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QUALITY OF CHAUCER'S POETRY.
streets of London, and mingling these vivid but homely descriptions with loftier and more romantic themes, we trace the bent as well as the vigour of his genius, disdaining to confine the freedom of its movement to the beaten track of his metrical predecessors.
It is proof of the native energy of Chaucer's genius that, not content with transmitted inspiration, he sought the elements of poetry in its primal sources. It was much, in an age when the poets were apt to fill their urns chiefly from the classical aqueducts of antiquity, that one should seek the limpid fountain as it burst from the native rock or rose noiselessly in the bosom of the green earth. There are, scattered through the poems of Chaucer, allusions to traits of his own character and personal habits. The autobiographical passages in the writings of eminent men are those which are always seized on with avidity; and in the case of our ancient poet they are singularly complete. Apart, however, from these direct descriptions, there would be no difficulty in fashioning our imaginings of his personal character. He was a student, a man of books,—manuscript books, let it be remembered; for the art of printing came slowly on near a hundred years later. The habitual downcast tendency of his looks was a trait perpetuated in his portrait, and at once an effect and a sign of literary application and of the reflective cast of his mind. Conscious of this habit, he puts a pleasant allusion to it into the mouth of one of his imaginary companions :
"What man art thou,' quoth he,
'That lookest as if thou would'st find a hare?
But, while Chaucer knew well, as we learn from his own words, the student's aching brow and sight dimmed by poring on the written page, he loved, too, with as deep a love, the fairer and more glorious book of nature. Largely did he share that element of all great poetic genius,— a passion for the outward world, that which is commonly called nature,— a passion springing from a consciousness of its influence on the spiritual part of our being. He was endowed with too capacious an intellect not to know that the soul of man is fitted to the external world, and that its education comes not from books alone. The undying soul which animates each human being was breathed by the Creator into a material body,- ‚—a union as mysterious as death which separates it; and who, without impeachment of divine Wisdom, can question that agencies innumerable, felt by the physical frame, are transmitted to the spirit in its secret dwelling? It is not the providence of God to bestow such impulses in vain :-the bright colours and the fresh airs of spring, the
sere and death-foretelling hues of autumn, the dirge-like tones of the voice of winter, are meant to reach, beyond the senses, to the spirit which is within. If there were times when Chaucer, with a student's intensity, hung over pages on which the wisdom of other days was recorded, there were also times when his heart beat high with the fervid enthusiasm which glows with the love of nature, partaking the emotion uttered by a later poet :
The poetry of Chaucer abounds with passages of great beauty andwhat is essential to all-true descriptive poetry, manifesting the fresh. 1 ness and truth of actual observation, shown not so much in mere precision of detail as in the animation which is sure to be wanting in all secondary description. Perhaps I can cite few passages more free from obsolete phraseology than the brilliant lines containing one of his descriptions of morning :
"The busy lark, the messenger of day,
Saluteth in her song the morning grey :
It would be harsh criticism to object to the sun being designated by the cold mythological title; for it is only very recent poets that have learned to lay aside that fashion of speech. This fault-excusable in an early writer—should not disparage a description which fairly sparkles with the dew of morning.
In Chaucer's love of nature there is one element of it, as a poetic feeling, in which may be traced affinity between the earliest and the latest of the great English poets. I refer to his imaginative moralizing over even the humblest flowers that deck the bosom of his native ground,—not an incongruous combination of botany and poetry, such as the language of flowers and such fantastic devices. I am speaking of that which has a truer aim,-one development of poetry's chief philosophy, in making things visible types and shadows of things invisible. It is an utterance of imagination often scorned by intellectual pride, but precious, as any one may feel who will reflect that a few Bible-words have made the lowly, untoiling lilies dear to the whole Christian world. Chaucer's poem of the "Flower and the Leaf” is
BURNS'S ADDRESS TO THE DAISY.
