Charles Muscatine

The Nun's Priest's Tale

 

 

The Nun's Priest's Tale, much like the House of Fame, turns over a world of material, yet leaves an impression that is more of an inherent quality than of a specific teaching. It is above all brilliant, varied, a virtuoso performance. Though it contains a nugget of fable morality, its theme, like that of the earlier poem, is not found in the usual places, or expressed in the usual terms. The difference from the House of Fame -- to pass over many resemblances, as between the Eagle and the Cock -- is that here a theme so much more patently exists.


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Though the poem is as complex as the other, it is not confused. Formerly the poet scrambled among his materials; here he sees through them. So the Nun's Priest's Tale not only epitomizes the Canterbury Tales; it fittingly serves to cap all of Chaucer's poetry. And so I put it last. It is fitting, too, that a poetry so much involved with the French tradition should base its most representative poem on the Roman de Renart. I have no sympathy with the theories of common, primitive sources and isolated versions. Chaucer's "source" for the mock-heroic development of the tale can have been nothing less than the Roman itself102. " No separate animal fable or collection of fables could have presented the tale of the Cock and the Fox to him in an aura at once so cosmic and so comic. The Manciple's Tale is a creditable example of what Chaucer might do with an isolated moral fable. The Nun's Priest's TAe is greatly more expansive than fable because the Renart is scrutiny of its naked argument. If it is true that Chauntecleer and Pertelote are rounded characters, it is also true that they are chickens. To ask which one of them has the better in their scholarly debate over dreams is to be too solemn; it is to assume that chickens, too, are concerned with scholarship. The serious point is more in the anomalous fact of the chicken debate itself than in its outcome. The tale has recently been welcomed into the Marriage Group, but it says little about marriage that it does not unsay. With what marriage, indeed, can it be said to deal? The marriage of Chauntecleer in the varying lights of the poem is courtly and bourgeois, monogamous and polygamous, incestuous, and unsolemnized, a relationship of paramours. The tale seems to have an irreducible core of antifeminism, but by similar tokens it is feminist too:
But sovereynly dame Pertelote shrighte,
Ful louder than dide Hasdrubales wyf,
Whan that hir housbonde hadde lost his lyf,
And that the Romayns hadde brend Cartage.
She was so ful of torment and of rage
That wilfully into the fyr she sterte,
And brende hirselven with a stedefast herte.
[3362]

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The most deliciously ambiguous line in Chaucer is the Nun's Priest's "I kan noon harm of no womman divyne" (3266). Even the theme of Pride, which comes closer to the mark103, confounded finally by the tone of the poem:
Bifel that Chauntecleer in al his pryde, [3191]
His sevene wyves walknyge by his syde
. . .
The difference between this and animal fable is that this cannot long be taken more seriously in one direction than in the other. Fable respects the boundary between animal fiction and the human truth it illustrates. But the whole spirit of this poem is to erase or at least to overleap the boundaries: animal and human, fiction and truth severally join and separate, change partners and flirt here. The one constancy in the poem is this shifting of focus, the Chaucerian multiple perspective which itself virtually constitutes the theme.

With the Parliament, the Troilus, and many of the Tales behind us, there is no difficulty in recognizing the deliberate and controlled art with which Chaucer manipulates his materials. In the House of Fame the transformation of Dante's golden Eagle into a loquacious pedant, the sequence of Dantean rhetoric and colloquial dialogue, leaves one in doubt between irony and inconsistency, art and chance104. The superior clarity of the Nun's Priest's Tale at such points is owing to a more sensitive knowledge of the potency of the materials, a surer sense of their meanings in combination, and so a bolder hand in their management. The rhetoric of the Nun's Priest, like the Merchant's and the Pardoner's, is boldly rhetorical, artistically overdone. Chauntecleer's scholarship is overwhelmingly, deliciously pedantic. The opening description of the poor widow and her farm is notably compact and pointed in meaning. Its careful impression of temperance and simple sufficiency, its husbanding of sensory effect, evokes an archetypal humility. The cock's magnificence breaks out amid this carefully restrained setting with the best Chaucerian effect: it expands, climbs, brightens, then bursts like a rocket into a shower of color.

