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coming the general speech even of the educated classes; but this work had for the most part been done with little pains or skill, and with no higher ambition than to convey the mere sense of the French original to the English reader. By the time when Chaucer began to write, in the latter half of the fourteenth century, the French language appears to have almost gone out of use, as a common medium of communication; the English on the other hand, as we may see by the poetry of Langland and Minot as compared with that of Robert of Gloucester, had, in the course of the preceding hundred years, thrown off much of its primitive rudeness, and acquired a considerable degree of regularity and flexibility, and general fitness for literary composition. In these circumstances, writing in French in England was over for any good purpose: Chaucer himself observes in the prologue to his prose treatise, entitled the Testament of Love ;"Certes there ben some that speak their poesy matter in French, of which speech the Frenchmen have as good a fantasy as we have in hearing of Frenchmen's English." And again, "Let then clerks enditen in Latin, for they have the property of science and the knowledge in that faculty; and let Frenchmen in their French also endite their quaint terms, for it is kindly [natural] to their mouths; and let us show our fantasies in such words as we learneden of our dames' tongue." The two languages, in short, like the two nations, were now become completely separated, and in some sort hostile ; as the Kings of England were no longer either Dukes of Normandy or Earls of Poitou, and recently a fierce war had sprung up still more effectually to divide the one country from the other, and to break up all intercourse
between them, so the French tongue was fast growing to be almost as strange and distinctly foreign among us as the English had always been in France. Chaucer's original purpose and aim may be supposed to have been that of the generality of his immediate predecessors, to put his countrymen in possession of some of the best productions of the French poets, as far as that could be done by translation; and with his genius and accomplishments, and the greater pains he was willing to take with it, we may conjecture that he hoped to execute his task in a manner very superior to that in which such work had hitherto been performed. With these views he undertook what was probably his earliest composition of any length, his translation of the Roman de la Rose, begun by Guillaume de Lorris, who died about 1260, and continued and finished by Jean de Meun, whose date is about half a century later. "This poem," says Warton, "is esteemed by the French the most valuable piece of their old poetry. It is far beyond the rude efforts of all their preceding romancers; and they have nothing equal to it before the reign of Francis the First, who died in the year 1547. But there is a considerable difference in the merit of the two authors. William of Lorris, who wrote not one quarter of the poem, is remarkable for his elegance and luxuriance of description, and is a beautiful painter of allegorical personages. John of Meun is a writer of another cast. He possesses but little of his predecessor's inventive and poetical vein; and in that respect, he was not properly qualified to finish a poem begun by William of Lorris. But he has strong satire and great liveliness. He was one of the wits of the
court of Charles le Bel.
The difficulties and dangers of
a lover in pursuing and obtaining the object of his desires are the literal argument of this poem. This design is couched under the argument of a rose, which our lover after frequent obstacles gathers in a delicious garden. He traverses vast ditches, scales lofty walls, and forces the gates of adamantine and almost impregnable castles. These enchanted fortresses are all inhabited by various divinities; some of which assist, and some oppose, the lover's progress.* The entire poem consists of no fewer than 22,734 verses, of which only 4149 are the composition of William of Lorris. All this portion has been translated by Chaucer, and also about half of the 18,588 lines written by de Meun: his version comprehends 13,105 lines of the French poem. These, however, he has managed to comprehend in 7701 (Warton says 7699,) English verses: this is effected by a great compression and curtailment of de Meun's part; for, while the 4149 French verses of de Lorris' are fully and faithfully rendered in 4432 English verses, the 8956 that follow by de Meun are reduced in the translation to 3269. Warton,, who exhibits ample specimens both of the translation and of the original, considers that Chaucer has throughout at least equalled de Lorris, and decidedly surpassed and improved de Meun. We can afford space for only one short extract: the poet represents himself as having seen all that he relates in a dream, the account of which he thus begins:
"That it was May me thoughten tho,a
It is five year or more ago,
That it was May thus dreamed me
* Hist. Eng. Poetry, ii. 209.
That all thing ginneth waxen gay;
b Bush nor hedgerow.
c Will not be shrouded or covered.
d Hide, or perhaps rather, reflectively, cover itself.
g Indian and Persian.
become hidden, f Poor.
h Is to be praised? if this be the true reading. The French is, "Parquoy la terre mieulx se prise."
i Grim, dreary. Goldfinch.
1 Address themselves.
Hard is his heart that loveth nought
Than playen me by that rivere;
For from an hill that stode w there near
As any well is, soth to sain,
And some deal lass it was than Seine;
And never saw I ere that day
y Somewhat less.
Well-away, well-a-day, alas.