George Lyman Kittredge
Chaucer's Pardoner (Atlantic Monthly, 1893)
CHAUCER, the critics tell us, possessed a genius eminently dramatic, and a matchless talent for story-telling, but frequently allowed his mediaeval love of moralizing to defeat, for the moment, his narrative powers, and now and then grossly violated dramatic propriety, whether carelessly or from the exigencies of satire. As instances of the first of these sins are usually cited the self-satisfied speech of Nature in the Doctor's Tale, and the long soliloquizing excursus on free will and predestination in the Troilus. The most flagrant offense under the second head is commonly supposed to be the harangue of the Pardoner.
In The Doctor's Tale, Nature is produced in person, exhibiting her artistic masterpiece Virginia, and boasting of her in a showmanlike address to the public. The device may be granted absurd, and it certainly interferes with the flow of the narrative. But there is a further consideration, the character of the doctor. The doctor is a very formal person, from whom a degree of prosiness is to be expected. It was Chaucer's artistic duty, in the Canterbury Tales, -- as it has clearly been his purpose, -- not only to select stories appropriate to the several pilgrims, but to make the method of delivery correspond to the character of the teller. The offending passage in the Troilus must be justified, if at all, on other grounds. A long soliloquy on the foreknowledge of God, absolute necessity, necessity conditional, and free will is not quite what one expects from a Trojan prince whose love is going to the Grecian camp. But though a great anachronism, and though rather unskillfully brought in, the soliloquy is by no means an impertinence. The idea of fate is subtly insistent throughout the poem, -- it is perhaps even the key to Cressida's character; and surely, at this juncture, if ever, Troilus may have his thoughts about the mysterious inevitableness that is governing his life.
These and other considerations make it worth while to look with some scrutiny at what passes for Chaucer's great sin against dramatic propriety, the confession of the Pardoner.
The Pardoner, it is said, exposes himself with unnaturally frank cynicism. He might properly indulge in a sly sneer at the pretenses of his vocation; but to proclaim that his relies are a sham; to declare that his
"Intent is only for to win,
And nothing for correction of sin,"
and that when once the penitents' money in his pouch he does not care if their "souls go a-blackberrying" after death; to avow in a coolly casual way that he is himself "a full vicious man," -- all this is dramatically impossible. But this not all: after the tale is finished, the Pardoner, according to the usual view, is so foolish as to try his impostures on very audience which he has just enlightened as to his own vices and the tricks of his trade.
An attempt is sometimes made to account for these absurdities by a reference to the Roman de la Rose. The character of the Pardoner is in part a reproduction of the False-Semblant of that poem, and False-Semblant, as an allegorical personage, is not bound by dramatic law. It is a convention of satire, illustrated in a drastic way by Garnet's speech in Oldham, to make an odious character describe himself unsparingly, -- a trick absurd in itself, but no more absurd than such conventions as the long " aside " in the drama. This defense, or explanation, has always been felt to be unsatisfactory. Chaucer is not a reformer. He is not even, if rightly taken, a satirist. His aim is not to reconstruct the Church or to ameliorate
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humanity, but to depict certain characters, and to let them tell stories. He has no right to resort to conventions which, permissible to one who depicts a character ad hoc, are unjustifiable in one who depicts a character for its own sake. It is an equally weak defense to allege that the Pardoner is drunk. One draught of ale, however "moist and corny," would never fuddle so seasoned a drinker. Besides, he manifests none of the signs of intoxication. Unless, then, it can be shown that the character of the Pardoner is consistent with itself and with nature, the poet has blundered; and the gravity of his blunder is increased by the excellence of the Pardoner's Tale, perhaps the best short narrative poem in the language. In general, Chaucer shows exquisite delicacy in fitting the various Canterbury tales to the characters of the tellers. In the present case, we have a beautiful story, wonderfully told, put into the mouth of a vulgar, prating rascal, not only destitute of moral and intellectual dignity, but so lacking in common sense that he cannot hold his tongue about his own impostures. Yet the prologue, the tale, and the epilogue all show Chaucer at the height of his powers. It is possible that an explanation of the problem may be found by considering all the available evidence as to the Pardoner's character. It may appear from such an examination that his character is consistent throughout, and of a kind to make the apparent impropriety of the introductory confession in conformity to nature.
In the first place, then, we may be sure that the Pardoner is a thorough-paced scoundrel. His bulls of popes and cardinals may be genuine, -- it would in any case not do for him to confess to the felony of forging the pope's seal, but his relics are counterfeit, and he has no illusions about the holiness of his mission. He preaches for money, and has no concern for the reformation of morals or for genuineness of repentance on the part of those who offer to his relics, and receive his absolution. He is skillful at his business: it has brought him in a hundred marks (almost seven hundred pounds in our values) a year since be first took it up. Like all clever impostors, he is proud of his dexterity. Under ordinary circumstances, prudence would constrain him to suppress the exhibition of this pride; but the circumstances are not ordinary. He is not on his rounds. The pilgrims are a company associated by chance, and likely never to assemble again after their return supper at Harry Bailly's. If they repeat his words, it will not much matter. He cannot labor in his vocation while he is with them, and none of them are likely to cross his path in the future. They are not of the kind among whom he is used to ply his arts. His best field is the country village. To be sure, the parson and the ploughman are from the country; but the character of the parson makes the parish which he administers a forbidden region to such loose fish as the Pardoner. One of the ordinary restraints on freedom of self-revelation, then, is wanting: he need fear no disagreeable consequences.
