CHAPTER VII. CHAUCER, AND THE EARLY REFORMATION.
A New Era—Chaucer. Italian Influence. Chaucer as a Founder. Earlier
Poems. The Canterbury Tales. Characters. Satire. Presentations of
Woman. The Plan Proposed.
THE BEGINNING OF A NEW ERA.
And now it is evident, from what has been said, that we stand upon the eve of a great movement in history and literature. Up to this time everything had been more or less tentative, experimental, and disconnected, all tending indeed, but with little unity of action, toward an established order. It began to be acknowledged that though the clergy might write in Latin, and Frenchmen in French, the English should “show their fantasyes in such words as we learneden of our dame's tonge,” and it was equally evident that that English must be cultivated and formed into a fitting vehicle for vigorous English thought. To do this, a master mind was required, and such a master mind appeared in the person of Chaucer. It is particularly fortunate for our historic theory that his works, constituting the origin of our homogeneous English literature, furnish forth its best and most striking demonstration.
CHAUCER'S BIRTH.—Geoffrey Chaucer was born at London about the year 1328: as to the exact date, we waive all the discussion in which his biographers have engaged, and consider this fixed as the most probable time. His parentage is unknown, although Leland, the English antiquarian, declares him to have come of a noble family, and Pitts says he was the son of a knight. He died in the year 1400, and thus was an active and observant contemporary of events in the most remarkable century which had thus far rolled over Europe—the age of Edward III. and the Black Prince, of Crecy and Poitiers, of English bills and bows, stronger than French lances; the age of Wiclif, of reformation in religion, government, language, and social order. Whatever his family antecedents, he was a courtier, and a successful one; his wife was Philippa, a sister of Lady Katherine Swinford, first the mistress and then the wife of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster.
ITALIAN INFLUENCE.—From a literary point of view, the period of his birth was remarkable for the strong influence of Italian letters, which first having made its entrance into France, now, in natural course of progress, found its way into England. Dante had produced,
... in the darkness prest,
From his own soul by worldly weights, ...
the greatest poem then known to modern Europe, and the most imaginative ever written. Thus the Italian sky was blazing with splendor, while the West was still in the morning twilight. The Divina Commedia was written half a century before the Canterbury Tales.
Boccaccio was then writing his Filostrato, which was to be Chaucer's model in the Troilus and Creseide, and his Decameron, which suggested the plan of the Canterbury Tales. His Teseide is also said to be the original of the Knight's Tale. Petrarch, “the worthy clerke” from whom Chaucer is said to have learned a story or two in Italy for his great work, was born in 1304, and was also a star of the first magnitude in that Italian galaxy.
Indeed, it is here worthy of a passing remark, that from that early time to a later period, many of the great products of English poetry have been watered by silver rills of imaginative genius from a remote Italian source. Chaucer's indebtedness has just been noticed. Spenser borrowed his versification and not a little of his poetic handling in the Faery Queen from Ariosto. Milton owes to Dante some of his conceptions of heaven and hell in his Paradise Lost, while his Lycidas, Arcades, Allegro and Penseroso, may be called Italian poems done into English.
In the time of Chaucer, this Italian influence marks the extended relations of English letters; and, serving to remove the trammels of the French, it gave to the now vigorous and growing English that opportunity of development for which it had so long waited. Out of the serfdom and obscurity to which it had been condemned by the Normans, it had sprung forth in reality, as in name, the English language. Books, few at the best, long used in Latin or French, were now demanded by English mind, and being produced in answer to the demand.
THE FOUNDER OF THE LITERATURE.—But there was still wanted a man who could use the elements and influences of the time—a great poet—a maker—a creator of literature. The language needed a forming, controlling, fixing hand. The English mind needed a leader and master, English imagination a guide, English literature a father.
The person who answered to this call, and who was equal to all these demands, was Chaucer. But he was something more. He claimed only to be a poet, while he was to figure in after times as historian, philosopher, and artist.
The scope of this work does not permit an examination of Chaucer's writings in detail, but the position we have taken will be best illustrated by his greatest work, the Canterbury Tales. Of the others, a few preliminary words only need be said. Like most writers in an early literary period, Chaucer began with translations, which were extended into paraphrases or versions, and thus his “'prentice hand" gained the practice and skill with which to attempt original poems.
MINOR POEMS.—His earliest attempt, doubtless, was the Romaunt of the Rose, an allegorical poem in French, by William de Lorris, continued, after his death in 1260, by Jean de Meun, who figured as a poet in the court of Charles le Bel, of France. This poem, esteemed by the French as the finest of their old romances, was rendered by Chaucer, with considerable alterations and improvements, into octosyllabic verse. The Romaunt portrays the trials which a lover meets and the obstacles he overcomes in pursuit of his mistress, under the allegory of a rose in an inaccessible garden. It has been variously construed—by theologians as the yearning of man for the celestial city; by chemists as the search for the philosopher's stone; by jurists as that for equity, and by medical men as the attempt to produce a panacea for all human ailments.
