Part 3 out of 4
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
worldlings--before, 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 himself--his poetic genius.
CHAPTER 3. CHARACTERISTICS OF CHAUCER AND OF HIS POETRY.
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 hood--the 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 suspicion--certainly no
more--of 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 following--which is one of those belonging to
Chaucer himself, and not taken from his French original--in 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
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 doctrine--in which assumptions there seems nothing
probable--he 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 times--but
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
Meung--is 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 sleep--not 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 emptiness--of 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
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 Philistia--the
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
"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 meaning--not 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
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-
estimated--at 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 April--but 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
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 life--a 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
life--a 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 others--a 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 literatures--the 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
individuality--those 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
surpassed--it seems not too much to say, in all three respects--by
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 studies--more 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 obsolete--more 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
pronunciation--such 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
analogously--are 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 pronunciation--variations 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 usages--the misunderstanding of which has more than
anything else caused his art as a writer of verse to be misjudged--seems
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 authority--Mr. R. Horne--that, 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 again--not even by the correct writers of the
Augustan period--till by the favourites of our own times it is resorted to
with a perhaps excessive liberality. It consists simply in SLURRING over
certain final syllables--not 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
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 boot--even 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
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. Nor--though in the course of his
career his range of themes, his command of materials, and his choice of
forms are widely enlarged--is 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 alone--that our first great English poet was
also our first English love-poet, properly so called--would 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 possesses--a soft and sweet counterpart to the consuming
heat of Marlowe's unrivalled "Hero and Leander." With Troilus it was love
at first sight--with 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 her--though with a difference--
when from her casement she blushingly beholds her lover riding past in
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
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 wrote--never 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 heart--the
plea of that vieil esprit Gaulois which is so often, and very rarely
without need, invoked in an exculpatory capacity by modern French
criticism--is 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
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
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
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
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 fashion--faithfully 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.
CHAPTER 4. EPILOGUE.
The legacy which Chaucer left to our literature was to fructify in the
hands of a long succession of heirs; and it may be said, with little fear
of contradiction, that at no time has his fame been fresher and his
influence upon our poets--and upon our painters as well as our poets--more
perceptible than at the present day. When Gower first put forth his
"Confessio Amantis," we may assume that Chaucer's poetical labours, of the
fame of which his brother-poet declared the land to be full, had not yet
been crowned by his last and greatest work. As a poet, therefore, Gower
in one sense owes less to Chaucer than did many of their successors;
though, on the other hand it may be said with truth that to Chaucer is due
the fact, that Gower (whose earlier productions were in French and in
Latin) ever became a poet at all. The "Confessio Amantis" is no book for
all times like the "Canterbury Tales"; but the conjoined names of Chaucer
and Gower added strength to one another in the eyes of the generations
ensuing, little anxious as these generations were to distinguish which of
the pair was really the first to it "garnish our English rude" with the
flowers of a new poetic diction and art of verse.
The Lancaster period of our history had its days of national glory as well
as of national humiliation, and indisputably, as a whole, advanced the
growth of the nation towards political manhood. But it brought with it no
golden summer to fulfil the promises of the spring-tide of our modern
poetical literature. The two poets whose names stand forth from the
barren after-season of the earlier half of the fifteenth century, were,
both of them, according to their own profession, disciples of Chaucer. In
truth, however, Occleve, the only name-worthy poetical writer of the reign
of Henry IV, seems to have been less akin as an author to Chaucer than to
Gower, while his principal poem manifestly was, in an even greater degree
than the "Confessio Amantis," a severely learned or, as its author terms
it, unbuxom book. Lydgate, on the other hand, the famous monk of Bury,
has in him something of the spirit as well as of the manner of Chaucer,
under whose advice he is said to have composed one of his principal poems.
