by Adolphus William Ward
Table of Contents | Chapters: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | Glossary |
Thus, then, Chaucer had passed away;whether in good or in evil odour with the powerful interest with which John of Gaunt's son had entered into his unwritten concordate, after all matters but little now. He is no dim shadow to us, even in his outward presence; for we possess sufficient materials from which to picture to ourselves with good assurance what manner of man he was. Occleve painted from memory, on the margin of one of his own works, a portrait of his "worthy master," over against a passage in which, after praying the Blessed Virgin to intercede for the eternal happiness of one who had written so much in her honour, he proceeds as follows:Although his life be quenched, the resemblance
Of him hath in me so fresh liveliness,
That to put other men in remembrance
Of his person I have here his likeness
Made, to this end in very soothfastness,
That they that have of him lost thought and mind
May by the painting here again him find.
In this portrait, in which the experienced eye of Sir Harris Nicolas sees "incomparably the best portrait of Chaucer yet discovered," he appears as an elderly rather than aged man, clad in dark gown and hoodthe latter of the fashion so familiar to us from this very picture, and from the well known one of Chaucer's last patron, King Henry IV. His attitude in this likeness is that of a quiet talker, with downcast eyes, but sufficiently erect bearing of body. One arm is extended, and seems to be gently pointing some observation which has just issued from the poet's lips. The other holds a rosary, which may be significant of the piety attributed to Chaucer by Occleve, or may be a mere ordinary accompaniment of conversation, as it is in parts of Greece to the present day. The features are mild but expressive, with just a suspicioncertainly no moreof saturnine or sarcastic humour. The lips are full, and the nose is what is called good by the learned in such matters. Several other early portraits of Chaucer exist, all of which are stated to bear much resemblance to one another. Among them is one in an early if not contemporary copy of Occleve's poems, full-length, and superscribed by the hand which wrote the manuscript. In another, which is extremely quaint, he appears on horseback, in commemoration of his ride to Canterbury, and is represented as short of stature, in accordance with the description of himself in the "Canterbury Tales."
For, as it fortunately happens, he has drawn his likeness for us with his own hand, as he appeared on the occasion to that most free-spoken of observers and most personal of critics, the host of the Tabard, the "cock" and marshal of the company of pilgrims. The fellow-travellers had just been wonderfully sobered (as well they might be) by the piteous tale of the Prioress concerning the little clergy-boy,how, after the wicked Jews had cut his throat because he ever sang "O Alma Redemptoris," and had cast him into a pit, he was found there by his mother loudly giving forth the hymn in honour of the Blessed Virgin which he had loved so well. Master Harry Bailly was, as in duty bound, the first to interrupt by a string of jests the silence which had ensued:And then at first he looked upon me,
And saide thus: "What man art thou?" quoth he;
"Thou lookest as thou wouldest find a hare,
For over upon the ground I see thee stare.
Approach more near, and looke merrily!
Now 'ware you, sirs, and let this man have space.
He in the waist is shaped as well as I;
This were a puppet in an arm to embrace
For any woman, small and fair of face.
He seemeth elfish by his countenance,
For unto no wight doth he dalliance.
From this passage we may gather, not only that Chaucer was, as the "Host" of the Tabard's transparent self-irony implies, small of stature and slender, but that he was accustomed to be twitted on account of the abstracted or absent look which so often tempts children of the world to offer its wearer a penny for his thoughts. For "elfish" means bewitched by the elves, and hence vacant or absent in demeanour.
It is thus, with a few modest but manifestly truthful touches, that Chaucer, after the manner of certain great painters, introduces his own figure into a quiet corner of his crowded canvas. But mere outward likeness is of little moment, and it is a more interesting enquiry whether there are any personal characteristics of another sort, which it is possible with safety to ascribe to him, and which must be, in a greater or less degree, connected with the distinctive qualities of his literary genius. For in truth it is but a sorry makeshift of literary biographers to seek to divide a man who is an author into two separate beings, in order to avoid the conversely fallacious procedure of accounting for everything which an author has written by something which the MAN has done or been inclined to do. What true poet has sought to hide, or succeeded in hiding, his moral nature from his muse? None in the entire band, from Petrarch to Villon, and least of all the poet whose song, like so much of Chaucer's, seems freshly derived from Nature's own inspiration.
One very pleasing quality in Chaucer must have been his modesty. In the course of his life this may have helped to recommend him to patrons so many and so various, and to make him the useful and trustworthy agent that he evidently became for confidential missions abroad. Physically, as has been seen, he represents himself as prone to the habit of casting his eyes on the ground; and we may feel tolerably sure that to this external manner corresponded a quiet, observant disposition, such as that which may be held to have distinguished the greatest of Chaucer's successors among English poets. To us, of course, this quality of modesty in Chaucer makes itself principally manifest in the opinion which he incidentally shows himself to entertain concerning his own rank and claims as an author. Herein, as in many other points, a contrast is noticeable between him and the great Italian masters, who were so sensitive as to the esteem in which they and their poetry were held. Who could fancy Chaucer crowned with laurel, like Petrarch, or even, like Dante, speaking with proud humility of "the beautiful style that has done honour to him," while acknowledging his obligation for it to a great predecessor? Chaucer again and again disclaims all boasts of perfection, or pretensions to pre-eminence, as a poet. His Canterbury Pilgrims have in his name to disavow, like Persius, having slept on Mount Parnassus, or possessing "rhetoric" enough to describe a heroine's beauty; and he openly allows that his spirit grows dull as he grows older, and that he finds a difficulty as a translator in matching his rhymes to his French original. He acknowledges as incontestable the superiority of the poets of classical antiquity:Little book, no writing thou envy,
But subject be to all true poesy,
And kiss the steps, where'er thou seest space
Of Virgil, Ovid, Homer, Lucan, Stace (Statius).
But more than this. In the "House of Fame" he expressly disclaims having in his light and imperfect verse sought to pretend to "mastery" in the art poetical; and in a charmingly expressed passage of the "Prologue" to the "Legend of Good Women" he describes himself as merely following in the wake of those who have already reaped the harvest of amorous song, and have carried away the corn:And I come after, gleaning here and there,
And am full glad if I can find an ear
Of any goodly word that ye have left.
Modesty of this stamp is perfectly compatible with a certain self- consciousness which is hardly ever absent from greatness, and which at all events supplies a stimulus not easily dispensed with except by sustained effort on the part of a poet. The two qualities seem naturally to combine into that self-containedness (very different from self-contentedness) which distinguishes Chaucer, and which helps to give to his writings a manliness of tone, the direct opposite of the irretentive querulousness found in so great a number of poets in all times. He cannot indeed be said to maintain an absolute reserve concerning himself and his affairs in his writings; but as he grows older, he seems to become less and less inclined to take the public into his confidence, or to speak of himself except in a pleasantly light and incidental fashion. And in the same spirit he seems, without ever folding his hands in his lap, or ceasing to be a busy man and an assiduous author, to have grown indifferent to the lack of brilliant success in life, whether as a man of letters or otherwise. So at least one seems justified in interpreting a remarkable passage in the "House of Fame," the poem in which perhaps Chaucer allows us to see more deeply into his mind than in any other. After surveying the various company of those who had come as suitors for the favours of Fame, he tells us how it seemed to him (in his long December dream) that some one spoke to him in a kindly way,
And saide: "Friend, what is thy name?
Art thou come hither to have fame?"
"Nay, forsoothe, friend!" quoth I;
"I came not hither (grand merci!)
For no such cause, by my head!
Sufficeth me, as I were dead,
That no wight have my name in hand.
I wot myself best how I stand;
For what I suffer, or what I think,
I will myselfe all it drink,
Or at least the greater part
As far forth as I know my art."
