The General Prologue - The Clerk

A clerk from Oxford was with us also,
Who’d turned to getting knowledge, long ago.
As meagre was his horse as is a rake,
Nor he himself too fat, I’ll undertake,
But he looked hollow and went soberly.(5)
Right threadbare was his overcoat, for he
Had got him yet no churchly benefice,
Nor was so worldly as to gain office.
For he would rather have at his bed’s head
Some twenty books, all bound in black and red,(10)
Of Aristotle and his philosophy
Than rich robes, fiddle, or gay psaltery.
Yet, and for all he was philosopher,
He had but little gold within his coffer;
But all that he might borrow from a friend(15)
On books and learning he would swiftly spend,
And then he’d pray right busily for the souls
Of those who gave him wherewithal for schools.
Of study took he utmost care and heed.
Not one word spoke he more than was his need;(20)
And that was said in fullest reverence
And short and quick and full of high good sense.
Pregnant of moral virtue was his speech;
And gladly would he learn and gladly teach.

Footnotes

  1. Philosopher in this context could be read as a pun on alchemist, a pseudo science even in Chaucer's age. Thus, this description suggests that even though the Clerk has a vocation, he has dedicated himself to the wrong thing.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  2. To "gain office" meant to become employed, typically in a church office. Here the narrator connects the Clerk's poverty and hunger with the fact that he has been so busy studying that he has not gotten a proper job.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  3. "Hollow" in this context refers to a hungry or starved look. Both the Clerk and his horse are starving because they are so poor.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  4. Chaucer uses this simile to show that his horse is very, very thin. The Clerk's horse seems to be starving, suggesting that the Clerk is very poor.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  5. In Chaucer's time, clerk meant scholar. Oxford, now a famous University in England, was one of the first collection of colleges in Chaucer's time. Oxford's primary goal was to translate Greek philosophers and reconcile their thoughts with Christian theology.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor