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§ 1. Chaucer's relation to his age; his studies ; his debt to French and
Italian poets ; his original genius. $ 2. Life of Chaucer. $ 3. Chaucer's writings. Earlier poems : translation of Roman de la Rose; Complaint to Pity, etc. ; Book of the Duchess; Life of St. Cecilia, Italian influence: the stories of Constance and Griselda, etc. $.4. Chaucer's original treatment of his authorities : Palamon and Arcite; Anelida; Troilus and Criseyde ; Parliament of Fowls; The_House of Fame; The Legend of Good Women. § 5. The Canterbury Tales. $6. Other works. 7. Concluding remarks.
$ 1. By the end of the fourteenth century, the English language had recovered from the confusion of dialects which followed
the Anglo-Saxon period. In the time of Chaucer, Chaucer's
and to a great extent through the influence of his influence on English. writings, one of the English dialects became the
standard of literary English. From the time of Alfred to the Conquest the language of Wessex, the Southern dialect of Old English, had been the literary language. Its place was filled in the following ages down to the time of Chaucer, not by any form of English, but by the French of the Court, or by the Latin, which came to be more in favour with English writers as their native tongue declined in dignity and importance. English literature during this intervening period was a literature of competing dialects; those who wrote in their native tongue wrote not for the nation at large, but primarily for their immediate neighbours in the country, who spoke the peculiar speech of the West, or the North, or whatever the district might be to which the author belonged. By the year of Chaucer's death (1400) this state of things had been very greatly altered. Other dialects were still in use; one of them, the Northern dialect of English, was becoming in Scotland a national language with a literature of its own ; but in England from the time of Chaucer it became more and more difficult for English writers to use any form of the language except that which agreed with the usage of Chaucer. The language of modern English literature is derived in the main from the East Midland dialect, which, in Chaucer's time, took the place of French as the right “ courtly language, thereby disqualifying the other dialects for employment in literary works, and permitting them to fall back into the
position of rustic popular speech, for which no distinguished literary career was open.
This recovery of English, the restoration of the language to its proper office as the right and natural means of literary expression for authors born in England, took place at the close of the Middle Ages, at a time when the old medieval literary traditions were still alive, though beginning to show signs of exhaustion, while at the same time a number of new ideas were beginning to make themselves felt in different ways. Chaucer, by his disposition and genius, found himself drawn to study almost every subject of interest in his time, and to practise a great variety of kinds of composition. The result is that his collected works represent almost all the intellectual tastes and fashions of his own time, and to a very great extent also those of the three preceding centuries.
This aspect of Chaucer is of some importance in a history of literature. It is true that it does not present Chaucer as a great original writer, as one of the great poets. But it is a view that is naturally suggested by the
and his age. mass of Chaucer's writings. His writings are not all equally good ; he was a student and a man of learning; he felt very strongly the attractions of study, and he was fond of expounding what he knew. He was also a great poet. But in order to understand his poetry it is necessary to take into account a number of things in his writings that did not directly help his poetry, and that even tended to interfere with his poetical imagination. The common quality in all his writings is that of a mind open to receive all influences. It is this which has made him in each part of his works, and in all his works taken together, so complete a representative of his own times. Besides being a great poet he was also a working man of letters, with the instinct of a journalist for everything that was capable of attracting any reader. Whatever effect this habit of mind may have had upon his poetry, there can be no question that it was this which gave him most of his influence as the founder of modern English literature. The Chaucerian poets in the next century, and even later, generally preferred to imitate those parts of Chaucer's writings which were most easily imitated : not the vivid original passages in The Canterbury Tales, but the commonplace allegory, the traditional sentiment, which Chaucer had taken up because it came in his way, and because it was part of the literary tradition of his time.
This part of Chaucer's work is not the most interesting, but it is possible that it may be undervalued. To represent Chaucer as a teacher, a reformer of the common standard of literature, a populariser of knowledge, may appear derogatory to his fame as a poet ; but it is far from certain that Chaucer himself would have disliked the reputation of a popular teacher ; while it is plain enough that his teaching was much wanted.