With this modest but manly self-possession we shall not go far wrong in connecting what seems another very distinctly marked feature of Chaucer's inner nature. He seems to have arrived at a clear recognition of the truth with which Goethe humorously comforted Eckermann in the shape of the proverbial saying, "Care has been taken that the trees shall not grow into the sky." Chaucer's, there is every reason to believe, was a contented faith, as far removed from self-torturing unrest as from childish credulity. Hence his refusal to trouble himself, now that he has arrived at a good age, with original research as to the constellations. (The passage is all the more significant since Chaucer, as has been seen, actually possessed a very respectable knowledge of astronomy.) That winged encyclopaedia, the Eagle, has just been regretting the poet's unwillingness to learn the position of the Great and the Little Bear, Castor and Pollux, and the rest, concerning which at present he does not know where they stand. But he replies, "No matter!
It is no need;
I trust as well (so God me speed!)
Them that write of this matter,
As though I know their places there."
Moreover, as he says (probably without implying any special allegorical meaning), they seem so bright that it would destroy my eyes to look upon them. Personal inspection, in his opinion, was not necessary for a faith which at some times may, and at others must, take the place of knowledge; for we find him, at the opening of the "Prologue" to the "Legend of Good Women," in a passage the tone of which should not be taken to imply less than its words express, writing, as follows:A thousand times I have heard men tell,
That there is joy in Heaven, and pain in hell;
And I accorde well that it is so
But natheless, yet wot I well also,
That there is none doth in this country dwell
That either hath in heaven been or hell,
Or any other way could of it know,
But that he heard, or found it written so,
For by assay may no man proof receive.
But God forbid that men should not believe
More things than they have ever seen with eye!
Men shall not fancy everything a lie
Unless themselves it see, or else it do;
For, God wot, not the less a thing is true,
Though every wight may not it chance to see.
The central thought of these lines, though it afterwards receives a narrower and more commonplace application, is no other than that which has been so splendidly expressed by Spenser in the couplet:Why then should witless man so much misween
That nothing is but that which he hath seen?
The NEGATIVE result produced in Chaucer's mind by this firm but placid way of regarding matters of faith was a distrust of astrology, alchemy, and all the superstitions which in the "Parson's Tale" are noticed as condemned by the Church. This distrust on Chaucer's part requires no further illustration after what has been said elsewhere; it would have been well for his age if all its children had been as clear-sighted in these matters as he, to whom the practices connected with these delusive sciences seemed, and justly so from his point of view, not less impious than futile. His "Canon Yeoman's Tale," a story of imposture so vividly dramatic in its catastrophe as to have suggested to Ben Jonson one of the most effective passages in his comedy "The Alchemist," concludes with a moral of unmistakeable solemnity against the sinfulness, as well as uselessness, of "multiplying" (making gold by the arts of alchemy):Whoso maketh God his adversary,
As for to work anything in contrary
Unto His will, certes ne'er shall he thrive,
Though that he multiply through all his life.
But equally unmistakeable is the POSITIVE side of this frame of mind in such a passage as the followingwhich is one of those belonging to Chaucer himself, and not taken from his French originalin the "Man of Law's Tale." The narrator is speaking of the voyage of Constance, after her escape from the massacre in which, at a feast, all her fellow- Christians had been killed, and of how she was borne by the "wild wave" from "Surrey" (Syria) to the Northumbrian shore:Here men might aske, why she was not slain?
Eke at the feast who might her body save?
And I answere that demand again:
Who saved Daniel in th' horrible cave,
When every wight save him, master or knave,
The lion ate--before he could depart?
No wight but God, whom he bare in his heart.
"In her," he continues, "God desired to show His miraculous power, so that we should see His mighty works. For Christ, in whom we have a remedy for every ill, often by means of His own does things for ends of His own, which are obscure to the wit of man, incapable by reason of our ignorance of understanding His wise providence. But since Constance was not slain at the feast, it might be asked: who kept her from drowning in the sea? Who, then, kept Jonas in the belly of the whale, till he was spouted up at Ninive? Well do we know it was no one but He who kept the Hebrew people from drowning in the waters, and made them to pass through the sea with dry feet. Who bade the four spirits of the tempest, which have the power to trouble land and sea, north and south, and west and east, vex neither sea nor land nor the trees that grow on it? Truly these things were ordered by Him who kept this woman safe from the tempest, as well when she awoke as when she slept. But whence might this woman have meat and drink, and how could her sustenance last out to her for three years and more? Who, then, fed Saint Mary the Egyptian in the cavern or in the desert? Assuredly no one but Christ. It was a great miracle to feed five thousand folk with five loaves and two fishes; but God in their great need sent to them abundance."
As to the sentiments and opinions of Chaucer, then, on matters such as these, we can entertain no reasonable doubt. But we are altogether too ill acquainted with the details of his personal life, and with the motives which contributed to determine its course, to be able to arrive at any valid conclusions as to the way in which his principles affected his conduct. Enough has been already said concerning the attitude seemingly observed by him towards the great public questions, and the great historical events, of his day. If he had strong political opinions of his own, or strong personal views on questions either of ecclesiastical policy or of religions doctrinein which assumptions there seems nothing probablehe at all events did not wear his heart on his sleeve, or use his poetry, allegorical or otherwise, as a vehicle of his wishes, hopes, or fears on these heads. The true breath of freedom could hardly be expected to blow through the precincts of a Plantagenet court. If Chaucer could write the pretty lines in the "Manciple's Tale" about the caged bird and its uncontrollable desire for liberty, his contemporary Barbour could apostrophise Freedom itself as a noble thing, in words the simple manliness of which stirs the blood after a very different fashion. Concerning his domestic relations, we may regard it as virtually certain that he was unhappy as a husband, though tender and affectionate as a father. Considering how vast a proportion of the satire of all timesbut more especially that of the Middle Ages, and in these again pre-eminently of the period of European literature which took its tone from Jean de Meungis directed against woman and against married life, it would be difficult to decide how much of the irony, sarcasm, and fun lavished by Chaucer on these themes is due to a fashion with which he readily fell in, and how much to the impulse of personal feeling. A perfect anthology, or perhaps one should rather say a complete herbarium, might be collected from his works of samples of these attacks on women. He has manifestly made a careful study of their ways, with which he now and then betrays that curiously intimate acquaintance to which we are accustomed in a Richardson or a Balzac. How accurate are such incidental remarks as this, that women are "full measurable" in such matters as sleepnot caring for so much of it at a time as men do! How wonderfully natural is the description of Cressid's bevy of lady-visitors, attracted by the news that she is shortly to be surrendered to the Greeks, and of the "nice vanity" i.e. foolish emptinessof their consolatory gossip. "As men see in town, and all about, that women are accustomed to visit their friends," so a swarm of ladies came to Cressid, "and sat themselves down, and said as I shall tell. 'I am delighted,' says one, 'that you will so soon see your father.' 'Indeed I am not so delighted,' says another, 'for we have not seen half enough of her since she has been at Troy.' 'I do hope,' quoth the third, 'that she will bring us back peace with her; in which case may Almighty God guide her on her departure.' And Cressid heard these words and womanish things as if she were far away; for she was burning all the time with another passion than any of which they knew; so that she almost felt her heart die for woe, and for weariness of that company." But his satire against women is rarely so innocent as this; and though several ladies take part in the Canterbury Pilgrimage, yet pilgrim after pilgrim has his saw or jest against their sex. The courteous "Knight" cannot refrain from the generalisation that women all follow the favour of fortune. The "Summoner," who is of a less scrupulous sort, introduces a diatribe against women's passionate love of vengeance; and the "Shipman" seasons a story which requires no such addition by an enumeration of their favourite foibles. But the climax is reached in the confessions of the "Wife of Bath," who quite unhesitatingly says that women are best won by flattery and busy attentions; that when won they desire to have the sovereignty over their husbands, and that they tell untruths and swear to them with twice the boldness of men;while as to the power of their tongue, she quotes the second-hand authority of her fifth husband for the saying that it is better to dwell with a lion or a foul dragon, than with a woman accustomed to chide. It is true that this same "Wife of Bath" also observes with an effective tu quoque:By God, if women had but written stories,
As clerkes have within their oratories,
They would have writ of men more wickedness
Than all the race of Adam may redress;
and the "Legend of Good Women" seems, in point of fact, to have been intended to offer some such kind of amends as is here declared to be called for. But the balance still remains heavy against the poet's sentiments of gallantry and respect for women. It should at the same time be remembered that among the "Canterbury Tales" the two which are of their kind the most effective, constitute tributes to the most distinctively feminine and wifely virtue of fidelity. Moreover, when coming from such personages as the pilgrims who narrate the "Tales" in question, the praise of women has special significance and value. The "Merchant" and the "Shipman" may indulge in facetious or coarse jibes against wives and their behaviour, but the "Man of Law," full of grave experience of the world, is a witness above suspicion to the womanly virtue of which his narrative celebrates so illustrious an example, while the "Clerk of Oxford" has in his cloistered solitude, where all womanly blandishments are unknown, come to the conclusion that:
Men speak of Job, most for his humbleness,
As clerkes, when they list, can well indite,
Of men in special; but, in truthfulness,
Though praise by clerks of women be but slight,
No man in humbleness can him acquit
As women can, nor can be half so true
As women are, unless all things be new.
