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Chaucer's Appearanie.


In 1399 Henry Bolingbroke doubled his annual pension of twenty marks. Chaucer did not live long to enjoy his newly recovered prosperity. He died in a house in the garden of St. Mary at Westminster, on October 25, 1400.

Chaucer's personal appearance is well known from the portrait of him by Occleve, which, in a greater degree than most portraits, confirms the ideas regarding him which one might gather from reading his works. There we see the meditative, downcast, yet slyly observant eyes, the broad brow, the sensuous mouth, the general expression of good-humour which are all so characteristic of the describer of the Canterbury pilgrims. In the “Prologue to the Rime of Sir Thopas," Chaucer has put into the mouth of the host a half-bantering description of his personal appearance :

“And then at first he looked upon me
And saydë thus, 'What man art thou?' quoth be ;
'Thou lookest as thou wouldest find a hare,
And ever upon the ground I see thee stare ;
Approchë near, and lookë merrily!
Now ware you, sirs, and let this man have space,
He in the waist is shaped as well as I;
This were a puppet in an arm to embrace
For any woman, small and fair of face.
He seemeth elvish by his countenance,
For unto no wight doth he daliaunnce.”

Two great traits of character prominently distinguished himtraits not very often found united in the same individual. He was an insatiable reader, and he was also an enthusiastic admirer of the beauties of nature. When the two tastes came in conflict, it was the latter that had to give way, as he tells us in a charming passage :

“And as for me, though I have knowledge slight,
In bookës for to read I me delight,
And to them give I faith and full credénce,
And in my heart have them in reverence
So heartily, that there is gamë none
That from my bookës maketh me begone,

But it be seldom on the holiday,-
Save, certainly, when that the month of May
Is come, and that I hear the lowlës sing
And see the flowers as they begin to spring,

Farewell my book, and my devotion."
Other features in Chaucer we shall have occasion to indicate
when dealing with the “Canterbury Tales."

By the most recent critics of Chaucer his work has been divided into three periods—the French period, the Italian period, and the English period. To the first is assigned his “A. B. C.," a prayer to the Virgin, translated from the French; a translation of the “Romance of the Rose;"I the “ Compleynte of Pity” (1368 ?), and the “Book of the Duchess," a poem commemorating the death in 1369 of the Duchess Blanche. To the second period, extending from 1372 to 1384, during which, as we have seen, Chaucer three times visited Italy, and is supposed to have fallen under Italian literary influence, are assigned his “Parliament of Fowls,” “ Troilus and Cresside," certain of the “Canterbury Tales," the "House of Fame," and some minor poems. To the third period belong the rest of the “Canterbury Tales.” This division rests on no solid basis of fact, and must be taken for what it is worth. Though, of course, every deference is to be paid to the opinion of those who have devoted great attention to Chaucerian study, it must be confessed that there is something arbitrary and artificial in thus parcelling a man's work out into periods divided by a distinct line of demarcation. Professor Minto, whose soundness of judgment gives his opinion great weight, is inclined to reject the division as throwing a factitious, and, upon the whole, misleading light on the natural development of Chaucer's genius. Of certain other works, the “Court of Love,” the “Flower and the Leaf," and Chaucer's “Dream," the genuineness has been admitted by some and denied by others. We need not take up space

1 It has been doubted, apparently on insufficient evidence, whether this translation was by Chaucer.

2 “English Poets,” p. 19.

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Chaucer's Works.


with the consideration of such questions, which can only be profitably discussed by those who have a very ripe knowledge of the literature of the period. It shows the versatility of Chaucer's intellect that he was the author of a translation of Boëthius on the “Consolation of Philosophy," a very popular book in the Middle Ages, and that he wrote in 1391 a treatise “On the Astrolabe” for the use of his little son Lewis.

