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*rocess, for there is something thwarting and vexatious in finding ourselves at fault in dealing with our own mother-tongue. It seems like encountering the curse of Babel in our own homes, on our own hearths; and that is a misery. In forming acquaintance with ancient or foreign literature, the student knows that a well-defined exertion is needed, and this he makes in working his way through ancient or foreign words and idioms; and thus he comes to know the literature of Greece and Rome, of Trance, or Italy, or Germany. But the antiquated dialect of his own language is a mingled mass of sunshine and shadow, with sharp and sudden changes from one to the other, so that the mind is distracted in the uncertainty how long the clearness will last, and how soon the obscurity will come again, going along, like Christabel, “ now in glimmer and now in gloom.” This proves a greater obstacle than the total separation of language which enforces the task of translation, and it has been remarked with truth that, “ if Chaucer's poems had been written in Greek or Hebrew, they would have been a thousand times better known. They would have been translated.”
A process akin to translation has been attempted, the most noted of the paraphrases of Chaucer's poems being those by Dryden and Pope. Those versions are, however, of little avail for what should have been their chief purpose; for, while they serve to give the reader a notion of Dryden and Pope, the genius of Chaucer, with all its natural simplicity and power, is lost by being transmuted into the elaborate polish of the verse of the times of Charles the Second and or Queen Anne.
The only successful attempt to make the approach to the poetry of Chaucer more easy, by modifying his diction and metre, has been made within the last few years, in a small work entitled “ Chaucer Modernized.” It may be recommended as a safe introduction to a knowledge or Chaucer's poetry, for the versions are from the pens of several distinguished living poets, combining in this service of filial reverence to the memory of the Father of English Poetry; and the versions are composed strictly on this principle, that the paraphrase is limited to such changes as are absolutely necessary to render the meaning and metre of the original intelligible; and thus the reader in the nineteenth century is placed in the same relative position as the reader of the fourteenth, communing with the imagination of the Poet, through verse which is readily and naturally familiar.
Now, considering these difficulties of language, it is remarkable that the few readers of Chaucer's poetry should have had authority, from generation to generation, to sustain his traditionary fame; for if he is
not known and felt to be the earliest of the great English poets, he is at least always named as such.
"That noble Chaucer, in thore formar times,
Who dirst enriched our English with his rhymes,
Usually, in the history of a nation's literature, it may be observed that the language and the literature move forward together—the rude dialect being adequate to express the motives of the rude mind; so that what is handed down in an unformed language is commonly nothing more than the imperfect products of the early intellect or fancy. But the peculiarity of Chaucer's position in literary history is just this, that in the era of an unshaped language, we have an author of the very highest rank of poetic genius.
That Chaucer took the language of his own time, and in its best. estate (for language always makes gift of its best wealth to a great poet), need not be doubted; but it is difficult to conceive the condition of the language during his time, in the fifty years' reign of Edward the Third. For the scholastic uses of the learned, and for ecclesiastical purposes, the Latin was still a living language. The French was the speech of the court, and in private correspondence had superseded the Latin. But with the great body of the people there was the great body of Anglo-Saxon words and forms of speech, with a living power in them which no foreign or ancient dialects could quench; and to that, the English language, imperfect, unformed, and changing as it was, this great poet gave his heart; showing, like his most illustrious successors, that the great poet is ever a true patriot also, “Let, then," said Chaucer, “clerkes enditen in Latin, for they have the propertie of science, and the knowing of that facultie; and lette Frenchmen in their French also enditen their queint termes, for it is kindly to their mouthes; and let us shew our fantasies in such wordes as we learnden of our Dame's tongue.” And when he wrote for the teaching of his little son, he used English, because, said he, "curious enditying and hard sentences are full hevy at once for such a childe to lerne," and bids the boy think of it as the King's English. • It needed the large soul of a great poet to make choice of the
People's speech rather than the dialects of the learned or the nobles. Chaucer's contemporary and senior brother-poet, honoured by him as the “ moral Gower," ventured upon no such confidence in the language of the land. The legacy of his song was committed to Latin and to French words; and yet what might he not have achieved, had he oftener trusted the rude mother-tongue, as in that passage in which he pictures Medea going forth at midnight to gather herbs for the incantations of her witchcraft? I give you without a change, the words and the metre, five hundred years old, of the poet Gower:
“ Thus it befell upon a night,
