Chaucer: The Parson’s Tale
Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
THE PARSON’S TALE
Since the Manciple began in the morning, the time scheme has been distorted accordingly; there’s a sense now of “the chill and urgency of the late afternoon” (Donaldson 1113).
By that the Maunciple hadde his tale al ended,
The sonne fro the south lyne was descended
So lowe that he nas nat, to my sighte,
Degrees nyne and twenty as in highte.
Foure of the clokke it was tho, as I gesse,
For ellevene foot, or litel moore or lesse,
My shadwe was at thilke tyme….
The Host insists, “Now lakketh us no tales mo than oon. / Fulfilled is my sentence and my decree” (16). (And don’t raise any objections or you’ll have to pay for that final dinner!) He turns to the Parson: “For trewely, me thynketh by thy cheere / Thou sholdest knytte up wel a greet mateere. / Telle us a fable anon, for cokkes bones!” (27-29). The Parson is alien to the Host. This figural priest has remained in the background despite all the dramatic instances where his intervention would have been appropriate. Now this Parson gently but austerely objects to the idea of “fables and swich wrecchednesse” (34). If anyone wants to hear of “Moralitee and vertuous mateere” (38), he will comply.
But trusteth wel, I am a Southren man;
I kan nat geeste ‘rum, ram, ruf,’ by lettre,
Ne, God woot, rym holde I but litel bettre;
And therfore, if yow list — I wol nat glose —
I wol yow telle a myrie tale in prose
To knytte up al this feeste and make an ende.
The Parson then mentions what for the medievals would have been the real “pilgrymage” (50). “To some of Chaucer contemporaries his avoidance throughout most of the Canterbury Tales of the expected implications of the pilgrimage must have come as a surprise. It is not until they read the Parson’s introduction that they would have found the journey taking on the metaphorical connotations that were hitherto lacking” (Donaldson 1113).
The Parson does provide us with the seemingly obligatory humility pose: “I am nat textueel” (57). The narrator says that the pilgrims’ consensus was that the trip ought indeed to end with some “vertuous sentence” (63). The last words before the tract belong to the Host:
“Telleth,” quod he, “youre meditacioun.
But hasteth yow; the sonne wole adoun;
Beth fructuous, and that in litel space,
And to do wel God sende yow his grace!
Sey what yow list, and we wol gladly heere.”
And with that word he seyde in this manere.
The genre here is the penitential manual or handbook, not strictly a sermon. It’s a compendium of doctrine, an amalgam of two or more treatises, and actually it’s mercifully short (!) for such things (but not as short as the Host indicated it needed to be, if we were in the real physical world anymore). “It is an enormously long discussion in prose of the sacrament of penance and of the seven deadly sins, apparently translated by Chaucer from the Latin of some manual directed at helping priests in the performance of their spiritual duties. Its piety does not, however, raise it into the realm of literature” (Donaldson 1112).
It’s a virtuous example of a “tale” with the prose clear and forthright. It may be the source for other passages in the Tales, so perhaps it was early in composition. “In any case, the Parson’s Tale would be good for the poet’s and the reader’s soul, and that, rather than esthetic pleasure, was the important thing” (Donaldson 1112). The tale is placed near the end; The Canterbury Tales are near the end and, maybe more importantly, Chaucer himself was near the end.
Confession wipes the slate clean, and, rather than asserting or creating, language becomes a negating act (the next logical extension of The Manciple’s Tale?). The Canterbury pilgrimage fades out, fades away into the Retraction.
“Already a kind of darkness that makes recognition difficult seems to have come over the pilgrims. Where are they? At the end of a little nameless village that is surely neither on the road to Canterbury nor on the road back, but on a road that leads to a city far from England” (Donaldson 1113).