Page images
PDF
EPUB

GEOFFREY CHAUCER. 1328-1400.

That renowned Poet
Dan Chaucer, Well of English undefyled,
On Fame's eternal beadroll worthie to be fyled.

SPENSER
That noble Chaucer, In those former times,
Who first enriched our English with his rhymes,
And was the first of ours that ever broke
Into the Muse's treasures, and first spoke
In mighty numbers; delving in the mine
or perfect knowledge.

WORDSWORTH.

We now come to one of the briglitest names in English literature-o him who has been distinctively known as “The Father of English poetry"Geoffrey Chaucer. Warton, with great beauty and justice, has compared the appearance of Chaucer in our language to “a premature day in an English spring, after which the gloom of winter returns, and the buds and blossoins which have been called forth by a transient sunshine, are nipped by frosts and scattered by storms."

Chaucer was born probably about the year 1328, though all attempts to fix the precise year have utterly failed. His parentage is unknown, nor is there any certainty where he was educated. His great genius early attracted the notice of the reigning sovereign, Edward III., and he soon became the most popular personage in the brilliant court of that monarch. It was in this circle of royalty that he became attached to a lady whom he afterwards married, Philippa Pyknard. She was maid of honor to the queen Philippa, and a younger sister of the wife of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. By this connection, therefore, Chaucer acquired the powerful support of the Lancastrian family, and during his life his fortune fluctuated with theirs. To his courtly accomplishments he added much by foreign travel, having been coinmissioned by the king in 1372 to attend to some important matters of state at Genoa. While in Italy he became acquainted with Petrarch,' and probably with Boccacio, whose works enriched his mind with fresh stores of learning

Freedom all solace to man gives;
He lives at ease that freely lives.
A noble heart may have no ease,
Nor aught beside that may it please,
If freedom fail-for 'tis the choice,
More than the chosen, man enjoys.
Ah, he that ne'er yet lived in thrall,
Knows not the weary pains which gall
The limbs, the soul, of him who plains
In slavery's foul and festering chains.
If these he knew, I ween right soon
He would seek back the precious boon
or freedom, which he then would prize

More than all wealth beneath the skies. 1 The three distinguished scholars of Italy of the fourteenth century were, DANTE, (1265—1321,) the father of modern Italian poetry; PETRARCH, (1.304—1374,) the reviver of ancient learning, and the first founder and collector of any considerable library of ancient literature: and Boccacio, (1313 - 1375,) the father of moderu Italian prose.

and images of beauty, and whose great success was doubtless a spar to his ambitiou to attain a like er viable fame.

Oa nis return home, the friendship and patronage of the reigning monarch were continued to him. He was made controller of the customs of wine and wal the revenue from which office, together with a pension that was granted to hin, gave him a liberal support. During the whole of the reign of Edward II, his genius and connections ensured to him prosperity, and also during the period of John of Gaunt's influence in the succeeding reign of Richard IL 1377—1399. But during the waning fortunes of that nobleman, Chaucer also suffered, and was indeed imprisoned for a short time; but on the return of the Duke of Lancaster from Spain, 1389, he had once more a steady pro. terfit, and on the accession of Henry IV., he had an additional annuity con. (srred upon him. But he did not live long to enjoy this accession to his for. age, for he died on the twenty-fifth of October, 1400, and was interred in Hestninster Abbey.

We know little of Chaucer as a member of society; but we know that he had mingled with the world's affairs, both at home and abroad. Accom. plished in manners and intimately acquainted with a splendid court, he was at once the philosopher who had surveyed mankind in their widest sphere, the poet who haunted the solitudes of nature, and the elegant courtier whose opulent tastes are often discovered in the graceful pomp of his descriptions. The vigorous yet finished paintings, with which his works abound, are still, notwithstanding the roughness of their clothing, beauties of a highly poetical nature. The ear may not always be satisfied, but the mind of the reader is always filled."

Chaucer's genius, like Cowper's, was not fully developed till he was ad. vanced in years; for it was not until he was about sixty, in the calm evening of a busy life, that he composed his great work on which bis fame chiefly rests, his CANTERBURY Tales. He took the idea, doubtless, from the Decameron of Boccacio, at that time one of the most popular of books. He supposes that a company of pilgrims, consisting of twenty-nine “ sundry folk," meet together at the Tabaru inn, Southwark,3 on their way to the shrine of Thomas á Becket,4 at Canterbury. While at supper they agreed, at the sug. gestion of their host, not only to pursue their journey together the next moruing, but, in order to render their way the more interesting, that each should divert the others with a tale, both in going and returning, and that whoever told the best, should have a supper at the expense of the rest; and that the landlord should be the judge.

