« AnteriorContinuar »
From these early literary academies of taste, Petrarch, Dante, and Boccaccio derived the metaphysical subtlety of their treatment of the universal passion; and the title of Chaucer's earliest known production, The Court of Love, sufficiently indicates the source from whence he derived his superior refinement. The school of poetry fostered by these courts sufplied him with that subjective element which enabled him to rise at one step high above the popular minstrels of a nation in its infancy; and it is because he then imparted a new and more cultivated element to the pure epic of his predecessors, just at the critical moment when it was possible to combine them, that he is entitled to the name of the “Father of English poetry.”
Chaucer's genius was of that kind which is improved by time. His industry was extraordinary, his curiosity unbounded, and he appears to have been possessed of a wonderful power of assimilating all that he saw or read, and reproducing it in new forms of beauty. Even if we were not aware of the facts of his life, we might trace in his poetry the several external influences to which his mind was subjected at different periods. All his early poems, beginning with The Court of Love, belong to the French school. When he was about forty-six years of age, he went to Italy, and probably conversed with Petrarch, if not with Boccaccio ; and from that time his poetry is marked by a vigour of fancy, a freedom of treatment, and a firmness of touch, not to be found in his earlier works. We can trace in the Troylus and Cryseyde, The House of Fame, The Legend of Good Women, and the Canterbury Tales, evidences not only of his intimate acquaintance with the three great lights of Italy, but of a more extended knowledge of the classics.
This is easily accounted for when we recollect that Petrarch and Boccaccio were the most successful imitators of classical Latinity before the sixteenth century, and that the latter is generally supposed to have been the first scholar of Western Europe, since its separation from the East, who had read Homer in the original. There can be little doubt that Chancer, with his voracious ap
petite for knowledge of every kind, took advantage of his two diplomatic visits to Italy to obtain a personal introduction to her literary men, and to be initiated into those studies, not then very common, to which they were devoted. In those days Greek and Latin were only beginning to be considered and studied as dead languages : Lexicons there were none; and personal intercourse with learned men was the only substitute for Scapule and Scheller. It is not therefore surprising that Chaucer returned from Italy, and from the conversation of men who knew how to infuse the spirit of classical antiquity into their young and vigorous vernacular, with vast accessions of knowledge, á firmer and a freer taste, and increased powers of language.
We will now endeavour briefly to trace the progress of the poet's mind from its earliest to its latest development, pointing out, as we go along, the various circumstances of his external life which may be supposed to have exercised an influence over his poetry.
There is good reason to believe that the earliest poem which we possess of Chaucer, is the Court of Love, to which we have already alluded. Itisan allegorical description of an imaginary court, held by the god and goddess of love, to which worshippers of every age and condition resort to do their homage to the god, and to take upon themselves the obligation of observing his commandments. In these commandments, as well as in the whole tenor of the poem, is embodied the chivalrous idea of love. The lady is a sort of divinity, and has an absolute and indefeasible title to the lover's service and fidelity. She must be addressed in language in which passion never derogates from that respect which a liege-man owes to his feudal sovereign ; and the desire of meriting her favour must engage him in the exercise of virtue and courtesy, and deter him from every mean and unworthy action. The whole closes with a curious poem, in which the several species of birds offer up their worship to nature, in a service analogous to the matutinal office for Trinity Sunday in the medieval church. This indicates the close connection of the poem with the courts of love, in which it was a common practice to the Dream there is an allusion to Chaucer's own marriage with Philippa Roet, sister of Katherine Roet-then one of Blanche's maids of honour, afterwards John of Gaunt's mistress, and finally his third wife. To this connection with the head of the reform party may be traced many of the poet's opinions, some of his misfortunes, much of his prosperity in after life. In 1369, Blanche died, and the poet celebrates her death in the Book of the Duchess, from which, as characteristic of his narrative style at this period, we will extract a passage, subjecting it to the same process of modernizing as that of which we have already given an example:
designate the several officers by the names of different kinds of birds. This practice is thus accounted for conjecturally in a note upon the pas sage. “The tenderness and constancy which birds bear to their mates would seem to have pointed them out as the fittest of all creatures to act as the priests of love, in offering up the adoration of universal nature to the great creative and sustaining principle.” In this and many other particulars of the medieval philosophy, may be discerned a subtle tendency to pantheism, which, fostered by the great Ghibeline party, broke out a century later in the open paganism of the epicurean illuminati of the renaissance.
Throughout this poem the poet speaks in the first person, and addresses himself to his lady ; it appears to us, therefore, that when he represents the events which he is about to describe as having recently occurred, “when he was young, and eighteen years of age;" and when he designates himself as “ Philogenet of Cambridge, clerk,” he does not mean an imaginary person, but himself ; and that this poem is, therefore, conclusive not only of the proximate period of its production, but of the place of Chaucer's education. To the same school must be referred the charming allegories entitled, The Parliament of Birds, or The Assembly of Fowls, (strangely mis-translated by a recent French biographer of the poet, L'Assemblée des Sots), the Cuckoo and the Nightingale, and The Flower and the Leaf, of which Dryden has given one of his most successful translations.
