Page images
PDF
EPUB

ignorant of the christian name of his wife, are all agreed that her surname was Rouet, the same with that of her father and younger sister, Catherine Swynford.” How Rouet and Suynford can be the same surname, Tyrwhitt does not tell us; but the fact is, Catherine Swynford had sunk her maiden name in that of her first husband, for she was a widow when John of Gaunt married her. Spite of this, the commentators have pored into the list of nine Dunicella, of the queen Philippa, to whom the king had granted annuities, and finding no Rouet there, have been resolved to fix as the future wife of Chaucer, one Philippa Pykard whom they did find. These are all rash peerings into the dark. As no damsel of the name of Rouet was found, the natural conclusion is, that she was already married to Chaucer,

Of Donnington Castle in its present state a few more words may be acceptable, and this is the account we find given by Mr. Britton, in the Beauties of England and Wales. “Donnington Castle rears its lofty head above the remains of the venerable oaks that once surrounded it, on an eminence north-east of Donnington Grove, and nearly opposite to the village of Speen, now Newbury. It was formerly a place of much importance, and, by commanding the western road, gave to its possessors a considerable degree of authority: When it was originally built is uncertain, but from a manuscript preserved in the Cottonian Library, it appears that it belonged to Walter Abberbury, who paid C. shillings for it to the king. ... Hither, about 1397, in the 70th year of his age, Geoffrey Chaucer, who had purchased it, retired. Alice, his grandaughter, conveyed it by marriage to William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk. In this line, and therefore in the descendants of Chaucer, it continued till the reign of Henry VII, when, by the treasonable practices of the owner, it was escheated to the crown. In the Civil Wars it was a post of great consequence, being fortified as a garrison for the king. During these troubles it was twice besieged; the second time its siege being raised by the arrival of the king himself. In Camden's time this castle was entire. He describes it as “a small but very neat place, seated on the brow of a woody hill, having a fine prospect, lighted by windows on every side.” The remains now consist of the east entrance, with its two round towers, and a small part of the east wall. The gateway is in good preservation, and the place for the portcullis may still be seen. A staircase winds up the south tower to the summit of the castle, which commands a beautiful view of the Hampshire hills, and the intermediate country.

It has been the fate of the places celebrated by Chaucer in his exquisite Canterbury Tales to retain something of their identity beyond all that might have been expected from the rapid changes, especially of late years, in England. The Tabard Inn, Southwark, from which his pilgrims set out, still exists, or at least, partly so, under the name of The Talbot. This old inn is within view of London Bridge, on the left hand going thence down High Street in the Borough. It is evidently the inn which Dickens had in view when he described the one where Pickwick originally encountered Sam Weller. This once famous old hostel has indeed survived, but

[ocr errors]

has fallen into decay, and sunk in rank. London has spread, and changed the importance of its localities. In the city, and at the west-end, multitudes of splendid hotels have sprung up—the ancient Tabard is gone down to a very ordinary house of entertainment. Once it occupied, no doubt, the frontage on both sides of its gateway, now it is confined to the right hand ; and although the ancient yard and ancient galleries present themselves to your view as you enter, you find the premises occupied by at least half a dozen different tenants and trades. Here is the inn, on the right hand; on the left are offices of wine merchants and others. Under the old galleries is the warehouse of a London carman, and huge bales of goods lie before it, to go off by wagon or by railroad. Wagons belonging to this establishment are going in and out, and gigs and chaises are drawn up on the further side of the inn. There is life and trade here still, but the antiquity and dignity of the ancient Tabard are broken up. The frontage, and about half the premises, were once destroyed by fire; the remainder, occupying the lower end of the court, exists in all its antiquity. The old wooden gallery, supported on stout wooden pillars, and with a heavy wooden balustrade, is roofed over ; above are steep red-tiled roofs, with dormor windows, bearing every mark of being very old. In front of this gallery hangs a large painting, long said to be a picture of the pilgrims entering Canterbury. A horseman is disappearing through the city gateway, and others are following; but the whole is so weather-beaten that it is difficult to make out. The painting seems to have possessed considerable merit, and it is to be regretted that it is not restored.

