CHAPTER IX. CHAUCER (CONTINUED.)—PROGRESS OF SOCIETY, AND OF LANGUAGES.
Social Life. Government. Chaucer's English. His Death. Historical
Facts. John Gower. Chaucer and Gower. Gower's Language. Other Writers.
A few words must suffice to suggest to the student what may be learned, as to the condition of society in England, from the Canterbury Tales.
All the portraits are representatives of classes. But an inquiry into the social life of the period will be more systematic, if we look first at the nature and condition of chivalry, as it still existed, although on the eve of departure, in England. This is found in the portraits of certain of Chaucer's pilgrims—the knight, the squire, and the yeoman; and in the special prologues to the various tales. The knight, as the representative of European chivalry, comes to us in name at least from the German forests with the irrepressible Teutons. Chivalry in its rude form, however, was destined to pass through a refining and modifying process, and to obtain its name in France. Its Norman characteristic is found in the young ecuyer or squire, of Chaucer, who aspires to equal his father in station and renown; while the English type of the man-at-arms (l'homme d'armes) is found in their attendant yeoman, the tiers etat of English chivalry, whose bills and bows served Edward III. at Cressy and Poictiers, and, a little later, made Henry V. of England king of France in prospect, at Agincourt. Chivalry, in its palmy days, was an institution of great merit and power; but its humanizing purpose now accomplished, it was beginning to decline.
What a speaking picture has Chaucer drawn of the knight, brave as a lion, prudent in counsel, but gentle as a woman. His deeds of valor had been achieved, not at Cressy and Calais, but—what both chieftain and poet esteemed far nobler warfare—in battle with the infidel, at Algeciras, in Poland, in Prussia, and Russia. Thrice had he fought with sharp lances in the lists, and thrice had he slain his foe; yet he was
Of his port as meke as is a mayde;
He never yet no vilainie ne sayde
In all his life unto ne manere wight,
He was a very parfit gentil knight.
The entire paradox of chivalry is here presented by the poet. For, though Chaucer's knight, just returned from the wars, is going to show his devotion to God and the saints by his pilgrimage to the hallowed shrine at Canterbury, when he is called upon for his story, his fancy flies to the old romantic mythology. Mars is his god of war, and Venus his mother of loves, and, by an anachronism quite common in that day, Palamon and Arcite are mediaeval knights trained in the school of chivalry, and aflame, in knightly style, with the light of love and ladies' eyes. These incongruities marked the age.
Such was the flickering brightness of chivalry in Chaucer's time, even then growing dimmer and more fitful, and soon to “pale its ineffectual fire” in the light of a growing civilization. Its better principles, which were those of truth, virtue, and holiness, were to remain; but its forms, ceremonies, and magnificence were to disappear.
It is significant of social progress, and of the levelling influence of Christianity, that common people should do their pilgrimage with community of interest as well as danger, and in easy, tale-telling conference with those of higher station. The franklin, with white beard and red face, has been lord of the sessions and knight of the shire. The merchant, with forked beard and Flaundrish beaver hat, discourses learnedly of taxes and ship-money, and was doubtless drawn from an existing original, the type of a class. Several of the personages belong to the guilds which were so famous in London, and
Were alle yclothed in o livere
Of a solempne and grete fraternite.
GOVERNMENT.—Closely connected with this social progress, was the progress in constitutional government, the fruit of the charters of John and Henry III. After the assassination of Edward II. by his queen and her paramour, there opened upon England a new historic era, when the bold and energetic Edward III. ascended the throne—an era reflected in the poem of Chaucer. The king, with Wiclif's aid, checked the encroachments of the Church. He increased the representation of the people in parliament, and—perhaps the greatest reform of all—he divided that body into two houses, the peers and the commons, giving great consequence to the latter in the conduct of the government, and introducing that striking feature of English legislation, that no ministry can withstand an opposition majority in the lower house; and another quite as important, that no tax should be imposed without its consent. The philosophy of these great facts is to be found in the democratic spirit so manifest among the pilgrims; a spirit tempered with loyalty, but ready, where their liberties were encroached upon, to act with legislative vigor, as well as individual boldness.
Not so directly, but still forcibly, does Chaucer present the results of Edward's wars in France, in the status of the knight, squire, and yeoman, and of the English sailor, and in the changes introduced into the language and customs of the English thereby.
CHAUCER'S ENGLISH.—But we are to observe, finally, that Chaucer is the type of progress in the language, giving it himself the momentum which carried it forward with only technical modifications to the days of Spenser and the Virgin Queen. The House of Fame and other minor poems are written in the octosyllabic verse of the Trouveres, but the Canterbury Tales give us the first vigorous English handling of the decasyllabic couplet, or iambic pentameter, which was to become so polished an instrument afterward in the hands of Dryden and Pope. The English of all the poems is simple and vernacular.
