Pagina-afbeeldingen
PDF
ePub

preceded. He arose upon us, like the morning, fresh and beautiful, and kept on his shining way, strong, untired, and rejoicing."

CHAUCER was born in the year 1328; and having graced the reigns of Edward the Third and his successor, Richard the Second, died in 1400, in his 72nd year. It is doubtful whether he was educated at the university of Oxford or Cambridge, but it appears probable that he studied at both. He afterwards visited France and the Low Countries, and on his return was entered at the Inner Temple, where we learn from an old record that "Geoffrey Chaucer was fined 2s. for beating a Franciscan Friar in Fleet-street." He was early attached to the king's son, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, by whose favor he obtained in marriage Philippa, the sister of the famous Catherine Swynford, the Duke's mistress and afterwards his wife. He enjoyed an office of trifling emolument under the patronage of Edward the Third, and made frequent tours to France and Italy, sometimes in a public character. In Italy he was introduced to Petrarch, at the marriage of Violante, daughter of Galeazzo, Duke of Milan, with the Duke of Clarence; and it is supposed that he was also personally acquainted with Boccacio.

Our earlier poets were generally unlearned minstrels or recluse scholars, and their lays had either the rudeness of the hovel or the coldness of the convent. Chaucer, on

the other hand, rose to repute under the auspices of the courtly, and was placed in a sphere of life where he had wider and better opportunities for studying manners, and rendering his style and language pointed and refined. The fame of the Italian poets had filled Europe, the Provencial romances were still popular, the spirit of chivalry was at its height, the English and Continental courts were remarkable for their splendor and gallantry, and there was everything that could excite a lively fancy, or rouse a fervid imagination. And Chaucer neglected not these advantages, but drew largely from the rich store of his experience. He was a man of the world, and could hit off character in those happy lights which give his pictures the appearance of reality. At tournament or hostelrie, in romance or humor, in the every day world, or in scenes of his own creating, he is at home, earnest and unconstrained; and he describes the strong passions with an artlessness that is truth itself.

The Canterbury Tales contain examples of the wide scope of his genius. From the knight to the miller, from the prioress to the wife of Bath, there is an ample range of character-his knowledge of mankind appears universal. He dazzles us with elaborate displays of Gothic magnificence; but is equally powerful when he sketches the cottages of rustics. He is devotional, joyous, or satirical, without effort, and never o'erstepping the modesty of nature.' The Canterbury Tales were written at various periods of Chaucer's life, and were not completed until he

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

was somewhat advanced in years. He was indebted in a great measure for their general arrangement, and in many instances for the design of the tales themselves; but the personages of his pilgrims and the circumstances of their journey are essentially his own, and some of their stories appear to be wholly original.

Boccacio in his Decameron had imagined the assembly of ten young persons at a country house, when the plague in Florence began to abate, and every day each narrated some story for their common amusement. Chaucer collected at the Tabard Inn in Southwark a company of pilgrims about to journey to the shrine of the Martyr Becket, at Canterbury; when, to enliven the way, it was agreed that each should tell at least one tale in going and another in returning; and that he who told the best should be treated by the others with a supper on again reaching the Inn where they first assembled. It appears that the poet intended to describe their journey" and all the remenent of their pilgrimage; " but the undertaking was extensive, and more than one half the tales are wanting.

The pilgrims are persons of different rank and station. There is the knighte, the millere, the reve, the coke, the sergeant of the lawe, the wif of Bathe, the frere 'wanton and merrie,' the soumpnoure, the clerk of Oxenford, who rode a horselene as is a rake,' and

с

Not a word spake he more than there was nede,
And that was said in forme and reverence,
And short and quike, and ful of high sentence;
Souning in moral vertue was his speche,
And gladly wolde he lerne, and gladly teche.

the marchante, the yonge squire, the frankeleine, the doctoure, the pardonere, the shipmanne, the prioress and her attendant nonnes, our author, the monk, the yeman, the manciple, and the poor parsone of a toun,

But riche he was of holy thought and werk.

The tales of all these persons are preserved. There were also a haberdasher, carpenter, webbe, deyer, and tapiser,

(Alle yclothed in o livere

Of a solempne and grete fraternite.)

together with a plowman, whose tales do not appear, although some of them have been supplied by an inferior author. All these characters are described in the prologue with a truth and humor that at once carry us back to the times of the poet, and call up the beings by whom he was surrounded in real and substantial form before our eyes. They are not mere images dressed up for the occasion, and brought forward to display their inanimation, but living flesh and blood-our actual ancestors as they existed in those times, before the refinements of society had tempered their rough virtues, or subdued their

natures.

I will quote two characters :-that of the yeoman who accompanied the squire, a genuine picture of the sturdy countryman equipped for an expedition; and that of the prioress, a prim and courtly personage, with an affectation of genteel manners and stately dignity.

A Yeman hadde he,

And he was cladde in cote and hode of grene;
A shefe of peacock arwes bright and kene
Under his belt he bare ful thriftily:

Wel coude he dresse his takel yemanly:
His arwes drouped not with fetheres lowe,
And in his hond he bare a mighty bowe.

A not-hed* hadde he, with a broune visage :
Of wood-craft coudet he wel alle the usage:
Upon his arme he bare a gaie bracer,t
And by his side a swerd and a bokeler;
And on that other side a gaie daggere,
Harneised wel, and sharp as point of spere:
A Cristofre on his brest of silver shene.
An horne he bare, the baudrik was of grene;
A forster was he.

Ther was also a Nonne, a Prioresse,
That of hire smiling was ful simple and coy,
Hire gretest oath n'as but by Seint Eloy,¶
And she was cleped Madam Eglentine;
Ful wel she sange the service devine,
Entuned in hire nose ful swetely;
And Frenche she spake ful fayre and fetisly,*
After the scole of Stratford atte Bowe,
For Frenche of Paris was to hire unknowe.

After celebrating her refined manners at table- an

* Nut head.

+ Knew.

Armour for the arms.

? A saint who presided over the weather, the patron of field sports.
|| Her ¶ Seinte Loi, i. e. Saint Louis.
** Neatly.

**

« VorigeDoorgaan »