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STORY-TELLING being as old as the race, there must have been short stories from the beginning of time, even if they did not exist in the specialized form to which the name has of late been attached. Witness the ballads out of which the epics of Homer were probably evolved, and such Biblical stories as those of Joseph and Balaam. But ancient stories are usually not short, particularly when Oriental fancy has lingered over and adorned them. Coming later to that remarkable collection of tales, “The Arabian Nights," we find much elaboration and many characteristic themes, chiefly of magic and love and intrigue. In Europe the Middle Age took a frank delight in story-telling. The jongleur and the minstrel were familiar and honored figures at court, the tales they told being manifold and long and full of gallant adventure.
Out of this practice, and in striking contrast with it, came, in the fourteenth century in Italy, Boccaccio's delightful advance in the art of telling a tale. He used prose, needed only a few strokes, plunged in, and the tale was over. Professor Charles Sears Baldwin, who has analyzed the one hundred stories of the “Decameron,” assures us that more than half are mere anecdotes - anecdotes pure and simple or slightly elaborated, some forty more are examples of the scenario or summary romance; and while three others came near being short stories, two only are such in the modern sense. However this may be, the charm of Boccaccio's narrative art has been from his day to ours the wonder and delight of every reader. He has had followers but not thoroughly successful imitators, and the qualities of his peculiar genius remain unapproached.
Singularly enough, in the latter part of this same century, the fourteenth, there appeared in England a poet dowered with a truly modern spirit and with the greatest gift of tale-telling in verse that our literature has yet seen. This was Geoffrey Chaucer. He had travelled in Italy; indeed, had made two journeys thither; but there is no evidence that he ever met Boccaccio, although the latter was still alive, or that he had ever seen or heard of the “Decameron.” If Chaucer, with his ready genius, had known the famous collection, he would surely have made good use of the material it afforded. To neglect it utterly was to be ignorant of it, and no other supposition will at all explain the fact that it was not utilized. And yet Chaucer knew Boccaccio's poetry, even if he did not know his prose tales. Chaucer's two most ambitious performances, the “ Troilus and Criseyde,” and the first of the “Canterbury Tales”— that of the Knight are based upon two poems of Boccaccio, which the Englishman condensed, expanded, and treated at will ;