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CHAUCER AND DON JUAN.
THERE are some books which, however excellent, a man may make up his account to read but once in his life. And even that once, more for the sake of bringing a general idea of their spirit to the contemplation of literature, than for any actual pleasure their beauties may afford. Among this class may be reckoned Chaucer; the perception of whose peculiar excellence depends so much on understanding the spirit, as well as the idiom of the age in which he lived, that a re-perusal, after any intervening length of time, can give but little pleasure, if it be not accompanied with an inconvenient portion of trouble.
Notwithstanding all the research and acuteness spent upon the writings of Chaucer, little facility of acquaintance with him has been afforded to the general reader. Tyrwhitt's edition, besides being expensive, is more an object to the philologist than to the general scholar; and, after all, contains but a small portion of the poet's works. Speght and Urry are not to be relied on. Warton is judicious and learned, but a digressive and vexatious guide. Godwin's idea was an excellent one ;that of giving a picture of the age, with the poet for its prominent figure. But it turned out a most unwieldy and unsatisfactory brace of quartos, contemptible in criticism-absurd and visionary in its inferences from factsand altogether unworthy of the genius of the biographer. The restless gloom
of the philosophic idealist overcasts the page, which might have been the light and elegant memorial of the poet. And instead of dissertation and inquiry concerning these most frightful of all chapter-heads-the feudal system, and the middle ages-we might have been presented with a narrative suitable to the gay and mercurial temper of its subject.
Considering all this, we really are surprised to find ourselves turning over the pages of Chaucer; but somehow or other, we recollected having found in his verses that mixed quality of humour and feeling, which has of late become so popular. We have been dunned on all sides by the names of Byron and Juan; and when the blues had traced higher, by those of Pulci and Tassoni, as if banter and fun in rhyme, were any thing wonderful or new.
Disgusted by the charlatan exhibition of Byron in Don Juan-his tossing up his feelings to public view, and catching them as they fell, writhing on the prongs of ridicule-we treated the production in a tone which enhanced its merit a great deal too much. It is admired, and so will any book that sets one half the world laughing at the other. But to the merit of originating the serio-comic style, or even of introducing it first to English literature, the noble author has no claim. We possessed it long before the age of either his lordship or Pulci. We have it in our own old English poet Chaucer, and
* As a specimen of the mode of inference adopted in these volumes, we may mention the proof of Chaucer's father having been a merchant; which, of course, necessitates an inquiry into the lives and habits of the mercantile people of that age. First, Chaucer was born in London, by his own confession. Hence,
"It renders it extremely probable that London was the abode of his tender years, and the scene of his first education. So much is not unlikely to be implied in his giving it the appellation of the place in which he was forth growen.' Lastly, as he is in this passage assigning a reason why, many years after, (in his 56th year,) he interested himself in the welfare, and took a part in the dissensions of the metropolis, it may, with some plausibility, be inferred, that his father was a merchant; and that he was himself, by the circumstances of his birth, entitled to the privileges of a citizen."-Vol. I. p. 4. Again, the following quotation from the conclusion of the Assemblé of Foules,
"I woke, and other bokes took me to,
gives rise to the following grandiloquent remarks:
"This couplet deserved to be quoted as an evidence of the poet's habits. We have here Chaucer's own testimony, that he was a man of incessant reading, and literary curiosity; and that even at thirty years of age, and amidst the allurements of a triumphant and ostentatious court, one of the first and most insatiable passions of his mind, was the love of books."--Vol. I. p. 445.
in perfection. He knew and practised fully the secret of his lordship's wit, which amounts simply to this: when he is at a loss for a rhyme, be he ever so serious, to go into the comic for it, rather than remould the line. The Canterbury Tales abound in specimens, as of the Frere.
"Curteis he was, and lowly of servise, Ther n'as no man nowher so vertuous; He was the best begger in all his hous."
