Chaucer, Internationalism, and Europe.
The Canterbury Tales: Internationalism in Poetry.
Amid all the hatred and lies spread during the Referendum, not least by the ‘Lexit’ Left, there is one figure of British identity to whom we cleave.
Chaucer (1343 – 25 October 1400) has a good claim to be the father of British literature.
He was also profoundly European, full of wry humour about regional and national differences, and, in modern terms, an internationalist.
Chaucer had a deep sense of change,
Ye knowe eek, that in forme of speche is chaunge
Withinne a thousand yeer, and wordes tho
That hadden prys, now wonder nyce and straunge
Us thinketh hem; and yet they spake hem so,
And spedde as wel in love as men now do;
Eek for to winne love in sondry ages,
In sondry londes, sondry ben usages.
A humanist, in the deepest sense, he brought to light the burgeoning and changing English tongue, still marked by traces of inflections, in all its richness, a fusion of English and the Romance languages.
And for ther is so gret diversite
In Englissh and in writyng of oure tonge,
So prey I God that non myswrite the,
Ne the mysmetre for defaute of tonge;
And red wherso thow be, or elles songe,
That thow be understonde, God I biseche!
The Canterbury Tales’ five-stress lines rhyming couplets are loved deeply.
The characters of the Wife of Bath and in the Miller’s Tale – to name only two – will be cherished wherever English is spoken. His affectionate anti-clerical lines (the Friar’s Tale) indicate more than a religious bent, they are social satire.
I learnt Chaucer doing my ‘A’ Levels at Westminster Further Education College – a state institution – at the time located in Peter Street, Soho.
Our teacher was a gay bloke talking to a class which included a large group of black youngsters and a very wide number of nationalities.
We were entranced by the poems, and by our text, The Wife of Bath.
After the results of our ‘A levels – a high pass rate, many of us getting As and Bs – he took us to his gaff in Lamb’s Conduit Street where he lived with his partner. We got pissed out of our minds and I ended up with a Scottish women in some low dive in the Strand.
Chaucer holds a special place in the feelings of us British people.
I do not think that any other European country has quite the single figure of the poet of the Tabard Inn, or studies late medieval writing so widely.
A few years ago, after an Ipswich Trades Council meeting, we were talking about him in the pub.
With one exception we had all studied Chaucer for ‘A’ Level English and held him in deep affection.
A man who brought to English the influence of the Italian stories of Boccaccio and French medieval poetry, (he was fluent in French and conversant in Italian) yet was equally extremely English, he was, and remains, a model of internationalism.
The French poet Eustache Deschamps (1340–1406) called Chaucer his “revered teacher, father, and master”.
One line in the Canterbury Tales which I will always remember – as a warning to those who are now siding with the Reaction in the European Referendum – is this,
But Cristes lore, and his apostles twelve,
He taught; but first he folwed it himselve.