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of the Middle Ages. The Lady Anima, who represents the Soul of Man, is placed by Kind, that is Nature, in a castle called Caro or the Flesh; and the charge of it is committed to the constable Sir In-wit, a wise knight, whose chief officers are his five sons, See-well, Say-well, Hear-well, Work-well, and Go-well. One of the other figures is Reason, who preaches in the church to the king and his knights, teaching that all the evils of the realm are because of sin; and among the Vices, who are converted by the sermon, we see Proud-heart, who vows to wear hair-cloth ; Envy, lean, cowering, biting his lips, and wearing the sleeves of a friar's frock; and Covetousness, a bony, beetle-browed, blear-eyed, illclothed caitiff. Mercy and Truth are two fair maidens; and the Diseases, the foragers of Nature, are sent out from the planets by the command of Conscience, before whom Old Age bears a banner, while Death in his chariot rides after him. Conscience is besieged by Antichrist, who, with his standard-bearer Pride, is more kindly received by a fraternity of monks, ringing their conventbells, and marching out in procession to greet their master. It may be noticed that, in the beginning of the poem, an ingenious use is made of the fable of the cat and the bell, which we discovered lately among the Latin stories of the monastic library.
The language of this curious old monument wears an air of antiquity beyond its age; which, however, may be attributable to the difficulties caused by the affectation of antiquity in the versification. It is in effect a revival of the alliterative system of metre, which still survived in some romances of the day, and was afterwards used in many imitations prompted by the popularity of Langland. The best of these, “Piers Plowmans Creed," a piece in every way inferior to the original
, was written towards the close of the century, and is avowedly the effusion of a Wycliffite.
The very many Chivalrous Romances which were now added to the English tongue, deserve a passing notice, not only for the merit really possessed by not a few of them, but also on account of the good-humoured jests levelled at them by Chaucer, himself in no small degree affected both by their spirit and their diction. There is less reason for dwelling on the poems, not devoid of spirit, in which Laurence Minot celebrated the French wars of Edward the Third, and found means, in treating of his patron's successes in Scotland, to suggest consolations for the bloody field lost there by his father.
5. One of the best of our minor poets, and very interesting for
many relations to our more recent literature, was John Gower, the "ancient Gower” of Shakspeare, with whom Chaucer, his contemporary and friend, did not disdain to exchange borrowings d. ab. It is worth noting that Gower, a man of much knowledge,
1408. I wrote in three languages ; though he is remembered, not for his French or Latin verses, but for his “ Confessio Amantis,” or “ Lover's Confession,” a huge English poem in the octosyllabic romance-metre. It is a miscellaneous collection of physical, metaphysical, and ethical reflections, and of stories culled from the common repertories of the middle ages. All these are bound together by a fantastic thread, in which a lover makes his shrift to a priest of Venus, named Genius, and receives advice and consolation from his anomalous confessor.
The faults are general tediousness, and a strong tendency to feebleness ; but the language is smooth and easy; and there is not a little that is exceedingly agreeable in description.
Of Gower's manner in his didactic strain, a specimen is furnished in the First Book, in a passage where the theme of the dialogue is, the moral danger arising from the two principal senses, seeing and hearing. The duty which is thus imposed on us, is illustrated by a piece of fabulous science, evidently derived from a misunderstood scriptural saying. There is (so Genius instructs his pupil) a serpent named Aspidis, who bears in his head the precious stone called the carbuncle, which enchanters strive to win from him by lulling him asleep through magic songs. The wise reptile, as soon as the charmer approaches, lays himself down with one ear pressed flat on the ground ; while he covers the other with his tail. So ought we obstinately to refuse admission to all evil impressions presented through the bodily organs. Perhaps there is not here any such depth of thinking, as should entitle us to expect much edification from the Seventh Book, which is wholly a treatise on Philosophy, as it was learned by Alexander the Great from the philosophers and astrologers who were his tutors. Yet a good principle is involved in that mediæval classification which the poem lays down, dividing philosophy into three branches, the theoretical, the practical, and the rhetorical.
Of the narratives of the “ Confessio" we may gain a fair notion, by glancing at some of those which it takes from the “ Gesta Romanorum.” The longest and best-told of them is the “ Appolonius of Tyre,” which has already been noticed, and may be understood from Shakspeare. The dramatist's tale of the Caskets is here, though in a less poetical dress. We have also an accomt of the female disguise put on by Achilles to evade the Trojan war. The tale of Florent is very like that which Chancer assigns to the Wife of Bath. The “ Trumpet of Death " deserves
notice for its striking tone of reflection. The outline is this. It was a law in Hungary, that when a man was adjudged to die, the sentence should be announced to him by the blast of a brazen trumpet before his house. At a magnificent court-festival, the king was plunged in deep melancholy; and his brother asked the reason. No answer was returned ; but, at daybreak next morning, the fatal trumpet sounded at the brother's gate. demned man came to the palace weeping and despairing. Then the king said solemnly; that, if such grief was caused by the expectation of the death of the body, much more profound sorrow could not but be awakened by the thought which had afflicted him as he sat among his guests; the thought of that eternal death of the soul, which Heaven has ordained as the just punishment of sin.