As to marriage, Chaucer may be said generally to treat it in that style of laughing with a wry mouth, which has from time immemorial been affected both in comic writing and on the comic stage, but which, in the end, even the most determined old bachelor feels an occasional inclination to consider monotonous.
In all this, however, it is obvious that something at least must be set down to conventionality. Yet the best part of Chaucer's nature, it is hardly necessary to say, was neither conventional nor commonplace. He was not, we may rest assured, one of that numerous class which in his days, as it does in ours, composed the population of the land of Philistiathe persons so well defined by the Scottish poet, Sir David Lyndsay (himself a courtier of the noblest type):Who fixed have their hearts and whole intents
On sensual lust, on dignity, and rents.
Doubtless Chaucer was a man of practical good sense, desirous of suitable employment and of a sufficient income; nor can we suppose him to have been one of those who look upon social life and its enjoyments with a jaundiced eye, or who, absorbed in things which are not of this world, avert their gaze from it altogether. But it is hardly possible that rank and position should have been valued on their own account by one who so repeatedly recurs to his ideal of the true gentleman, as to a conception dissociated from mere outward circumstances, and more particularly independent of birth or inherited wealth. At times, we know, men find what they seek; and so Chaucer found in Boethius and in Guillaume de Lorris that conception which he both translates and reproduces, besides repeating it in a little "Ballade," probably written by him in the last decennium of his life. By far the best-known and the finest of these passages is that in the "Wife of Bath's Tale," which follows the round assertion that the "arrogance" against which it protests is not worth a hen; and which is followed by an appeal to a parallel passage in Dante:Look, who that is most virtuous alway
Privy and open, and most intendeth aye
To do the gentle deedes that he can,
Take him for the greatest gentleman.
Christ wills we claim of Him our gentleness,
Not of our elders for their old riches.
For though they give us all their heritage
Through which we claim to be of high parage,
Yet may they not bequeathe for no thing--
To none of us--their virtuous living,
That made them gentlemen y-called be,
And bade us follow them in such degree.
Well can the wise poet of Florence,
That Dante highte, speak of this sentence;
Lo, in such manner of rhyme is Dante's tale:
"Seldom upriseth by its branches small
Prowess of man; for God of His prowess
Wills that we claim of Him our gentleness;
For of our ancestors we no thing claim
But temporal thing, that men may hurt and maim."
(The passage in Canto 8 of the "Purgatorio" is thus translated by Longfellow:"Not oftentimes upriseth through the branches
The probity of man; and this He wills
Who gives it, so that we may ask of Him."
Its intention is only to show that the son is not necessarily what the father is before him; thus, Edward I of England is a mightier man than was his father Henry III. Chaucer has ingeniously, though not altogether legitimately, pressed the passage into his service.)
By the still ignobler greed of money for its own sake there is no reason whatever to suppose Chaucer to have been at any time actuated; although, under the pressure of immediate want, he devoted a "Complaint" to his empty purse, and made known, in the proper quarters, his desire to see it refilled. Finally, as to what is commonly called pleasure, he may have shared the fashions and even the vices of his age; but we know hardly anything on the subject, except that excess in wine, which is often held a pardonable peccadillo in a poet, receives his emphatic condemnation. It would be hazardous to assert of him, as Herrick asserted of himself that though his "Muse was jocund, life was chaste;" inasmuch as his name occurs in one unfortunate connexion full of suspiciousness. But we may at least believe him to have spoken his own sentiments in the Doctor of Physic's manly declaration that
of all treason sovereign pestilence
Is when a man betrayeth innocence.
His true pleasures lay far away from those of vanity and dissipation. In the first place, he seems to have been a passionate reader. To his love of books he is constantly referring; indeed, this may be said to be the only kind of egotism which he seems to take a pleasure in indulging. At the opening of his earliest extant poem of consequence, the "Book of the Duchess," he tells us how he preferred to drive away a night rendered sleepless through melancholy thoughts, by means of a book, which he thought better entertainment than a game either at chess or at "tables." This passion lasted longer with him than the other passion which it had helped to allay; for in the sequel to the well-known passage in the "House of Fame," already cited, he gives us a glimpse of himself at home, absorbed in his favourite pursuit:Thou go'st home to thy house anon,
And there, as dumb as any stone,
Thou sittest at another book,
Till fully dazed is thy look;
And liv'st thus as a hermit quite,
Although thy abstinence is slight.
And doubtless he counted the days lost in which he was prevented from following the rule of life which elsewhere be sets himself, to study and to read alway, day by day," and pressed even the nights into his service when he was not making his head ache with writing. How eager and, considering the times in which he lived, how diverse a reader he was, has already been abundantly illustrated in the course of this volume. His knowledge of Holy Writ was considerable, though it probably for the most part came to him at second-hand. He seems to have had some acquaintance with patristic and homiletic literature; he produced a version of the homily on Mary Magdalene, improperly attributed to Origen; and, as we have seen, emulated King Alfred in translating Boethius's famous manual of moral philosophy. His Latin learning extended over a wide range of literature, from Virgil and Ovid down to some of the favourite Latin poets of the Middle Ages. It is to be feared that he occasionally read Latin authors with so eager a desire to arrive at the contents of their books that he at times mistook their meaningnot far otherwise, slightly to vary a happy comparison made by one of his most eminent commentators, than many people read Chaucer's own writings now-a-days. That he possessed any knowledge at all of Greek may be doubted, both on general grounds and on account of a little slip or two in quotation of a kind not unusual with those who quote what they have not previously read. His "Troilus and Cressid" has only a very distant connexion indeed with Homer, whose "Iliad," before it furnished materials for the mediaeval Troilus-legend, had been filtered through a brief Latin epitome, and diluted into a Latin novel, and a journal kept at the seat of war, of altogether apocryphal value. And, indeed, it must in general be conceded that, if Chaucer had read much, he lays claim to having read more; for he not only occasionally ascribes to known authors works which we can by no means feel certain as to their having written, but at times he even cites (or is made to cite in all the editions of his works), authors who are altogether unknown to fame by the names which he gives to them. But then it must be remembered that other mediaeval writers have rendered themselves liable to the same kind of charge. Quoting was one of the dominant literary fashions of the age; and just as a word without an oath went for but little in conversation, so a statement or sentiment in writing aquired greatly enhanced value when suggested by authority, even after no more precise a fashion than the use of the phrase "as old books say." In Chaucer's days the equivalent of the modern "I have seen it said SOMEWHERE"with perhaps the venturesome addition: "I THINK, in Horace" had clearly not become an objectionable expletive.
