Page images
PDF
EPUB

within a few years after 1400, and therefore soon after Chaucer's death and the publication of the Canterbury Tales. Its language has very little, if any, appearance of local dialect; and the text is in general extremely good, the variations from Tyrwhitt being usually for the better. Tyrwhitt appears not to have made much use of this manuscript, and he has not even classed it among those to which most credit is due.

This manuscript I have adopted as the text of the present edition; the alterations I have ventured to make in it being comparatively few, and only such as appeared absolutely necessary. It is hardly necessary to inform those who are in the habit of consulting medieval manuscripts, in whatever language they may be written, that none of them are clerically accurate. Some of them are literally filled with errors, which it requires very little knowledge to perceive and correct. Many errors of this kind are found in the Harleian manuscript of the Canterbury Tales of which I am speaking, and I have not felt the least hesitation in correcting them by comparison with another manuscript. As an example of the kind of error to which I allude, it may be stated that ll. 3779, 3780, stand thus in the MS. :

Of storial thing that toucheth gentilesse,
And eek more ryalté, and holynesse.

I have, without hesitation, followed another MS. in correcting the two words in italics to moralité ; and in cases like this I have not thought it necessary to load the book with notes pointing out the alterations. In other instances, where a reading in the Harl. MS., although affording a tolerable meaning, has appeared to me a decided bad one, I have changed it for a better, always (when there is room for the least doubt) giving the original reading of the manuscript in a foot-note. For this purpose,

I have collated the text throughout with the Lansdowne MS., No. 851, which appears to be, of those in the British Museum, next in antiquity and value to the MS. Harl.; and I have also collated it, as far as the Wyf of Bathes Tale, with two manuscripts in the public library of the University of Cambridge, bearing the shelf-marks Mm. 2. 5. (which I have quoted as C. 1), and Ii. 3, 26 (C. 2), but I found so little real use from these latter manuscripts, that I thought it unnecessary to collate them further. In general, I have reaped little advantage from collating a number of manuscripts.

Tyrwhitt's want of philological knowledge has rendered his text unharmonious as well as ungrammatical. The final e, most distinctly pronounced, and which was most necessary to the metrical completeness of the line, was the one

d

which marked grammatical inflections and adverbial forms, and this he has constantly dropped, and he has therefore printed an imperfect line, or given it supposed perfection by adding a word or placing a final e to a word which ought not to have it. I may observe, that it was a constant rule to elide the final e in pronunciation, when it preceded a word beginning with a vowel or with the letter h, and that this was the source of frequent errors of the scribes, who, pronouncing the lines as they copied them, omitted sometimes to write the letter which they did not pronounce, and thus made a grammatical error, which, however, every reader at the time could see and correct. Instances of this kind of error are not of unfrequent occurrence in the Harl. MS. of the Canterbury Tales, but I have resisted the temptation to correct them, because it appeared to me dangerous, in our present knowledge of medieval English, to presume too far on our acquaintance with every nicety of the grammar of the fourteenth century. In many cases, however, these are certainly errors. Thus in 1. 5911:

“ Have thou ynough, what thar the recch or care.” We ought to read recche, which is the infinitive of the verb. For the same reason, in l. 6128,

“And for to walk in March, Averil, and May," we should read walke. In both these instances

the final e has been lost before a word beginning with a vowel. The older termination of the infinitive was in en, but the n was subsequently dropped, and during the fourteenth century, and earlier part of the fifteenth, the two terminations of the infinitive in en and e were used indiscriminately, at the will or caprice of the writer. In poetry, before a word beginning with a consonant, it was immaterial which form was used, but before a word beginning with a vowel, or with h, the n might be dropt or retained accordingly as the final syllable of the word was required or not for the metre. In these cases the scribe has not unfrequently omitted the n when it ought to have been retained; but probably the thing was so well understood, that it mattered little how it was written, the reader using the n or not as the verse required it, whether he saw it in the manuscript or not.

With the exception of the cases above-mentioned, I have reproduced the text of the Harleian MS. with literal accuracy. My object has been to give Chaucer, as far as can be done, in his own language, which certainly has not yet been done in print. I doubt much if the different attempts at half or wholly modernizing his language, which have been made in latter years, will ever render him popular; and his poetry is

entirely lost in translations. Surely, when we remember the oft-repeated saying, that the trouble of learning Spanish is well repaid by the simple pleasure of reading Don Quixote in the original, we may well be allowed to wonder that any Englishman of taste should refuse the comparatively trifling labour of making himself acquainted with his own language of little more than four centuries ago, for the satisfaction of reading and understanding the poetry of his glorious countryman Geoffrey Chaucer. Changing and mutilating is not, in my opinion, the right way to make anything popular; and in the present work my object is not the mere production of a correct (or, at least, as correct as under all the circumstances can be expected) edition of the father of our poetry; I would try the experiment of making his writings popular by the very fact of their being correctly printed, and by the addition of popular (and not scholastic) notes-notes the aim of which is to explain and illustrate, in a simple and unpretending manner, allusions and expressions which may not be generally known to those who are not in the habit of studying the documents and the antiquities of Chaucer's age. For this purpose, I avail myself of everything within my reach. Although I have felt it necessary to speak unreservedly of the defects of Tyrwhitt's text,--for which we must

« PreviousContinue »