6. The few facts which we know positively in regard to Geofd. ab. 1828. frey Chaucer, throw very little light on his early his
tory; and, in regard to his writings, they enable us to see only, that these were but part of the occupation of a long life fruitful in activity and vicissitude. He was born in Lor.con, and probably educated for the law: and, being thrown at an early age into public employment, he attained to confidential intimacy with men of high rank, in whose good and bad fortune he was equally a sharer. His chief patron was John of Gaunt; who, in his declining years, contracted a marriage, no way creditable, with the sister of the poet's wife. In his thirty-first year, Chaucer served in the French war, and was taken prisoner; and afterwards he received and lost several public offices and pensions, and was repeatedly employed in embassies both to France and Italy. There are symptoms of his having, in his old age, suffered poverty and neglect; and he scarcely survived to profit by the accession of Henry the Fourth, the son of his old patron.
The indignant freedom with which Chaucer exposes ecclesiastical abuses, was, as we have seen, common and long-rooted among literary men. Accordingly it does not require to be accounted for, by his dependence on the aristocratic party who advocated reforms in the church ; nor is there, in the whole series of his works, anything entitling us to rank him among those who decidedly abandoned the distinctive doctrines of Romanism. John of Gaunt himself shrunk back from Wycliffe, when he ventured on his boldest steps; and Chaucer did not show, more than Langland, any leaning to the theological opinions of the reformer. His busy and adventurous life, however, prepares us for that practical shrewdness, which is one of the most marked features in his writings : and his foreign travels, while they were
not needed to make him familiar with French literature, gave him opportunities for acquiring an acquaintance with the language and poetry of Italy, of which his works exhibit, in the face of all doubts that have been started, clear and numerous proofs.
7. The frequency of translations and imitations is a striking characteristic in the poetry of the middle ages.
The ence, which the poets so frequently make, to books as their authorities for facts, was much more than a rhetorical flourish. A very large proportion of Chaucer's writings consists of free versions from the Latin and French, and perhaps also from the Italian ; and in some of these he has incorporated so much that is his own, as to make them the most valuable and celebrated of his works. The originals which he chose were not the Chivalrous Romances, but the comic Fabliaux, (already very common in Latin as well as in living tongues,) and also an allegorical kind of poetry which the Trouvères now cultivated ardently, deriving its character in great part from the Troubadours. The Italian literature furnished him with models of a higher class, which, however, he put much more sparingly to use. Its poets, taking their first lessons from Provence, had recently founded a school of their own, equally great for invention and for skill in art. But the awful vision of Dante furnished to Chaucer nothing beyond a few allusions and descriptions; and he was too wise and sober-minded to be carried away by the lyrical abstractions of Petrarch, if he really knew much of them. He seems to have derived from fabliaux, or other French or Latin sources, those stories of his which are to be found among the prose novels of Boccaccio ; whose metrical works, however, we cannot doubt that he studied and imitated.
Three of the largest of Chaucer's minor works are thus borrowed: the allegorical“ Romance of the Rose,” translated, with abridgment, from one of the most popular French poems of the preceding century; the Troilus and Cressida, avowedly a translation, but
one, if its original really was the Filostrato of Boccaccio; and The Legend of Good Women, a series of narratives, founded on Ovid's Epistles. The Troilus, certainly among his earliest poems, is one of his best, notwithstanding the disgusting tenor of the story. The same theme, it will be remembered, is handled by Shakspeare, in a drama adorned by some of his most brilliant flowers of imagination, and inspired throughout with deep though despondent reflection. The choice of such a subject by the later of these two great poets is less to be wondered at than its adoption by the other, who lived in a time that was much ruder, in sentiments as well as in manners.
Of the minor poems which appear to be entirely Chaucer's own, several, such as those which celebrate, in imaginative disguise, passages in the history of his royal patron, are, like most of the translations, chiefly interesting as proofs of the great mastery he had acquired over an imperfectly cultivated language. Nor, it must be said, would his fame be injured by the loss of any of them, except the fine allegorical inventions of The House of Fame, and the Flower and the Leaf; the former of which has received great injustice in its showy modernization by Pope, while the other also has suffered in the hands of Dryden. The structure of the latter of the two may serve to illustrate a kind of poetry, of which the Romance of the Rose was the most celebrated example, but which, throughout the latter part of the middle ages, was equally popular among the poets and among their readers. The piece could not well be described more aptly, than in the prose sentences, very slightly altered, which the author prefixed to it as an explanatory argument or analysis.
" A gentlewoman, out of an arbour in a grove, seeth a great company of knights and ladies in a dance
green grass : the which being ended, they all kneel down and do honour to the Daisy, some to the Flower, and some to the Leaf. Afterwards this gentlewoman learneth by one of these ladies the meaning of the vision, which is this. They who honour the Flower, a thing fading with every blast, are such as look after beauty and worldly pleasure. But they that honour the Leaf, which abideth with the root, notwithstanding the frosts and winter-storms, are they which follow virtue and enduring qualities, without regard of worldly respects.”
8. The poetical immortality of Chaucer rests on his Canterbury Tales, which are a series of independent stories, linked together by an ingenious device.
A party of about thirty persons, the poet being one, are bound on a pilgrimage from London, to the tomb of Thomas à Becket at Canterbury. They meet at the inn of the Tabard, in Southwark, the host of which joins the cavalcade, and assumes the post of director. Each person is to tell two tales, in going, the other in returning: but we are allowed only to accompany the travellers on a part of the journey to Canterbury, and to hear twenty-four of their stories. The work is thus no more than a fragment; although its metrical part extends to more than seventeen thousand lines, being thus longer than the Iliad, and not far from twice as long as Paradise Lost. It contains allusions bringing us down to a date considerably beyond the poet's sixtieth year: but we can hardly suppose the whole to have been a fruit old
age. It is more probable that a good