Page images
PDF
EPUB

peculiar insularity; and made the Englishman, whether knight or yeoman, regard himself as the member of a separate and superior race, enjoying a higher degree of liberty and a more solid material welfare than existed among the neighboring continental monarchies. The literature, too, abundant in quantity, if not remarkable for much originality of form, was rapidly taking a purely English tone; the rhyming chronicles and legendary romances were either translated into, or originally composed in, the vernacular language.

§ 2. Thus, among the predecessors of Chaucer, the literary stars that heralded the splendid dawning of our national poetry, Richard Rolle, Laurence Minot, and the remarkable satirist Langlande in South Britain, and Barbour, Wyntoun, and Blind Harry in Scotland, all show evident traces of a purely English spirit.* The immediate poetical predecessor of Chaucer, however, was undeniably GOWER, whose interminable productions, half moral, half narrative, and with a considerable infusion of the scholastic theology of the day, though they certainly will terrify a modern reader by their tiresome monotony and the absence of originality, rendered inestimable services to the infant literature, by giving regularity, polish, and harmony to the language. Indeed, the style and diction of Gower is surprisingly free from difficult and obsolete expressions; his versification is extremely regular, and he runs on in a full and flowing, if commonplace and unpoetical, stream of disquisition. It is very curious, as an example of the contemporary existence of the French, the Latin, and the vernacular literature at this period in England, that the three parts of Gower's immense work should have been composed in three different languages: the Vox Clamantis in Latin, the Speculum Meditantis in Norman-French, and the Confessio Amantis in English.t

§ 3. In endeavoring to form an idea of the intellectual situation of England in the fourteenth century, we must by no means leave out of the account the vast influence exerted by the preaching of Wicliffe, and the mortal blow struck by him against the foundations of Catholic supremacy in England. This, together with the general hostility excited by the intolerable corruptions of the monastic orders, which had gradually invaded the rights, the functions, and the possessions of the far more practically-useful working or parochial clergy, still further intensified that inquiring spirit which prompted the people to refuse obedience to the temporal as well as spiritual authority of the Roman See, and paved the way for an ultimate rejection of the Papal yoke. Much influence must also be attributed to Wicliffe's translation of the Bible into the English language, and to the gradual employment of that idiom in the services of the church, towards the perfecting and regulating of the English language; an influence similar in kind to the settlement of the German language by Luther's version of the same holy book, though, perhaps, less powerful in degree; for in the latter case

* For an account of Chaucer's predecessors, see Notes and Illustrations (A). + For a fuller account of Gower, see Notes and Illustrations (B).

the reading class in Germany must have been more numerous than in the England of the fourteenth century.*

$ 4. GEOFFREY CHAUCER was born in 1328, and his long and active life extended till the 25th of October, 1400. Consequently the poet's career almost coincides, in its commencement, with the splendid administration of Edward III.; and comprehends also the short and disastrous reign of Richard II., whose assassination preceded the poet's death by only a few months. In the brilliant court of Edward, in the gay and fantastic tourney, as well as in the sterner contests of actual warfare, the poet appears to have played no insignificant part. He is supposed to have been sprung of wealthy, though not illustrious parentage, and must have been of gentle blood; his surname, which is the French Chaussier, evidently pointing at a continental — at that period equivalent, in a certain degree, to an aristocratic - origin. Besides this, we have distinct proof, not only in the fact of his having been “ armed a knight” (which is shown by his evidence in the disputed cause of the Scrope and Grosvenor arms), but also in the honorable posts which he held, that Chaucer must have belonged to the higher sphere of society. His marriage, too, with Philippa de Roet, a lady of Poitevin birth, the daughter of a knight, and one of the maids of honor in attendance upon Queen Philippa, would still further tend to confirm this supposition.

Though but little credit is due to the details set forth in the ordinary biographies of the poet, I will condense into a rapid sketch such as are best established; for every trait is interesting that helps us to realize the individual existence of so illustrious a man.

