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XIX. WISDOM AND KNOWLEDGE.
KNOWLEDGE descries alone; Wisdom applies;
And that the hand that caused can cure my grief.
XX. SIC VITA.
LIKE to the falling of a star,
END OF PART I.
PRINCIPAL EVENTS OF HIS LIFE.-Geoffrey Chaucer-the Father of English Poetry-was born in the year 1328, and died in 1400; so that his era comprehends the reigns of Edward III. and Richard II. It was the age of Gower and Wycliffe in England, of Dante (who died in 1321), Boccacio, and Petrarch in Italy, and of Froissart in France; but amongst these eminent names, that of Chaucer shines with no feeble lustre. He was
"Our morning-star of song, that led the way
Of Spenser's light, and Shakspere's perfect day."
Chaucer was born in London, and learnedly educated at either Oxford or Cambridge, it is uncertain which, for both claim him; he may perhaps have passed from the one to the other. When rather more than thirty years of age, he appears in public life as a soldier, and moreover as a prisoner, during the invasion of France by Edward III. When he was liberated is not known; but we soon after find him honoured with the patronage and friendship of John of Gaunt, with whom he became subsequently more closely connected, by the marriage of his wife's sister with that prince. In 1372 he visited Italy, as an envoy of the government; and daring this journey he is thought to have formed an acquaintance
with Petrarch at Padua. He resided many years at Woodstock,1 in a house granted him by the king; and here, when more than sixty years of age, he wrote his principal work-"The Canterbury Tales." His attachment-in common with John of Gaunt-to the religious tenets of Wycliffe (which however he in after life abjured), involved him in the political factions of the age, and on one occasion he was for some time obliged to conceal himself on the continent from the pursuit of the court party. It is doubtful whether he viewed this religious question in any other than a political light, though old John Foxe, the martyrologist, says, that he "no doubt, saw in religion as much almost as even we doe now, and uttereth in his workes no lesse, and seemeth to be a right Wiclevian, or els was never any. Chaucer died on the 25th of October, 1400, and was buried in that part of Westminster Abbey which is now known as "Poets' Corner."
PRINCIPAL WORKS.-The chief works of Chaucer are the "Romaunt of the Rose," "Troilus and Creseide," "The House of Fame,' "The Flower and the Leaf," and the " Canterbury Tales." This last work consists of tales told in turn by a number of pilgrims to the shrine of Thomas-à-Becket, according to an agreement entered into at the suggestion of the host of the Tabard Inn (now the Talbot), in Southwark, at whose "hostelrie" they had all assembled previous to setting out. The introductory part of the poem is called the Prologue. It furnishes us with graphic and discriminative sketches of the twenty-nine individuals who formed the party. The tales then follow.
CHARACTERISTIC SPIRIT AND STYLE.-"In elevation and elegance, in harmony and perspicuity of versification, he surpasses his predecessors in an infinite proportion: his genius was universal, and adapted to themes of unbounded variety: his merit was not less in painting familiar manners with humour and propriety, than in moving the passions, and in representing the beautiful or the grand objects of nature with grace and sublimity. In a word, he appeared with all the lustre and dignity of a true poet, in an age which compelled him to struggle with a barbarous language, and a natural want of taste, and when to write verses at all was regarded as a singular qualification."2
"What an intimate scene of English life in the fourteenth century do we enjoy in those tales, beyond what history displays, by glimpses, through the stormy atmosphere of her scenes, or the antiquary can discover by the cold light of his researches! Our
(1) See Akenside's "Inscription for a Statue to Chancer," p. 130, of this volume. (2) Warton. "History of English Poetry," § xviii, last Ed.
ancestors are restored to us, not as phantoms from the field of battle, or the scaffold, but in the full enjoyment of their social existence. After four hundred years have closed over the mirthful features which formed the living originals of the poet's descriptions, his pages impress the fancy with the momentary credence that they are still alive; as if Time had rebuilt his ruins, and were reacting the lost scenes of existence."
"He speaks of what he wishes to describe with the accuracy, the discrimination, of one who relates what has happened to himself, or has had the best information from those who have been eyewitnesses of it. The strokes of his pencil always tell. He dwells only on the essential, on that which would be interesting to the persons really concerned; yet as he never omits any material circumstance, he is prolix from the number of points on which he touches, without being diffuse on any one; and is sometimes tedious from the fidelity with which he adheres to his subject, as other writers are from the frequency of their digressions from it. He is contented to find grace and beauty in truth. He exhibits, for the most part, the naked object, with little drapery thrown over it. His metaphors, which are few, are not for ornament, but use, and as like as possible to the things themselves. He does not affect to show his power over the reader's mind, but the power which his subject has over his own. There were none of the commonplaces of poetic diction in our author's time, no reflected lights of fancy, no borrowed roseate tints; he was obliged to inspect things for himself, to look narrowly, and almost to handle the object, as in the obscurity of morning we partly see and partly grope our way. The picturesque and the dramatic are in him closely blended together, and hardly distinguishable; for he principally describes external appearances as indicating character as symbols of internal sentiment."
"I take unceasing delight in Chaucer. His manly cheerfulness is especially delicious to me in my old age. How exquisitely tender he is, and yet how perfectly free from the least touch of sickly melancholy or morbid drooping!"3
VERSIFICATION.-The versification of Chaucer has been considered, on the great authority of Dryden, rude and inharmonious; but modern researches into the rhythmical capabilities of our language have led to a different conclusion.* There are some
(1) Campbell. "Specimens of the British Poets," p. 5, last Ed. (2) Hazlitt. "Lectures on the English Poets," p. 46, 8vo. Ed.
(3) Coleridge. "Table Talk," p. 290, 12mo. Ed.
(4) See Tyrwhitt's Essay on Chaucer's versification prefixed to his edition of the "Canterbury Tales," and also Mr. R. H. Horne's ingenious introduction to "Chaucer Modernised."
peculiarities for which it is certainly difficult to account, but in general his rhythm is highly musical. Three main principles, however, should be borne in mind :
I. He frequently introduces a foot of three syllables, where modern usage generally requires a dissyllable, thus:
"And of her smiling was ful simple and coy."
Here" simple and" must be read by delicately blending the "ple" as a sort of appoggiatura, or grace-note, with the next syllable. This licence is of the same kind as that employed by Milton in—
"To whom thus Eve, with perfect beauty adorned."
II. He makes the final e, which, as in the word "serve" is now mute, and the es of the plural, significant in the pronunciation, whenever the verse requires it, thus:
"And smalé foulés maken melodie."
III. He varies the accentuation of syllables at pleasure,' thus :
"Of which vertùe engendred is the flour."
EXTRACTS FROM THE CANTERBURY TALES.2
WHANNE3 that April with his shourés1 sote
(1) Both the latter usages may be traced to the strong tincture of French which the old Saxon language had received from the Norman invasion.
(2) The extracts from Chaucer and Spenser are accented for the convenience of the reader. The acute accent (') is employed to denote that the syllable over which it is placed is to be pronounced; the grave (') to denote an unusual accentuation.
(5) Sote or swote-Sweet.
(3) Whanne—When. (4) Shoures-Showers: the old English plural, made by adding es to the singular. (6) Rote-Root; so dore and mone have become door and moon. (7) Swiche, for swilke-Such. (8) In swiche licour, &c.-With such moisture, as by its virtue or efficacy gives life to the flower. (9) Eke-Also.