He was nat pale, as a forpyned goost:
A fat swan loved he best of any roost.
(= He was not pale, like a tormented ghost / A fat swan he loved the best out of all the roast meats)
An utterly bizarre couplet, of the kind that’s one of the true pleasures of reading Chaucer. Only he would link a roast swan with a tormented ghost by rhyme.
There is obviously a massive swerve in tone between the two lines, but why? First, we can notice the strong contrast in colour between the dark brown roasted swan (which was very expensive, and not really what a Monk should be eating) and the pale ghost.
Second, we can put a bit of pressure on the word ‘ghost’ and see that the English word derives from the Germanic ‘geist’, which actually means something more like ‘spirit’— our word ‘ghost’ usually has negative ‘haunting’ implications. Chaucer could well be thinking about this sense of ‘goost’, considering the Monk’s purported profession.
In this stark couplet, which comes at the end of a description which meanders between describing the Monk’s love of food and hunting and his disregard for monastic rules, it’s highly probable that Chaucer is trying to sum it up in one couplet: He was not in touch with the spiritual / He loved roast meat. The rhyme is comical, but the reader prepared to dig a bit will find a delicately poised line.
To help improve the meaning of these lyrics, visit “The Canterbury Tales (General Prologue)” by Geoffrey Chaucer and leave a comment on the lyrics box