by Adolphus William Ward
Table of Contents | Chapters: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | Glossary |
Something has been already said as to the conflict of opinion concerning the period of Geoffrey Chaucer's birth, the precise date of which is very unlikely ever to be ascertained. A better fortune has attended the anxious enquiries which in his case, as in those of other great men have been directed to the very secondary question of ancestry and descent,a question to which, in the abstract at all events, no man ever attached less importance than he. Although the name "Chaucer" is (according to Thynne), to be found on the lists of Battle Abbey, this no more proves that the poet himself came of "high parage," than the reverse is to be concluded from the nature of his coat-of-arms, which Speght thought must have been taken out of the 27th and 28th Propositions of the First Book of Euclid. Many a warrior of the Norman Conquest was known to his comrades only by the name of the trade which he had plied in some French or Flemish town, before he attached himself a volunteer to Duke William's holy and lucrative expedition; and it is doubtful whether even in the fourteenth century the name "Le Chaucer" is, wherever it occurs in London, used as a surname, or whether in some instances it is not merely a designation of the owner's trade. Thus we should not be justified in assuming a French origin for the family from which Richard le Chaucer, whom we know to have been the poet's grandfather, was descended. Whether or not he was at any time a shoemaker (chaucier, maker of chausses), and accordingly belonged to a gentle craft otherwise not unassociated with the history of poetry, Richard was a citizen of London, and vintner, like his son John after him. John Chaucer, whose wife's Christian name may be with tolerable safety set down as Agnes, owned a house in Thames Street, London, not far from the arch on which modern pilgrims pass by rail to Canterbury or beyond, and in the neighbourhood of the great bridge, which in Chaucer's own day, emptied its travellers on their errands, sacred or profane, into the great Southern road, the Via Appia of England. The house afterwards descended to John's son, Geoffrey, who released his right to it by deed in the year 1380. Chaucer's father was probably a man of some substance, the most usual personal recommendation to great people in one of his class. For he was at least temporarily connected with the Court, inasmuch as he attended King Edward III and Queen Philippa on the memorable journey to Flanders and Germany, in the course of which the English monarch was proclaimed Vicar of the Holy Roman Empire on the left bank of the Rhine. John Chaucer died in 1366, and in course of time his widow married another citizen and vintner. Thomas Heyroun, John Chaucer's brother of the half- blood, was likewise a member of the same trade; so that the young Geoffrey was certainly not brought up in an atmosphere of abstinence. The "Host" of the "Canterbury Tales," though he takes his name from an actual personage, may therefore have in him touches of a family portrait; but Chaucer himself nowhere displays any traces of a hereditary devotion to Bacchus, and makes so experienced a practitioner as the "Pardoner" the mouthpiece of as witty an invective against drunkenness as has been uttered by any assailant of our existing licensing laws. Chaucer's own practice as well as his opinion on this head is sufficiently expressed in the characteristic words he puts into the mouth of Cressid:In every thing, I wot, there lies measure:
For though a man forbid all drunkenness,
He biddeth not that every creature
Be drinkless altogether, as I guess.
Of Geoffrey Chaucer we know nothing whatever from the day of his birth (whenever it befell) to the year 1357. His earlier biographers, who supposed him to have been born in 1328, had accordingly a fair field open for conjecture and speculation. Here it must suffice to risk the asseveration, that he cannot have accompanied his father to Cologne in 1338, and on that occasion have been first "taken notice of" by king and queen, if he was not born till two or more years afterwards. If, on the other hand, he was born in 1328, both events MAY have taken place. On neither supposition is there any reason for believing that he studied at oneor at bothof our English Universities. The poem cannot be accepted as Chaucerian, the author of which (very possibly by a mere dramatic assumption) declares:Philogenet I call'd am far and near,
Of Cambridge clerk;
nor can any weight be attached to the circumstance that the "Clerk," who is one of the most delightful figures among the Canterbury Pilgrims, is an Oxonian. The enticing enquiry as to so WHICH of the sister Universities may claim Chaucer as her own must, therefore, be allowed to drop, together with the subsidiary question, whether stronger evidence of local colouring is furnished by the "Miller's" picture of the life of a poor scholar in lodgings at Oxford, or by the "Reeve's" rival narrative of the results of a Trumpington walk taken by two undergraduates of the "Soler Hall" at Cambridge. Equally baseless is the supposition of one of Chaucer's earliest biographers, that he completed his academical studies at Paris and equally futile the concomitant fiction that in France "he acquired much applause by his literary exercises." Finally, we have the tradition that he was a member of the Inner Templewhich is a conclusion deduced from a piece of genial scandal as to a record having been seen in that Inn of a fine imposed upon him for beating a friar in Fleet-street. This story was early placed by Thynne on the horns of a sufficiently decisive dilemma: in the days of Chaucer's youth, lawyers had not yet been admitted into the Temple; and in the days of his maturity he is not very likely to have been found engaged in battery in a London thoroughfare.
We now desert the region of groundless conjecture, in order with the year 1357 to arrive at a firm though not very broad footing of facts. In this year, "Geoffrey Chaucer" (whom it would be too great an effort of scepticism to suppose to have been merely a namesake of the poet) is mentioned in the Household Book of Elizabeth Countess of Ulster, wife of Prince Lionel (third son of King Edward III, and afterwards Duke of Clarence), as a recipient of certain articles of apparel. Two similar notices of his name occur up to the year 1359. He is hence concluded to have belonged to Prince Lionel's establishment as squire or page to the Lady Elizabeth; and it was probably in the Prince's retinue that he took part in the expedition of King Edward III into France, which began at the close of the year 1359 with the ineffectual siege of Rheims, and in the next year, after a futile attempt upon Paris, ended with the compromise of the Peace of Bretigny. In the course of this campaign Chaucer was taken prisoner; but he was released without much loss of time, as appears by a document bearing date March 1st, 1360, in which the king contributes the sum of 16 pounds for Chaucer's ransom. We may therefore conclude that he missed the march upon Paris, and the sufferings undergone by the English army on their road thence to Chartresthe most exciting experiences of an inglorious campaign; and that he was actually set free by the Peace. When, in the year 1367, we next meet with his name in authentic records, his earliest known patron, the Lady Elizabeth, is dead; and he has passed out of the service of Prince Lionel into that of King Edward himself, as Valet of whose Chamber or household he receives a yearly salary for life of twenty marks, for his former and future services. Very possibly he had quitted Prince Lionel's service when in 1361 that Prince had by reason of his marriage with the heiress of Ulster been appointed to the Irish government by his father, who was supposed at one time to have destined him for the Scottish throne.
Concerning the doings of Chaucer in the interval between his liberation from his French captivity and the first notice of him as Valet of the King's Chamber we know nothing at all. During these years, however, no less important a personal event than his marriage was by earlier biographers supposed to have occurred. On the other hand, according to the view which commends itself to several eminent living commentators of the poet, it was not courtship and marriage, but a hopeless and unrequited passion, which absorbed these years of his life. Certain stanzas in which, as they think, he gave utterance to this passion are by them ascribed to one of these years; so that if their view were correct, the poem in question would have to be regarded as the earliest of his extant productions. The problem which we have indicated must detain us for a moment.
It is attested by documentary evidence, that in the year 1374, Chaucer had a wife by name Philippa, who had been in the service of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and of his Duchess (doubtless his second wife, Constance), as well as in that of his mother the good Queen Philippa, and who, on several occasions afterwards, besides special new year's gifts of silver-gilt cups from the Duke, received her annual pension of ten marks through her husband. It is likewise proved that, in 1366, a pension of ten marks was granted to _a_ Philippa Chaucer, one of the ladies of the Queen's Chamber. Obviously, it is a highly probable assumption that these two Philippa Chaucers were one and the same person; but in the absence of any direct proof it is impossible to affirm as certain, or to deny as demonstrably untrue, that the Philippa Chaucer of 1366 owed her surname to marriage. Yet the view was long held, and is still maintained by writers of knowledge and insight, that the Phillipa of 1366 was at that date Chaucer's wife. In or before that year he married, it was said, Philippa Roet, daughter of Sir Paon de Roet of Hainault, Guienne King of Arms, who came to England in Queen Philippa's retinue in 1328. This tradition derived special significance from the fact that another daughter of Sir Paon, Katharine, widow of Sir Hugh Swynford, was successively governess, mistress, and (third) wife to the Duke of Lancaster, to whose service both Geoffrey and Philippa Chaucer were at one time attached. It was apparently founded on the circumstance that Thomas Chaucer, the supposed son of the poet, quartered the Roet arms with his own. But unfortunately there is no evidence to show that Thomas Chaucer was a son of Geoffrey; and the superstructure must needs vanish with its basis. It being then no longer indispensable to assume Chaucer to have been a married man in 1366, the Philippa Chaucer of that year MAY have been only a namesake, and possibly a relative, of Geoffrey; for there were other Chaucers in London besides him and his father (who died this year), and one Chaucer at least has been found who was well-to-do enough to have a Damsel of the Queen's Chamber for his daughter in these certainly not very exclusive times.
There is accordingly no PROOF that Chaucer was a married man before 1374, when he is known to have received a pension for his own and his wife's services. But with this negative result we are asked not to be poor- spirited enough to rest content. At the opening of his "Book of the Duchess," a poem certainly written towards the end of the year 1369, Chaucer makes use of certain expressions, both very pathetic and very definite. The most obvious interpretation of the lines in question seems to be that they contain the confession of a hopeless passion, which has lasted for eight yearsa confession which certainly seems to come more appropriately and more naturally from an unmarried than from a married man. "For eight years," he says, or seems to say, "I have loved, and loved in vainand yet my cure is never the nearer. There is but one physician that can heal mebut all that is ended and done with. Let us pass on into fresh fields; what cannot be obtained must needs be left." It seems impossible to interpret this passage (too long to cite in extenso) as a complaint of married life. Many other poets have indeed complained of their married lives, and Chaucer (if the view to be advanced below be correct) as emphatically as any. But though such occasional exclamations of impatience or regretmore especially when in a comic veinmay receive pardon, or even provoke amusement, yet a serious and sustained poetic version of Sterne's "sum multum fatigatus de uxore mea" would be unbearable in any writer of self-respect, and wholly out of character in Chaucer. Even Byron only indited elegies about his married life after his wife HAD LEFT HIM.
Now, among Chaucer's minor poems is preserved one called the "Complaint of the Death of Pity," which purports to set forth "how pity is dead and buried in a gentle heart," and, after testifying to a hopeless passion, ends with the following declaration, addressed to Pity, as in a "bill" or letter:This is to say: I will be yours for ever,
Though ye me slay by Cruelty, your foe;
Yet shall my spirit nevermore dissever
From your service, for any pain or woe,
Pity, whom I have sought so long ago!
Thus for your death I may well weep and plain,
With heart all sore, and full of busy pain.
If this poem be autobiographical, it would indisputably correspond well enough to a period in Chaucer's life, and to a mood of mind preceding those to which the introduction to the "Book of the Duchess" belongs. If it be not autobiographicaland in truth there is nothing to prove it such, so that an attempt has been actually made to suggest its having been intended to apply to the experiences of another manthen the "Complaint of Pity" has no special value for students of Chaucer, since its poetic beauty, as there can be no harm in observing, is not in itself very great.
To come to an end of this topic, there seems no possibility of escaping from one of the following alternatives. EITHER the Philippa Chaucer of 1366 was Geoffrey Chaucer's wife, whether or not she was Philippa Roet before marriage, and the lament of 1369 had reference to another ladyan assumption to be regretted in the case of a married man, but not out of the range of possibility. ORand this seems on the whole the most probable viewthe Philippa Chaucer of 1366 was a namesake whom Geoffrey married some time after 1369, possibly, (of course only POSSIBLY,) the very lady whom he had loved hopelessly for eight years, and persuaded himself that he had at last relinquishedand who had then relented after all. This last conjecture it is certainly difficult to reconcile with the conclusion at which we arrive on other grounds, that Chaucer's married life was not one of preponderating bliss. That he and his wife were COUSINS is a pleasing thought, but one which is not made more pleasing by the seeming fact that, if they were so related, marriage in their case failed to draw close that hearts' bond which such kinship at times half unconsciously knits.
Married or still a bachelor, Chaucer may fairly be supposed, during part of the years previous to that in which we find him securely established in the king's service, to have enjoyed a measure of independence and leisure open to few men in his rank of life, when once the golden days of youth and early manhood have passed away. Such years are in many men's lives marked by the projection, or even by the partial accomplishment, of literary undertakings on a large scale, and more especially of such as partake of an imitative character. When a juvenile and facile writer's taste is still unsettled, and his own style is as yet unformed, he eagerly tries his hand at the reproduction of the work of others; translates the "Iliad" or "Faust," or suits himself with unsuspecting promptitude to the production of masques, or pastorals, or life dramasor whatever may be the prevailing fashion in poetryafter the manner of the favourite literary models of the day. A priori, therefore, everything is in favour of the belief hitherto universally entertained, that among Chaucer's earliest poetical productions was the extant English translation of the French "Roman de la Rose." That he made SOME translation of this poem is a fact resting on his own statement in a passage indisputably written by him (in the "Prologue" to the "Legend of Good Women"); nor is the value of this statement reduced by the negative circumstance, that in the extraordinary tag (if it may be called by so irreverent a name) to the extant "Canterbury Tales," the "Romaunt of the Rose" is passed over in silence, or at least not nominally mentioned, among the objectionable works which the poet is there made to retract. And there seems at least no necessity for giving in to the conclusion that Chaucer's translation has been lost, and was not that which has been hitherto accepted as his. For this conclusion is based upon the use of a formal test, which in truth need not be regarded as of itself absolutely decisive in any case, but which in this particular instance need not be held applicable at all. A particular rule against rhyming with one another particular sounds, which in his later poems Chaucer seems invariably to have followed, need not have been observed by him in what was actually, or all but, his earliest. The unfinished state of the extant translation accords with the supposition that Chaucer broke it off on adopting (possibly after conference with Gower, who likewise observes the rule) a more logical practice as to the point in question. Moreover, no English translation of this poem besides Chaucer's is ever known to have existed.
Whither should the youthful poet, when in search of materials on which to exercise a ready but as yet untrained hand, have so naturally turned as to French poetry, and in its domain whither so eagerly as to its universally acknowledged master-piece? French verse was the delight of the Court, into the service of which he was about this time preparing permanently to enter, and with which he had been more or less connected from his boyhood. In French Chaucer's contemporary Gower composed not only his first longer work, but not less than fifty ballads or sonnets, and in French (as well as in English) Chaucer himself may have possibly in his youth set his own 'prentice hand to the turning of "ballades, rondels, virelayes." The time had not yet arrived, though it was not far distant, when his English verse was to attest his admiration of Machault, whose fame Froissart and Froissart's imitations had brought across from the French Court to the English; and when Gransson, who served King Richard II as a squire, was extolled by his English adapter as the "flower of them that write in France." But as yet Chaucer's own tastes, his French blood, if he had any in his veins, and the familiarity with the French tongue which he had already had opportunities of acquiring, were more likely to commend to him productions of broader literary merits and a wider popularity. From these points of view, in the days of Chaucer's youth, there was no rival to the "Roman de la Rose," one of those rare works on which the literary history of whole generations and centuries may be said to hinge. The Middle Ages, in which from various causes the literary intercommunication between the nations of Europe was in some respects far livelier than it has been in later times, witnessed the appearance of several such worksdiverse in kind but similar to one another in the universality of their popularity: "The Consolation of Philosophy," the "Divine Comedy," the "Imitation of Christ," the "Roman de la Rose," the "Ship of Fools." The favour enjoyed by the "Roman de la Rose," was in some ways the most extraordinary of all. In France, this work remained the dominant work of poetic literature, and "the source whence every rhymer drew for his needs" down to the period of the classical revival led by Ronsard (when it was edited by Clement Marot, Spenser's early model). In England, it exercised an influence only inferior to that which belonged to it at home upon both the matter and the form of poetry down to the renascence begun by Surrey and Wyatt. This extraordinary literary influence admits of a double explanation. But just as the authorship of the poem was very unequally divided between two personages, wholly divergent in their purposes as writers, so the POPULARITY of the poem is probably in the main to be attributed to the second and later of the pair.
To the trouvere Guillaume de Lorris (who took his name from a small town in the valley of the Loire) was due the original conception of the "Roman de la Rose," for which it is needless to suspect any extraneous source. To novelty of subject he added great ingenuity of treatment. Instead of narrative of warlike adventures he offered to his readers a psychological romance, in which a combination of symbolisations and personified abstractions supplied the characters of the moral conflict represented. Bestiaries and Lapidaries had familiarised men's minds with the art of finding a symbolical significance in particular animals and stones; and the language of poets was becoming a language of flowers. On the other hand, the personification of abstract qualities was a usage largely affected by the Latin writers of the earlier Middle Ages, and formed a favourite device of the monastic beginnings of the Christian drama. For both these literary fashions, which mildly exercised the ingenuity while deeply gratifying the tastes of mediaeval readers, room was easily found by Guillaume de Lorris within a framework in itself both appropriate and graceful. He told (as reproduced by his English translator) how in a dream he seemed to himself to wake up on a May morning. Sauntering forth, he came to a garden surrounded by a wall, on which were depicted many unkindly figures, such as Hate and Villainy, and Avarice and Old Age, and another thing
That seemed like a hypocrite,
And it was cleped pope holy.
