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As the earliest work of Chaucer, it interestingly exhibits the successful effort of his youthful hand in erecting a new and stately fabric of English numbers. As a piece of fancy, it is grotesque and meager; but the lines often flow with great harmony.
His story of Troilus and Cresseide was the delight of Sir Philip Sydney; and perhaps, excepting the Canterbury Tales, was, down to the time of Queen Elizabeth, the most popular poem in the English language. It is a story of vast length and almost desolate simplicity, and abounds in all those glorious anachronisms which were then, and so long after, permitted to romantic poetry: such as making the son of King Priam read the Thebais of Statius, and the gentlemen of Troy converse about the devil, justs and tournaments, bishops, parliaments, and scholastic divinity.
The languor of the story is, however, relieved by many touches of pathetic beauty. The confession of Cresseide in the scene of felicity, when the poet compares her to the “ new abashed nightingale, that stinteth first ere she beginneth sing,” is a fine passage, deservedly noticed by Warton. The grief of Troilus after the departure of Cresseide is strongly portrayed in Troilus's soliloquy in his bed.
" Where is mine owne ladie, lief, and dere? Where is her whitè brest—where is it-where? Where been her armès, and her iyen clere, That yesterday this time with me were ?
Now may I wepe alone with many a teare,
The sensations of Troilus, on coming to the house of his faithless Cresseide, when, instead of finding her returned, he beholds the barred doors and shut windows, giving tokens of her absence, as well as his precipitate departure from the distracting scene, are equally well described.
Therwith whan he was ware,
The two best of Chaucer's allegories, The Flower and the Leaf, and The House of Fame, have been fortunately perpetuated in our language; the former Shut.
? Extinguished. 3 Since. 4 To make joyous. VOL. I.
by Dryden, the latter by Pope. The Flower and the Leaf is an exquisite piece of fairy fancy. With à moral that is just sufficient to apologize for a dream, and yet which sits so lightly on the story as not to abridge its most visionary parts, there is,
in the whole scenery and objects of the poem, an air of wonder and sweetness; an easy and surprising transition that is truly magical. Pope had not so enchanting a subject in The House of Fame; yet, with deference to Warton, that critic has done Pope injustice in assimilating his imitations of Chaucer to the modern ornaments in Westminster Abbey, which impair the solemn effect of the ancient building. The many absurd and fantastic particulars in Chaucer's House of Fame will not suffer us to compare it, as a structure in poetry, with so noble a pile as Westminster Abbey in architecture. Much of Chaucer's fantastic matter has been judiciously omitted by Pope, who at the same time has clothed the best ideas of the old poem in spirited numbers and expression. Chaucer supposes himself to be snatched up to heaven by a large eagle, who addresses him in the name of St. James and the Virgin Mary, and, in order to quiet the poet's fears of being carried up to Jupiter, like another Ganymede, or turned into a star like Orion, tells him, that Jove wishes him to sing of other subjects than love and blind Cupido,' and has therefore ordered, that Dan Chaucer should be brought to behold the House of Fame. In Pope, the philosophy of fame comes with much more propriety from the poet himself, than from the beak of a talkative eagle. It was not until his
that Chaucer put forth, in the Canterbury Tales, the full variety of his genius, and the pathos and romance, as well as the playfulness of fiction. In the serious part of those tales he is, in general, more deeply indebted to preceding materials, than in the comic stories, which he raised upon slight hints to the air and spirit of originals. The design of the whole work is after Boccaccio's Decamerone; but exceedingly improved. The Italian novelist's ladies and gentle. men, who have retired from the city of Florence, on account of the plague, and who agree to pass their time in telling stories, have neither interest nor variety in their individual characters; the time assigned to their congress is arbitrary, and it evidently breaks
because the author's stores are exhausted. Chaucer's design, on the other hand, though it is left unfinished, has definite boundaries, and incidents to keep alive our curiosity, independent of the tales themselves. At the same time, while the action of the
poem is an event too simple to divert the atten. tion altogether from the pilgrims' stories, the pilgrimage itself is an occasion sufficiently important to draw together almost all the varieties of existing society, from the knight to the artisan, who, agreeably to the old simple manners, assemble in the same room of the hostellerie.' The enumeration of those characters in the Prologue forms a scene, full,
without confusion; and the object of their journey gives a fortuitous air to the grouping of individuals, who collectively represent the age and state of society in which they live. It may be added, that if any age or state of society be more favourable than another to the uses of the poet, that in which Chaucer lived must have been peculiarly picturesque ;--an age in which the differences of rank and profession were so strongly distinguished, and in which the broken masses of society gave out their deepest shadows and strongest colouring by the morning light of civilization. An unobtrusive but sufficient contrast is supported between the characters, as between the demure prioress and the genial wife of Bath, the rude and boisterous miller and the polished knight, &c. &c. Although the object of the journey is religious, it casts no gloom over the meeting; and we know that our Catholic ancestors are justly represented in a state of high good humour, on the road to such solemnities.
The sociality of the pilgrims is, on the whole, agreeably sustained; but in a journey of thirty persons, it would not have been adhering to probability to have made the harmony quite uninterrupted. Accordingly the bad humour which breaks out between the lean friar and the cherub-faced sompnour, while it accords with the hostility known to have subsisted between those two professions, gives a diverting zest to the satirical stories which the hypocrite and the libertine level at each other.