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The senator’s tale

Both Mrs. Trunk and Little Trunk have directed me to Senator Byrd’s reference to one of Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” as featured on Laura Ingraham’s radio show last week. Tracking down the reference on the Internet, it appears that Byrd invoked the “Pardoner’s Tale” (Lord, save me) during his announcement of the Missouri Compromise on the filibuster reached by the Gang of 14. On his Web site, Byrd refers to the deal as “a historic agreement.”
In his role as the cornpone constitutionalist of the United States Senate, Byrd has not received the derision he has so richly earned. Instead, he has been celebrated by the New York Times and other members of the elite media as a latter-day Horatius.
When Lyndon Johnson nominated Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court in 1967, Byrd saw Marshall as too liberal and looked for grounds to attack him. The Honorable Gentleman from West Virginia who formerly served as the Kleagle of the Ku Klux Klan called on FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to look into Marshall’s possible Communist connections.
Today, of course, Byrd opposes President Bush’s nomination of California Supreme Court Justice Janice Rogers Brown to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals on the ground that she is too conservative, as he had earlier opposed Clarence Thomas’s confirmation to the Supreme Court. Byrd holds the distinction of being the only senator to have voted against both black nominees to the United States Supreme Court.
Here, if you can stand it, is Byrd on the deal: “The sceptics, the cynics, the doubters, the pharisees, those who are intoxicated by the juice of sour grapes did not prevail. The fourteen rose above those who do not wish to see accord, but prefer discord.” I would add only that, unassisted by the intoxication of the juice of sour grapes, the fourteen have risen to the challenge of praising themselves in terms formerly reserved for those who have given their lives for their country.
Immediately following his praise of himself, Byrd launched into his citation of the “Pardoner’s Tale.” Perhaps the New York Times will come to my rescue and help flesh out the senator’s train of thought. I certainly can’t:

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 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 appears to cite the “Pardoner’s Tale” straight, as a kind of scriptural authority. Byrd proudly steps into the shoes of the Pardoner in retailing the story. The Pardoner, however, is a thoroughly disreputable character, the twelfth-century version of a confidence man. At the conclusion of his tale, he invites the pilgrims’ host to buy some allegedly holy relics from him. The host 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.”

What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed. It’s a shame Senator Byrd pulled up a little short of the end. 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.

Dear readers, I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.
UPDATE: On a related note, see Roger Kimball’s Armavirumque post: “Where is Hercules when you need him?”

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