Within, all seemed so delicious that, feeling ready to give an hundred pound for the chance of entering, he smote at a small wicket and was admitted by a courteous maiden named Idleness. On the sward in the garden were dancing its owner, Sir Mirth, and a company of friends; and by the side of Gladness the dreamer saw the God of Love and his attendant, a bachelor named Sweet-looking, who bore two bows, each with five arrows. Of these bows the one was straight and fair, and the other crooked and unsightly, and each of the arrows bore the name of some quality or emotion by which love is advanced or hindered. And as the dreamer was gazing into the spring of Narcissus (the imagination), he beheld a rose-tree "charged full of roses," and, becoming enamoured of one of them, eagerly advanced to pluck the object of his passion. In the midst of this attempt he was struck by arrow upon arrow, shot "wonder smart" by Love from the strong bow. The arrow called Company completes the victory; the dreaming poet becomes the Lover ("L'Amant"), and swears allegiance to the God of Love, who proceeds to instruct him in his laws; and the real action (if it is to be called such) of the poem begins. This consists in the Lover's desire to possess himself of the Rosebud, the opposition offered to him by powers both good and evil, and by Reason in particular, and the support which he receives from more or less discursive friends. Clearly, the conduct of such a scheme as this admits of being varied in many ways and protracted to any length; but its first conception is easy and natural, and when it was novel to boot, was neither commonplace nor ill-chosen.
After writing about one-fifth of the 22,000 verses of which the original French poem consists, Guillaume de Lorris, who had executed his part of the task in full sympathy with the spirit of the chivalry of his times, died, and left the work to be continued by another trouvere, Jean de Meung (so-called from the town, near Lorris, in which he lived). "Hobbling John" took up the thread of his predecessor's poem in the spirit of a wit and an encyclopaedist. Indeed, the latter appellation suits him in both its special and its general sense. Beginning with a long dialogue between Reason and the Lover, he was equally anxious to display his freedom of criticism and his universality of knowledge, both scientific and anecdotical. His vein was pre-eminently satirical and abundantly allusive; and among the chief objects of his satire are the two favourite themes of medieval satire in general, religious hypocrisy (personified in "Faux-Semblant," who has been described as one of the ancestors of "Tartuffe"), and the foibles of women. To the gross salt of Jean de Meung, even more than to the courtly perfume of Guillaume de Lorris, may be ascribed the long-lived popularity of the "Roman de la Rose"; and thus a work, of which already the theme and first conception imply a great step forwards from the previous range of mediaeval poetry, became a favourite with all classes by reason of the piquancy of its flavour, and the quotable applicability of many of its passages. Out of a chivalrous allegory Jean de Meung had made a popular satire; and though in its completed form it could look for no welcome in many a court or castle, though Petrarch despised it, and Gerson in the name of the Church recorded a protest against it,and though a bevy of offended ladies had well-nigh taken the law into their own hands against its author,yet it commanded a vast public of admirers. And against such a popularity even an offended clergy, though aided by the sneers of the fastidious and the vehemence of the fair, is wont to contend in vain.
Chaucer's translation of this poem is thought to have been the cause which called forth from Eustace Deschamps, Machault's pupil and nephew, the complimentary ballade in the refrain of which the Englishman is saluted as
Grant translateur, noble Gelfroi Chaucier.
But whether or not such was the case, his version of the "Roman de la Rose" seems, on the whole, to be a translation properly so called although, considering the great number of MSS. existing of the French original, it would probably be no easy task to verify the assertion that in one or the other of these are to be found the few passages thought to have been interpolated by Chaucer. On the other hand, his omissions are extensive; indeed, the whole of his translation amounts to little more than one-third of the French original. It is all the more noteworthy that Chaucer reproduces only about one-half of the part contributed by Jean de Meung, and again condenses this half to one-third of its length. In general, he has preserved the French names of localities, and even occasionally helps himself to a rhyme by retaining a French word. Occasionally he shows a certain timidity as a translator, speaking of "the tree which in France men call a pine," and pointing out, so that there may be no mistake, that mermaidens are called it "sereyns" (sirenes) in France. On the other hand, his natural vivacity now and then suggests to him a turn of phrase or an illustration of his own. As a loyal English courtier he cannot compare a fair bachelor to any one so aptly as to "the lord's son of Windsor;" and as writing not far from the time when the Statute of Kilkenny was passed, he cannot lose the opportunity of inventing an Irish parentage for Wicked-Tongue:
So full of cursed rage
It well agreed with his lineage;
For him an Irishwoman bare.
The debt which Chaucer in his later works owed to the "Roman of the Rose" was considerable, and by no means confined to the favourite May-morning exordium and the recurring machinery of a visionto the origin of which latter (the dream of Scipio related by Cicero and expounded in the widely- read Commentary of Macrobius) the opening lines of the "Romaunt" point. He owes to the French poem both the germs of felicitous phrases, such as the famous designation of Nature as "the Vicar of the almighty Lord," and perhaps touches used by him in passages like that in which he afterwards, with further aid from other sources, drew the character of a true gentleman. But the main service which the work of this translation rendered to him was the opportunity which it offered of practising and perfecting a ready and happy choice of words,a service in which, perhaps, lies the chief use of all translation, considered as an exercise of style. How far he had already advanced in this respect, and how lightly our language was already moulding itself in his hands, may be seen from several passages in the poem; for instance, from that about the middle, where the old and new theme of self-contradictoriness of love is treated in endless variations. In short, Chaucer executed his task with facility, and frequently with grace, though for one reason or another he grew tired of it before he had carried it out with completeness. Yet the translation (and this may have been among the causes why he seems to have wearied of it) has notwithstanding a certain air of schoolwork; and though Chaucer's next poem, to which incontestable evidence assigns the date of the year 1369, is still very far from being wholly original, yet the step is great from the "Romaunt of the Rose" to the "Book of the Duchess."
Among the passages of the French "Roman de la Rose" omitted in Chaucer's translation are some containing critical reflexions on the character of kings and constituted authoritiesa species of observations which kings and constituted authorities have never been notorious for loving. This circumstance, together with the reference to Windsor quoted above, suggests the probability that Chaucer's connexion with the Court had not been interrupted, or had been renewed, or was on the eve of renewing itself, at the time when he wrote this translation. In becoming a courtier, he was certainly placed within the reach of social opportunities such as in his day he could nowhere else have enjoyed. In England as well as in Italy during the fourteenth and the two following centuries; as the frequent recurrence of the notion attests, the "good" courtier seemed the perfection of the idea of gentleman. At the same time exaggerated conceptions of the courtly breeding of Chaucer's and Froissart's age may very easily be formed; and it is almost amusing to contrast with Chaucer's generally liberal notions of manners, severe views of etiquette like that introduced by him at the close of the "Man of Law's Tale," where he stigmatizes as a solecism the statement of the author from whom he copied his narrative, that King Aella sent his little boy to invite the emperor to dinner. "It is best to deem he went himself."
The position which in June, 1367, we find Chaucer holding at Court is that of "Valettus" to the King, or, as a later document of May, 1368, has it, of "Valettus Camerae Regis"Valet or Yeoman of the King's Chamber. Posts of this kind, which involved the ordinary functions of personal attendancethe making of beds, the holding of torches, the laying of tables, the going on messages, etc.were usually bestowed upon young men of good family. In due course of time a royal valet usually rose to the higher post of royal squireeither "of the household" generally, or of a more special kind. Chaucer appears in 1368 as an "esquire of less degree," his name standing seventeenth in a list of seven-and-thirty. After the year 1373 he is never mentioned by the lower, but several times by Latin equivalents of the higher, title. Frequent entries occur of the pension or salary of twenty marks granted to him for life; and, as will be seen, he soon began to be employed on missions abroad. He had thus become a regular member of the royal establishment, within the sphere of which we must suppose the associations of the next years of his life to have been confined. They belonged to a period of peculiar significance both for the English people and for the Plantagenet dynasty, whose glittering exploits reflected so much transitory glory on the national arms. At home, these years were the brief interval between two of the chief visitations of the Black Death (1361 and 1369), and a few years earlier the poet of the "Vision" had given voice to the sufferings of the poor. It was not, however, the mothers of the people crying for their children whom the courtly singer remembered in his elegy written in the year 1369; the woe to which he gave a poetic expression was that of a princely widower temporarily inconsolable for the loss of his first wife. In 1367 the Black Prince was conquering Castile (to be lost again before the year was out) for that interesting protege of the Plantagenets and representative of legitimate right, Don Pedro the Cruel, whose daughter the inconsolable widower was to espouse in 1372, and whose "tragic" downfall Chaucer afterwards duly lamented in his "Monk's Tale":O noble, O worthy Pedro, glory of Spain,
Whom fortune held so high in majesty!
As yet the star of the valiant Prince of Wales had not been quenched in the sickness which was the harbinger of death; and his younger brother, John of Gaunt, though already known for his bravery in the field (he commanded the reinforcements sent to Spain in 1367), had scarcely begun to play the prominent part in politics which he was afterwards to fill. But his day was at hand, and the anti-clerical tenour of the legislation and of the administrative changes of these years was in entire harmony with the policy of which he was to constitute himself the representative. 1365 is the year of the Statute of Provisors, and 1371 that of the dismissal of William of Wykeham.
John of Gaunt was born in 1340, and was, therefore, probably of much the same age as Chaucer, and like him now in the prime of life. Nothing could accordingly be more natural than that a more or less intimate relation should have formed itself between them. This relation, there is reason to believe, afterwards ripened on Chaucer's part into one of distinct political partisanship, of which there could as yet (for the reason given above) hardly be a question. There was, however, so far as we know, nothing in Chaucer's tastes and tendencies to render it antecedently unlikely that he should have been ready to follow the fortunes of a prince who entered the political arena as an adversary of clerical predominance. Had Chaucer been a friend of it in principle, he would hardly have devoted his first efforts as a writer to the translation of the "Roman de la Rose." In so far, therefore, and in truth it is not very far, as John of Gaunt may be afterwards said to have been a Wycliffite, the same description might probably be applied to Chaucer. With such sentiments a personal orthodoxy was fully reconcileable in both patron and follower; and the so-called "Chaucer's A. B. C.," a version of a prayer to the Virgin in a French poetical "Pilgrimage," might with equal probability have been put together by him either early or late in the course of his life. There was, however, a tradition, repeated by Speght, that this piece was composed "at the request of Blanche, Duchess of Lancaster, as a prayer for her private use, being a woman in her religion very devout." If so, it must have been written before the Duchess's death, which occurred in 1369; and we may imagine it, if we please, with its twenty- three initial letters blazoned in red and blue and gold on a flyleaf inserted in the Book of the pious Duchess,herself, in the fervent language of the poem, an illuminated calendar, as being lighted in this world with the Virgin's holy name.
In the autumn of 1369, then, the Duchess Blanche died an early death; and it is pleasing to know that John of Gaunt, to whom his marriage with her had brought wealth and a dukedom, ordered services, in pious remembrance of her, to be held at her grave. The elaborate elegy whichvery possibly at the widowed Duke's requestwas composed by Chaucer, leaves no doubt as to the identity of the lady whose loss it deplores:Goode faire "White" she hight;
Thus was my lady named right;
For she was both fair and bright.
But, in accordance with the taste of his age, which shunned such sheer straightforwardness in poetry, the "Book of the Duchess" contains no further transparent reference to the actual circumstances of the wedded life which had come to so premature an endfor John of Gaunt had married Blanche of Lancaster in 1359;and an elaborate framework is constructed round the essential theme of the poem. Already, however, the instinct of Chaucer's own poetic genius had taught him the value of personal directness; and, artificially as the course of the poem is arranged, it begins in the most artless and effective fashion with an account given by the poet of his own sleeplessness and its cause already referred toan opening so felicitous that it was afterwards imitated by Froissart. And so, Chaucer continues, as he could not sleep, to drive the night away he sat upright in his bed reading a "romance," which he thought better entertainment than chess or draughts. The book which he read was the "Metamorphoses" of Ovid; and in it he chanced on the tale of Ceyx and Alcyonethe lovers whom, on their premature death, the compassion of Juno changed into the seabirds that bring good luck to mariners. Of this story (whether Chaucer derived it direct from Ovid, or from Machault's French version is disputed), the earlier part serves as the introduction to the poem. The story breaks offwith the dramatic abruptness in which Chaucer is a master, and which so often distinguishes his versions from their originalsat the death of Alcyone, caused by her grief at the tidings brought by Morpheus of her husband's death. Thus subtly the god of sleep and the death of a loving wife mingle their images in the poet's mind; and with these upon him he falls asleep "right upon his book."
What more natural, after this, than the dream which came to him? It was May, and he lay in his bed at morning-time, having been awakened out of his slumbers by the "small fowls," who were carolling forth their notes "some high, some low, and all of one accord." The birds singing their matins around the poet, and the sun shining brightly through his windows stained with many a figure of poetic legend, and upon the walls painted in fine colours "both text and gloss, and all the Romaunt of the Rose"is not this a picture of Chaucer by his own hand, on which, one may love to dwell? And just as the poem has begun with a touch of nature, and at the beginning of its main action has returned to nature, so through the whole of its course it maintains the same tone. The sleeper awakenedstill of course in his dreamhears the sound of the horn, and the noise of huntsmen preparing for the chase. He rises, saddles his horse, and follows to the forest, where the Emperor Octavian (a favourite character of Carolingian legend, and pleasantly revived under this aspect by the modern romanticist, Ludwig Tieckin Chaucer's poem probably a flattering allegory for the King) is holding his hunt. The deer having been started, the poet is watching the course of the hunt, when he is approached by a dog, which leads him to a solitary spot in a thicket among mighty trees; and here of a sudden he comes upon a man in black, sitting silently by the side of a huge oak. How simple and how charming is the device of the faithful dog acting as a guide into the mournful solitude of the faithful man! For the knight whom the poet finds thus silent and alone, is rehearsing to himself a lay, "a manner song," in these words:I have of sorrow so great wone,
That joye get I never none,
Now that I see my lady bright,
Which I have loved with all my might,
Is from me dead, and is agone.
Alas! Death, what aileth thee
That thou should'st not have taken me,
When that thou took'st my lady sweet?
That was so fair, so fresh, so free,
So goode, that men may well see
Of all goodness she had no meet.
Seeing the knight overcome by his grief, and on the point of fainting, the poet accosts him, and courteously demands his pardon for the intrusion. Thereupon the disconsolate mourner, touched by this token of sympathy, breaks out into the tale of his sorrow which forms the real subject of the poem. It is a lament for the loss of a wife who was hard to gain (the historical basis of this is unknown, but great heiresses are usually hard to gain for cadets even of royal houses), and whom, alas! her husband was to lose so soon after he had gained her. Nothing could be simpler, and nothing could be more delightful than the Black Knight's description of his lost lady as she was at the time when he wooed and almost despaired of winning her. Many of the touches in this descriptionand among them some of the very happiestare, it is true, borrowed from the courtly Machault; but nowhere has Chaucer been happier, both in his appropriations and in the way in which he has really converted them into beauties of his own, than in this, perhaps the most lifelike picture of maidenhood in the whole range of our literature. Or is not the following the portrait of an English girl, all life and all innocencea type not belonging, like its opposite, to any "period" in particular?
I saw her dance so comelily,
Carol and sing so sweetely,
And laugh, and play so womanly,
And looke so debonairly,
So goodly speak and so friendly,
That, certes, I trow that nevermore
Was seen so blissful a treasure.
For every hair upon her head,
Sooth to say, it was not red,
Nor yellow neither, nor brown it was,
Methought most like gold it was.
And ah! what eyes my lady had,
Debonair, goode, glad and sad,
Simple, of good size, not too wide.
Thereto her look was not aside.
but so well set that, whoever beheld her was drawn and taken up by it, every part of him. Her eyes seemed every now and then as if she were inclined to be merciful, such was the delusion of fools: a delusion in very truth, for
It was no counterfeited thing;
It was her owne pure looking;
So the goddess, dame Nature,
Had made them open by measure
And close; for were she never so glad,
Not foolishly her looks were spread,
Nor wildely, though that she play'd;
But ever, methought, her eyen said:
"By God, my wrath is all forgiven."
And at the same time she liked to live so happily that dulness was afraid of her; she was neither too "sober" nor too glad; in short, no creature had over more measure in all things. Such was the lady whom the knight had won for himself, and whose virtues he cannot weary of rehearsing to himself or to a sympathising auditor.
"Sir!" quoth I, "where is she now?"
"Now?" quoth he, and stopped anon;
Therewith he waxed as dead as stone,
And said: "Alas that I was bore!
That was the loss! and heretofore
I told to thee what I had lost.