And in the fine and spirited description of the Temple of Mars, so much admired by Warton and other critics, he could not resist being carried away by his love of the ludicrous :"Ther saw I first the derke imagining Of felonie, and all the compassing; The cruel ire, red as any glede, The pikepurse, and eke the pale drede, The smiler, with the knife under the cloke, The sleper, brenning with the blacke smoke, The treson of the mordring in the bedde, The open warre, with woundes all bebledde, The sleer of himself yet saw I there, His herte-blood hath bathed all his hair, The naile ydriven in the shode anyght, The colde-deth, with mouth gaping upright, Yet saw I brent the shippe's hoppesterres, The hunt ystrangled with the wilde beres, The sow freting, the child right in the cradle,
The coke yscalled for all his long ladel.”
Some of these sudden quirks and changes terribly afflict the grave spirit of Mr Godwin, who laments most piteously that the poet should use such an expression as the following to the delicate Creseide,
"But whether that she children had or
I rede it nat, therefore I let it gone." Through all his works, indeed, this melodramatic feeling prevails, but especially in the Troilus and Creseide, a Poem, which, in its good and its bad qualities, very much resembles Don Juan, besides being nearly in the same stanza. Of its resemblance with respect to the quality we speak of, take the following random specimens:
"This Diomed, as bokes us declare,
Hardy and testife, strong and chevalrous,
"She sobre was, simple, and wise withall,
The reputation of Chaucer has suffered much from having his Canterbury Tales put forward, lauded, and edited singly, to the prejudice of his other works. They may be allowed to be the wittiest body of poetry in our language-unrivalled in comic description, observation, and life, but they are greatly deficient in sentiment and feeling. In spite of the array of critics against us, from Warton to Godwin, we will maintain that the love-quarrels of Palamon and Arcite are childish and frigid in the extreme-its pathetic "well-a-waies" more ludicrous than affecting-and the tale itself the very antidote to any thing like sympathy. The far-famed Griseldis, with the exception of a few passages, we cannot help thinking a most pointless and unnatural story; and we rejoice, in the very teeth of Warton's lamentation, that Canace and her magic ring were cut off in the flower of their commencement. The poet wrote them, it is said, in "his green old age," and we could have conjectured as much. We in vain seek in them for the natural and warm feelings which abound in his earlier works, particularly in the Troilus and Creseide, while we have in their place nothing but pedantry confirmed-cold paraphrases from Boethius and Seneca, and bombastic descriptions from Statius and Ovid. In the Knightes Tale, he describes his personages as a dwarf would a giant, or as a cringing herald would his feudal lord,-at a distance, and in due humility-stiff in dialogue, and frigid in soliloquy. In his Troilus, on the contrary, the poet is at his ease, and enters into the depth and minuteness of feeling, as if he was at liberty to choose his heroes from among his fellow mortals, and treat them as such. Troilus's first sight of Creseide," in habite blacke," going to the temple,
"N'as never sene thing to be praised so derre,
Nor under cloude blacke so bright a sterre." And his first entertaining the passion for her is highly characteristic, and quite in the easy penetrating style of the Italian octave rhymers :
"Within the temple wente him forth, playing,
This Troilus, with every wight about; On this lady, and now on that loking, Whereso she were of toune or of without, And upon case befell, that through a rout His eye yperced, and so depe it went Til on Creseide it smote, and there it stent; "And sodainly, for wonder, wext astoned, And gan her bet* beholde, in thrifty wise; 'O mercy, God!' thought he, where hast thou woned,+
Thou arte so faire and godely to devise ?' Therwith his heart began to sprede and rise, And soft he sighed, lest men might him
And caught ayen his former playing chear.
Honour, estate, and womanly noblesse.
"Tho' Troilus right wonder well withal, Gan for to like hire mening and hire chere,
Which somedele deignous was, for she let fall
Her loke alite aside, in such manere
Ascaunces What! may I nat stonden
And after that, her loking gan she light, That never thought him sene so good a sight.
"And of hir loke, in him there gan to quicken
So grete desire, and suche affectioun,-
The description of the change which the "tender passion" wrought upon his character, is exceedingly beautiful and just:
"But Troilus lay then no longer doun, But gat anon upon his stedè baie, And in the felde he played the lioun, Wo was that Greke that with him met that daie.
