Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
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Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
 
Chaucer
By John Dryden (1631–1700)
 

HE must have been a man of a most wonderful comprehensive nature, because, as it has been truly observed of him, he has taken into the compass of his
Canterbury Tales the various manners and humours (as we now call them) of the whole English nation, in his age. Not a single character has escaped him. All his pilgrims are severally distinguished from each other; and not only in their inclinations, but in their very physiognomies and persons. Baptista Porta could not have described their natures better, than by the marks which the poet gives them. The matter and manner of their tales, and of their telling, are so suited to their different education, humours, and callings, that each of them would be improper in any other mouth. Even the grave and serious characters are distinguished by their several sorts of gravity; their discourses are such as belong to their age, their calling, and their breeding; such as are becoming of them, and of them only. Some of his persons are vicious, and some virtuous; some are unlearned, or (as Chaucer calls them) lewd, and some are learned. Even the ribaldry of the low characters is different; the Reeve, the Miller, and the Cook, are several men, and distinguished from each other as much as the mincing Lady Prioress, and the broad-speaking, gap-toothed wife of Bath. But enough of this; there is such a variety of game springing up before me, that I am distracted in my choice, and know not what to follow. It is sufficient to say, according to the proverb, that here is God’s plenty. We have our forefathers and great grand-dames all before us, as they were in Chaucer’s days; their general characters are still remaining in mankind, and even in England, though they are called by other names than those of monks, and friars, and canons, and lady-abbesses, and nuns; for mankind is ever the same, and nothing lost out of nature, though everything is altered. May I have leave to do myself the justice (since my enemies will do me none, and are so far from granting me to be a good poet, that they will not allow me so much as to be a Christian, or a moral man), may I have leave, I say, to inform my reader, that I have confined my choice to such tales of Chaucer as savour nothing of immodesty. If I had desired more to please than to instruct, the Reeve, the Miller, the Shipman, the Merchant, the Sumner, and, above all, the wife of Bath, in the prologue to her tale, would have procured me as many friends and readers, as there are beaux and ladies of pleasure in the town. But I will no more offend against good manners. I am sensible, as I ought to be, of the scandal I have given by my loose writings; and make what reparation I am able, by this public acknowledgment. If anything of this nature, or of profaneness, be crept into these poems, I am so far from defending it, that I disown it, totum hoc indictum volo. Chaucer makes another manner of apology for his broad speaking, and Boccace makes the like: but I will follow neither of them. Our countryman, in the end of his characters, before the Canterbury Tales, thus excuses the ribaldry, which is very gross in many of his novels:
        But firste, I praie you of your curtesie,
That ye ne arette it not my vilanie,
Though that I plainly speke in this matere,
To tellen you hir wordes, and hir chere:
Ne though I speke hir wordes proprely,
For this ye knowen al so well as I,
Who so shall telle a tale after a man,
He moste reherse as neighe as ever he can:
Everich word, if it be in his charge,
All speke he, never so rudely and so large:
Or elles he moste tellen his tale untrewe,
Or feignen thinges, or finden wordes newe:
He may not spare, although he were his brother,
He moste as wel sayn o word as an other.
Crist spake himself full brode in holy writ,
And wel ye wote no vilanie is it,
Eke Plato sayeth, who so can him rede,
The wordes moste ben cosin to the dede.”
Yet if a man should have inquired of Boccace or of Chaucer, what need they had of introducing such characters, where obscene words were proper in their mouths, but very indecent to be heard, I know not what answer they could have made; for that reason, such tale shall be left untold by me.
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