Bethink thee what I said. Thou know'st
In sooth full little what thou meanest:
I have lost more than thou weenest.
God wot, alas! right that was she."
"Alas, sir, how? what may that be?
"She is dead." "Nay?" "Yes, by my truth!"
Is that your loss? by God, it is ruth."
And with that word, the hunt breaking up, the knight and the poet depart to a "long castle with white walls on a rich hill" (Richmond?), where a bell tolls and awakens the poet from his slumbers, to let him find himself lying in his bed, and the book with its legend of love and sleep resting in his hand. One hardly knows at whom more to wonderwhether at the distinguished French scholar who sees so many trees that he cannot see a forest, and who, not content with declaring the "Book of the Duchess," as a whole as well as in its details, a servile imitation of Machault, pronounces it at the same time one of Chaucer's feeblest productions; or at the equally eminent English scholar who, with a flippancy which for once ceases to be amusing, opines that Chaucer ought to "have felt ashamed of himself for this most lame and impotent conclusion" of a poem "full of beauties," and ought to have been "caned for it!" Not only was this "lame and impotent conclusion" imitated by Spenser in his lovely elegy, "Daphnaida" (I have been anticipated in pointing out this fact by the author of the biographical essay on "Spenser" in this seriesan essay to which I cannot help taking this opportunity of offering a tribute of sincere admiration. It may not be an undesigned coincidence that the inconsolable widower of the "Daphnaida" is named Alcyon, while Chaucer's poem begins with a reference to the myth of Ceyx and Alcyone. Sir Arthur Gorges re-appears in Alcyon in "Colin Clout's come home again."); but it is the first passage in Chaucer's writings revealing, one would have thought unmistakeably, the dramatic power which was among his most characteristic gifts. The charm of this poem, notwithstanding all the artificialities with which it is overlaid, lies in its simplicity and truth to nature. A real human being is here brought before us instead of a vague abstraction; and the glow of life is on the page, though it has to tell of death and mourning. Chaucer is finding his strength by dipping into the true spring of poetic inspiration; and in his dreams he is awaking to the real capabilities of his genius. Though he is still uncertain of himself and dependent on others, it seems not too much to say that already in this "Book of the Duchess" he is in some measure an original poet.
How unconscious, at the same time, this waking must have been is manifest from what little is known concerning the course of both his personal and his literary life during the next few years. But there is a tide in the lives of poets, as in those of other men, on the use or neglect of which their future seems largely to depend. For more reasons than one Chaucer may have been rejoiced to be employed on the two missions abroad, which apparently formed his chief occupation during the years 1370-1373. In the first place, the love of books, which he so frequently confesses, must in him have been united to a love of seeing men and cities; few are observers of character without taking pleasure in observing it. Of his literary labours he probably took little thought during these years; although the visit which in the course of them he paid to Italy may be truly said to have constituted the turning-point in his literary life. No work of his can be ascribed to this period with certainty; none of importance has ever been ascribed to it.
On the latter of these missions Chaucer, who left England in the winter of 1372, visited Genoa and Florence. His object at the former city was to negotiate concerning the settlement of a Genoese mercantile factory in one of our ports, for in this century there already existed between Genoa and England a commercial intercourse, which is illustrated by the obvious etymology of the popular term "jane" occurring in Chaucer in the sense of any small coin. ("A jane" is in the "Clerk's Tale" said to be a sufficient value at which to estimate the "stormy people") It has been supposed that on this journey he met at Padua Petrarch, whose residence was near by at Arqua. The statement of the "Clerk" in the "Canterbury Tales" that he learnt the story of patient Griseldis "at Padua of a worthy clerk...now dead," who was called "Francis Petrarch, the laureate poet," may of course merely imply that Chaucer borrowed the "Clerk's Tale" from Petrarch's Latin version of the original by Boccaccio. But the meeting which the expression suggests may have actually taken place, and may have been accompanied by the most suitable conversation which the imagination can supply; while, on the other hand, it is a conjecture unsupported by any evidence whatever, that a previous meeting between the pair had occurred at Milan in 1368, when Lionel Duke of Clarence was married to his second wife with great pomp in the presence of Petrarch and of Froissart. The really noteworthy point is this: that while neither (as a matter of course) the translated "Romaunt of the Rose," nor the "Book of the Duchess" exhibits any traces of Italian influence, the same assertion cannot safely be made with regard to any important poem produced by Chaucer after the date of this Italian journey. The literature of Italy which wasand in the first instance through Chaucer himselfto exercise so powerful an influence upon the progress of our own, was at last opened to him, though in what measure, and by what gradations, must remain undecided. Before him lay both the tragedies and the comedies, as he would have called them, of the learned and brilliant Boccaccioboth his epic poems and that inexhaustible treasure-house of stories which Petrarch praised for its pious and grave contents, albeit they were mingled with others of undeniable jocosenessthe immortal "Decamerone." He could examine the refined gold of Petrarch's own verse with its exquisite variations of its favourite pure theme and its adequate treatment of other elevated subjects; and he might gaze down the long vista of pictured reminiscences, grand and sombre, called up by the mightiest Muse of the Middle Ages, the Muse of Dante. Chaucer's genius, it may said at once was not TRANSFORMED by its contact with Italian literature; for a conscious desire as well as a conscientious effort is needed for bringing about such a transformation; and to compare the results of his first Italian journey with those of Goethe's pilgrimage across the Alps, for instance, would be palpably absurd. It might even be doubted whether for the themes which he was afterwards likely to choose, and actually did choose, for poetic treatment the materials at his command in French (and English) poetry and prose would not have sufficed him. As it was, it seems probable that he took many things from Italian literature; it is certain that he learnt much from it. There seems every reason to conclude that the influence of Italian study upon Chaucer made him more assiduous as well as more careful in the employment of his poetic powersmore hopeful at once, if one may so say, and more assured of himself.
Meanwhile, soon after his return from his second foreign mission, he was enabled to begin a more settled life at home. He had acquitted himself to the satisfaction of the Crown, as is shown by the grant for life of a daily pitcher of wine, made to him on April 23rd, 1374, the merry day of the Feast of St. George. It would of course be a mistake to conclude, from any seeming analogies of later times, that this grant, which was received by Chaucer in money-value, and which seems finally to have been commuted for an annual payment of twenty marks, betokened on the part of the King a spirit of patronage appropriate to the claims of literary leisure. How remote such a notion was from the minds of Chaucer's employers is proved by the terms of the patent by which, in the month of June following, he was appointed Comptroller of the Customs and Subsidy of wools, skins, and tanned hides in the port of London. This patent (doubtless according to the usual official form) required him to write the rolls of his office with his own hand, to be continually present there, and to perform his duties in person and not by deputy. By a warrant of the same month Chaucer was granted the pension of 10 pounds for life already mentioned, for services rendered by him and his wife to the Duke and Duchess of Lancaster and to the Queen; by two successive grants of the year 1375 he received further pecuniary gratifications of a more or less temporary nature; and he continued to receive his pension and allowance for robes as one of the royal esquires. We may therefore conceive of him as now established in a comfortable as well as seemingly secure position. His regular work as comptroller (of which a few scattered documentary vestiges are preserved) scarcely offers more points for the imagination to exercise itself upon than Burns's excisemanship or Wordsworth's collectorship of stamps (It is a curious circumstance that Dryden should have received as a reward for his political services as a satirist, an office almost identical with Chaucer's. But he held it for little more than a year.), though doubtless it must have brought him into constant contact with merchants and with shipmen, and may have suggested to him many a broad descriptive touch. On the other hand, it is not necessary to be a poet to feel something of that ineffable ennui of official life, which even the self-compensatory practice of arriving late at one's desk, but departing from it early, can only abate, but not take away. The passage has been often quoted in which Chaucer half implies a feeling of the kind, and tells how he sought recreation from what Charles Lamb would have called his "works" at the Custom House in the reading, as we know he did in the writing, of other books:when thy labour done all is,
And hast y-made reckonings,
Instead of rest and newe things
Thou go'st home to thine house anon,
And there as dumb as any stone
Thou sittest at another book.
The house at home was doubtless that in Aldgate, of which the lease to Chaucer, bearing date May, 1374, has been discovered; and to this we may fancy Chaucer walking morning and evening from the riverside, past the Postern Gate by the Tower. Already, however, in 1376, the routine of his occupations appears to have been interrupted by his engagement on some secret service under Sir John Burley; and in the following year, and in 1378, he was repeatedly abroad in the service of the Crown. On one of his journeys in the last-named year he was attached in a subordinate capacity to the embassy sent to negotiate for the marriage with the French King Charles V's daughter Mary to the young King Richard II, who had succeeded to his grandfather in 1377,one of those matrimonial missions which, in the days of both Plantagenets and Tudors, formed so large a part of the functions of European diplomacy, and which not unfrequently, as in this case at least ultimately, came to nothing. A later journey in May of the same year took Chaucer once more to Italy, whither he had been sent with Sir Edward Berkeley to treat with Bernardo Visconti, joint lord of Milan, and "scourge of Lombardy," and Sir John Hawkwoodthe former of whom finds a place in that brief mirror of magistrates, the "Monk's Tale." It was on this occasion that of the two persons whom, according to custom, Chaucer appointed to appear for him in the Courts during his absence, one was John Gower, whose name as that of the second poet of his age is indissolubly linked with Chaucer's own.
So far, the new reign, which had opened amidst doubts and difficulties for the country, had to the faithful servant of the dynasty brought an increase of royal goodwill. In 1381after the suppression of the great rebellion of the villeinsKing Richard II had married the princess whose name for a season linked together the history of two countries the destinies of which had before that age, as they have since, lain far asunder. Yet both Bohemia and England, besides the nations which received from the former the impulses communicated to it by the latter, have reason to remember Queen Anne the learned and the good; since to her was probably due in the first instance the intellectual intercourse between her native and her adopted country. There seems every reason to believe that it was the approach of this marriage which Chaucer celebrated in one of the brightest and most jocund marriage-poems ever composed by a laureate's hand; and if this was so, he cannot but have augmented the favour with which he was regarded at Court. When, therefore, by May, 1382, his foreign journeys had come to an end, we do not wonder to find that, without being called upon to relinquish his former office, he was appointed in addition to the Comptrollership of the Petty Customs in the Port of London, of which post he was allowed to execute the duties by deputy. In November, 1384, he received permission to absent himself from his old comptrollership for a month, and in February, 1385, was allowed to appoint a (permanent) deputy for this office also. During the month of October, 1386, he sat in Parliament at Westminster as one of the Knights of the Shire for Kent, where we may consequently assume him to have possessed landed property. His fortunes, therefore, at this period had clearly risen to their height; and naturally enough his commentators are anxious to assign to these years the sunniest, as well as some of the most elaborate, of his literary productions. It is altogether probable that the amount of leisure now at Chaucer's command enabled him to carry into execution some of the works for which he had gathered materials abroad and at home, and to prepare others. Inasmuch as it contains the passage cited above, referring to Chaucer's official employment, his poem called the "House of Fame" must have been written between 1374 and 1386 (when Chaucer quitted office), and probably is to be dated near the latter year. Inasmuch as both this poem and "Troilus and Cressid" are mentioned in the Prologue to the "Legend of Good Women," they must have been written earlier than it; and the dedication of "Troilus" to Gower and Strode very well agrees with the relations known to have existed about this time between Chaucer and his brother-poet. Very probably all these three works may have been put forth, in more or less rapid succession, during this fortunate season of Chaucer's life.
A fortunate seasonfor in it the prince who, from whatever cause, was indisputably the patron of Chaucer and his wife, had, notwithstanding his unpopularity among the lower orders, and the deep suspicion fostered by hostile whisperings against him in his royal nephew's breast, still contrived to hold the first place by the throne. Though serious danger had already existed of a conflict between the King and his uncle, yet John of Gaunt and his Duchess Constance had been graciously dismissed with a royal gift of golden crowns, when in July, 1386, he took his departure for the continent, to busy himself till his return home in November, 1389, with the affairs of Castile, and with claims arising out of his disbursements there. The reasons for Chaucer's attachment to this particular patron are probably not far to seek; on the precise nature of the relation between them it is useless to speculate. Before Wyclif's death in 1384, John of Gaunt had openly dissociated himself from the reformer; and whatever may have been the case in his later years, it was certainly not as a follower of his old patron that at this date Chaucer could have been considered a Wycliffite.
Again, this period of Chaucer's life may be called fortunate, because during it he seems to have enjoyed the only congenial friendships of which any notice remains to us, The poem of "Troilus and Cressid" is, as was just noted, dedicated to "the moral Gower and the philosophical Strode." Ralph Strode was a Dominican of Jedburgh Abbey, a travelled scholar, whose journeys had carried him as far as the Holy Land, and who was celebrated as a poet in both the Latin and the English tongue, and as a theologian and philosopher. In connexion with speculations concerning Chaucer's relations to Wycliffism it is worth noting that Strode, who after his return to England was appointed to superintend several new monasteries, was the author of a series of controversial arguments against Wyclif. The tradition, according to which he taught one of Chaucer's sons, is untrustworthy. Of John Gower's life little more is known than of Chaucer's; he appears to have been a Suffolk man, holding manors in that county as well as in Essex, but occasionally to have resided in Kent. At the period of which we are speaking, he may be supposed, besides his French productions, to have already published his Latin "Vox Clamantis"a poem which, beginning with an allegorical narrative of Wat Tyler's rebellion, passes on to a series of reflexions on the causes of the movement, conceived in a spirit of indignation against the corruptions of the Church, but not of sympathy with Wycliffism. This is no doubt the poem which obtained for Gower the epithet "moral" (i.e. sententious) applied to him by Chaucer, and afterwards by Dunbar, Hawes, and Shakspere. Gower's "Vox Clamantis" and other Latin poems (including one "against the astuteness of the Evil One in the matter of Lollardry") are forgotten; but his English "Confessio Amantis" has retained its right to a place of honour in the history of our literature. The most interesting part of this poem, its "Prologue," has already been cited as of value for our knowledge of the political and social condition of its times. It gives expression to a conservative tone and temper of mind; and like many conservative minds, Gower's had adopted, or affected to adopt, the conviction that the world was coming to an end. The cause of the anticipated catastrophe he found in the division, or absence of concord and love, manifest in the condition of things around. The intensity of strife visible among the conflicting elements of which the world, like the individual human being, is composed, too clearly announced the imminent end of all things. Would that a new Arion might arise to make peace where now is hate; but, alas! the prevailing confusion is such that God alone may set it right. But the poem which follows cannot be said to sustain the interest excited by this introduction. Its machinery was obviously suggested by that of the "Roman de la Rose," though, as Warton has happily phrased it, Gower, after a fashion of his own, blends Ovid's "Art of Love" with the Breviary. The poet, wandering about in a forest, while suffering under the smart of Cupid's dart, meets Venus, the Goddess of Love, who urges him, as one upon the point of death, to make his full confession to her clerk or priest, the holy father Genius. This confession hereupon takes place by means of question and answer; both penitent and confessor entering at great length into an examination of the various sins and weaknesses of human nature, and of their remedies, and illustrating their observations by narratives, brief or elaborate, from Holy Writ, sacred legend, ancient history, and romantic story. Thus Gower's book, as he says at its close, stands "between earnest and game," and might be fairly described as a "Romaunt of the Rose," without either the descriptive grace of Guillaume de Lorris, or the wicked wit of Jean de Meung, but full of learning and matter, and written by an author certainly not devoid of the art of telling stories. The mind of this author was thoroughly didactic in its bent; for the beauty of nature he has no real feeling, and though his poem, like so many of Chaucer's, begins in the month of May, he is (unnecessarily) careful to tell us that his object in going forth was not to "sing with the birds." He could not, like Chaucer, transfuse old things into new, but there is enough in his character as a poet to explain the friendship between the pair, of which we hear at the very time when Gower was probably preparing his "Confessio Amantis" for publication.
They are said afterwards to have become enemies; but in the absence of any real evidence to that effect we cannot believe Chaucer to have been likely to quarrel with one whom he had certainly both trusted and admired. Nor had literary life in England already advanced to a stage of development of which, as in the Elizabethan and Augustan ages, literary jealousy was an indispensable accompaniment. Chaucer is supposed to have attacked Gower in a passage of the "Canterbury Tales," where he incidentally declares his dislike (in itself extremely commendable) of a particular kind of sensational stories, instancing the subject of one of the numerous tales in the "Confessio Amantis." There is, however, no reason whatever for supposing Chaucer to have here intended a reflection on his brother poet, more especially as the "Man of Law," after uttering the censure, relates, though probably not from Gower, a story on a subject of a different kind likewise treated by him. It is scarcely more suspicious that when Gower, in a second edition of his chief work, dedicated in 1393 to Henry, Earl of Derby (afterwards Henry IV), judiciously omitted the exordium and altered the close of the first edition, both of which were complimentary to Richard II, he left out, together with its surrounding context, a passage conveying a friendly challenge to Chaucer as a "disciple and poet of the God of Love."
