Slike strani

supposed to be a transcript of the works of Chaucer. The name of Richard Chawfir having been accidentally scrawled on a spare leaf of the MS. (probably the name of its ancient possessor), the framer of the Cotton catalogue, very goodnaturedly converted it into Geoffrey Chaucer. By this circumstance Mr. Tyrwhitt, when seeking materials for his edition of the "Canterbury Tales," accidentally discovered an English versifier older than Chaucer himself. The style of Minot's ten military ballads is frequently alliterative, and has much of the northern dialect. He is an easy and lively versifier, though not, as Mr. G. Chalmers denominates him, either elegant or energetic*.

In the course of the fourteenth century our language seems to have been inundated with metrical romances, until the public taste had been palled by the mediocrity and monotony of the greater part of them. At least, if Chaucer's host in the "Canterbury Tales" be a fair representation of contemporary opinion, they were held in no great reverence, to judge by the comparison which the vintner applies to the "drafty rhymings" of Sir Topaz +. The practice of translating French metrical romances into English did not, however, terminate in the fourteenth century. Nor must we form an indiscriminate estimate of the ancient metrical romances, either from Chaucer's implied contempt for them, nor from mine host of the Tabard's ungainly comparison with respect to one of them. The ridiculous style of Sir Topaz is not an image of them all. Some of them, far from being chargeable with impertinent and prolix description, are concise in narration, and paint, with rapid but distinct sketches, the battles, the banquets, and the rites of worship of chivalrous life. Classical poetry has scarcely ever conveyed in shorter boundaries so many interesting and complicated events, as may be found in the good old romance of Le Bone Florence +. Chaucer himself, when he strikes into the new or allegorical

[* An edition of Minot's poems was one of Ritson's many contributions to the elucidation of early English language and literature.]

[t The Rime of Sir Topaz, which Chaucer introduces as a parody, undoubtedly, of the rhythmical romances of

the age, is interrupted by mine host Harry Bailly with the

strongest and most energetic expressions of total and absolute contempt.-SIRWALTER SCOTT, Misc. Prose Works, vol. vi. p. 209.]

Given in Ritson's Old Metrical Romances.

school of romance, has many passages more tedious and less affecting than the better parts of those simple old fablers. For in spite of their puerility in the excessive use of the marvellous, their simplicity is often touching, and they have many scenes that would form adequate subjects for the best historical pencils.

The reign of Edward III. was illustrious not for military achievements alone; it was a period when the English character displayed its first intellectual boldness. It is true that the history of the times presents a striking contrast between the light of intelligence which began to open on men's minds, and the frightful evils which were still permitted to darken the face of society. In the scandalous avarice of the church, in the corruptions of the courts of judicature, and in the licentiousness of a nobility who countenanced disorders and robbery, we trace the unbanished remains of barbarism; but, on the other hand, we may refer to this period for the genuine commencement of our literature, for the earliest diffusion of free inquiry, and for the first great movement of the national mind towards emancipation from spiritual tyranny. The abuses of religion were, from their nature, the most powerfully calculated to arrest the public attention; and poetry was not deficient in contributing its influence to expose those abuses, both as subjects of ridicule and of serious indignation. Two poets of this period, with very different powers of genius, and probably addressing themselves to different classes of society, made the corruptions of the clergy the objects of their satire-taking satire not in its mean and personal acceptation, but understanding it as the moral warfare of indignation and ridicule against turpitude and absurdity. Those writers were Langlande and Chaucer, both of whom have been claimed as primitive reformers by some of the zealous historians of the Reformation. At the idea of a full separation from the Catholic Church, both Langlande and Chaucer would possibly have been struck with horror. The doctrine of predestination, which was a leading tenet of the first Protestants, is not, I believe, avowed in any of Chaucer's writings, and it is expressly reprobated by Langlande. It is, nevertheless, very likely that their works contributed to promote the Reformation. Langlande, especially, who was

an earlier satirist and painter of manners than Chaucer, is undaunted in reprobating the corruptions of the papal government. He prays to Heaven to amend the Pope, whom he charges with pillaging the Church, interfering unjustly with the king, and causing the blood of Christians to be wantonly shed; and it is a curious circumstance, that he predicts the existence of a king, who, in his vengeance, would destroy the monasteries.