Next in order was his Troilus and Creseide, a mediaeval tale, already attempted by Boccaccio in his Filostrate, but borrowed by Chaucer, according to his own account, from Lollius, a mysterious name without an owner. The story is similar to that dramatized by Shakspeare in his tragedy of the same title. This is in decasyllabic verse, arranged in stanzas of seven lines each.
The House of Fame, another of his principal poems, is a curious description—probably his first original effort—of the Temple of Fame, an immense cage, sixty miles long, and its inhabitants the great writers of classic times, and is chiefly valuable as showing the estimation in which the classic writers were held in that day. This is also in octosyllabic verses, and is further remarkable for the opulence of its imagery and its variety of description. The poet is carried in the claws of a great eagle into this house, and sees its distinguished occupants standing upon columns of different kinds of metal, according to their merits. The poem ends with the third book, very abruptly, as Chaucer awakes from his vision.
“The Legend of Good Women” is a record of the loves and misfortunes of celebrated women, and is supposed to have been written to make amends for the author's other unjust portraitures of female character.
THE CANTERBURY TALES.—In order to give system to our historic inquiries, we shall now present an outline of the Canterbury Tales, in order that we may show—
I. The indications of a general desire in that period for a reformation
II. The social condition of the English people.
III. The important changes in government.
IV. The condition and progress of the English language.
The Canterbury Tales were begun in 1386, when Chaucer was fifty-eight years old, and in a period of comparative quiet, after the minority of Richard II. was over, and before his troubles had begun. They form a beautiful gallery of cabinet pictures of English society in all its grades, except the very highest and the lowest; and, in this respect, they supplement in exact lineaments and the freshest coloring those compendiums of English history which only present to us, on the one hand, the persons and deeds of kings and their nobles, and, on the other, the general laws which so long oppressed the lower orders of the people, and the action of which is illustrated by disorders among them. But in Chaucer we find the true philosophy of English society, the principle of the guilds, or fraternities, to which his pilgrims belong—the character and avocation of the knight, squire, yeoman, franklin, bailiff, sompnour, reeve, etc., names, many of them, now obsolete. Who can find these in our compendiums? they must be dug—and dry work it is—out of profounder histories, or found, with greater pleasure, in poems like that of Chaucer.
CHARACTERS.—Let us consider, then, a few of his principal characters which most truly represent the age and nation.
The Tabard inn at Southwark, then a suburb of “London borough without the walls,” was a great rendezvous for pilgrims who were journeying to the shrine of St. Thomas a Becket, at Canterbury—that Saxon archbishop who had been murdered by the minions of Henry II. Southwark was on the high street, the old Roman highway from London to the southeast. A gathering of pilgrims here is no uncommon occurrence; and thus numbers and variety make a combination of penitence and pleasure. The host of the Tabard—doubtless a true portraiture of the landlord of that day—counts noses, that he may distribute the pewter plates. A substantial supper smokes upon the old-fashioned Saxon-English board—so substantial that the pilgrims are evidently about to lay in a good stock, in anticipation of poor fare, the fatigue of travel, and perhaps a fast or two not set down in the calendar. As soon as they attack the viands, ale and strong wines, hippocras, pigment, and claret, are served in bright pewter and wood. There were Saxon drinks for the commoner pilgrims; the claret was for the knight. Every one drinks at his will, and the miller, as we shall see, takes a little more than his head can decently carry.
First in the place of honor is the knight, accompanied by his son, the young squire, and his trusty yeoman. Then, in order of social rank, a prioress, a nun and three priests, a friar, a merchant, a poor scholar or clerk of Oxford, a sergeant of the law, a frankelein, a haberdasher, a weaver, a tapster, a dyer, a cook, a shipman, a doctor of physic, a wife of Bath, a poor parson, a ploughman, a miller, a manciple or college steward, a reeve or bailiff, a sompnour or summoner to the ecclesiastical courts, a pardoner or seller of papal indulgences (one hundred and fifty years before Luther)—an essentially English company of many social grades, bound to the most popular shrine, that of a Saxon archbishop, himself the son of a London citizen, murdered two hundred years before with the connivance of an English king. No one can read this list without thinking that if Chaucer be true and accurate in his descriptions of these persons, and make them talk as they did talk, his delineations are of inestimable value historically. He has been faithfully true. Like all great masters of the epic art, he doubtless drew them from the life; each, given in the outlines of the prologue, is a speaking portrait: even the horses they ride are as true to nature as those in the pictures of Rosa Bonheur.