Though a monk, he was no stay-at-home or do-nothing; like him of the
"Canterbury Tales," we may suppose Lydgate to have scorned the maxim that
a monk out of his cloister is like a fish out of water; and doubtless many
days which he could spare from the instruction of youth at St. Edmund's
Bury were spent about the London streets, of the sights and sounds of
which he has left us so vivacious a record--a kind of farcical supplement
to the "Prologue" of the "Canterbury Tales." His literary career, part of
which certainly belongs to the reign of Henry V, has some resemblance to
Chaucer's, though it is less regular and less consistent with itself; and
several of his poems bear more or less distinct traces of Chaucer's
influence. The "Troy-book" is not founded on "Troilus and Cressid,"
though it is derived from the sources which had fed the original of
Chaucer's poem; but the "Temple of Glass" seems to have been an imitation
of the "House of Fame"; and the "Story of Thebes" is actually introduced
by its author as an additional "Canterbury Tale," and challenges
comparison with the rest of the series into which it asks admittance.
Both Occleve and Lydgate enjoyed the patronage of a prince of genius
descended from the House, with whose founder Chaucer was so closely
connected--Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. Meanwhile, the sovereign of a
neighbouring kingdom was in all probability himself the agent who
established the influence of Chaucer as predominant in the literature of
his native land. The long though honourable captivity in England of King
James I of Scotland--the best poet among kings and the best king among
poets, as he has been antithetically called--was consoled by the study of
the "hymns" of his "dear masters, Chaucer and Gower," for the happiness of
whose souls he prays at the close of his poem, "The King's Quair." That
most charming of love-allegories, in which the Scottish king sings the
story of his captivity and of his deliverance by the sweet messenger of
love, not only closely imitates Chaucer in detail, more especially at its
opening, but is pervaded by his spirit. Many subsequent Scottish poets
imitated Chaucer, and some of them loyally acknowledged their debts to
him. Gawin Douglas in his "Palace of Honour," and Henryson in his
"Testament of Cressid" and elsewhere, are followers of the southern
master. The wise and brave Sir David Lyndsay was familiar with his
writings; and he was not only occasionally imitated, but praised with
enthusiastic eloquence by William Dunbar, that "darling of the Scottish
Muses," whose poetical merits Sir Walter Scott, from some points of view,
can hardly be said to have exaggerated, when declaring him to have been
"justly raised to a level with Chaucer by every judge of poetry, to whom
his obsolete language has not rendered him unintelligble." Dunbar knew
that this Scottish language was but a form of that which, as he declared,
Chaucer had made to "surmount every terrestrial tongue, as far as midnight
is surmounted by a May morning."
Meanwhile, in England, the influence of Chaucer continued to live even
during the dreary interval which separates from one another two important
epochs of our literary history. Now, as in the days of the Norman kings,
ballads orally transmitted were the people's poetry; and one of these
popular ballads carried the story of "Patient Grissel" into regions where
Chaucer's name was probably unknown. When, after the close of the
troubled season of the Roses, our Poetic literature showed the first signs
of a revival, they consisted in a return to the old masters of the
fourteenth century. The poetry of Hawes, the learned author of the
crabbed "Pastime of Pleasure," exhibits an undeniable continuity with that
of Chaucer, Gower, and Lydgate, to which triad he devotes a chapter of
panegyric. Hawes, however, presses into the service of his allegory not
only all the Virtues and all the Vices, whom from habit we can tolerate in
such productions, but also Astronomy, Geometry, Arithmetic, and the rest
of the seven Daughters of Doctrine, whom we CANNOT; and is altogether
inferior to the least of his models. It is at the same time to his credit
that he seems painfully aware of his inability to cope with either Chaucer
or Lydgate as to vigour of invention. There is in truth, more of the
dramatic spirit of Chaucer in Barklay's "Ship of Fools," which, though
essentially a translation, achieved in England the popularity of an
original work. For this poem, like the "Canterbury Tales," introduces
into its admirable framework a variety of lifelike sketches of character
and manners; it has in it that dramatic element which is so Chaucerian a
characteristic. But the aim of its author was didactic, which Chaucer's
had never been.
When with the poems of Surrey and Wyatt, and with the first attempts in
the direction of the regular drama, the opening of the second great age in
our literature approached, and when, about half a century afterwards, that
age actually opened with an unequalled burst of varied productivity, it
would seem as if Chaucer's influence might naturally enough have passed
away, or at least become obscured. Such was not, however, the case, and
Chaucer survived into the age of the English Renascence as an established
English classic, in which capacity Caxton had honoured him by twice
issuing an edition of his works from the Westminster printing-press.
