Prologue to the Canterbury Tales
by William J. Long
Prologue to the Canterbury Tales. In the famous "Prologue" the poet makes us acquainted with the various characters of his drama. Until Geoffrey Chaucer's day popular literature had been busy chiefly with the gods and heroes of a golden age; it had been essentially romantic, and so had never attempted to study men and women as they are, or to describe them so that the reader recognizes them, not as ideal heroes, but as his own neighbors. Chaucer not only attempted this new realistic task, but accomplished it so well that his characters were instantly recognized as true to life, and they have since become the permanent possession of our literature. Beowulf and Roland are ideal heroes, essentially creatures of the imagination; but the merry host of the Tabard Inn, Madame Eglantyne, the fat monk, the parish priest, the kindly plowman, the poor scholar with his "bookës black and red,"--all seem more like personal acquaintances than characters in a book. Says Dryden: "I see all the pilgrims, their humours, their features and their very dress, as distinctly as if I had supped with them at the Tabard in Southwark." Chaucer is the first English writer to bring the atmosphere of romantic interest about the men and women and the daily work of one's own world,--which is the aim of nearly all modern literature.
The historian of our literature is tempted to linger over this "Prologue" and to quote from it passage after passage to show how keenly and yet kindly our first modern poet observed his fellow-men. The characters, too, attract one like a good play: the "verray parfit gentil knight" and his manly son, the modest prioress, model of sweet piety and society manners, the sporting monk and the fat friar, the discreet man of law, the well-fed country squire, the sailor just home from sea, the canny doctor, the lovable parish priest who taught true religion to his flock, but "first he folwed it himselve"; the coarse but good-hearted Wyf of Bath, the thieving miller leading the pilgrims to the music of his bagpipe,--all these and many others from every walk of English life, and all described with a quiet, kindly humor which seeks instinctively the best in human nature, and which has an ample garment of charity to cover even its faults and failings. "Here," indeed, as Dryden says, "is God's plenty." Probably no keener or kinder critic ever described his fellows; and in this immortal "Prologue" Chaucer is a model for all those who would put our human life into writing. The student should read it entire, as an introduction not only to the poet but to all our modern literature.