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Sir John Mandeville, whose book of travels has gained for him the reputation of the first English prose-writer, flourished in the first part of the fourteenth century, the first great English poet died in the year 1400. The early English prose possesses, however, little, if any, purely literary interest; its value is antiquarian, and chiefly as showing the formation of the language. It is worthy of remark, that the prose power of a language, and, consequently, that division of literature, are more slowly and laboriously disclosed than the poetic resources. Though the history of English prose begins about 1350, with what is considered the first English book-Sir John Mandeville's Travels-a century and a half more were required to achieve any thing like the excellence of later English prose. It is not until about 1509, that Mr. Hallam finds in Sir Thomas More's Life of Edward V. what he pronounces "the first example of good English language; pure and perspicuous, well chosen, without vulgarisms or pedantry."* There is, therefore, a period, and that of considerable length, during which, for all that makes up the essential and high value of literature, the prose of the period has very little claim upon us. It is not so, however, with the poetry of early English literature; for, as Mr. De Quincy has remarked, "At this hour, five hundred years since their creation, the tales of Chaucer, never equalled on this earth for tenderness and for life of picturesqueness, are read familiarly by many in the charming language of their natal day." And Coleridge said: "I take increasing delight in
*Hallam's Literature of Europe, vol. i. p. 232.
Chaucer. His manly cheerfulness is especially delicious to me in my old age. How exquisitely tender he is, and yet how perfectly free from the least touch of sickly melancholy or morbid drooping! The sympathy of the poet with the subjects of his poetry, is particularly remarkable in Shakspeare and Chaucer; but what the first effects by a strong act of imagination and mental metamorphosis, the last does without any effort, merely by the inborn kindly joyousness of his nature."*
The present poet-laureate of England has said, great is my admiration of Chaucer's genius, and so profound my reverence for him as an instrument in the hands of Providence for spreading the light of literature through his native land, that I am glad of the effort for making many acquainted with his poetry who would otherwise be ignorant of every thing about him but his name" Another eminent living man of letters has expressed his admiration of the old poet, by saying that he rather objected to any attempts to remove the difficulties of the antique text, inasmuch as he wished "to keep Chaucer for himself and a few friends."
Unfortunately, the obsolete dialect in which Chaucer wrote is such an obstacle, that it is far easier to keep him for oneself than to recover for him now the hearing of his fellow-men, which he once commanded, and which can never cease to be the due of his genius. I know of nothing in literary history like the fate of Chaucer in this
*Table Talk, vol. ii. p. 297.
This is an extract from a letter from Wordsworth to Mr. Reed, dated January 13, 1841, sending a copy of a little volume published in London, called "The Poems of Geoffrey Chaucer Modernized." The work is by different hands. W. B. R.
respect. His poems are not in a dead language; they cannot be said to be in a living language. They are not in a foreign tongue, and yet they are hardly in our own. There is much that is the English still in use, and there is much that is very different. A reader not accustomed to English so antiquated, opens a volume of Chaucer, and he meets words that are familiar and words that are uncouth to him. In this, there is something repulsive to the eye and the ear, especially in finding words strangely syllabled and accented. He is not prepared to apply himself to it as he might to a poem in a foreign or dead language, to be toilsomely translated; and yet he cannot approach it as the literature of his own living speech. The use of glossaries and explanatory vocabularies cannot be dispensed with; but, to most readers, this is a wearisome process, for there is something thwarting and vexatious in finding ourselves at fault in dealing with our own mother-tongue. It seems like encountering the curse of Babel in our own homes, on our own hearths; and that is a misery. In forming acquaintance with ancient or foreign literature, the student knows that a well-defined exertion is needed, and this he makes in working his way through ancient or foreign words and idioms; and thus he comes to know the literature of Greece and Rome, of France, or Italy, or Germany. But the antiquated dialect of his own language is a mingled mass of sunshine and shadow, with sharp and sudden changes from one to the other, so that the mind is distracted in the uncertainty how long the clearness will last, and how soon the obscurity will come again, going along, like Christabel, "now in glimmer and now in gloom." This proves a greater obstacle than the total separation of lan
guage which enforces the task of translation, and it has been remarked with truth that, "if Chaucer's poems had been written in Greek or Hebrew, they would have been a thousand times better known. They would have been translated."*
A process akin to translation has been attempted, the most noted of the paraphrases of Chaucer's poems being those by Dryden and Pope. Those versions are, however, of little avail for what should have been their chief purpose; for, while they serve to give the reader a notion of Dryden and Pope, the genius of Chaucer, with all its natural simplicity and power, is lost by being transmuted into the elaborate polish of the verse of the times of Charles the Second and of Queen Anne.
The only successful attempt to make the approach to the poetry of Chaucer more easy, by modifying his diction and metre, has been made within the last few years, in a small work entitled "Chaucer Modernized." It may be recommended as a safe introduction to a knowledge of Chaucer's poetry, for the versions are from the pens of several distinguished living poets, combining in this service. of filial reverence to the memory of the Father of English Poetry; and the versions are composed strictly on this principle, that the paraphrase is limited to such changes as are absolutely necessary to render the meaning and metre of the original intelligible; and thus the reader in the nineteenth century is placed in the same relative position as the reader of the fourteenth, communing with the imagination of the Poet, through verse which is readily and naturally familiar.
*Introduction to "Chaucer Modernized," p. 5.
Now, considering these difficulties of language, it is remarkable that the few readers of Chaucer's poetry should have had authority, from generation to generation, to sustain his traditionary fame; for if he is not known and felt to be the earliest of the great English poets, he is at least always named as such.
"That noble Chaucer, in those former times,
Who first enriched our English with his rhymes,
Usually, in the history of a nation's literature, it may be observed that the language and the literature move forward together the rude dialect being adequate to express the motives of the rude mind; so that what is handed down in an unformed language is commonly nothing more than the imperfect products of the early intellect or fancy. But the peculiarity of Chaucer's position in literary history is just this, that in the era of an unshaped language, we have an author of the very highest rank of poetic genius.
That Chaucer took the language of his own time, and in its best estate, (for language always makes gift of its best wealth to a great poet,) need not be doubted; but it is difficult to conceive the condition of the language during his time, in the fifty years' reign of Edward the Third. For the scholastic uses of the learned, and for
* Drayton's Elegy, "To my dearly-loved friend, Henry Reynolds, Esq., "Of Poets and Poesy." Anderson's Poets, vol. iii. p. 348.