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CHAUCER'S INFLUENCE ON THE LANGUAGE.
two distinctly-separated streams. They were beating together in stormy agitation, and no one could either control the tide or foresee its future course. It was Chaucer's fate to float
those “If,” says the poet's most intelligent editor, we could suppose that the English idiom in the age of Chaucer remained pure and unmixed as it was spoken in the court of Alfred or Egbert, and that the French was still a foreign, or at least a separate language, is it credible that a poet, writing in English on the most familiar subjects, would stuff his compositions with French words and phrases which must have been unintelligible to the greatest part of his readers ? Or, if he had been so very absurd, is it conceivable that he should have immediately become not only the most admired but also the most popular writer of his times and country?” It was Chaucer's misfortune to have only an unformed -an unripe—language ; but, to prove that his influence on that language was powerful and happy, it is enough to observe the strength of thought, the variety of feeling, the delicate shades of meaning, of which he made the language expressive. It is no proof of Chaucer's having corrupted a pure dialect that the language of his poems has become obsolete, and that, too, not recently; for an English historian, writing two hundred years ago, remarks that an Englishman needs an interpreter to understand Chaucer's English. It is also well as wittily observed by the same writer—the church-historian, Fuller—that, if the poet left the English tongue so bad, how much worse did he find it ! and, accordingly, he gives him the praise of having refined and illuminated it. It is the opinion also of a very competent judge in our own day, it being remarked by Southey that in no other country has any writer effected so much with a half-formed language. Retaining what was popular, and rejecting what was barbarous, he at once refined and enriched it. The language which has not reached a firm consistency is doomed to grow. obsolete; and a poet of the seventeenth centuryWaller—thus deplores the wrong done by the hand of Time to the early poets :
“ We write in sand; our language grows,
And yet he did not sing in vain.”
to be read by cadence, admitting a considerable variety in the number of syllables in each line, or metrical,—that is, with fixed metres and limited to ten or eleven syllables. This question is one too much of technical prosody to be more than alluded to. But, as has been well remarked by one of the disputants, “ be it as it may, it is no slight proof of Chaucer's sagacity that he should have pitched the key and determined the length of verse which, after so many experiments and the lapse of nearly five centuries, have been found to accord best with the genius of language, and that his ‘riding rhyme,' under the more dignified denomination of the 'heroic couplet,' should be the measure which Dryden and Pope and their followers have preferred to all others for grave and lofty subjects."
The extended plan of the poem of the Canterbury Tales, as stated in the prologue, was never accomplished; and it stands the mighty fragment of the genius of the first of the great English poets, -one surpassed in the versatility of his powers only by the unapproachable genius of Shakspeare. The plan was wonderfully elaborate, and wonderfully achieved, too, when we consider that it was entered on by the poet at the advanced
of threescore. Life was too short for the vast speculations of the poet's imagination; for not only does the proposed series of the tales remain unaccomplished, but it will be remembered that it is over the imperfect fragment of one of them that Milton laments in that
of “Il Penseroso,” where he craves the power to call up the lost poets from oblivion
“O sad virgin, that thy power
On which the Tartar king did ride." That Chaucer did not achieve all that his genius meditated was a misfortune; but the truth must not be withheld, that there rests on his memory the reproach of having in some of his productions stained his inspirations with the grossness of his times. That it was the grossness of an age still rude and unrefined iš the extenuation. It is a plea which
may well be uttered in apology for one, the general tendency of whose poetry is indisputably moral. The blemishes which disfigure it are of that kind which may disgust, but which can scarcely contaminate. His gentle spirit had its season of contrition for his
which“ unto Sin,” and for which he prayed forgiveness. In the hour of death the thought of their popularity was agony to him : he is said to have exclaimed, -“Woe is me that I cannot recall and annul these things! but, alas, they are continued from man to man, and I cannot do what I desire.” The lofty aspiration of the verses considered his last composition—the voice from the anguish of a dying bed—may plead for the oblivion of the imperfection of some of his writings :
“The wrestling of the world asketh a fall:
Here is no home; here is but wildernesse,
Look up on high, and thank thy God of all.” Chaucer died in the year 1400, leaving the countless generations who repeat the English tongue a body of poetry which, if destined in the lapse of time to be wrapped in the dust of an antiquated dialect, was destined also to contribute to the development of the genius of some of the mightiest of his successors. His tomb was in the city of his birth, in that consecrated receptacle of the dead where, in honour of him,the father of English poetry,—have since been gathered, in the Poets’ Corner of the Abbey, the remains and the monuments of the family of the bards of England. “He lies buried,” says Fuller, “in the south aisle of St. Peter's, Westminster, and since 'hath got the company of Spenser and Drayton,-a pair royal of poets, enough almost to make passengers' feet move metrically who go over the place where so much poetical dust is interred.”