The inscription upon his tomb in Westminster Abbey, which still exists, though the recumbent Gothic statue of the poet, originally a portrait, has become unhappily so defaced that even the details of the dress are no longer distinguishable, fixes the period of his birth in 1328, and that of his death in 1400. This tomb, however, was not erected till 1556, by Mr. Nicholas Brigham, probably an admirer of his genius. Chaucer calls himself a Londenois or Londener in the Testament of Love. In his Court of Love he speaks of himself under the name and character of “ Philogenet - of Cambridge, Clerk; ” but this hardly proves that he was educated at Cambridge. According to an authentic record, he was taken prisoner in 1359 by the French at the siege of Rhétiers, and being ransomed, according to the custom of those times, was enabled to return to England, in 1360.

His marriage with Philippa de Roet, which took place in 1367, may have brought him more under the notice of the court; for in 1367 we find him named one of the "valets of the king's chamber,” and writs are addressed to him under the then honorable designation “ dilectus valettus noster.” His official career appears to have been active and even distinguished: he enjoyed during a long period various profitable offices connected with the customs, having been comptroller of the

* For an account of Wicliffe and his school, see Notes and Illustrations (C).

important revenue arising from the large importation of Bordeaux and Gascon wines into the port of London; and he seems also to have been occasionally employed in diplomatic negotiations. Thus, he was joined with two citizens of Genoa in a commission to Italy in 1373, on which occasion he is supposed to have made the acquaintance of Petrarch, then the most illustrious man of letters in Europe. Partly in consequence of his marriage with Philippa de Roet, whose sister, Catherine Swynford, was first the mistress and afterwards the wife of John of Gaunt, and partly perhaps from sharing in some of the political and religious opinions of that powerful prince, Chaucer was identified to a considerable degree both with the household and party of the duke of Lancaster; and the death of the duchess Blanche in 1369 is believed to have suggested to him the subject of his Boke of the Duchesse, and the Complaynte of the Blacke Knyght. One of the most interesting particulars of his life was his election as representative for Kent in the parliament of 1386, which was dissolved in December of the same year.

The year 1382 was the signal for a great and unfavorable change in the poet's fortunes. In consequence of the active part taken by him in the struggle between the court and the city of London, on occasion of the re-election of John of Northampton to the mayoralty, Chaucer fell into disgrace and difficulty, and was exposed to serious persecution, and even imprisoned in the Tower, whence he is said to have attained his liberation only on condition of accusing and denouncing his associates. This imprisonment lasted three years; and in addition to heavy fines and the loss of his offices, the poet underwent a severe domestic calamity in the death of his wife, in 1387. The catastrophe in his affairs to which we have alluded was, however, followed by a partial restoration to favor; for in 1390 he was appointed to the office of clerk of the king's works, which he held for only about a year; and there is reason to believe that, though his pecuniary circumstances must have been, during a great part of his life, proportionable to the position he occupied in the state and in society, his last days were more or less clouded by embarrassment. It is with regret that we are obliged to abandon the supposition, founded on insufficient evidence, of his having resided, during the latter part of his life, at Donnington Castle. It is more probable that the close of his career was passed at Woodstock, where a house was long shown as having been the poet's residence. His death took place at Westminster, and the house in which this event occurred was afterwards removed to make room for the chapel of Henry VII.

If we may judge from an ancient and probably authentic portrait of Chaucer, attributed to his contemporary and fellow-poet, Occleve, as well as from a curious and beautiful miniature introduced, according to the fashion of those times, into one of the most valuable manuscript copies of his works, our great poet appears to have been a man of pleasing and acute, though somewhat meditative and abstracted countenance, wearing a long beard; and he seems to have become somewhat corpulent towards the end of his life, at which time the Canterbury Tales were written. These peculiarities of personal appearance, as well as some others, giving indications of his manners and character, are also alluded to by the poet himself in the Tales themselves. When Chaucer is in his turn called upon by the host of the Tabard, himself represented as a “large man,” and a “ faire burgess," to contribute his story to the amusement of the pilgrims, he is rallied by honest Harry Bailey on his corpulency, as well as on his studious and abstracted air:

“ What man art thou ?" quod he,
“Thou lokest as thou woldest fynde an hare;
For ever on the ground I se the stare.
Approach nere, and loke merrily.
Now ware you, sires, and let this man have space.
He in the wast is shape as wel as I:
This were a popet in an arm to embrace,
For any womman, smal and fair of face.
He semeth elvisch by his countenance,

For unto no wight doth he daliaunce." The good-nature with which the poet receives these jokes, and the readiness with which he commences a new story when uncourteously cut short, all seem to point to the gentlemanly and sociable qualities of an accomplished man of the world.

