Abbildungen der Seite
PDF
EPUB

Chaucer's

Poems.

and was succeeded by his grandson, Richard II., son of Edward, the “Black Prince." In 1378 Chaucer was sent on two missions, one to France, in connection with the Earl of Huntingdon, and one to Lombardy with Sir Edward Berkeley. The fact that Chaucer filled these important positions successively shows that he must have been regarded as a man of practical abilities - and not simply as a writer. However, at this time and for several centuries afterward, literary production was rewarded by employment of some sort at the hands of a powerful patron, or even by direct gifts of money.

Among Chaucer's " minor” or shorter poems are : “The A. B. C.,” an address to the Virgin in twenty-four eight

line stanzas, the first letters of which are the Minor consecutive letters of the alphabet, paraphrased

from a French poem ; " The Compleynte unto Pite "1 in nineteen seven-line stanzas ; 6. The Book of the Duchesse" in octosyllabic couplets (1334 lines) ; "The Compleynt of Mars," 298 lines in stanzas of seven and nine lines ; “The Parlement of Foules," in octosyllabic couplets, unfinished, but extending to 2158 lines; a number of ballades (approximately in the form of the French ballade, three stanzas and an envoi ending with a refrain) and a fragment entitled “ Compleynte to his Lady,” in “terza rima.” The introduction of new measures from French and Italian models, especially of the ten-syllable couplet or rhymed pentameter, known as the heroic couplet, is one of the services which entitle Chaucer to be regarded as the “first maker of our fair language.

The “major” poems of Chaucer are : “ Troilus and Criseyde”; “ The Legende of Goode Women ”; “ The Hous of Fame"; and the famous “ Canterbury Tales.”

Compleynt” is equivalent to "poetic or sentimental address."

JOHNSON'S LIT.

166

.4

and

The following poems, which used to be bound up with Chaucer's works, are considered by those who have made a study of the subject not to be his : “The Court of Love”; “The Compleynt of the Black Knighte”; “The Flower and the Leaf”; “Chaucer's Dream"; "The Cuckoo and the Nightingale.”

A translation of the “Romaunt of the Rose,” a long allegorical French poem, very popular at the period, is also bound with Chaucer's poems, though the question of authorship is not decided with absolute certainty.

Chaucer's “Troilus and Criseyde,” in five books and 8250 lines, is a modified English version of Boccaccio's

“Filostrato.” It cannot be called a translation, Troilus

as it is nearly twice as long as the original, and Criseyde." the treatment is different. In the Italian version, Pandarus is a young man ; Chaucer makes him an old

Criseyde is represented by Chaucer as a woman not destitute of depth of feeling, though inconstant, and as yielding to the force of circumstances against which a struggle is hopeless. Chaucer's Criseyde is a far higher type of womanhood than is Shakespeare's Cressida, and every deviation which the English poet makes from the Italian is in the interest of wholesomeness and dramatic truth. The

poem is built out of the Italian one, but the foundations are extended far beyond those of the original. It is the most beautiful of the chivalric romances on classical themes.

The limits of this book do not allow any extended description of Chaucer's work. The “Canterbury Tales” is

the poem by which he is best known, and illusCanter trates fully the range and variety of his genius. bury Tales.” The scheme was possibly suggested by Boccaccio's “ Decameron.” A company of thirty-one people, in

one.

The

cluding Chaucer and the host, are represented as meeting at the Tabard Inn in Southwark, with the intention of making a journey to Canterbury for the purpose of visiting the shrine where are kept the relics of Thomas à Becket, the Martyr. The host, Harry Bailly, agrees to accompany them, and proposes that each shall tell a story to relieve the tedium of travel. This is agreed to, and the host is elected marshal of the company. The prologue, 860 lines, describes the various personages, and, as they comprise representatives from nearly every grade of society, we have a set of pictures of various types. The opportunity afforded for the exercise of Chaucer's admirable powers of observation and description makes the prologue and the “link words," in which the various characters are introduced, the most valuable part of the work. It presents a vivid and realistic picture of fourteenth-century England.

The party was afterward joined by a Canon and his Yeoman, or attendant. The original plan contemplated two tales on the journey and two on the return from each pilgrim, though had the work been completed, doubtless the scheme would have been modified. As it is, seven of the party tell no tales at all, and none more than one, unless we credit the “Rhyme of Sir Thopas ” and the prose

66 Tale of Melibæus" both to Chaucer. 66 The Parsons Tale” is in prose.

Even in its incomplete state we must regard the work as a reflection of the society of the day. The narrators represent different grades of society, and the stories they relate correspond to their social positions. The Knight rehearses the chivalric romance of “ Palamon and Arcite," the Prioress a miraculous legend, the Nun's Priest a witty fable, the Miller and the Reeve vulgar stories.

This encyclopedic character gives a peculiar value to the great work of Chaucer as a whole, for there is nothing which lets us into the spirit of an age more than the literature which is popular in it.

Chaucer's scheme gives a far better opportunity for painting types of different social classes than does Boccaccio's, for Chaucer's gathering is a popular one, and all grades are represented except that of the nobles, and the Knight and the Prioress are affiliated to the nobility. Boccaccio brings a number of young gentlemen and ladies of the upper class together at a villa, where they have fled to escape the plague in Florence. They are all social equals and display no wide variations of manners. It might be said that they could all gather easily and listen to a story told by one of their number, whereas it would be impossible for many of a company of thirty-one on horseback to hear the talk of one of them ; but the scheme is merely a device for linking the tales together, and it would be as reasonable to point out the fact that stories are not rehearsed in rhyme as to object to the pretext for getting them told. The picture of the company is very realistic, and the plan of linking stories together by supposing them told to a company by one of the number has never been more skillfully and naturally managed. As will be remembered, Longfellow used this scheme in “Tales of a Wayside Inn," and Whittier on a small scale in “ The Tent on the Beach.”

The literary qualities of Chaucer's work are of a very high order. Chaucer introduced metric and stanzaic forms from the French and Italian and used them with great skill. Any one who will memorize the first forty lines of the prologue must confess that his ear was unrivaled. His great merit lies in his powers of obser

Chaucer's

vation, in his love of outdoor nature, in the simplicity and straightforwardness of his language, and in his wit and humor. His characters are admirably discriminated, and are

so lifelike that we are led to believe them drawn from living originals. Though the vulgar-minded ones tell very vulgar stories, the coarseness of their tales is not Chaucer's, but is due to the fact that the conventional manners of the day allowed plain talking on subjects which at present are not mentioned at all in mixed companies.

We do not find in Chaucer the profound scrutiny of life which characterizes the thought of so many of the

Elizabethans. There was considerable dissatisCharacteristics of

faction with the ambitious and worldly members

of the priesthood felt during the period, and the Poetry.

spirit of resistance to Italian claims of spiritual authority was in the air, but society was not stirred deeply by fundamental questions of religion until considerably later. From Chaucer's picture of the ideal parish priest — one of the most perfect and delicately shaded portraits in English literature — we infer that he was willing to submit to authority in religious matters, provided the man invested with authority justified his claim to exercise it by his life and character. Chaucer's attitude toward philosophic freedom of thought is like Shakespeare's attitude toward civil liberty. The conception did not form part of the common stock of ideas of the age, and is ignored because non-existent. Chaucer comprehended the humanity of his day, and presents it with a sane and good-humored shrewdness. His sympathies were not confined to any one class, but he understands with equal keenness of perception the nature of the martial Knight, the dainty Prioress, the Miller “fordronken with ale,” the business-like

« ZurückWeiter »