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many of the tales had been written separately, long before; while . others may have been added when the design of forming the collection was taken up, to be left uncompleted amidst the misfortunes which darkened the author's declining years.
The Prologue, which relates the occasion of the assemblage, and decribes the company, is in itself a poem of no small bulk, and of admirable merit. Here no allowance has to be made for obligations to preceding inventors; and a strength is manifest, which incomparably exceeds any that was put forth when the poet had foreign aid to lean on. He draws ир
the curtain from a scene of life and manners, such as the whole compass of our subsequent literature has not surpassed; a picture whose figures have been studied with the truest observation, and are outlined with the firmest, and yet most delicate pencil. The tone of sentiment, never rising into rapture or passion, is always unaffectedly cheerful and manly; while it frequently deviates on the one hand, into the keenest and most lively turns of humour, and, on the other, into intervals of touching seriousness; and, over the whole, the imagination of high genius has thrown the indescribable charm, which at once animates external nature with the spirit of human feeling, and brightens our dim thoughts of our own mental being with a light like that which illuminates the corporeal world around us.
A mere catalogue of the Pilgrims, who are thus vigorously described, would be an inventory of the English society of the day, in all ranks, except the very highest and the very lowest. There is a Knight, with his son, a young Squire.
These two represent the chivalry of the times; and they are described, especially the latter, in the poet's best strain of gayly romantic fancy. They are attended by a Yeoman, a master of forest-craft. After them in rank comes a Franklin or country-gentleman, who is a justice and has often been knight of the shire. The peasantry are represented by three men; a Ploughman, described briefly and kindly; a Miller, whose portrait is a wonderfully animated piece of rough satirical humour; and a Reeve or bailiff
, whose likeness is an excellent specimen of quiet sarcasm, relieved by fine touches of rural scenery. There is a whole swarm of ecclesiastical persons, at whose expense the poet indulges his love of shrewd humour without any check. The Prioress of a convent, affected, mincing, and sentimental, is attended by a Nun and three Priests; the Benedictine Monk is already known familiarly to most of us, being the original of the self-indulgent Abbot of Jorvaulx in Ivanhoe : in contrast to him stands the coarse and popular Begging-Friar, “ a wanton and a merry :” and a Sompnour or officer of the church courts is yokul withi a Pardoner ar
seller of indulgences. Last among the members or retainers of the church, is to be named a poor Secular Priest from a country village, who is described with warmly affectionate respect. The learning of the times has three representatives : the Clerk of Oxford is a gentle student, silent, thoughtful, and unworldly; the Sergeant-of-law is sententious, alert, and affectedly immersed in important business; and the Doctor of Physic is fond of money, skilful in practice, and versed in all sciences except theology. The trading and manufacturing sections of the community furnish several figures to the picture. Their aristocracy contains the Merchant, and the Wife of Bath, described with a keenness so inimitable : a meaner group is composed of the Haberdasher, Carpenter, Weaver, Dyer, the Tapestry-maker, with the Cook whom these have providently brought to attend them; and this part of the company is completed by a Shipman or mariner, and a Manciple or purveyor of one of the inns of court. These, with the Poet and the Host of the Tabard, are the world-renowned Pilgrims of Canterbury.
9. In some of the tales which follow, the tone rises from the familiar reality of the Prologue to the highest flight of heroio, reflective, and even religious poetry : in others, it sinks not only into the coarseness of expression which deformed so much of our early literature, but into a positive licentiousness of thought and sentiment. Most of the humorous stories, and more than one of the scenes by which they are knit together, are quite unpresentable to young readers.
The series opens with the Knight's Tale of Palamon and Arcite, which, founded on an Italian poem of Boccaccio, has been modernized by Dryden, and made the groundwork of a striking drama sometimes attributed to Shakspeare. It is worthy of the delighted admiration with which poetical minds have always regarded it. It is the noblest of all chivalrous romances. Or, rather, it stands alone in our language, as a model of that which the romances might have been, but are not; symmetrical and harmonious, while they are undigested and harsh ; full of clearness and brilliancy and suggestiveness, in its portraiture of adventures and characters which to the minstrels would have prompted only vague and indistinct sketches. This, a metamorphosed legend of Thebes and Athens, borrowing its first hints from the Latin poet Statius, is an instructive example of the manner in which the classical fables and history were disguised, in romantic trappings, by the poets of the middle ages. We shall learn something more in regard to it, when we come to this point in reviewing the progress of the English Language.
