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And kisse the steps whereas thou seest pace
That thou be understond, I God beseech.
CHAUCER, Troilus and Creseide, Bk. v., 1798–1810.
THE importance of the study of Chaucer depends as much upon his being the first writer of a classical English, as upon his being the earliest of our greater English poets. The language which he used became the standard of literary English and the model for succeeding writers, nor did his influence die out until the age of the Tudors brought a new era to our language and literature. The modern historical study of English has restored Chaucer to the place he held with his contemporaries and successors, and has shown that the serious study of his poetry is the threshold to an intelligent knowledge of our mother tongue.
The present volume contains the Clerkes Tale, one of the earliest written as well as one of the finest in the series of the Canterbury Tales. It is an excellent example of Chaucer's style, and of that marvellous art in constructing a story which has made him-what he is still our greatest narrative poet. As in our preceding edition of the Squieres Tale, the basis of the text is the Ellesmere MS. as printed by Mr Furnivall in his magnificent Six-Text Print for the Chaucer Society; but a few readings which seemed preferable have been adopted from the other five MSS., and more particularly from the Harleian MS. as printed by Dr Morris in the Aldine edition of Chaucer's works. A few unessential changes have been made in the orthography to prevent confusion, and to make the spelling more uniform; but these are so infrequent and inconsiderable, that the present text may be accepted as substantially a transcript of the MS. of the Ellesmere scribe. A Life of Chaucer, and a sketch of his Grammar, have been given, as well as a brief account of his Versification. The Notes attempt to deal with the difficulties in the text, and the Glossary gives the signification and etymology of the words, besides serving as an Index to the lines of the poem in which these words occur. An acknowledgment of indebtedness is due to the works of Dr Morris and Professor Skeat, especially to those of the latter, who has made the whole range of Middle English so peculiarly his own, and whose great English Etymological Dictionary marks an epoch in the scientific study of the English tongue.
THE LIFE OF CHAUCER.
1. His Time.-CHAUCER'S LIFE AND WORKS belong to one of the greatest epochs of English History. The Elizabethan period, when England was strong both at home and abroad, and when the English drama was at its best; and the present Victorian period, when there exists everywhere unexampled activity both in literature and in science-are the only two epochs that can be compared with it. His life lay within the reigns of Edward III., Richard II., and one year of Henry IV. In the reign of Edward III. the nation-which consisted of two elements, the Norman and the Saxon-grew into one people; and the language, which had been gradually absorbing as much Norman-French as it could hold, became the ready and powerful instrument of a new literature. The year 1362 marks an important point in the history of the English Language. For in that year Edward III. passed an act of parliament authorising the use of English instead of French in courts of law, in schools, and in other public places. This is sufficient proof that the nation had become truly English. In 1380, the Bible was translated into English by Wicliffe; and this translation had a permanent effect on the character of English prose. Moreover, great events of all kinds were lifting men's minds, enlarging their ideas, and inspiring their souls: the battles of Crecy (1346) and Poitiers (1356) had been fought; the art of weaving cloth was introduced from Flanders; Windsor Castle was growing into the most splendid pile in the west of Europe; gunpowder had lately been invented; Londoners had seen two kings, the king of Scotland and the king of France, prisoners in their capital; and everywhere new powers and new ideas were stirring throughout the kingdom. And then the time was quite ready to welcome the 'ditties and songës glad,' with which Chaucer fulfilled the land over all'* even in the flower of his
2. His Birth and Parentage.-GEOFFREY CHAUCER was born