Page images

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
The story of Cambuscan bold,
Of Cam ball, and of Algarsife,
And who had Canace to wife,
That own'd the virtuous ring and glass;
And of the wondrous horse of brass,
On which the Tartar king did ride:
-And if aught else great bards beside
In sage and solemn tunes have sung,
Of tourneys and of trophies hung,
Of forests, and enchantments drear,

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.




A. D. 1399—A. D. 1509; AND A. D. 1306-A. D. 1513.


Henry IV.
Henry V.,
Henry VI.,
Edward IV.
Edward V.
Richard III.,
Henry VII.,

.1399-1413. Robert the Bruce,..
.1413–422. David II.,
1422-1461. Robert II..
1461-1483. Robert III.,
.1483. James I.,
1483-1485. James II.,
..1485-1509. James III.,

Jaunos IV..

1306-1329. 1329-1370. 1370-1390. .1390-1406. 1406-1437.

1437-1460. ..1460-1488. 1488-1513.

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 Cha-e-Robin Hood–5. Prose-Literary 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 Douglas-- His Works.-9. William Dunbar-His Genius and Poetical Works--Scottish Prose still wanting-Universities founded-Printing in Edinburgh.


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

d. bef. 1461.


the epoch of the Revival of Classical Learning, was not with us a time either of erudition or of original invention.

The fifteenth century has transmitted to us a large number of Poetical Compositions ; but most of them are quite valueless, unless as instructive specimens of the rapidity with which the language was undergoing the latest of the changes, that developed it into modern English. Although, likewise, we know the names of many of the authors, two of these only call for notice.

John Lydgate, a Benedictine monk of Bury Saint Ed

munds, beginning to write before Chaucer's death, appears to have laboured for more than half a century, producing an immense number of compositions, many of which were of a tempo • rary kind. His most ambitious works were three. The Fall of Princes is versified from the Latin prose of Boccaccio; the Storie of Thebes is an additional Canterbury Tale, borrowing a great deal from Statius and other classical sources, but investing the unhappy sons of Edipus in chivalrous drapery, not without much spirit and picturesqueness; and, in the Troy Book, the fall of Ilium is similarly dealt with, and adorned with many striking descriptions.

Some features in the Storie of Thebes are thus described by the earliest historian of our old poetry.

“ This poem is the Thebaid of a Troubadour. The old classical Tale of Thebes is here clothed with feudal manners, enlarged with new fictions of the Gothic species, and furnished with the description, circumstances, and machineries, appropriated to a romance of chivalry. The Sphinx is a terrible dragon, placed by a necromancer to guard a mountain, and to murder all travellers passing by. Tydeus, being wounded, sees a castle on a rock, whose high towers and crested pinnacles of polished stone glitter by the light of the moon : he gains admittance, is laid in a sumptuous bed of cloth of gold, and healed of his wounds by a king's daughter. Tydeus and Polymite tilt at midnight for a lodging, before the gate of the palace of King Adrastus; who is awakened by the din of the strokes of their weapons, and descends into the court with a long train by torch-light. He orders the two combatants to be disarmed, and clothed in rich mantles studded with pearls; and they are conducted to repose, by many a stair, to a stately tower, after being served with a refection of hippocras from golden goblets. The next day they are both espoused to the king's two daughters, and entertained with tournaments, feasting, revels, and masques. Afterwards, Tydeus, having a message to deliver to Eteocles, king of Thebes, enters the hall of the royal palace, completely armed and on horseback, in the midst of a


19 *

magnificent festival. This palace, like a Norman fortress or feudal castle, is guarded with barbicans, portcullises, chains and fosAdrastus wishes to close his old

in the repose

of rural diversions, of hawking and hunting.”

2. Lydgate is justly charged with diffuseness. He accumulates, to wearisomeness, both thoughts and words. But he has an earnestness which often rises into enthusiasm, and which gives a very impressive air to the religious pieces that make up a majority of his minor poems. Although his originality of invention is small, he sometimes works up borrowed ideas into exceedingly striking combinations. His descriptions of scenery are often excellent.

Some of his smaller compositions illustrate, very instructively, both the literary and the theological character of his time. The survey which we have now nearly completed of the literature of the middle ages, has furnished frequent examples of a fact learned by us in the commencement of our present studies; namely, that almost all the literary productions of those times fall into groups, each of them designed and fitted only for a limited audience. Neither comprehensive observation of society at large, nor a wish to instruct or please a wide and diversified circle of readers, has shown itself in any of the periods we have examined, till we reached the time of Chaucer. He, indeed, was truly a national poet; the shrewd observer of all facts which were poetically available, the active and enlightened teacher of all classes of men who were susceptible of literary instruction. In passing from his works to those of Lydgate, we feel as if we were turning aside from the open highway into the dark and echoing cloisters. The monk of Bury is thoroughly the monk : he is guided by the monastic spirit, and has the monastic blindness to every thing that happens beyond the convent gate. He, an ecclesiastic living in the generation after Wycliffe, is as strongly imbued with superstitious belief and priestly prejudice, as if he had just returned from the crusades, or had sat at the feet of Saint Dominic. If he was Chaucer's pupil in manner and style, his masters in opinion and sentiment were the compilers of the “Gesta Romanorum.”

By marking carefully, and familiarizing to ourselves by one or two examples, some of the characteristics of Lydgate, the best and most popular of our English poets in the fifteenth century, we shall be prepared to hail with more lively satisfaction those great revolutions which, some generations afterwards, impressed a new and purer stamp alike on the literature and on the religion of the nation.

* Warton : History of English Poetry.

« PreviousContinue »