A yeerd she hadde, enclosed al aboute [2847]
With stikkes, and a drye dych withoute,
In which she hadde a cok, hight Chauntecleer.
In al the land of crowyng nas his peer.
His voys was murier than the murie orgon
On messe-dayes that in the chirche gon.
Wel sikerer was his crowyng in his logge
Than is a clokke or an abbey orlogge.
By nature he knew ech ascencioun

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Of the equynoxial in thilke toun;
For whan degrees fiftene weren ascended,
Thanne crew he, that it myghte nat been amended.
His coomb was redder than the fyn coral,
And batailled as it were a caste1 wal;
His byle was blak, and as the jeet it shoon;
Lyk asure were his legges and his toon;
His nayles whitter than the lylye flour,
And lyk the burned gold was his colour.
The transition from rhetoric and heroics back to the naturalism of the farm has the same candid shock effect; it is, indeed, much the same shift of perspective as when the squabble in the Parliament interrupts the gentle pleadings of noble lovers:
O woful hennes, right so criden ye, [3369]
As, when that Nero brende the citee
Of Rome, cryden senatoures wyves
For that hir husbondes losten alle hir lyves;
Withouten gilt this Nero hath hem slayn.
Now wole I turne to my tale agayn.
This sely wydwe and eek hir doghtres two
Herden thise hennes crie and maken wo,
And out at dores stirten they anon,
And syen the fox toward the grove gon,
And bar upon his bak the cok away,
And cryden, "Out! harrow! and weylaway!
Ha! ha! the fox!" and after hym they ran,
And eek with staves many another man. Ran Colle oure dogge, and Talbot, and Gerland,
And Malkyn, with a dystaf in hir hand;
Ran cow and calf, and eek the verray hogges,
So fered for the berkyng of the dogges
And shoutyng of the men and wommen eeke,
They ronne so hem thoughte hir herte breeke.
Not all the stylistic transitions have so thunderous an effect, nor are the various subjects that in turn occupy the field given equal elaboration. Exemplum and authority take almost two hundred verses in the debate between cock and hen; beauty is tested in a single image:

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"Madame Pertelote, so have I blis, [3258]
Of o thyng God hath sent me large grace;
For whan I se the beautee of youre face,
Ye been so scarlet reed aboute youre yen,
It maketh al my drede for to dyen."
The complicated optics of the poem can hold a number of views simultaneously; or it can shift from one to the next and back with lightness and rapidity:
Wommennes conseils been ful ofte colde; [3254]
Wommannes conseil broghte us first to wo,
And made Adam fro Paradys to go,
Ther as he was ful myrie and we1 at ese.
But for I noot to whom it myght displese,
If I conseil of wommen wolde blame,
Passe over, for I seyde it in my game.
Rede auctours, where they trete of swich mateere,
And what they seyn of wommen ye may heere.
Thise been the cokkes wordes, and nat myne;
I kan noon harm of no womman divyne.
It can produce a continuous band of overlapping views, as when Chauntecleer's magnificence passes into courtly love, and thence by the way of dreams and medical science into a most unromantic, domestic familiarity: "For Goddes love, as taak som laxatyf" (2943). Whatever the mode of altering and manipulating perspective, however, the fact of manipulation is always clear.

