And with his streamès drieth in the greves
The silver droppès hanging in the leaves;
And Arcite, that is in the court reäl
With Theseus the squire principal,
Is risen, and looketh on the merry day;
And for to do his observance to May,
Rememb'ring on the point of his desire,
He on his courser, starting as the fire
Is ridden of the fieldes him to play,
Out of the court, were it a mile or tway;
And to the grove of which that I you told
By aventure his way he gan to hold,
To maken him a garland of the greves,
Were it of Woodbind or of Hawthorn leaves,
And loud he sung against the sunny sheen;
O May with all thy flowers and thy green
Right welcome be thou, fairè freshè May;
I hope that I some green here getten may.'
And from his courser with a lusty heart,
Into the grove full hastily he start.'

It would be easy to multiply quotations of at least equal merit, but these may suffice; the reader will readily turn to the poems for further proofs, if necessary.

But it is not for his versification alone that Chaucer takes the pre-eminent rank in the scale of poets which is now allowed him on all hands. It is to his vivid delineations of life and manners, to the freshness of his pictures of external nature, to his pathos, and to the playful, comic humour which alternately mark his productions. In the versatility of his genius, as in other points, he resembled the great Italian writer he imitated. Boccaccio excelled like Chaucer in the pathetic, but was also a great master of the humorous.

One of his earliest pieces which has come down to us is The Court of Love,' and this appears to have been written at the age of nineteen. It is chiefly remarkable as an interesting specimen of his early skill in numbers, for it is in other respects 'grotesque and meagre.'

"The Romaunt of the Rose' is a translation from the celebrated French poem of William de Lorris and John de Meun. It is a long and somewhat tedious allegory of the difficulties and dangers a lover encounters in the pursuit of the object of his desires, figured under the emblem of a Rose, which he at length gathers in a beautiful garden. The difficulties he encounters in scaling walls, forcing the impregnable castles and strong holds of various deities, being personifications of the passions and affections of the mind; and the opposition or assistance they render him form the tissue of the fable. Chaucer has translated all that part of the poem which was written by William de Lorris, but only part of the continuation by John de Meun, which is very much inferior to the former part. The poem furnishes a great variety of beautiful descriptions and allegorical personifications, most of which are admirably translated by Chaucer, and some of them in the latter part of the poem so judiciously heightened and enriched as to owe all their merit to him.

Troilus and Cresseide is for the most part a translation of the Filostrato of Boccaccio, but with many variations and large additions, amounting to no less than two thousand seven hundred verses. It is singular that Chaucer should say

I me excuse

That of no sentement I this indite
But out of Latin in my tongue it write.

And in another place,

As write mine author called Lollius;

for nothing can be more certain than that Boccaccio was his original; the fable and characters are the same in both poems, and numerous passages of the Filostrato are literally translated. Lydgate, in his prologue to The Fall of Princes,' tells us that

[ocr errors]

Chaucer translated


a booke which is called Tro

'In Lombard tongue, as men may rede and see.'

How Boccaccio should have acquired the name of Lollius, and the Filostrato the title of Trophe, are points which even Mr. Tyrwhitt confesses himself unable to explain.

The story of the poem is too simple and destitute of incident for its length, being, as Warton says, almost as long as the Æneid; but it is full of passages of the most exquisite and tender pathos. The description of Cresseide's first avowal of her love is thus exquisitely illustrated:

'And as the new abashed nightingale,

That stinteth first when she beginneth sing,
When that she heareth any herdes tale,
Or in the hedges any wight stirring,
And after siker doth her voice out-ring;

Right so Cresseide, when that her dread stent
Open'd her heart, and told him her intent1.'

"The House of Fame' is known to all readers by the elegant imitation Pope has given of it. Warton thinks it is of Provençal origin. It is an allegorical vision, the work of a fantastic and fertile imagination. 'The poet fancies himself snatched up to heaven by

A very curious rhyming Latin version of the two first books of this poem was printed at Oxford in 1635, which has been pronounced by a competent judge to be the best specimen of Latin in modern metre.' It is by Sir Francis Kynaston, who was physician and one of the Squires of the Body to King Charles the First. He published also an English poem, called Leoline and Sydanis.' In the printed copies the two first books of Troilus and Cresseide' only are given without notes, but the three remaining books, together with Henryson's Testament of Cresseide,' exist in manuscript, accompanied with a very curious commentary in Latin and English. This manuscript was in the hands of the late Mr. Waldron until his death, and is now in the library of the present writer. As the reader may be pleased to see a spe

[ocr errors]

a large eagle, who addresses him in the names of St. James and the Virgin Mary ; and, in order to quiet his fears of being carried up to Jupiter like another Ganymede, or turned into a star, like Orion, tells him, that Jove wishes him to sing of other subjects than love and 'blind Cupido,' and has therefore ordered that Dan Chaucer should be brought to behold the House of Fame.'

'The Flower and the Leaf,' that exquisite piece of fairy fancy,' has also been perpetuated by Dryden's skilful modernisation of it. One of the most delightful examples of Chaucer's powers in the description of rural scenery is to be found at the opening of this poem; it has a local truth and freshness, which gives the very feeling of the air, the coolness or moisture of the ground. Inanimate objects are thus made to have a fellow-feeling in the interest of the story; and render back the sentiment of the speaker's mind. He describes the delight of a young beauty shrouded in her bower, and listening in the morning of the year to the singing of the nightingales; while her joy rises with the rising song, and gushes out afresh at every pause, and is borne along with the full tide of pleasure, and still increases, and repeats, and prolongs itself, and knows no ebb. The coolness of the arbour, its retirement, the early time of the day, the sudden starting up of the birds in the neighbouring bushes, the eager delight with which they devour

cimen of this singular performance, the version of the beautiful stanza quoted above is here subjoined: it has been hitherto unpublished.

Ut nova Philomela vere læta
Desistit cum incoeperit cantare,
Ut audiit bubulci per vepreta
Vocem aut septis aliquem sonare,
Et postea solet cantum elevare,
Sic Cresseidæ cum metus vanescebat,
Aperuit cor, et dixit quæ volebat.

and rend the opening buds and flowers, are expressed with a truth and feeling which make the whole appear like the recollection of an actual scene.'

To The Canterbury Tales' Chaucer principally owes his fame; and it is a remarkable circumstance that they were his latest work, and were not commenced until he had reached his sixtieth year, a period in the life of ordinary men when the imaginative faculties are at rest, if not on the decline. It is in this respect that they may be considered one of the most extraordinary monuments of human genius. When Boccaccio wrote his Decameron he was also past the meridian of life. Chaucer has very much improved upon the design of his model, for his plan has given him a wide field for the delineation of character, in which he particularly excelled, while Boccaccio's polished company of ladies and gentlemen of Florence have but minute shades of difference in their individual character. It is true that the time and place of narration seem better chosen in the Decameron, in the quiet and retirement of a delicious garden or a splendid palace; while the miscellaneous troop of pilgrims in Chaucer, in number twenty-nine, tell their tales on horseback by the way. But this objection is feeble when compared with the advantages which result from the introduction of such a motley assemblage, each conjured up in his habit as he lived, and consequently of appropriating to each a characteristic tale. The delineation of these characters in the prologue is executed in such a masterly manner, with such minute and discriminative touches of painting, that Dryden might well say, 'I see every one of the pilgrims in the Canterbury Tales as distinctly as if I had supped with them 5.' Chau

So incapable are French critics of appreciating this natural style of painting, and those fine shades which give reality

« ElőzőTovább »