Of modern literatures there can be no doubt that Chaucer had made substantially his own, the two which could be of importance to him as a poet. His obligations to the French singers have probably been over- estimatedat all events if the view adopted in this essay be the correct one, and if the charming poem of the "Flower and the Leaf," together with the lively, but as to its meaning not very transparent, so-called "Chaucer's Dream," be denied admission among his genuine works. At the same time, the influence of the "Roman de la Rose" and that of the courtly poets, of whom Machault was the chief in France and Froissart the representative in England, are perceptible in Chaucer almost to the last, nor is it likely that he should ever have ceased to study and assimilate them. On the other hand, the extent of his knowledge of Italian literature has probably till of late been underrated in an almost equal degree. This knowledge displays itself not only in the imitation or adaptation of particular poems, but more especially in the use made of incidental passages and details. In this way his debts to Dante were especially numerous; and it is curious to find proofs so abundant of Chaucer's relatively close study of a poet with whose genius his own had so few points in common. Notwithstanding first appearances, it is an open question whether Chaucer had ever read Boccaccio's "Decamerone," with which he may merely have had in common the sources of several of his "Canterbury Tales." But as he certainly took one of them from the "Teseide" (without improving it in the process), and not less certainly, and adapted the "Filostrato" in his "Troilus and Cressid," it is strange that he should refrain from naming the author to whom he was more indebted than to any one other for poetic materials.
But wide and diverse as Chaucer's reading fairly deserves to be called, the love of nature was even stronger and more absorbing in him than the love of books. He has himself, in a very charming passage, compared the strength of the one and of the other of his predilections:And as for me, though I have knowledge slight,
In bookes for to read I me delight,
And to them give I faith and full credence,
And in my heart have them in reverence
So heartily, that there is game none
That from my bookes maketh me be gone,
But it be seldom on the holiday,--
Save, certainly, when that the month of May
Is come, and that I hear the fowles sing,
And see the flowers as they begin to spring,
Farewell my book, and my devotion.
Undoubtedly the literary fashion of Chaucer's times is responsible for part of this May-morning sentiment, with which he is fond of beginning his poems (the Canterbury pilgrimage is dated towards the end of Aprilbut is not April "messenger to May"?). It had been decreed that flowers should be the badges of nations and dynasties, and the tokens of amorous sentiment; the rose had its votaries, and the lily, lauded by Chaucer's "Prioress" as the symbol of the Blessed Virgin; while the daisy, which first sprang from the tears of a forlorn damsel, in France gave its name (marguerite) to an entire species of courtly verse. The enthusiastic adoration professed by Chaucer, in the "Prologue" to the "Legend of Good Women," for the daisy, which he afterwards identifies with the good Alceste, the type of faithful wifehood, is of course a mere poetical figure. But there is in his use of these favourite literary devices, so to speak, a variety in sameness significant of their accordance with his own taste, and of the frank and fresh love of nature which animated him, and which seems to us as much a part of him as his love of books. It is unlikely that his personality will over become more fully known than it is at present; nor is there anything in respect of which we seem to see so clearly into his inner nature, as with regard to these twin predilections, to which he remains true in all his works, and in all his moods. While the study of books was his chief passion, nature was his chief joy and solace; while his genius enabled him to transfuse what he read in the former, what came home to him in the latter was akin to that genius itself; for he at times reminds us of his own fresh Canace, whom he describes as looking so full of happiness during her walk through the wood at sunrise:What for the season, what for the morning
And for the fowles that she hearde sing,
For right anon she wiste what they meant
Right by their song, and knew all their intent.
If the above view of Chaucer's character and intellectual tastes and tendencies be in the main correct, there will seem to be nothing paradoxical in describing his literary progress, so far as its data are ascertainable, as a most steady and regular one. Very few men awake to find themselves either famous or great of a sudden, and perhaps as few poets as other men, though it may be heresy against a venerable maxim to say so. Chaucer's works form a clearly recognisable series of steps towards the highest achievement of which, under the circumstances in which he lived and wrote, he can be held to have been capable; and his long and arduous self-training, whether consciously or not directed to a particular end, was of that sure kind from which genius itself derives strength. His beginnings as a writer were dictated, partly by the impulse of that imitative faculty which, in poetic natures, is the usual precursor of the creative, partly by the influence of prevailing tastes and the absence of native English literary predecessors whom, considering the circumstances of his life and the nature of his temperament, he could have found it a congenial task to follow. French poems were, accordingly, his earliest models; but fortunately (unlike Gower, whom it is so instructive to compare with Chaucer, precisely because the one lacked that gift of genius which the other possessed) he seems at once to have resolved to make use for his poetical writings of his native speech. In no way, therefore, could he have begun his career with so happy a promise of its future, as in that which he actually chose. Nor could any course so naturally have led him to introduce into his poetic diction the French idioms and words already used in the spoken language of Englishmen, more especially in those classes for which he in the first instance wrote, and thus to confer upon our tongue the great benefit which it owes to him. Again most fortunately, others had already pointed the way to the selection for literary use of that English dialect which was probably the most suitable for the purpose; and Chaucer as a Southern man (like his "Parson of a Town") belonged to a part of the country where the old alliterative verse had long since been discarded for classical and romance forms of versification. Thus the "Romaunt of the Rose" most suitably opens his literary lifea translation in which there is nothing original except an occasional turn of phrase, but in which the translator finds opportunity for exercising his powers of judgment by virtually re-editing the work before him. And already in the "Book of the Duchess," though most unmistakeably a follower of Machault, he is also the rival of the great French trouvere, and has advanced in freedom of movement not less than in agreeableness of form. Then, as his travels extended his acquaintance with foreign literatures to that of Italy, he here found abundant fresh materials from which to feed his productive powers, and more elaborate forms in which to clothe their results; while at the same time comparison, the kindly nurse of originality, more and more enabled him to recast instead of imitating, or encouraged him freely to invent. In "Troilus and Cressid" he produced something very different from a mere condensed translation, and achieved a work in which he showed himself a master of poetic expression and sustained narrative; in the "House of Fame" and the "Assembly of Fowls" he moved with freedom in happily contrived allegories of his own invention; and with the "Legend of Good Women" he had already arrived at a stage when he could undertake to review, under a pleasant pretext, but with evident consciousness of work done, the list of his previous works. "He hath," he said of himself, "made many a lay and many a thing." Meanwhile the labour incidentally devoted by him to translation from the Latin, or to the composition of prose treatises in the scholastic manner of academical exercises, could but little affect his general literary progress. The mere scholarship of youth, even if it be the reverse of close and profound, is wont to cling to a man through life and to assert its modest claims at any season; and thus, Chaucer's school- learning exercised little influence either of an advancing or of a retarding kind upon the full development of his genius. Nowhere is he so truly himself as in the masterpiece of his last years. For the "Canterbury Tales," in which he is at once greatest, most original, and most catholic in the choice of materials as well as in moral sympathies, bears the unmistakeable stamp of having formed the crowning labour of his lifea work which death alone prevented him from completing.