Tyrwhitt says, “They who are disposed to believe the pilgrimage to have been real, and to have happened in 1383, may support their opinion by the following inscription, which is still to be read upon the inn, now called The Talbot, in Southwark : “This is the inn where Sir Jeffery Chaucer and the twenty-nine pilgrims lodged in their journey to Canterbury, Anno 1383." Though the present inscription is evidently of a very recent date, we might suppose it to have been propagated to us by a succession of faithful transcripts from the very time; but unluckily there is too good reason to be assured that the first inscription of this sort was not earlier than the last century.

We learn from Speght—who appears to have been inquisitive about this inn in 1597—that “this was the hostelry where Chaucer and the other pilgrims met together, and, with Henry Bailey their host, accorded about the manner of their journey to Canterbury.” Within the gallery was a large table, said to be the one at which the pilgrims were entertained. This gallery is now divided into four bedrooms, where the guests of the inn still sleep, in the very floor occupied by the pilgrims upwards of 500 years ago. And, indeed, how much longer ? The building existed probably long before Chaucer's days, who has been dead 456 years. "It is one of the greatest antiquities and curiosities of London, so few of the like kind being spared by the fire, and still fewer by modern changes and improvements.

In Canterbury, also, the pilgrim's inn is said to have continued to

the present time, no longer, indeed, existing as an inn, but divided into a number of private tenements in High-street. The old inn mentioned by Chaucer was called the Chequers. It stands in the High-street, at the corner of the lane leading to the cathedral, just below the parade, on the left-hand side going into Canterbury. Its situation was just that which was most convenient for the pilgrims to Thomas à Becket's tomb. It was a very large inn, as was necessary for the enormous resort of votaries to the shrine of this pugnacious saint. It is now divided into several houses, and has been modernized externally, bearing no longer traces of having been an inn. The way to the court-yard is through a narrow doorway passage, and round the court you see the only evidences of its antiquity-remains of carved wood-work, now whitewashed over.

The old age of Chaucer, like that of too many men of genius, is said to have been stormy, and not unvisited by necessity. We are informed that, on the deposition of Richard II, he went from Woodstock to Donnington Castle, and thence to London, to solicit a continuance of his annuities from Henry IV, in which he found such difficulties as probably hastened his death. It has been said, how could this be? How could a man with lands and a castle be in such necessity ? and it has been attributed to the desire of his biographers to excite an undue sympathy for their subject, that they have represented him in his old age as avaricious. Probably, if we knew all the circumstances, the whole would be clear enough. We know so little of Chaucer's real, and especialiy of his domestic history, that we may pronounce, as falsely as presumptuously, in saying he could not be in need. Who shall say that because Chaucer casually mentions only one son, that he might not have half a dozen ? Who shall say what misfortunes may have visited his old age? These were changeable and troublesome times. His biographers have settled his castle and estate on his son Thomas; and if he had other sons to provide for, and his annuities were not paid, these are causes enough for pecuniary difficulty. Sir Harris Nicolas has hunted out various incidents relating to his life, and to his descendants, which may be referred to in his Memoir of the poet, prefaced to Pickering's edition of his poetical works.