In any case there could have been no political difference between them, for Chaucer was at all times in favour with the House of Lancaster, towards whose future head Gower so early contrived to assume a correct attitude. To hima man of substance, with landed property in three countiesthe rays of immediate court-favour were probably of less importance than to Chaucer; but it is not necessity only which makes courtiers of so many of us: some are born to the vocation, and Gower strikes one as naturally more prudent and cautiousin short, more of a politic personagethan Chaucer. He survived him eight yearsa blind invalid, in whose mind at least we may hope nothing dimmed or blurred the recollection of a friend to whom he owes much of his fame.
In a still nearer relationship,on which the works of Chaucer that may certainly or probably be assigned to this period throw some light,it seems impossible to describe him as having been fortunate. Whatever may have been the date and circumstances of his marriage, it seems, at all events in its later years, not to have been a happy one. The allusions to Chaucer's personal experience of married life in both "Troilus And Cressid" and the "House of Fame" are not of a kind to be entirely explicable by that tendency to make a mock of women and of marriage, which has frequently been characteristic of satirists, and which was specially popular in an age cherishing the wit of Jean de Meung, and complacently corroborating its theories from naughty Latin fables, French fabliaux, and Italian novelle. Both in "Troilus And Cressid" and in the "House of Fame" the poet's tone, when he refers to himself, is generally dolorous; but while both poems contain unmistakeable references to the joylessness of his own married life, in the latter he speaks of himself as "suffering debonairly,"or, as we should say, putting a good face upona state "desperate of all bliss." And it is a melancholy though half sarcastic glimpse into his domestic privacy which he incidentally, and it must be allowed rather unnecessarily, gives in the following passage of the same poem:"Awake!" to me he said,
In voice and tone the very same
THAT USETH ONE WHO I COULD NAME;
And with that voice, sooth to say(n)
My mind returned to me again;
For it was goodly said to me;
So was it never wont to be.
In other words, the kindness of the voice reassured him that it was NOT the same as that which he was wont to hear close to his pillow! Again, the entire tone of the Prologue to the "Legend of Good Women" is not that of a happy lover; although it would be pleasant enough, considering that the lady who imposes on the poet the penalty of celebrating GOOD women is Alcestis, the type of faithful wifehood, to interpret the poem as not only an amende honorable to the female sex in general, but a token of reconciliation to the poet's wife in particular. Even in the joyous "Assembly of Fowls," a marriage-poem, the same discord already makes itself heard; for it cannot be without meaning that in his dream the poet is told by "African,"thou of love hast lost thy taste, I guess,
As sick men have of sweet and bitterness;
and that he confesses for himself that, though he has read much of love, he knows not of it by experience. While, however, we reluctantly accept the conclusion that Chaucer was unhappy as a husband, we must at the same time decline, because the husband was a poet, and one of the most genial of poets, to cast all the blame upon the wife, and to write her down a shrew. It is unfortunate, no doubt, but it is likewise inevitable, that at so great a distance of time the rights and wrongs of a conjugal disagreement or estrangement cannot with safety be adjusted. Yet again, because we refuse to blame Philippa, we are not obliged to blame Chaucer. At the same time it must not be concealed, that his name occurs in the year 1380 in connexion with a legal process of which the most obvious, though not the only possible, explanation is that he had been guilty of a grave infidelity towards his wife. Such discoveries as this last we might be excused for wishing unmade.
Considerable uncertainty remains with regard to the dates of the poems belonging to this seemingly, in all respects but one, fortunate period of Chaucer's life. Of one of these works, however, which has had the curious fate to be dated and re-dated by a succession of happy conjectures, the last and happiest of all may be held to have definitively fixed the occasion. This is the charming poem called the "Assembly of Fowls," or "Parliament of Birds"a production which seems so English, so fresh from nature's own inspiration, so instinct with the gaiety of Chaucer's own heart, that one is apt to overlook in it the undeniable vestiges of foreign influences, both French and Italian. At its close the poet confesses that he is always reading, and therefore hopes that he may at last read something "so to fare the better." But with all this evidence of study the "Assembly of Fowls" is chiefly interesting as showing how Chaucer had now begun to select as well as to assimilate his loans; how, while he was still moving along well-known tracks, his eyes were joyously glancing to the right and the left; and how the source of most of his imagery at all events he already found in the merry England around him, even as he had chosen for his subject one of real national interest.
Anne of Bohemia, daughter of the great Emperor Charles IV, and sister of King Wenceslas, had been successively betrothed to a Bavarian prince and to a Margrave of Meissen, beforeafter negotiations which, according to Froissart, lasted a yearher hand was given to the young King Richard II of England. This sufficiently explains the general scope of the "Assembly of Fowls," an allegorical poem written on or about St. Valentine's Day, 1381eleven months or nearly a year after which date the marriage took place. On the morning sacred to lovers the poet (in a dream, of course, and this time conducted by the arch-dreamer Scipio in person) enters a garden containing in it the temple of the god of Love, and filled with inhabitants mythological and allegorical. Here he sees the noble goddess Nature, seated upon a hill of flowers, and around her "all the fowls that be," assembled as by time honoured custom on St. Valentine's Day, "when every fowl comes there to choose her mate." Their huge noise and hubbub is reduced to order by Nature, who assigns to each fowl its proper place the birds of prey highest; then those that eat according to natural inclinationworm or thing of which I tell no tale;
then those that live by seed; and the various members of the several classes are indicated with amusing vivacity and point, from the royal eagle "that with his sharp look pierceth the sun," and "other eagles of a lower kind" downwards. We can only find room for a portion of the company:
The sparrow, Venus' son; the nightingale
That clepeth forth the fresh leaves new;
The swallow, murd'rer of the bees small,
That honey make of flowers fresh of hue;
The wedded turtle, with his hearte true;
The peacock, with his angels' feathers bright,
The pheasant, scorner of the cock by night.
The waker goose, the cuckoo, ever unkind;
The popinjay, full of delicacy;
The drake, destroyer of his owne kind;
The stork, avenger of adultery;
The cormorant, hot and full of gluttony
The crows and ravens with their voice of care;
And the throstle old, and the frosty fieldfare.
Naturalists must be left to explain some of these epithets and designations, not all of which rest on allusions as easily understood as that recalling the goose's exploit on the Capitol; but the vivacity of the whole description speaks for itself. One is reminded of Aristophanes' feathered chorus; but birds are naturally the delight of poets, and were befriended by Dante himself.
Hereupon the action of the poem opens. A female eagle is wooed by three suitorsall eagles; but among them the first, or royal eagle, discourses in the manner most likely to conciliate favour. Before the answer is given, a pause furnishes an opportunity to the other fowls for delighting in the sound of their own voices, Dame Nature proposing that each class of birds shall, through the beak of its representative "agitator," express its opinion on the problem before the assembly. There is much humour in the readiness of the goose to rush in with a ready-made resolution, and in the smart reproof administered by the sparrow-hawk amidst the uproar of "the gentle fowls all." At last Nature silences the tumult, and the lady- eagle delivers her answer, to the effect that she cannot make up her mind for a year to come; but inasmuch as Nature has advised her to choose the royal eagle, his is clearly the most favourable prospect. Whereupon, after certain fowls had sung a roundel, "as was always the usance," the assembly, like some human Parliaments, breaks up with shouting;
(Than all the birdis song with sic a schout
That I annone awoik quhair that I lay
Dunbar, "The Thrissil and the Rois.")
and the dreamer awakes to resume his reading.
Very possibly the "Assembly of Fowls" was at no great interval of time either followed or preceded by two poems of far inferior interestthe "Complaint of Mars" (apparently afterwards amalgamated with that of "Venus"), which is supposed to be sung by a bird on St. Valentine's morning, and the fragment of "Queen Anelida and false Arcite." There are, however, reasons which make a less early date probable in the case of the latter production, the history of the origin and purpose of which can hardly be said as yet to be removed out of the region of mere speculation. In any case, neither of these poems can be looked upon as preparations, on Chaucer's part, for the longer work on which he was to expend so much labour; but in a sense this description would apply to the translation which, probably before he wrote "Troilus and Cressid," certainly before he wrote the Prologue to the "Legend of Good Women," he made of the famous Latin work of Boethius, "the just man in prison," on the "Consolation of Philosophy." This book was, and very justly so, one of the favourite manuals of the Middle Ages, and a treasure-house of religious wisdom to centuries of English writers. "Boice of Consolacioun" is cited in the "Romaunt of the Rose"; and the list of passages imitated by Chaucer from the martyr of Catholic orthodoxy and Roman freedom of speech is exceedingly long. Among them are the ever-recurring diatribe against the fickleness of fortune, and (through the medium of Dante) the reflection on the distinction between gentle birth and a gentle life. Chaucer's translation was not made at second-hand; if not always easy it is conscientious, and interpolated with numerous glosses and explanations thought necessary by the translator. The metre of "The Former Life" he at one time or another turned into verse of his own.
Perhaps the most interesting of the quotations made in Chaucer's poems from Boethus occurs in his "Troilus and Cressid," one of the many medieval versions of an episode engrafted by the lively fancy of an Anglo-Norman trouvere upon the deathless, and in its literary variations incomparably luxuriant, growth of the story of Troy. On Benoit de Sainte-Maure's poem Guido de Colonna founded his Latin-prose romance; and this again, after being reproduced in languages and by writers almost innumerable, served Boccaccio as the foundation of his poem "Filostrato"i.e. the victim of love. All these works, together with Chaucer's "Troilus and Cressid," with Lydgate's "Troy-Book," with Henryson's "Testament of Cressid" (and in a sense even with Shakespere's drama on the theme of Chaucer's poem), may be said to belong to the second cycle of modern versions of the tale of Troy divine. Already their earlier predecessors had gone far astray from Homer, of whom they only know by hearsay, relying for their facts on late Latin epitomes, which freely mutilated and perverted the Homeric narrative in favour of the Trojansthe supposed ancestors of half the nations of Europe. Accordingly, Chaucer, in a well-known passage in his "House of Fame," regrets, with sublime coolness, how "one said that Homer" wrote "lies,"
Feigning in his poetries
And was to Greekes favourable.
Therefore held he it but fable.
But the courtly poets of the romantic age of literature went a step further, and added a mediaeval colouring all their own. One converts the Sibyl into a nun, and makes her admonish Aeneas to tell his beads. Anotherit is Chaucer's successor Lydgateintroduces Priam's sons exercising their bodies in tournaments and their minds in the glorious play of chess, and causes the memory of Hector to be consecrated by the foundation of a chantry of priests who are to pray for the repose of his soul. A third finally condemns the erring Cressid to be stricken with leprosy, and to wander about with cup and clapper, like the unhappy lepers in the great cities of the Middle Ages. Everything, in short, is transfused by the spirit of the adapters' own times; and so far are these writers from any weakly sense of anachronism in describing Troy as if it were a moated and turreted city of the later Middle Ages, that they are only careful now and then to protest their own truthfulness when anything in their narrative seems UNLIKE the days in which they write.
But Chaucer, though his poem is, to start with, only an English reproduction of an Italian version of a Latin translation of a French poem, and though in most respects it shares the characteristic features of the body of poetic fiction to which it belongs, is far from being a mere translator. Apart from several remarkable reminiscences introduced by Chaucer from Dante, as well as from the irrepressible "Romaunt of the Rose," he has changed his original in points which are not mere matters of detail or questions of convenience. In accordance with the essentially dramatic bent of his own genius, some of these changes have reference to the aspect of the characters and the conduct of the plot, as well as to the whole spirit of the conception of the poem. Cressid (who, by the way, is a widow at the outsetwhether she had children or not, Chaucer nowhere found stated, and therefore leaves undecided) may at first sight strike the reader as a less consistent character in Chaucer than in Boccaccio. But there is true art in the way in which, in the English poem, our sympathy is first aroused for the heroine, whom, in the end, we cannot but condemn. In Boccaccio, Cressid is fair and falseone of those fickle creatures with whom Italian literature, and Boccaccio in particular, so largely deal, and whose presentment merely repeats to us the old cynical half-truth as to woman's weakness. The English poet, though he does not pretend that his heroine was "religious" (i.e. a nun to whom earthly love is a sin), endears her to us from the first; so much that "O the pity of it" seems the hardest verdict we can ultimately pass upon her conduct. How, then, is the catastrophe of the action, the falling away of Cressid from her truth to Troilus, poetically explained? By an appeal pedantically put, perhaps, and as it were dragged in violently by means of a truncated quotation from Boethiusto the fundamental difficulty concerning the relations between poor human life and the government of the world. This, it must be conceded, is a considerably deeper problem than the nature of woman. Troilus and Cressid, the hero sinned against and the sinning heroine, are the VICTIMS OF FATE. Who shall cast a stone against those who are, but like the rest of us, predestined to their deeds and to their doom; since the co-existence of free-will with predestination does not admit of proof? This solution of the conflict may be morally as well as theologically unsound; it certainly is aesthetically faulty; but it is the reverse of frivolous or commonplace.
Or let us turn from Cressid, "matchless in beauty," and warm with sweet life, but not ignoble even in the season of her weakness, to another personage of the poem. In itself the character of Pandarus is one of the most revolting which imagination can devise; so much so that the name has become proverbial for the most despicable of human types. With Boccaccio Pandarus is Cressid's cousin and Troilus' youthful friend, and there is no intention of making him more offensive than are half the confidants of amorous heroes. But Chaucer sees his dramatic opportunity; and without painting black in black and creating a monster of vice, he invents a good- natured and loquacious, elderly go-between, full of proverbial philosophy and invaluable experiencea genuine light comedy character for all times. How admirably this Pandarus practises as well as preaches his art; using the hospitable Deiphobus and the queenly Helen as unconscious instruments in his intrigue for bringing the lovers together:She came to dinner in her plain intent;
But God and Pandar wist what all this meant.
Lastly, considering the extreme length of Chaucer's poem, and the very simple plot of the story which it tells, one cannot fail to admire the skill with which the conduct of its action is managed. In Boccaccio the earlier part of the story is treated with brevity, while the conclusion, after the catastrophe has occurred and the main interest has passed, is long drawn out. Chaucer dwells at great length upon the earlier and pleasing portion of the tale, more especially on the falling in love of Cressid, which is worked out with admirable naturalness. But he comparatively hastens over its pitiable endthe fifth and last book of his poem corresponding to not less than four cantos of the "Filostrato." In Chaucer's hands, therefore, the story is a real love-story, and the more that we are led to rejoice with the lovers in their bliss, the more our compassion is excited by the lamentable end of so much happiness; and we feel at one with the poet, who, after lingering over the happiness of which he has in the end to narrate the fall, as it were unwillingly proceeds to accomplish his task, and bids his readers be wroth with the destiny of his heroine rather than with himself. His own heart, he says, bleeds and his pen quakes to write what must be written of the falsehood of Cressid, which was her doom.
Chaucer's nature, however tried, was unmistakeably one gifted with the blessed power of easy self-recovery. Though it was in a melancholy vein that he had begun to write "Troilus and Cressid," he had found opportunities enough in the course of the poem for giving expression to the fresh vivacity and playful humour which are justly reckoned among his chief characteristics. And thus, towards its close, we are not surprised to find him apparently looking forward to a sustained effort of a kind more congenial to himself. He sends forth his "little book, his little tragedy," with the prayer that, before he dies, God his Maker may send him might to "make some comedy." If the poem called the "House of Fame" followed upon "Troilus and Cressid" (the order of succession may, however, have been the reverse), then, although the poet's own mood had little altered, yet he had resolved upon essaying a direction which he rightly felt to be suitable to his genius.
The "House of Fame" has not been distinctly traced to any one foreign source; but the influence of both Petrarch and Dante, as well as that of classical authors, are clearly to be traced in the poem. And yet this work, Chaucer's most ambitious attempt in poetical allegory, may be described not only as in the main due to an original conception, but as representing the results of the writer's personal experience. All things considered, it is the production of a man of wonderful reading, and shows that Chaucer's was a mind interested in the widest variety of subjects, which drew no invidious distinctions, such as we moderns are prone to insist upon, between Arts and Science, but (notwithstanding an occasional deprecatory modesty) eagerly sought to familiarise itself with the achievements of both. In a passage concerning the men of letters who had found a place in the "House of Fame," he displays not only an acquaintance with the names of several ancient classics, but also a keen appreciation, now and then perhaps due to instinct, of their several characteristics. Elsewhere he shows his interest in scientific inquiry by references to such matters as the theory of sound and the Arabic system of numeration; while the Mentor of the poem, the Eagle, openly boasts his powers of clear scientific demonstration, in averring that he can speak "lewdly" (i.e. popularly) "to a lewd man." The poem opens with a very fresh and lively discussion of the question of dreams in generala semi-scientific subject which much occupied Chaucer, and upon which even Pandarus and the wedded couple of the "Nun's Priest's Tale" expend their philosophy.