The context that confirms each particular stylistic device in its mock heroics is very broad. The plot of the poem, the description of the narrator, the dramatics of the pilgrimage frame, and the very sequence of the tales here all contribute to the one process of multiplying contradictions. The rich, jolly, secular Monk, with the fine horse and clinking bridle bells105, will relate nothing but a series of tragedies:

Tragedie is to seyn a certeyn storie, t9731
As olde bookes maken us memorie,
Of hym that stood in greet prosperitee,
And is yfallen out of heigh degree
Into myserie, and endeth wretchedly.
The Nun's Priest, whose "foul and lene" horse bespeaks a poverty much fitter for gloom, and whose anonymity prepares us for nothing more, tells a

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superbly humane tale, perhaps the best of all. The plot is tragic, until it ends happily. It is an allegory of the Fall -- leaving Man, somewhat wiser, still in possession of his paradise, or his chicken yard. The tale's proximate literary context is not limited to the Monk's Tale.

It easily extends itself, through "wommanes conseil," to the Tale of Melibee106.'" Through tragedy, eloquence, heroics, science, court flattery, courtly love, domesticity, dreams, scholarship, authority, antifeminism, patient humility and rural hullabaloo, there is scarcely a Chaucerian topic that is excluded from its purview and its criticism.

Unlike fable, the Nun's Priest's Tale does not so much make true and solemn assertions about life as it tests truths and tries out solemnities. If you are not careful, it will try out your solemnity too; it is here, doubtless, trying out mine. Some very great institutions lose importance in it, and some very humble ones are made magnificent. But considering Chaucer's reputation for satire and irony, the criticism in the tale needs less demonstration than does the wise conservatism that goes with it. The critical temper of the poem, unlike that of the Merchant's Tale, which is supported, by a similar configuration of styles, produces no negative effect, but a continuously humane suggestion of the relativity of things. The shifting style and the succession of topics never test long enough to serve a single view or a single doctrine or an unalterable judgment. Other tales adopt norms, then uncover differences according to their lights. This tale celebrates the normality of differences. If you take its humble, Griselda-like opening setting to represent a norm against which magnificence is satirized, you must reckon with the fox hunt that later turns the widow's dale and grove into a bedlam. Not can you say that Chauntecleer and chickens in one perspective are not truly magnificent. None of the targets of the poem's parodies are demolished, or even really hit at the center. There are senses in which the solemnities of courtly love, science, marriage, authority, eloquence, tragedy, the Monk, and the Tale of Melibee are funny, but the Nun's Priest's Tale does not make us feel that they are always funny. That would be the philosophy of the Cook, a fool who sees life as a continuous jape: "But God forbede that we stynte heere . . ."107

The tale quite literally fulfills its prologue, which promises a merry tale after heaviness; it offers no conclusion but that sublunary values are comically unstable. The only absolute virtue that its reading educes is an enlightened recognition of the problem of perception itself, the virtue of seeing:

"For he that wynketh, whan he sholde see,
Al wilfully, God lat him nevere thee!"

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The Nun's Priest's Tale is supremely Chaucerian in its poise before an overwhelming question. "What is this world?" That there is an absolute answer one can feel in the tacit security behind the Priest's humor, and in his sermonic conclusion:
But ye that holden this tale a folye,
As of a fox, or of a cok and hen,
Taketh the moralite, goode men.
For seint Paul seith that al that writen is,
To oure doctrine it is ywrite, ywis;
Taketh the fruyt, and lat the chaf be stille.
Now, goode God, if that it be thy wille,
As seith my lord, so make us alle goode men,
And brynge us to his heighe blesse! Amen.
His relativism is itself relative, and has its free play, after all, because he is talking about this world, not the other. But his piety is not, any more than are Chaucer's palinode and retraction, the main feature of his story. In the Nun's Priest's Tale, as altogether in the mature Chaucer, we are compelled to respect the conservative conclusion because the question has been so superbly well confronted. The tale's wit is, in little, the Chaucerian criticism; its forbearance is the Chaucerian tolerance. The Chaucerian mixed style illuminates the tale's microcosmic contradictions, just as it expresses, in large, the great capaciousness of Chaucer's humane vision.

 

From Chaucer and the French Tradition: A Study in Style and Meaning , Berkeley, 1957, pp. 237-243; printed with the permission of the author.

 

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