The Canterbury Tales HTML version

THE object of this volume is to place before the general reader our two early poetic
masterpieces -- The Canterbury Tales and The Faerie Queen; to do so in a way that will render
their "popular perusal" easy in a time of little leisure and unbounded temptations to intellectual
languor; and, on the same conditions, to present a liberal and fairly representative selection
from the less important and familiar poems of Chaucer and Spenser. There is, it may be said at
the outset, peculiar advantage and propriety in placing the two poets side by side in the manner
now attempted for the first time. Although two centuries divide them, yet Spenser is the direct
and really the immediate successor to the poetical inheritance of Chaucer. Those two hundred
years, eventful as they were, produced no poet at all worthy to take up the mantle that fell from
Chaucer's shoulders; and Spenser does not need his affected archaisms, nor his frequent and
reverent appeals to "Dan Geffrey," to vindicate for himself a place very close to his great
predecessor in the literary history of England. If Chaucer is the "Well of English undefiled,"
Spenser is the broad and stately river that yet holds the tenure of its very life from the fountain
far away in other and ruder scenes.
The Canterbury Tales, so far as they are in verse, have been printed without any abridgement
or designed change in the sense. But the two Tales in prose -- Chaucer's Tale of Meliboeus,
and the Parson's long Sermon on Penitence -- have been contracted, so as to exclude thirty
pages of unattractive prose, and to admit the same amount of interesting and characteristic
poetry. The gaps thus made in the prose Tales, however, are supplied by careful outlines of the
omitted matter, so that the reader need be at no loss to comprehend the whole scope and
sequence of the original. With The Faerie Queen a bolder course has been pursued. The great
obstacle to the popularity of Spencer's splendid work has lain less in its language than in its
length. If we add together the three great poems of antiquity -- the twenty-four books of the
Iliad, the twenty-four books of the Odyssey, and the twelve books of the Aeneid -- we get at the
dimensions of only one-half of The Faerie Queen. The six books, and the fragment of a
seventh, which alone exist of the author's contemplated twelve, number about 35,000 verses;
the sixty books of Homer and Virgil number no more than 37,000. The mere bulk of the poem,
then, has opposed a formidable barrier to its popularity; to say nothing of the distracting effect
produced by the numberless episodes, the tedious narrations, and the constant repetitions,
which have largely swelled that bulk. In this volume the poem is compressed into two-thirds of
its original space, through the expedient of representing the less interesting and more
mechanical passages by a condensed prose outline, in which it has been sought as far as
possible to preserve the very words of the poet. While deprecating a too critical judgement on
the bare and constrained precis standing in such trying juxtaposition, it is hoped that the labour
bestowed in saving the reader the trouble of wading through much that is not essential for the
enjoyment of Spencer's marvellous allegory, will not be unappreciated.