Thus, besides giving evidence of considerable information and study, the "House of Fame" shows Chaucer to have been gifted with much natural humour. Among its happy touches are the various rewards bestowed by Fame upon the claimants for her favour, including the ready grant of evil fame to those who desire it (a bad name, to speak colloquially, is to be had for the asking; and the wonderful paucity of those who wish their good works to remain in obscurity and to be their own reward, but then Chaucer was writing in the Middle Ages. And as pointing in a direction which the author of the poem was subsequently to follow out, we may also specially notice the company thronging the House of Rumour: shipmen and pilgrims, the two most numerous kinds of travellers in Chaucer's age, fresh from seaport and sepulchre, with scrips brimful of unauthenticated intelligence. In short, this poem offers in its details much that is characteristic of its author's genius; while, as a whole, its abrupt termination notwithstanding, it leaves the impression of completeness. The allegory, simple and clear in construction, fulfils the purpose for which it was devised; the conceptions upon which it is based are neither idle, like many of those in Chaucer's previous allegories, nor are they so artificial and far-fetched as to fatigue instead of stimulating the mind. Pope, who reproduced parts of the "House of Fame" in a loose paraphrase, in attempting to improve the construction of Chaucer's work, only mutilated it. As it stands, it is clear and digestible; and how many allegories, one may take leave to ask, in our own allegory-loving literature or in any other, merit the same commendation? For the rest, Pope's own immortal "Dunciad," though doubtless more immediately suggested by a personal satire of Dryden's, is in one sense a kind of travesty of the "House of Fame,"A "House of Infamy."
In the theme of this poem there was undoubtedly something that could hardly fail to humour the half-melancholy mood in which it was manifestly written. Are not, the poet could not but ask himself, all things vanity; "as men say, what may ever last?" Yet the subject brought its consolation likewise. Patient labour, such as this poem attests, is the surest road to that enduring fame, which is "conserved with the shade;" and awaking from his vision, Chaucer takes leave of the reader with a resolution already habitual to himto read more and more, instead of resting satisfied with the knowledge he has already acquired. And in the last of the longer poems which seem assignable to this period of his life, he proves that one Latin poet at leastVenus' clerk, whom in the "House of Fame" he behold standing on a pillar of her own Cyprian metalhad been read as well as celebrated by him
Of this poem, the fragmentary "Legend of Good Women," the "Prologue" possesses a peculiar biographical as well as literary interest. In his personal feelings on the subject of love and marriage, Chaucer had, when he wrote this "Prologue," evidently almost passed even beyond the sarcastic stage. And as a poet he was now clearly conscious of being no longer a beginner, no longer a learner only, but one whom his age knew, and in whom it took a critical interest. The list including most of his undoubted works, which he here recites, shows of itself that those already spoken of in the foregoing pages were by this time known to the world, together with two of the "Canterbury Tales," which had either been put forth independently, or (as seems much less probable) had formed the first instalment of his great work. A further proof of the relatively late date of this "Prologue" occurs in the contingent offer which it makes of the poem to "the Queen," who can be no other than Richard II's young consort Anne. At the very outset we find Chaucer as it were reviewing his own literary positionand doing so in the spirit of an author who knows very well what is said against him, who knows very well what there is in what is said against him, and who yet is full of that true self-consciousness which holds to its coursenot recklessly and ruthlessly, not with a contempt for the feelings and judgments of his fellow-creatures, but with a serene trust in the justification ensured to every honest endeavour. The principal theme of his poems had hitherto been the passion of love, and woman who is the object of the love of man. Had he not, the superfine critics of his day may have askedsteeped as they were in the artificiality and florid extravagance of chivalry in the days of its decline, and habituated to mistranslating earthly passion into the phraseology of religious devotionhad he not debased the passion of love, and defamed its object? Had he not begun by translating the wicked satire of Jean de Meung, "a heresy against the law" of Love, and had he not, by cynically painting in his Cressid a picture of woman's perfidy, encouraged men to be less faithful to women
That be as true as ever was any steel?
In Chaucer's way of meeting this charge, which he emphasises by putting it in the mouth of the God of Love himself, it is, to be sure, difficult to recognise any very deeply penitent spirit. He mildly wards off the reproach, sheltering himself behind his defender, the "lady in green," who afterwards proves to be herself that type of womanly and wifely fidelity unto death, the true and brave Alcestis. And even in the body of the poem one is struck by a certain perfunctoriness, not to say flippancy, in the way in which its moral is reproduced. The wrathful invective against the various classical followers of Lamech, the maker of tents, wears no aspect of deep moral indignation; and it is not precisely the voice of a repentant sinner which concludes the pathetic story of the betrayal of Phillis with the adjuration to ladies in general:Beware ye women of your subtle foe, Since yet this day men may example see And as in love trust ye no man but me.
(Lamech, Chaucer tells us in "Queen Annelida and the false Arcite," was thefirst father that began
The love of two, and was in bigamy.
This poem seems designed to illustrate much the same moral as that enforced by the "Legend of Good Women"a moral which, by-the-bye, is already foreshadowed towards the close of "Troilus and Cressid," where Chaucer speaks ofwomen that betrayed be
Through false folk, (God give them sorrow, amen!)
That with their greate wit and subtlety
Betray you; and 'tis this that moveth me
To speak; and, in effect, you all I pray:
Beware of men, and hearken what I say.)
At the same time the poet lends an attentive ear, as genius can always afford to do, to a criticism of his shortcomings, and readily accepts the sentence pronounced by Alcestis that he shall write a legend of GOOD women, both maidens and also wives, that were
true in loving all their lives.
And thus, with the courage of a good or at all events easy conscience, he sets about his task which unfortunatelyit is conjectured by reason of domestic calamities, probably including the death of his wiferemained, or at least has come down to us unfinished. We have only nine of the nineteen stories which he appears to have intended to present (though indeed a manuscript of Henry IV's reign quotes Chaucer's book of "25 good women"). It is by no means necessary to suppose that all these nine stories were written continuously; maybe, too, Chaucer, with all his virtuous intentions, grew tired of his rather monotonous scheme, at a time when he was beginning to busy himself with stories meant to be fitted into the more liberal framework of the "Canterbury Tales." All these illustrations of female constancy are of classical origin, as Chaucer is glad to make known and most of them are taken from Ovid. But though the thread of the English poet's narratives is supplied by such established favourites as the stories of Cleopatra the Martyr Queen of Egypt, of Thisbe of Babylon the Martyr, and of Dido to whom "Aeneas was forsworn," yet he by no means slavishly adheres to his authorities, but alters or omits in accordance with the design of his book. Thus, for instance, we read of Medea's desertion by Jason, but hear nothing of her as the murderess of her children; while, on the other hand, the tragedy of Dido is enhanced by pathetic additions not to be found in Virgil. Modern taste may dislike the way in which this poem mixes up the terms and ideas of Christian martyrology with classical myths, and as "the Legend of the Saints of Cupid" assumes the character of a kind of calendar of women canonised by reason of their faithfulness to earthly love. But obviously this is a method of treatment belonging to an age, not to a single poem or poet. Chaucer's artistic judgment in the selection and arrangement of his themes, the wonderful vivacity and true pathos with which he turns upon Tarquin or Jason as if they had personally offended him, and his genuine flow of feeling not only FOR but WITH his unhappy heroines, add a new charm to the old familiar faces. Proof is thus furnished, if any proof were needed, that no story interesting in itself is too old to admit of being told again by a poet; in Chaucer's version Ovid loses something in polish, but nothing in pathos; and the breezy freshness of nature seems to be blowing through tales which became the delight of a nation's, as they have been that of many a man's, youth.
A single passage must suffice to illustrate the style of the "Legend of Good Women"; and it shall be the lament of Ariadne, the concluding passage of the story which is the typical tale of desertion, though not, as it remains in Chaucer, of desertion unconsoled. It will be seen how far the English poet's vivacity is from being extinguished by the pathos of the situation described by him.
Right in the dawening awaketh she,
And gropeth in the bed, and found right naught.
"Alas," quoth she, "that ever I was wrought!
I am betrayed!" and her hair she rent,
And to the strande barefoot fast she went,
And criede: "Theseus, mine hearte sweet!
Where be ye, that I may not with you meet?
And mighte thus by beastes been y-slain!"
The hollow rockes answered her again.
No man she sawe; and yet shone the moon,
And high upon a rock she wente soon,
And saw his barge sailing in the sea.
Cold waxed her heart, and right thus said she:
"Meeker than ye I find the beastes wild!"
(Hath he not sin that he her thus beguiled?)
She cried, "O turn again for ruth and sin,
Thy barge hath not all thy meinie in."
Her kerchief on a pole sticked she,
Askance, that he should it well y-see,
And should remember that she was behind,
And turn again, and on the strand her find.
But all for naught; his way he is y-gone,
And down she fell aswoone on a stone;
And up she rose, and kissed, in all her care,
The steppes of his feet remaining there;
And then unto her bed she speaketh so:
"Thou bed," quoth she, "that hast received two,
Thou shalt answer for two, and not for one;
Where is the greater part away y-gone?
Alas, what shall I wretched wight become?
For though so be no help shall hither come,
Home to my country dare I not for dread,
I can myselfe in this case not rede."
Why should I tell more of her complaining?
It is so long it were a heavy thing.
In her Epistle Naso telleth all.
But shortly to the ende tell I shall.
The goddes have her holpen for pity,
And in the sign of Taurus men may see
The stones of her crown all shining clear.
I will no further speak of this matter.
But thus these false lovers can beguile
Their true love; the devil quite him his while!
Manifestly, then, in this period of his lifeif a chronology which is in a great measure cojectural may be acceptedChancer had been a busy worker, and his pen had covered many a page with the results of his rapid productivity. Perhaps, his "Words unto his own Scrivener," which we may fairly date about this time, were rather too hard on "Adam." Authors ARE often hard on persons who have to read their handiwork professionally; but in the interest of posterity poets may be permitted an execration or two against whosoever changes their words as well as against whosoever moves their bones:Adam Scrivener, if ever it thee befall
"Boece" or "Troilus" to write anew,
Under thy long locks may'st thou have the scall,
If thou my writing copy not more true!
So oft a day I must thy work renew,
It to correct and eke to rub and scrape;
And all is through thy negligence and rape.
How far the manuscript of the "Canterbury Tales" had already progressed is uncertain; the "Prologue" to the "Legend of Good Women" mentions the "Love of Palamon and Arcite"an earlier version of the "Knight's Tale," if not identical with itand a "Life of Saint Cecilia" which is preserved, apparently without alteration, in the "Second Nun's Tale." Possibly other stories had been already added to these, and the "Prologue" writtenbut this is more than can be asserted with safety. Who shall say whether, if the stream of prosperity had continued to flow, on which the bark of Chaucer's fortunes had for some years been borne along, he might not have found leisure and impulse sufficient for completing his masterpiece, or at all events for advancing it near to completion? That his powers declined with his years is a conjecture which it would be difficult to support by satisfactory evidence; though it seems natural enough to assume that he wrote the best of his "Canterbury Tales" in his best days. Troubled times we know to have been in store for him. The reverse in his fortunes may perhaps fail to call forth in us the sympathy which we feel for Milton in his old age doing battle against a Philistine reaction, or for Spenser overwhelmed with calamities at the end of a life full of bitter disappointment. But at least we may look upon it with the respectful pity which we entertain for Ben Jonson groaning in the midst of his literary honours under that dura rerum necessitas, which is rarely more a matter of indifference to poets than it is to other men.
In 1386, as already noted, Chaucer, while continuing to hold both his offices at the Customs, had taken his seat in Parliament as one of the knights of the shire of Kent. He had attained to this honour during the absence in Spain of his patron the Duke of Lancaster, though probably he had been elected in the interest of that prince. But John of Gaunt's influence was inevitably reduced to nothing during his absence, and no doubt King Richard now hoped to be a free agent. But he very speedily found that the hand of his younger uncle, Thomas Duke of Gloucester, was heavier upon him than that of the elder. The Parliament of which Chaucer was a member was the assembly which boldly confronted the autocratical tendencies of Richard II, and after overthrowing the Chancellor, Michael de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk, forced upon the king a Council controlling the administration of affairs. Concerning the acts of this Council, of which Gloucester was the leading member, little or nothing is known, except that in financial matters it attempted, after the manner of new brooms, to sweep clean. Soon the attention of Gloucester and his following was occupied by subjects more absorbing than a branch of reform fated to be treated fitfully. In this instance the new administration had as usual demanded its victimsand among their number was Chaucer. For it can hardly be a mere coincidence that by the beginning of December in this year, 1386, Chaucer had lost one, and by the middle of the same month the other, of his comptrollerships. At the same time, it would be presumptuously unfair to conclude that misconduct of any kind on his part had been the reason of his removal. The explanation usually given is that he fell as an adherent of John of Gaunt; perhaps a safer way of putting the matter would be to say that John of Gaunt was no longer in England to protect him. Inasmuch as even reforming Governments are occasionally as anxious about men as they are about measures, Chaucer's posts may have been wanted for nominees of the Duke of Gloucester and his Councilsuch as it is probably no injustice to Masters Adam Yerdely and Henry Gisors (who respectively succeeded Chaucer in his two offices) to suppose them to have been. Moreover, it is just possible that Chaucer was the reverse of a persona grata to Gloucester's faction on account of the Comptroller's previous official connexion with Sir Nicholas Brembre, who, besides being hated in the city, had been accused of seeking to compass the deaths of the Duke and of some of his adherents. In any case, it is noticeable that four months BEFORE the return to England of the Duke of Lancaster, i.e. in July, 1389, Chaucer was appointed Clerk of the King's Works at Westminster, the Tower, and a large number of other royal manors or tenements, including (from 1390 at all events) St. George's Chapel, Windsor. In this office he was not ill-paid, receiving two shillings a day in money, and very possibly perquisites in addition, besides being allowed to appoint a deputy. Inasmuch as in the summer of the year 1389 King Richard had assumed the reins of government in person, while the ascendancy of Gloucester was drawing to a close, we may conclude the King to have been personally desirous to provide for a faithful and attached servant of his house, for whom he had had reason to feel a personal liking. It would be specially pleasing, were we able to connect with Chaucer's restoration to official employment the high-minded Queen Anne, whose impending betrothal he had probably celebrated in one poem, and whose patronage he had claimed for another.
The Clerkship of the King's Works to which Chaucer was appointed, seems to have been but a temporary office; or at all events he only held it for rather less than two years, during part of which he performed its duties by deputy. Already, however, before his appointment to this post, he had certainly become involved in difficulties. For in May, 1388, we find his pensions, at his own request, assigned to another person (John Scalby)a statement implying that he had raised money on them which he could only pay by making over the pensions themselves. Very possibly, too, he had, before his dismissal from his comptrollerships, been subjected to an enquiry which, if it did not touch his honour, at all events gave rise to very natural apprehensions on the part of himself and his friends. There is accordingly much probability in the conjecture which ascribes to this season of peril and pressure the composition of the following justly famous stanzas entitled "Good Counsel of Chaucer":-
Flee from the press, and dwell with soothfastness;
Suffice thee thy good, though it be small;
For hoard hath hate, and climbing tickleness:
Press hath envy, and wealth is blinded all.
Savour no more than thee behove shall;
Do well thyself that other folk canst rede;
And truth thee shall deliver, it is no dread.
Pain thee not each crooked to redress
In trust of her (Fortune) that turneth as a ball.
Greate rest stands in little business.
Beware also to spurn against a nail.
Strive not as doth a pitcher with a wall.
Deeme thyself that deemest others' deed;
And truth thee shall deliver, it is no dread.
That thee is sent receive in buxomness;
The wrestling of this world asketh a fall.
Here is no home, here is but wilderness.
Forth, pilgram! forth, beast, out of thy stall!
Look up on high, and thank God of all.
Waive thy lust, and let thy ghost thee lead,
And truth shall thee deliver, it is no dread.
Pain thee not each crooked to redress In trust of her (Fortune) that turneth as a ball. Greate rest stands in little business. Beware also to spurn against a nail. Strive not as doth a pitcher with a wall. Deeme thyself that deemest others' deed; And truth thee shall deliver, it is no dread.
That thee is sent receive in buxomness; The wrestling of this world asketh a fall. Here is no home, here is but wilderness. Forth, pilgram! forth, beast, out of thy stall! Look up on high, and thank God of all. Waive thy lust, and let thy ghost thee lead, And truth shall thee deliver, it is no dread.