It may be said, without presumption, that such a general view as this leaves ample room for all reasonable theories as to the chronology and sequence, where these remain more or less unsettled, of Chaucer's indisputably genuine works. In any case, there is no poet whom, if only as an exercise in critical analysis, it is more interesting to study and re-study in connexion with the circumstances of his literary progress. He still, as has been seen, belongs to the Middle Ages, but to a period in which the noblest ideals of these Middle Ages are already beginning to pale and their mightiest institutions to quake around him; in which learning continues to be in the main scholasticism, the linking of argument with argument, and the accumulation of authority upon authority, and poetry remains to a great extent the crabbedness of clerks or the formality of courts. Again, Chaucer is mediaeval in tricks of style and turns of phrase; he often contents himself with the tritest of figures and the most unrefreshing of ancient devices, and freely resorts to a mixture of names and associations belonging to his own times with others derived from other ages. This want of literary perspective is a sure sign of mediaevalism, and one which has amused the world, or has jarred upon it, since the Renascence taught men to study both classical and biblical antiquity as realities, and not merely as a succession of pictures or of tapestries on a wall. Chaucer mingles things mediaeval and things classical as freely as he brackets King David with the philosopher Seneca, or Judas Iscariot with the Greek "dissimulator" Sinon. His Dido, mounted on a stout palfrey paper white of hue, with a red-and-gold saddle embroidered and embossed, resembles Alice Perrers in all her pomp rather than the Virgilian queen. Jupiter's eagle, the poet's guide and instructor in the allegory of the "House of Fame," invokes "Saint Mary, Saint James," and "Saint Clare" all at once; and the pair of lovers at Troy sign their letters "la vostre T." and la vostre C." Anachronisms of this kind (of the danger of which, by the way, to judge from a passage in the "Prologue" to the "Legend of Good Women," Chaucer would not appear to have been wholly unconscious) are intrinsically of very slight importance. But the morality of Chaucer's narratives is at times the artificial and overstrained morality of the Middle Ages, which, as it were, clutches hold of a single idea to the exclusion of all othersa morality which, when carried to its extreme consequences, makes monomaniacs as well as martyrs, in both of which species, occasionally perhaps combined in the same persons, the Middle Ages abound. The fidelity of Griseldis under the trials imposed upon her by her, in point of fact, brutal husband is the fidelity of a martyr to unreason. The story was afterwards put on the stage in the Elizabethan age; and though even in the play of "Patient Grissil" (by Chettle and others), it is not easy to reconcile the husband's proceedings with the promptings of common sense, yet the playwrights, with the instinct of their craft, contrived to introduce some element of humanity into his character and of probability into his conduct. Again the supra-chivalrous respect paid by Arviragus, the Breton knight of the "Franklin's Tale," to the sanctity of his wife's word, seriously to the peril of his own and his wife's honour, is an effort to which probably even the Knight of La Mancha himself would have proved unequal. It is not to be expected that Chaucer should have failed to share some of the prejudices of his times as well as to fall in with their ways of thought and sentiment; and though it is the "Prioress" who tells a story against the Jews which passes the legend of Hugh of Lincoln, yet it would be very hazardous to seek any irony in this legend of bigotry. In general, much of that naivete which to modern readers seems Chaucer's most obvious literary quality must be ascribed to the times in which he lived and wrote. This quality is in truth by no means that which most deeply impresses itself upon the observation of any one able to compare Chaucer's writings with those of his more immediate predecessors and successors. But the sense in which the term naif should be understood in literary criticism is so imperfectly agreed upon among us, that we have not yet even found an English equivalent for the word.
To Chaucer's times, then, belongs much of what may at first sight seem to include itself among the characteristics of his genius; while, on the other hand, there are to be distinguished from these the influences due to his training and studies in two literaturesthe French and the Italian. In the former of these he must have felt at home, if not by birth and descent, at all events by social connexion, habits of life, and ways of thought, while in the latter he, whose own country's was still a half- fledged literary life, found ready to his hand masterpieces of artistic maturity, lofty in conception, broad in bearing, finished in form. There still remain, for summary review, the elements proper to his own poetic individualitythose which mark him out not only as the first great poet of his own nation, but as a great poet for all times.
The poet must please; if he wishes to be successful and popular, he must suit himself to the tastes of his public; and even if he be indifferent to immediate fame, he must, as belonging to one of the most impressionable, the most receptive species of humankind, live in a sense WITH and FOR his generation. To meet this demand upon his genius, Chaucer was born with many gifts which he carefully and assiduously exercised in a long series of poetical experiments, and which he was able felicitously to combine for the achievement of results unprecedented in our literature. In readiness of descriptive power, in brightness and variety of imagery, and in flow of diction, Chaucer remained unequalled by any English poet, till he was surpassedit seems not too much to say, in all three respectsby Spenser. His verse, where it suits his purpose, glitters, to use Dunbar's expression, as with fresh enamel, and its hues are variegated like those of a Flemish tapestry. Even where his descriptive enumerations seem at first sight monotonous or perfunctory, they are in truth graphic and true in their details, as in the list of birds in the "Assembly of Fowls," quoted in part on an earlier page of this essay, and in the shorter list of trees in the same poem, which is, however, in its general features imitated from Boccaccio. Neither King James I of Scotland, nor Spenser, who after Chaucer essayed similar tours de force, were happier than he had been before them. Or we may refer to the description of the preparations for the tournament and of the tournament itself in the "Knight's Tale," or to the thoroughly Dutch picture of a disturbance in a farm-yard in the "Nun's Priest's." The vividness with which Chaucer describes scenes and events as if he had them before his own eyes, was no doubt, in the first instance, a result of his own imaginative temperament; but one would probably not go wrong in attributing the fulness of the use which he made of this gift to the influence of his Italian studiesmore especially to those which led him to Dante, whose multitudinous characters and scenes impress themselves with so singular and immediate a definiteness upon the imagination. At the same time, Chaucer's resources seem inexhaustible for filling up or rounding off his narratives with the aid of chivalrous love or religious legend, by the introduction of samples of scholastic discourse or devices of personal or general allegory. He commands, where necessary, a rhetorician's readiness of illustration, and a masque- writer's inventiveness, as to machinery; he can even (in the "House of Fame") conjure up an elaborate but self-consistent phantasmagory of his own, and continue it with a fulness proving that his fancy would not be at a loss for supplying even more materials than he cares to employ.
But Chaucer's poetry derived its power to please from yet another quality; and in this he was the first of our English poets to emulate the poets of the two literatures to which in the matter of his productions, and in the ornaments of his diction, he owed so much. There is in his verse a music which hardly ever wholly loses itself, and which at times is as sweet as that in any English poet after him.
This assertion is not one which is likely to be gainsaid at the present day, when there is not a single lover of Chaucer who would sit down contented with Dryden's condescending mixture of censure and praise. "The verse of Chaucer," he wrote, "I confess, is not harmonious to us. They who lived with him, and some time after him, thought it musical; and it continues so, even in our judgment, if compared with the numbers of Lydgate and Gower, his contemporaries: there is a rude sweetness of a Scotch tune in it, which is natural and pleasing, though not perfect." At the same time, it is no doubt necessary, in order to verify the correctness of a less balanced judgment, to take the trouble, which, if it could but be believed, is by no means great, to master the rules and usages of Chaucerian versification. These rules and usages the present is not a fit occasion for seeking to explain. (It may, however, be stated that they only partially connect themselves with Chaucer's use of forms which are now obsoletemore especially of inflexions of verbs and substantives (including several instances of the famous final e), and contractions with the negative ne and other monosyllabic words ending in a vowel, of the initial syllables of words beginning with vowels or with the letter h. These and other variations from later usage in spelling and pronunciationsuch as the occurrence of an e (sometimes sounded and sometimes not) at the end of words in which it is now no longer retained, and again the frequent accentuation of many words of French origin in their last syllable, as in French, and of certain words of English origin analogouslyare to be looked for as a matter of course in a last writing in the period of our language in which Chaucer lived. He clearly foresaw the difficulties which would be caused to his readers by the variations of usage in spelling and pronunciationvariations to some extent rendered inevitable by the fact that he wrote in an English dialect which was only gradually coming to be accepted as the uniform language of English writers. Towards the close of his "Troilus and Cressid," he thus addresses his "little book," in fear of the mangling it might undergo from scriveners who might blunder in the copying of its words, or from reciters who might maltreat its verse in the distribution of the accents:And, since there is so great diversity
In English, and in writing of our tongue,
I pray to God that none may miswrite thee
Nor thee mismetre, for default of tongue,
And wheresoe'er thou mayst be read or sung,
That thou be understood, God I beseech.
But in his versification he likewise adopted certain other practices which had no such origin or reason as those already referred to. Among them were the addition, at the end of a line of five accents, of an unaccented syllable; and the substitution, for the first foot of a line either of four or of five accents, of a single syllable. These deviations from a stricter system of versification he doubtless permitted to himself, partly for the sake of variety, and partly for that of convenience; but neither of them is peculiar to himself, or of supreme importance for the effect of his verse. In fact, he seems to allow as much in a passage of his "House of Fame," a poem written, it should, however, be observed, in an easy- going form of verse (the line of four accents) which in his later period Chaucer seems with this exception to have invariably discarded. He here beseeches Apollo to make his rhyme
Though some verse fail in a syllable.
