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told. For this indecorousness Chaucer makes a characteristic apology:
* And, therefore, every gentle wight I pray,
And eke men shall not maken earnest of game.” It is easy to see that Chaucer is here laughing in his sleeve. The excuse he gives will not hold water. But we can forgive much to the man who, whatever his occasional license of language, was capable of delineating the finer qualities of human nature and the most tender of human feelings as none but one who really deeply sympathised with them could have done. A man who had seen much of the world, and had taken part in several of these diplomatic transactions which are not supposed to raise one's estimate of humanity, Chaucer yet preserved, amid all his frolicsome gaiety, a childlike simplicity of spirit which made him prompt to reverence worth, and gentleness, and mercy. There was nothing of the cynic in his composition. He took the world as he found it, and was very well contented with it. He was not a “good hater;" there is no trace of bitterness in his satire, nothing at all akin to the fierce misanthropy of Swift. Yet perhaps his sly touches of satire are none the less pungent on that account. There are few people who would not prefer being bitterly railed at to being good-humouredly laughed at. His penetrating accuracy of observation is perhaps best shown in what he says about women. Though, as many passages prove, he had a high and
Chaucer's Religious Opinions. 35 chivalrous estimate of women, he was well aware of their weak points, and from his works a choice anthology might be compiled of innuendoes or open sarcasms directed against the sex. This must be partly attributed to the custom of age ; very probably it is in greater measure to be attributed to Chaucer's experience of married life, which is thought to have been far from a happy one. A pleasing feature in Chaucer is bis want of all exaggerated reverence for rank and his total freedom from cant. Sprung from the people himself, he knew that it is neither long descent, nor high position, nor great wealth, that constitutes a gentleman :
“Look, who that is most virtuous alway,
Privy and open, and most intendeth aye
Take him for the greatest gentleman.” His freedom from cant, and his contempt for those poetical commonplaces which form the stock-in-trade of minor versifiers, are shown by such passages as the following:
“ Till that the brightë sun had lost his hue,
For th' orison had rest the sun his light,
(This is as much to sayen as “it was night')." What were Chaucer's religious views? The question is not very easy to answer. That he was fully aware of the abuses of the prevailing ecclesiastical system is conclusively proved by his pictures of the Monk, the Friar, the Pardoner, and others. On the other hand, his fine portrait of the “ Poor Parson of a Town," who
Waited for no pomp and reverence,
He taught, but first he followed it himself,” has every appearance of being a representation of a Wiclifite priest. Hence some have rashly inferred that Chaucer himself was a Wicliste.
“ Chaucer,” wrote John Foxe, “seems to have been a right Wyclevian, or else there never was any; and that all his works almost, if they be thoroughly advised, will
testify." But portions of the “Parson's Tale” are inconsistent with this supposition, which, indeed, other facts do not seem to corroborate. Chaucer was not a man to hold very pronounced religious views. Like many other people of his time, he was disgusted with the insolence and avarice of the ecclesiastical dignitaries, and, with his genuine appreciation of human excellence, could not look but with sympathy and admiration on the faithful pastors like the “Poor Parson,” whom he saw amid discouragement and poverty striving to do their duty, and animated by a genuine religious spirit. But it is not likely that he ever desired or looked for an overthrow of the power of the Church of Rome in England: he was not
1 the stuff of which reformers are made.
Though Chaucer was always a popular poet, as is proved by the many existing manuscripts of the “Canterbury Tales," by the fact that Caxton (who declares that “in all his works he excelleth, in mine opinion, all other writers in our English") issued two editions of his works, and by the numerous respectful allusions made to him by the poets of succeeding generations, his versification was a puzzle to his readers when the language had become fixed in substantially its present form, “The verse of Chaucer,” wrote Dryden, “I confess is not harmonious to us. They who lived with him, and some time after him, thought it musical, and it continues so, even in our judgment, if compared with the numbers of Lydgate and Gower, his contemporaries: there is a rude sweetness of a Scotch tune in it, which is natural and pleasing.” Waller went further :
“ Chaucer his sense can only boast,
And yet he did not sing in vain." Chaucer himself perceived that he lived at a period when the language was in a state of transition. Towards the close of “ Troilus and Cresside” he says :
“ And since there is so great diversity
In English, and in writing of our tongue,
James I. of Scotland.
I pray to God that none may miswrite thee,
He was, however, "mismetred” till the publication, in 1778, of Tyrwhitt's “Essay on the Language and Versification of Chaucer,” which paved the way for what has been done since for the restoration of the text of Chaucer and the accurate knowledge of his language. The student may now, with very little trouble, acquaint himself with rules which regulate Chaucer's versification and grammar, and so be able to read him with a much fuller and clearer appreciation than such a man as Dryden could have done. The small expenditure of time necessary in order to do so will be recompensed a hundredfold by the pleasure derived from the study of the first English classic,
The appearance of Chaucer in our literature was compared by Warton 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. The fifteenth century was a period of the deepest gloom, morally, materially, and intellectually. The wretched civil wars which devastated the country proved fatal to the muse: no great English poet arose within the period ; no poet worthy even of a high place in the second rank. It is to Scotland, bleak, wild, barren, but full of men of high spirit and indomitable tenacity of purpose, that we must turn if we wish to find a writer who inherited the I genius of Chaucer in any tolerable measure. James I. of Scotland, who has been styled the best king among poets and the best poet among kings, during his long captivity in England, which extended from 1405 to 1424, had the advantage of receiving an excellent education and of familiarising himself with the works of the best English poets. Though poems of a humorous nature, “ Peebles to the Play” and
1 Here and elsewhere the extracts from Chauce: have been modernised.
“ Christ's Kirk of the Green,” are generally supposed to have been written by him, his fame mainly rests on his “King's Quhair" [Book], a poem in six cantos, in which the influence of Chaucer is very apparent. It describes, in allegorical fashion, the attachment which, while a prisoner in Windsor Castle, he formed to a young English princess whom he saw walking in an adjacent garden. This lady is supposed to have been Lady Jane Beaufort, whom he afterwards married; but more probably the account given of her appearance is a pure poetical fancy. If rather deficient in originality-for it is impossible to believe that the “ King's Quhair” would ever have been written if the works of Chaucer had not been already in existence-James I had a fine poetical spirit, and were it not for the many difficulties of dialect which it presents, his poem would be much more generally read than it is. The unfortunate author, who was born in 1394, affords a bright example of the union of a poetical temperament with great practical powers. When he came to his kingdom, he found it in a state of anarchy through the lawless conduct of those turbulent nobles who were for many generations the curse of Scotland. “Let God but grant me life," he is reported to have said, "and throughout my dominions I shall make the key keep the castle and the furze-bush the cow, though I should lead the life of a dog to accomplish it.” He was in a fair way to redeem his promise when he perished by assassination in 1437.
A poet of less tender and grateful fancy than the royal bard, but of more original genius, was William Dunbar, who has been called the Scotch Chaucer, a designation which recalls Coleridge's remark on hearing Klopstock styled the German Milton, “A very German Milton indeed.” Dunbar, who was born in 1460, was educated at the University of St. Andrews, and in early life became a Franciscan friar--not a particularly suitable calling for him, if one may judge from the frequent license of his muse. By James IV. he was employed as a clerk to foreign embassies, and received numerous gratuities from the king in response to numerous supplications, for Dunbar was not a man to want money if it could be got for the asking.