Monday, May 12, 2014

The comet comes and goes

So far we've only seen froth and clothing trailing behind Chaucer's Canon. Now a "male" is mentioned (a man or a pouch) on the "horse's" hind-quarters. It's a tweyfoold (twofold) indicating two parts.  (A "male" is also associated with the Parson and his brother as Gemini.) The Canon and his Yeoman (servant) are actually a double image. We'll pursue that as we get to know the two of them better.
     Action  begins as "a man" is seen trying to overtake the pilgrims. The narrator describes his streaming clothes, his light array, and his speed. He enters shouting.
          "God save," quote he, "this jolly company!
          Fast have I spurred," quote he, "for your sake,
          Because I would overtake you
          To ride in this merry company."
After this resounding greeting, his servant, who has arrived without notice, explains:
          . . . "Sirs, during the morning
          Out of your hostelry I saw you ride
          And informed my lord and sovereign here
          Who is very eager to ride with you
          For his amusement; he loves conversation."
     For all the Canon's desire to join the pilgrims and converse, there is no conversation. We learn about his lifestyle through questions the Host asks the servant, who appears eager to volunteer information.
     The Host asks,
          "Can he tell a merry tale or two, 
          With which he may glad this company?"
The servant replies,
          "Who sir? my lord? yes, yes, without a lie,
          . . . 
          If you knew him as well as I do
          You would wonder how well and craftily
          He could work and in how many ways.
          He has taken on many great enterprises."
Astrologically, the lines confide the power and influence of a comet.    
     The servant concludes a stream of disclosures with,
          "He is a man of high discretion
          I assure you, he is a passing man."
While "passing" usually intends great approval, the ambiguous sense here is movement passing high above.
     The Host inquires again:
          "Is he a cleric, or not? tell what he is."
The question asks what he is, rather than who he is. The talkative servant obliges.
          "Nay, he is greater than a cleric, for sure,"
          Said this Yeoman, "and in words few,
          Host, of his craft somewhat I will show you.
          . . . 
          That all this ground on which we are riding,
          Until we come to Canterbury town,
          He could clean turn it upside down
          And pave it all with silver and gold."
In the covert reading, of course, there is no ground beneath their feet; they are travelers in the firmament. Then a comet's glowing tail would naturally spread for miles.
     The Host becomes critical. How can the Canon's personality be as described?
          "Why is thy lord so slovenly, I pray thee.
          And he has the power better clothes to buy,
          If his deeds accord with thy speech?"
The penetrating query makes the servant hesitate.
          "Why?" said his Yeoman, "why do you ask me?
          God help me so, for he shall never thrive!
          (But I will not admit what I said,
          And therefore keep it secret, I pray you.)
      The Host persists.
          "Where do you dwell, if it can be told?"
Unable to resist informing, the servant replies:
          "Outside the walls of a town," said he,
          "Lurking in secret places and dark, hidden lanes
          Where robbers and thieves by their nature 
          Keep their private fearful residence,
          Like they that dare not show their faces;
          So we fare, if I say the truth."
Here Chaucer sketches where comets abide when unseen--where evil astrological forces reside.
     The Canon draws near and listens.
           And thus he said to his Yeoman:
          "Hold thou thy peace, and speak no words more,
          For if you do, you shall pay dearly for it.
          You slander me here in this company,
          And reveal what thou shouldst hide."
The Host encourages the servant:
          ". . . tell on, what happened.
          Don't be concerned over his threats."
     A one-line response follows:
          "In faith," said he, "I do no more that 'lyte.'"
If "he" is the  servant, then he is minimizing his disclosures:
          "In faith, I do no more that a little."
But if "lyte" is a play on light, "he" the Canon is claiming innocence of wrongdoing:
          "In faith, I do no more than light."
The Canon/comet protests that he is only an object of illumination.
     Now the Canon takes leave as suddenly as he came.
          And when this Canon saw it would not be,
          But that his Yeoman would tell his private matters,
          He fled away for sorrow and shame.
The poet creates an excuse for the Canon's departure. In allegory, once the Canon is identified as a comet, he must "leave as suddenly as he came." That's his role.    
     But wait, the informative servant has been left behind!

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