But another of his usagesthe misunderstanding of which has more than anything else caused his art as a writer of verse to be misjudgedseems to have been due to a very different cause. To understand the real nature of the usage in question it is only necessary to seize the principle of Chaucer's rhythm. Of this principle it was well said many years ago by a most competent authorityMr. R. Hornethat, it is "inseparable from a full or fair exercise of the genius of our language in versification." For though this usage in its full freedom was gradually again lost to our poetry for a time, yet it was in a large measure recovered by Shakspere and the later dramatists of our great age, and has since been never altogether abandoned againnot even by the correct writers of the Augustan periodtill by the favourites of our own times it is resorted to with a perhaps excessive liberality. It consists simply in SLURRING over certain final syllablesnot eliding them or contracting them with the syllables following upon them, but passing over them lightly, so that, without being inaudible, they may at the same time not interfere with the rhythm or beat of the verse. This usage, by adding to the variety, incontestably adds to the flexibility and beauty of Chaucer's versification.)
With regard to the most important of them is it not too much to say that instinct and experience will very speedily combine to indicate to an intelligent reader where the poet has resorted to it. WITHOUT intelligence on the part of the reader, the beautiful harmonies of Mr. Tennyson's later verse remain obscure; so that, taken in this way the most musical of English verse may seem as difficult to read as the most rugged; but in the former case the lesson is learnt not to be lost again, in the latter the tumbling is ever beginning anew, as with the rock of Sisyphus. There is nothing that can fairly be called rugged in the verse of Chaucer.
And fortunately there are not many pages in this poet's works devoid of lines or passages the music of which cannot escape any ear, however unaccustomed it may be to his diction and versification. What is the nature of the art at whose bidding ten monosyllables arrange themselves into a line of the exquisite cadence of the following:And she was fair, as is the rose in May?
Nor would it be easy to find lines surpassing in their melancholy charm Chaucer's version of the lament of Medea, when deserted by Jason,a passage which makes the reader neglectful of the English poet's modest hint that the letter of the Colchian princess may be found at full length in Ovid. The lines shall be quoted verbatim, though not literatim; and perhaps no better example, and none more readily appreciable by a modern ear, could be given than the fourth of them of the harmonious effect of Chaucer's usage of SLURRING, referred to above:Why liked thee my yellow hair to see
More than the boundes of mine honesty?
Why liked me thy youth and thy fairness
And of thy tongue the infinite graciousness?
O, had'st thou in thy conquest dead y-bee(n),
Full myckle untruth had there died with thee.
Qualities and powers such as the above, have belonged to poets of very various times and countries before and after Chaucer. But in addition to these he most assuredly possessed others, which are not usual among the poets of our nation, and which, whencesoever they had come to him personally, had not, before they made their appearance in him, seemed indigenous to the English soil. It would indeed be easy to misrepresent the history of English poetry, during the period which Chaucer's advent may be said to have closed, by ascribing to it a uniformly solemn and serious, or even dark and gloomy, character. Such a description would not apply to the poetry of the period before the Norman Conquest, though, in truth, little room could be left for the play of fancy or wit in the hammered-out war-song, or in the long-drawn scriptural paraphrase. Nor was it likely that a contagious gaiety should find an opportunity of manifesting itself in the course of the versification of grave historical chronicles, or in the tranquil objective reproduction of the endless traditions of British legend. Of the popular songs belonging to the period after the Norman Conquest, the remains which furnish us with direct or indirect evidence concerning them hardly enable us to form an opinion. But we know that (the cavilling spirit of Chaucer's burlesque "Rhyme of Sir Thopas" notwithstanding) the efforts of English metrical romance in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries were neither few nor feeble, although these romances were chiefly translations, sometimes abridgments to booteven the Arthurian cycle having been only imported across the Channel, though it may have thus come back to its original home. There is some animation in at least one famous chronicle in verse, dating from about the close of the thirteenth century; there is real spirit in the war-songs of Minot in the middle of the fourteenth; and from about its beginnings dates a satire full of broad fun concerning the jolly life led by the monks. But none of these works or of those contemporary with them show that innate lightness and buoyancy of tone, which seems to add wings to the art of poetry. Nowhere had the English mind found so real an opportunity of poetic utterance in the days of Chaucer's own youth as in Langland's unique work, national in its allegorical form and in its alliterative metre; and nowhere had this utterance been more stern and severe.
No sooner, however, has Chaucer made his appearance as a poet, than he seems to show what mistress's badge he wears, which party of the two that have at most times divided among them a national literature and its representatives he intends to follow. The burden of his song is "Si douce est la marguerite:" he has learnt the ways of French gallantry as if to the manner born, and thus becomes, as it were without hesitation or effort, the first English love-poet. Northough in the course of his career his range of themes, his command of materials, and his choice of forms are widely enlargedis the gay banner under which he has ranged himself ever deserted by him. With the exception of the "House of Fame," there is not one of his longer poems of which the passion of love, under one or another of its aspects, does not either constitute the main subject or (as in the "Canterbury Tales") furnish the greater part of the contents. It is as a love-poet that Gower thinks of Chaucer when paying a tribute to him in his own verse; it is to the attacks made upon him in his character as a love-poet, and to his consciousness of what he has achieved as such, that he gives expression in the "Prologue" to the "Legend of Good Women," where his fair advocate tells the God of Love:The man hath served you of his cunning,
And furthered well your law in his writing,
All be it that he cannot well indite,
Yet hath he made unlearned folk delight
To serve you in praising of your name.
And so he resumes his favourite theme once more, to tell, as the "Man of Law" says, "of lovers up and down, more than Ovid makes mention of in his old 'Epistles.'" This fact alonethat our first great English poet was also our first English love-poet, properly so calledwould have sufficed to transform our poetic literature through his agency.
What, however, calls for special notice, in connexion with Chaucer's special poetic quality of gaiety and brightness, is the preference which he exhibits for treating the joyous aspects of this many-sided passion. Apart from the "Legend of Good Women," which is specially designed to give brilliant examples of the faithfulness of women under circumstances of trial, pain, and grief, and from two or three of the "Canterbury Tales," he dwells with consistent preference on the bright side of love, though remaining a stranger to its divine radiance, which shines forth so fully upon us out of the pages of Spenser. Thus, in the "Assembly of Fowls" all is gaiety and mirth, as indeed beseems the genial neighbourhood of Cupid's temple. Again, in "Troilus and Cressid," the earlier and cheerful part of the love-story is that which he developes with unmistakeable sympathy and enjoyment, and in his hands this part of the poem becomes one of the most charming poetic narratives of the birth and growth of young love, which our literature possessesa soft and sweet counterpart to the consuming heat of Marlowe's unrivalled "Hero and Leander." With Troilus it was love at first sightwith Cressid a passion of very gradual growth. But so full of nature is the narrative of this growth, that one is irresistibly reminded at more than one point of the inimitable creations of the great modern master in the description of women's love. Is there not a touch of Gretchen in Cressid, retiring into her chamber to ponder over the first revelation to her of the love of Troilus?Cressid arose, no longer there she stayed,
But straight into her closet went anon,
And set her down, as still as any stone,
And every word gan up and down to wind,
That he had said, as it came to her mind.
And is there not a touch of Clarchen in herthough with a difference when from her casement she blushingly beholds her lover riding past in triumph:
So like a man of armes and a knight
He was to see, filled full of high prowess,
For both he had a body, and a might
To do that thing, as well as hardiness;
And eke to see him in his gear him dress,
So fresh, so young, so wieldly seemed he,
It truly was a heaven him for to see.
