« PreviousContinue »
versification of Chaucer." We would only recommend, for the sake of avoiding ambiguity, that in the reading, if not in the printing, Chaucer's than should be changed into the modern then, his whan (for consistency) into when, his hem into them, or 'em, and his hir into their. With these few slight alterations, and a glossarial explanation of the other antiquated words, the extracts which we are about to give will be readily and perfectly intelligible, both in their meaning and in their music.
"The notion, probably, which most people have of Chaucer," to repeat a few words of what we have written elsewhere, "is merely that he was a remarkably good poet for his day; but that, both from his language having become obsolete, and from the advancement which we have since made in poetical taste and skill, he may now be considered as fairly dead and buried in a literary, as well as in a literal, sense. This, we suspect, is the common belief even of educated persons and of scholars who have not actually made acquaintance with Chaucer, but know him only by name or by sight;-by that antique-sounding dissyllable that seems to belong to another nation and tongue, as well as to another age; and by that strange costume of diction, grammar, and spelling, in which his thoughts are clothed, fluttering about them, as it appears to do, like the rags upon a scarecrow.
"Now, instead of this, the poetry of Chaucer is really, in all essential respects, about the greenest and freshest in our language. We have some higher poetry than Chaucer's-poetry that has more of the character of a revelation, or a voice from another world: we have none in which there is either a more abounding or a
more bounding spirit of life, a truer or fuller natural inspiration. He may be said to verify, in another sense, the remark of Bacon, that what we commonly call antiquity was really the youth of the world: his poetry seems to breathe of a time when humanity was younger and more joyous-hearted than it now is. Undoubtedly he had an advantage as to this matter, in having been the first great poet of his country. Occupying this position, he stands in some degree between each of his successors and nature. The sire of a nation's minstrelsy is of necessity, though it may be unconsciously, regarded by all who come after him as almost a portion of nature-as one whose utterances are not so much the echo of hers as in very deed her own living voice-carrying in them a spirit as original and divine as the music of her running brooks, or of her breezes among the leaves. And there is not wanting something of reason in this idolatry. It is he alone who has conversed with nature directly, and without an interpreter-who has looked upon the glory of her countenance unveiled, and received upon his heart the perfect image of what she is. Succeeding poets, by reason of his intervention, and that imitation of him into which, in a greater or less degree, they are of necessity drawn, see her only, as it were, wrapt in hazy and metamorphosing adornments, which human hands have woven for her, and are prevented from perfectly discerning the outline and the movements of her form by that encumbering investiture. They are the fallen race, who have been banished from the immediate presence of the divinity, and have been left only to conjecture from afar off the brightness of that majesty which sits throned to them behind impenetrable clouds: he is the First Man,
who has seen God walking in the garden, and communed with him face to face.
"But Chaucer is the Homer of his country, not only as having been the earliest of her poets (deserving to be so called), but also as being still one of her greatcst. The names of Spenser, of Shakspeare, and of Milton are the only names in English poetry that can be placed on the same line with his.
"His poetry exhibits, in as remarkable a degree perhaps as any other in any language, an intermixture and combination of what are usually deemed the most opposite excellences. Great poet as he is, we might almost say of him that his genius has as much about it of the spirit of prose as of poetry, and that, if he had not sung so admirably as he has done of flowery meadows, and summer skies, and gorgeous ceremonials, and high or tender passions, and the other themes over which the imagination loves best to pour her vivifying light, he would have won to himself the renown of a Montaigne or a Swift by the originality and penetrating sagacity of his observations on ordinary life, his insight into motives and character, the richness and peculiarity of his humour, the sharp edge of his satire, and the propriety, flexibility, and exquisite expressiveness of his delicate yet natural diction. Even like the varied visible creation around us, his poetry too has its earth, its sea, and its sky, and all the 'sweet vicissitudes' of each. Here you have the clear-eyed observer of man as he is, catching 'the manners living as they rise,' and fixing them in pictures where not their minutest lineament is or ever can be lost here he is the inspired dreamer, by whom earth and all its realities are forgotten, as his spirit soars and
sings in the finer air and amid the diviner beauty of some far off world of its own. Now the riotous verse rings loud with the turbulence of human merriment and laughter, casting from it, as it dashes on its way, flash after flash of all the forms of wit and comedy; now it is the tranquillizing companionship of the sights and sounds of inanimate nature of which the poet's heart is full-the springing herbage, and the dew-drops on the leaf, and the rivulets glad beneath the morning ray and dancing to their own simple music. From mere narrative and playful humour up to the heights of imaginative and impassioned song, his genius has exercised itself in all styles of poetry, and won unperishable laurels in all."*
It has been commonly believed that one of the chief sources from which Chaucer drew both the form and the spirit of his poetry was the recent and contemporary poetry of Italy-that eldest portion of what is properly called the literature of modern Europe, the produce of the genius of Petrarch and Boccaccio and their predecessor and master, Dante. But, although this may have been the case, it is by no means certain that it was so; and some circumstances seem to make it rather improbable that Chaucer was a reader or student of Italian. Of those. of his poems which have been supposed to be translations from the Italian, it must be considered very doubtful if any one was really derived by him from that language. The story of his Palamon and Arcite,' which, as the 'Knight's Tale,' begins the 'Canterbury Tales,' but which either in its present or another form appears to have been originally composed as a separate work, is sub*Printing Machine, No. 37 (1835).
stantially the same with that of Boccaccio's heroic poem in twelve books, entitled 'Le Teseide'—a fact which, we believe, was first pointed out by Warton. But an examination of the two poems leads rather to the conclusion that they are both founded upon a common original, than that the one was taken from the other. Boccaccio's poem extends to about 12,000 octosyllabic, Chaucer's to not many more than 2000 decasyllabic, verses; and not only is the story in the one much less detailed than in the other, but the two versions differ in some of the main circumstances.* Chaucer, moreover, nowhere mentions Boccaccio as his original; on the contrary, as Warton has himself noticed, he professes to draw his materials, not from the works of any contemporary, but from olde Stories,' and 'olde bookes that all this story telleth more plain.'† Tyrwhitt, too, while holding, as well as Warton, that Chaucer's original was Boccaccio, admits that the latter was in all probability not the inventor of the story.‡ Boccaccio himself, in a letter relating to his poem, describes the story as very ancient, and as existing in what he calls Latino Volgare, by which he perhaps means the Provençal tongue.§ In fact, as both Warton
*See this pointed out by Dr. Nott (who nevertheless assumes the one poem to be a translation from the other), in a note to his 'Dissertation on the state of English Poetry before the Sixteenth Century,' p. cclxxiv.
Warton's Hist. Eng. Poetry, ii. 179.
Introductory Discourse to Canterbury Tales, Note (13). The letter is addressed to his mistress (la Fiametta), Mary of Aragon, a natural daughter of Robert king of Naples. Trovata," he says, una antichissima storia, ed al più delle genti non manifesta, in Latino volgare," &c. The expression here has a curious resemblance to the words used by Chaucer in enumerating his own works in the Legende of Good Women, v. 420,—