Chaucer Part 10

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extols in preface and notes. The longest of the pa.s.sages in which reference is made by Spenser to Chaucer, under the pseudonym of t.i.tyrus, is more especially noteworthy, both as showing the veneration of the younger for the older poet, and as testifying to the growing popularity of Chaucer at the time when Spenser wrote.

The same great poet's debt to his revered predecessor in the "Daphnaida" has been already mentioned. The "Fairy Queen" is the masterpiece of an original mind, and its supreme poetic quality is a lofty magnificence upon the whole foreign to Chaucer's genius; but Spenser owed something more than his archaic forms to "t.i.tyrus," with whose style he had erst disclaimed all ambition to match his pastoral pipe. In a well-known pa.s.sage of his great epos he declares that it is through sweet infusion of the older poet's own spirit that he, the younger, follows the footing of his feet, in order so the rather to meet with his meaning. It was this, the romantic spirit proper, which Spenser sought to catch from Chaucer, but which, like all those who consciously seek after it, he trans.m.u.ted into a new quality and a new power. With Spenser the change was into something mightier and loftier. He would, we cannot doubt, readily have echoed the judgment of his friend and brother-poet concerning Chaucer. "I know not,"

writes Sir Philip Sidney, "whether to marvel more, either that he in that misty time could see so clearly, or that we, in this clear age, walk so stumblingly after him. Yet had he," adds Sidney with the generosity of a true critic, who is not lost in wonder at his own cleverness in discovering defects, "great wants, fit to be forgiven in so reverent an antiquity." And yet a third Elizabethan, Michael Drayton, pure of tone and high of purpose, joins his voice to those of Spenser and Sidney, hailing in the "n.o.ble Chaucer"

--the first of those that ever brake Into the Muses' treasure and first spake In weighty numbers,

and placing Gower, with a degree of judgment not reached by his and Chaucer's immediate successors, in his proper relation of poetic rank to his younger but greater contemporary.

To these names should be added that of George Puttenham--if he was indeed the author of the grave and elaborate treatise, dedicated to Lord Burghley, on "The Art of English Poesy." In this work mention is repeatedly made of Chaucer, "father of our English poets;" and his learning, and "the natural of his pleasant wit," are alike judiciously commanded. One of Puttenham's best qualities as a critic is that he never speaks without his book; and he comes very near to discovering Chaucer's greatest gift when noticing his excellence in "prosopographia," a term which to Chaucer would perhaps have seemed to require translation. At the obsoleteness of Chaucer's own diction this critic, who writes entirely "for the better brought-up sort," is obliged to shake his learned head.

Enough has been said in the preceding pages to support the opinion that among the wants which fell to the lot of Chaucer as a poet, perhaps the greatest (though Sidney would never have allowed this), was the want of poetic form most in harmony with his most characteristic gifts. The influence of Chaucer upon the dramatists of the Elizabethan age was probably rather indirect and general than direct and personal; but indications or ill.u.s.trations of it may be traced in a considerable number of these writers, including perhaps among the earliest Richard Edwards as the author of a non-extant tragedy, "Palamon and Arcite,"

and among the latest the author--or authors--of "The Two n.o.ble Kinsmen." Besides Fletcher and Shakspere, Greene, Nash and Middleton, and more especially Jonson (as both poet and grammarian), were acquainted with Chaucer's writings; so that it is perhaps rather a proof of the widespread popularity of the "Canterbury Tales" than the reverse, that they were not largely resorted to for materials by the Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists. Under Charles I "Troilus and Cressid" found a translator in Sir Francis Kynaston, whom Cartwright congratulated on having made it possible "that we read Chaucer now without a dictionary." A personage however, in Cartwright's best known play, the Antiquary Moth, prefers to talk on his own account "genuine"

Chaucerian English.

To pursue the further traces of the influence of Chaucer through such a literary aftergrowth as the younger Fletchers, into the early poems of Milton, would be beyond the purpose of the present essay. In the treasure-house of that great poet's mind were gathered memories and a.s.sociations innumerable, though the sublimest flights of his genius soared aloft into regions whither the imagination of none of our earlier poets had preceded them. On the other hand, the days have pa.s.sed for attention to be spared for the treatment experienced by Chaucer in the Augustan Age, to which he was a barbarian only to be tolerated if put into the court-dress of the final period of civilisation. Still, even thus, he was not left altogether unread; nor was he in all cases adapted without a certain measure of success. The irrepressible vigour, and the frequent felicity, of Dryden's "Fables"

contrast advantageously with the tame evenness of the "Temple of Fame,"

an early effort by Pope, who had wit enough to imitate in a juvenile parody some of the grossest peculiarities of Chaucer's manner, but who would have been quite ashamed to reproduce him in a serious literary performance, without the inevitable polish and cadence of his own style of verse. Later modernisations--even of those which a band of poets in some instances singularly qualified for the task put forth in a collection published in the year 1841, and which, on the part of some of them at least, was the result of conscientious endeavour--it is needless to characterise here. Slight incidental use has been made of some of these in this essay, the author of which would gladly have abstained from printing a single modernised phrase or word--most of all any which he has himself been guilty of re-casting. The time cannot be far distant when even the least unsuccessful of such attempts will no longer be accepted, because no such attempts whatever will be any longer required. No Englishman or Englishwoman need go through a very long or very laborious apprenticeship in order to become able to read, understand, and enjoy what Chaucer himself wrote. But if this apprenticeship be too hard, then some sort of makeshift must be accepted, or antiquity must remain the "canker-worm" even of a great national poet, as Spenser said it had already in his day proved to be of Chaucer.

Meanwhile, since our poetic literature has long thrown off the shackles which forced it to adhere to one particular group of models, he is not a true English poet who should remain uninfluenced by any of the really great among his predecessors. If Chaucer has again, in a special sense, become the "master dear and father reverent" of some of our living poets, in a wider sense he must hold this relation to them all and to all their successors, so long as he continues to be known and understood. As it is, there are few worthies of our literature whose names seem to awaken throughout the English-speaking world a readier sentiment of familiar regard; and in New England, where the earliest great poet of Old England is cherished not less warmly than among ourselves, a kindly cunning had thus limned his likeness:--

An old man in a lodge within a park; The chamber walls depicted all around With portraiture of huntsman, hawk and hound, And the hurt deer. He listeneth to the lark, Whose song comes with the sunshine through the dark Of painted gla.s.s in leaden lattice bound; He listeneth and he laugheth at the sound, Then writeth in a book like any clerk.

He is the poet of the dawn, who wrote The Canterbury Tales, and his old age Made beautiful with song; and as I read I hear the crowing c.o.c.k, I hear the note Of lark and linnet, and from every page Rise odours of ploughed field or flowery mead.


Bencite = benedicite.

Clepe, call.

Deem, judge.

Despitous, angry to excess.

Digne, fit;--disdainful.

Frere, friar.

Gentle, well-born.

Keep, care.

Languor, grief.

Meinie, following, household.

Meet, mate (?), measure (?).

Overthwart, across.

Parage, rank, degree.

Press, crowd.

Rede, advise, counsel.

Reeve, steward, bailiff.

Ruth, pity.

Scall, scab.

Shapely, fit.

Sithe, time.

Spiced, nice, scrupulous.

Targe, target, shield.

Y prefix of past participle as in, y-bee = bee(n).

While, time; to quite his while, to reward his pains.

Wieldy, active.

Wone, custom, habit.

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Chaucer Part 10 summary

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