The work entitled "Visions of William concerning Piers Plowman *,” and concerning the origin, progress, and perfection of the Christian life, which is the earliest known original poem, of any extent, in the English language, is ascribed to Robert Langlande [or Longlande], a secular priest, born at Mortimer's Cleobury, in Shropshire, and educated at Oriel College, Oxford. That it was written by Langlande, I believe, can be traced to no higher authority than that of Bale, or of the printer Crowley; but his name may stand for that of its author, until a better claimant shall be found.

Those Visions, from their allusions to events evidently recent, can scarcely be supposed to have been finished later than the year 1362, almost thirty years before the appearance of the Canterbury Tales +.

It is not easy, even after Dr. Whitaker's laborious analysis of this work, to give any concise account of its contents. The general object is to expose, in allegory, the existing abuses of society, and to inculcate the public and private duties both of the laity and clergy. An imaginary seer, afterwards described by the name of William, wandering among the bushes of the Malvern hills, is overtaken by sleep, and dreams that he beholds a magnificent tower, which turns out to be the tower or fortress of Truth, and a dungeon, which, we soon after learn, is the abode of Wrong. In a spacious plain in front of it, the whole race of mankind are employed in their respective pursuits; such as husbandmen, merchants, minstrels with their audiences, begging friars, and itinerant venders of pardons, leading a dissolute life

*The work is commonly entitled the "Visions of Piers Plowman," but incorrectly, for Piers is not the dreamer who sees the visions, but one of the characters who is beheld, and who represents the Christian life. [See Mr. Price's Note in Warton, vol. ii. p. 101, and Appendix to the same volume.]

under the cloak of religion. The are severely satirized. A transi made to the civil grievances of the policy, not the duty, of subm princes, is illustrated by the par Rats and Cats. In the second can ligion descends, and demonstrates precepts, how the conduct of ind the general management of soci amended. In the third and fourth or Bribery is exhibited, seeking with Falsehood, and attempting way to the courts of justice, whe that she has many friends, botl civil judges and ecclesiastics. Th this, becomes more and more des author awakens more than once ting that he has told us so, conti verse as freely as ever with the tasmagoria of his dream. A long gorical personages, whom it would amusing to enumerate, succeed notwithstanding Dr. Whitaker's

plan and unity in this work, I thinking with Warton, that it p ther; at least, if it has any desi most vague and ill-constructed tered into the brain of a waking d appearance of the visionary perso sufficiently whimsical. The pow for instance, confers upon Piers "Christian Life," four stout oxer the field of Truth; these are, Ma Luke, and John, the last of whon as the gentlest of the team. SH assigns him the like number of locks, to harrow what the eva ploughed; and this new horned of saint or stot Ambrose, stot Aus gory, and stot Jerome ‡.

The verse of Langlande is allit out rhyme, and of triple time. pronunciation it divides the ea anapastic and dactylic cadence; of the verses are reducible to n metre. Mr. Mitford, in his "Ha

[ If some of the criticisms in this ge rather startling to the zealous admirer of ture, he will attribute them to the san during an age of romantic poetry, makes Mr. Campbell's Muse appear an echo of t city and measured energy of Attic song.— vol. i. p. 107.]

guages," thinks that the more we accommodate the reading of it to ancient pronunciation, the more generally we shall find it run in an anapæstic measure. His style, even making allowance for its antiquity, has a vulgar air, and seems to indicate a mind that would have been coarse, though strong, in any state of society. But, on the other hand, his work, with all its tiresome homilies, illustrations from school divinity, and uncouth phraseology, has some interesting features of originality. He employs no borrowed materials; he is the earliest of our writers in whom there is a tone of moral reflection; and his sentiments are those of bold and solid integrity. The zeal of truth was in him; and his vehement manner sometimes rises to eloquence, when he denounces hypocrisy and imposture. The mind is struck with his rude voice, proclaiming independent and popular sentiments, from an age of slavery and superstition, and thundering a prediction in the ear of papacy, which was doomed to be literally fulfilled at the distance of nearly two hundred years. His allusions to contemporary life afford some amusing glimpses of its manners. There is room to suspect that Spenser was acquainted with his works; and Milton, either from accident or design, has the appearance of having had one of Langlande's passages in his mind, when he wrote the sublime description of the lazar-house, in "Paradise Lost *."

Chaucer was probably known and distinguished as a poet anterior to the appearance of Langlande's Visions. Indeed, if he had produced nothing else than his youthful poem, "The Court of Love," it was sufficient to indicate one destined to harmonise and refine the national strains. But it is likely, that before his thirty-fourth year, about which time Langlande's Visions may be supposed to have been finished, Chaucer had given several compositions to the public.