It was probably by his poetical acquirements that he recommended himself to the notice of the chivalrous Edward, with whom he served in the French campaign of 1359. It was on this occasion that he was taken prisoner. But his captivity was short; for in the poem entitled, Chaucer's Dream, we find him celebrating the marriage of Prince John, then only nineteen, with his cousin Blanche, who was afterwards Duchess of Lancaster in her own right, and from whom her husband took by courtesy the title of Duke of Lancaster. In
Methoughte thus that it was May,
And, sooth to say, my chamber was Full well depainted, and with glass Were all the windows well y-glazed Full clear, and not a hole y-crased, That to behold it was great joy. For wholly, all the story of Troy Was in the glazing ywrought thus, Of Hector and of King Priamus, Of Achilles, and King Laomedon, And eke of Medea, and Jason, Of Paris, Helen and Lavine ; Add all the walls with colours fine Were painted, both the leat and glose, (*) And all the Romance of the Rose. My windows were shut each one, And through the glass the sunné shone Upon my bed with brighté beams, With many gladé gilded streams; And eke the welkin () was so fair, Blue, brighté, cleare was the air, And temperate, forsooth, it was, For neither too cold nor hot it was, Ne in the welkin was a cloud. And as I lay thus, wondrous lond Me thought I heard a hunter blow, To assay his horn, and for to know Whether it were clear or hoarse of soun.
He rises and follows the hunters to the wood, where he walks :
Down by a flowery greené went, (1)
This is the metre of the AngloNorman romance, admirably suited for narrative. We would particularize the excellent effect of the practice, generally followed by Chaucer, of beginning a sentence with the second line of the couplet. It gives a natural ease and variety to the verse, which the frequent recurrence of the rhymes would otherwise render monotonous. This artifice has not escaped Milton, who, within the short space of the song of Comus, uses it several times :
ever written, consisting of twenty-two thousand veses, and embracing every topic apparently that could occupy the mind of man; now running into charming descriptions of forests, meadows and fountains ; now transporting us to scenes of magnificent festivity, where knights, in the gorgeous dresses, and with the punctilious gallantry of the feudal age, lead fair ladies through the mazes of the dance on the lawn ; and, again, assuming a tone of bitter satire and fierce invective, and assailing the crown, the mitre and the tonsure, with all the acrimony of hatred characteristic of the sansculottes of 89. The study of a poem so various in its subject and so vigorous in its language, was an admirable preparation for the higher flights upon which Chaucer was soon about to enter. In the meantime the tide of court-favour had been flowing in upon him. In 1672 he was made one of the valets of the king's chamber; and in the same year the king granted him an additional pension of twenty marks for life, or until he should be otherwise provided for.
He was now forty-six, in the very zenith of his powers, and qualified hy his previous knowledge to profit to the uttermost by intercourse with men of genius and learning, when the great event which, in our opinion, had the most marked influence upon his genius, took place. It was towards the end of the year 1372, that he was joined in a commission with certain citizens of Genoa, for the purpose of determining upon an English port where a Genoese factory might be established ; and from entries in the Issue Rolls, Sir Harris Nicolas has shown that he was absent a whole year, and visited not only Genca but Florence. This latter circumstance seems to indicate that he took advantage of his mission to Italy to visit places which had no immediate connection with public objects ; and if he were able to push on to Florence, it is surely probable, a priori, that he sought out Petrarch in his retirement, only ten miles from Padua, in his cisa piccola, ma piacerale e docente, in mezzo a' poggi vestiti d'ulivi e di viti. We fancy that of all the honour and pleasures of his em
And the gilded car of day
To this period of Chaucer's life may probably be referred bis translation of the philosophy of Boëthius, from whom he got his Platonic ideas, the poems called The Black Knight, and his translation of Granson's Complaint of Mars and Venus, in which, under an astronomical allegory, he is believed to have hinted at the attachment between the Earl of Huntingdon and the Duchess of York, his wife's aunt. But the most important of his obligations to the French is his translation of The Romaunt of the Rose, one of the most wonderful allegories
bassy, none would be more grateful to Chaucer than that of hearing the tale of Griselda from the mouth of him
whose rhetoriqué sweet Illuinined all Itail of poetry.
When, therefore, we find Chaucer making one his characters in the “ Canterbury Tales” say that he learned this tale at Padua from the lips of Petrarch, it seems scarcely possible to doubt that the poet intended thus to record the meeting, and to acknowledge the obligation he was under to his Italian brother of the tuneful art. We can thus follow the progress of his mind from his early adaptations of the splendid allegories of the French school, till his acquaintance with the masterminds of Italy, Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio introduced him to a new field of thought, and by driving his genius out of the old track, imparted to its subsequent efforts such freedom and criginality.