And besides these historic delineations which mark the age and country, notwithstanding the loss of local and personal satire with which, to the reader of his day, the poem must have sparkled, and which time has destroyed for us, the features of our common humanity are so well portrayed, that to the latest generations will be there displayed the “forth-showing instances” of the Idola Tribus of Bacon, the besetting sins, frailties, and oddities of the human race.
SATIRE.—His touches of satire and irony are as light as the hits of an accomplished master of the small-sword; mere hits, but significant of deep thrusts, at the scandals, abuses, and oppressions of the age. Like Dickens, he employed his fiction in the way of reform, and helped to effect it.
Let us illustrate. While sitting at the table, Chaucer makes his sketches for the Prologue. A few of these will serve here as specimens of his powers. Take the Doctour of Physike who
Knew the cause of every maladie,
Were it of cold or hote or wet or drie;
who also knew
... the old Esculapius,
And Dioscorides and eke Rufus,
Old Hippocras, Rasis, and Avicen,
and many other classic authorities in medicine.
Of his diete mesurable was he,
And it was of no superfluite;
nor was it a gross slander to say of the many,
His studie was but litel on the Bible.
It was a suggestive satire which led him to hint that he was
... but esy of dispense;
He kepte that he wan in pestilence;
For gold in physike is a cordial;
Therefore he loved gold in special.
Chaucer deals tenderly with the lawyers; yet, granting his sergeant of the law discretion and wisdom, a knowledge of cases even “from the time of King Will,” and fees and perquisites quite proportional, he adds,
Nowher so besy a man as he ther n' as,
And yet he seemed besier than he was.
HIS PRESENTATIONS OF WOMAN.—Woman seems to find hard judgment in this work. Madame Eglantine, the prioress, with her nasal chanting, her English-French, “of Stratford-atte-Bow,” her legion of smalle houndes, and her affected manner, is not a flattering type of woman's character, and yet no doubt she is a faithful portrait of many a prioress of that day.
And the wife of Bath is still more repulsive. She tells us, in the prologue to her story, that she has buried five husbands, and, buxom still, is looking for the sixth. She is a jolly compagnon de voyage, had been thrice to Jerusalem, and is now seeking assoil for some little sins at Canterbury. And the host's wife, as he describes her, is not by any means a pleasant helpmeet for an honest man. The host is out of her hearing, or he would not be so ready to tell her character:
I have a wif, tho' that she poore be;
But of her tongue a blabbing shrew is she,
And yet she hath a heap of vices mo.
She is always getting into trouble with the neighbors; and when he will not fight in her quarrel, she cries,
... False coward, wreak thy wif;
By corpus domini, I will have thy knife,
And thou shalt have my distaff and go spin.
The best names she has for him are milksop, coward, and ape; and so we say, with him,
Come, let us pass away from this mattere.
THE PLAN PROPOSED.—With these suggestions of the nature of the company assembled “for to don their pilgrimage,” we come to the framework of the story. While sitting at the table, the host proposes
That each of you, to shorten with your way,
In this viage shall tellen tales twey.
Each pilgrim should tell two stories; one on the way to Canterbury, and one returning. As, including Chaucer and the host, there are thirty-one in the company, this would make sixty-two stories. The one who told the best story should have, on the return of the company to the Tabard inn, a supper at the expense of the rest.
The host's idea was unanimously accepted; and in the morning, as they ride forth, they begin to put it into execution. Although lots are drawn for the order in which the stories shall be told, it is easily arranged by the courteous host, who recognizes the difference in station among the pilgrims, that the knight shall inaugurate the scheme, which he does by telling that beautiful story of Palamon and Arcite, the plot of which is taken from Le Teseide of Boccacio. It is received with cheers by the company, and with great delight by the host, who cries out,
So mote I gon—this goth aright,
Unbockled is the mail.
The next in order is called for, but the miller, who has replenished his midnight potations in the morning, and is now rolling upon his horse, swears that “he can a noble tale,” and, not heeding the rebuke of the host,
Thou art a fool, thy wit is overcome,
he shouts out a vulgar story, in all respects in direct contrast to that of the knight. As a literary device, this rude introduction of the miller breaks the stiffness and monotony of a succession in the order of rank; and, as a feature of the history, it seems to tell us something of democratic progress. The miller's story ridicules a carpenter, and the reeve, who is a carpenter, immediately repays him by telling a tale in which he puts a miller in a ludicrous position.
With such a start, the pilgrims proceed to tell their tales; but not all. There is neither record of their reaching Canterbury, nor returning. Nor is the completion of the number at all essential: for all practical purposes, we have all that can be asked; and had the work been completed, it would have added little to the historical stores which it now indirectly, and perhaps unconsciously, offers. The number of the tales (including two in prose) is twenty-four, and great additional value is given to them by the short prologue introducing each of them.