Misfortunes, it is said, never come alone; and whatever view may be taken as to the nature of the relations between Chaucer and his wife, her death cannot have left him untouched. From the absence of any record as to the payment of her pension after June, 1387, this event is presumed to have taken place in the latter half of that year. More than this cannot safely be conjectured; but it remains POSSIBLE that the "Legend of Good Women" and its "Prologue" formed a peace-offering to one whom Chaucer may have loved again after he had lost her, though without thinking of her as of his "late departed saint." Philippa Chaucer had left behind her a son of the name of Lewis; and it is pleasing to find the widower in the year 1391 (the year in which he lost his Clerkship of the Works) attending to the boy's education, and supplying him with the intellectual "bread and milk" suitable for his tender age in the shape of a popular treatise on a subject which has at all times excited the intelligent curiosity of the young. The treatise "On the Astrolabe," after describing the instrument itself, and showing how to work it, proceeded, or was intended to proceed, to fulfil the purposes of a general astronomical manual; but, like other and more important works of its author, it has come down to us in an uncompleted, or at all events incomplete, condition. What there is of it was, as a matter of course, not originalpopular scientific books rarely are. The little treatise, however, possesses a double interest for the student of Chaucer. In the first place it shows explicitly, what several passages imply, that while he was to a certain extent fond of astronomical study (as to his capacity for which he clearly does injustice to himself in the "House of Fame"), his good sense and his piety alike revolted against extravagant astrological speculations. He certainly does not wish to go as far as the honest carpenter in the "Miller's Tale," who glories in his incredulity of aught besides his credo, and who yet is afterwards befooled by the very impostor of whose astrological pursuits he had reprehended the impiety. "Men," he says, "should know nothing of that which is private to God. Yea, blessed be alway a simple man who knows nothing but only his belief." In his little work "On the Astrolobe," Chaucer speaks with calm reasonableness of superstitions in which his spirit has no faith, and pleads guilty to ignorance of the useless knowledge with which they are surrounded. But the other, and perhaps the chief value, to us of this treatise lies in the fact that of Chaucer in an intimate personal relation it contains the only picture in which it is impossible to suspect any false or exaggerated colouring. For here we have him writing to his "little Lewis" with fatherly satisfaction in the ability displayed by the boy "to learn sciences touching numbers and proportions," and telling how, after making a present to the child of "a sufficient astrolabe as for our own horizon, composed after the latitude of Oxford," he has further resolved to explain to him a certain number of conclusions connected with the purposes of the instrument. This he has made up his mind to do in a forcible as well as simple way; for he has shrewdly divined a secret, now and then overlooked by those who condense sciences for babes, that children need to be taught a few things not only clearly but fullyrepetition being in more senses than one "the mother of studies":
"Now will I pray meekly every discreet person that readeth or heareth this little treatise, to hold my rude inditing excused, and my superfluity of words, for two causes. The first cause is: that curious inditing and hard sentences are full heavy at once for such a child to learn. And the second cause is this: that truly it seems better to me to write unto a child twice a good sentence, than to forget it once."
Unluckily we know nothing further of Lewisnot even whether, as has been surmised, he died before he had been able to turn to lucrative account his calculating powers, after the fashion of his apocryphal brother Thomas or otherwise.
Though by the latter part of the year 1391 Chaucer had lost his Clerkship of the Works, certain payments (possibly of arrears) seem afterwards to have been made to him in connexion with the office. A very disagreeable incident of his tenure of it had been a double robbery from his person of official money, to the very serious extent of twenty pounds. The perpetrators of the crime were a notorious gang of highwaymen, by whom Chaucer was, in September, 1390, apparently on the same day, beset both at Westminster, and near to "the foul Oak" at Hatcham in Surrey. A few months afterwards he was discharged by writ from repayment of the loss to the Crown. His experiences during the three years following are unknown; but in 1394 (when things were fairly quiet in England) he was granted an annual pension of twenty pounds by the King. This pension, of which several subsequent notices occur, seems at times to have been paid tardily or in small instalments, and also to have been frequently anticipated by Chaucer in the shape of loans of small sums. Further evidence of his straits is to be found in his having, in the year 1398, obtained letters of protection against arrest, making him safe for two years. The grant of a tun of wine in October of the same year is the last favour known to have been extended to Chaucer by King Richard II. Probably no English sovereign has been more diversely estimated, both by his contemporaries and by posterity, than this ill-fated prince, in the records of whose career many passages betokening high spirit strangely contrast with the impotence of its close. It will at least be remembered in his favour that he was a patron of the arts; and that after Froissart had been present at his christening, he received, when on the threshold of manhood, the homage of Gower, and on the eve of his downfall showed most seasonable kindness to a poet far greater than either of these. It seems scarcely justifiable to assign to any particular point of time the "Ballade sent to King Richard" by Chaucer; but its manifest intention was to apprise the king of the poet's sympathy with his struggle against the opponents of the royal policy, which was a thoroughly autocratical one. Considering the nature of the relations between the pair, nothing could be more unlikely than that Chaucer should have taken upon himself to exhort his sovereign and patron to steadfastness of political conduct. And in truth, though the loyal tone of this address is (as already observed) unmistakeable enough, there is little difficulty in accounting for the mixture of commonplace reflexions and of admonitions to the king, to persist in a spirited domestic policy. He is to
"Dread God, do law, love truth and worthiness,"
and wed his peoplenot himself"again to steadfastness." However, even a quasi-political poem of this description, whatever element of implied flattery it may contain, offers pleasanter reading than those least attractive of all occasional poems, of which the burden is a cry for money. The "Envoy to Scogan" has been diversely dated, and diversely interpreted. The reference in these lines to a deluge of pestilence, clearly means, not a pestilence produced by heavy rains, but heavy rains which might be expected to produce a pestilence. The primary purpose of the epistle admits of no doubt, though it is only revealed in the postscript. After bantering his friend on account of his faint- heartedness in love:"Because thy lady saw not thy distress,
Therefore thou gavest her up at Michaelmas"
Chaucer ends by entreating him to further his claims upon the royal munificence. Of this friend, Henry Scogan, a tradition repeated by Ben Jonson averred that he was a fine gentleman and Master of Arts of Henry IV's time, who was regarded and rewarded for his Court "disguisings" and "writings in ballad-royal." He is therefore appropriately apostrophised by Chaucer as kneeling
at the streames head
Of grace, of all honuor and worthiness,
and reminded that his friend is at the other end of the current. The weariness of tone, natural under the circumstances, obscures whatever humour the poem possesses.
Very possibly the lines to Scogan were written not before, but immediately after, the accession of Henry IV. In that case they belong to about the same date as the wellknown and very plainspoken "Complaint of Chaucer to his Purse," addressed by him to the new Sovereign without loss of time, if not indeed, as it would be hardly uncharitable to suppose, prepared beforehand. Even in this "Complaint" (the term was a technical one for an elegiac piece, and was so used by Spenser) there is a certain frank geniality of tone, the natural accompaniment of an easy conscience, which goes some way to redeem the nature of the subject. Still, the theme remains one which only an exceptionally skilful treatment can make sufficiently pathetic or perfectly comic. The lines had the desired effect; for within four days after his accessioni.e. on October 3rd, 1399the "conqueror of Brut's Albion," otherwise King Henry IV, doubled Chaucer's pension of twenty marks, so that, continuing as he did to enjoy the annuity of twenty pounds granted him by King Richard, he was now once more in comfortable circumstances. The best proof of these lies in the fact that very speedilyon Christmas Eve, 1399Chaucer, probably in a rather sanguine mood, covenanted for the lease for fifty-three years of a house in the garden of the chapel of St. Mary at Westminster. And here, in comfort and in peace, as there seems every reason to believe, he died before another year, and with it the century, had quite run outon October 25th, 1400.
Our fancy may readily picture to itself the last days of Geoffrey Chaucer, and the ray of autumn sunshine which gilded his reverend head before it was bowed in death. His old patron's more fortunate son, whose earlier chivalrous days we are apt to overlook in thinking of him as a politic king and the sagacious founder of a dynasty, cannot have been indifferent to the welfare of a subject for whose needs he had provided with so prompt a liberality. In the vicinity of a throne the smiles of royalty are wont to be contagiousand probably many a courtier thought well to seek the company of one who, so far as we know, had never forfeited the goodwill of any patron or the attachment of any friend. We may, too, imagine him visited by associates who loved and honoured the poet as well as the man by Gower, blind or nearly so, if tradition speak the truth, and who, having "long had sickness upon hand," seems unlike Chaucer to have been ministered to in his old age by a housewife whom he had taken to himself in contradiction of principles preached by both the poets; and by "Bukton," converted, perchance, by means of Chaucer's gift to him of the "Wife of Bath's Tale," to a resolution of perpetual bachelorhood, but otherwise, as Mr. Carlyle would say, "dim to us." Besides these, if he was still among the living, the philosophical Strode in his Dominican habit, on a visit to London from one of his monasteries; ormore probablythe youthful Lydgate, not yet a Benedictine monk, but pausing, on his return from his travels in divers lands, to sit awhile, as it were, at the feet of the master in whose poetic example he took pride; the courtly Scogan; and Occleve, already learned, who was to cherish the memory of Chaucer's outward features as well as of his fruitful intellect:all these may in his closing days have gathered around their friend; and perhaps one or the other may have been present to close the watchful eyes for ever.
But there was yet another company with which, in these last years, and perhaps in these last days of his life, Chaucer had intercourse, of which he can rarely have lost sight, and which even in solitude he must have had constantly with him. This company has since been well known to generations and centuries of Englishmen. Its members head that goodly procession of figures which have been familiar to our fathers as livelong friends, which are the same to us, and will be to our children after us the procession of the nation's favourites among the characters created by our great dramatists and novelists, the eternal types of human nature which nothing can efface from our imagination. Or is there less reality about the "Knight" in his short cassock and old-fashioned armour and the "Wife of Bath" in hat and wimple, thanfor instanceabout Uncle Toby and the Widow Wadman? Can we not hear "Madame Eglantine" lisping her "Stratford-atte-Bowe" French as if she were a personage in a comedy by Congreve or Sheridan? Is not the "Summoner" with his "fire-red cherubim's face" a worthy companion for Lieutenant Bardolph himself? And have not the humble "Parson" and his Brother the "Ploughman" that irresistible pathos which Dickens could find in the simple and the poor? All these figures, with those of their fellow-pilgrims, are to us living men and women; and in their midst the poet who created them lives, as he has painted himself among the company, not less faithfully than Occleve depicted him from memory after death.
How long Chaucer had been engaged upon the "Canterbury Tales" it is impossible to decide. No process is more hazardous than that of distributing a poet's works among the several periods of his life according to divisions of speciesplacing his tragedies or serious stories in one season, his comedies or lighter tales in another, and so forth. Chaucer no more admits of such treatment than Shakspere, nor because there happens to be in his case little actual evidence by which to control or contradict it, are we justified in subjecting him to it. All we know is that he left his great work a fragment, and that we have no mention in any of his other poems of more than three of the "Tales"two, as already noticed, being mentioned in the Prologue to the Legend of Good Women, written at a time when they had perhaps not yet assumed the form in which they are preserved, while to the third (the "Wife of Bath") reference is made in the "Envoi to Bukton," the date of which is quite uncertain. At the same time, the labour which was expended upon the "Canterbury Tales" by their author manifestly obliges us to conclude that their composition occupied several years, with inevitable interruptions; while the gaiety and brightness of many of the stories, and the exuberant humour and exquisite pathos of others, as well as the masterly effectiveness of the "Prologue," make it almost certain that these parts of the work were written when Chaucer was not only capable of doing his best, but also in a situation which admitted of his doing it. The supposition is therefore a very probable one, that the main period of their composition may have extended over the last eleven or twelve years of his life, and have begun about the time when he was again placed above want by his appointment to the Clerkship of the Royal Works.
Again, it is virtually certain that the poem of the "Canterbury Tales" was left in an unfinished and partially unconnected condition, and it is altogether uncertain whether Chaucer had finally determined upon maintaining or modifying the scheme originally indicated by him in the "Prologue." There can accordingly be no necessity for working out a scheme into which everything that he has left belonging to the "Canterbury Tales" may most easily and appropriately fit. Yet the labour is by no means lost of such inquiries as those which have with singular zeal been prosecuted concerning the several problems that have to be solved before such a scheme can be completed. Without a review of the evidence it would however be preposterous to pronounce on the proper answer to be given to the questions: what were the number of tales and that of tellers ultimately designed by Chaucer; what was the order in which he intended the "Tales" actually written by him to stand; and what was the plan of the journey of his pilgrims, as to the localities of its stages and as to the time occupied by itwhether one day for the fifty-six miles from London to Canterbury (which is by no means impossible), or two days (which seems more likely), or four. The route of the pilgrimage must have been one in parts of which it is pleasant even now to dally, when the sweet spring flowers are in bloom which Mr. Boughton has painted for lovers of the poetry of English landscape.
There are one or two other points which should not be overlooked in considering the "Canterbury Tales" as a whole. It has sometimes been assumed as a matter of course that the plan of the work was borrowed from Boccaccio. If this means that Chaucer owed to the "Decamerone" the idea of including a number of stories in the framework of a single narrative, it implies too much. For this notion, a familiar one in the East, had long been known to Western Europe by the numerous versions of the terribly ingenious story of the "Seven Wise Masters" (in the progress of which the unexpected never happens), as well as by similar collections of the same kind. And the special connexion of this device with a company of pilgrims might, as has been well remarked, have been suggested to Chaucer by an English book certainly within his ken, the "Vision concerning Piers Plowman," where in the "fair field full of folk" are assembled among others "pilgrims and palmers who went forth on their way" to St. James of Compostella and to saints at Rome "with many wise tales"("and had leave to lie all their life after"). But even had Chaucer owed the idea of his plan to Boccaccio, he would not thereby have incurred a heavy debt to the Italian novelist. There is nothing really dramatic in the schemes of the "Decamerone" or of the numerous imitations which it called forth, from the French "Heptameron" and the Neapolitan "Pentamerone" down to the German "Phantasus." It is unnecessary to come nearer to our own times; for the author of the "Earthly Paradise" follows Chaucer in endeavouring at least to give a framework of real action to his collection of poetic tales. There is no organic connexion between the powerful narrative of the Plague opening Boccaccio's book, and the stories chiefly of love and its adventures which follow; all that Boccaccio did was to preface an interesting series of tales by a more interesting chapter of history, and then to bind the tales themselves together lightly and naturally in days, like rows of pearls in a collar. But while in the "Decamerone" the framework in its relation to the stories is of little or no significance, in the "Canterbury Tales" it forms one of the most valuable organic elements in the whole work. One test of the distinction is this: what reader of the "Decamerone" connects any of the novels composing it with the personality of the particular narrator, or even cares to remember the grouping of the stories as illustrations of fortunate or unfortunate, adventurous or illicit, passion? The charm of Boccaccio's book, apart from the independent merits of the Introduction, lies in the admirable skill and unflagging vivacity with which the "novels" themselves are told. The scheme of the "Canterbury Tales," on the other hand, possesses some genuinely dramatic elements. If the entire form, at all events in its extant condition, can scarcely be said to have a plot, it at least has an EXPOSITION unsurpassed by that of any comedy, ancient or modern; it has the possibility of a growth of action and interest; and (which is of far more importance, it has a variety of characters which mutually both relieve and supplement one another. With how sure an instinct, by the way, Chaucer has anticipated that unwritten law of the modern drama according to which low comedy characters always appear in couples! Thus the "Miller" and the "Reeve" are a noble pair running in parallel lines, though in contrary directions; so are the "Cook" and the "Manciple," and again and more especially the "Friar" and the "Summoner." Thus at least the germ of a comedy exists in the plan of the "Canterbury Tales." No comedy could be formed out of the mere circumstance of a company of ladies and gentlemen sitting down in a country-house to tell an unlimited number of stories on a succession of topics; but a comedy could be written with the purpose of showing how a wide variety of national types will present themselves, when brought into mutual contact by an occasion peculiarly fitted to call forth their individual rather than their common characteristics.
For not only are we at the opening of the "Canterbury Tales" placed in the very heart and centre of English life; but the poet contrives to find for what may be called his action a background, which seems of itself to suggest the most serious emotions and the most humorous associations. And this without anything grotesque in the collocation, such as is involved in the notion of men telling anecdotes at a funeral, or forgetting a pestilence over love-stories. Chaucer's dramatis personae are a company of pilgrims, whom at first we find assembled in a hostelry in Southwark, and whom we afterwards accompany on their journey to Canterbury. The hostelry is that "Tabard" inn which, though it changed its name, and no doubt much of its actual structure, long remained both in its general appearance, and perhaps in part of its actual self, a genuine relic of mediaeval London. There, till within a very few years from the present date, might still be had a draught of that London ale of which Chaucer's "Cook" was so thorough a connoisseur; and there within the big courtyard, surrounded by a gallery very probably a copy of its predecessor, was ample room for
well nine and twenty in a company
Of sundry folk,
with their horses and travelling gear sufficient for a ride to Canterbury. The goal of this ride has its religious, its national, one might even say its political aspect; but the journey itself has an importance of its own. A journey is generally one of the best of opportunities for bringing out the distinctive points in the characters of travellers; and we are accustomed to say that no two men can long travel in one another's company unless their friendship is equal to the severest of tests. At home men live mostly among colleagues and comrades; on a journey they are placed in continual contrast with men of different pursuits and different habits of life. The shipman away from his ship, the monk away from his cloister, the scholar away from his books, become interesting instead of remaining commonplace, because the contrasts become marked which exist between them. Moreover, men undertake journeys for divers purposes, and a pilgrimage in Chaucer's day united a motley group of chance companions in search of different ends at the same goal. One goes to pray, the other seeks profit, the third distraction, the fourth pleasure. To some the road is everything; to others, its terminus. All this vanity lay in the mere choice of Chaucer's framework; there was accordingly something of genius in the thought itself; and even an inferior workmanship could hardly have left a description of a Canterbury pilgrimage unproductive of a wide variety of dramatic effects.
