In Chaucer's work, 'The Canterbury Tales', perhaps the greatest of English literary works from the period of the language known as Middle English, there is one particular piece that have always stood out for me.
'A Clerk ther was of Oxenford also,'
This is perhaps my favourite character, as when I first read it, it seemed to epitomise what I hoped for in my own life.
'That unto logik hadde longe y-go.
For him was lever have at his beddes heed
Twenty bokes, clad in blak or reed,
Of Aristotle and his philosophye,
Than robes riche, of fithele, or gay sautrye,
But al be that he was a philosophre,
Yet hadde he but litel gold in cofre,
But al that he mighte of his freendes hente,
On bokes and on lerninge he it spente,
and bisily gan for the soules preye
Of hem that yaf him wherwith to scoleye.
...gladly wolde he lerne, and gladly teche.'
Every now and then I cannot help but re-read this part of the Prologue, for a reminder of what I'm aiming for in my own life.
Chaucer was son of a wine merchant, something near and dear to my heart. Chaucer was well-read, well-phrased, well-mannered, industrious in literary and legal/administrative pursuits, as I trust I will become, if not already so qualified.
As one can see from the above examples, English has changed much over the past 600 years, but not so much as to make these passages unrecognisable. Compare for yourself with a modern translation, and see how much you can decipher.
Chaucer is one of the first great English authors of name; most (but not all) literary output in English prior to this time was anonymous. Living in the 1300s, he held administrative posts of importance under Kings from the time of Edward III to Henry IV. Never one to shrink from spending too much money (he had to reapply for pensions and ask for advances several times in his life) or shying away from controversy (he fell out of and came back into favour several times). When he died, he was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey, in a section on the south side that has since become Poet's Corner, largely due to Chaucer, the first great English poet, having been buried there.
In addition to his magnus opus, 'The Canterbury Tales', a collection of stories with prologue told by pilgrims on their journey to Canterbury (car radios and in-flight movies were rare in those days), Chaucer wrote minor poems to suit various occasions (his first record as poet comes from having written a poem as elegy on the death of John of Gaunt's first wife, Blanche, in 1369), and the major work for which he was noted for 'Troilus and Criseyde', which showed his sense of humour, power of observation and attention to detail, and keen dramatic skills in language. This work is often compared to Dante and Boccaccio, perhaps the most famous poets of the day. 'The Canterbury Tales' is actually intended to be much longer - 120 tales told by 30 pilgrims (two each on the way to Canterbury, and two each returning). As it is, there are only 24 tales plus a prologue - had it been completed, it would be by far the longest poem in the English language.
There is a strong, practical side to Chaucer's writing, sophisticated yet not aloof and removed from the affairs of the world, cultured yet in tune with the better (and more interesting) aspects of the common people, too.
This edition by A. Kent Hieatt and Constance Hieatt is designed for those who want the major portions of the Canterbury Tales. Be advised, this is not a complete or annotated set, and the translations from Middle English to modern idiom, while good, do not come with notes to explain possible choices and phrases. This is a book to give the flavour of the major stories, and is designed for readers who want the story rather than the details. As a Bantam book, it is designed for the undergraduate or general reader, and serves this audience well.
For those who want the Canterbury Tales in basic form, this might well be the volume to get.