Farther, the unsoundness of the Pardoner's morals is known to the company before he begins his cynical confessions. He may pose as a holy man when he is swindling the peasantry of some remote hamlet; but hypocritical airs and graces would be absurdly futile among his present companions. That there has been no attempt at such posturing is made clear enough by the host, the gentles, and the Pardoner himself. The host calls on the Pardoner for a merry tale; the Pardoner assents with an alacrity which warrants vehement suspicion, and the gentles protest that they want no ribaldry, and insist on something elevated and instructive. This is significant enough of the impression the Pardoner has made on his traveling companions. The Pardoner easily adapts himself to
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the temper of his audience. It is his business to know moral tales. He has his sermons by heart, and most of these, as a matter of course contain an exemplum, an anecdote which can be "improved " to the edification of a church-ful of laymen. But before beginning he feels the need of refreshment.
'I graunte ywis,'quod he,'but I moot thynke
Upon som honest thyng whil that I drynke.'
Not that he has "to think awhile before he can recollect some decent thing," as has been suggested. He is honestly thirsty, and glad of an excuse to quench his thirst, no doubt; but, being a man of ability and eloquence, be must have plenty of "honest things" at his tongue's end.
Perhaps we have now facts enough to explain the self-revelation of the Pardoner's prologue. He knows what his fellow-travelers think of him; he has just consented to tell an over-facetious story; he is now about to preach a highly edifying sermon. There is no opportunity to pull wool over the eyes of his hearers, even if there were any motive for it. Sure that they will perceive the enormous discrepancy between his character and his teaching, the Pardoner is impatient of occupying the position of a futile hypocrite. He is too clever a knave to wish others to take him for a fool. Hence these cynical confessions at the outset, the dramatic purpose of which is now clear. The Pardoner is, in effect, saying to the pilgrims: "I am about to tell you a moral tale. I am going to preach you one of my sermons. You will find the sentiments of this sermon unexceptionable. Do not think, however, that I expect you to believe me in earnest. You know what kind of fellow I am, and this is my trade."
With these feelings, then, the Pardoner begins his tale or sermon. Knowing it by heart, as he tells us himself, and being accustomed to preach with great unction, he is soon rapt into the same mood of conventional earnestness that he has found so effective in the pulpit. By the time he arrives at the ejaculations on the wickedness of sin and the horrors of homicide, gluttony, lechery, and gambling, which (though marked "auctor " by the officious stupidity of some scribe) form the "application " of the whole discourse, he is at a white heat of zeal. Forgetful of his surroundings, he does not stop with the "application," but goes on to the exhortation with which he regularly concludes his harangues: --
"Now, good men, God foryeve yow your trespas,
And ware yow fro the sinne of avarice!
Myn holy pardoun may yow alle wariee,
So that ye offre nobles or sterlinges,
Or elles silver broches, spones, ringes.
Boweth your heed under this holy bulle!
Cometh up, ye wyves, offreth of your wolle!
Your name I entre heer in my rolle anon,
Into the blisse of heven shul ye gon;
I yow assoile, by myn heigh power,
Yow that wol offre, as clene and eek as cleer
As ye were born. -- And lo, sirs, thus I preche;
And Jesu Crist, that is our soules leche,
So graunte yow his pardoun to receyve,
For that is best, I wol yow not deceyve!"
The last four lines of this passage are particularly significant. The Pardoner's invitation to come up and offer to the relics and receive absolution is glaringly out of place in a speech to his fellow-travelers, to whom he has already made full confession of the emptiness of his pretensions. "Come up, ye wives, and offer of your wool!" has no appropriateness when addressed to the pilgrims. Perceiving the absurdity, the speaker pulls himself up with the explanatory "This is the kind of sermon I am in the habit of delivering." ("And lo, airs, thus I preche.")
So far, all is plain sailing. We might suppose the preacher carried away by professional enthusiasm, and forgetting just where he ought to have stopped. We might suppose, on the other hand, that he wished to give his hearers a
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complete specimen of his discourses, final invitation and all. But what shall we think of his next words? --
"And lo, sirs, thus I preche;
And Jesu Crist, that is our soules leche,
So graunto yow his pardoun to receyve,
For that is best, I wol yow nat deceyve!"
