I realize I may be a little late in this observation.
My friend Benjamin from the previous post has started a book club in order to read classics. Because frankly, even super nerdy glasses wearing dictionary reading british television watching once took Latin for no credit over the summer just because it seemed fun people like me aren’t going to sit down go through Ovid or Milton or Chaucer by ourselves. And if we did, it would be far less fun then reading them aloud over food and drinks in a friends’ living room.
So, after much convincing and a semi-resentful drive on Sunday morning (I had woken up in a bad mood and there were idiotic people IN MY WAY EVERYWHERE) I came to the first of reading of Canterbury Tales at the book club.
And wow. Homeboy knew his shit.
I’ve heard a million times that Geoffrey Chaucer was a great observer of human character and a great writer, but I was little doubtful because c’mon. He was writing the first English vernacular work so of course he was going to be acclaimed. But I will say now having only read the prologue that Chaucer is a good writer apart from all that. His descriptions hit that wonderful sweet spot of being compassionate and also having great biting social critique. I also recognize ALL of the characters, the obnoxious loud-mouth merchant struggling with debt, the impoverished pretentious scholar, the great dame with the yappy dogs. It’s amazing how little people have changed.
I also love his statement about his own writing:
725: But first I pray yow, of youre curteisye,
726: That ye n’ arette it nat my vileynye,
727: Thogh that I pleynly speke in this mateere,
728: To telle yow hir wordes and hir cheere,
729: Ne thogh I speke hir wordes proprely.
730: For this ye knowen al so wel as I,
731: Whoso shal telle a tale after a man,
732: He moot reherce as ny as evere he kan
733: Everich a word, if it be in his charge,
734: Al speke he never so rudeliche and large,
735: Or ellis he moot telle his tale untrewe,
736: Or feyne thyng, or fynde wordes newe.
737: He may nat spare, althogh he were his brother;
738: He moot as wel seye o word as another.
739: Crist spak hymself ful brode in hooly writ,
740: And wel ye woot no vileynye is it.
741: Eek plato seith, whoso that kan hym rede,
742: The wordes moote be cosyn to the dede.
743: Also I prey yow to foryeve it me,
744: Al have I nat set folk in hir degree
745: Heere in this tale, as that they sholde stonde.
746: My wit is short, ye may wel understonde.
But first, I pray you, of your courtesy,
You’ll not ascribe it to vulgarity
Though I speak plainly of this matter here,
Retailing you their words and means of cheer;
Nor though I use their very terms, nor lie.
For this thing do you know as well as I:
When one repeats a tale told by a man,
He must report, as nearly as he can,
Every least word, if he remember it,
However rude it be, or how unfit;
Or else he may be telling what’s untrue,
Embellishing and fictionizing too.
He may not spare, although it were his brother;
He must as well say one word as another.
Christ spoke right broadly out, in holy writ,
And, you know well, there’s nothing low in it.
And Plato says, to those able to read:
“The word should be the cousin to the deed.”
Also, I pray that you’ll forgive it me
If I have not set folk, in their degree
Here in this tale, by rank as they should stand.
My wits are not the best, you’ll understand.
My interpretation is that Chaucer is saying, “Look, I realize that my words my offend some people, especially because I’m talking about lots of different people of varying social rank. But I’m trying to tell a story and make a point and the best best to do that is to be honest and use everyday examples. Christ did it and so did Plato and we should follow in the steps of such wise communicators. And if I made some mistakes, I’m only human so don’t hold against too harshly or execute me or anything.”
I think that’s a great thesis statement for any writer.