Henry VIII's favourite, the reckless but pithy satirist, Skelton, was
alive to the merits of his great predecessor, and Skelton's patron,
William Thynne, a royal official, busied himself with editing Chaucer's
works. The loyal servant of Queen Mary, the wise and witty John Heywood,
from whose "Interludes" the step is so short to the first regular English
comedy, in one of these pieces freely plagiarised a passage in the
"Canterbury Tales." Tottel, the printer of the favourite poetic
"Miscellany" published shortly before Queen Elizabeth's accession,
included in his collection the beautiful lines, cited above, called "Good
Counsel of Chaucer." And when, at last, the Elizabethan era properly so-
called began, the proof was speedily given that geniuses worthy of holding
fellowship with Chaucer had assimilated into their own literary growth
what was congruous to it in his, just as he had assimilated to himself--
not always improving, but hardly ever merely borrowing or taking over--
much that he had found in the French trouveres, and in Italian poetry and
prose. The first work which can be included in the great period of
Elizabethan literature is the "Shepherd's Calendar," where Spenser is
still in a partly imitative stage; and it is Chaucer whom he imitates and
extols in his poem, and whom his alter ego, the mysterious "E.K.," extols
in preface and notes. The longest of the passages in which reference is
made by Spenser to Chaucer, under the pseudonym of Tityrus, is more
especially noteworthy, both as showing the veneration of the younger for
the older poet, and as testifying to the growing popularity of Chaucer at
the time when Spenser wrote.
The same great poet's debt to his revered predecessor in the "Daphnaida"
has been already mentioned. The "Fairy Queen" is the masterpiece of an
original mind, and its supreme poetic quality is a lofty magnificence upon
the whole foreign to Chaucer's genius; but Spenser owed something more
than his archaic forms to "Tityrus," with whose style he had erst
disclaimed all ambition to match his pastoral pipe. In a well-known
passage of his great epos he declares that it is through sweet infusion of
the older poet's own spirit that he, the younger, follows the footing of
his feet, in order so the rather to meet with his meaning. It was this,
the romantic spirit proper, which Spenser sought to catch from Chaucer,
but which, like all those who consciously seek after it, he transmuted
into a new quality and a new power. With Spenser the change was into
something mightier and loftier. He would, we cannot doubt, readily have
echoed the judgment of his friend and brother-poet concerning Chaucer. "I
know not," writes Sir Philip Sidney, "whether to marvel more, either that
he in that misty time could see so clearly, or that we, in this clear age,
walk so stumblingly after him. Yet had he," adds Sidney with the
generosity of a true critic, who is not lost in wonder at his own
cleverness in discovering defects, "great wants, fit to be forgiven in so
reverent an antiquity." And yet a third Elizabethan, Michael Drayton,
pure of tone and high of purpose, joins his voice to those of Spenser and
Sidney, hailing in the "noble Chaucer"
--the first of those that ever brake
Into the Muses' treasure and first spake
In weighty numbers,
and placing Gower, with a degree of judgment not reached by his and
Chaucer's immediate successors, in his proper relation of poetic rank to
his younger but greater contemporary.
To these names should be added that of George Puttenham--if he was indeed
the author of the grave and elaborate treatise, dedicated to Lord
Burghley, on "The Art of English Poesy." In this work mention is
repeatedly made of Chaucer, "father of our English poets;" and his
learning, and "the natural of his pleasant wit," are alike judiciously
commanded. One of Puttenham's best qualities as a critic is that he never
speaks without his book; and he comes very near to discovering Chaucer's
greatest gift when noticing his excellence in "prosopographia," a term
which to Chaucer would perhaps have seemed to require translation. At the
obsoleteness of Chaucer's own diction this critic, who writes entirely
"for the better brought-up sort," is obliged to shake his learned head.