It may be that these words, apparently so out of consonance with anything we have yet heard from the Pardoner, furnish the key to his character. May we not believe that the beautiful and impressive story that he has just told -- a story that no one can read without emotion -- has moved even him, though he has told it a thousand times before in the way of his profession? The unusual circumstances under which he has preached his sermon may have assisted in producing this effect. For once, perhaps, the hideous incongruity between his preaching and the profligate invitation to come up and be pardoned through the efficacy of his trumpery relics has appeared to him. Possibly we may venture to think that the Pardoner, moved by his own tale, went on mechanically to this professional invitation, perceived its absurd inopportuneness with a start, and thus had its hypocritical villainy suddenly projected in his own mind against the beauty and impressiveness of his tale. This would still further increase his emotion, which, after an explanatory "And lo, sirs, thus I preche," finds vent in an ejaculation profoundly affecting in its reminiscence of the Pardoner's better nature, which he had himself thought dead long ago. "My pardon," he says, "is of no account, as you know. God grant that you receive Christ's pardon, which is better than mine. I will not deceive you, though deceit is my business."
Of course this better mood can last but a moment. There is no question of repentance or reformation, for the Pardoner is a lost soul. The reaction comes instantly, and is to the extreme of reckless jesting. Aware that the pilgrims know him thoroughly by this time, for he has even taken pains to reveal himself, he nevertheless impudently urges them to kiss the relics and make offering and receive pardon. The invitation has sometimes been taken as given in dead earnest; but this is inconceivable. It would imply superhuman folly on the speaker's part to try to deceive the pilgrims when he has just warned them against his own deceit. Besides, we have evidence that the Pardoner hurries into this strain of reckless jocularity to escape from the serious mood that has surprised him.
"But, sirs, o word forgat I in my tale,"
are the words with which he begins the closing passage, and these very words indicate his confusion. For he has not forgotten his relics. On the contrary, he has just been talking about them, and praising their efficacy. The whole passage is jocose. At the end, he turns to the host, and pointedly suggests that he begin, as being the most sinful of the company. This remark alone would suffice to indicate how little serious purpose there is in the proposition of the Pardoner. The host is the last person to yield to seductive suggestions of this sort in any case, and it would be idle to expect him to do so after the full revelation of himself that the Pardoner has made.
The host, who of course has no knowledge of the conflict of feelings through which the Pardoner is passing, naturally replies in a strain of coarse raillery. Under ordinary circumstances, the effect of this jesting on the Pardoner would be to evoke a still more scurrilous response. He must often have bandied words in all good nature with persons of the host's freedom of speech, and there is no reason to suppose that he is constitutionally thin-skinned. Under ordinary circumstances, too, so fluent a man as the Pardoner, if he got angry, would have plenty of words in which to
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vent his wrath. On the present occasion rage makes him dumb.
"This Pardoner answered not a word:
So wroth he was no word he wolde seye."
The inference seems to be plain. The contest of feelings in the Pardoner's mind, the momentary return to sincerity, which must have been accompanied by profound emotion, the revulsion of feeling indicated by his jesting proposition to his fellow-travelers, are too much for his equanimity. When the host replies with a scurrile jest, he is simply too angry to speak. That this is the correct interpretation of the course of events is further substantiated by the surprise which the host feels at this, to him, inexplicable anger on the part of the Pardoner. He has not noticed the Pardoner's moment of emotion; he has, therefore, supposed the jesting to be of the ordinary sort, and he feels injured that his reply is taken in ill part.
"`Now,' quod our host, 'I wol no lenger pleye
With thee, ne with no other angry man.'"
The knight makes up the quarrel, which of course neither party wishes to prolong, and the company rides on as before.
If these considerations are sound, we have in Chaucer's treatment of the Pardoner no violation of dramatic propriety, but, on the contrary, the subtlest piece of character delineation the poet has ever attempted. The Pardoner is an able and eloquent man, a friar, very likely, who had entered his order with the best purposes, or, at any rate, with no bad aims, and with possibilities of good in him, and had grown corrupt with its corruption. His debasement seems to be utter, for one must not forget the picture in the general prologue. Nothing but a ribald story appears possible from him. But, by showing us the man in a moment of moral convulsion, Chaucer has invested him with a sort of dignity which justifies the poet in putting into his mouth one of the most beautiful as well as one of the best told tales in the whole collection.
If the considerations referred to be not sound, there is no explaining away the difficulties: the cynical prologue remains a monstrous absurdity; the error in tact involved in giving a despicable fellow a magnificent tale to tell seems ultimate; the earnest remark of the Pardoner that Christ's pardon is better than his is a piece of impertinence; the Pardoner's anger at the host's jesting is improbable; the dumbness of his wrath is out of character; and the surprise of the host at his losing his temper is nugatory. The interpretation suggested seems not only to be in harmony with all the phenomena, but even to explain some phenomena otherwise inexplicable except as blunders. That a fortuitous collection of blunders should combine to make up a subtle piece of character delineation is not impossible, perhaps, but is hardly what one would expect. Is it not reasonable, then, to accept an interpretation of the prologue and the tale which brings them into harmony with what we know of Chaucer's exquisite delicacy of portraiture, and wonderful power of dramatically adapting his stories to their tellers, particularly as the Pardoner's Tale must have been written when all his powers were at their height?
George Lyman Kittredge