Blake's impression of the pilgrims is far more, um, positive than those of 20th-century readers, who tend to find irony and critique far more palatable than idealism. He begins with an entirely characteristic view of the pilgrims as transhistorical archetypes.
Of Chaucer’s characters, as described in his Canterbury Tales, some of the names or titles are altered by time, but the characters themselves for ever remain unaltered; and consequently they are the physiognomies or lineaments of universal human life, beyond which Nature never steps. Names alter, things never alter. I have known multitudes of those who would have been monks in the age of monkery, who in this deistical age are deists. As Newton numbered the stars, and as Linnaeus numbered the plants, so Chaucer numbered the classes of men. . . .
Chaucer’s characters live age after age. Every age is a Canterbury Pilgrimage; we all pass on, each sustaining one of these characters; nor can a child be born who is not one or other of these characters of Chaucer.But as representative as Chaucer's pilgrims in their characters, Blake felt that they lacked ethnic diversity.
The Painter has consequently varied the heads and forms of his personages into all Nature’s varieties; the horses he has also varied to accord to their riders; the costume is correct according to authentic monuments. . . .Which explains why the Miller and Yeoman are black.
He genuinely admires the Knight, Squire, Prioress (despite her "certain peculiarities and little delicate affectations, not unbecoming in her"), Parson, Plowman, and Harry Bailey, "the keeper of the greatest Inn of the greatest City."
Predictably, he has very strong opinions on what Chaucer meant, and seems pretty rankled by misreadings.
Those who can think that the proud huntsman and noble housekeeper, Chaucer’s Monk, is intended for a buffoon or burlesque character, know little of Chaucer. . . .
By way of illustration I instance Shakespeare’s Witches in Macbeth. Those who dress them for the stage, consider them as wretched old women, and not, as Shakespeare intended, the Goddesses of Destiny; this shows how Chaucer has been misunderstood in his sublime work. Shakespeare’s Fairies also are the rulers of the vegetable world, and so are Chaucer’s; let them be so considered, and then the poet will be understood, and not else. . . .
Chaucer has divided the ancient character of Hercules between his Miller and his Ploughman. Benevolence is the Ploughman’s great characteristic; he is thin with excessive labour, and not with old age as some have supposed:As for the women
The characters of Women Chaucer has divided into two classes, the Lady Prioress and the Wife of Bath. Are not these leaders of the ages of men? The Lady Prioress in some ages predominates; and in some the Wife of Bath, in whose character Chaucer has been equally minute and exact; because she is also a scourge and a blight. I shall say no more of her, nor expose what Chaucer has left hidden; let the young reader study what he has said of her: it is useful as a scarecrow. There are of such characters born too many for the peace of the world.He concludes with a bit of polemic against a rival painter that's just too good to pass up.
As there is a class of men whose whole delight is in the destruction of men, so there is a class of artists whose whole art and science is fabricated for the purpose of destroying Art. . . . But to show the stupidity of this class of men, nothing need be done but to examine my rival’s prospectus. 38 The two first characters in Chaucer, the Knight and the Squire, he has put among his rabble; and indeed his prospectus calls the Squire ‘the fop of Chaucer’s age’. Now hear Chaucer:
Was this a fop?
‘Of his Stature, he was of even length, And wonderly deliver, and of great strength; And he had be sometime in Chivauchy, In Flanders, in Artois, and in Picardy, And borne him well, as of so litele space.’
Was this a fop?
‘Well could he sit a horse, and faire ride, He could songs make, and eke well indite, Just, and eke dance, pourtray, and well write.’
Was this a fop?
