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Receivè now my spirit, would he say,
But as God would, of swough (a) she abraide, (6)
Toke her in armis two, and kist her oft,
This scene is worthy of the lover whom Shakspeare two centuries afterwards, to heighten the enchantments of a moonlight night favourable to love, pourtrays as stealing to the ramparts of Troy to gaze on the Grecian tents
-Sighing his soul towards the Grecian camp
Where Creseide lay that night. But the full scope of Chaucer's matured powers was reserved for the Canterbury Tales, which, in the refinement of the nineteenth century, possess the same freshness and captivation that have rendered them the delight of the many generations that have intervened.
Before, however, noticing this production, it may be proper to glance at the progress of society and literature before the birth, and during the previous
(6) Then awaked.
lifetime of Chaucer, who had now lived sixtythree years, and been known as an author for more than half of that time.
The birth of Chaucer, about the year 1328, is not much below the period when the complete amalgamation of the Norman and Saxon races took place, and when the new language, superseding both the Norman and the Danish-Saxon, became the common dialect of all ranks both in writing and discourse. To English poetry, the name Englishman, and the modern language of England, we may thus assign nearly the same date.
The native English poetry, if it deserve the name, before the age of Chaucer, is comprehended by versified homilies and moral rhapsodies, something like the rudiments of the heroic ballad, and a few rude love-songs. There are also some attempts at satire directed even thus early against the corruptions of the clergy. The lispings of the Gothic muse, even at this early period, are, how ever, more pleasing than her subsequent dull scholastic pedantry, as the prattle of an ingenuous child is more delightful than the conceited display of a precocious school-boy. The earliest love-song, which Warton quotes and places about the year 1200, is not destitute of beauty. It has a chorus,
Blow, northern wynd, send
Northern wynd, blow, blow, blow. Every charm is ascribed to the person of his mistress by the poet. She is, moreover, the ruby of riches—the crystal of clearness the banner of beauty—the lily of largesse--and has many more alliterative fine qualities. In a finer strain, a lover of the same age celebrates his mistress as the most beautiful female between “ Lyncolne and Londe :” and, with more natural elegance and feeling than are found in many modern love-songs, goes on to say,
When the nytengale singes the wodes waxen grene,
Before chivalry had given romantic poetry the exhaustless theme of beautiful damsels and peerless dames, or classic poetry made known its goddess of Love and Beauty to rude rhymsters, the Virgin Mary was the object of much poetic praise ; and some of the early hymns to her have considerable elegance as well as devotional warmth. The author of the beautiful hymn to the Virgin in the Lady of the Lake, must, in all probability, have seen the effusion preserved by the venerable types of Caxton or de Worde.
Mary Moder, wel thou bee,
Sweete lady, Mayden clene,
And oute of synne, lady, schilde thou me,
Swete lady, Mayden mylde,
The metrical romance, which soon made so important a part of polite literature, had now been naturalized by the numerous translations of the Norman and French minstrels; and the GESTE OF KING Horn or HORNE CHILVE, said to be the first original romance in the language, appeared about this time. There is, however, reason to suppose that it, like the other contemporary romances, is of French origin. A satirical ballad on the unfortunate issue of the battle of Lewes, which was fought about 1264, is with more certainty ascertained to be of native growth, and is remarkable for having, it is conjectured, occasioned the first penal statute against libels.
Before this period, a court-poet or laureate was become an established office at the court of Henry the Third, with a fixed salary. The person who first held this office, termed Henry the Versifier, was a native of France, as were all the minstrels at. tached to the court ; so that it is probable he did as little for the native muses as Blondel, Fouquett, and Fayditt, the celebrated French minstrels of CEUR DE Lion, had done before him.
Advancing to the reign of Edward the First, we
have Robert of Gloucester, a monk who wrote a dull rhyming chronicle of the fabulous and real annals of England, curious, and even valuable to the antiquarian, but intolerably tedious to every less patient reader. This was about the year 1280 ; and twenty-three years before a person of more talent and celebrity, Robert de Brunne, as he is called from the monastery in which he resided, began to write in verse in his native language, avowedly for the advantage of his untaught country
His first performance was a translation from a work written in French by an English bishop, and entitled the MANUAL OF SINs. The translator prefaces his work by saying,
For lewed(a) men, I undyrtoke,
The translator, in describing his author, Robert Grosthead, Bishop of Lincoln, gives a curious picture of the private character of the prelate :
He lovede moche to hear the harpe,
Robert de Brunne, who must be regarded as one
(6) Truth and all.