« ZurückWeiter »
ecclesiastical purposes, the Latin was still guage. The French was the speech of the court, and in private correspondence had superseded the Latin. But with the great body of the people there was the great body of Anglo-Saxon words and forms of speech, with a living power in them which no foreign or ancient dialects could quench; and to that, the English language, imperfect, unformed, and changing as it was, this great poet gave his heart; showing, like his most illustrious successors, that the great poet is ever a true patriot also. "Let, then," said Chaucer, "clerkes enditen in Latin, for they have the propertie of science, and the knowing of that facultie; and lette Frenchmen in their French also enditen their queint termes, for it is kindly to their mouthes; and let us show our fantasies in such wordes as we learnden of our Dame's tongue." And when he wrote for the teaching of his little son, he used English, because, said he, "curious enditying and harde sentences are full hevy at once for such a childe to lerne," and bids the boy think of it as the King's English.*
It needed the large soul of a great poet to make choice of the People's speech rather than the dialects of the learned or the nobles. Chaucer's contemporary and senior brother-poet, honoured by him as the "moral Gower," ventured upon no such confidence in the language of the land. The legacy of his song was committed to Latin and to French words; and yet what might he not have achieved, had he oftener trusted the rude mothertongue, as in that passage in which he pictures Medea
* Prologue to Testament of Love. Ed. 1542, cited in Pickering's Edition of Chaucer, vol. i. p. 202.
going forth at midnight to gather herbs for the incantations
Whann there was naught but sterre light,
That no wight but hirselfe wist:
She glode forth, as an adder doth."
If Chaucer was unfortunate in the period of his country's language, he was happy in the era of his country's history. The Saxon and the Norman, the conqueror and conquered, had grown together into one people. It was Chaucer's fortune to be an eye-witness of that vast ambition which fired his sovereign in grasping at the diadem of France, to make the two great monarchies of Europe one; and how could the fire in a great poet's heart sleep, when he beheld his king and his prince, those proud Plantaganets, the third Edward and his heroic son, going forth like royal knights-errant in quest of majestic adventures. The reign was one of high monarchal pride, displayed, however, so as to animate a high national pride by lifting up the sense of the nation's dignity, and power, and magnificence. Kings were suppliant to England's princes for help-kings were captive in England's capital; and that ambitious noble, "old John of Gaunt," Chaucer's patron and kinsman, not content with his English dukedom, was proclaimed King of Castile. It was a period of highwrought martial enthusiasm, and the early modes of war
fare passed not away without fierce employment, as if the arrow could not cease to be a weapon of death without drinking its last deep draught of blood, when the air was darkened over the plains of Crecy and Poictiers, by the shafts from the hosts of English archers. With all the animating movements of the reign, Chaucer was in close and active sympathy; he was a courtier and a soldier, as well as a student. No poet has ever held such large and free communion with the world and his fellow-men. stood in the presence of kings and nobles; and became versed in the love of chivalry, its principles and its fashions: he went forth from the pomp of the court to do a soldier's service, and in the season of peace to muse in the fields, to look with loving eyes upon the flowers, to sympathize with the simple hearts of children and of peasants, to honour womanhood alike in humble or in high estate, and to commune with the faithful and the zealous of the priesthood. He travelled into foreign lands, an envoy or an exile, (so varied was his career,) happy, if the conjecture be not unfounded, in listening to words falling from the living lips of Italy's great poet, then the aged Petrarch, possibly meeting Boccacio and Froissart. When, near three hundred years later, the youthful Milton visited the shores of Italy, amid all the classical associations that were thronging into his heart, he found room for the proud memory that the father of English poetry had stood on the same soil.*
*In the Epistle to Manso, the friend of Tasso, a production which Mr. Hillard, in his charming book on Italy, calls "the most Virgilian of all compositions not written by Virgil," Milton says:
Ergo ego te, Clius et magni nomine Phoebi,
The times in which Chaucer lived were momentous also as a period in which were first seen the forecast shadows of mighty changes in the Christian church; and we can well believe that his heart must have leaped up when he beheld the bold British hand of John Wyclif, a hundred years and more before the days of Luther, strike the first blow at ecclesiastical tyranny-the same hand which was an instrument of Providence in taking the seal from off the Bible, and spreading it in living English words throughout the land.
The last half of the fourteenth century, which was the period of Chaucer's manhood, (for he died, let it be remembered, an aged man, in the year 1400,) was an era in which the English mind was touched by many of its finest and most quickening influences. The impulse it received was manifest in various departments of human thought. The arts were cultivated, civic architecture especially, and chiefly that sacred form of it which has been the wonder of after ages. Painting was cultivated, and the more glorious sister art of poetry was taught by two poets more eminent than England had yet produced, John Gower and Geoffry Chaucer. It was fitting that in such an age the Parliament of England should decree that the statutes of the
Missus Hyperboreo juvenis peregrinus ab axe.
realm were no longer to be enrolled in a foreign dialect, but that the voice of British legislation should speak in the nation's own language.
The student of literature, who will take the pains to master the difficulties of Chaucer's antiquated poemsand they will quickly diminish before him—will find an abundant reward. His powers are as varied as they are voluminous, rich in original materials and in that which, drawn from foreign sources-the Latin, French, and Italian literature-bears in the transmutation the glory of a great poet's invention. What most distinguishes the genius of Chaucer is the comprehensiveness and variety of his powers. You look at him in his gay mood, and it is so genial that that seems to be his very nature, an overflowing comic power, or, rather, that power touched with thoughtfulness and tenderness-"humour" in its finest estate. And then you turn to another phase of his genius, and with something of wonder, and more of delight, you find it shining with a light as true and natural and beautiful into the deeper places of the human soul-its woes, its anguish, and its strength of suffering and of heroism. In this, the harmonious union of true tragic and comic powers, Chaucer and Shakspeare stand alone in our literature: it places these two above all the other great poets of our language, for such combination is the highest endowment of poetic genius.
The genius of Chaucer is manifest also in that other characteristic of the poetic spirit, wise and genial communion with the spiritual influences of the material world, 66 Earth, air, ocean, and the starry sky." All nature is with him alive with a fresh and active life-blood. His green leaves, it has been well said, are the greenest that