‘Curteis he was, and meek, and serviceable, And kerft before his fader at the table.’ 39 It is the same with all his characters; he has done all by chance, or perhaps his fortune, money, money. According to his prospectus he has three Monks: these he cannot find in Chaucer, who has only one Monk, and that no vulgar character, as he has endeavoured to make him. When men cannot read, they should not pretend to paint. To be sure Chaucer is a little difficult to him who has only blundered over novels and catchpenny trifles of booksellers; yet a little pains ought to be taken, even by the ignorant and weak. He has put the Reeve, a vulgar fellow, between his Knight and Squire, as if he was resolved to go contrary in everything to Chaucer, who says of the Reeve:
‘And ever he rode hinderest of the rout.’ 40 In this manner he has jumbled his dumb dollies together, and is praised by his equals for it; for both himself and his friend are equally masters of Chaucer’s language. They both think that the Wife of Bath is a young beautiful blooming damsel; and H—— says that she is the ‘Fair Wife of Bath’, and that ‘the Spring appears in her cheeks’. Now hear what Chaucer has made her say of herself, who is no modest one:
‘But Lord! when it remembereth me Upon my youth and on my jollity, It tickleth me about the heart root. Unto this day it doth my heart boot That I have had my world as in my time; But age, alas, that all will envenime, Hath me bireft, my beauty and my pith Let go; farewell! the devil go therewith! The flower is gone; there is no more to tell: The bran, as best I can, I now mote sell; And yet, to be right merry, will I fond Now forth to tell of my fourth husbond.’ 41 She has had four husbands, a fit subject for this painter; yet the painter ought to be very much offended with his friend H——, who has called his ‘a common scene’, ‘and very ordinary forms’; which is the truest part of all, for it is so, and very wretchedly so indeed. What merit can there be in a picture of which such words are spoken with truth? 42 But the prospectus says that the Painter has represented Chaucer himself as a knave who thrusts himself among honest people to make game of, and laugh at them; though I must do justice to the Painter, and say that he has made him look more like a fool than a knave. But it appears in all the writings of Chaucer, and particularly in his Canterbury Tales, that he was very devout, and paid respect to true enthusiastic superstition. He has laughed at his knaves and fools, as I do now; but he has respected his true Pilgrims, who are a majority of his company, and are not thrown together in the random manner that Mr. S—— has done. Chaucer has nowhere called the Ploughman old, worn out with ‘age and labour’, as the prospectus has represented him, and says that the picture has done so too. He is worn down with labour, but not with age. How spots of brown and yellow, smeared about at random, can be either young or old I cannot see. It may be an old man; it may be a young one; it may be anything that a prospectus pleases. But I know that where there are no lineaments there can be no character. And what connoisseurs call touch, I know by experience must be the destruction of all character and expression, as it is of every lineament. 43 The scene of Mr. S——’s picture is by Dulwich Hills, which was not the way to Canterbury; but perhaps the Painter thought he would give them a ride round about, because they were a burlesque set of scarecrows, not worth any man’s respect or care. 44 But the Painter’s thoughts being always upon gold, he has introduced a character that Chaucer has not—namely, a Goldsmith, for so the prospectus tells us. Why he has introduced a Goldsmith, and what is the wit of it, the prospectus does not explain. But it takes care to mention the reserve and modesty of the Painter. This makes a good epigram enough:
‘The fox, the owl, the spider, and the mole, By sweet reserve and modesty get fat.’ 45 But the prospectus tells us that the Painter has introduced a ‘Sea Captain’; Chaucer has a Shipman, a sailor, a trading master of a vessel, called by courtesy Captain, as every master of a boat is; but this does not make him a Sea Captain. Chaucer has purposely omitted such a personage, as it only exists in certain periods: it is the soldier by sea. He who would be a soldier in inland nations is a sea-captain in commercial nations. 46 All is misconceived, and its mis-execution is equal to its misconception. I have no objection to Rubens and Rembrandt being employed, or even to their living in a palace; but it shall not be at the expense of Raphael and Michael Angelo living in a cottage, and in contempt and derision. I have been scorned long enough by these fellows, who owe to me all that they have: it shall be so no longer.
I found them blind, I taught them how to see; And now they know me not, nor yet themselves.