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strictest poet whould have refused to take shelter under the poet's admitted privilege of non-interference in politics or controversy. The jousts and tournaments, the splendors of chivalry, the French campaigns, the tented fields of Creci and Poictiers— these things, the delights of the historian and the novelist, were but the gilded surface of an age, the inside of which was rottenness and consusion. Underneath all
this jousting and tourneying, and clanging of arms and flaunting of pennons, constituting
the holiday life of but a sew hundreds of the community, history is but too apt to forget that there was a whole English people, most of them belonging to the class of serfs or villains, and descended from the Anglo-Saxons whom the Conquest had crushed, engaged in essentially the same occupations as the mass of the English population of the present day, earning their livelihood by the sweat of their brow, tilling the ground, baking the bread, weaving the cloth, hammering the iron necessary for the support of the entire commonwealth. This hum of labor, the true ground-tone of human life in all ages, it seems the custom of historians to suppress, taking it too readily for granted that the reader will, of his own accord, supply such details. Yet, just as we should pronounce that biography deficient which did not contrive, somehow or other, to convey the idea that part of the hero's life was occupied in ordinary and common actions; so the historian, even of a chivalrous age, ought to condescend, now and then, from the lists of the knights and the galleries of the ladies upon those everyday functions of the body-politic – bread-baking. weaving, building, and such like, a simultaneous cessation of which, occasioned by a simultaneous revolt of the functionaries, would have handed knights and ladies into polite annihilation, and have snapped, prematurely short, the historian's own precious lineage. It is the nature of the poet to be interested in events only as they furnish him with pictures. Even the woes of society are viewed by him with an unagitated spirit; and the earnestness of other people to relieve them, is to him simply one of the phenomena of the case. It is only in very extraordinary circumstances, although then with astounding effects, that the spirit of the poet becomes enraged or tempestuous. The state of society in England, during the reign of Edward III., was, however, too perplexed, too
full of abuses, to permit the ideal calmness of spirit which ought to belong to a poet. Accordingly, even in Chaucer, although his habitual manner of writing is certainly that of an artist, and not that of a moralist, we detect occasional outbreaks of what appears to be personal zeal and feeling. Wycliffe, as every one knows, was, in all respects, a moralist—the great spiritual reformer of his age. There was, however, a third man then alive in England, a coarser and rougher genius than either Chaucer or Wycliffe; but, perhaps, more truly a hero of the people than either, a ‘crazy priest' of the name of John Ball, and probably about the same age as Wycliffe. Perambulating Middlesex and the adjoining counties, this singular and notorious personage, of whom we learn far too little from the courtly historians of the period, Knighton and Walsingham, used to preach to the poorer sort of people after mass, attacking the civil and ecclesiastical abuses of the time, and flinging abroad, in the form of rhymes and proverbs, the wildest democratic abstractions. The well-known couplet—
• When Adam de'ved and Eve span, Where was then the gentleman?'
