I tend not to think of Geoffrey Chaucer (c.1340-1400) as a lyric poet, but more as a kind of story-teller in verse whose strengths lay in narrative and characterisation but who rarely achieved, or even tried for, that concentrated essence of language one looks for in lyric poetry. Yet there is this passage from the end of ‘The Knight’s Tale’, where the dying Arcite speaks a farewell to his love Emily. I suppose it is standard enough stuff for the time, but there are two lines in it that I find quite haunting: ‘But I biquethe the servyce of my ghost/To yow aboven every creature.’ Possibly this too was a standard conceit, as a better mediaeval scholar than I might know, and yet, asking myself why I should find them so affecting, I realise it is because they express for me something quintessential about the craft we practise, about that state of grace that poets, who tend by nature to be selfish or at least self-preoccupied creatures, may nonetheless enter when, desiring nothing except to be of use, they offer the service of their spirit to something beloved, something beyond themselves.
I don’t know how much ‘The Canterbury Tales’ are read for pleasure these days. A pity if not: the language, once you get accustomed to the antique spelling, is far more straightforward than, say, a good deal of Shakespeare. You do need to do a bit of cherry picking though – some of the tales, like Chaucer’s own, are definite duds; others, like ‘The Franklin’s Tale’, have a bit too much mediaeval baggage. I think ‘The Pardoner’s Tale’ makes a good sampling point: this is the one where three men, having heard that one of their comrades has died, set out to kill that ‘privee theef men clepeth Deeth/That in this contree al the people sleeth’. It does not end well for them.
From ‘The Knight’s Tale’
Thanne seyde he thus, as ye shal after heere:
‘Naught may the woful spirit in myn herte
Declare o point of alle my sorwes smerte
To yow, my lady, that I love moost.
But I biquethe the servyce of my ghost
To yow aboven every creature.
Syn that my lyf may no lenger dure,
Allas, the wo! Allas, the peynes stronge,
That I for yow have suffred, and so longe!
Allas, the deeth! Allas, myn Emelye!
Allas, departynge of our compaignye!
Allas, myn hertes queene! allas, my wyf!
Myn hertes lady, endere of my lyf!
What is this world? What asketh men to have?
Now with his love, now in his colde grave,
Allone, withouten any compaignye.
Fare-wel, my swete foo, myn Emelye!’