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GEOFFREY CHAUCER, 1328—1400.
■ ■■ . That renowned Poet
Dan Chaucer, Well of English undcfyled,
On Fame's eternal! bead roll worthle to be fylcd.
That noble Chaucer, In those former times,
Who first enriched our English with his rhymes,
And was the first of ours that ever broke
Into the Muse's treasures, and first spoke
In mighty numbers; delving In the mine
Of perfect knowledge. Words Wobth.
Wb now come to one of the brightest names in English literature—to him who has been distinctively known as "The Father of English poetry"— Geoffrey Chaucer. Warton, with great beauty and justice, has compared the appearance of Chaucer in our language to "a premature day in an English spring, after which the gloom of winter returns, and the buds and blossoms which have been called forth by a transient sunshine, are nipped by frosts and scattered by storms."
Chaucer was born probably about the year 1328, though all attempts to fix the precise year have utterly failed. His parentage is unknown, nor is there any certainty where he was educated. His great genius early attracted the notice of the reigning sovereign, Edward III., and he soon became the most popular personage in the brilliant court of that monarch. It was in this circle of royalty that he became attached to a lady whom he afterwards married, Philippa Pyknard. She was maid of honor to the queen Philippa, and a younger sister of the wife of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. By this connection, therefore, Chaucer acquired the powerful support of the Lancastrian family, and during his life his fortune fluctuated with theirs. To his courtly accomplishments he added much by foreign travel, having been commissioned by the king in 1372 to attend to some important matters of state at Genoa. While in Italy he became acquainted with Petrarch,1 and probably with Boccacio, whose works enriched his mind with fresh stores of learning
Freedom all solace to man gives;
He lives at ease that freely lives.
A noble heart may have no ease,
Nor aught beside that may it please,
If freedom fall—for 'tis the choice.
More than the chosen, man enjoys.
Ah, he that ne'er yet lived in thrall,
Knows not the weary pains which gall
The limbs, the soul, of him who plains
In slavery's foul and festering chains.
If these he knew, I ween right soon
He would seek back the precious boon
Of freedom, which he then would prize
More than all wealth beneath the skies. 1 The three distinguished scholars of Italy of the fourteenth century were, Daste, (1265— 1321.) the father of modern Italian poetry; Petrakch, (1304—1374,) the reviver of ancient learning, and the first founder and collector or any considerable library of ancient literature: and Boccacio, (1318 — **7S,) the cither of modern Italian prose.
ind images ol" beauty, and whose great snccess was doubtless a spur to his ambition to attain a like enviable fame.
On bis return home, the friendship and patronage of the reigning monarch were continued to him. He was made controller of the customs of wine and wool, the revenue from which office, together with a pension that was gmnted to him, gave him a libeml support During the whole of the reign of Edward III., his genius and connections ensured to him prosperity, and also during the period of John of Gaunt's influence in the sncceeding reign of Richard II., 13„7—1399. But during the waning fortunes of that nobleman, Chancer also suffered, and was indeed imprisoned for a short time; but on the return of the Duke of Lancaster from Spain, 1389, he had once more a steady protector, and on the accession of Henry IV., he had an additional annuity conferred upon him. But he did not live long to enjoy this accession to his fortune, for he died on the twenty-fifth of October, 1400, and was interred in Westminster Abbey.
We know little of Chancer as a member of society; but we know that he had mingled with the world's affairs, both at home and abroad. Accomplished in manners and intimately acquainted with a splendid court, he was at once the philosopher who had surveyed mankind in their widest sphere, the poet who haunted the solitudes of nature, and the elegant courtier whoso opulent tastes are often discovered in the gmceful pomp of his descriptions. The vigorous yet finished paintings, with which his works abound, are still, notwithstanding the roughness of their clothing, beauties of a highly poetical nature. The ear may not always be satisfied, but the mind of the reader is always filled.1
Chancer's genius, like Cowper's, was not fully developed till he was advanced in years; for it was not until he was about sixty, in the calm evening of a busy life, that he composed his great work on which his fame chiclly rests, his Caftehhuht Tales. He took the idea, doubtless, from the Decameron of Boccacio,2 at that time one of the most popular of books. He snpposes that a company of pilgrims, consisting of twenty-nine "sundry folk," meet together at the Tabard inn, Southwark,2 on their way to the shrine of Thomas a Becket,4 at Canterbury. While at supper they agreed, at the suggestion of their host, not only to pursue their journey together the next morning, but, in order to render their way the more interesting, that each should divert the others with a tale, both in going and returning, and that whoever told the best, should have a supper at the expense of the rest; and that tho landlord should be the judge.
