Page images


and images of beauty, and whose great succeis was dcubtless a spur to his ambition to attain a like enviable fame.

On his return home, the friendship and patronage of the reigning monarch were continued to him. He was made controller of the customs of wine and wool, the revenue from which office, together with a pension that was granted to him, gave him a liberal support. During the whole of the reign of Edward III, his genius and connections ensured to him prosperity, and also during the period of John of Gaunt's influence in the succeeding reign of Richard II, 1377—1399. But during the waning fortunes of that nobleman, Chaucer also suffered, and was indeed imprisoned for a short time; but on the return of the Duke of Lancaster from Spain, 1389, he had once more a steady protector, and on the accession of Henry IV., he had an additional annuity con. ferred upon him. But he did not live long to enjoy this accession to his for. tune, for he died on the twenty-fifth of October, 1400, and was interred in Westminster Abbey.

We know little of Chaucer as a member of society; but we know that he had mingled with the world's affairs, both at home and abroad. Accomplished in manners and intimately acquainted with a splendid court, he was at once the philosopher who had surveyed mankind in their widest sphere, the poet who haunted the solitudes of nature, and the elegant courtier whose opulent tastes are often discovered in the graceful pomp of his descriptions. The vigorous yet finished paintings, with which his works abound, are still, notwithstanding the roughness of their clothing, beauties of a highly poetical nature. The ear may not always be satisfied, but the mind of the reader is always filled.

Chaucer's genius, like Cowper's, was not fully developed till he was advanced in years; for it was not until he was about sixty, in the calm evening of a busy life, that he composed his great work on which his fame chiefly rests, his CANTERBURY Tales. He took the idea, doubtless, from the Decameron of Boccacio,2 at that time one of the most popular of books. He sipposes that a company of pilgriins, consisting of twenty-nine « sundry folk," meet together at the Tabard inn, Southwark,3 on their way to the shrine of Thomas á Becket,' at Canterbury. While at supper they agreed, at the suggestion of their host, not only to pursue their journey together the next morning, but, in order to render their way the more interesting, that each should divert the others with a tale, both in going and returning, and that whoever told the best, should have a supper at the expense of the rest; and that the landlord should be the judge.

It will thus be seen that the plan of Chaucer is vastly superior to that of Boccacio. His characters, instead of being youthful and from the same city, are of matured experience, from various places, and are drawn from different classes of mankind, and consequently are, in their rank, appearance, man. ners, and habits, as various as at that time could be found in the several departments of middle lise; that is, in fact, as various as could, with any probability, be bronght together, so as to form one company; the highest and lowest ranks of society being necessarily excluded. But what gives us the greatest admiration of the poet, is the astonishing skill with which he has supported his characters, and the exquisite address that he has shown in adapting his stories to the different humors, sentiments, and talents of the reciters. He has thus given us such an accurate picture of ancient manners as no contemporary writer has transmitted to posterity, and in the Canterbury Tales we view the pursuits and employments, the customs and diversions of the reign of Edward III., copied from the life, and represented with equal truth and spirit. It has been justly remarked, that it was no inferior combination of observation and sympathy which could bring together into one company the many-colored conditions and professions of society, delineated with pictorial force, and dramatized by poetic conception, reflecting thembelves in the tale which seemed most congruous to their humors.' The following are some select characters, as portrayed in the Prologue.?

+ 1 Read Hippesley's Early English Literature : also, Todd's Illustrations of Gower and Chaucer. “I take operasing delight in Chaucer. His manly cheerfulness is especially delicious in my old age. How exquisitely tender he is." --Coleridge'. Table Talk. Rend, also, Chaucer Modernized, 1 vol. 12mo, with a well-written introduction on English poetry by R. H. Horne, and versifications by Wordsworth, Lelyh Hunt, and others.

? Bocorcio sopposes that when the plague began to abate in Florence, (1348, ten young persons of both sexes retired to the country to enjoy the fresh air, and pass TEN Days agreeably. (Hence the DAME DECAMEROS, from the Greek čeka (teka) “ten," and nuepa (hemera) "a day." Their principri amusement was in telling tales in turn; and as each of the ten told a story a day, and as they continued together ten days, the Decameron consists of one hundred tales. * Opposite the city of London, on the Thames.

* For the murder of this famous archbishop in the reign of Henry II., A.D. 1171, see History of England. Canterbury is 53 miles south-cast from London.