The simple old narrative romance had become too familiar in Chaucer's time to invite him to its beaten track. The poverty of his native tongue obliged him to look round for subsidiary materials to his fancy, both in the Latin language, and in some modern foreign source that should not appear to be trite and

[* B. xi. l. 475 &c. This coincidence is remarked by Mrs. Cooper in her Muscs' Library.-ELLIS, vol. i. p. 157.]

exhausted. His age was, unfortunately, little conversant with the best Latin classics. Ovid,Claudian, and Statius, were the chief favourites in poetry, and Boethius in prose +. The allegorical style of the last of those authors seems to have given an early bias to the taste of Chaucer. In modern poetry, his first and long continued predilection was attracted by the new and allegorical style of romance which had sprung up in France in the thirteenth century, under William de Lorris. We find him, accordingly, during a great part of his poetical career, engaged among the dreams, emblems, flower-worshippings, and amatory parliaments of that visionary school. This, we may say, was a gymnasium of rather too light and playful exercise for so strong a genius; and it must be owned, that his allegorical poetry is often puerile and prolix. Yet, even in this walk of fiction, we never entirely lose sight of that peculiar grace and gaiety which distinguish the muse of Chaucer; and no one who remembers his productions of the "House of Fame," and "The Flower and the Leaf," will regret that he sported for a season in the field of allegory. Even his pieces of this description the most fantastic in design and tedious in execution are generally interspersed with fresh and joyous descriptions of external nature.

In this new species of romance, we perceive the youthful muse of the language in love with mystical meanings and forms of fancy, more remote, if possible, from reality than those of the chivalrous fable itself; and we could sometimes wish her back from her emblematic castles to the more solid ones of the elder fable; but still she moves in pursuit of those shadows with an impulse of novelty, and an exuberance of spirit, that is not wholly without its attraction and delight.

Chaucer was afterwards happily drawn to the more natural style of Boccaccio, and from him he derived the hint of a subject‡, in which, besides his own original portraits of contemporary life, he could introduce stories of every description, from the most heroic to the most familiar.

[t The Consolation of Boethius was translated by Alfred the Great and by Queen Elizabeth. No unfair proof of its extraordinary popularity may be derived from The Quair of King James I. It seems to have been a truly regal book.] [ The Canterbury Tales.]

Gower, though he had been earlier distinguished in French poetry, began later than Chaucer to cultivate his native tongue. His Confessio Amantis," the only work by which he is known as an English poet, did not appear till the sixteenth year of Richard II. He must have been a highly accomplished man for his time, and imbued with a studious and mild spirit of reflection. His French sonnets are marked by elegance and sensibility, and his English poetry contains a digest of all that constituted the knowledge of his age. His contemporaries greatly esteemed him ; and the Scottish, as well as English writers of the subsequent period, speak of him with unqualified admiration. But though the placid and moral Gower might be a civilising spirit among his contemporaries, his character has none of the bold originality which stamps an influence on the literature of a country. He was not, like Chaucer, a patriarch in the family of genius, the scattered traits of whose resemblance may be seen in such descendants as Shakspeare and Spenser *. The design of his " Confessio Amantis" is peculiarly ill contrived. A lover, whose case has not a particle of interest, applies, according to the Catholic ritual, to a confessor, who, at the same time, whimsically enough, bears the additional character of a pagan priest of Venus. The holy father, it is true, speaks

[ocr errors]



WARTON, with great beauty and justice, compares the appearance of Chaucer in our language to a premature day in an century. English spring; after which the gloom of winter returns, and the buds and blossoms, which have been called forth by a transient sunshine, are nipped by frosts and scattered by storms. The causes of the relapse of our poetry, after Chaucer, seem but too apparent in the annals of English history, which during five reigns of the fifteenth century continue to display but a tissue of conspiracies, pro

[* Milton was the poetical son of Spenser, and Mr. Waller of Fairfax. Spenser more than once insinuates that the soul of Chaucer was transfused into his body, and that he was begotten by him two hundred years after his decease.-DRYDEN. Malone, vol. iv. p. 592.]