But Chaucer's workmanship was as admirable as his selection of his framework was felicitous. He has executed only part of his scheme, according to which each pilgrim was to tell two tales both going and coming, and the best narrator, the laureate of this merry company, was to be rewarded by a supper at the common expense on their return to their starting-place. Thus the design was, not merely to string together a number of poetical tales by an easy thread, but to give a real unity and completeness to the whole poem. All the tales told by all the pilgrims were to be connected together by links; the reader was to take an interest in the movement and progress of the journey to and fro; and the poem was to have a middle as well as a beginning and an end:the beginning being the inimitable "Prologue" as it now stands; the middle the history of the pilgrims' doings at Canterbury; and the close their return and farewell celebration at the Tabard inn. Though Chaucer carried out only about a fourth part of this plan, yet we can see, as clearly as if the whole poem lay before us in a completed form, that its most salient feature was intended to lie in the variety of its characters.
Each of these characters is distinctly marked out in itself, while at the same time it is designed as the type of a class. This very obvious criticism of course most readily admits of being illustrated by the "Prologue"a gallery of genre-portraits which many master-hands have essayed to reproduce with pen or with pencil. Indeed one lover of Chaucer sought to do so with bothpoor gifted Blake, whose descriptive text of his picture of the Canterbury Pilgrims Charles Lamb, with the loving exaggeration in which he was at times fond of indulging, pronounced the finest criticism on Chaucer's poem he had ever read. But it should be likewise noticed that the character of each pilgrim is kept up through the poem, both incidentally in the connecting passages between tale and tale, and in the manner in which the tales themselves are introduced and told. The connecting passages are full of dramatic vivacity; in these the "Host," Master Harry Bailly, acts as a most efficient choragus, but the other pilgrims are not silent, and in the "Manciple's" Prologue, the "Cook" enacts a bit of downright farce for the amusement of the company and of stray inhabitants of "Bob-up-and-down." He is, however, homoeopathically cured of the effects of his drunkenness, so that the "Host" feels justified in offering up a thanksgiving to Bacchus for his powers of conciliation. The "Man of Law's" Prologue is an argument; the "Wife of Bath's" the ceaseless clatter of an indomitable tongue. The sturdy "Franklin" corrects himself when deviating into circumlocution:Till that the brighte sun had lost his hue,
For th' horizon had reft the sun of light,
(This is as much to say as: it was night).
The "Miller" "tells his churlish tale in his manner," of which manner the less said the better; while in the "Reeve's Tale," Chaucer even, after the manner of a comic dramatist, gives his Northern undergraduate a vulgar ungrammatical phraseology, probably designedly, since the poet was himself a "Southern man." The "Pardoner" is exuberant in his sample-eloquence; the "Doctor of Physic" is gravely and sententiously morala proper man,
And like a prelate, by Saint Runyan,
says the "Host." Most sustained of all, though he tells no tale, is, from the nature of the case, the character of Harry Bailly, the host of the Tabard, himselfwho, whatever resemblance he may bear to his actual original, is the anecestor of a long line of descendants, including mine Host of the Garter in the "Merry Wives of Windsor." He is a thorough worldling, to whom anything smacking of the precisian in morals is as offensive as anything of a Romantic tone in literature; he smells a Lollard without fail, and turns up his nose at an old-fashioned ballad or a string of tragic instances as out of date or tedious. In short, he speaks his mind and that of other more timid people at the same time, and is one of those sinners whom everybody both likes and respects. "I advise," says the "Pardoner," with polite impudence (when inviting the company to become purchasers of the holy wares which he has for sale), that
our host, he shall begin,
For he is most enveloped in sin.
He is thus both an admirable picture in himself, and an admirable foil to those characters which are most unlike himabove all to the "Parson" and the "Clerk of Oxford," the representatives of religion and learning.
As to the "Tales" themselves, Chaucer beyond a doubt meant their style and tone to be above all things POPULAR. This is one of the causes accounting for the favour shown to the work,a favour attested, so far as earlier times are concerned, by the vast number of manuscripts existing of it. The "Host" is, so to speak, charged with the constant injunction of this cardinal principle of popularity as to both theme and style. "Tell us," he coolly demands of the most learned and sedate of all his fellow- travellers,
some merry thing of adventures;
Your termes, your colours, and your figures,
Keep them in store, till so be ye indite
High style, as when that men to kinges write;
Speak ye so plain at this time, we you pray,
That we may understande that ye say.
And the "Clerk" follows the spirit of the injunction both by omitting, as impertinent, a proeme in which his original, Petrarch, gives a great deal of valuable, but not in its connexion interesting, geographical information, and by adding a facetious moral to what he calls the "unrestful matter" of his story. Even the "Squire," though, after the manner of young men, far more than his elders addicted to the grand style, and accordingly specially praised for his eloquence by the simple "Franklin," prefers to reduce to its plain meaning the courtly speech of the Knight of the Brazen Steed. In connexion with what was said above, it is observable that each of the "Tales" in subject suits its narrator. Not by chance is the all-but-Quixotic romance of "Palamon and Arcite," taken by Chaucer from Boccaccio's "Teseide," related by the "Knight"; not by chance does the "Clerk," following Petrarch's Latin version of a story related by the same author, tell the even more improbable, but, in the plainness of its moral, infinitely more fructuous tale of patient Griseldis. How well the "Second Nun" is fitted with a legend which carries us back a few centuries into the atmosphere of Hrosvitha's comedies, and suggests with the utmost verisimilitude the nature of a Nun's lucubrations on the subject of marriage. It is impossible to go through the whole list of the "Tales"; but all may be truly said to be in keeping with the characters and manners (often equally indifferent) of their tellersdown to that of the "Nun's Priest," which, brimful of humour as it is, has just the mild naughtiness about it which comes so drolly from a spiritual director in his worldlier hour.
Not a single one of these "Tales" can with any show of reason be ascribed to Chaucer's own invention. French literaturechiefly though not solely that of fabliauxdoubtless supplied the larger share of his materials; but that here also his debts to Italian literature, and to Boccaccio in particular, are considerable, seems hardly to admit of denial. But while Chaucer freely borrowed from foreign models, he had long passed beyond the stage of translating without assimilating. It would be rash to assume that where he altered he invariably improved. His was not the unerring eye which, like Shakspere's in his dramatic transfusions of Plutarch, missed no particle of the gold mingled with the baser metal, but rejected the dross with sovereign certainty. In dealing with Italian originals more especially, he sometimes altered for the worse, and sometimes for the better; but he was never a mere slavish translator. So in the "Knight's Tale" he may be held in some points to have deviated disadvantageously from his original; but, on the other hand, in the "Clerk's Tale," he inserts a passage on the fidelity of women, and another on the instability of the multitude, besides adding a touch of nature irresistibly pathetic in the exclamation of the faithful wife, tried beyond her power of concealing the emotion within her:
O gracious God! how gentle and how kind
Ye seemed by your speech and your visage
The day that maked was our marriage.
So also in the "Man of Law's Tale," which is taken from the French, he increases the vivacity of the narrative by a considerable number of apostrophes in his own favourite manner, besides pleasing the general reader by divers general reflexions of his own inditing. Almost necessarily, the literary form and the self-consistency of his originals lose under such treatment. But his dramatic sense, on which perhaps his commentators have not always sufficiently dwelt, is rarely, if ever, at fault. Two illustrations of this gift in Chaucer must suffice, which shall be chosen in two quarters where he has worked with materials of the most widely different kind. Many readers must have compared with Dante's original (in canto 33 of the "Inferno") Chaucer's version in the "Monk's Tale" of the story of Ugolino. Chaucer, while he necessarily omits the ghastly introduction, expands the pathetic picture of the sufferings of the father and his sons in their dungeon, and closes, far more briefly and effectively than Dante, with a touch of the most refined pathos:
DE HUGILINO COMITE PISAE.
Of Hugolin of Pisa the langour
There may no tongue telle for pity.
But little out of Pisa stands a tower,
In whiche tower in prison put was he;
And with him be his little children three.
The eldest scarcely five years was of age;
Alas! fortune! it was great cruelty
Such birds as these to put in such a cage.
Condemned he was to die in that prison,
For Royer, which that bishop was of Pise,
Had on him made a false suggestion,
Through which the people gan on him arise,
And put him in prison in such a wise,
As ye have heard, and meat and drink he had
So little that it hardly might suffice,
And therewithal it was full poor and bad.
And on a day befell that in that hour
When that his meat was wont to be y-brought,
The gaoler shut the doors of that tower.
He heard it well, although he saw it not;
And in his heart anon there fell a thought
That they his death by hunger did devise.
"Alas!" quoth he, "alas! that I was wrought!"
Therewith the teares fell from his eyes
His youngest son, that three years was of age,
Unto him said: "Father, why do ye weep?
When will the gaoler bring us our pottage?
Is there no morsel bread that ye do keep?
I am so hungry that I cannot sleep.
Now woulde God that I might sleep for ever!
Then should not hunger in my belly creep.
There is no thing save bread that I would liever."
Thus day by day this child began to cry,
Till in his father's lap adown he lay,
And saide: "Farewell, father, I must die!"
And kissed his father, and died the same day.
The woeful father saw that dead he lay,
And his two arms for woe began to bite,
And said: "Fortune, alas and well-away!
For all my woe I blame thy treacherous spite."
His children weened that it for hunger was,
That he his arms gnawed, and not for woe.
And saide: "Father, do not so, alas!
But rather eat the flesh upon us two.
Our flesh thou gavest us, our flesh thou take us fro,
And eat enough." Right thus they to him cried;
And after that, within a day or two,
They laid them in his lap adown and died.
Of Hugolin of Pisa the langour There may no tongue telle for pity. But little out of Pisa stands a tower, In whiche tower in prison put was he; And with him be his little children three. The eldest scarcely five years was of age; Alas! fortune! it was great cruelty Such birds as these to put in such a cage. Condemned he was to die in that prison, For Royer, which that bishop was of Pise, Had on him made a false suggestion, Through which the people gan on him arise, And put him in prison in such a wise, As ye have heard, and meat and drink he had So little that it hardly might suffice, And therewithal it was full poor and bad. And on a day befell that in that hour When that his meat was wont to be y-brought, The gaoler shut the doors of that tower. He heard it well, although he saw it not; And in his heart anon there fell a thought That they his death by hunger did devise. "Alas!" quoth he, "alas! that I was wrought!" Therewith the teares fell from his eyes His youngest son, that three years was of age, Unto him said: "Father, why do ye weep? When will the gaoler bring us our pottage? Is there no morsel bread that ye do keep? I am so hungry that I cannot sleep. Now woulde God that I might sleep for ever! Then should not hunger in my belly creep. There is no thing save bread that I would liever." Thus day by day this child began to cry, Till in his father's lap adown he lay, And saide: "Farewell, father, I must die!" And kissed his father, and died the same day. The woeful father saw that dead he lay, And his two arms for woe began to bite, And said: "Fortune, alas and well-away! For all my woe I blame thy treacherous spite." His children weened that it for hunger was, That he his arms gnawed, and not for woe. And saide: "Father, do not so, alas! But rather eat the flesh upon us two. Our flesh thou gavest us, our flesh thou take us fro, And eat enough." Right thus they to him cried; And after that, within a day or two, They laid them in his lap adown and died.
The father in despair likewise died of hunger; and such was the end of the mighty Earl of Pisa, whose tragedy whosoever desires to hear at greater length may read it as told by the great poet of Italy hight Dante.
The other instance is that of the "Pardoner's Tale," which would appear to have been based on a fabliau now lost, though the substance of it is preserved in an Italian novel, and in one or two other versions. For the purpose of noticing how Chaucer arranges as well as tells a story, the following attempt at a condensed prose rendering of his narrative may be acceptable:
Once upon a time in Flanders there was a company of young men, who gave themselves up to every kind of dissipation and debaucheryhaunting the taverns where dancing and dicing continues day and night, eating and drinking, and serving the devil in his own temple by their outrageous life of luxury. It was horrible to hear their oaths, how they tore to pieces our blessed Lord's body, as if they thought the Jews had not rent Him enough; and each laughed at the sin of the others, and all were alike immersed in gluttony and wantonness.
And so one morning it befel that three of these rioters were sitting over their drink in a tavern, long before the bell had rung for nine o'clock prayers. And as they sat, they heard a bell clinking before a corpse that was being carried to the grave. So one of them bade his servant-lad go and ask what was the name of the dead man; but the boy said that he knew it already, and that it was the name of an old companion of his master's. As he had been sitting drunk on a bench, there had come a privy thief, whom men called Death, and who slew all the people in this country; and he had smitten the drunken man's heart in two with his spear, and had then gone on his way without any more words. This Death had slain a thousand during the present pestilence; and the boy thought it worth warning his master to beware of such an adversary, and to be ready to meet him at any time. "So my mother taught me; I say no more." "Marry," said the keeper of the tavern; "the child tells the truth: this Death has slain all the inhabitants of a great village not far from here; I think that there must be the place where he dwells." Then the rioter swore with some of his big oaths that he at least was not afraid of this Death, and that he would seek him out wherever he dwelt. And at his instance his two boon- companions joined with him in a vow that before nightfall they would slay the false traitor Death, who was the slayer of so many; and the vow they swore was one of closest fellowship between themto live and die for one another as if they had been brethren born. And so they went forth in their drunken fury towards the village of which the taverner had spoken, with terrible execrations on their lips that "Death should be dead, if they might catch him."
They had not gone quite half a mile when at a stile between two fields they came upon a poor old man, who meekly greeted them with a "God save you, sirs." But the proudest of the three rioters answered him roughly, asking him why he kept himself all wrapped up except his face, and how so old a fellow as he had managed to keep alive so long? And the old man looked him straight in the face and replied, "Because in no town or village, though I journey as far as the Indies, can I find a man willing to exchange his youth for my age; and therefore I must keep it so long as God wills it so. Death, alas! will not have my life, and so I wander about like a restless fugitive, and early and late I knock on the ground, which is my mother's gate, with my staff, and say, 'Dear mother, let me in! behold how I waste away! Alas! when shall my bones be at rest? Mother, gladly will I give you my chest containing all my worldly gear in return for a shroud to wrap me in.' But she refuses me that grace, and that is why my face is pale and withered. But you, sirs, are uncourteous to speak rudely to an inoffensive old man, when Holy Writ bids you reverence grey hairs. Therefore, never again give offence to an old man, if you wish men to be courteous to you in your age, should you live so long. And so God be with you: I must go whither I have to go." But the second rioter prevented him, and swore he should not depart so lightly. "Thou spakest just now of that traitor Death, who slays all our friends in this country. As thou art his spy, hear me swear that, unless thou tellest where he is, thou shalt die; for thou art in his plot to slay us young men, thou false thief!" Then the old man told them that if they were so desirous of finding Death, they had but to turn up a winding path to which he pointed, and there they would find him they sought in a grove under an oak-tree, where the old man had just left him; "he will not try to hide himself for all your boasting. And so may God the Redeemer save you and amend you!" And when he had spoken, all the three rioters ran till they came to the tree. But what they found there was a treasure of golden florinsnearly seven bushels of them as they thought. Then they no longer sought after Death, but sat down all three by the shining gold. And the youngest of them spoke first, and declared that Fortune had given this treasure to them, so that they might spend the rest of their lives in mirth and jollity. The question was how to take this moneywhich clearly belonged to some one elsesafely to the house of one of the three companions. It must be done by night; so let them draw lots, and let him on whom the lot fell run to the town to fetch bread and wine, while the other two guarded the treasure carefully till the night came, when they might agree whither to transport it.
The lot fell on the youngest, who forthwith went his way to the town. Then one of those who remained with the treasure said to the other: "Thou knowest well that thou art my sworn brother, and I will tell thee something to thy advantage. Our companion is gone, and here is a great quantity of gold to be divided among us three. But say, if I could manage so that the gold is divided between us two, should I not do thee a friend's turn?" And when the other failed to understand him, he made him promise secrecy and disclosed his plan. "Two are stronger than one. When he sits down, arise as if thou wouldest sport with him; and while thou art struggling with him as in play, I will rive him through both his sides; and look thou do the same with thy dagger. After which, my dear friend, we will divide all the gold between you and me, and then we may satisfy all our desires and play at dice to our hearts' content."
Meanwhile the youngest rioter, as he went up to the town, revolved in his heart the beauty of the bright new florins, and said unto himself: "If only I could have all this gold to myself alone, there is no man on earth who would live so merrily as I." And at last the Devil put it into his relentless heart to buy poison, in order with it to kill his two companions. And straightway he went on into the town to an apothecary, and besought him to sell him some poison for destroying some rats which infested his house and a polecat which, he said, had made away with his capons. And the apothecary said: "Thou shalt have something of which (so may God save my soul!) no creature in all the world could swallow a single grain without losing his life therebyand that in less time than thou wouldest take to walk a mile in." So the miscreant shut up this poison in a box, and then he went into the next street and borrowed three large bottles, into two of which he poured his poison, while the third he kept clean to hold drink for himself; for he meant to work hard all the night to carry away the gold. So he filled his three bottles with wine, and then went back to his companions under the tree.
