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THE WIFE OF BATH.
The Wife of Bath is the other piece of Chaucer which Pope selected to imitate. One cannot but wonder at his choice, which perhaps nothing but his youth could excuse. Dryden, who is known not to be nicely scrupulous, informs us, that he would not versify it on account of its indecency. Pope, however, has omitted or softened the grosser and more offensive passages. Chaucer afforded him many subjects of a more sublime and serious species ; and it were to be wished Pope had exercised his pencil on the pathetic story of the patience of Grisilda, or Troilus and Cressida, or the complaint of the Black Knight ; or, above all, on Cambuscan and Canace. From the accidental circumstance of Dryden and Pope's having copied the gay and ludicrous parts of Chaucer, the common notion seems to have arisen, that Chaucer's vein of poetry was chiefly turned to the light and the ridiculous. But they who look into Chaucer will soon be convinced of this prevailing prejudice, and will find his comic vein, like that of Shakespear, to be only like one of mercury, imperceptibly mingled with a mine of gold.
Mr. Hughes withdrew his contributions to a volume of Miscellaneous Poems, published by Steele, because this prologue was to be inserted in it.
“ The want of a few lines,” says Mr. Tyrwhitt, “ to introduce The Wife of Bath's Prologue, is perhaps one of those defects which Chaucer would have supplied, if he had lived to finish his work. The extraordinary length of it, as well as the vein of pleasantry that runs through it, is very suitable to the character of the speaker. The greatest part must have been of Chaucer's own invention, though one may plainly see that he had been reading the popular invectives against marriage, and women in general ; such as the Roman de la Rose, Valerius ad Rufinum de non ducendâ uxore, and particularly Hieronymus contra Jovinianum. The holy Father, by way of recommending celibacy, has exerted all his learning and eloquence (and he certainly was not deficient in either) to collect together and aggravate whatever he could find to the prejudice of the female sex. Among other things he has inserted his own translation (probably) of a long extract from what he calls, Liber aureolus Theophrasti de nuptiis. Next to him in order of time was the treatise, entitled, Epistola Valerii ad Rufinum de non ducendâ uxore, ns. Reg. 12. D. iii. It has been printed (for the similarity of its sentiments I suppose) among the works of St. Jerome, though it is evidently of a much later date. Tanner (from Wood's MSS. Collection) attributes it to Walter Map. (Bib. Brit. v. Map.) I should not believe it to be older ; as John of Salisbury, who has treated of the same subject in his Polycrat. I. viii. c. xi. does not appear to have seen it. To these two books Jean de Meun has been obliged for some of the severest strokes in his Roman de la Rose ; and Chaucer has transfused the quintessence of all the three works (upon the subject of matrimony) into his Wife of Bath's Prologue and Merchant's Tale."--Warton.
BEHOLD the woes of matrimonial life,
Christ saw a wedding once, the Scripture says,
! I have a curious book, entitled, A Commentary upon the Two Tales of our ancient, renowned, and ever living Poet, Sir JEFFREY CHAUCER, Knight ; who, for his rich fancy, pregnant invention, and present composure, deserved the countenance of a Prince, and of his laureat honours : THE MILLER'S TALE; and THE WIFE OF BATH. Printed by William Godbid, and to be sold by Peter Dring at the Sun, in the Poultry, near the Rose tavern. 1665.
The author in the Dedication signs himself R. B. ; and in the advertise
“ This comment was an essay whereto the author was importuned by persons of quality, to compleat with brief, pithy, and proper illustrations, suitable to the subject !”
It appears from it, that the character of Chaucer was not well understood by the age in which this book was written ; as it appears the Comment was undertaken to point out the humorous and truly comic talent of our ancient bard, which was not at the time appreciated. A short specimen will suffice :
“ Of five husbands scolynge am I
Welcome the sixth whenever he shall dy. “ The thought is taken : all flesh is mortal ; but of all flesh she would “ have none more mortal than her husband's. She would ever have her
aged husbands look like Death's head ; meantime her sage admonitions " are never wanting to bid him remember his end. Life is a trouble, but of “ all others she is most troubled with his life. Thus dictates she of her “ husband's pilgrimage ; which by how much the shorter, it is for her all the “ better,” &c.