Spenser and the Minstrelsy.
RELAPSE IN ENGLISH POETRY AFTER CHAUCER FROM 1400 TO 1553-ITS CAUSES—THE
WARS OF THE ROSES-ECCLESIASTICAL DISTURBANCE-THE REFORMATION AND QUEEN ELIZABETH-WYATT AND SURREY-THE SONNET-BLANK VERSE-SACKVILLE-ELIZABETH'S REIGN AND CHARACTER-CLASSICAL LEARNING-THE BRITISH CHURCH-SPENSER'S BIRTH, IN A. D. 1553—THE SHEPHERD'S CALENDAR-ITS ALLEGORY_THE FRIENDSHIP OF SYDNEY-SPENSER'S RESIDENCE IN IRELAND THE FAIRY QUEEN, IN 1590—SIR WALTER RALEIGH-THE GREAT WORK OF SPENSER-MILTON'S PRAISE-SPENSER'S MIGHTY IMAGINATION-APPEAL TO HUMAN SYMPATHIES-CHIVALRIC SPIRIT-RELIGIOUS AIM-MR. HALLAM'S CRITICISMHYMN TO BEAUTY-THE SPENSERIAN STANZA-ALLITERATION--HIS BLEMISHES -THE EPITHALAMIUM-DEATH, A. D. 1598—THE BRITISH MINSTRELSY AND BALLADS-KINMONT WILLIE-SIR PATRICK SPENS-ARMSTRONG'S GOOD-NIGHT.
FEEL great reluctance to occupy one moment of your time with
how often these lectures will stand in need of it, I trust it is the dictate of a truer modesty which prompts me to set them before you simply without pretension and without apology. There is, however, an embarrassment I cannot escape, which I therefore wish to mention in one or two words : I mean the perplexity between a desire to do all the justice I can to each subject as it rises up in its abundance to my mind, and, on the other hand, the anxiety not to trespass too largely on your patience, -a point on which I am the more solicitous because of the very kind attention that thus far has been extended to me. The subject allotted to this evening transcends reasonable bounds, at the risk of impairing unity of impression.
It is somewhat unfortunate for the complete propriety of the metaphor by which Chaucer is so often designated, that the “morning star” of English poetry was not followed by the light of day. The genius of the first of our English poets shone, indeed, like the 'last of the starry host newly risen above the outline of some dark mountain, but not, like it, to mingle its beams with the light of the coming dawn. That early outbreak of imagination was not followed by the flood of light which flows in with the perfect day, which was still far distant.
One of the most remarkable of these relapses in intellectual advancement is the long interval between the death of Chaucer, in the year 1400, and the birth of the next of England's great poets, Edmund
ENGLISH POETRY AFTER CHAUCER.
Spenser, in 1553. This period of more than a century and a half is comparatively a desolate tract; and, parting with Chaucer in the era of the Middle Ages, we gain companionship with no other master-spirit until within the domain of modern times. With a beauty of illustration which does not often adorn the pages of Warton's “History of English Poetry," he happily compares the appearance of Chaucer in the language to a premature day in spring, after which the gloom of winter returns, and the buds and blossoms which have been called forth by a transient sunshine are nipped by frosts and scattered by storms.
For this blank in the annals of the English Muse there must have been causes, --some, it may be, beyond the sight of philosophy; for it seems to me that the vast spiritual ocean of the human mind has its tides, not like the daily currents which are swayed by the near influences of the moon, but with an ebb and flood enduring for some unknown term of ages, and ruled by God's hidden providence over the destinies of mankind. Without, therefore, venturing to penetrate into regions where speculation should humbly veil its eyes, there still are causes which may be assigned for the interruption of English literature during the fifteenth century :- :-seven reigns of disputed legitimacy, thirty years of civil slaughter, which first brutalized and then crushed the nation's heart, so that to this day the hues which the Creator's hand has given to the rose seem stained with blood. The period succeeding the wars of the Houses of York and Lancaster was not such as to give the needed repose to the nation's spirit, wretchedly wasted by its long agony. The reign of the second of the Tudors,
“ That majestic lord
Who brake the bonds of Rome,”.. was a time of ecclesiastical revolution, calmed, indeed, during the few short years
of that saintly youth,
· King, child, and seraph, blended in the mien
Of pious Edward.” But the nation, crushed by the dominion of one woman, was soon to rise to its highest elevation under the sway of another. It is not my theme to discuss the character of Queen Elizabeth, to weigh her power of sovereignty with her feminine or unfeminine frailties, presenting her in'one light as described by the poet Gray,—with “lion port and awecommanding face,” or in another, or, it may be, only a different shade of the same light,—the inimitable virago, according to the free and more familiar description of Sir Walter Scott. Enough for the present subject is it that the forty-four years during which she held the sceptre