« 前へ次へ »
other of Chaucer's poems were republished by Wynken de Worde; and the standard edition of his
rks was printed by Godfray in 1532, and dedicated to Henry the Eighth—a sure proof, when we consider the few books that issued from the press in the early days of typography, that the merit of the author was well appreciated, and that writings which had passed through so many editions must have been popularly read, and as generally enjoyed.
There are many other works of Chaucer. Among the best are, a Translation into English of the Romance of the Rose, originally composed in French by William of Lorris and John of Meun the tale of Troilus and Cresseide —several legends from classical history—the House of Fame imitated by Pope—and the fable of the Flower and the Leaf, by Dryden—together with two poems called his Dreams : the one composed on the marriage,* and the other on the death of Blanche, the Countess of John of Gaunt.
Chaucer had great powers of language and imagination at his command. Like Shakspeare, he was inspired by the humorous as well as the tragic muse, and caught and forcibly depicted the outlines of character. His persons are well grouped; they appear naturally assembled, and in their proper places. He has a propriety of sentiment,
* See note at the end of the volume.
and occasionally a gorgeousness of description. He mingles the things of his own with those of classic times, and the effect, though historically untrue, is generally striking and grand. With him the court of Theseus is, like the court of chivalry, peopled with knights and enlivened by the carousals and combats of his own time. His tales are well, but often inartificially told, the mechanism of the poet at times is ill concealed, and he is frequently prolix; but he had to encounter all the difficulties of treading in an unbeaten path, and tuning into music a language harsh and sterile. That his humor is often licentious and coarse was the fault of the age rather than of the poet; it is just the humor in which the persons into whose mouths he puts it would indulge—characters still to be found in the refinement of the present day, whose wit consists in rude allusions or boisterpus mirth. His knights and maidens do not offend against delicacy, but the miller or the wife of Bath derive their merriment from the most obvious
Some of Chaucer's admirers have declared him to be second only to Shakspeare in power and originality; he is like water to the thirsty, refreshing and unfevering. He presents us with a true unadulterated transcript of the manners, feelings, and intelligence of his age. His models were few and simple; scorning mere imitation, he trusted to himself, and whenever he borrowed a design, he made it his own by his peculiar coloring. In the age of exaggeration his subjects preserve their due tone and proportion. His mistress was nature, and he was content
with her. He forgot neither her vices nor her virtues, her graces nor her deformities; and as he observed them he stamped them down in their own tints, and crowded the canvass of his poetry with that variety of character, yet unity of design, which a great master is alone able either to conceive or perfect.*
Contemporary with Chaucer was his friend, the 'moral, the 'gentle' GOWER, who in early life composed largely in French and Latin, and in his later years wrote an English poem in eight books entitled Confessio Amantis, which is a dialogue between a lover and his confessor, who is a priest of Venus. The work is wanting in unity, proportion of detail, and in that masculine vigor and originality which distinguish the productions of Chaucer. Considering the times in which he lived, Gower was a man of great attainments and lively accomplishments, but his imagination was cold and unproductive. He reasons where he should paint, he gives a moral instead of an image, he is copious where he should be impassioned and concise, while, in his eagerness for illustration, he hurries off to legends that have little connection with his subject ; but his creations are delicate though faint, and his verse fluent though diffuse. He indulges in all those absurdities into which the early writers were seduced by their indiscriminate taste for classical and romantic fables ; and by a strange want of judgment has made the
* I would refer such of my readers as are anxious to pursue the subject to Warton's History of English poetry, Tyrwhitt's learned edition of Chaucer's Works, and the ingenious but speculative life of the poet by Godwin.
confessor of his poem a good Catholic as well as minister of the laughing eyed goddess of antiquity, and an instructor at least as learned in his breviary as in Ovid.
The revival of learning threw open the rich stores of classical literature to the studious; and they were too absorbed in contemplating the treasures of antiquity, and fathoming the subtle discussions of the old philosophers, to cultivate the bold yet simple strains of national poetry. Humbler minstrels strove for the wreaths of the muses, and in their unpolished ballads and fugitive verses, full of strong and marked character and expression, spoke plainly of the popular feelings and common tastes of the period. Soon afterwards the invention of printing multiplied the ancient manuscripts, and with them were sent to the world the legends* of monks and controversies of divines, until the spirit of metaphysical enquiry became general, and damped for a while the more creative genius of imagination.
But adverse to poetry as this new turn of study may have been, the troubles of the times were far more fatal to its success. Amidst the turbulence and fever of the civil wars the young spirit of intelligence struggled with a feeble power, and required the peace and reflection of after years to strengthen into maturity. It would seem that literature and the fine arts are among the bright
See note at the end of the volume.
influences which mark the happiness and prosperity of a nation : for like delicate flames they have flickered and smouldered in the tempests of internal discord, and brightened with renewed beauty and animation in the ensuing calm of public security.
After Chaucer there is scarcely a name worthy of remembrance till the reign of Henry the Eighth. There lived however about 1420 OCCLEVE, a lawyer, who is supposed to have been Chaucer's scholar ;* LYDGATE, a Benedictine monk, but not merely the poet of the monastery — at disguisings, may games, masks, mummings, and processions of pageants, he was consulted in the ceremonies and wrote the verse. There were JAMES THE FIRST of Scotland (who sang the sorrows of his captivity at Windsor, and his romantic affection for the fair Lady Jane Beaufort); HENRYSON, the schoolmaster, DUNBAR, and SIR DAVID LYNDSAY, all minstrels of the north ;-BARCLAY, and his rival, SKELTON, who was little inspired by the muses, but had the courage to declaim against Wolsey, and was only protected by the sanctuary from the vengeance of the cardinal ; GAWIN DOUGLAS, a quaint but spirited translator; LORD ROCHFORD, the brother of Anna Boleyne; SIR FRANCIS BRYAN, and LORD VAUX.
HENRY HOWARD, the Earl of Surrey, whose execution was one of the last crimes of Henry the Eighth's reign, is
Chaucer was Occleve's model rather than master. 2 Warton, 353.