). The Franklin’s Tale and the Clerk’s Tale offer different narrative explorations of this paradox. The long eulogy of patience that appears near the beginning of the Franklin’s Tale incorporates both the proverb ‘Patience conquers’ and the admonition ‘Lerneth to suffre’ (773–5, 777). It is a passage that presents patience as a response to the ceaseless changes of life, the internal and external disturbances (miniature ‘aventures’, one could say) that threaten to destroy stability and happiness. Patience does not involve spiritual or psychological immobility (Patience on a monument, as it were), but rather a process of constant adaptation, or ‘temperaunce’, as Chaucer calls it. It is from this ‘temperaunce’, not from the forcible imposition of one’s will, that good ‘gov-ernaunce’ issues (785–6). The tale translates this notion into practice. It is through the exercise of patience – the surrender to the ‘aventure’ (1483) that is constituted by Dorigen’s promise to Aurelius – that Arveragus sets in motion the events that create the unexpected resolution of the narrative problem. In the Clerk’s Tale too, the exercise of patience is tied to the keeping of a promise – in this case Griselda’s promise to comply with her husband’s will in both deed and thought, without ‘grucching’ (grudging/grumbling). If patience is, in the Franklin’s Tale, exercised by Arveragus and Aurelius as well as Dorigen, in the Clerk’s Tale it becomes a predominantly female quality; women’s patience, claims the Clerk, outdoes even Job’s (932–8). The religious resonances of the tale give Griselda’s suffering a Christ-like quality. Her long and arduous trials make it seem that patience is here forced into the immobility that is rejected in the Franklin’s Tale, yet the stasis is finally broken and here too patience conquers; it is Walter who breaks under the pressure of Griselda’s unchanging steadfastness and is forced to realize the human appetite for change in himself.
In both the Franklin’s Tale and the Clerk’s Tale it is pity that responds to patience and breaks the narrative deadlock. Aurelius is overcome by ‘compassioun’ and ‘routhe’ (pity) for Dorigen and Arveragus (1515, 1520); Walter is finally moved to take pity (‘rewen’) on Griselda (1050). Pity, that is, resembles patience in its responsive quality; it submerges the beholder in the experience of the sufferer (‘Feelinge his similitude in peines smerte’, as the Squire’s Tale puts it: 480), obliterating the distinction between them. So, in the Knight’s Tale, pity is the quality that prompts Theseus to respond to the unexpected ‘aventures’ that confront him – the line of weeping widows who interrupt his triumphal procession to Athens, the discovery of his enemies Palamon and Arcite fighting in the grove (952–6, 1760–81). In the Man of Law’s Tale, Alla likewise responds to Constance’s anguish, when she is accused of murder, with the pity that distinguishes the ‘gentil herte’ (659–60). Yet if in this instance pity averts disaster, the happy resolution is not a final conclusion but only one more stage in the endless succession of joy and sorrow. Even more clearly than in the Clerk’s Tale, pity and suffering take on a religious dimension, emblematized in the Cross, ‘Reed of the Lambes blood, ful of pitee’ (452). In Constance’s prayer to the Virgin, in which she both asks for Mary’s pity and expresses her own pity for Mary’s sufferings at the death of her child, the divine and the human converge at the level of shared experience (841–54). Pity and cruelty circulate, incomprehensibly, within the same divine economy; if God ‘suffers’ (allows) innocents to die (815), he also suffers, in the most literal sense, the same kind of death. The Physician’s Tale offers one narrative image of the nexus that binds together cruelty and pity, as Virginius cuts off his daughter’s head with ‘pitous hand’, begging her to take her death ‘in pacience’ (226, 223). As this pagan story adumbrates God’s loving sacrifice of his son, so the Prioress’s Tale recapitulates the Crucifixion in the Jewish murder of an innocent. This tale too focuses on pity, but its relation to cruelty and to divine ‘governaunce’ is even more problematic. Fathers, both human and divine, are conspicuous by their absence, leaving mothers and children vulnerable in a hostile universe. Yet the tender feelings focused on mother and child have as their backwash new waves of cruelty, as the murderous Jews are tortured and killed. The cruel God of the Old Testament persists alongside the suffering God of the New. 27
Like ‘aventure’, however, patience and pity have their comic forms. As we have seen, the ‘pitee’ that ‘renneth soone’ in May’s ‘gentil herte’ is a thinly disguised sexual appetite. And the Wife of Bath thinks patience is an excellent means of dominating her old husbands. Since they (she claims) praise Job’s patience, they should imitate it (434–6). Echoing the Franklin’s serious admonition – ‘Lerneth to suffre, or elles, so moot I goon, | Ye shul it lerne, wherso ye wole or noon’ – she comically twists it into a threat of wifely nagging: ‘Suffreth alwey, sin ye so wel kan preche; | And but ye do, certein we shal yow teche | That it is fair to have a wif in pees’ (437–9). Whereas the Clerk had praised woman’s patience, the Wife stands the gender roles on their head: since a man is more ‘resonable’ than a woman, then he is the one who must be ‘suffrable’ (441–2). The end of the Wife of Bath’s Prologue shows us patience in a form that is at once comic and serious: the violent quarrel between the Wife and her fifth husband is resolved by their own mundane version of patience. It is through shamelessly milking pathos (‘Er I be deed, yet wol I kisse thee’: 802), rather than through persisting in aggression, that she manages to get the upper hand and induces him to surrender ‘the governaunce of hous and lond’ (814). Their resulting harmony and happiness is yet another illustration of the dictum that ‘Patience conquers’, even in this apparently inauspicious environment.
Anger, ‘Grucching’, ‘Maistrye’ and ‘Glosinge’
Alongside patience and pity, the Canterbury Tales explores their opposites. The most important of these is anger or ire (for which the Parson’s Tale prescribes patience as the remedy: 659). Another is ‘grucching’ (a combination of ‘grudging’ and ‘grumbling’), which the Parson’s Tale represents as the fruit of ‘inpacience agains God, and som time agains man’ (499). The ‘Boethian question’ (why do the innocent suffer and the guilty prosper?) is, it would seem, a kind of ‘grucching’: ‘Agains God is it whan a man gruccheth again the pine of helle, or agains poverte or los of catel [property], or again rein or tempest, or elles gruccheth that shrewes [wicked people] han prosperi
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