Whenné that April, with his showrés sote,
The drouth of March hath pierced to the rote,
And bathed every vein in such licoúr,
Of which virtúe engendred is the flow'r;
When Zepbirus eké, with his soté3 breath,
Inspired hath in every holes and heath
The tender croppés, and the youngé sun
Hath in the Rame his halfe course yrun,
And smallé fowlés maken melody,
That sleepen allé night with open eye,
So pricketh them natúre in their courages,?
Then longen folk to go on pilgrimages,
And palmers for to seeken strangé strands,
To servé hallows3 couth' in sundry lands;
And 'specially from every shiré's end
Of Engleland to Canterbury they wend, 10

1 Read D'Israel's Amenities of Literature, 3 vols. 8vo.

2 In a subsequent age, the great work of Chaucer exerted a powerful influence in helping on the great cause of the Reformation. So much was Cardinal Wolsey offended at the severity with which the papal clergy were treated in the Pilgrini's Tale, that he laid an interdict upon its ever being printed with the rest of the work, and it was with dificulty that the Ploughman's Tale was permitted to stand. John Fox, (1917–1587,) the historian of the martyrs, thus writes : “But much more I mervaile to consider this, how that the bishops condemning and abolishing all maner of English bookes and treatises, which might bring the people to any light of knowledge, did yet aulhorize the Workes of Chancer to remaine. So it pleased God to blind then the eles of them, for the mure commodoty of his people." Sote--sweet. 4 Rote-root.

6 Holt-grove, forest. 6 To make this line consistent with the first, it should read Bull instead of Ram, for he says that the time of this pigrimage was when the showers of April had plerced into the root the drought of March, so that April, which corresponds to the constellation of the Bull, must have been far advanced Read, Tyrwhitt's Introduction to Canterbury Taks. * Courages-hearts, spirits.

I coulb-known. 10 Wend- 80, make way.

8 Hallows-boliness.

The holy blissful martyr for to seek
That them hath holpen when that they were sick.

Befell that in that season on a day,
In Southwark at the Tabardd ? as I lay,
Ready to wenden? on my pilgrimage
To Canterbury with devont courage;
At night was come into that hostelry
Well nine-and-twenty in a company
Of sundry folk, by aventure yfall
In fellowship, and pilgrims were they all
That toward Canterbury woulden ride.
The chambers and the stables weren wide, 3
And well we weren eased4 atté best.


A Knight there was, and that a worthy man
That from the time that he first began
To riden out, he loved chivalry,
Truth and honour, freedom and courtesy.
Full worthy was he in his lordés war,
And thereto had he ridden, no man farre.5
As well in Christendom as in Heatheness,
And ever honour'd for his worthiness.

With him there was his son, a younge Squire,
A lover and a lusty bachelor,
With lockés curl'd as they were laid in press;
Of twenty years of age he was I guess.
Of his statúre he was of even length,
And wonderly deliver, and great of strength;
And he had been some time in chevachie,7
In Flaunders, in Artois, and in Picardie,
And borne him well, as of so little space,
In hope to standen in his lady's grace.

Embroider'd was he, as it were a mead
All full of freshé flowrés white and red:
Singing he was or floyting all the day;
He was as fresh as is the month of May:
Short was his gown, with sleevés long and wide;
Well could he sit on horse, and fairé ride:
He couidé songés make, and well endite,
Joust and eke dance, and well pourtray and write:
So hot he loved, that by nightertalelo
He slept no more than doth the nightingale:
Courteous he was, lowly and serviceable,
And carv'd before his father at the table.

1 That is, the inn called “The Tabard." The Tabard was a "jacket, or sleeveless coat, worn In times past by noblemen in the wars, but now only by heralds, and is called thehi coat of arms in service."- Speght. 9 Wenden-go, make way.

% Wide--spacious. 4 Eased atté bestcommodiously lodged. 5 Farre--farther. 6 Wonderly deliver-wonderfully active : from the French libre, free. 7 Chevachie, (French, chevauchee,) a military expedition. & Conducted Hirself well, considering the short time that he had served. 9 Floyting-Outing, playing on thu fute, whletling. The equire would not, in all probability, have a flute always with him. I woula therefore prefer the reading that he "chitled all the day:” as being a more natural touch of charao ter, as well as in keeping with the hilarity of youth. 10 Nightertale-night-time.


