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.
Having purchased the poison, the young villain crossed the street to a winery where he purchased three bottles--two for his friends, one for himself. After he left the village, he sat down, opened two bottles and deposited an equal portion in each, and then returned to the oak tree, where the two older men did as they had planned. One threw his arm playfully around the shoulders of the third, they buried their daggers in him, and he fell dead on the pile of gold. The other two then sat down, cut the bread and opened the wine. Each took a good, deep swallow, and, suffering a most excruciating pain, both fell upon the body of the third, across the pile of gold. All three were dead.
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:
What? Think you because I'm good at preaching
And win me gold and silver by my preaching
I'll live of my free will in poverty?
No, no, that's never been my policy.
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:
"Why, you would have me kissing your old breeches,
And swear they were the relics of a saint,
Though with your excrement 'twere dabbed like paint.
By cross Saint Helen found in Holy Land,
I would I had your ballocks in my hand
Instead of relics in a reliquary;
Let's cut them off, and them I'll help you carry;
They shall be shrined within a hog's fat turd."
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:
Both the Prologue and the Tale of the Pardoner are apparently delivered while the pilgrims are still at the tavern . . . So a story which is in large part an attack upon gluttony and revelry is told in a tavern by a man notoriously addicted to the vices he condemns.
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.