If Chaucer were unfortunate in the period of his country's language, he was happy in the era of his country's history. The Saxon and the Norman, the conqueror and conquered, had grown together into one people. It was Chaucer's fortune to be an eye-witness of that vast ambition which fired his sovereign in grasping at the diadem of France, to make the two great monarchies of Europe one; and how could the fire in a great poet's heart sleep, when he beheld his king and his prince, those proud Plantaganets, the third Edward and his heroic son, going forth like royal knights-errant in quest of majestic adventures. The reign was one of high monarchal pride, displayed, however, so as to animate a high national pride by lifting up the sense of the nation's dignity, and power, and magnificence. Kings were suppliant to England's princes for help-kings were captive in England's capital; and that ainbitious noble, “old John of Gaunt," Chaucer's patron and kinsman, not content with his English dukedom, was proclaimed King of Castile. It was a period of high-wrought martial enthusiasm, and the early modes of warfare passed not away without fierce employment, as if the arrow could not cease to be a weapon of death without drinking its last deep draught of blood, when the air was darkened over the plains of Crecy and Poictiers, by the shafts from the hosts of English auchers. With all the animating movements of the reign, Chaucer was
in close and active sympathy; he was a courtier and a soldier, as well as a student. No poet has ever held such large and free communion , with the world and his fellow-men. He stood in the presence of kings and nobles ; and became versed in the love of chivalry, its principles and its fashions: he went forth from the pomp of the court to do a soldier's service, and in the season of peace to muse in the fields, to look with loving eyes upon the flowers, to sympathize with the simple hearts of children and of peasants, to honour womanhood alike in humble or in high estate, and to commune with the faithful and the zealous of the priesthood. He trarelled into foreign lands, an envoy or an exile (so varied was his career), happy, if the conjecture be not unfounded, in listening to words falling from the living lips of Italy's great poet, then the aged Petrarch, possibly meeting Boccacio and Froissart. When, near three hundred years later, the youthful Milton visited the shores of Italy, amid all the classical associations that were thronging into his heart, he found room for the proud memory that the father of English poetry had stood on the same soil.
The times in which Chaucer lived were momentous also as a period, in which were first seen the forecast shadows of mighty changes in the Christian church; and we can well believe that his heart must have leaped up when he beheld the bold British hand of John Wyclif, a hundred years and more before the days of Luther, strike the first blow at ecclesiastical tyranny-the same hand which was an instrument of Providence in taking the seal from off the Bible, and spreading it in living English words througbout the land.
The last half of the fourteenth century, which was the period of Chaucer's manhood (for he died, let it be remembered, an aged man, in the year 1400), was an era in which the English mind was touched by many of its finest and most quickening influences. The impulse it received was manifest in various departments of human thought. The arts were cultivated, civic architecture especially, and chiefly that sacred form of it which has been the wonder of after ages. Painting was cultivated, and the morc glorious sister art of poetry was taught by two poets more eminent than England liad yet produced, John Gower and Geoffry Chaucer. It was fitting that in such an age the Parliament of England should decree that the statutes of the realm were no longer to be enrolled in a foreign dialect, but that the voice of British legislation should speak in the nation's own language.
The student of literature, who will take the pains to master the difficulties of Chaucer's antiquated poems — and they will quickly diminish before him—will find an abundant reward. His powers are as
varied as they are voluminous, rich in original materials and in that which, drawn from foreign sources—the Latin, French, and Italian literaturebears in the transmutation the glory of a great poet's invention. What most distinguishes the genius of Chaucer is the comprehensiveness and variety of his powers. You look at him in his gay mood, and it is so genial that that seems to be his very nature, an overflowing comic power, or rather, that power touched with thoughtfulness and tenderness—“humour” in its finest estate. And then you turn to another phase of his genius, and with something of wonder, and more of delight, you find it shining with a light as true and natural and beautiful into the deeper places of the human soul—its woes, its anguish, and its strength of suffering and of heroism. In this, the harmonious union of true tragic and comic powers, Chaucer and Shakspeare stand alone in our literature: it places these two above all the other great poets of our language, for such combination is the highest endowment of poetic genius.
The genius of Chaucer is manifest also in that other characteristic of the poetic spirit, wise and genial communion with the spiritual influences of the material world, “Earth, air, ocean, and the starry sky." All nature is with him alive with a fresh and active life-blood. His green leaves, it has been well said, are the greenest that were ever seen. His grass is the gladdest green; the cool and fragrant breezes he sings of seem to fan the reader's cheek; his birds pour forth notes the most torilling, the most soothing, that ever touched mortal ear
" There was many and many a lovely note,
Some singing loud, as if they had complained;
And some did sing all out with the full throat.” The earth and sky-his earth and sky-are steeped in brightest sunshine, and “ all things else about him drawn from May-time and the cheerful dawn.”
A favourite form of imaginative composition of those times was the romantic allegory, and Chaucer, taking up the fashion, bas perpetuated it, especially in two poems, which the life-giving power of genius yet preserves. One of these, the “House of Fame,” is known to modern readers chiefly through Pope's paraphrase, bearing the statelier titlea characteristic alteration of the “ Temple of Fame." This poem is not one on which I need stop for criticism, and I am about to mention it for quite a different purpose. It contains a passage which has struck me as in curious anticipation of a scientific hypothesis suggested in our own days; poetic imagination foreshadowing the results of scientific