It will thus be seen that the plan of Chaucer is vastly superior to that of Boccacio. His characters, instead of being youthful and from the same city,

1 Read Hippisley'. Early English Literature : also, Todd's Illustrations of Gover and Chaucer. “I take anseasing delight in Chaucer. His manly cheerfulness is especially delicious in my old age. Hoy exquisitely tender he is."-Coleridye's Thble Talk. Read, also, Chaucer Modernized, 1 vol. 12rna, with a well-written introduction on English poetry by R. II. Horne, and versifications by Wordsworth, Leigh Hunt, and others.

• Boecacio sapposes that when the plague began to abate in Florence, (1348.) ten young persons of both sexes retired to the country to enjoy the fresh air, and pass TEN DAYS agreeably. (Hence the same DECAMERON, from the Greek &eka (deka)"ten," and nuepa (hemera)" a day." Their principal amusement was in telling tales in turn; and as each of the ten told a story a day, and as they csatinued together ten days, the Decameron consists of one hundred taleg.

3 Opposite the city of London, on the Thames.

4 For the murder of this famous archbishop in the reign of Henry II., A. D. 1171, see History of England. Canterbury is 53 miles south-east from London.

are of matured experience, from various places, and are drawn from different classes of mankind, and consequently are, in their rank, appearance, manners, and habits, as various as at that time could be found in the several departments of middle life; that is, in fact, as various as couldl, with any probability, be brought together, so as to form one company; the highest and lowest ranks of society being necessarily exclu.led. But what gives us the greatest admiration of the poet, is the astonishing skill with which he has supported his characters, and the exquisite address that lie has shown in adapting his stories to the different humors, sentiments, aud talents of the reciters. He has thus given us such an accurate picture of ancient manners as no contemporary writer has transmitted to posterity, and in the Canterbury Tales we view the pursuits and employınents, the customs and diversions of the reign of Edward III., copied from the life, and represented withi equal truth and spirit. It has been justly remarked, that it was no inferior combination of observation and sympathy which could bring together into one company the inany-colored conditions and professions of society, delineated with pictorial force, and dramatized by poetic conception, reflecting themselves in the tale which seemed most congruous to their humors. The following are some select characters, as portrayed in the Prologue.?

THE PROLOGUE.
Whenné that April, with his showrés sote, 3
The drouth of March hath piercéd to the rote, 4
And bathed every vein in such licoúr,
Of which virtúe engendred is the flow'r;
When Zephirus eké, with his soté3 breath,
Inspired hath in every holts and leath
The tender croppés, and the younge sun
Hath in the Ram his halfe course yrun,
And smallé fowlés maken melody,
That sleepen allé night with open eye,
So pricketh them natúre in their courages,?
Then longen folk to go on pilgrimages,
And palmers for to seeken strangé strands,
To servé hallows8 couth in sundry lands;
And 'specially from every shiré's end
Of Engleland to Canterbury they wend, lo

1 Read D’Israeli's Amenities of Literature, 3 vols. 8vo.

2 In a subsequent age, the great work of Chaucer exerted a powerful influence in helping on the great cause of the Reformation. So much was Cardinal Wolsey offended at the severity with which the papal clergy were treated in the Pilgrim's Tale, that he laid an interdict upon its ever being printed with the rest of the work, and it was with difficulty that the Ploughman's Tale was pormitted to stand. John Fox, (1517—1587,) the historian of the martyrs, thus writes: “But much more I morvaile to consider this, how that the bishops condemning and abolishing all maner of English bookes and treatises, which might bring the people to any light of knowledge, did yet authorize the Workes of Chaucer to remaine. So it pleased God to blind then the eies of them, for the more commodoty of his people." 3 Sote--sweet. 4 Rote-root.

6 Holt-grove, forest. 6 To make this line consistent with the first, it should read Bull instead of Ram, for he says that the time of this pilgrimage was when the showers of April had pierced into the root the drought of March, so that April, which corresponds to the constellation of the Bull, must have been far advanced. Read, Tyriohitt's Introduction to Canterbury Tales. 7 Courages-hearts, spirits.

8 Hallows-holiness

• Conth-known. 10 Wend-go, make way.

The holy blissful martyr for to seek
That then hath holpen whien that they were sick.

Befell that in that season on a day,
In Southwark at the Tabard ' as I lay,
Really to wenden? on my pilgrimage
To Canterbury with devout courage;
At night was come into that hostelry
Well nine-and-twenty in a company
of sundry folk, by aventure yfall
In fellowship, and pilgrims were they all
That toward Canterbury woulden ride.
The chambers and the stables weren wide;3
And well we weren eased' atté best.