It will thus be seen that the plan of Chancer is vastly superior to that of Boecacio. His chamcters, instead of being youthful and from the same city,
1 Read HqpmUtfi }'arls F.ei„h i•*—' —rn.--*—»i». -r /• —» „ . - • are of matured experience, from various places, and are drawn from different classes of mankind, and consequently are, in their rank, appearance, manners, and habits, as various as at that time could be found in the several departments of middle life; that is, in fact, as various as could, with any probability, be brought together, so as to lbrm one company; the highest and lowest ranks of society being necessarily excluded. But what gives us the greatest admiration of the poet, is the astonishing skill with which he has supported his characters, and the exquisite address that he has shown in adapting his stories to the different humors, sentiments, and talents of the reciters. He has thus given us 6uch an accurate picture of ancient manners as no contemporary writer has transmitted to posterity, and in the Canterbury Tales we view the pursuits and employments, the customs and diversions of the reign of Edward HI., copied from the life, and represented with equal truth and spirit. It has been justly remarked, that it was no inferior combination of observation and sympathy which could bring together into one company the many-colored conditions and professions of society, delineated with pictorial force, and dramatized by poetic conception, reflecting themselves in the tale which seemed most congruous to their humors.1 The following are some select characters, as portrayed in the Prologue*
Whennfi that April, with his showres sote,8
And bathed every vein in such licofir,
1 Read D'lrraelfi Amenitici of Literature, 3 vols. 8vo.
2 In a subsequent age, the great work of Chaucer exerted a powerful Influence In helping on the great cause of the Reformation. So much wits Cardinal Wolscy offended at the severity with which the papal clergy were treated in the Pilgrim's Talc, that he laid an Interdict upon Its ever being printed with the rest of the work, and it was with difficulty that the Ploughman's Tale was permitted to stand. John Pox, (1517—1587,) the historian of the martyrs, thus writes: "But much more I mervnlle to consider this, how that the bishops condemning and abolishing all nianer of English bookes and treatises, which might bring the people to any light of knowledge, did yet authorize the Workes of Chaucer to rcmaiue. So it pleased God to blind then the eles of them, for the more commodoty of his people."
8 Bote— sweet. * Rote—root, 5 Holt— grove, forest
« To make this line consistent with the first it should read Btdl instead of Rm, for he says that the time of this pilgrimage was when Uie showers of April had pierced into the root the drought of March, so that April, which corresponds to the constellation of it.c Butt, must have been far advanced Read, Tyru-kitt'i Introduction to Gmti-rbHry Talei.
t Courages—hearts, spirits. 8 BaOows—holiness. » CouUi—known.
W Wend—go, make way.
The holy blissful martyr for to seek
That them hath holpen when that they were sick.
Befell that in that season on a clay,
THE KNIGHT AND SQUIRE.
A Knight there was, and that a worthy man,
With him there was his son, a youngt? Squirt,
Embroidered was he, as it were a mead
l That Is, the Inn called "The Tabard." The Tabard was a "Jacket, or sleeveless coat, worn in time* past by noblemen In the wars, but now only by heralds, and Is called their coat of arms In service-"—Speght. 1 Wenden—go, make way. » wide—spacious. * Eased atte best-
commodkously lodged. & Farre— farther. • Wonderly deliver—wonderfully active: from the Preach Kbit, free. t Chevachie, (French, dLetxnuhee,) a military expedition. 8 Conducted
hfcnself well, considering the short time that be had served. 9 FloyUng—fluting, playing on the flute, whistling. The squire woulu not, In all probability, have a flute always with him. I should therefore prefer the reading that be " wkutied aU the day:" as being a more natural touch of character, as well as In keeping with the husrity of youth. 10 Nightertrtle— night-time.
A Clerk1 there was of Oxcnford also,
A good Wife was there of beside Bath,
i In the Interesting character of the "clerk" or scholar, whose poverty, delight In study, and lnnttenUon to worldly auhlrs are cmlnenUy conspicuous, Warton thinks that Chaucer glanced at the inattention paid to literature, and the unprofitableness of philosophy.
* That is, a scholar. * Ygo—part, pirt, gone. 4 Overest courtepy—uppermost short cloak, a Lever—rather. 8 ITcnt—catch hold of. I Scholay—study. 8 High sentence— I. e. lofty period. • Scathe—harm, damage. 10 Haunt—custom. 11 Head-dress. n Moist—fresh.
IS This alludes to the old custom of the parties joining hands at the door of the church before they went up to the altar to consummate the union; and this Jolly dame and good housewife is represented as having gone through that interesting ceremony five times.