is one of John Ball's rhymes; and was probably in effective circulation among the serss of Kent and Essex, at the very time that Chaucer was writing his exquisite descriptive poem of ‘The Flower and the Leaf.’ By the year 1368, Chaucer may have heard John Ball the ‘crazy priest' mentioned many times in conversation as a public nuisance. In the year 1369, Blanche, the wise of John of Gaunt, died; and Chaucer's poem, ‘The Book of the Duchess,’ is a lament composed on that occasion. In the sollowing year the poet went abroad on the king's service; and again, in 1372, he was sent on a mission to Genoa. It was while at Padua during this visit to Italy that he saw Petrarch, then in his sixty-ninth year; and, no doubt, according to the allusion in the ‘Canterbury Pilgrimage,’ the English poet was one of those who were privileged to hear from the lips of the aged lover of Laura his own Latin version, which he was so fond of repeating, of Boccaccio's beautiful tale of Griselda. Chaucer returned from his Genoese embassy in 1374, and on the Sth of June in that year, the king conferred on him the lucrative office of comptroller of the customs for wool and hides, on condition, however, that he should perform the duties of the office in person. About the same time he received an honorary grant of a pitcher of wine daily, which was afterwards commuted into a pecuniary allowance. It would seen that this was the heyday of the poet's fortunes; for in the same year his friend, John of Gaunt, gave him a grant of ten pounds for life, while the two succeeding years brought him two wind-falls—a vacant wardship valued at 104l. (equivalent to 1872l of our money) and a forfeiture of wool to the amount of 71.l. 4s. 6d., (1262.l. of our money). Thus become a rich man, Chaucer appears to have lived in a style of corresponding liberality and expense. Twice afterwards, in 1376 and 1377, he was abroad on diplomatic missions. But while actively engaged in such important duties, Jhe was still using his pen, and the period of his life at which we are now arrived is the date of the production of his “House of Fame,’ and various other pieces. In June 1377, Edward III. died, and was succeeded by his grandson, Richard II., the son of the lamented Black Prince. Although Richard was only in his twelfth year, no formal Regent was appointed, and the administration came into the hands of his three uncles, the Dukes of Lancaster, York, and Gloucester. Meanwhile society was in a state of violent ferment. Wycliffe had now become Doctor of Divinity, and, in virtue of that degree, was empowered to open his own school of Theology at Oxford. He was no longer engaged in a petty warfare with the Mendicant Friars. Ever since his visit to the Papal Court at Avignon, in the year 1374, his aim had been more specific, and now he was attacking the fundamental principles of the Papacy itself. The whole population of England had by this time been infected with the Lollard opinions; the Londoners especially were zealous Wycliffites. In compliance with no fewer than four bulls issued against him by Pope Gregory XI, the reformer was brought to trial before an ecclesiastical tribunal, at Lambeth ; and but for the political influences in his favor, he would have fallen a sacrifice. Wycliffe's years of activity, however, were nearly over; in the year 1379, he was visited with a stroke of paralysis, which left him weak and incapable of exertion. His work, however, was done; and while sitting in his rectory at Lutterworth, the
paralytic man, fifty-five years of age, could
look round and think that by God's blessing, the spirit which had gone forth from his decrepit body was now vivifying the commonwealth of England.
Nor was the priest John Ball idle in his vocation, mingling his crude and fiery notions with a doctrinal theology much less pure probably than that of Wycliffe. For now nearly twenty years, according to Walsingham, he had been overshadowing the country with his presence, ‘promulgating the perverse crotchets of the perfidious John Wycliffe, and a vast deal besides which it would be tedious to tell of.” It even appears that he had organized political associations among the serfs of Kent and Essex; and Knighton has preserved specimens of mystic little pamphlets or flyleaves, which he was in the habit of distributing under assumed signatures for insurrectionary purposes. The following is one of these specimens, intitled “Jack Miller's Letter’:—
‘Jack Miller asketh help to turn his mill aright. He hath grounden small, small; the king’s son of heaven, he shall pay for all. Look thy mill go aright, with the sour sails, and the post stand in stedfastness. With right and with might, with skill and with will. Let might help right, and skill go before will, and right before might; then goeth our mill aright. But if might go before right, and will before skill, then is our mill mis-adight.”
The smouldering fire at length burst forth in the insurrection of serfs under Wat Tyler, in June, 1381. This insurrection, constituting, in our opinion, an epoch in the history of English society, was a compound outburst of three distinguishable feelings: the inextinct feeling of Saxon against Norman, an impure Lollard feeling, and the feeling of present physical suffering. The revolt lasted a fortnight, during which the mob of serfs and artisans held possession of London, burnt palaces, and beheaded the Archbishop of Canterbury with several other persons of note. The throne itself was in danger, and a real concession to the popular spirit was on the point of being made, when the officious mace of the Lord Mayor, Walworth, dashing Wat Tyler from his horse in Smithfield, dispersed the mob and put an end to the insurrection. John Ball, with a few other leaders of the rioters, was taken and hanged; and there, after a haggard career, was an end of the ‘crazy priest.’
