Tales of the Senate
Senator Byrd makes curious use of Chaucer's "Pardoner's Tale."
12:00 AM, Jun 20, 2005 • By SCOTT W. JOHNSON
STUDENTS OF ENGLISH LITERATURE missed an unusual opportunity to contribute to public understanding of current events in connection with the announcement of the compromise agreement on the filibuster reached by the bipartisan group of 14 senators on May 23. In his role as the cornpone constitutionalist of the United States Senate, Sen. Robert Byrd is routinely celebrated by the New York Times and other members of the elite media. In his statement at the press conference announcing the agreement, Byrd celebrated himself as a latter-day Horatius protecting the integrity of the United States Senate: "We have lifted ourselves above politics, and we have signed this document in the interests of the United States Senate, in the interest of freedom of speech, freedom of debate and freedom to dissent in the United States Senate," Byrd said. "Thank God for this moment and for these colleagues of mine."
Byrd also cast highfalutin' scorn on unnamed adversaries: "The skeptics, the cynics, the doubters, the Pharisees, those who are intoxicated by the juice of sour grapes did not prevail. The 14 rose above those who do not wish to see accord, but prefer discord."
But Byrd was just getting warmed up for the statement he released on May 24. In that statement Byrd invoked Lincoln, Gladstone, and the Constitution. He concluded by invoking the "Pardoner's Tale" from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. He began: "Chaucer's Canterbury Tales contains the 'Pardoner's Tale,' which most, if not all, of you will remember having read in your school days." The august senator recounted the tale for the less attentive members of the class:
BYRD'S STATEMENT does not draw any express connection between the "Pardoner's Tale" and the filibuster agreement; no connection is apparent. Indeed, it's difficult to follow Byrd's train of thought. Nevertheless, Byrd's use of the tale is revealing, though not in the way he intended.
Byrd cites the "Pardoner's Tale" as a kind of scriptural authority. He proudly steps into the shoes of the Pardoner in telling the story. Chaucer's Pardoner, however, personifies corruption. His trade is the sale of indulgences for sin and fraudulent holy relics to unwitting dupes. Chaucer introduces the Pardoner in the "General Prologue" (lines 669-714) to the Canterbury Tales as a vain, effeminate, and depraved character, singing a love song to the disreputable ecclesiastical official riding with him. "I think he was a gelding or a mare," Chaucer observes of the Pardoner. The Pardoner's outward appearance mirrors his soul. Chaucer notes the object of the Pardoner's game: "To win some silver, as he right well could . . . " He is the fourteenth-century version of a confidence man and a thoroughly vile character.
The Pardoner plies his trade with brilliance. In the "Prologue to the Pardoner's Tale," the Pardoner candidly explains the elements of his performance and the keys to his success, of which the memorized story he tells is crucial. Its theme is always "greed is the root of all evil," but he also discloses his own hypocrisy on that score:
The Pardoner then launches into the story told by Byrd. It is a story with many analogues, antecedents, and successors in world literature--think of the B. Traven novel or the Humphrey Bogart film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre--but the version told by the Pardoner is widely recognized as a masterpiece. It is, as Harold Bloom says in The Western Canon, "in its way unsurpassable, at one of the limits of art."
Yet the Pardoner's story as retold by Byrd is not the end of the "Pardoner's Tale." At the conclusion of the tale, apparently carried away by his display of his own prowess, the Pardoner invites the pilgrims to buy some of his allegedly holy relics. He asks the pilgrims' host to be the first buyer, as he is "most enveloped in all sin." The host, however, has accurately sized up the Pardoner and replies:
It's a shame Senator Byrd pulled up a little short of the end of the "Pardoner's Tale." In his notes on the "Pardoner's Tale" in the New Cambridge Edition of The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, editor F.N. Robinson comments:
What is the moral of this story? As with all good stories for adults, you can draw your own conclusion.
Scott Johnson is a contributor to the blog Power Line and a contributing writer to The Daily Standard.