The general opinion is, that he died October 25, in the year 1400, being seventy-two years of age. According to Wood," he never repented of his reflections on the clergy of his times, but upbraided himself bitterly with the licentious portions of his writings, often crying out at the approach of death, "Woe, woe is me, that I cannot recall and annul those things, but, alas! they are now continued from man to man, and I cannot do what I would desire.” He was buried in Westminster Abbey, in the great south aisle, but no monument was raised to his memory till a century and a half after his decease, when Nicolas Brigham, a gentleman of Oxford, a poet and great admirer of Chaucer, erected the plain altar now so well known, having three quatre-foils, and the same number of shields, at the north end of a magnificent recess formed by four obtuse arched angles. The inscription and figures are now almost obliterated. Like himself, his great work, the Canterbury Tales, lay buried for upwards of seventy years in manuscript. Caxton, the first English printer, selected these Tales as one of the earliest productions of his press, and thus gave to the world what it will never again consent to lose. Spite of the rude state of the language when he wrote, the splendour of his genius beams and burns gloriously through its inadequate vehicle. Time, which has destroyed his house at Woodstock, and beaten down his castle at Donnington, has not been able to effect the same ruin on his poems. The language has gone on perfecting and polishing; a host of glorious names and glorious works have succeeded Chaucer and the Cauterbury Tales, making England affluent in its literary fame as any nation on earth ; but from his distant position, the Father of English poetry beams like a star of the first magnitude in the eternal hemisphere of genius. Like Shakspeare, he has, for the most part, seized on narratives already in existence to employ his art upon, but that art is so exquisite, that it has stamped immortal value on the narrative. The life and the characters he has represented to us are a portion of the far past, rescued for us from the oblivion that has overwhelmed all that age besides. We gaze on the living and moving scenes with an interest which the progress of time can only deepen. To the latest ages, men will read and say,—Thus in the days of Wickliffe, of John of Gaunt, and Richard II, did men and women look, and act, and think, and feel ; thus did a great poet live amongst them, and send them down to us, and to all posterity, ten thousand times more faithfully preserved than by all the arts of Egypt and the East. Quaint as they are, they are the very quintessence of human nature. They live yet, fresh and vivid, passionate and strong, as they did on their way to the tomb of St. Thomas, upwards of five hundred years ago. They can never die ; they can never grow old ; and amid them, the poet, Englishman every inch, lives, and laughs, and quaffs his cup of wine, and tells his story, and chuckles over his jokes, or listens to the narratives of ail those around him with a relish of life, that he only could feel, or could communicate. There is an elastic geniality in his spirit, a buoyant music in his numbers, a soul of enjoyment in his whole nature, that mark him at once as å man of a thousand ; and we feel in the charm that bears us along, a strength that will outlast a thousand years. It is like that of the stream that runs, of the wind that blows, of the sun that comes up, ruddy as with youth, from the bright east on an early summer's moming. It is the strength of nature living in its own joyful life, and mingling with the life of all around in gladdening companionship. For a hundred beautiful pictures of genuine English existence and English character, for a world of persons and things that have snatched us from the present to their society, for a host of wise and experience-fraught maxims, for many a tear shed, and emotion revived, and laugh of merriment, for many a happy hour and bright remembrance, we thank thee, Dan Chaucer, and just thanks shalt thou receive a thousand years hence.

[graphic][subsumed][ocr errors][merged small]

So little is known of the early life of Spenser, that our notice of his haunts will be confined, almost wholly, to his Castle of Kilcolman. He is said to be desce ided from the ancient family of Spenser ; indeed he says it himself

" At length they all to mery London came;
To mery London, my most kyndly nurse,
That to me gave this life's first native sourse,
Though from another place I toke my name,

An house of ancient fame."-Prothalamion. This was the house of Althorpe, and now also of Marlborough ; but however this may be, his parentage was obscure enough. He is said by Fenton to be born in East Smithfield, near the Tower of London, in 1553 ; but the parish registers of that time are wanting, and we have no clue to trace more accurately the locality. He was admitted as sizer, the lowest order of students, at Pembroke-hall, Cambridge, in the year 1569; he took the degree of Bachelor of Arts in January 1572-3, and that of Master of Arts in June 1576, in which year he was an unsuccessful candidate for a fellowship, according to some of his biographers, though others deny this. On quitting the University, he went to reside with his relations in the north of England, but

« PreviousContinue »