His helm was hewn about in twenty places,
That by a tissue hung his back behind,
His shield was dashed with strokes of swords and maces
In which men mighte many an arrow find
That pierced had the horn and nerve and rind;
And aye the people cried: "Here comes our joy,
And, next his brother, holder up of Troy."
Even in the very "Book of the Duchess," the widowed lover describes the maiden charms of his lost wife with so lively a freshness as almost to make one forget that it is a LOST wife whose praises are being recorded.
The vivacity and joyousness of Chaucer's poetic temperament, however, show themselves in various other ways besides his favourite manner of treating a favourite theme. They enhance the spirit of his passages of dialogue, and add force and freshness to his passages of description. They make him amusingly impatient of epical lengths, abrupt in his transitions, and anxious, with an anxiety usually manifested by readers rather than by writers, to come to the point, "to the great effect," as he is wont to call it. "Men," he says, "may overlade a ship or barge, and therefore I will skip at once to the effect, and let all the rest slip." And he unconsciously suggests a striking difference between himself and the great Elizabethan epic poet who owes so much to him, when he declines to make as long a tale of the chaff or of the straw as of the corn, and to describe all the details of a marriage-feast seriatim:
The fruit of every tale is for to say:
They eat and drink, and dance and sing and play.
This may be the fruit; but epic poets, from Homer downwards, have been generally in the habit of not neglecting the foliage. Spenser in particular has that impartial copiousness which we think it our duty to admire in the Ionic epos, but which, if the truth were told, has prevented generations of Englishmen from acquiring an intimate personal acquaintance with the "Fairy Queen." With Chaucer the danger certainly rather lay in an opposite direction. Most assuredly he can tell a story with admirable point and precision, when he wishes to do so. Perhaps no better example of his skill in this respect could be cited than the "Manciple's Tale," with its rapid narrative, its major and minor catastrophe, and its concise moral ending thus:My son, beware, and be no author new
Of tidings, whether they be false or true;
Whereso thou comest, among high or low,
Keep well thy tongue, and think upon the crow.
At the same time, his frequently recurring announcements of his desire to be brief have the effect of making his narrative appear to halt, and thus unfortunately defeat their own purpose. An example of this may be found in the "Knight's Tale," a narrative poem of which, in contrast with its beauties, a want of evenness is one of the chief defects. It is not that the desire to suppress redundancies is a tendency deserving anything but commendation in any writer, whether great or small; but rather, that the art of concealing art had not yet dawned upon Chaucer. And yet, few writers of any time have taken a more evident pleasure in the process of literary production, and have more visibly overflowed with sympathy for, or antipathy against, the characters of their own creation. Great novelists of our own age have often told their readers, in prefaces to their fictions or in quasi-confidential comments upon them, of the intimacy in which they have lived with the offspring of their own brain, to them far from shadowy beings. But only the naivete of Chaucer's literary age, together with the vivacity of his manner of thought and writing, could place him in so close a personal relation towards the personages and the incidents of his poems. He is overcome by "pity and ruth" as he reads of suffering, and his eyes "wax foul and sore" as he prepares to tell of its infliction. He compassionates "love's servants" as if he were their own "brother dear;" and into his adaptation of the eventful story of Constance (the "Man of Law's Tale") he introduces apostrophe upon apostrophe, to the defenceless condition of his heroine to her relentless enemy the Sultana, and to Satan, who ever makes his instrument of women "when he will beguile"to the drunken messenger who allowed the letter carried by him to be stolen from him,and to the treacherous Queen-mother who caused them to be stolen. Indeed, in addressing the last-named personage, the poet seems to lose all control over himself.
O Domegild, I have no English digne
Unto thy malice and thy tyranny:
And therefore to the fiend I thee resign,
Let him at length tell of thy treachery.
Fye, mannish, fye!--Oh nay, by God, I lie;
Fye fiendish spirit, for I dare well tell,
Though thou here walk, thy spirit is in hell.
At the opening of the "Legend of Ariadne" he bids Minos redden with shame; and towards its close, when narrating how Theseus sailed away, leaving his true-love behind, he expresses a hope that the wind may drive the traitor "a twenty devil way." Nor does this vivacity find a less amusing expression in so trifling a touch as that in the "Clerk's Tale," where the domestic sent to deprive Griseldis of her boy becomes, eo ipso as it were, "this ugly sergeant."
Closely allied to Chaucer's liveliness and gaiety of disposition, and in part springing from them, are his keen sense of the ridiculous and the power of satire which he has at his command. His humour has many varieties, ranging from the refined and half-melancholy irony of the "House of Fame" to the ready wit of the sagacious uncle of Cressid, the burlesque fun of the inimitable "Nun's Priest's Tale," and the very gross salt of the "Reeve," the "Miller," and one or two others. The springs of humour often capriciously refuse to allow themselves to be discovered; nor is the satire of which the direct intention is transparent invariably the most effective species of satire. Concerning, however, Chaucer's use of the power which he in so large a measure possessed, viz. that of covering with ridicule the palpable vices or weaknesses of the classes or kinds of men represented by some of his character-types, one assertion may be made with tolerable safety. Whatever may have been the first stimulus and the ultimate scope of the wit and humour which he here expended, they are NOT to be explained as moral indignation in disguise. And in truth Chaucer's merriment flows spontaneously from a source very near the surface; he is so extremely diverting, because he is so extremely diverted himself.
Herein, too, lies the harmlessness of Chaucer's fun. Its harmlessness, to wit, for those who are able to read him in something like the spirit in which he wrotenever a very easy achievement with regard to any author, and one which the beginner and the young had better be advised to abstain from attempting with Chaucer in the overflow of his more or less unrestrained moods. At all events, the excuse of gaiety of heartthe plea of that vieil esprit Gaulois which is so often, and very rarely without need, invoked in an exculpatory capacity by modern French criticismis the best defence ever made for Chaucer's laughable irregularities, either by his apologists or by himself. "Men should not," he says, and says very truly, "make earnest of game." But when he audaciously defends himself against the charge of impropriety by declaring that he must tell stories IN CHARACTER, and coolly requests any person who may find anything in one of his tales objectionable to turn to another:For he shall find enough, both great and small
Of storial thing that toucheth gentleness,
Likewise morality and holiness;
Blame ye not me, if ye should choose amiss
we are constrained to shake our heads at the transparent sophistry of the plea, which requires no exposure. For Chaucer knew very well how to give life and colour to his page without recklessly disregarding bounds the neglect of which was even in his day offensive to many besides the "PRECIOUS folk" of whom he half derisively pretends to stand in awe. In one instance he defeated his own purpose; for the so-called "Cook's Tale of Gamelyn" was substituted by some earlier editor for the original "Cook's Tale," which has thus in its completed form become a rarity removed beyond the reach of even the most ardent of curiosity hunters. Fortunately, however, Chaucer spoke the truth when he said that from this point of view he had written very differently at different times; no whiter pages remain than many of his.
But the realism of Chaucer is something more than exuberant love of fun and light-hearted gaiety. He is the first great painter of character, because he is the first great observer of it among modern European writers. His power of comic observation need not be dwelt upon again, after the illustrations of it which have been incidentally furnished in these pages. More especially with regard to the manners and ways of women, which often, while seeming so natural to women themselves, appear so odd to male observers, Chaucer's eye was ever on the alert. But his works likewise contain passages displaying a penetrating insight into the minds of men, as well as a keen eye for their manners, together with a power of generalising, which, when kept within due bonds, lies at the root of the wise knowledge of humankind so admirable to us in our great essayists, from Bacon to Addison and his modern successors. How truly, for instance, in "Troilus and Cressid," Chaucer observes on the enthusiastic belief of converts, the "strongest-faithed" of men, as he understands! And how fine is the saying as to the suspiciousness characteristic of lewd, (i.e. ignorant,) people, that to things which are made more subtly
Than they can in their lewdness comprehend,
they gladly give the worst interpretation which suggests itself! How appositely the "Canon's Yeoman" describes the arrogance of those who are too clever by half; "when a man has an over-great wit," he says, "it very often chances to him to misuse it"! And with how ripe a wisdom, combined with ethics of true gentleness, the honest "Franklin," at the opening of his "Tale," discourses on the uses and the beauty of long-suffering:For one thing, sires, safely dare I say,
That friends the one the other must obey,
If they will longe holde company.