The reign of Richard II. was a continued series of political agitations. Scarcely was the outbreak of the laboring classes suppressed when a struggle commenced between two parties among the nobility and gentry—the Court party, at the head of which were the king's favorites, De La Pole and De Vere, and another party, the leaders of which were the King's uncles, John of Gaunt and the Duke of Gloucester. This struggle did not terminate till the year 1399, when that revolution occurred which deposed Richard II. and placed Henry Bolingbroke, son of John of Gaunt, upon the throne. These political convulsions affected our poet's fortunes. Attached to the party of John of Gaunt, he was elected, in 1386, to serve in Parliament as knight of the shire for Kent, in consequence of which, or in consequence of his conduct in parliament, he was deprived by the king of his offices in the Customs. In 1387 his wife died; subsequently he was obliged to sell his pensions; and from the year 1394, to 1398, there is evidence, according to Sir Harris Nicolas, that his condition was one of “sheer unmistakable poverty;" and this, although John of Gaunt, who had been abroad for some time engaged in an attempt to be made king of Castile, had now returned to England, and married the poet's sister-in-law, Lady Catherine Swinford, formerly Catharine Rouet. It was during his old age of widowhood and adversity, that Chaucer composed his great work, that “Comedy,’ as he calls it, which he had resolved to leave behind him as the most mature and finished production of his mind. The poet's declining years were visited with a gleam of returning prosperity. In 1898, his son Thomas Chaucer, who had been appointed chief butler in the royal household, had orders to allow his father a pipe of wine annually during life. On the accession of Henry Bolingbroke, in 1899, Chaucer's former pension of twenty marks was doubled to him, and other favors followed. The poet, however, did not live long to enjoy them. He died on the 25th of October, 1400, in the seventy-third year of his age; and his body was interred in that part of Westminster Abbey which has since become the Poet's Corner. The works of Chaucer may be arranged in three divisions—his prose compositions, including “The Testament of Love,’ supposed to contain autobiographical references, a translation of Boethius ‘De Consolatione Philosophiae,’ and a “Treatise on the Astrolabe,’ addressed to his son Lewis;
his great poetical work “The Canterbury Pilgrimage,' two of the tales in which, however, are in prose; and his ‘Miscellanies' or “Minor Poems.’ To one who has enjoyment in true poetry, nothing can be more refreshing than an occasional dip into the minor poems of Chaucer. Most persons have some favorite poetical composition or other to which, in their moments of languor and oppression, they turn for solace. Some produce the calm their spirits require by taking a sorrow-bath in ‘Hamlet;' others drop burning tears of relief over some plaintive Scottish song read for the thousandth time; and others wander away from the world in the enchanted woods of Spenser. Now, in certain moods of the mind the minor poems of Chaucer seem to have a peculiarly medicinal function of this kind; those moods in which the demand is not for the strong wine which invigorates, but for a draught of some soothing and relaxing beverage—in which, like the man of business enjoying his holiday, ‘One longs to sink into some pleasant lair
Of wavy grass, to read a debonair
As an approach to a correct classification, we may say that Chaucer's miscellanies consist of these four kinds of composition: translations—pathetic narratives and legends—fanciful or descriptive pieces, with a moral or allegorical signification—and songs or ballads.