Enough has been said in the preceding pages to support the opinion that
among the wants which fell to the lot of Chaucer as a poet, perhaps the
greatest (though Sidney would never have allowed this), was the want of
poetic form most in harmony with his most characteristic gifts. The
influence of Chaucer upon the dramatists of the Elizabethan age was
probably rather indirect and general than direct and personal; but
indications or illustrations of it may be traced in a considerable number
of these writers, including perhaps among the earliest Richard Edwards as
the author of a non-extant tragedy, "Palamon and Arcite," and among the
latest the author--or authors--of "The Two Noble Kinsmen." Besides
Fletcher and Shakspere, Greene, Nash and Middleton, and more especially
Jonson (as both poet and grammarian), were acquainted with Chaucer's
writings; so that it is perhaps rather a proof of the widespread
popularity of the "Canterbury Tales" than the reverse, that they were not
largely resorted to for materials by the Elizabethan and Jacobean
dramatists. Under Charles I "Troilus and Cressid" found a translator in
Sir Francis Kynaston, whom Cartwright congratulated on having made it
possible "that we read Chaucer now without a dictionary." A personage
however, in Cartwright's best known play, the Antiquary Moth, prefers to
talk on his own account "genuine" Chaucerian English.
To pursue the further traces of the influence of Chaucer through such a
literary aftergrowth as the younger Fletchers, into the early poems of
Milton, would be beyond the purpose of the present essay. In the
treasure-house of that great poet's mind were gathered memories and
associations innumerable, though the sublimest flights of his genius
soared aloft into regions whither the imagination of none of our earlier
poets had preceded them. On the other hand, the days have passed for
attention to be spared for the treatment experienced by Chaucer in the
Augustan Age, to which he was a barbarian only to be tolerated if put into
the court-dress of the final period of civilisation. Still, even thus, he
was not left altogether unread; nor was he in all cases adapted without a
certain measure of success. The irrepressible vigour, and the frequent
felicity, of Dryden's "Fables" contrast advantageously with the tame
evenness of the "Temple of Fame," an early effort by Pope, who had wit
enough to imitate in a juvenile parody some of the grossest peculiarities
of Chaucer's manner, but who would have been quite ashamed to reproduce
him in a serious literary performance, without the inevitable polish and
cadence of his own style of verse. Later modernisations--even of those
which a band of poets in some instances singularly qualified for the task
put forth in a collection published in the year 1841, and which, on the
part of some of them at least, was the result of conscientious endeavour--
it is needless to characterise here. Slight incidental use has been made
of some of these in this essay, the author of which would gladly have
abstained from printing a single modernised phrase or word--most of all
any which he has himself been guilty of re-casting. The time cannot be
far distant when even the least unsuccessful of such attempts will no
longer be accepted, because no such attempts whatever will be any longer
required. No Englishman or Englishwoman need go through a very long or
very laborious apprenticeship in order to become able to read, understand,
and enjoy what Chaucer himself wrote. But if this apprenticeship be too
hard, then some sort of makeshift must be accepted, or antiquity must
remain the "canker-worm" even of a great national poet, as Spenser said it
had already in his day proved to be of Chaucer.
Meanwhile, since our poetic literature has long thrown off the shackles
which forced it to adhere to one particular group of models, he is not a
true English poet who should remain uninfluenced by any of the really
great among his predecessors. If Chaucer has again, in a special sense,
become the "master dear and father reverent" of some of our living poets,
in a wider sense he must hold this relation to them all and to all their
successors, so long as he continues to be known and understood. As it is,
there are few worthies of our literature whose names seem to awaken
throughout the English-speaking world a readier sentiment of familiar
regard; and in New England, where the earliest great poet of Old England
is cherished not less warmly than among ourselves, a kindly cunning had
thus limned his likeness:--
An old man in a lodge within a park;
The chamber walls depicted all around
With portraiture of huntsman, hawk and hound,
And the hurt deer. He listeneth to the lark,
Whose song comes with the sunshine through the dark
Of painted glass in leaden lattice bound;
He listeneth and he laugheth at the sound,
Then writeth in a book like any clerk.
He is the poet of the dawn, who wrote
The Canterbury Tales, and his old age
Made beautiful with song; and as I read
I hear the crowing cock, I hear the note
Of lark and linnet, and from every page
Rise odours of ploughed field or flowery mead.
Bencite = benedicite.
Despitous, angry to excess.
Meinie, following, household.