like a good Christian, and commu scandal about the intrigues of pagan author ever told. A prete: by the ceremony of confession, fo not only to initiate his pupil in th lover, but in a wide range of ethi sical knowledge; and at the ment virtue and vice a tale is introduce illustration. Does the confessor the lover against impertinent e introduces, apropos to that failing of Actæon, of peeping memory. inquires if he is addicted to a disposition; because if he is, he c story about Nebuchadnezzar. Do hear of the virtue of conjugal pa aptly inculcated by the anecdot Socrates, who, when he received of Xantippe's pail upon his head the provocation with only a witti with shrieving, narrations and dida the work is extended to thirty th in the course of which the virtu are all regularly allegorized. Bu Gower is cold and uninventive, rates qualities when he should visible objects. On the whole, ously stored with facts and fables, either to make truth appear pc render fiction the graceful vehicle

[ocr errors][merged small][ocr errors]

to think, that when punishments are let loose
upon men's opinions, they will spread a con-
tagious alarm from the understanding to the
imagination. They will make the heart grow
close and insensible to generous feelings, where
it is unaccustomed to express them freely; and
the graces and gaiety of fancy will be dejected
and appalled. In an age of persecution, even
the living study of his own species must be
comparatively darkened to the poet. He looks
round on the characters and countenances of
his fellow-creatures; and instead of the natu
rally cheerful and eccentric variety of their
humours, he reads only a sullen and oppressed
uniformity. To the spirit of poetry we should
conceive such a period to be an impassable
Avernus, where she would drop her wings and
expire. Undoubtedly this inference will be
found warranted by a general survey of the
history of Genius. It is, at the same time, im-
possible to deny, that wit and poetry have in
some instances flourished coeval with ferocious
bigotry, on the same spot, and under the same
government. The literary glory of Spain was
posterior to the establishment of the Inquisi-
tion. The fancy of Cervantes sported in its
neighbourhood, though he declared that he
could have made his writings still more enter-
taining, if he had not dreaded the Holy Office.
But the growth of Spanish genius, in spite of
the co-existence of religious tyranny, was fos-
tered by uncommon and glorious advantages in
the circumstances of the nation. Spain (for
we are comparing Spain in the sixteenth with
England in the fifteenth century) was, at the
period alluded to, great and proud in an em-
pire, on which it was boasted that the sun never
set. Her language was widely diffused. The
wealth of America for a while animated all her
arts. Robertson says, that the Spaniards dis-
covered at that time an extent of political
knowledge, which the English themselves did
not attain for more than a century afterwards.
Religious persecutions began in England, at a
time when she was comparatively poor and
barbarous; yet after she had been awakened
to so much intelligence on the subject of reli-

Our natural hatred of tyranny, and we may
safely add, the general test of history and ex-gion, as to make one half of the people indig-

perience, would dispose us to believe religious
persecution to be necessarily and essentially
baneful to the elegant arts, no less than to the
intellectual pursuits of mankind. It is natural

nantly impatient of priestly tyranny. If we
add to the political troubles of the age, the
circumstance of religious opinions being si-
lenced and stiffed by penal horrors, it will seem

death of Henry VI., it is said that one half of the nobility and gentry in the kingdom had perished in the field, or on the scaffold. Whilst in England the public spirit was thus brutalised, whilst the value and security of life were abridged, whilst the wealth of the rich was employed only in war, and the chance of patronage taken from the scholar; in Italy, princes and magistrates vied with each other in calling men of genius around them, as the brightest ornaments of their states and courts. The art of printing came to Italy to record the treasures of its literary attainments; but when it came to England, with a very few exceptions, it could not be said, for the purpose of diffusing native literature, to be a necessary art. A circumstance, additionally hostile to the national genius, may certainly be traced in the executions for religion, which sprung up as a horrible novelty in our country in the fifteenth century. The clergy were determined to indemnify themselves for the exposures which they had met with in the preceding age, and the unhallowed compromise which Henry IV. made with them, in return for supporting his accession, armed them, in an evil hour, with the torch of persecution. In one point of improvement, namely, in the boldness of religious inquiry, the North of Europe might already boast of being superior to the South, with all its learning, wealth, and elegant acquirements. The Scriptures had been opened by Wickliff, but they were again to become "a fountain sealed, and a spring shut up." Amidst the progress of letters in Italy, the fine arts threw enchantment around superstition; and the warm imagination of the South was congenial with the nature of Catholic institutions. But the English mind had already shown, even amidst its comparative barbarism, a stern independent spirit of religion; and from this single proud and elevated point of its character, it was now to be crushed and beaten down. Sometimes a baffled struggle against oppression is more depressing to the human faculties than continued submission.



« PrejšnjaNaprej »