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The apparition of Fawdoun in Blind Harry's history, has more power of the terrific than half the wizards of the contemporary romances; and the following passage from Barbour more dignity of moral reflection than any thing that had previously appeared in English verse :
Ah! freedom is a noble thing!
The satirist may unhappily find sufficient scope for his pen in every age and in every state of society; but the avarice and luxury of churchmen the drones of the hive-appear to have been a subject of uncommon zest and temptation to our ancestors. No vices have been so well "pelted with good sentences” as those of the Romish clergy.
(6) Eagerly desired. (c) Perfectly.
“ Satirical poets,” says Dryden, “.
are the check of the laity on bad priests;" and though this check be. gan to be used indirectly at very remote periods of English history, it was first vigorously applied by Longlande and Wickliffe, and incidentally by Chaucer, who is not without title to the character of an early reformer, which has been claimed for him.
About thirty years before the appearance of the Canterbury Tales, though not before Chaucer was known as a poet, the Visions of Pierce Plowman, the first poem of any considerable extent in the English language, appeared. The visions were composed by Robert Longlande, a secular priest, and fellow of Oriel College, Oxford. In a series of vi. sions seen by Pierce Plowman while asleep among the Malvern hills after a fatiguing ramble, the corruptions of all divisions of society are exposed and chastised. The visions, forwarded by the agency of such personifications as Avarice, Bribery, Simony, Conscience, &c., exhibit considerable powers of invention, and much occasional vigour of imagination. Though the priesthood are the chief objects of reprehension, and especially those vagrants who, under the various denominations of Dominicans, Franciscans, pilgrims, and pardoners, made reli. gion the cloak of an idle and dissolute life, all con. ditions of society are glanced at ; nor is the Court or the Bench wholly spared by this sweeping sa. tirist, dangerous as these topics were.
Though Longlande displays much of the zeal
of a reformer and the sternness of a moralist, and is distinguished by a certain rude vigour of conception, his language is so obscure, and his verse so rugged, that his work is nearly a sealed book to the present age. His humour is more intelligible than his invective, as well as more facile. It is thus he ridicules the common tricks of the monks to procure donations for their convents, or for the nobler object of building those structures. The cunning monk is supposed to be working on the feelings of a mother as well as a penitent:
Than he assoyled her sone, and sithen he sayde,
Another poet of later date, who took the same name of Piers Plowman-which long continued to be a favourite one with anonymous satirists of the clergy-promises that if the person he solicits shall bestow a liberal benefaction,
He should kneel before Christ in compass of gold,
Chaucer's begging Monk is a still more irresisti. ble person ; and, were he alive, the Society for the Conversion of the Jews would consider him invalu. able :
“ Yeve me then of thy golde to make our cloyster,"
And yet, God wote, unnethe the fundament
The following personification of Envy is marked by the coarse vigour of Longlande's pencil :
Of a frere's froke were the fore sleves,
To these visions, which, in modern phrase, created a great sensation, were afterwards added another poem of much the same nature, but by a different hand. Of this piece, called PIERCE THE PLOWMAN'S CREDE, Pope has left the following account:-“ An ignorant plain man, having learned his Paternoster and Ave. Mary, wants to learn his creed. He asks several religious men of the several orders to teach it him : first, a friar Mi. nor, who bids him beware of the Carmelites, and assures him they can teach him nothing, describing their faults ; but the friars Minor can save him whether he learns his creed or not. He next goes to the friars Preachers, whose magnificent monastery he describes; and there he meets a fat friar, who declaims against the Augustines. He is shocked at his pride, and goes to the Augustines ; they rail at the Minorites. He goes to the Carmelites ; they abuse the Dominicans, but promise him sal. vation without the creed for money. He leaves them with indignation, and finds an honest poor ploughman in the field, and tells him how he had
been disappointed by the four orders.” „Had this ploughman, besides indulging in a long invective against the priests, directed the inquirer to the Bible, then first translated into the vernacular tongue by Wickliffe, we should have been brought down to the days of Calvin and Luther at once ; but the ground was prepared, and the seed was sown, though it required generations to ripen it and to gather it in.
Such, at the birth of Chaucer, were the best of the contemporary models which existed either for the imitation or emulative ambition of the young poet. Theart of versification was in the rudest state ; the alliterative monotonous clink of the Saxon muse had been happily nearly silenced, but nothing had been invented to supply its place ; the language was still unsettled and rugged, the phraseology quaint and scanty ; the diction, the numbers, and the music of poetry, were still to be invented. Its spirit, if it had ever existed in England, was dormant if not extinct; and when Johnson said that “ Chaucer was the first of our poets that wrote poetically,” he might have safely added, that he was also the first of our native poets that ever thought or imagined poetically, if this is not included in his meaning. The youthful productions of Chaucer, and the singularly felicitous circumstances which nurtured and contributed to the development of his genius, and carried his opportunities of observation to the widest extent, have already been iced. To the contemporary poets of Italy, he was more indebt.