The only complete specimen of translation printed among Chaucer's minor poems, although several passages occurring through the rest of them are either translated or imitated from other authors, is the “Romaunt of the Rose.” This poem, the
joint production of William de Lorris and
John de Meun, two Frenchmen of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, seems to have been an extraordinary favorite in Chaucer's age, and to have influenced the tastes and style of most of the early European poets. The professed object of the poet is to represent under the allegory of a rose, which is placed in a situation difficult of access and guarded by magic, “the helps and furtherances, as also the lets and impediments that lovers have in their suits.' In the course of the poem, however, which is of immense length, there are innumerable tortuosities and descriptive digressions— scenes, objects, and allegorical personages appearing in strange and confusing succession. ‘The author hath also,” to use the words of Chaucer's old commentator Urry, “many glances at the hypocrisy of the clergy, whereby he got himself such hatred among them; that Gerson, Chancellor of Paris, writeth thus of him : saith he, “There was one called Johannes Meldinensis, who wrote a book called “The Romaunt of the Rose,' which book, if I only had, and there were no more in the world, if I might have five hundred pounds for the same, I would rather burn it than take the money.” ” On the whole, the Romaunt is valuable principally as a picture of the age, and as being a firstling of European literature; for although there are many beautiful and powerful descriptive passages in it, particularly towards the beginning, yet the whole performance drags itself on with such
glorious ignorance of the possibility of such a thing as hurry or want of time on the part of the reader, that it is only by assuming the historical spirit very strongly, and saying to oneself—what a dear old book it is, that a modern reader can get on with it. Reading it through is like walking for a week through miles of labyrinthine soliage closing behind you as you advance. Under the head of Pathetic Narratives and Legends may be included ‘Troilus and Cresseide,’ a long poem in five books; “The Legend of Good Women,’ in which the illustrious actions of nine or ten heroines of ancient history are told in metre ; the “Lamentation of Mary Magdalene,’ and one or two others founded on fact or tradition. The pathetic narrative is a kind of composition in which Chaucer perhaps excels all our poets. Taking some simple incident or story as the plot of his poem, the separation of two lovers for instance, Chaucer paints the afflicting circumstances so slowly and assiduously, descends so exploringly into the caverns of tears, and gives such an expression of sick and wailing melancholy to the language of his speakers, that the reader sighs as is the case were his own. Of this kind are some of the Canterbury Tales, and of this kind also is ‘Trolius and Cresseide.” In this poem, according to Urry, “is shewed the fervent love of Troilus to Cresseide, whose love he enjoyed for a time, and her great untruth to him again in giving herself to Diomedes, who in the end did so cast her off that she came to great misery; in which discourse Chaucer liberally treateth of the divine purveyance.’ The whole poem, not
withstanding its prolix character, may be read with delight; and it abounds with the finest detached passages. The description of Cresseide giving way and acknowledging her love has been much admired :—
“And as the new abashed nightingale
Opened her heart and told him her intent.'
“The Lamentation of Mary Magdalene sor the death of Christ,' a poem professing to be a translation from Origem, has by several critics been treated as the produc
|tion of some other poet than Chaucer, there a wormy leisureliness of movement, such a
being, they say, sufficient internal evidence in the inferiority of the composition to warrant its exclusion from the list of Chaucer’s writings. How the genuineness of the poem can be called in question on such grounds, by a person possessed of ear or heart, we cannot understand. To us the whole composition appears quite worthy of Chaucer; the last six stanzas, in particular, surpass every thing we know in pathos. Of Chaucer's allegoric or descriptive poems, the principal are “The Complaint of the Black Knight,’ ‘Chaucer's Dream,” and the “Book of the Duchess,’ the purport of which has already been explained; the ‘Court of Love,’ a fantastic piece in the chivalrous spirit, and after the style of the Romaunt of the Rose; the ‘Assembly of Fowls,' wherein, “all the fowls being gathered on St. Valentine's day to choose their mates, a formal eagle being beloved of three tercels, requireth a year's respite to make her choice upon this trial Qui bien aime tard oublie;’ ‘The Cuckoo and the Nightingale,' an inimitable little thing in which the two birds are heard by the poet in a dream disputing about their singing; and “The Flower and the Leaf, the argument of which is as follows: “A gentlewoman out of an arbor in a grove seeth a great company of knights and ladies in a dance upon the green grass, the which being ended, they all kneel down and do honor to the daisy, some to the flower, and some to the leas; afterward this gentlewoman learneth from one of these ladies the meaning hereof, which is this: they which honor the flower, a thing fading with every blast, are such as look after beauty and worldly pleasure; but they that honor the leaf, which abideth with the root notwithstanding the frosts and storms of winter, are they which follow virtue and during qualities without regard of worldly respects.” This little poem is a perfect gem of its kind, and is remarkable for the leasy richness and luxuriance of its imagery. A poet has compared it to
“a little copse ; The honeyed lines so freshly interlace To keep the reader in so sweet a place, So that he here and there full-hearted stops, And oftentimes he feels the dewy drops Come cool and suddenly against his face.'
