The BBC has got a poetry season running. They’ve been dusting off dead rhymers from ages past and pushing them out in front of the cameras. But they’ve left the memory of Geoffrey Chaucer undisturbed and unsung, for all that he was the first poet to be buried in Westminster Abbey’s Poets’ Corner. When I was a nipper he used to be aka the Father of English Poetry. In those far-off days grown-ups used to say that British policemen were the best in the world. Sic transit, etc.
To me, Chaucer will always be The Daddy. I love his down-to-earth humanity and the wonderful effects he was able to conjure from the small vocabulary of the then still-new English language. He was a most acute and uncritical observer of other people.
He was preoccupied with what makes a person gentil. In this debased age we don’t have a synonym for gentil. It encompasses virtuousness, honesty, courtesy, decency, modesty, courage and hard work—all the virtues summed up in what we used to call gentlemanliness. Chaucer, a true democrat, reckoned gentilesse to be attainable by both sexes and by the members of any social class. He says:
Looke who that is moost vertuous alway,
Privee and apert, and moost entendeth ay
To do the gentil dedes that he kan ;
Taak him for the grettest gentil man.
In modern English: the most gentil person is the person who strives to be virtuous always, privee and apert: when nobody’s looking as well as publicly.
Chaucer develops this idea:
Taak fyr, and ber it in the derkeste hous Bitwix this and the mount of Kaukasous, And lat men shette the doores and go thenne ; Yet wole the fyr as faire lie and brenne As twenty thousand men mighte it biholde.
In mod-speak: Take a firebrand and carry it to the darkest house between here and the Caucuses. Shut the doors on it and go away. The firebrand will continue to blaze as if 20,000 people were looking at it.
It’s a great image. What’s it got to do with funerals? I’ll tell you.
Most funeral directors can put on a good show They can big up the empathy, switch on the sincerity, convince you they care. But what are they like when you’re not looking? Quite the reverse, many of them. Put them in that derkeste hous (their messy mortuary) and they exhibit undreamed of coarseness and carelessness (vileynie and vice, in Chaucer’s words).
Some, not all. There is a breed brought up in a code of funerary gentilesse and etiquette. I was reminded of this the other day when chatting to Sam Wilding of the Rose Funeral Service in Weymouth. In a way Sam and his kind are reminiscent of those butlers who used to run aristocratic country houses. Behind the scenes they treat their dead bodies with courtesy. They talk to them as they wash and dress them. They knock before going in to the chapel of rest. They carry coffins gently. They hold ashes’ urns in both hands, never under an arm. They are ever gentil, privee and apert.
Shame on you, BBC, for neglecting one of our greatest poets. Shame on me were I to neglect to celebrate this unsung, unseen and perhaps unexpected side of our best funeral directors.