THE KNIGHT AND SQUIRE.
A Knight there was, and that a worthy man.
That from the time that he first began
To riden out, he loved chivalry,
Truth and honour, free lom and courtesy.
Full worthy was he in his lordés war,
And thereto had le ridden, no man farre.
As well in Christendom as in Heatheness,
And ever lionour'il for his worthiness.

With him there was his son, a youngé Squire,
A lover and a lusty bachelor,
With lockés curlil as they were laid in press;
Of twenty years of age he was I guess.
Of his statúre he was of even length,
And wonderly deliver, and great of strength;
And he had been some time in chevachie,7
In Flaunders, in Artois, and in Picardie,
And borne him well, as of so little space,
In hope to standen in his lady's grace.

Embroider'd was he, as it were a read
All full of freshé flowrés white and red:
Singing he was or floyting' all the day;
He was as fresh as is the month of May:
Short was his gown, with sleevés long and wide;
Well could he sit on horse, and fairé ride
He couidé songés make, and well endite.
Joust and eke dance, and well pourtray and write:
So hot he loved, that by nightertalelo
He slepe no more than doth the nightingale:
Courteous he was, lowly and serviceable,
And carv'd before his father at the table.

1 That is the inn called “The Tabard." The Tabard was a "jacket, or sleeveless coat, worn in tines past by noblemen in the wars, but now only by heralds, and is called their coat of arms in krviee."-Speghi. 2 Wenden-go, make way. 3 Wide--spacious. 4 Eased atté bestcommodiodely lodged. 5 Farre--farther. 6 Wonderly deliver-wonderfully active: from the French libre, free. 7 Chevachie, (French, chevauchee,) a military expedition. 8 Conducted himself well, considering the short time that he had served. 9 Floyting-fluting, playing on the fate, whistling. The squire would not, in all probability, have a flute always with him. I should therefore prefer the reading that he “whistled all the day:" as being a more natural touch of charaoter, as well as in kooping with the hilarity of youth. 10 Nightertale-night-time.

THE CLERK."

A Clerk2 there was of Oxenford also, That iintu logic laddé long ygo.3 As leané was his horse as is a rake, And he was not rigtit fat I undertake, But lookéd hollow, and thereto soberly. Full threadbare was his overest courtery; For he hall gotten liim yet no benefire, Nor was novght worldly to have an office For him was levers have at his bed's head Twenty bookes clothed in black or red Of Aristotle and his philosophy, Than robés rich, or fiddle or psaltry: But all be that he was a philosopher Yet hadde he but little gold in coffer, But all that he might of his friendés hent,& On bookes and on learning he it spenn And busily gan for the soulés pray Of them that gave him wherewith to scholay? Of study took he mosté cure and heed; Not a word spake he more than was need, And that was said in forin and reverence, And short and quick, and full of high sentences Sounding in moral virtue was his speech, And gladly would he learn and gladly teach.

THE WIFE.

A good Wife was there of besidé Bath, But she was soine deal deal, and that was scathe. Of cloth-making she haddé such a haunt 10 She passéd them of Ypres and of Ghent. In all the parish, wife ne was there none That to the off“ring before her shouldé gone, And if there did, certain so wroth was she, That she was out of allé charity. Her coverchiefs weren full fine of ground; I Jursté swear they weighedeu a pound, That on the Sunday were upon her liead: Her hosed weren of fine scarlet reil, Fall strait ytied, and shoes full moist12 and new Buld was her face, and fair and red of hew. Ste was a worthy woman all her live; Husbands at the church door had she had five.13

1. In the interesting character of the "clerk" or scholar, whose poverty, delight in study, and in. attention to worldly affairs are eminently conspicuous, Warton thinks that Chaucer glanced at the inattention paid to literature, and the unprofitableness of philosophy,

9 That is, a scholar. 8 Ygo-part, pasl, gone. 4 Overest courtepy-uppermost short cloak. 6 Lover--rather. 6 Hent-catch hold of. 7 Scholay-study. 8 High sentence-i, e. lofty period. 9 Scathe-harm, damage. 10 Haunt-custom. 11 Head-dress. 12 Moist-fresh.

13 This alludes to the old custom of the parties joining hands at the door of the church before they went up to the altar to consummate the union; and this jolly damo and good housewife is represented as having gone through that interesting coremony fre times.

« ՆախորդըՇարունակել »