Page images

ished at the courts of Edward III. and Richard II., between the years 1360 and 1400, and not only possessed an original genius of the first order, but had improved himself by travel, and by all the learning of the times. Despising alike the dull old rhyming chroniclers, and the more lively minstrels, he aimed at writing after the regular manner of the three illustrious Italians just mentioned, taking allegory from Dante, tenderness from Petrarch, and humorous anecdote from Boccaccio. He was himself a shrewd observer of character and manners, and seems to have been well acquainted with the world, such as it was in his own time. His chief work is that called the Canterbury Tales, which consists of a series of sportive and pathetic narratives, related by a miscellaneous company in the course of a religious pilgrimage to Canterbury. The work opens with a description of the company setting out from the Tabard Inn in Southwark, and a minute account of the persons and the characters of the various pilgrims, who are nearly thirty in number. These characteristic sketches are in themselves allowed to display uncommon talent, so distinct is every one from the other, and so vividly are all presented to the mind of the reader. Knight, the Yeoman, the Prioress, the Monk, the Merchant, the Lawyer, the Miller-all are exact and recognizable portraits.* The tales told by the Canterbury pilgrims,

* As a specimen of the verse of Chaucer, in its original appearance, his description of the Miller may be here presented:

The Miller was a stout carl for the nones,
Ful big he was of braun and eke of bones:
That proved wel, for over all ther he came,
At wrestling he wolde bere away the ram.
He was short-shoulder'd, brode, a thikke gnarre,
Ther n'as no dore that he n'olde heve of barre,
Or breke it at a renning with his hede.
His berd as any sowe or fox was rede,
And thereto brode as though it were a spade ;
Upon the cop right of his nose he hade
A wert, and thereon stude a tuft of heres
Rede as the bristles of a sowes eres.
His nose-thirles blacke wer and wide:
A swerd and bokeler bare he by his side :
His mouth as wide was as a forneis:
Wel coulde he stelen corne and tollen thries;
And yet he hade a thoom of golde parde,
A white cote and a blew hode wared he:
A baggepipe wel coulde he blow and soune,
And therewithal he brought us out of toune.

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

are partly humorous stories of humble life, partly romantic tales of chivalry, and only a few of them are supposed to have been altogether the invention of the poet. The general idea of the work was undoubtedly taken from the Decameron of Boccaccio, which consists of a hundred tales, narrated like those of Chaucer, by a company assembled by accident. Chaucer wrote many other poems, some of which were narrative and descriptive, while others were allegorical. He is held, not withstanding the obscurity which time has brought over his works, to rank with Spenser, Shakspeare, Milton, and the other English poets of the first class.

The age of Chaucer produced the two first writers of English prose, Sir John MANDEVILLE, a celebrated traveller, and John WiCLIFFE, who distinguished himself by his attempts to reform religion. Mandeville travelled for thirty-four years preceding 1356, in Eastern countries, and on his return wrote in English, French, and Latin, an account of all he had seen, mixed up with innumerable fables, derived from preceding writers and from hearsay. Wicliffe, who was a learned ecclesiastic, and

. professor of divinity in Baliol College, Oxford, began

It is unfortunate for the fame of Chaucer, and still more so for his countrymen, that his obsolete words, and old mode of spelling, render his poems very difficult to be understood. Several attempts have been made, with greater or less success, to modernize them in such a manner as to renew their popularity; the latest was by Mr. Charles Cowden Clarke, in a work entitled the Riches of Chaucer, (2 vols. London, 1835,) which presents all that is truly excellent of this old poet, in the spelling of the present day, excepting where the original orthography is necessary to help out the measure. As a specimen of the pathos of Chaucer, in Mr. Clarke's edition, may be given the dying words of Arcite, in which the very structure of the verse may be said to aid in the effect; its breaks and changes seeming to represent, as a critic has remarked, the sighs and sobbings of a broken and ebbing spirit:

Alas the woe! alas the painés strong,
That I for you have suffered, and so long!
Alas the death ! alas mine Emily!
Alas departing of our company!
Alas mine hearté's queen! alas my wife!
Mine hearte's lady, ender of my life!
What is this world ?- what asken men to have ?
Now with his love, now in his coldé gravem
Alone,-withouten any company:
Farewell my sweet,-Farewell mine Emily!
And softé take me in your armés tway,
For love of God, and hearkeneth what I say.

about the year 1377 to write both in Latin and English against the power of the Pope, and the various observances of the Catholic church; from his doing this long before general attention was directed to the subject, he has been called the Morning Star of the Reformation.' Among his voluminous writings, was a translation of the Bible into English, which, however, was not the first that had been executed. As a specimen of the prose of this period, a passage from his New Testament is quoted below.*

Chaucer must also be considered as one of the prose writers of this age; he wrote, in that manner, a philosophical and meditative work called the Testament of Love, and two of the Canterbury Tales are in prose. The English language was now beginning to be considered as sufficiently polite for literary purposes, and was every where rising in estimation. From the Conquest till this time, French had been the language of education, and when Latin was translated in the schools, it was not translated into English, but into French. But now the schoolmasters began to acknowledge the existence of English, and to construe Latin into it. The King (Edward III.) also abolished the use of French in the public acts and judicial proceedings, and substituted English in its stead. This English, however, as already mentioned, contained many French words, which had been gradually adopted from the Norman gentry.