§ 5. The literary and intellectual career of Chaucer seems to divide itself naturally into two periods, closely corresponding with the two great social and political tendencies which meet in the fourteenth century. The earlier productions of Chaucer bear the stamp and character of the Chivalric, his later and more original creations of the Renaissance literature. It is more than probable that the poet's visits to Italy, then the fountain and centre of the great literary revolution, brought him into contact with the works and the men by whose example the change in the taste of Europe was brought about. Dante, it is true, died before the birth of Chaucer; and though his influence as a poet, a theologian, and a metaphysician, may not yet have fully reached England, yet Chaucer must have fallen under it in some degree. There is a third element in the character of Chaucer's writings, besides the imitation of the decaying Romance and the rising Renaissance literature, which must be taken into account by all who would form a true conception of his intellect; and this is the religious element. It is difficult to ascertain how far the poet sympathized with the bold doctrines of Wicliffe, who, like himself, was favored and protected by John of Gaunt, fourth son of Edward III. It is, however, probable, that though he sympathized – as is shown by a thousand satirical passages in his poems — with Wicliffe's hostility to the monastic orders and abhorrence of the corruptions of the clergy, and the haughty claims of papal supremacy, the poet did not share in the theological opinions of the reformer, then regarded as a dangerous heresiarch. Chaucer probably remained faithful to the creed of Catholicism, while attacking with irresistible satire the abuses of the Catholic ecclesiastical administration. How intense that satire is, may be gathered from the contemptible and odious traits which he has lavished on nearly all his portraits of monastic personages in the Canterbury Tales; and not less clearly from the strong contrast he has made between the sloth, sensuality, and trickery of these persons, and the almost ideal perfection of Christian virtue which he has associated with his Persoune, the only member of the secular or parochial clergy he has introduced into his inimitable gallery. It is by no means to be understood that the principal works of this great man can be ranged chronologically under the two strongly marked categories just specified; or that all those bearing manifest traces of the Provençal spirit and forms were written previously, and those of the Renaissance or Italian type subsequently, to any particular epoch in the poet's life; but only that his earlier productions bear a general stamp of the one, and his later of the other literary tendency; while the greatest and most original of all, the Canterbury Tales, may be placed in a class by itself.

§ 6. A brief critical examination of Chaucer's works may serve to point out, however imperfectly, the boundless stores of imagination and pathos, of wisdom and of wit, which the father of English poetry has embodied in language that has never been surpassed, and seldom equalled, for harmony, variety, and picturesqueness. I shall reserve to the last the more detailed analysis of the Canterbury Tales. On a rough general inspection of the longer works which compose the rather voluminous collection of Chaucer's poetry, it will be found that about eight of them are to be ascribed to a direct or indirect iinitation of purely Romance models, while three fall naturally under the category of the Italian or Renaissance type. Of the former class the principal are the Romaunt of the Rose, the Court of Love, the Assembly of Fowls, the Cuckow and the Nightingale, the Flower and the Leaf, Chaucer's Dream, the Boke of the Duchesse, and the House of Fame. Under the latter we must range the Legend of Good Women, Troilus and Creseide, Anelyda and Arcyte, and above all the Canterbury Tales.

(i.) The Romaunt of the Rose is a translation of the famous French allegory Le Roman de la Rose, which forms the earliest monument of French literature in the thirteenth century. The original is of inordinate length, containing, even in the unfinished state in which it was left, 22,000 verses, and it consists of two distinct portions, the work of two very different hands. It was begun by Guillaume de Lorris, who completed about 5000 lines, and was continued after his death by the witty and sarcastic Jean de Méun: the former of these authors died in 1260, and the latter probably about 1318, which will make him nearly the contemporary of Dante. The portion composed by Lorris has great poetical merit, much invention of incident, vivid character-painting, and picturesque description; the allegorical coloring of the whole, though wire-drawn and tedious to our modern taste, was then highly admired, and gave the tale immense popularity. The continuation by Méun, though following up the allegory, diverges into a much more

« PreviousContinue »