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The Knight's Portrait -- Geoffrey Chaucer

(Poem #327) The Knight's Portrait
 A knyght ther was, and that a worthy man,
 That fro the tyme that he first bigan
 To riden out, he loved chivalrie,
 Trouthe and honour, fredom and curteisie.
 Ful worthy was he in his lordes werre,
 And therto hadde he riden, no man ferre,
 As wel in cristendom as in hethenesse,
 And evere honoured for his worthynesse.
 At alisaundre he was whan it was wonne.
 Ful ofte tyme he hadde the bord bigonne
 Aboven alle nacions in pruce;
 In lettow hadde he reysed and in ruce,
 No cristen man so ofte of his degree.
 In gernade at the seege eek hadde he be
 Of algezir, and riden in belmarye.
 At lyeys was he and at satalye,
 Whan they were wonne; and in the grete see
 At many a noble armee hadde he be.
 At mortal batailles hadde he been fiftene,
 And foughten for oure feith at tramyssene
 In lystes thries, and ay slayn his foo.
 This ilke worthy knyght hadde been also
 Somtyme with the lord of palatye
 Agayn another hethen in turkye.
 And everemoore he hadde a sovereyn prys;
 And though that he were worthy, he was wys,
 And of his port as meeke as is a mayde.
 He nevere yet no vileynye ne sayde
 In al his lyf unto no maner wight.
 He was a verray, parfit gentil knyght.
 But, for to tellen yow of his array,
 His hors were goode, but he was nat gay.
 Of fustian he wered a gypon
 Al bismotered with his habergeon,
 For he was late ycome from his viage,
 And wente for to doon his pilgrymage.
-- Geoffrey Chaucer
        (From the Canterbury Tales, pub. 1387-1394)

There's a Modern English translation at
[broken link]

While the Middle English is somewhat hard on its own, it's perfectly
comprehensible when read side by side with the translation, and indeed has a
charm only enhanced by its unfamiliarity.

Chaucer needs little introduction...

  the outstanding English poet before Shakespeare and "the first finder of
  our language." His 'The Canterbury Tales' ranks as one of the greatest
  poetic works in English. -- EB

Though a run through his life and times makes interesting reading:

[broken link]

[broken link]

Of course, no mention of Chaucer would be complete without a quick
introduction to his most famous work, the Canterbury Tales ...

  By far Chaucer's most popular work, although he might have preferred to
  have been remembered by Troilus and Criseyde, the Canterbury Tales was
  unfinished at his death. No less than fifty-six surviving manuscripts
  contain, or once contained, the full text. More than twenty others contain
  some parts or an individual tale.

  The work begins with a General Prologue in which the narrator arrives at
  the Tabard Inn in Southwark, and meets other pilgrims there, whom he
  describes. In the second part of the General Prologue the inn-keeper
  proposes that each of the pilgrims tell stories along the road to
  Canterbury, two each on the way there, two more on the return journey, and
  that the best story earn the winner a free supper.

  Since there are some thirty pilgrims, this would have given a collection
  of well over a hundred tales, but in fact there are only twenty-four
  tales, and some of these are incomplete. Between tales, and at times even
  during a tale, the pilgrimage framework is introduced with some kind of
  exchange, often acrimonious, between pilgrims. In a number of cases, there
  is a longer Prologue before a tale begins, the Wife of Bath's Prologue and
  the Pardoner's Prologue being the most remarkable examples of this.

        -- [broken link]

Chaucer is justly considered the father of English poetry:

  In the first place, as he is the Father of English Poetry, so I hold him
  in the same Degree of Veneration as the Grecians held Homer, or the Romans
  Virgil: He is a perpetual Fountain of good Sense; learn'd in all Sciences;
  and, therefore speaks properly on all Subjects: As he knew what to say, so
  he knows also when to leave off; a Continence which is practis'd by few
  Writers, and scarcely by any of the Ancients, excepting Virgil and Horace.

        -- John Dryden

The above is from a wonderful essay on Chaucer, in which Dryden also
commented upon his verse:

 Chaucer's Meter Defective

 'Tis true, I cannot go so far as he who publish'd the last Edition of him;
 for he would make us believe the Fault is in our Ears, and that there were
 really Ten Syllables in a Verse where we find but Nine: But this Opinion is
 not worth confuting; 'tis so gross and obvious an Errour, that common Sense
 (which is a Rule in everything but Matters of Faith and Revelation) must
 convince the Reader, that Equality of Numbers, in every Verse which we call
 Heroick, was either not known, or not always practis'd, in Chaucer's Age.
 It were an easie Matter to produce some thousands of his Verses, which are
 lame for want of half a Foot, and sometimes a whole one, and which no
 Pronunciation can make otherwise. We can only say, that he liv'd in the
 Infancy of our Poetry, and that nothing is brought to Perfection at the

and defended his decision to translate it...

