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The Wife of Bath is the other piece of Chaucer which Pope selected to imitate. One cannot but wonder at his choice, which perhaps nothing but his youth could excuse. Dryden, who is known not to be nicely scrupulous, informs us, that he would not versify it on account of its indecency. Pope, however, has omitted or softened the grosser and more offensive passages. Chaucer afforded him many subjects of a more sublime and serious species ; and it were to be wished Pope had exercised his pencil on the pathetic story of the patience of Grisilda, or Troilus and Cressida, or the Complaint of the Black Knight; or, above all, on Cambuscan and Canace. From the accidental circumstance of Dryden and Pope's having copied the gay and ludicrous parts of Chaucer, the common notion seems to have arisen, that Chaucer's vein of poetry was chiefly turned to the light and the ridiculous. But they who look into Chaucer will soon be convinced of this prevailing prejudice, and will find his comic vein, like that of Shakspeare, to be only like one of mercury, imperceptibly mingled with a mine of gold.
Mr. Hughes withdrew his contributions to a volume of Miscellaneous Poems, published by Steele, because this prologue was to be inserted in it, which he thought too obscene for the gravity of his character.
“ The want of a few lines,” says Mr. Tyrwhitt,“ to introduce The Wife of Bath's Prologue, is perhaps one of those defects which Chaucer would have supplied, if he had lived to finish his work. The extraordinary length of it, as well as the vein of pleasantry that runs through it, is very suitable to the character of the speaker. The greatest part must have been of Chaucer's own invention, though one may plainly see that he had been reading the popular invectives against marriage and women in general ; such as the Roman de la Rose, Valerius ad Rufinum de non ducenda uxore, and particularly Hyeronymus contra Jovinianum. The holy Father, by way of recommending celibacy, has exerted all his learning and eloquence (and he certainly was not deficient in either) to collect together and aggravate whatever he could find to the prejudice of the female sex. Among other things he has inserted his own translation (probably) of a long extract from what he calls, Liber aureolus Theophrasti de nuptiis. Next to him in order of time was the treatise, entitled, Epistola Valerii ad Rufinum de non ducenda uxore, ns. Reg. 12. D. iï. It has been printed (for the similarity of its sentiments I suppose) among the works of St. Jerome, though it is evidently of a much later date. Tanner (from Wood's MS. Collection) attributes it to Walter Map, (Bib. Brit. v. Map). I should not believe it to be older; as John of Salisbury, who has treated of the same subject in his Polycrat. 1. viii. c. xi., does not appear to have seen it. To these two books Jean de Meun has been obliged for some of the severest strokes in his Roman de la Rose; and Chaucer has transfused the quintessence of all the three works (upon the subject of matrimony) into his Wife of Bath's Prologue and Merchant's Tale."
THE WIFE OF BATH.
Behold the woes of matrimonial life,
Christ saw a wedding once, the Scripture says, And saw but one, 'tis thought, in all his days; 10 Whence some infer, whose conscience is too nice, No pious Christian ought to marry twice.
But let them read, and solve me, if they can, The words address'd to the Samaritan : Five times in lawful wedlock she was join'd: 15 And sure the certain stint was ne'er defin’d.
“ Increase and multiply,” was Heav'n's command, And that's a text I clearly understand. This too, “ Let men their sires and mothers leave, And to their dearer wives for ever cleave.” 20 More wives than one by Solomon were try'd, Or else the wisest of mankind's bely’d. I've had myself full many a merry fit; And trust in Heav'n I may have many yet.
For when my transitory spouse, unkind, 25
Paul, knowing one could never serve our turn,
I envy not their bliss, if he or she Think fit to live in perfect chastity ; Pure let them be, and free from taint or vice; I, for a few slight spots, am not so nice. Heav'n calls us diff'rent ways, on these bestows 40 One proper gift, another grants to those : Not every man's oblig'd to sell his store, And give up all his substance to the poor; Such as are perfect, may, I can't deny : But, by your leaves, divines, so am not I. 45
Full many a saint, since first the world began, Liv'd an unspotted maid, in spite of man : Let such (a God's name) with fine wheat be fed, And let us honest wives eat barley-bread. For me, I'll keep the post assign’d by Heav'n, 50 And use the copious talent it has giv’n : Let my good spouse pay tribute, do me right, And keep an equal reck’ning ev'ry night : His proper body is not his, but mine; For so said Paul, and Paul's a sound divine.
Know then, of those five husbands I have had, Three were just tolerable, two were bad. The three were old, but rich and fond beside, And toild most piteously to please their bride : 59 But since their wealth (the best they had) was mine, The rest, without much loss, I could resign. Sure to be loy'd I took no pains to please, Yet had more Pleasure far than they had Ease.
Presents flow'd in apace : with show'rs of gold, They made their court, like Jupiter of old. 65 If I but smil'd, a sudden youth they found, And a new palsy seiz'd them when I frown'd.
Ye sov'reign wives ! give ear, and understand, Thus shall ye speak, and exercise command. For never was it giv'n to mortal man, To lie so boldly as we women can : Forswear the fact, tho’seen with both his eyes, And call your maids to witness how he lies.
Hark, old Sir Paul ! ('twas thus I us’d to say) Whence is our neighbour's wife so rich and gay? 75 Treated, caress'd where'er she's pleas'd to roamI sit in tatters, and immur'd at home. Why to her house dost thou so oft repair? Art thou so am'rous ? and is she so fair? If I but see a cousin or a friend, Lord ! how you swell, and rage like any fiend ! But you reel home, a drunken beastly bear, Then preach till midnight in your easy chair ; Cry, Wives are false, and every woman evil, And give up all that's female to the devil. 85
If poor (you say), she drains her husband's purse ; If rich, she keeps her priest, or something worse ;