And in the toune his manner, thenceforth aye
So godely was, and gat him so in grace, That eche him loved that loked in his face.
"For he becamen the most frendly wight, The gentilest, and eke the most fre, The trustyest, and one the moste knight, That in his time was, or elles might be : Ded were his japes and his cruilte; Ded, his high porte, and all his manner straunge,
And eche of him gan, for a vertue, chaunge,"
Mr Godwin's mention of the Troilus is the most unaccountable criticism we ever read. It accuses the poem, that" It is naked of whatever should most awaken the imagination, astound the fancy, or hurry away the soul. It has the stately march of a Dutch burgomaster, as he appears in a procession, or a French poet as he shews himself in his works. It reminds one, too, forcibly of a tragedy of Racine."
This is certainly a most curious compliment. Spenser has compared Chaucer with himself, and Dryden has compared him with Ovid; but, of all poets, Racine, perhaps, was the last we should think of seeing compared with Chaucer. For a serious and affecting poem, which the Troilus eminently is, it seems to us written in the most light and airy style; and so far from "having the stately march of a Dutch burgomaster," its chief fault seems to be that of ever slipping down to prose." There is not in our language verse more easy and free, nor at the same time more acute and spirited, than the conversations between Pandore and Troilus-they are quite in the dialogic style of Beppo. And for truth and pathos, we know of no passages in the noble author we have alluded to, that can surpass the following extracts:-it is where Troilus goes over the haunts of his lost mistress: "Fro thennesforth, he rideth up and doune, And every thing came him to remembraunce,
As he rode forth by places of the toune, In whiche he whiloin had all his plea
And up and down then made he many a wente,
And to himself ful oft he said, 'Alas!
And hither home I came when it was eve,
And shall, till I may sene her efter in
We regret never having been able to
obtain a sight of the Scottish Continuation of the Troilus, by Henrysoun. All we do know of it-the incident of the faithless Creseide, afflicted by leprosy and want, asking alms of her former lover, is beautifully imagined.
It would be an endless affair to discuss the controversy concerning the origin of this tale. Godwin, we think, has sufficiently disproved Tyrwhitt's supposed discovery of its having been borrowed from the Philostrato of Boccaccio. All the commentators seem to lay too much stress on the poet's own declaration of its being taken from Lolius. It was a common custom with the old romancers to give an air of verisimilitude to their legend, by referring to the authority of some classic name, real or pretended. The grave excuses made by the poet in his Canterbury Tales, that his fictitious personages so said, and consequently that he must so relate, might have shewn to the critics the true value of his declaration about Lolius or Lollius, who, if there ever was such a person, must have been some such paraphraser as Dictys or Dares, from whom the poet gathered merely the names and local knowledge necessary for his story.
But yesterday, and we were one;
I have not learn'd the grovelling art,
And little did I think, to see
A dream so soft to grief awaken;
The April cloud is seen,-is flown,-
No firmer tie man trusts upon,
When link'd to bliss-by woman's favours.
THE BATTLE OF ROSLIN.
Dulce est fore patria mori.
And, glancing far these woods among,
And Echo hath combined
Her mimic tones, to breathe the tale
For Saxon foes invade
A proud, but kingless, realm;
'Tis Confray, on destruction bent,
From Freedom's roll to blot a land,
Content with fetter'd hand.
Not while one patriot breathes,
The Wallace and The Bruce have thrown
The heart, to youth and valour known,
With giant strength to bind ;
While even the peasant, toiling lone,
Recalls their deeds to mind!
The Cumin lets not home
To tell a bloodless tale;
And forth, in arms, with Frazer roam
In Roslin's wild and wooded glen,
Three camps divided raise
Their snowy tops on high;
The breeze unfurling flag displays
The tongue of Mirth is jocund there;
Blithe carols hail the matin light;
Though lurking Death, and gloomy Care,
Are watching, in despite,
Bright eyes that now are glancing fair,
Baffled, and backward borne,