Many of the –e’s at the ends of words in Chaucer’s poetry must be sounded if his verse rhythms are to be regular. Since his poetry is only preserved in copies made by hand, those –e’s often did not survive in what are otherwise the most accurate versions we have of his poems. In other cases, scribes added an -e where no –e was necessary because that is how they were used to spelling a particular word (or, sometimes, because they simply did not care very much about such details). In most cases, these –e’s are remnants of Old English inflectional endings which were crucial for grammar, and there is a thought that Chaucer used the final –e with an eye to this history, even though many of the -e’s required to make his verse regular do not seem to have been commonly employed in his day. While Chaucer’s use of final -e appears to be ‘historical’, he will, occasionally, rely on an -e at the end of a word that he did not wish to have pronounced. Despite these ambiguities, it is most likely that Chaucer’s verse was, as a rule, regular, and any final –e is to be pronounced (and printed) where it is required for the verse, and ignored (or not printed), wherever it would disrupt the verse.
The regular rhythmic pattern Chaucer always relied upon alternated unstressed and stressed syllables. We sometimes call this ‘iambic’ rhythm now, although Chaucer would probably be thinking in terms of French models. In his earliest poetry, he wrote in lines of roughly 8 syllables (‘roughly’ because Chaucer did sometimes allow certain unstressed syllables to drop out) with 4 stresses in each line. In his later poetry he wrote in lines of roughly 10 syllables with 5 stresses in each line.
A more detailed account of Chaucer’s final –e in his verse rhythms can be found in the section on ‘The Metre of Chaucer’s Poetry’ in the Oxford Chaucer.
It is not difficult to learn to sound these –e’s (or hear them when reading silently). In the following line from The Miller’s Tale it is necessary to pronounce the –e at the end of ‘tale’:
Why artow angry with my tale now? (1.3157)
When an –e is followed by a vowel (or, in common words such as ‘have’ or ‘him’ and ‘her’), it is ‘elided’ into the vowel that follows so it is not sounded in this line from the Wife of Bath’s Prologue:
It is also usually necessary to pronounce the endings –ed, -en, and –es, as in the following examples:
But if I telle tales two or thre (The Wife of Bath’s Prologue 3.846)
Save unto yow thus muche I tellen shal The Shipman’s Tale (7.169)
Ye sholde han warned me, er I had gon, (The Shipman’s Tale 7.388)
Sometimes words of several syllables collapsed into one another, just as they do in modern English, so, in Chaucer’s poems, as now, “every” is not pronounced as three syllables but as two:
Inspíred háth in évery hólt and héeth (The General Prologue 1.6)