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CHAPTER VI

THE SUCCESSORS OF CHAUCER—THE BEGINNINGS OF

CULTIVATED PROSE

CHAUCER's position in our literary history is, in one respect, ambiguous; he
does and he does not make an era. No great author is more utterly
dissimilar to his predecessors among his own countrymen. His position is
perfectly unique in his absolute unindebtedness to any preceding English poet.
All his innovations, in so far as they are not suggested by his own genius, are
importations from foreign literatures. So far he is, indeed, an epoch-making
poet. But, whereas the new era introduced by authors of his significance is

in general signalised by crowds of imitators and disciples, silence, broken only Decline of by the feeble accents of Lydgate and Hoccleve, gathers around Chaucer. The English poetry

my antiquated styles of poetry which he has superseded die out. We hear little of after Chaucer

rom, ram, ruf in the fifteenth century, and though chivalric fiction stood at the
threshold of a marvellous development in prose, metrical romances of chivalry
after the pattern which he parodied in Sir Thopas are few and far between.
But the new forms of poetry seem as dead as the old, or are cultivated with
dismaying inefficiency. One elegant poet, indeed, the anonymous author of The
Flower and the Leaf, might have continued Chaucer's work on the fanciful
and romantic side, and probably would have done so if he had been a pro-
fessed man of letters. He most likely belonged to the patrician class and
wrote merely for amusement. But even he makes no approach to the greater
and more truly national qualities of Chaucer, his humour, his perception of
character, and his skill in depicting the life around him. Reversing the
Apostolic truism, it might almost seem that, having first of Englishmen brought
these qualities into the world with him, he had also carried them out. Tennyson,
who justly calls him “The morning star of song," admits that two centuries
elapsed before his beams awoke the Memnon of English literature :

Dan Chaucer, our first warbler, whose sweet breath

Preluded those melodious blasts that fill
The spacious times of great Elizabeth

With songs that echo still.
It is far from Richard II. to Elizabeth !
We shall have to examine into the causes which rendered the fifteenth

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CHAUCER AND HIS CONTEMPORARIES 175 century so exceedingly barren a period in the literature, not merely of England but of Europe. For the present our attention must be given to the contemporaries and successors who actually formed a circle of which Chaucer might be termed the centre, but not a sphere of which he could be regarded as the nucleus.

The points of dissimilarity between Chaucer and his contemporaries are entirely to his advantage. Compared with the most distinguished rivals of his own day he may be chiefly characterised as more of a national poet. Layamon had attempted to write what in his day really passed for the Chaucer the

poet of his national epic of England, but the substance of his poem was borrowed from nation the French. The metrical romancists, often genuine poets, were almost invariably translators or adapters. Two considerable poets remain, the anonymous author of Pearl and The Green Knight, and the author of Piers Plowman. It is a remarkable instance of the illusive power of style that Langland should appear to us so much more ancient than Chaucer. They were in fact contemporaries. Piers Plowman dates in its first recension from 1362, and Chaucer's first poem must have been composed within the six or seven years following. They depict the society of the same period, and each portrait bears the impress of spirit and truth. Yet, whereas the general effect of historical perspective is to cause persons and things to appear in closer proximity than was really the case, Langland appears as though he preceded Chaucer by a century. The main reasons must be that his poetical form is obsolete, while Chaucer's is as fresh as ever; that its employment constrained him to a cramped and uncouth method of expression, which to us, though unjustly, seems affectation, while Chaucer's verse glides smoothly along ; above all, perhaps, that by resorting to Italy, Chaucer had placed himself in connection with the great traditions of classical art, imperfectly as these were then known or understood. There is every reason to believe that Langland might have done as much if he had enjoyed Chaucer's advantages, and that the difference between the two poets is chiefly that between the town mouse and the country mouse—one a courtier at a brilliant court, enjoying the most refined society and the keenest intellectual stimulus his age could afford; the other, though he spent much of his life in London, a provincial, picking up his training as he could, and looking upon the life of courts and cities as an external though highly intelligent observer. It is to the immortal honour of Chaucer that he did not under these circumstances become the mere court poet, but retained that living interest in English life in all its phases which made him its incomparable delineator.

The gap between the two poets is partly filled up by a third, who, like John Gower Chaucer, combined the scholar with the courtier. The time has been when the name of JOHN GOWER seemed hardly less conspicuous than Chaucer's own in the record of English literature.

The history of Gower is imperfectly known, but this probably arises from the uneventful character of his life. Like Chaucer, he was a scholar and a courtier, but not

a courtier to the same extent, although of better birth and connections. Notwithstanding Caxton's assertion that he was a Welshman (probably founded on some erroneous connection of his name with the peninsula of Gower in Pembrokeshire) and Leland's statement of his relationship to the Yorkshire family of Gower, the identity of armorial bearings leaves little doubt of his having belonged to the family of Sir Robert Gower, of Brabourne, Kent, who died about 1349 possessed of property in Kent and Suffolk, one of whose Suffolk manors was afterwards made over by his daughter and son-in-law to their kinsman, John Gower, whose arms are the same as the poet's and who was in all probability the same person. Gower undoubtedly had property both in Kent and

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Suffolk, but was almost certainly a native of the former county. The lateness of his appearance as a poet, and his apparent attachment to the City, suggest that he may have been a merchant and made a fortune in business before addicting himself to study. There is no ground for identifying him with an Essex incumbent of the name. He was, in fact, married, and not before but long after the time at which he could have taken holy orders. The marriage took place in 1397, when Gower was living, as he continued to do until his death, in the priory of St. Mary Overies, Southwark. Three years afterwards he speaks of himself as old and blind, and it seems a reasonable inference that both the marriage and the residence were connected with the state of his health. He died in 1408, bequeathing considerable property. From the mention of his old age in 1400, he may be supposed to have been born

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