What he did was to present the current ideas and fancies of the Middle Ages in the best possible form before they were supplanted by other ideas. One of the misfortunes of English history in the Middle Ages was that the great medieval ideas were never adequately expressed in English during the time when they were most vigorous in other countries. For some of the most distinctive medieval fashions were inextricably bound up with the usages of Courts, and required for their expression a courtly language, such as was never wanting in France, suc as was to be found in Provence from the beginning of the twelfth century, in Germany rather later (A.D. 1200), and in Italy in the time of Dante (A.D. 1300). This was not to be found
in England before Chaucer. English authors, like Contrast all the rest of the world, did their best to appropredecessors. priate the chivalrous and courtly literature pro
duced in France from the twelfth century onward ; but whether they failed or succeeded in giving life of some sort to their translations, they necessarily failed to catch the grace of their originals, for the language at their disposal, in all its history and its associations, was the language of uncourtly people. The best of English poetry in the fourteenth century, apart from Chaucer, the alliterative poetry of the authors of Sir Gawayne and of Piers Plowman, is not inferior to the best of the French courtly school; it has excellences of its own, energy and originality, which need not fear comparison with any author ; but by its very excellences, which are part of its strong provincial character, it is disqualified from representing the peculiar medieval cast of thought, the ideas of the great ages of chivalry. These ideas appear in the English alliterative poets, sometimes grotesquely out of keeping with their expression, as in the poem of William of Palerne, sometimes transposed with great mastery into the peculiar alliterative mode, as in Sir Gawayne and the Green Knight ; but neither in the one case nor the other is there the distinctive manner of the great medieval schools. Good or bad, they are uncourtly; and this failure in courtliness, in spite of all compensations in other ways, was so far a misfortune for English literature and for the nation itself, that it involved a loss of those general elements of culture which it had been the business of the Middle Ages, and chiefly of medieval France, to disperse over all the world. It was this defect that Chaucer set himself to make good. Before he was a great poet he was a “great translator," as the French poet Eustache Deschamps called him, and he was a translator of a different kind from his predecessors. He was thoroughly at home in the world of courtly sentiment, and when he wrote it was neither a travesty nor an adaptation ; it was the thing itself, the English expression being now for the first time equal in refinement to the French, and in full command of all the French resources,
Chaucer begins his literary career as a translator of French poems and adapter of French forms and ideas. He depended chiefly, as was natural, upon the French poets
His studies most in vogue at the time; principally Guillaume
in French de Machault, the secretary of King John of Bohemia, Eustache Deschamps (c. 1345-c. 1405), Jean Froissart (1337– 1410), and Oton de Granson, the “floure of hem that maken in France,” whose poems, including the original of Chaucer's Complaint of Venus, have only recently been discovered. Besides these contemporary poets Chaucer gave much attention to one of thc favourite books of the previous century, the Roman de la Rose.
By these authors his style was formed, and however much he afterwards learned from other sources (including his own invention) he never lost his allegiance to his first masters. With all his later devotion to the Italian poets it is noticeable that, but for a fragmentary experiment in the terza rima of Dante's Divine Comedy, Chaucer makes no attempt to introduce an Italian stanza. He drew more from Boccaccio than from any poet, yet he never used the octave stanza of the poems from which he derived his Palamon and Arcite and his Troilus and Criseyde. He turned the Italian octaves into the seven-line stanza (known as rhyme royal) which was commonly in use among his French authors. The heroic couplet, the favourite verse of his later years in The Legend of Good Women and great part of The Canterbury Tales, was taken from the same source. While, with regard to matter, the Prologue to The Legend of Good Women, in its use of the old devices—the dream, the May morning, the allegorical pageant, all from the tradition of The Romaunt of the Rose—is proof of the vitality of his early literary affections, and of the inability of Italian or any other studies to make him forget his early devotion to the French poets.
His acquaintance with Italian literature probably began about the time of his Italian journey (1372). There is no trace of it in The Book of the Duchess (1369), nor, indeed, till about ten years later. In whatever manner it began, the influence of the Italian poets was incalculably great, and though the French manner is never wholly discarded, all Chaucer's later works show evident tokens of his study of the Italian, especially of Boccaccio, in a second degree of Dante, and of Petrarch not quite so much as might have been expected, from the laudatory mention of him in the Clerk's Prologue.
From the French poets Chaucer had learned much : graceful sentiment and expression ; the allegorical method ; the mode of putting together in a poem all sorts of quaint and learned illustrations; above all, the forms of His debt verse. But the French school had very serious faults, and Chaucer did not escape them; garrulity and in
and Italian literature.
coherence being the worst. The French courtly poets were never tired; they could repeat for ever the same round of sentiment with the same conventional decorations.
From the Italians Chaucer learned a different conception of poetry. Petrarch he probably found too like the French, at any rate in the matter of his Italian poems, in which Petrarch, with all his command of a new style, was still in debt to the old medieval conventions. But Dante and Boccaccio had something definitely new to teach him. Dante was the first modern to make a definite consistent use of the classical methods of poetry; and Boccaccio was
one of Dante's first disciples. "It was from him chiefly that Chaucer learned his new manner. Boccaccio had a genius for narrative, and beyond that he was full of zeal for classical learning, for strict following of the classical examples. In translating Boccaccio's poems, the Teseide and the Filostrato (i.e. Palamon and Arcite and Troilus), Chaucer learned the secrets of construction, how to plan a story and carry it out in due proportion. He also learned from Boccaccio, or from Dante and Boccaccio, the use of some poetical devices which have frequently been misused, but are never too old or hackneyed, such as the common form of epic simile, derived originally from Homer, and familiar to the Middle Ages in their Virgil and other Latin authors, though it appears not to have been transferred to the poetry of the new languages before the great poem of Dante.
“But right as floures, thorugh the colde of night
(Troilus, B. II., st. 139.) This simile is translated from Boccaccio, who borrowed it with very little disguise from the second canto of the Inferno. From Chaucer's time onward, this kind of figure is part of the equipment of all English poets. It is the most obvious proof of the influence of Italian on English poetry in the fifteenth century.
From the Italians Chaucer learned much more than the use of those rhetorical formulas which are to be picked up by any writer, good or bad. At first, it is true, he contented himself with translation, and the Italian influence is traceable only in the more ample and more even narrative replacing the less dignified and less regular manner of the French school. But mere translation or repetition was not at this date enough to satisfy Chaucer's ambition ; nor was it enough to learn the details of the Italian workmanship, for example, in the use of the figures of speech, without mastering their principles of construction. The great turning-point in Chaucer's literary life, after his first Italian studies, is where he learns to apply the Italian principles of composition in his own way. It may be