It is known that Dante had at first intended to compose the Divina Commedia in Latin. “But when,” he said to the sympathizing Frate Ilario, “I recalled the condition of the present age, and knew that those generous men for whom, in better days, these things were written, had abandoned (ahi dolore) the liberal arts into vulgar hands, I threw aside the delicate lyre which armed my flank, and attuned another more befitting the ears of moderns.” It seems strange that he should have thus regretted what to us seems a noble and original opportunity of double creation—poem and language. What Dante thus bewailed was his real warrant for immortality. Had he written his great work in Latin, it would have been consigned, with the Italian latinity of the middle ages, to oblivion; while his Tuscan still delights the ear of princes and lazzaroni. Professorships of the Divina Commedia are instituted in Italian universities, and men are considered accomplished when they know it by heart.
What Dante had done, not without murmuring, Chaucer did more cheerfully in England. Claimed by both universities as a collegian, perhaps without truth, he certainly was an educated man, and must have been sorely tempted by Latin hexameters; but he knew his mission, and felt his power. With a master hand he moulded the language. He is reproached for having introduced “a wagon-load of foreign words,” i.e. Norman words, which, although frowned upon by some critics, were greatly needed, were eagerly adopted, and constituted him the “well of English undefiled,” as he was called by Spenser. It is no part of our plan to consider Chaucer's language or diction, a special study which the reader can pursue for himself. Occleve, in his work “De Regimine Principium” calls him “the honour of English tonge,” “floure of eloquence,” and “universal fadir in science,” and, above all, “the firste findere of our faire language.” To Lydgate he was the “Floure of Poetes throughout all Bretaine.” Measured by our standard, he is not always musical, “and,” in the language of Dryden, “many of his verses are lame for want of half a foot, and sometimes a whole one;” but he must be measured by the standards of his age, by the judgment of his contemporaries, and by a thorough intelligence of the language as he found it and as he left it. Edward III., a practical reformer in many things, gave additional importance to English, by restoring it in the courts of law, and administering justice to the people in their own tongue. When we read of the English kings of this early period, it is curious to reflect that these monarchs, up to the time of Edward I., spoke French as their vernacular tongue, while English had only been the mixed, corrupted language of the lower classes, which was now brought thus by king and poet into honorable consideration.
HIS DEATH.—Chaucer died on the 25th of October, 1400, in his little tenement in the garden of St. Mary's Chapel, Westminster, and left his works and his fame to an evil and unappreciative age. His monument was not erected until one hundred and fifty-six years afterward, by Nicholas Brigham. It stands in the “poets' corner” of Westminster Abbey, and has been the nucleus of that gathering-place of the sacred dust which once enclosed the great minds of England. The inscription, which justly styles him “Anglorum vates ter maximus,” is not to be entirely depended upon as to the “annus Domini,” or “tempora vitae,” because of the turbulent and destructive reigns that had intervened—evil times for literary effort, and yet making material for literature and history, and producing that wonderful magician, the printing-press, and paper, by means of which the former things might be disseminated, and Chaucer brought nearer to us than to them.
HISTORICAL FACTS.—The year before Chaucer died, Richard II. was starved in his dungeon. Henry, the son of John of Gaunt, represented the usurpation of Lancaster, and the realm was convulsed with the revolts of rival aristocracy; and, although Prince Hal, or Henry V., warred with entire success in France, and got the throne of that kingdom away from Charles VI., (the Insane,) he died leaving to his infant son, Henry VI., an inheritance which could not be secured. The rival claimant of York, Edward IV., had a strong party in the kingdom: then came the wars of the Roses; the murders and treason of Richard III.; the sordid valor of Henry VII.; the conjugal affection of Henry VIII.; the great religious earthquake all over Europe, known as the Reformation; constituting all together an epoch too stirring and unsettled to permit literature to flourish; an epoch which gave birth to no great poet or mighty master, but which contained only the seeds of things which were to germinate and flourish in a kindlier age.
In closing this notice of Chaucer, it should be remarked that no English poet has been more successful in the varied delineation of character, or in fresh and charming pictures of Nature. Witty and humorous, sententious and didactic, solemn and pathetic, he not only pleases the fancy, but touches the heart.