What need to make a long discourse of what followed? As they had plotted their comrade's death, so they slew him, and that at once. And when they had done this, the one who had counselled the deed said, "Now let us sit and drink and make merry, and then we will bury his body." And it happened to him by chance to take one of the bottles which contained the poison; and he drank, and gave drink of it to his fellow; and thus they both speedily died.
The plot of this story is, as observed, not Chaucer's. But how carefully, how artistically the narrative is elaborated, incident by incident, and point by point! How well every effort is prepared, and how well every turn of the story is explained! Nothing is superfluous, but everything is arranged with care, down to the circumstances of the bottles being bought, for safety's sake, in the next street to the apothecary's, and of two out of three bottles being filled with poison, which is at once a proceeding natural in itself, and increases the chances against the two rioters when they are left to choose for themselves. This it is to be a good story- teller. But of a different order is the change introduced by Chaucer into his original, where the old hermitwho, of course, is Death himselfis fleeing from Death. Chaucer's Old Man is SEEKING Death, but seeking him in vainlike the Wandering Jew of the legend. This it is to be a poet.
Of course it is always necessary to be cautious before asserting any apparent addition of Chaucer's to be his own invention. Thus, in the "Merchant's Tale," the very naughty plot of which is anything but original, it is impossible to say whether such is the case with the humorous competition of advice between Justinus and Placebo, ("Placebo" seems to have been a current term to express the character or the ways of "the too deferential man." "Flatterers be the Devil's chaplains, that sing aye Placebo.""Parson's Tale."), or with the fantastic machinery in which Pluto and Proserpine anticipate the part played by Oberon and Titania in "A Midsummer Night's Dream." On the other hand, Chaucer is capable of using goods manifestly borrowed or stolen for a purpose never intended in their original employment. Puck himself must have guided the audacious hand which could turn over the leaves of so respected a Father of the Church as St. Jerome, in order to derive from his treatise "On Perpetual Virginity" materials for the discourse on matrimony delivered, with illustrations essentially her own, by the "Wife of Bath."
Two only among these "Tales" are in prosea vehicle of expression, on the whole, strange to the polite literature of the pre-Renascence agesbut not both for the same reason. The first of these "Tales" is told by the poet himself, after a stop has been unceremoniously put upon his recital of the "Ballad of Sir Thopas" by the Host. The ballad itself is a fragment of straightforward burlesque, which shows that in both the manner and the metre (Dunbar's burlesque ballad of "Sir Thomas Norray" is in the same stanza) of ancient romances, literary criticism could even in Chaucer's days find its opportunities for satire, though it is going rather far to see in "Sir Thopas" a predecessor of "Don Quixote." The "Tale of Meliboeus" is probably an English version of a French translation of Albert of Brescia's famous "Book of Consolation and Counsel," which comprehends in a slight narrative framework a long discussion between the unfortunate Meliboeus, whom the wrongs and sufferings inflicted upon him and his have brought to the verge of despair, and his wise helpmate, Dame Prudence. By means of a long argumentation propped up by quotations (not invariably assigned with conscientious accuracy to their actual source) from "The Book," Seneca, "Tullius," and other authors, she at last persuades him not only to reconcile himself to his enemies, but to forgive them, even as he hopes to be forgiven. And thus the Tale well bears out the truth impressed upon Meliboeus by the following ingeniously combined quotation:
And there said once a clerk in two verses: What is better than gold? Jasper. And what is better than jasper? Wisdom. And what is better than wisdom? Woman. And what is better than woman? No thing.
Certainly, Chaucer gave proof of consummate tact and taste, as well as of an unaffected personal modesty, in assigning to himself as one of the company of pilgrims, instead of a tale bringing him into competition with the creatures of his own invention, after his mocking ballad has served its turn, nothing more ambitious than a version of a popular discourse half narrative, half homilyin prose. But a question of far greater difficulty and moment arises with regard to the other prose piece included among the "Canterbury Tales." Of these the so-called "Parson's Tale" is the last in order of succession. Is it to be looked upon as an integral part of the collection; and, if so, what general and what personal significance should be attached to it?
As it stands, the long tractate or sermon (partly adapted from a popular French religious manual), which bears the name of the "Parson's Tale," is, if not unfinished, at least internally incomplete. It lacks symmetry, and fails entirely to make good the argument or scheme of divisions with which the sermon begins, as conscientiously as one of Barrow's. Accordingly, an attempt has been made to show that what we have is something different from the "meditation" which Chaucer originally put into his "Parson's" mouth. But, while we may stand in respectful awe of the German daring which, whether the matter in hand be a few pages of Chaucer, a Book of Homer, or a chapter of the Old Testament, is fully prepared to show which parts of each are mutilated, which interpolated, and which transposed, we may safely content ourselves, in the present instance, with considering the preliminary question. A priori, is there sufficient reason for supposing any transpositions, interpolations, and mutilations to have been introduced into the "Parson's Tale"? The question is full of interest; for while, on the one hand, the character of the "Parson" in the "Prologue" has been frequently interpreted as evidence of sympathy on Chaucer's part with Wycliffism, on the other hand, the "Parson's Tale," in its extant form, goes far to disprove the supposition that its author was a Wycliffite.
This, then, seems the appropriate place for briefly reviewing the vexed questionWAS CHAUCER A WYCLIFFITE? Apart from the character of the "Parson" and from the "Parson's Tale," what is the nature of our evidence on the subject? In the first place, nothing could be clearer than that Chaucer was a very free-spoken critic of the life of the clergymore especially of the Regular clergy,of his times. In this character he comes before us from his translation of the "Roman de la Rose" to the "Parson's Tale" itself, where he inveighs with significant earnestness against self indulgence on the part of those who are Religious, or have "entered into Orders, as sub-deacon, or deacon, or priest, or hospitallers." In the "Canterbury Tales," above all, his attacks upon the Friars run nearly the whole gamut of satire, stopping short perhaps before the note of high moral indignation. Moreover, as has been seen, his long connexion with John of Gaunt is a well-established fact; and it has thence been concluded that Chaucer fully shared the opinions and tendencies represented by his patron. In the supposition that Chaucer approved of the countenance for a long time shown by John of Gaunt to Wyclif there is nothing improbable; neither, however, is there anything improbable in this other supposition, that, when the Duke of Lancaster openly washed his hands of the heretical tenets to the utterance of which Wyclif had advanced, Chaucer, together with the large majority of Englishmen, held with the politic duke rather than with the still unflinching Reformer. So long as Wyclif's movement consisted only of an opposition to ecclesiastical pretensions on the one hand, and of an attempt to revive religious sentiment on the other, half the country or more was Wycliffite, and Chaucer no doubt with the rest. But it would require positive evidence to justify the belief that from this feeling Chaucer ever passed to sympathy with LOLLARDRY, in the vague but sufficiently intelligible sense attaching to that term in the latter part of Richard the Second's reign. Richard II himself, whose patronage of Chaucer is certain, in the end attempted rigorously to suppress Lollardry; and Henry IV, the politic John of Gaunt's yet more politic son, to whom Chaucer owed the prosperity enjoyed by him in the last year of his life, became a persecutor almost as soon as he became a king.
Though, then, from the whole tone of his mind, Chaucer could not but sympathise with the opponents of ecclesiastical dominationthough, as a man of free and critical spirit, and of an inborn ability for penetrating beneath the surface, he could not but find subjects for endless blame and satire in the members of those Mendicant Orders in whom his chief patron's academical ally had recognised the most formidable obstacles to the spread of pure religionyet all this would not justify us in regarding him as personally a Wycliffite. Indeed, we might as well at once borrow the phraseology of a recent respectable critic, and set down Dan Chaucer as a Puritan! The policy of his patron tallied with the view which a fresh practical mind such as Chaucer's would naturally be disposed to take of the influence of monks and friars, or at least of those monks and friars whose vices and foibles were specially prominent in his eyes. There are various reasons why men oppose established institutions in the season of their decay; but a fourteenth century satirist of the monks, or even of the clergy at large, was not necessarily a Lollard, any more than a nineteenth century objector to doctors' drugs is necessarily a homoeopathist.
But, it is argued by some, Chaucer has not only assailed the false; he has likewise extolled the true. He has painted both sides of the contrast. On the one side are the Monk, the Friar, and the rest of their fellows; on the other is the "Poor Parson of a town"a portrait, if not of Wyclif himself, at all events of a Wycliffite priest; and in the "Tale" or sermon put in the Parson's mouth are recognisable beneath the accumulations of interested editors some of the characteristic marks of Wycliffism. Who is not acquainted with the exquisite portrait in question?A good man was there of religion,
And was a poore Parson of a town.
But rich he was of holy thought and work.
He was also a learned man, a clerk
That Christes Gospel truly woulde preach;
And his parishioners devoutly teach.
Benign he was, and wondrous diligent,
And in adversity full patient.
And such he was y-proved ofte sithes.
Full loth he was to curse men for his tithes;
But rather would he give, without doubt,
Unto his poor parishioners about
Of his off'ring and eke of his substance.
He could in little wealth have suffisance.
Wide was his parish, houses far asunder,
Yet failed he not for either rain or thunder
In sickness nor mischance to visit all
The furthest in his parish, great and small,
Upon his feet, and in his hand a staff.
This noble ensample to his sheep he gave,
That first he wrought, and afterwards he taught
Out of the Gospel he those wordes caught,
And this figure he added eke thereto,
That "if gold ruste, what shall iron do?"
For if a priest be foul, on whom we trust,
No wonder is it if a layman rust;
And shame it is, if that a priest take keep,
A foul shepherd to see and a clean sheep;
Well ought a priest ensample for to give
By his cleanness, how that his sheep should live.
He put not out his benefice on hire,
And left his sheep encumbered in the mire,
And ran to London unto Sainte Paul's,
To seek himself a chantery for souls,
Or maintenance with a brotherhood to hold;
But dwelt at home, and kepte well his fold,
So that the wolf ne'er made it to miscarry;
He was a shepherd and no mercenary.
And though he holy were, and virtuous,
He was to sinful man not despitous,
And of his speech nor difficult nor digne,
But in his teaching discreet and benign.
For to draw folk to heaven by fairness,
By good ensample, this was his business:
But were there any person obstinate,
What so he were, of high or low estate,
Him would he sharply snub at once. Than this
A better priest, I trow, there nowhere is.
He waited for no pomp and reverence,
Nor made himself a spiced conscience;
But Christes lore and His Apostles' twelve
He taught, but first he followed it himself.
The most striking features in this portrait are undoubtedly those which are characteristics of the good and humble working clergyman of all times; and some of these, accordingly, Goldsmith could appropriately borrow for his gentle poetic sketch of his parson-brother in "Sweet Auburn." But there are likewise points in the sketch which may be fairly described as specially distinctive of Wyclif's Simple Prieststhough, as should be pointed out, these Priests could not themselves be designated parsons of towns. Among the latter features are the specially evangelical source of the "Parson's" learning and teaching; and his outward appearancethe wandering, staff in hand, which was specially noted in an archiepiscopal diatribe against these novel ministers of the people. Yet it seems unnecessary to conclude anything beyond this: that the feature which Chaucer desired above all to mark and insist upon in his "Parson," was the Poverty and humility which in him contrasted with the luxurious self- indulgence of the "Monk," and the blatant insolence of the "Pardoner." From this point of view it is obvious why the "Parson" is made brother to the "Ploughman." For, in drawing the latter, Chaucer cannot have forgotten that other Ploughman whom Langland's poem had identified with Him for whose sake Chaucer's poor workman laboured for his poor neighbours, with the readiness always shown by the best of his class. Nor need this recognition of the dignity of the lowly surprise us in Chaucer, who had both sense of justice and sense of humour enough not to flatter one class at the expense of the rest, and who elsewhere (in the "Manciples Tale") very forcibly puts the truth that what in a great man is called a coup d'etat is called by a much simpler name in a humbler fellow-sinner.
But though, in the "Parson of a Town," Chaucer may not have wished to paint a Wycliffite prieststill less a Lollard, under which designation so many varieties of malcontents, in addition to the followers of Wyclif, were popularly includedyet his eyes and ears were open; and he knew well enough what the world and its children are at all times apt to call those who are not ashamed of their religion, as well as those who make too conscious a profession of it. The world called them Lollards at the close of the fourteenth century, and it called them Puritans at the close of the sixteenth, and Methodists at the close of the eighteenth. Doubtless the vintners and the shipmen of Chaucer's day, the patrons and purveyors of the playhouse in Ben Jonson's, the fox-hunting squires and town wits of Cowper's, like their successors after them, were not specially anxious to distinguish nicely between more or less abominable varieties of saintliness. Hence, when Master Harry Bailly's tremendous oaths produce the gentlest of protests from the "Parson," the jovial "Host" incontinently "smells a Lollard in the wind," and predicts (with a further flow of expletives) that there is a sermon to follow. Whereupon the "Shipman" protests not less characteristically:"Nay, by my father's soul, that shall he not,"
Saide the Shipman, "here shall he not preach,
He shall no gospel here explain or teach.
We all believe in the great God," quoth he;
"He woulde sowe some difficulty,
Or springe cockle in our clean corn."
(The nickname Lollards was erroneously derived from "lolia" (tares).)
After each of the pilgrims except the "Parson" has told a tale (so that obviously Chaucer designed one of the divisions of his work to close with the "Parson's"), he is again called upon by the "Host". Hereupon appealing to the undoubtedly evangelical and, it might without straining be said, Wycliffite authority of Timothy, he promises as his contribution a "merry tale in prose," which proves to consist of a moral discourse. In its extant form the "Parson's Tale" contains, by the side of much that might suitably have come from a Wycliffite teacher, much of a directly opposite nature. For not only is the necessity of certain sacramental usages to which Wyclif strongly objected insisted upon, but the spoliation of Church property is unctuously inveighed against as a species of one of the cardinal sins. No enquiry could satisfactorily establish how much of this was taken over or introduced into the "Parson's Tale" by Chaucer himself. But one would fain at least claim for him a passage in perfect harmony with the character drawn of the "Parson" in the "Prologue"a passage (already cited in part in the opening section of the present essay) where the poet advocates the cause of the poor in words which, simple as they are, deserve to be quoted side by side with that immortal character itself. The concluding lines may therefore be cited here:
Think also that of the same seed of which churls spring, of the same seed spring lords; as well may the churl be saved as the lord. Wherefore I counsel thee, do just so with thy churl as though wouldest thy lord did with thee, if thou wert in his plight. A very sinful man is a churl as towards sin. I counsel thee certainly, thou lord, that, thou work in such wise with thy churls that they rather love thee than dread thee. I know well, where there is degree above degree, it is reasonable that men should do their duty where it is due; but of a certainty, extortions, and despite of our underlings, are damnable.
In sum, the "Parson's Tale" cannot, any more than the character of the "Parson" in the "Prologue," be interpreted as proving Chaucer to have been a Wycliffite. But the one as well as the other proves him to have perceived much of what was noblest in the Wycliffite movement, and much of what was ignoblest in the reception with which it met at the hands of worldlingsbefore, with the aid of the State, the Church finally succeeded in crushing it, to all appearance, out of existence.
The "Parson's Tale" contains a few vigorous touches, in addition to the fine passage quoted, which make it difficult to deny that Chaucer's hand was concerned in it. The inconsistency between the religious learning ascribed to the "Parson" and a passage in the "Tale," where the author leaves certain things to be settled by divines, will not be held of much account. The most probable conjecture seems therefore to be that the discourse has come down to us in a mutilated form. This MAY be due to the "Tale" having remained unfinished at the time of Chaucer's death: in which case it would form last words of no unfitting kind. As for the actual last words of the "Canterbury Tales"the so-called "Prayer of Chaucer" it would be unbearable to have to accept them as genuine. For in these the poet, while praying for the forgiveness of sins, is made specially to entreat the Divine pardon for his "translations and inditing in worldly vanities," which he "revokes in his retractions." These include, besides the Book of the Leo (doubtless a translation or adaptation from Machault) and many other books which the writer forgets, and "many a song and many a lecherous lay," all the principal poetical works of Chaucer (with the exception of the "Romaunt of the Rose") discussed in this essay. On the other hand, he offers thanks for having had the grace given him to compose his translation of Boethius and other moral and devotional works. There is, to be sure, no actual evidence to decide in either way the question as to the genuineness of this "Prayer," which is entirely one of internal probability. Those who will may believe that the monks, who were the landlords of Chaucer's house at Westminster, had in one way or the other obtained a controlling influence over his mind. Stranger things than this have happened; but one prefers to believe that the poet of the "Canterbury Tales" remained master of himself to the last. He had written much which a dying man might regret; but it would be sad to have to think that, "because of humility," he bore false witness at the last against an immortal part of himselfhis poetic genius.
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