No one else has yet attempted a modern English verse paraphrase of this fragment of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales Prologue, and the parallel version on the right is therefore offered with all due modesty as a useful aid to appreciation until something better comes along. I have deliberately not gone for a literal translation, but tried to transpose it into a more contemporary idiom, and if anyone feels that I have taken too many liberties I can only plead, with Chaucer, that "my wit is short, ye may wel understonde".

The Maker

Ther was a maker, riche in blood and coler,
A cherl y-boren, yet a lerned scholer,
For him was lever have in-side his heed
Twenty bokes, burning blak and reed
Than 'Neigheboures' or 'Coronacioun Strete'. ..... A1
He seyde ryming hadde y-growen effete
In dogerel y-goon from bad to wers,
But he wolde put a fyr-werke up its ers.
He was nat lik a hounde withinne a stalle
For wisdome wolde he gladly teche to al,
But as he waxed hye in passioun
And rhetorice and diffinicioun
On scriveynes that were other deef or blinde
Some thoughte that he hadde y-loste his minde.
His drye lippes worched while his eyne,
As that some incubus dide him distreyne,
Semed to seke a twisting in the aire,
Al swete and savourous, that was nat ther. ..... A2

The Poet

There was a poet rich in blood and choler,
For he was both iconoclast and scholar,
And - though a connoisseur of curious data,
A juxtaposer and a tesselater,
A reinterpreter and rearranger -
He was not like a mongrel in a manger,
But shared his wisdom with the common crowd.
"Down with élitist verse!" he'd cry aloud.
"Destroy the mould! We've got to make it new,
As Ezra said in 1322.
Away with cliché, custom, commonsense!" ..... B1
But as his eloquence grew more intense
Some cynics said the sage had lost his grip,
Observing how his fingers sought his lip
And how he sucked his teeth, then heaved a sigh -
While all the time his agitated eye
Seemed haunted by a twisting in the air,
A fragrant effluence that wasn't there.

A1. These are thought to be references to scurrilous popular ballads.
A2. This passage has not been adequately explained. Dr Schmidt has observed that the maker shows signs of nicotine withdrawal, but most scholars regard this as implausible two centuries before this country's introduction to the doubtful pleasures of tobacco.
B1. This section exhibits perhaps the most extreme of the liberties I have taken. The doctrine of permanent revolution may not have been invented in the fourteenth century, but let us not forget that Chaucer was a contemporary of Wat Tyler and John Ball.
© Brian Fewster. Published in Envoi 129, June 2001

Link to the above sage's copying house
Return to main poetry index...
Return to home page