JOHN GOWER.—Before entering upon the barren period from Chaucer to Spenser, however, there is one contemporary of Chaucer whom we must not omit to mention; for his works, although of little literary value, are historical signs of the times: this is John Gower, styled variously Sir John and Judge Gower, as he was very probably both a knight and a justice. He seems to owe most of his celebrity to his connection, however slight, with Chaucer; although there is no doubt of his having been held in good repute by the literary patrons and critics of his own age. His fame rests upon three works, or rather three parts of one scheme—Speculum Meditantis, Vox Clamantis, and Confessio Amantis. The first of these, the mirror of one who meditates, was in French verse, and was, in the main, a treatise upon virtue and repentance, with inculcations to conjugal fidelity much disregarded at that time. This work has been lost. The Vox Clamantis, or voice of one crying in the wilderness, is directly historical, being a chronicle, in Latin elegiacs, of the popular revolts of Wat Tyler in the time of Richard II., and a sermon on fatalism, which, while it calls for a reformation in the clergy, takes ground against Wiclif, his doctrines, and adherents. In the later books he discusses the military and the lawyers; and thus he is the voice of one crying, like the Baptist in the wilderness, against existing abuses and for the advent of a better order. The Confessio Amantis, now principally known because it contains a eulogium of Chaucer, which in his later editions he left out, is in English verse, and was composed at the instance of Richard II. The general argument of this Lover's Confession is a dialogue between the lover and a priest of Venus, who, in the guise of a confessor, applies the breviary of the Church to the confessions of love. The poem is interspersed with introductory or recapitulatory Latin verses.
CHAUCER AND GOWER.—That there was for a time a mutual admiration between Chaucer and Gower, is shown by their allusion to each other. In the penultimate stanza of the Troilus and Creseide, Chaucer calls him “O Morall Gower,” an epithet repeated by Dunbar, Hawes, and other writers; while in the Confessio Amantis, Gower speaks of Chaucer as his disciple and poet, and alludes to his poems with great praise. That they were at any time alienated from each other has been asserted, but the best commentators agree in thinking without sufficient grounds.
The historical teachings of Gower are easy to find. He states truths without parable. His moral satires are aimed at the Church corruptions of the day, and yet are conservative; and are taken, says Berthelet, in his dedication of the Confessio to Henry VIII., not only out of “poets, orators, historic writers, and philosophers, but out of the Holy Scripture”—the same Scripture so eloquently expounded by Chaucer, and translated by Wiclif. Again, Gower, with an eye to the present rather than to future fame, wrote in three languages—a tribute to the Church in his Latin, to the court in his French, and to the progressive spirit of the age in his English. The latter alone is now read, and is the basis of his fame. Besides three poems, he left, among his manuscripts, fifty French sonnets, (cinquantes balades,) which were afterward printed by his descendant, Lord Gower, Duke of Sutherland.
GOWER'S LANGUAGE.—Like Chaucer, Gower was a reformer in language, and was accused by the “severer etymologists of having corrupted the purity of the English by affecting to introduce so many foreign words and phrases;” but he has the tribute of Sir Philip Sidney (no mean praise) that Chaucer and himself were the leaders of a movement, which others have followed, “to beautifie our mother tongue,” and thus the Confessio Amantis ranks as one of the formers of our language, in a day when it required much moral courage to break away from the trammels of Latin and French, and at the same time to compel them to surrender their choicest treasures to the English.
Gower was born in 1325 or 1326, and outlived Chaucer. It has been generally believed that Chaucer was his poetical pupil. The only evidence is found in the following vague expression of Gower in the Confessio Amantis:
And greet well Chaucer when ye meet
As my disciple and my poete.
For in the flower of his youth,
In sondry wise as he well couth,
Of ditties and of songes glade
The which he for my sake made.
It may have been but a patronizing phrase, warranted by Gower's superior rank and station; for to the modern critic the one is the uprising sun, and the other the pale star scarcely discerned in the sky. Gower died in 1408, eight years after his more illustrious colleague.
OTHER WRITERS OF THE PERIOD OF CHAUCER.
John Barbour, Archdeacon of Aberdeen, a Scottish poet, born about 1320: wrote a poem concerning the deeds of King Robert I. in achieving the independence of Scotland. It is called Broite or Brute, and in it, in imitation of the English, he traces the Scottish royal lineage to Brutus. Although by no means equal to Chaucer, he is far superior to any other English poet of the time, and his language is more intelligible at the present day than that of Chaucer or Gower. Sir Walter Scott has borrowed from Barbour's poem in his “Lord of the Isles.”
Blind Harry—name unknown: wrote the adventures of Sir William Wallace, about 1460.
James I. of Scotland, assassinated at Perth, in 1437. He wrote “The Kings Quhair,” (Quire or Book,) describing the progress of his attachment to the daughter of the Earl of Somerset, while a prisoner in England, during the reign of Henry IV.
Thomas Occleve, flourished about 1420. His principal work is in Latin; De Regimine Principum, (concerning the government of princes.)
John Lydgate, flourished about 1430: wrote Masks and Mummeries, and nine books of tragedies translated from Boccaccio.
Robert Henryson, flourished about 1430: Robin and Makyne, a pastoral; and a continuation of Chaucer's Troilus and Creseide, entitled “The Testament of Fair Creseide.”
William Dunbar, died about 1520: the greatest of Scottish poets, called “The Chaucer of Scotland.” He wrote “The Thistle and the Rose,” “The Dance,” and “The Golden Targe.”