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Form of Geoffrey Chaucer's Poetry

by William J. Long

Form of Chaucer's Poetry. There are three principal meters to be found in Chaucer's verse. In the Canterbury Tales he uses lines of ten syllables and five accents each, and the lines run in couplets:

His eyen twinkled in his heed aright
As doon the sterres in the frosty night.

The same musical measure, arranged in seven-line stanzas, but with a different rime, called the Rime Royal, is found in its most perfect form in Troilus.

O blisful light, of whiche the bemes clere
Adorneth al the thridde hevene faire!
O sonnes leef, O Joves doughter dere,
Plesaunce of love, O goodly debonaire,
In gentil hertes ay redy to repaire!
O verray cause of hele and of gladnesse,
Y-heried be thy might and thy goodnesse!
In hevene and helle, in erthe and salte see
Is felt thy might, if that I wel descerne;
As man, brid, best, fish, herbe and grene tree
Thee fele in tymes with vapour eterne.
God loveth, and to love wol nought werne;
And in this world no lyves creature,
With-outen love, is worth, or may endure.[84]

The third meter is the eight-syllable line with four accents, the lines riming in couplets, as in the "Boke of the Duchesse":

Thereto she coude so wel pleye,
Whan that hir liste, that I dar seye
That she was lyk to torche bright,
That every man may take-of light
Ynough, and hit hath never the lesse.

Besides these principal meters, Chaucer in his short poems used many other poetical forms modeled after the French, who in the fourteenth century were cunning workers in every form of verse. Chief among these are the difficult but exquisite rondel, "Now welcom Somer with thy sonne softe," which closes the "Parliament of Fowls," and the ballad, "Flee fro the prees," which has been already quoted. In the "Monk's Tale" there is a melodious measure which may have furnished the model for Spenser's famous stanza.[85] Chaucer's poetry is extremely musical and must be judged by the ear rather than by the eye. To the modern reader the lines appear broken and uneven; but if one reads them over a few times, he soon catches the perfect swing of the measure, and finds that he is in the hands of a master whose ear is delicately sensitive to the smallest accent. There is a lilt in all his lines which is marvelous when we consider that he is the first to show us the poetic possibilities of the language. His claim upon our gratitude is twofold:[86] first, for discovering the music that is in our English speech; and second, for his influence in fixing the Midland dialect as the literary language of England.