The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Merchant’s Tale” is the second of two poems in what is most commonly identified as fragment 4 of The Canterbury Tales. Each story-poem in the Tales is told by a different character in a group of pilgrims traveling to visit the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket in Canterbury. The tales range from high romance to low comedy. “The Merchant’s Tale” is primarily among the latter, though it contains elements of poetry in the genres of courtly romance and homily as well.

Like most of The Canterbury Tales, “The Merchant’s Tale” is preceded by a prologue that links it to the outer frame of the story of the pilgrims on their journey. The Merchant—in response the Clerk’s tale of Griselda, the ultimately submissive wife—announces to the group that he and other married men have suffered much at the hands of their wives. He offers to tell a tale to illustrate a wife’s unfaithfulness.

The story is of an old knight, January, who has lived a life of sexual promiscuity but at age sixty decides to settle down and get married. He claims to desire marriage because of the many virtues of a wife and the beauty of the “blisful ordre of wedlok precious.” However, he insists on marrying a beautiful woman of no more than twenty years, and his motives are soon revealed as desiring a regular and lawful place to satisfy his sexual appetite. Prior to choosing a mate, January solicits his friends and brothers...

(The entire section is 578 words.)