The language at this time used in the Lowland districts of Scotland was chiefly of Teutonic origin, partly through the Saxons who had spread northward, and partly through Danish settlers and others from the north of Europe, who had taken possession of the eastern coasts. Except in its having a slighter mixture of Norman, the Scotch at this time very much resembled the English, and continued to do so till a comparatively recent period. As literary ideas and modes usually rose in the

* This Moisis ledde hem out, and dide woundris and signes in the lond of Egipte, and in the Reed See, and in Desert, fourti gheeris. This is Moisis that seide to the sones of Israel, God schal reise to ghou a prophete of ghoure britheren; as me ghe schulen heere him. This it is that was in the chirche in wildirnesse with the aungel that spak to him in the Mount Syna, and with oure fadris, which took wordis of lyf to ghyue

to us.

[blocks in formation]


South of Europe, and went northward, England naturally became the medium through which these were communicated to Scotland, and the latter country was of course a little later in exhibiting native writers of all the various orders. Thus the time of Chaucer and of genuine Poetry in England, was that in which Scotland first produced rhyming chroniclers; while the minstrels were a little later still. The first of the Scottish chroniclers was John BARBOUR, archdeacon in the cathedral of Aberdeen, and a man of considerable learning. He, about the year 1371, composed a long poem in eightsyllabled measure, commemorating the adventures of King Robert Bruce. Though this work must for general reasons be classed with the chronicles, it is allowed to possess no small share of the spirit of contemporary English poetry; it describes incidents with a graphic force far above the character of a chronicle, and abounds in beautiful episodes and fine sentimental passages. Hence we may assume that, though Barbour bestowed his attention upon a torm of composition now beginning to be antiquated in England, he partook nevertheless of the improved style which Chaucer had adopted, and was capable of producing poems of the same general nature. His apostrophe to freedom, which occurs at

. the close of a description of the miserable slavery to which Scotland had been reduced by Edward of England, has always been admired for its spirit and tenderness ;* and many other passages .equally worthy of notice, could be pointed out.

* A! fredome is a nobill thing!
Fredome makes man to have liking!
Fredome all solace to man gives,
He lives at ese that frely lives!
A nobill heart may have nane ese,
Na ellys nocht that may him plese,
Giff fredom faileth; for fre liking
Is yearnyt our all other thing.
Na he, that ay has levit free,
May nocht knaw weil the propyrte,
The angyr, na the wretchyt dome.
That is couplyt to foule thirldome.
But giff he had assayit it,
Than all perquer he suld it wyt;
And sulde think fredome mair to pryse,
Than all the gold in warld that is.


About the year 1420, ANDREW WYNTOWN, prior of St. Serf's Monastery, in Lochleven, wrote a chronicle of universal history, particularly detailing that of Scotland, but with a very small infusion of poetical spirit. This work may be considered as closing the list of the rhyming chronicles. A little before the time of Wyntown, we find Scottish poets devoting their attention to the minstrel class of compositions, which had also for some time gone out of fashion in the southern part of the island. Among their productions of this kind may be mentioned the Gest of Arthur, by HUCHEON, a poem now lost—and Sir Gawain, by CLERK of Tranent, which has been preserved and printed, but appears as a very uncouth composition. The last poem of this kind seems to have been that entitled the Adventures of Sir William Wallace, composed about the year 1460, by a wandering minstrel named Blind Harry, and which presented the general outlines of the history of that hero, mixed up with traditionary anecdotes, and aided in part by imagination. This poem, like that of Barbour, contains some passages of great poetical effect, and no small portion of patriotic and heroical sentiment. It differs from the generality of minstrel poems, in its bearing the appearance of an unaffected narration, and in its metre, which is of the kind called epic-that is, a series of rhymed couplets, in lines of ten syllables each. The work of Blind Harry was reduced into modern popular verse, about a century ago, by Mr. Hamilton of Gilbertfield, and in that shape has ever since been a favourite book with the country people of Scotland,


FROM 1400 TO 1558.

WHILE such minds as Chaucer's take shape, in some measure, from the state of learning and civilization which may prevail in their time, it is very clear that they are never altogether created or brought into exercise by such circumstances.

The rise of such men is acciden

« EelmineJätka »