Some Penguin Classics seem like they must surely be an affront to the very nostrils of the Almighty, and surely if any Penguin Classics bids fair to seem so, it’s any Penguin Classic that dares to supplant one of the most beloved Penguin Classics of all time.
Obviously, we’re talking about Geoffrey Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’ – and that’s obvious before we ever get to editions or editors or talk of metrics, because surely there’s no English classic so beloved, so central to a national psyche, as this marvellous, unending book? Scholars have been fretting about just how ‘English’ a book it is, but the picayune particulars of provenance mean comparatively little against the sheer weight of tradition. Breton? Gascony? Who but a bloodless specialist would bother to mention such things when we’re talking about the very fons et origo of a country’s literature, the unmistakable beginnings of the peculiar British penchant for character-driven organic plotting? Chaucer is the soil for Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Dickens, and an entire literary tradition of making us root for characters even while we mock them, the tradition of giving us real life just slightly, just ever so perfectly enhanced. If we’re talking about a beloved classic, the starting exemplar of them all would be Chaucer’s greatest work.
And if we’re talking about beloved Penguin Classics, we could scarcely be talking about anything but Nevill Coghill’s best-selling 1952 modernization, one of the very first Penguin Classics in our Parade of Penguins. Coghill’s modernization of Chaucer was phenomenally popular as a radio program even before it became a Penguin Classic, and its subsequent sales virtually guaranteed that for thousands of students over the course of five decades, his version of Chaucer would be Chaucer. I’ve read his version countless times, in countless places across the face of the Earth, and it’s always managed to charm me. Any other Penguin Classic version of Chaucer would seem certain, as noted, to give offense.
Any other version of Chaucer … but not Chaucer himself.
That’s always the problem I have with modern-English versions of Chaucer, however inventive or talented they are (it’s this problem, I suspect, that’s prevented me from giving critical attention to any of the various modernizations that have wafted over the plate since I’ve been back at bat – I count four of them, all frenziedly ignored by yours truly, despite the fact that one of them was actually very, very good): they aren’t Chaucer, and no matter how good they are, they can’t ever be as good as Chaucer. I treasured the Coghill all those years by hearing Coghill’s clotted, adorable voice in my head when I read it – which was a very different thing from hearing Chaucer’s high, nasal, immediately likeable twanging in my head. Modernizations imply by their very existence that the original Chaucer is somehow beyond the reach of most latter day readers, but that actually isn’t the case. He’s still our most accessible inaccessible writer: a weak of study and practice, and you’re suddenly playing with English of an entirely different time.
With the possible exception of the Gawain poet, nobody in Chaucer’s day played with that English better than he did. Don’t get me wrong: I love the Coghill re-creation and I always will. He, too, has undeniable fun, as in the opening to the Cook’s Tale:
There was a prentice living in our town
Worked in the victualling trade, and he was brown,
Brown as a berry; spruce and short he stood,
As gallant as a goldfinch in the wood.
Black were his locks and combed with fetching skiill;
He danced so merrily, with such a will,
That he was known as Revelling Peterkin.
He was full of love, as full of sin
As hives are full of honey, and as sweet.
Lucky the wench that Peter chanced to meet.
At every wedding he would sing and hop,
And he preferred the tavern to the shop.
But in the fat, beautiful 2005 Penguin Classic update edited by the redoubtable Jill Mann, in addition to a humble Introduction and a whopping 300 pages of invaluable Notes, we get not the stained glass pattern, lovely as it is, but the glory of the merry sun itself:
A prentis whilom dwelled in oure citee,
And of a craft of vitaillers was he.
Gaillard he was a goldfinch in the shawe;
Broun as a berye, a propre short felawe,
With lokkes blake, ykembd ful festisly.
Dauncen he koude so wel and jolily
That he was cleped Perkin Revelour.
He was as ful of love and paramour
As is the hive ful of hony swete;
Wel was the wenche that with him mighte mete.
At every bridale wolde he singe and hoppe.
He loved bet the taverne than the shoppe,
For whan ther any riding was in Chepe,
Out of the shoppe thider wolde he lepe …
Coghill’s lines smile and wink at the reader. But Chaucer himself? He taps his toe, he claps his hands in time, he throws back his head and laughs with the sheer joy of making something so alive. An enterprising reader need only acclimate himself with Mann’s Introduction, maybe roll the some lines around the sides of his mouth for practice, and then that living, laughing text, just as the author wrote it, is right there on the page. No matter how good intermediaries are, they could never be as good as this.
And so I am well-pleased. Fancy that.