Some Penguin Classics just feel like home, and Nevill Coghill’s 1951 edition of The Canterbury Tales is one of them. It has all the elements of the quintessential Classics design: the super-flexible binding, the endearingly cheap paper, the sturdy, unpretentious Introduction, the unassumingly great supporting notes, etc.

It’s been a big financial success for Penguin over the decades, probably in large part due to its handiness as a trot for students plowing their way through Chaucer’s Middle English for the first time. It’s been popular for centuries to ‘modernize’ Chaucer’s verse (still popular – Burton Raffel and Peter Ackroyd have both attempted it just in the last couple of years), smooth out the rhymes, replace the dead words with still-living ones, perhaps prune or simplify some of Chaucer’s omnipresent literary allusions. Devotees of Chaucer (in their ever-dwindling numbers, alas) will look upon such efforts with dismay – even a mini-masterpiece like Coghill’s will leave them saying “Why not just READ Chaucer instead?”

I should stress here that I’m not advocating the one over the other. There’s wit and playfulness and sheer skill in Chaucer’s verse that cannot be ‘translated’ into modern English, despite opinions to the contrary from no less a source than Dryden. Coghill gives us the cringe-inducingly pompous comments Dryden makes in a preface to one of his own modernizations:

I have translated some parts of his works, only that I might perpetuate his memory, or at least refresh it, amongst my countrymen. If I have altered him anywhere for the better, I must at the same time acknowledge, that I could have done nothing without him …

Coghill’s own preface is far more humble, and its enthusiasms are still fresh, even after all these decades:

In all literature there is nothing that touches or resembles the Prologue. It is the concise portrait of an entire nation, high and low, old and young, male and female, lay and clerical, learned and ignorant, rogue and righteous, land and sea, town and country, but without extremes. Apart from that stunning clarity, touched with nuance, of the characters presented, the most noticeable thing about them is their normality. They are the perennial progeny of men and women. Sharply individual, together they make a party.

Chaucer began work in earnest on the Tales around 1386, with the grand plan apparently being that each of his group of pilgrims to the shrine of Thomas Beckett in Canterbury would tell two tales on the way there and two tales on the way back. Those tales, plus all the bridging segments (and it’s doubtful the poet could have resisted a showpiece about Canterbury itself, or a bravura leave-taking), would have made a truly enormous work, but Chaucer never came close to finishing it. What we have is a precious handful of tales (still too many, in the opinion of countless high school students forced to plod through them instead of reading what they like) that constitute (Dryden’s quote again) “God’s plenty.” Few things in literature are as diverting as Chaucer’s verse; almost nothing feels so much like an old friend as The Canterbury Tales.

Coghill’s modern English version has helped countless of those unwilling high schoolers to at least know what they’re reading, although with a little effort they could have read the author directly. Like I said, something is inevitably lost in the translation, although Coghill’s version at least trumps most other modernizations in being readable and enjoyable in its own right. Take a little bit from the Merchant’s Tale:

When God created Adam, flesh and bone,
And saw him belly-naked and alone,
He of His endless goodness thus began:
‘Let us now make a help-meet for this man
Like to himself.’ And He created Eve.

That’s friendly, fluid stuff – although who isn’t pleased more by poet himself:

The hye god, whan he hadde Adam maked,
And saugh him al alone, bely-naked,
God in his grete goodness seyde than,
‘Lat us now make an help un-to this man
Lyk to him-self;’ and thanne he made him Eve.

And again in this Penguin – as in so many other Penguins – one of the main draws besides the canonical work being presented is the critical apparatus presented alongside it. As we’ll see over and over in our Parade of Penguins, it’s this critical apparatus – the Introductions and Notes – that often provides the perfect finishing touch to the whole package. Coghill in this case provides ample but not intrusive notes to elaborate some of the near-endless allusions and name-dropping in which Chaucer indulges, and Coghill’s clarifications are often both succinct and tongue-in-cheek, as in this note about the use of images:

The Doctor worked by what Chaucer calls ‘Natural Magic’ (here translated as ‘the powers of favourable planets’). Small images or effigies, moulded, probably in wax, to represent the patient, or other sorts of talisman or text, would be hung on the patient at hours when his horoscope indicated that the planets were favourably placed for him, in relation to the zodiac; at such hours (as if by what we call ‘cosmic rays’) virtue was believed to descend into these images, etc., and thence to the patient, with healing effect. Faith is a great healer.

(Indeed it is, although it can’t cure a closed mind – this particular note has been removed from most later reprints of this volume – perhaps for offending some students, or their parents?)

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve read The Canterbury Tales, or in how many countries and weathers and moods, but I know many of those times the Tales I was reading were Coghill’s version of Chaucer rather than Chaucer himself (little Penguin paperbacks being exceedingly easy to pack and remarkably durable against all manner of traveler’s mishap) – it’s a testament to Coghill’s great, humble achievement here that I was almost equally happy in either case.

  • Leo

    I’ve always enjoyed reading The Canterbury Tales, although I have to say getting through The Squire’s and Parson’s tales is trying sometimes. One of the assignments my Chaucer professor gave us was to find the craziest, most far out published interpretation of one of the tales. I love literary criticism, but some of the stuff that gets published…

    I’ve always avoided using modern English versions of Middle English texts in favor of the original as long as I can at least keep track. Anything older though and I’m totally at the mercy of footnotes/translation.

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