Page images

ed than to classic models; and though it is as impossible to discover the particular source to which a poet owes his first inspiration, as to tell to what fertilizing shower or nourishing dew of a long favourable spring the tree has put forth its buds and blossoms, his obligations to Boccaccio may be distinctly traced. We have his own authority, often repeated, for his love of study :

Upon a boke ywrite with letters old,

he tells that he read eagerly the long day ; that days spent in reading seemed very short ; and that

Out of the old fieldis, as men saith,
Cometh all this new corn from year to year ;
And out of old bookis, in good faith,
Cometh all this new science that men lear.

No " game” nor amusement, he says, could lure him from his books; nor any thing, save the return of spring, and the early morning-hours, which are peculiarly agreeable and propitious to his joyous and buxom muse. His works are enriched with exquisite pictures of both seasons, as in the Morning-Walk, in the COMPLAINT OF THE BLACK KNIGHT, and in the more luxuriant description of the Young Beauty in the FLOWER AND LEAF, sitting in her secluded arbour in the springy freshness of the early summer morning.

The imagination of Chaucer still retained its pristine vigour and buoyancy, when, in the maturity of his genius, now enriched and disciplined by time, study, and observation, he began his Canterbury Tales. The plan of this work is as simple and natural as it is happy. A promiscuous company of twenty-nine persons, selected from the dif. ferent walks of private English life, assemble at the Tabard inn in Southwark, each, for favours received, having vowed a pilgrimage to the tomb of St Thomas à Becket at Canterbury. The author is of the number of the pilgrims.

Shrines were the watering-places, races, and county-balls of our ancestors, and pilgrimages a popular and a fashionable amusement, which the knight or prioress might share with the notable housewife or jolly miller without any prejudice to personal dignity. As the spiritual object of these journeys sanctified all connected with them, there was no need of great strictness or severe mortification in their progress, which was throughout lively, social, and joyous, enlivened by good cheer, unrestrained mirth, and old stories.(a) “ It

(a) The shrine of our Lady of Walsingham, one of the richest in England, is thus mentioned by Longlande in the Plowman's Visions :

“ Hermets on a heape with beaked staves,

Wenten to Walsingham, and their wenches after." This shrine is the scene of two of the most beautiful of the old English ballads, Gentle Herdsman, and As ye come from the Holy Land. It appears well understood that pilgrimages were undertaken for many other purposes besides the ostensible one of devotion; and that with pilgrims, as well as poets, the image of the Virgin and the statue of Venus were often identified. Sir David Lynd

is in the Canterbury Tales,” says Warton, “ that Chaucer's knowledge of the world availed him in a peculiar degree, and enabled him to give such an accurate picture of ancient manners as no contemporary nation has transmitted to posterity.”

The plan of these Tales involves a double narrative interest. Each pilgrim having engaged, at the suggestion of the host of the Tabard, to relate a story, and every tale being most felicitously adapted to the character of the narrator, the sentiment is as it were re-doubled, and the interest is never permitted to decay. As it is impossible to transfer the works of Chaucer to these scanty pages, the best specimen of his characteristic manner will be found in the prologue to the Canterbury Tales, and in a few selections of a higher tone ; for the genius of Chaucer was not only more exalted, but more versatile than that of all his predecessors or succes

say's opinion of journeys to the “Chapell of Dron,” where “ Kittock went so cadgie,” though she had better been at “ hame,” is exactly the same with that of sage Dan Robert. After the Reformation, a satirical poet says,–

With us it was merry
When we went to Bery,*

And to our Lady of Grace;
To the blond of Hayles,
Where no good cheer fayles,

And other holy place;
When the priests might walk,
And with the yonge wyves talk,
Then had we children plenty, &c.

* Bury St Edmunds.

sors down to Shakspeare. His power of the direct simple pathetic has been exhibited in the few lines extracted from Troilus and Creseide, though there is a moral pathos, and calm sustained dignity, in the Tale of Griselde, which places it as a work of genius and of art, even above this affecting lovestory.

Chaucer's perception of the beauty of the external world is shown in numerous instances throughout his works. It was happy and lively, delighting more in sunshine than gloom, in beauty rather than wildness or grandeur—often picturesque, seldom sublime. But though great in every walk, in the painting of living manners he has no preceding nor contemporary, and scarcely any succeeding rival. His genius has the accuracy of instinct in penetrating the hidden recesses of character. His Wife of Bath has more genuine humour than Dame Quickly, and more truth of character. The Knight is a model of the noble-minded soldier and gentleman of the age of Chaucer ; and the accomplished Squire, a Sir Philip Sydney of twenty-one nurturing “high thoughts in a heart of courtesy.” It would be a compliment to the fine lady of modern times, to liken her to the nicely-bred, pious, tender-hearted, and agreeably-affected young Prioress, who mingles religion and sentiment so delicately, wearing on her bracelets the motto Amor vincit omnia beneath a crowned A, even on this vowed pilgrimage, and lavishing her caresses, the softness of her tender heart, on “small houndes” and other pets. Chaucer's voluptuous Monk, the buck-parson of that day-who loved hunting, hawks, and hounds, rode a palfrey “ as brown as a berry,” fastened his hood with a curiously-wrought gold pin in a “ love-knotte,” and loved “ a fat swan best of any rost”-has been happily amplified in Prior Aymer in Ivanhoe: he certainly existed previously in the Canterbury Tales. The Clerk, the Miller, the Wife of Bath, with very slight modifications, are among us yet. The Franklin has either been driven to remote places or across the Atlantic, but the breed survives. The same bustling lawyer still attends the courts; the learned doctor may yet be found in many villages and small towns; the pardoner and friar have disguised their mirth under a thicker cloak,—the name and the costume are changed, but the character remains fixed, or nearly so. The poor Parson, “ rich in holy thoughts and good works,”_" whose parish is wide, and houses far asunder,' “ who dwelt at home, and keptè well his fold,”_is still to be found in all his original apostolic simplicity and heavenlymindedness, in many a remote parish of these three kingdoms, whether as Romish priest, English curate, or Scottish presbyter; and near him we may still find his brother the Ploughman, notwith. standing the increase of wealth, the turnip-hus. bandry, and the thrashing-machine.

The stories related by the characters in the Can. terbury Tales comprehend poetical merit of all kinds :--the humorous, the comic, the gaily-satiric,

« PreviousContinue »