Having thus enumerated the chief minor works of Chaucer, we pass on to the consideration of the “ Canterbury Tales,” to which alone we propose to confine our attention. Chaucer's other writings, excellent though many of them are, and interesting though they all are, partly for philological reasons, partly as indicating his mental growth, may be passed over by readers whose time is short; but the “Canterbury Tales” is of perennial importance, invaluable alike to the student of poetry, to the historian who aspires to delineate the social life of the period, and to the philologer. The plan of the “ Canterbury Tales," a series of stories prefixed by a prologue and linked together by a framework, was probably derived by Chaucer from Boccaccio's “Decamerone,” though there are other sources from which he might have borrowed the scheme. But there is a wide difference, greatly in favour of the English writer, between the “Decamerone" and the “Canterbury Tales.” Boccaccio's connections between the stories might have been omitted and his book have been none the worse ; there is no dramatic propriety in the tales which he puts in the mouth of the several speakers. One of the great attractions of the “Canterbury Tales," on the other hand, is that Chaucer, with the true instinct of genius, took care that each of the stories should be such as the speaker would naturally have told. In the “ Prologue" he has hit off the points of the several characters with unrivalled grace and dexterity. I see all the pilgrims in the ‘Canterbury Tales,'” said Dryden, “their humours, their features, and their very dress, as distinctly as if I had supped with them at the Tabard in Southwark.” A strangely mixed and jocund company they were who set forth on the pilgrimage, then a very common one for Londoners, to the shrine of St. Thomas at Canterbury. We see before is the chivalrous Knight; the young Squire, “embroidered as a mead,” and “as fresh as is the month of May;" the Yeoman, so careful of his accoutrements; the tenderhearted Prioress, who spoke French “after the school of Strat ford-atte Bowe;" the Monk, who was so fond of hunting, and whose bridle "jingled in the air as clear and eke as loud as doth the chapel bell ;” the Friar, who thought that instead of weeping and of prayers "men ought to give silver to the poor friars ;" the Merchant, who sedulously attended to his business, and “spoke his reasons full pompously;" the Clerk of Oxford, who preferred books to any other earthly pleasure, and who would gladly learn and gladly teach; the Sergeant of Law, who “ever seemed busier than he was ;" the Franklin, at whose house it “snowed of meat and drink;" the Shipman, who “of nice conscience took no keep;” the Doctor of Physic, whose "study was but little in the Bible;" the gailyattired buxom Wife of Bath; the poor Parson and his brother the Ploughman, who, if it lay in his power, was always ready to work for the poor without hire; the stout Miller, who was not over honest, and who carried with him a bagpipe which he could “ blow and sound ;" the Reeve, "a slender, choleric man;" the Summoner, with his “fire-red cherubim's face;' the Pardoner, with his wallet full " of pardons come from Rome all hot;" and a good many other equally typical specimens of humanity, notably the jovial host of the Tabard, a fit predecessor to “mine host of the Garter” and to Boniface. “It is the first time in English poetry that we are brought face to face, not with characters, or allegories, or reminiscences of the past, but with living and breathing men, men distinct in temper or sentiment as in face, or costume, or mode of speech ; and with this distinctness of each maintained throughout the story by a thousand shades of expression and action. It is the first time, too, that we meet with the dramatic power which not only creates each character, but combines it with its fellows, which not only adjusts each tale or jest to the temper of the person who utters it, but fuses all into a poetic unity. It

Pilgrimage to Canterbury.

33 is life in its largeness, its variety, its complexity, which surrounds us in the Canterbury Tales.' In some of the stories, indeed, composed no doubt at an earlier time, there is the tedium of the old romance or the pedantry of the schoolman; but, taken as a whole, the poem is the work not of a man of letters, but of a man of action. He has received his training from war, courts, business, travel-a training not of books, but of life. And it is life that he loves—the delicacy of its sentiment, the breadth of its farce, its laughter and its tears, the tenderness of its Griseldis, or the Smollett-like adventures of the miller and the schoolboy. It is this largeness of heart, this wide tolerance, which enables him to reflect man for us as none but Shakespeare has ever reflected it, but to reflect it with a pathos, a shrewd sense and kindly humour, a freshness and joyousness of feeling, that even Shakespeare has not surpassed.” 1

Pilgrimages to Canterbury seem to have been joyous affairs, in which merriment and not devotion held the foremost place in the minds of those who took part in them. “They will ordain with them before," says an old writer indignantly, "to have with them both men and women that can sing wanton songs, and some other pilgrims will have with them bagpipes ;? so that every town they come through, what with the noise of their singing, and with the sound of their piping, and with the jangling of their Canterbury bells, and with the barking out of the dogs after them, that they make more noise than if the king came thereaway with all his clarions and many other minstrels. And if these men and women be a month in their pilgrimage, many of them shall be a half year after great janglers, tale-tellers, and liars.” The “gentle"

, portion of Chaucer's company must have been not a little scandalised by the riotous behaviour of such “roistering blades” as the Miller, the Summoner, and the Cook, and by the grossly indecorous nature of some of the stories

1 Green's “Short History of England,” chap. v.
• The Miller carried his bagpipes with him.

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