full of this gentle morality, and is as beautiful an allegorical pastoral as the language has produced. It was a tribute to that modest flower, the daisy. Afterwards the flower, honoured by the early bards, enjoyed no more than, now and then, some chance notice, like the one tender word for it from the lips of the crazed Ophelia. And so its neglect lasted till, about fifty years ago, on the bleak side of a Scottish hill, a sturdy ploughman checked his plough; for in the mid-path of the furrow there was looking up to him the "wee," modest, crimson-tipped flower of a mountain-daisy. Within the manly bosom of that ploughman was beating the heart of ROBERT BURNS; and, though the flower was soon crushed beneath the ploughshare, it had beamed long enough on a poet's eye to inspire the most touching strain that had been breathed ever since the days of old Chaucer :
"Cold blew the bitter biting north
"The flaunting flowers our gardens yield
High sheltering woods and wa's maun shield;
Of clod or stane,
Adorns the histie stibble-field,
The flower and its fate called up, to Burns's fancy, associations of maiden innocence abused and ruin's plough-share driving over the shortlived happiness of suffering merit; but this article of the poetic creed, neglected for five centuries, has been reännounced more strongly by a later voice:
"Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,—
The deepest response to Chaucer's imaginative and thoughtful love of nature's humblest forms comes from the latest of his great successors, who has thus taken up a strain that had been hushed for near five hundred years,-a strain of gratitude as well as of poetry to the modest flower, as the origin of various spiritual emotions:
"A hundred times, by rock or bower,
Ere thus I have lain couch'd an hour,
Some shady love, some brief delight,
"If stately passions in me burn,
And one chance look to thee should turn,
A lowlier pleasure:-
"And all day long I number yet,
An instinct call it,-a blind sense,
A happy, genial influence,
"Child of the year, that round dost run
As lark or leveret,
Thy long-lost praise thou shalt regain,
I have noticed the independence of Chaucer's genius in seeking the native sources of poetic inspiration; but, in doing so, I should give a false idea of his productions, if I left the impression that they were chiefly of his own invention. He was a voluminous poet; so much so that the press of his country has as yet furnished no worthy edition of his entire works. During the greater part of his life his literary efforts were devoted to translating and paraphrasing the poets of France and Italy and of ancient Rome. Of these works the most elaborate was the "Romaunt of the Rose," a version of the French allegorical and romantic poem with that title, and the poem of "Troilus and Cressida," principally imitated from Boccaccio, but with large additions. Dealing with a language of which the vocabulary was yet unsettled and the metres not reduced to system, Chaucer was thus gradually invigorating his genius for the chief work on which his fame rests. It is a remark of Mr. Ellis, in his excellent "Specimens of the Early English Poets," that it may be doubted whether he thought himself sufficiently qualified to undertake an original
composition till he was sixty years of age, at which time it is conjectured he began to execute the plan of his "Canterbury Tales." The arrangement of the poem bearing this title into one harmonious series was a conception that would do credit to any period of literature. If suggested, as is probable, by the "Decameron" of Boccaccio,-where a company is represented as having retired to a place of safety from the raging of a pestilence, and amusing themselves with tales of mirth,-it is free, as has been observed by Mr. Coleridge, from all reproach of unfeelingness to which the plan of the Italian author exposes his nar
Chaucer's plan was to present a collection of narrative poems, enlivened by a variety both of subject and of tone, comprehending the range of tragic and comic invention. A usage of the Middle Ages, still prevalent in the poet's day, afforded an appropriate mode of executing the idea. The work opens with an allusion to the season of the year when the mild temperature of spring tempted people from all quarters of England to journey on pilgrimages to the shrine of the sainted martyr at Canterbury. The poet, bent on the same pious errand, finds himself a lodger at the Sign of the Tabard, in Southwark, in company with the promiscuous gathering of pilgrims of various occupations and spheres of life as well as both sexes.
The prologue to the Canterbury Tales is an elaborate description of this company, and, beyond all question, gives the modern reader a more complete notion of the manners and customs of the fourteenth century than could by any research be gathered from historical records. The state of society, the way of life, the social habits of our ancestors, five hundred years ago, are vividly presented, with various details, the memory of which must have perished had it not been perpetuated by the conservative magic of the poet. The prologue is a complete poem in itself, not presenting indeed proofs of Chaucer's highest powers, but abounding in strokes of the happiest discrimination of character, and wonderfully graphic as a delineation of life with all its actual varieties. It places the author, too, as not only one of the earliest, but one of the most successful of English satirists. The satire most genial to the gentle spirit of Chaucer is that in which the serious is blended with the playful. He was a kindly-tempered humourist, better pleased to touch with a tender hand the weaknesses of men than to task their follies and their crimes. There is in his chiding more of the placid smile of Horace than the fierce indignation of Juvenal. The various portraits in the prologue owe their effect in a high degree to the delicacy of the satirist's strokes. We see the shipman, sunburnt and managing his steed