Chaucer's ballads and songs are of various kinds, and include several dainty little pieces, so compact and neatly-rounded, both as to sense and versification, that they might figure in collections of poetry, or even in school-books. A few of them, breathing a spirit of philosophical resignation to the world's bad usage, appear to be expressions of the poet's personal feelings during the eclipse of his fortunes. Others are of a humorous or satirical cast, such as the cutting ballad in praise of women for their steadfastness, commencing thus:
‘This world is full of variance
There is one of Chaucer's minor poems, to which, although it might be ranked under the third of the above-mentioned classes, we have as yet made no allusion. We refer to “The House of Fame,’ a humorous composition of considerable length, in which, making use of a grotesque poetical device, the poet criticises in a healthy, half-satiric spirit the aspirations after future fame. As it will be proper to present our readers with a prose analysis of some one of Chaucer's poems, we have reserved it for that purpose, partly because, owing probably to the crippleness of the versification as compared with others of his compositions, it appears to have been less read than most of them, and partly because it is somewhat singular in its character, being not a mere descriptive piece in which fancy and sentiment predominate, but a collection of sturdy general reflections on history.
The basis of ‘The House of Fame,’ as of several of Chaucer's other poems, is an
imaginary dream. On the tenth day of December, the poet, as he lay asleep, dreamt that he was in a temple of glass full of statues and paintings, which he found to be the temple of Venus. Walking up and down admiring the beauty and richness of all he saw, and wondering at the same time in what country or neighborhood he was, he at length went to the gate of the temple to see if any one was stirring who could inform him. He saw nothing, however, but one vast plain as far as the eye could reach, without town, or house, or tree, or grass, or ploughed land, or any thing but a wide expanse of sand. ‘Oh, save me,’ he cried, ‘from phantom and delusion!' and with these words, devoutly looking up, lo! a wonder in the sky. Fast by the sun was an eagle, larger than any he had ever beheld, all of gold, and its feathers so bright that it seemed
* As if the heaven had y-won All new from God another sun."
As he gazed the golden bird began to move; and descending like a thunder-flash to where the poet stood, seized him with its claws and wheeling once round flew up with him into the blue heaven. As soon as the palpitating poet had recovered from the stupefaction caused by the suddenness of his seizure, the eagle calms his fears by assuring him that Jupiter intends neither to stellify him like Romulus, nor to make a butler of him like Ganymede, but only, as a reward for his poetical labors in the service of the Goddess of Love, to give him a glimpse into that strange edifice, the House of Fame; to which accordingly they are now on their way. Of the situation of this house and the acoustical principles on which it is constructed, the eagle favors the poet with a preparatory description during their flight. Every thing that exists, says the bird, is observed to have its home or stead, some place which is more congenial to it than any other place, and which it constantly seeks to arrive at if it be not already in it. Thus stones, lead, and all heavy substances fall to the earth; while smoke, flame, and all light substances ascend. Now sound is nothing but air disturbed. When a pipe is blown sharp, the air is violently torn and rent ; this is sound. Further there is no sound, let it be but a mouse's squeak, but has its waves and reverberations through the whole atmosphere, like the ripples produced by a peb