A Clerk' there was of Oxenford also,
That unto logic haddé long ygo.3
As leané was his horse as is a rake,
And he was not right fat I undertake,
But lookéd hollow, and thereto soberly.
Full threadbare was his overest courtery;
For he had gotten him yet no benefice,
Nor was nought worldly to have an office
For him was levers have at his bed's head
Twenty bookés clothéd in black or red
Of Aristotle and his philosophy,
Than robés rich, or fiddle or psaltry:
But all be that he was a philosopher
Yet haldé he but little gold in coffer,
But all that he might of his friendés henge
On bookes and on learning he it spent,
And busily 'gan for the soulés pray
Or them that gave him wherewith to scholay?
Of study took he mosté cure and heed;
Not a word spake he more than was need,
And that was said in form and reverence,
And short and quick, and full of high sentence ::
Sounding in moral virtue was his speech,
And gladly would he learn and gladly teach.


A good Wife was there of besidé Bath,
But she was some deal deaf, and that was scathe.
Of cloth-making she haddé such a haunt 10
She passéd them of Ypres and of Ghent,
In all the parish, wise ne was there none
That to the off ring before her shoulde gone,
And if there did, certain so wroth was she,
That she was ont of allé charity.
Her coverchiefsll weren full fine of ground;
I dursté swear they weigheden a pound,
That on the Sunday were upon her head:
Her hosed weren of fine scarlet red,
Full strait ytied, and shoes full moist!? and new
Bold was her face, and fair and red of hew.
She was a worthy woman all her live;
Husbands at the church door had she had five. 13

In the Interesting character of the "clerk" or scholar, whose poverty, delight in study, and inAttention to worldly afirs are eminently conspicuous, Warton thinks that Chaucer glanced at the Inattention paid to literature, and the unpro tableness of philosophy.

. That is, a scholar. 3 Ygo--parl. pzst, gone. 4 Overest courtepy-uppermost short cloak, > Lever-rather. 6 Hent-catch holl of. 1 Scholny-study. 8 High sentence-. e. lofty period. Scathe-harm, damage. 10 Haunt-custom. 11 Head-dresy. 12 Moist-fresh

13 This alludes to the old custom of the parties joining hands at the door of the church before they went up to the altar to consummate the union; and this jolly dane and good housewife is repreKated as having gone through that interesting ceremory five times.


A good man there was of religión,
That was a pooré Parson of a town,
But rich he was of holy thought and work,
He was also a learned man, a Clerk,
That Christés gospel truly wouldé preach;
His parishensa devoutly would he teach;
Benign he was, and wonder diligent,
And in adversity full patient,
And such he was yproved often sithés ;3
Full loth were him to cursen for his tithés ;
But rather would he given out of doubt
Unto his pooré parishens about
Of his off ring, and eke of his substánce;
He could in little thing have suffisance :
Wide was his parish, and houses far asunder,
But he ne left nought for no rain nor thunder,
In sickness and in mischief, to visit
The farthest in his parish much and lites
Upon his feet, and in his hand a staff:
This noble 'nsample to his sheep he yaf,
That first he wrought, and afterward he taught,
Out of the gospel he the wordés caught,
And this figúre he added yet thereto,
That if gold rusté what shonld iron do?
For if a priest be foul on whom we trust,
No wonder is a luwéd? man to rust;
And shame it is, if that a priest take keep
To see a “fouléd” sheplierd and clean sheep:
Well ought a priest ensample for to give
By his cleanness how his sheep should live.

He setté not his benefice to hire,
And let his sheep accumbred in the mire,
And ran unto London unto Saint Poule's
To seeken him a chantery for souls,
Or with a brotherhood to be withold;0
But dwelt at home and kepté well his fuld,
So that the wolf ne made it not miscarry;
He was a shepherd and no mercenary;
As though he holy were, and virtuous,
He was to sinful men not dispitous, il
Ne of his speeché dangerous'2 ne digne; 13
Bat in his teaching discreet and benign.


1 In describing the sanctity, simplicity, sincerity, patience, industry, courage, and conscientior Impartiality of this excellent parish-priest, Chaucer, as Warton observes, has shown his good senke and good heart. Is not Goldsmith indebted to it for some of the beautiful traits in the character of Ms Village Preacher, in the Deserted Filage ? Parishenis--parishioners. 3 Sithes--times. 4 Suffisance-suficiency.

Much and Ilte-great and small. 6 Yal-gave. 7 Lewed-Ignorant. 8 Accumbredenenmbered,

9 Clantery. An endowment for the payment of a priest to sing mass agreeably to the appoint ment of the founder. There were thirty-five of these chantries established at St. Paul's, which were served by ffty-four priests.-Dugdal, Hist. pref. p. 41. 19 Withold ---withholden, withheld 11 Diapitons--inexorable, angry to excees. 12 Dangerous-sparing. 13 Digne--proud, disdainu.

« PreviousContinue »