  You have here a Specimen of Chaucer's Language, which is so obsolete, that
  his Sense is scarce to be understood; and you have likewise more than one
  Example of his unequal Numbers, which were mention'd before. Yet many of
  his Verses consist of Ten Syllables, and the Words not much behind our
  present English: as for Example, these two Lines, in the Description of
  the Carpenter's Young Wife:

            Wincing she was, as is a jolly Colt,
            Long as a Mast, and upright as a Bolt.

  I have almost done with Chaucer, when I have answer'd some Objections
  relating to my present Work. I find some People are offended that I have
  turn'd these Tales into modern English; because they think them unworthy
  of my Pains, and look on Chaucer as a dry, old-fashioned Wit, not worth


  Chaucer, I confess, is a rough Diamond, and must first be polish'd, e'er
  he shines.

And delivers a wonderful tribute to his genius for characterisation...

  Here is God's Plenty

  He must have been a Man of a most wonderful comprehensive Nature, because,
  as it has been truly observ'd 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 escap'd
  him. All his Pilgrims are severally distinguished from each other; and not
  only in their Inclinations, but in their very Phisiognomies and Persons.
  Baptista Porta could not have describ'd 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 Educations, 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 Vertuous; some are
  unlearn'd, or (as Chaucer calls them) Lewd, and some are Learn'd. Even the
  Ribaldry of the Low Characters is different: the Reeve, the Miller, and
  the Cook, are several Men, and are distinguished from each other, as much
  as the mincing Lady-Prioress, and the broad-speaking, gap-tooth'd wife of

        -- John Dryden

Read the whole essay at
[broken link]


Chaucer's contribution to English prosody is undeniable. From syllable
stress metre (the basis for nearly all of English poetry)...

  It has been shown that the metre of "Vertue" is determined by a pattern of
  stressed and unstressed syllables arranged into feet and that a precise
  number of feet determines the measure of the line. Such verse is called
  syllable-stress verse (in some terminologies accentual-syllabic) and was
  the norm for English poetry from the beginning of the 16th century to the
  end of the 19th century.

  Syllable stress became more or less established in the poetry of Geoffrey
  Chaucer (c. 1340-1400). In the century that intervened between Chaucer and
  the early Tudor poets, syllable-stress metres were either ignored or
  misconstrued. By the end of the 16th century, however, the now-familiar
  iambic, trochaic, dactylic, and anapestic metres became the traditional
  prosody for English verse.

through the ever popular heroic couplet...

  The preeminent English couplet is the heroic couplet, two rhyming lines of
  iambic pentameter with a caesura (pause), usually medial, in each line.
  Introduced by Chaucer in the 14th century, the heroic couplet was
  perfected by John Dryden and Alexander Pope in the late 17th and early
  18th centuries.

and, of course, iambic pentameter itself...

  Geoffrey Chaucer employed iambic pentameter in The Canterbury Tales as
  early as the 14th century, although without the regularity that is found
  later in the heroic couplets of John Dryden and Alexander Pope.

and a rather surprising piece of etymological lore...

  doggerel: One of the earliest uses of the word is found in the 14th
  century in the works of Geoffrey Chaucer, who applied the term "rym
  doggerel" to his "Tale of Sir Thopas," a burlesque of the long-winded
  medieval romance.

he has left his mark indelibly on the corpus of English poetry.

(All quotes from the Britannica)

And finally, here's a nice comprehensive Chaucer site (one of many, let me
add) :


37 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

AMRomanov said...

In re. Chaucer's meter, I've seen it smoothed out by changing the pronunciation of the letter e from any e sound, including a silent e, to an "eh". This adds an extra syllable where needed, and in the book I had it was indicated by a dot above the altered letter: thus in the excerpt above, line two would be read, "That fro the tymeh that he first bigan," which very neatly supplies the missing syllable. The last three couplets in the passage here do a fairly good job of showing how it's used in a larger context; I use a capital E as my symbol for the -eh sound: "But, for to tellen yow of his array,/ His hors were goodE, but he was nat gay./ Of fustian he werEd a gypon/ Al bismotered with his habergeon,/ For he was late ycome from his viage,/ And wentE for to doon his pilgrymage." It's fairly intuitive once you've got a sense of Chaucer's language.

/But/. I've only read from one volume of Chaucer; this system may not be standard practice. That's a shame, because it lets you get into the flow of the poetry without being distracted when the meter seems off-kilter.

Of course, there /are/ still times when you just can't get around the fact that counting wasn't Chaucer's strong point; see "As well in cristendom as in hethenesse" above, which, I'm sorry, has eleven syllables no matter how you cut it. But even so... that Geoffrey Chaucer. He wroted goodful poetry, I think.

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