The Blog

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
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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:

The story took place in Flanders, where, once, there sat drinking in a tavern three young men who were given to folly. As they sat, they heard a small bell clink before a corpse that was being carried to the grave, whereupon, one of them called to his knave and ordered him to go and find out the name of the corpse that was passing by.

The boy answered that he already knew, and that it was an old comrade of the roisterers who had been slain while drunk by an unseen thief called Death, who had slain others in recent days.

Out into the road the three young ruffians went in search of this monster called Death. They came upon an old man, and seized him and with rough language demanded that he tell them where they could find this cowardly adversary who was taking the lives of their good friends in the countryside.

The old man pointed to a great oak tree on a nearby knoll, saying, "There, under that tree, you will find Death." In a drunken rage, the three roisterers set off in a run 'til they came to the tree, and there they found a pile of gold--eight basketfuls, of florins, newly minted, round coins. Forgotten was the monster called Death, as they pondered their good fortune, and they decided that they should remain with the gold until nightfall when they would divide it among themselves and take it to their homes. It would be unsafe, they thought, to attempt to do so in broad daylight, as they might be fallen upon by thieves who would take their treasure from them.

It was proposed that they draw straws, and the person who drew the shortest cut would go into the nearby village and purchase some bread and wine which they could enjoy as they whiled away the daylight hours. Off towards the village the young man went. When he was out of sight, the remaining two decided that there was no good reason why this fortune should be divided among three individuals, so one of them said to the other: "When he returns, you throw your arm around him as if in jest, and I will rive him with my dagger. And, with your dagger, you can do the same. Then, all of this gold will be divided just between you and me."

Meanwhile, the youngest rogue, as he made its way into the town, thought what a shame it was that the gold would be divided among three, when it could so easily belong only to the ownership of one. Therefore, in town, the young man went directly to an apothecary and asked to be sold some poison for large rats and for a polecat that had been killing his chickens. The apothecary quickly provided some poison, saying that as much as equaled only a grain of wheat would result in sudden death for the creature that drank the mixture.