However trifling such things may appear, I mention them, to 'show the light in which Chaucer's character was held at the time : and I shall add a few words from the Appendix, to show the Author's good sense,
But let them read, and solve me, if they can, The words address'd to the Samaritan : Five times in lawful wedlock she was join'd; 15 And sure the certain stint was ne'er defin'd. “ Encrease and multiply," was Heav'n's com
mand, And that's a text I clearly understand. This too, “ Let men their sires and mothers leave, “ And to their dearer wives for ever cleave.”
20 More wives than one by Solomon were try'd, Or else the wisest of mankind's bely'd. I've had myself full many a merry fit ; And trust in Heav'n I may have many yet. For when my transitory spouse, unkind,
25 Shall die, and leave his woeful wife behind, I'll take the next good Christian I can find.
Paul, knowing one could never serve our turn, Declar'd 'twas better far to wed than burn. There's danger in assembling fire and tow;
30 I grant 'em that, and what it means you know. The same Apostle too has elsewhere own'd, No precept for Virginity he found : 'Tis but a counsel-and we women still Take which we like, the counsel, or our will. 35
I envy not their bliss, if he or she Think fit to live in perfect chastity;
Appendix to Comments. “ After such time as the Author, upon the instancy of sundry persons "of quality, had finished his Comments upon these two Tales, the perusal “ of them begot that influence over the clear and weighty judgements of the “strictest and rigidest Censors ; as their high approvement of them “ induced their importunity to the Author to go on with the rest, as he
had successfully done with these two first : ingeniously protesting, that they had not read any subject discoursing by way of IllusTRATION, and running DESCANT, on such light, but HARMLESS fancies, more handsomely couched, or modestly shadowed. All which, though urgently pressed, “could make no impression on the AUTHOR, for his definite answer was
this, That his age, without any other appellant, might render his apology ; “and privilege him from Commenting on CONCEPTIONS, being never so pregnant, being interveined with levity ; saying,
Of such light toys hee'd ta’n a long adieu.”— Bowles.
Pure let them be, and free from taint or vice;
45 Full many a Saint, since first the world began, Liv’d an unspotted maid, in spite of man: Let such (a God's name) with fine wheat be fed, And let us honest wives eat barley-bread. For me, I'll keep the post assign'd by heav'n,
50 And use the copious talent it has giv’n: Let my good spouse pay tribute, do me right, And keep an equal reck’ning ev'ry night : His proper body is not his, but mine; For so said Paul, and Paul's a sound divine.
55 Know then, of those five husbands I have had, Three were just tolerable, two were bad. The three were old, but rich and fond beside, And toild most piteously to please their bride : But since their wealth (the best they had) was mine, The rest, without much loss, I could resign.
61 Sure to be lov’d, I took no pains to please, Yet had more Pleasure far than they had Ease.
Presents flow'd in apace: with show'rs of gold, They made their court, like Jupiter of old.
65 If I but smild, a sudden youth they found, And a new palsy seiz'd them when I frown'd.
Ye sov’reign wives ! give ear, and understand,
Hark, old Sir Paul! ('twas thus I us'd to say) Whence is our neighbour's wife so rich and gay y? 75 Treated, caress'd, where'er she's pleas'd to roamI sit in tatters, and immur'd at home. Why to her house dost thou so oft repair ? Art thou so am'rous? and is she so fair? If I but see a cousin or a friend,
80 Lord ! how you swell, and rage like any fiend ! But you reel home, a drunken beastly bear, Then preach till midnight in your easy chair ; Cry, Wives are false, and every woman evil, And give up all that's female to the devil.
85 If poor (you say) she drains her husband's purse; If rich, she keeps her priest, or something worse; If highly born, intolerably vain, Vapours and pride by turns possess her brain, Now gayly mad, now sourly splenetic,
90 Freakish when well, and fretful when she's sick. If fair, then chaste she cannot long abide, By pressing youth attack'd on ev'ry side: If foul, her wealth the lusty lover lures, Or else her wit some fool-gallant procures,
95 Or else she dances with becoming grace, Or shape excuses the defects of face. There swims no goose so grey, but soon or late, She finds some honest gander for her mate. Horses (thou say'st) and asses men may try,
100 And ring suspected vessels ere they buy : But wives, a random choice, untry'd they take, They dream in courtship, but in wedlock wake; Then, not till then, the veil's remov'd
away, And all the woman glares in open day.
105 You tell me, to preserve your wife's good grace, Your eyes must always languish on my face, Your tongue with constant flatt'ries feed my ear, And tag each sentence with, My life! my dear!