Meet, mate (?), measure (?).
Parage, rank, degree.
Rede, advise, counsel.
Reeve, steward, bailiff.
Spiced, nice, scrupulous.
Targe, target, shield.
Y prefix of past participle as in, y-bee = bee(n).
While, time; to quite his while, to reward his pains.
Wone, custom, habit.
"A.B.C." ("La Priere de Notre Dame").
"Adam" (Chaucer's Scrivener).
Albert of Brescia.
"Alchemist" (Ben Jonson).
"Antiquary Moth" (Cartwright).
"Art of English Poesy" (Puttenham).
"Assembly of Fowls or Parliament of Birds."
Bailly, Master Harry. See "Host."
"Ballad of Sir Thopas."
"Ballad sent to King Richard."
Berkeley, Sir Edward.
Berners, Lady Juliana.
Bible, Chaucer's knowledge of.
Blanche, Duchess of Lancaster.
"Book of Consolation and Counsel" (Albert of Brescia).
"Book of the Duchess."
"Book of the Leo."
Brembre, Sir Nicholas.
Bretigny, Peace of.
Burley, Sir John.
"Canon Yeoman's Tale."
The "Canon's Yeoman."
"Canterbury Tales," Chaucer's greatest work.
conjecture as to the composition of.
references to in Prologue to "Legend of Good Women."
what is Chaucer's obligation to Boccaccio.
popular style of.
Chaucer's method of dealing with his originals.
the two prose tales.
reference to the condition of the poor.
woman in the.
supposed reference to Gower.
Lydgate's Supplements to.
vogue of the, with Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists.
"Ceyx and Alcyone," the tale of.
Charles IV, Emperor.
Charles V, King of France.
Chaucer, Agnes (Chaucer's mother).
Chaucer, Geoffrey, difficulties as to his biography.
the date of his birth.
conjecture as to his early years.
enters Prince Lionel's household.
accompanies the prince to France and is taken prisoner.
becomes valet of the chamber of King Edward.
translation of "Roman de la Rose."
promoted to the post of royal squire.
"Book of the Duchess."
receives grant from the Crown of daily pitcher of wine.
appointed Comptroller of the Customs in the port of London.
permitted to execute the duties by deputy.
granted pension of ten pounds for life.
visits to the Continent.
appointed to the Comptrollership of the Petty Customs in London.
sits in Parliament.
"House of Fame" written.
"Troilus and Cressid."
"Assembly of Fowls."
translation of the "Consolation of Philosophy."
"Legend of Good Women."
loses his Comptrollerships.
appointed Clerk of King Richard's Works.
death of his wife.
"On the Astrolabe."
robbed by highwaymen.
granted pension of twenty pounds by King Richard.
"Ballade sent to King Richard."
"Envoy to Scogan."
"Complaint of Chaucer to his Purse."
his pension doubled.
the "Canterbury Tales" left unfinished.
Chaucer, characteristics of.
his personal appearance.
his attitude to women.
his ideal of the true gentleman.
his opinion about drunkenness.
his love of nature.
his literary development.
Chaucer's England, its population.
the Black Death.
decline of the feudal system.
condition of the people.
extravagance in dress.
the life of the nation.
Chaucer's literary heirs.
Chaucer's poetry, its power to please.
music of his verse.
as a love poet.
as an interpreter of character.
his dramatic qualities.
his feeling towards the lower classes.
his attitude to the Church.
as an interpreter of his age.
Chaucer, John (Chaucer's father).
Chaucer, Lewis (Chaucer's son).
Chaucer, Philippa (Chaucer's wife).
Chaucer, Richard le.
Chaucer, Thomas (Chaucer's supposed son).
Clarence, Lionel Duke of.
Colonna, Guido de.
"Complaint of Chaucer to his Purse."
"Complaint of Mars."
"Complaint of the Death of Pity."
"Complaint of the Ploughman."
"Complaint of Venus."
"Confessio Amantis" (Gower).
"Consolation of Philosophy" (Boethius).
Constance, Duchess of Lancaster.
"Constance," the story of.
Court of Love.
"Cuckoo and the Nightingale."
"Doctor of Physic."
Drama in the fourteenth century.