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Right thus, and said, Ne wost nat thou
As fire is wont to quicken and go
I Knowest thou not that which is befallen.
And no sooner was departed then from him than he met.
Than er it was, and went anon
With vowes, that m thou wolt do so,
Come we a morrow or on eve,
And yeve them eke duration,
g For the occasion (the once). i Grave truth.
h Lie, falsehood.
Began by chance to draw.
• Without his leave?
f Ere ever.
And let him gone: there might I seen
u Fastest of all.
To play or amuse myself?
And treaden fast on other's heels,
At the apparition of this unnamed personage the poet awakens from his dream, and the poem ends.
Through such deeper thinking and bolder writing as this, Chaucer appears to have advanced from the descriptive luxuriance of the Romaunt of the Rose to his most matured style in the Canterbury Tales. This is not only his greatest work, but it towers above all else that he has written, like some palace or cathedral ascending with its broad and lofty dimensions from among the common buildings of a city. His genius is another thing here altogether from what it is in his other writings. Elsewhere he seems at work only for the day that is passing over him; here, for eternity. All his poetical faculties put forth a strength in the Canterbury Tales they have no where else shown; not only is his knowledge of life and character greater, his style firmer, clearer, more flexible, and more expressive, his humour more subtle and various, but his fancy is more nimblewinged, his imagination far richer and more gorgeous, his sensibility infinitely more delicate and more profound. And this great work of Chaucer's is nearly as remarkably distinguished by its peculiar character from the great works of other poets, as it is from the rest of his own compositions. Among ourselves at least, if we except Shakspeare, no other poet has yet arisen to rival the author of the Canterbury Tales in the entire assemblage of his various powers. Spenser's is a more aerial, Mil
ton's a loftier song; but neither possesses the wonderful combination of contrasted and almost opposite characteristics which we have in Chaucer-the sportive fancy, painting and gilding every thing, with the keen, observant, matter-of-fact spirit that looks through whatever it glances at; the soaring and creative imagination, with the homely sagacity, and healthy relish for all the realities of things; the unrivalled tenderness and pathos, with the quaintest humour and the most exuberant merriment; the wisdom at once and the wit; the all that is best, in short, both in poetry and in prose, at the same time.
The Canterbury Tales is an unfinished, or at least, as we have it, an imperfect work; but it contains above 17,000 verses, besides more than a fourth of that quantity of matter in prose. The Tales (including the two in prose*) are twenty-four in number; and they are interspersed with introductions to each, generally short, called prologues, besides the Prologue to the whole work, in which the pilgrims or narrators of the tales are severally described, and which consists of between 800
*Mr. Guest conceives that one of these prose tales, the Tale of Meliboeus (that told by the poet himself) is a specimen of the kind of poetry called cadence, of which mention is made in a passage that has been quoted in a preceding page from the House of Fame. (Hist. Eng. Rhythms, ii. 255258.) "As the tale proceeds," he says, "the rhythmical structure gradually disappears." Tyrwhitt, after informing us that Mr. William Thomas, in one of his MS. notes upon the copy of Urry's edition presented by him to the British Museum, had observed that this tale seems to have been written in blank verse, adds: "It is certain that in the former part of it we find a number of blank verses intermixed in a much greater proportion than in any of our author's other prose writings; but this poetical style is not, I think, remarkable beyond the first four or five pages."