Love will not be constrained by mastery.
When mastery comes, the god of love anon
Beateth his wings--and, farewell! he is gone.
Love is a thing as any spirit free.
Women desire, by nature, liberty,
And not to be constrained as a thrall,
And so do men, if I the truth say shall.
Look, who that is most patient in love,
He is at his advantage all above.
A virtue high is patience, certain,
Because it vanquisheth, as clerks explain,
Things to which rigour never could attain.
For every word men should not chide and plain;
Learn ye to suffer, or else, so may I go,
Ye shall it learn, whether ye will or no.
For in this world certain no wight there is
Who neither doth nor saith some time amiss.
Sickness or ire, or constellation,
Wine, woe, or changing of complexion,
Causeth full oft to do amiss or speak.
For every wrong men may not vengeance wreak:
After a time there must be temperance
With every wight that knows self-governance.
It was by virtue of his power of observing and drawing character, above all, that Chaucer became the true predecessor of two several growths in our literature, in both of which characterisation forms a most important element,it might perhaps be truly said, the element which surpasses all others in importance. From this point of view the dramatic poets of the Elizabethan age remain unequalled by any other school or group of dramatists, and the English novelists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by the representatives of any other development of prose- fiction. In the art of construction, in the invention and the arrangement of incident, these dramatists and novelists may have been left behind by others; in the creation of character they are on the whole without rivals in their respective branches of literature. To the earlier at least of these growths Chaucer may be said to have pointed the way. His personages, more especially of course, as has been seen, those who are assembled together in the "Prologue" to the "Canterbury Tales," are not mere phantasms of the brain, or even mere actual possibilities, but real human beings, and types true to the likeness of whole classes of men and women, or to the mould in which all human nature is cast. This is upon the whole the most wonderful, as it is perhaps the most generally recognised of Chaucer's gifts. It would not of itself have sufficed to make him a great dramatist, had the drama stood ready for him as a literary form into which to pour the inspirations of his genius, as it afterwards stood ready for our great Elizabethans. But to it were added in him that perception of a strong dramatic situation, and that power of finding the right words for it, which have determined the success of many plays, and the absence of which materially detracts from the completeness of the effect of others, high as their merits may be in other respects. How thrilling, for instance, is that rapid passage across the stage, as one might almost call it, of the unhappy Dorigen in the "Franklin's Tale!" The antecedents of the situation, to be sure, are, as has been elsewhere suggested, absurd enough; but who can fail to feel that spasm of anxious sympathy with which a powerful dramatic situation in itself affects us, when the wife, whom for truth's sake her husband has bidden be untrue to him, goes forth on her unholy errand of duty? "Whither so fast?" asks the lover:
And she made answer, half as she were mad:
"Unto the garden, as my husband bade,
My promise for to keep, alas! alas!"
Nor, as the abbreviated prose version of the "Pardoner's Tale" given above will suffice to show, was Chaucer deficient in the art of dramatically arranging a story; while he is not excelled by any of our non-dramatic poets in the spirit and movement of his dialogue. The "Book of the Duchess" and the "House of Fame," but more especially "Troilus and Cressid" and the connecting passages between some of the "Canterbury Tales," may be referred to in various illustration of this.
The vividness of his imagination, which conjures up, so to speak, the very personality of his characters before him, and the contagious force of his pathos, which is as true and as spontaneous as his humour, complete in him the born dramatist. We can see Constance as with our own eyes, in the agony of her peril:Have ye not seen some time a pallid face
Among a press, of him that hath been led
Towards his death, where him awaits no grace,
And such a colour in his face hath had,
Men mighte know his face was so bested
'Mong all the other faces in that rout?
So stands Constance, and looketh her about.
And perhaps there is no better way of studying the general character of Chaucer's pathos, than a comparison of the "Monk's Tale" from which this passage is taken, and the "Clerk's Tale," with their originals. In the former, for instance, the prayer of Constance, when condemned through Domegild's guilt to be cast adrift once more on the waters, her piteous words and tenderness to her little child, as it lies weeping in her arm, and her touching leave-taking from the land of the husband who has condemned her,all these are Chaucer's own. So also are parts of one of the most affecting passages in the "Clerk's Tale"Griseldis' farewell to her daughter. But it is as unnecessary to lay a finger upon lines and passages illustrating Chaucer's pathos, as upon others illustrating his humour.
Thus, then, Chaucer was a born dramatist; but fate willed it, that the branch of our literature which might probably have of all been the best suited to his genius was not to spring into life till he and several generations after him had passed away. To be sure, during the fourteenth century, the so-called miracle-plays flourished abundantly in England, and were, as there is every reason to believe, already largely performed by the trading-companies of London and the towns. The allusions in Chaucer to these beginnings of our English drama are, however, remarkably scanty. The "Wife of Bath" mentions plays of miracles among the other occasions of religious sensation haunted by her, clad in her gay scarlet gown, including vigils, processions, preaching, pilgrimages, and marriages. And the jolly parish-clerk of the "Miller's Tale," we are informed, at times, in order to show his lightness and his skill, played "Herod on a scaffold high"thus, by the bye, emulating the parish clerks of London, who are known to have been among the performers of miracles in the Middle Ages. The allusion to Pilate's voice in the "Miller's Prologue," and that in the "Tale" to
The sorrow of Noah with his fellowship
That he had ere he got his wife to ship,
seem likewise dramatic reminiscences; and the occurrence of these three allusions in a single "Tale" and its "Prologue" would incline one to think that Chaucer had recently amused himself at one of these performances. But plays are not mentioned among the entertainments enumerated at the opening of the "Pardoner's Tale"; and it would in any case have been unlikely that Chaucer should have paid much attention to diversions which were long chiefly "visited" by the classes with which he could have no personal connexion, and even at a much later date were dissociated in men's minds from poetry and literature. Had he ever written anything remotely partaking of the nature of a dramatic piece, it could at the most have been the words of the songs in some congratulatory royal pageant such as Lydgate probably wrote on the return of Henry V after Agincourt; though there is not the least reason for supposing Chaucer to have taken so much interest in the "ridings" through the City which occupied many a morning of the idle apprentice of the "Cook's Tale," Perkyn Revellour. It is perhaps more surprising to find Chaucer, who was a reader of several Latin poets, and who had heard of more, both Latin and Greek, show no knowledge whatever of the ancient classical drama, with which he may accordingly be fairly concluded to have been wholly unacquainted.
To one further aspect of Chaucer's realism as a poet reference has already been made; but a final mention of it may most appropriately conclude this sketch of his poetical characteristics. His descriptions of nature are as true as his sketches of human character; and incidental touches in him reveal his love of the one as unmistakeably as his unflagging interest in the study of the other. Even these May-morning exordia, in which he was but following a fashionfaithfully observed both by the French trouveres and by the English romances translated from their productions, and not forgotten by the author of the earlier part of the "Roman de la Rose" always come from his hands with the freshness of natural truth. They cannot be called original in conception, and it would be difficult to point out in them anything strikingly original in execution; yet they cannot be included among those matter-of-course notices of morning and evening, sunrise and sunset, to which so many poets have accustomed us since (be it said with reverence) Homer himself. In Chaucer these passages make his page "as fresh as is the month of May." When he went forth on these April and May mornings, it was not solely with the intent of composing a roundelay or a marguerite; but we may be well assured, he allowed the song of the little birds, the perfume of the flowers, and the fresh verdure of the English landscape, to sink into his very soul. For nowhere does he seem, and nowhere could he have been, more open to the influence which he received into himself, and which in his turn he exercised, and exercises, upon others, than when he was in fresh contact with nature. In this influence lies the secret of his genius; in his poetry there is LIFE.
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