The first fruits of his Italian ex
she of her sex, that we believe the lesson the poet desired to read mankind was, that however devoted a woman may be to a present lover, her constancy will not stand the test of absence and new associations. The character of Pandarus is admirably conceived. In the Filostrato he is too good for the hateful office he performs ; in Shakspeare he is too unworthy to be admitted on terms of intimacy into the society of gentlemen; but Chaucer's Pandarus has some of the outward attributes of a gentleman, with a great deal of common sense, which however often degenerates into low cunning and buffoonery. Yet he has the grace to feel compunction for the part he is acting, and to gloss it over under the name of friendship. The three characters represent the different modes in which the universal passion acts upon different dispositions. Troylus it exalts and refines ; and he is the ideal of manly love ; it only adds weakness to the already weak but lovable Crygevde ; while in Pandarus it assumes its lowest and most degraded form. It is no small praise to say that in a long poem in five books, entirely on the subject of love, there is only one passage which in the slightest degree violates our modern ideas of decorum, while the tendency of the whole is the very reverse of licentious. The following extracts will give the reader some idea of the versification and spirit of the poem. Troylus returns from the battle, and passes under Cryseyde's window:
Troylus and Cryseyde.” This poem is indeed attributed by Lydgate to his youth, but youth is a comparative word, and is sometimes applied by men of seventy or eighty to any period before fifty. The Troylus and Cryseyde is taken, there can be no doubt, from Boccaccio's Filostrato, and yet no two poems on the same subject can be more different. Boccaccio's is a somewhat coarse picture of the courtship of a gay widow by a thoughtless young gentleman of fashion, assisted by an unscrupulous friend. Chaucer's is one of the sweetest love-stories that ever was conceived. There is nothing in the English language to come near it but “Romeo and Juliet.” Troylus is the perfection of a lover, tender, constant, and unselfish, the very soul of honour and chivalrous devotion to the lady of his affections. Cryseyde, unlike Boccaccio's conception of the character, is so delicate and refined, and the circumstances of temptation in which she is placed lead her on so naturally and imperceptibly, that we never cease to pity and love her even in her fall. So perfect a specimen is
This Troilus sat upon his bay steed,
His helm to-hewen () was in twenty places,
maces, In which mer mighten many an arrow find That thirléd (3) had both born, and nerve,
and rind Andaye the people cried, • Here cometh our joy, And, next his brother, holder up of Troy.'
(1) To is intensitive when prefixed to a verb. () Piercel.
To-hewn means hewn to pieces,
For which he wased a little red for shame,
For of her owne thought she waxed all red,
Remembering her right thus, 'Lo! this is he, · Who that my uncle sweareth must be dead,
But (%) I on him have mercy or pity.
follows the bent of his own inclination ; the stories themselves are close translations from Virgil and Ovid's Heroides and Metamorphoses. The following may be worth extracting, as showing his ardent love of nature, which gives such freshness to all his poetry-And as for me, though that I ken but lite,(7) On bookés for to read I me delight, And to them give I faith and full credence, And in mine heart have them in reverence So heartily, that there is gamé none That from my bookés maketh me to gone, () But it be seldom on the holiday ; Sare certainly, when that the month of May Is comen, and that I hear the fowlés sing, And that the flowers 'ginnen for to spring,— Farewel my book and my devotion !
In 1374, Chaucer was appointed comptroller of the customs, and it is supposed, with every appearance of probability, that he alludes to his employment in this capacity in the following passage of the “House of Fame," which must therefore be referred to the period of his life subsequent to his first visit to Italy.
And 'gan to cast and roll it up and down,
This exquisite picture, it must be observed, is entirely Chaucer's ; for Boccaccio represents his heroine as gazing with admiration upon her lover, whom she had never spoken to, without the least idea of blushing or drawing in her head. The lamentation of Troilus, when he finds that ('ryseyde has betrayed him, bas always struck us as very pathetic :--
Wherefore, all so Goi me bless,
Through which I see that clean out of your
mind Ye have mc cast, and I ne can or may For all this world within my hearté find To unloven you a quarter of a day : In cursed time I born was, well away! That you, that doti(6) me all this roe
endure, Yet love I best of any crëature.
The translation of the Romaunt of the Rose and the Troylus and Crygeyde drew down upon the poet the resentment of certain ladies of the court, whose favour he endeavoured to propitiate by the Legend of Good Women, in which the histories of ladies who have died for love are related in heroic verse, the first example of this metre, we believe, in the English language. The best part of the poem is the introduction, where he
Wherefore is I said, iwis,(11)
This poem has been imitated by Pope, who has utterly missed the spirit of fantastic drollery and naïvete which runs through it, and gives it its peculiar character. We had intended to have given some further extracts, but we must hasten to a close.
In 1386, Chaucer served in the Parliament which sat at Westminster, and was dissolved after a stormy existence of one month,-as knight of the
(1) Who has giren me a charmed portion that I should so suddenly love ? ---(2) Except - -() This is an idiom, mcaning, for pure slame.--.(1) His rank.-- (0) Because. You who cause me to endure all this woe.— (?) To go. - Little.
Holdeth. --(10) Ilumility. ----(") Certainly.