The Squire's Tale, a tantalizing fragment, traverses another walk of romance, ushering us into a world of orien al marvels, some of which are identical with those of the Arabian Nights. Milton, whose fancy was keenly impressed by its picturesqueness, chooses it as his example of Chaucer's poetry; and he works up its figures into one of his most exquisite compositions of lyrical imagery. He wishes that it were possible, for the solace of his studious leisure,
“To call up him that left half-told
Where more is meant than meets the ear." The tale told by the Wife of Bath is a comic romance, the scene of which is laid at the court of King Arthur, and adorned with fairy transformations. The hero is required, on pain of death, to answer correctly a question proposed by the queen, what it is that women most desire; and he is taught by his wife to say, that they desire most of all to rule their husbands. Here the chivalrous recollections of the Round Table are used only as the occasion of one of those satires on the female sex, which abound so much in the Gesta, (the original of the story,) and in all the lighter compositions of the monks. Accordingly, it may not unfairly be regarded as the poet's protest against the popular tastes for the wilder of the romantic fictions. The same spirit becomes yet more decided in the rhyme of Sir Topas, the story which he supposes to be his own contribution to the common stock. It is a spirited parody on the romances, expressed chiefly in their own forms of speech; and the humour is heightened by the indignation with which the host, intolerant of attacks on the literature he best understood, arbitrarily puts a stop to its recitation. It tells us how the hero, a knight fair and gentle, fell in love with the queen of Fairyland; and how he rode through many a wild forest, ready to fight with giants if he should meet with any. The rude interruption prevents us, unluckily, from learning whether he was fortunate enough to find an opportunity of proving his valour.
The learned and gentle Clerk relates the story of Griselda, which used to be made known to all of us in our nursery-libra. ries, and whose harshness is concealed, in the poem, by a singular sweetness of description, and touches of the tenderest feeling. It is one of the poet's master-pieces, and owes exceedingly little either to Petrarch, who is referred to as the authority, or to Boccaccio, whose prose narrative has by some been supposed to have really been the original.
We are raised almost into the sphere of religious poetry in the Man of Law's Tale, the history of Constance, which relates adventures used again and again in the romances, but found by all of them in the Gesta. The heroine, a daughter of the Emperor of Rome, becomes the wife of Ella, the Saxon King of Northumberland, and converts him and his subjects to the Christian faith. Twice exposed by malicious enemies in a boat which drifts through stormy seas, and accompanied in one of those perilous voyages by her infant child, she is twice providentially preserved; and on another occasion, when she is about to be executed on a false charge of murder, an invisible hand smites the accuser dead, and a voice from the sky proclaims her in
The Legend of Saint Cecilia, told by one of the Nuns, is purely a devotional composition: and of the same cast, with much greater poetical beauty, is the short story related by the Prioress, of the pious child slain by the Jews, the pathos of which makes us forget that the poet, in telling it, was fostering one of the worst prejudices of his age.
The two Prose Tales, which stand so oddly among the metrical ones, are in several respects curious. The Story of Melibeus, which the Poet represents himself as substituting for his unpopular rhymes, suspends, on a feeble thread of narrative, a mass of ethical reflections, recommending the duty of forgiving injuries. That which is called the Tale of the Parson or Priest, the piece with which the collection abruptly ends, is in fact a sermon, and a very long one, inculcating the obligation, and explaining with minute subdivisions the laws and effects, of the Romish sacrament of penance.
THE LITERATURE OF ENGLAND IN THE FIFTEENTH CENTURY, AND OF SCOTLAND IN THE FOURTEENTH AND FIFTEENTH,
A. D. 1399—A. D. 1509 ; AND A. D. 1306—A. D. 1513.
1306-1329. 1329-1370. 1370-1390. 1390-1406. 1406-1437. 1437-1460. 1460-14SS. 1483-1513.
ENGLAND. 1. Poetry-John Lydgate--- His Storie of Thebes. —2. Lydgate's Minor
Poems-Character of his Opinions and Feelings-Relapse into Monasticism-Specimens.-3. Stephen Hawes-- Analysis of his Pastime of Pleasure.-4. The Latest Metrical Romances—The Earliest Ballads-Chevy Chase-Robin Hood-5. ProseLiterary Dearth-Patrons of Learning-Hardyng-William Caxton-His PrintingPress and its Fruits.-SCOTLAND. 6. Retrospect-Michel Scot-Thomas the Rhymer. 7. The Fourteenth Century-John of Fordun-Wyntoun's ChronicleThe Bruce of John Barbour-Its Literary Merit Its Language.-8. The Fifteenth Century-The King's Quair-Blind Harry the Minstrel-Brilliancy of Scottish Poetry late in the Century - Henryson-His Testament of Cressida-Gawain Doug. las-His Works.-9. William Dunbar-His Genius and Poetical Works-Scottish Prose still wanting-Universities founded-Printing in Edinburgh.
THE FIFTEENTH CENTURY IN ENGLAND.
1. The miseries which afflicted England during the greater part of the fifteenth century, thinly veiled in Shakspeare's heroic pictures, darken frightfully the true annals of the country. The unjust and unwise wars with France, made illustrious for the last time by Henry the Fifth, had their issue under his feeble son in national disgrace. Fresh revolts of the populace were followed by furious wars between the partisans of the two royal houses, till the rival claims were united in the family of Tudor. The unnatural contest, desolating the land as it had not been desolated since the Norman invasion, blighted and dwarfed all intellectual growth. For more than a hundred years after Chaucer's death, our literary records do not set down any name the loss of which would at all diminish their lustre, unless Dan John of Bury may deserve to be excepted.
In short, this age, usually marked in Continental history as