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The Difficulties of Reading Chaucer

by William J. Long

On reading Chaucer. The difficulties of reading Geoffrey Chaucer are more apparent than real, being due largely to obsolete spelling, and there is small necessity for using any modern versions of the poet's work, which seem to miss the quiet charm and dry humor of the original. If the reader will observe the following general rules (which of necessity ignore many differences in pronunciation of fourteenth-century English), he may, in an hour or two, learn to read Chaucer almost as easily as Shakespeare: (1) Get the lilt of the lines, and let the meter itself decide how final syllables are to be pronounced. Remember that Chaucer is among the most musical of poets, and that there is melody in nearly every line. If the verse seems rough, it is because we do not read it correctly. (2) Vowels in Chaucer have much the same value as in modern German; consonants are practically the same as in modern English. (3) Pronounce aloud any strange-looking words. Where the eye fails, the ear will often recognize the meaning. If eye and ear both fail, then consult the glossary found in every good edition of the poet's works. (4) Final e is usually sounded (like a in Virginia) except where the following word begins with a vowel or with h. In the latter case the final syllable of one word and the first of the word following are run together, as in reading Virgil. At the end of a line the e, if lightly pronounced, adds melody to the verse.

In dealing with Chaucer's masterpiece, the reader is urged to read widely at first, for the simple pleasure of the stories, and to remember that poetry and romance are more interesting and important than Middle English. When we like and appreciate Chaucer--his poetry, his humor, his good stories, his kind heart---it will be time enough to study his language.