Page images
PDF
EPUB

And Chaucer neglected not these advantages, but drew largely from the rich store of his experience. He was a man of the world, and could hit off character in those happy lights which give his pictures the appearance of reality. At tournament or hostelrie, in romance or humour, in the every day world, or in scenes of his own creating, he is at home, earnes and unconstrained; and he describes the strong passions with an artles ness that is truth itself.

ttages

rt, and

is

"The Canterbury Tales contain examples of the wide scope of genius. From the knight to the miller, from the prioress to the ind Bath, there is an ample range of character-his knowledge of thic appears universal. He dazzles us with elaborate displays of magnificence; but is equally powerful when he sketches the of rustics. He is devotional, joyous, or satirical, without .es were never' o'erstepping the modesty of nature.' The Canterbury written at various periods of Chaucer's life, and were not con he was somewhat advanced in years. He was indebted in sure for their general arrangement, and in many instances fhe design of the tales themselves; but the personages of his pilg and the circumstances of their journey are essentially his own, andne of their stories appear to be wholly original.

ted until

Teat mea

"Boccacio in his Decameron had imagined the assembly ten young persons at a country house, when the plague in Florence jan to abate, and every day each narrated some story for their comm amusement. Chaucer collected at the Tabard Inn in Southwark a conpy of pilgrims about to journey to the shrine of the Martyr Becket, aanterbury; when, to enliven the way, it was agreed that each should at least one tale in going and another in returning; and that he would the best should be treated by the others with a supper on again eacing the Inn where they first assembled. It appears that the poet cenie to describe their journey and all the remenent of their pilgringe; but he undertaking was extensive, and more than one half the les are waring. station. There is the The pilgrims are persons of different rank ar knighte, the millere, the reve, the coke, the se eant of the lawe the wif of Bathe, the frere 'wanton and merrie,' the Soumpnoure, the cerk of Oxenford, who rode a horse 'lene as is a rat,' and

[ocr errors]

"Not a word spake he more than ere was nede,
And that was said in forme and everence,
And short and quike, and ful high sentence;
Souning in moral vertue wa his speche,

And gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche;

the marchante, the yonge squire, de frankeleine, the doctour, the pardonere, the shipmanne, the priore and her attendant nonnes, our author, the monk, the yeman, the mancile, and the poor parson of a toun,

"But riche he wa of holy thought and werk.

The tales of all these person are preserved. There were also a haberdasher, carpenter, webbe, dyr, and tapiser,

"(Ale yclothed in o livere

Of a solmpne and grete fraternite),

together with a plowma, whose tales do not appear, although some of them have been supplied by an inferior author. All these characters are

described in the prologue with a truth and humour that at once carry us back to the times of the poet, and call up the beings by whom he was surrounded in real and substantial form before our eyes. They are not mere images dressed up for the occasion, and brought forward to display their inanimation, but living flesh and blood-our actual ancestors as hey existed in those times, before the refinements of society had temed their rough virtues, or subdued their natures."

We cannot afford room for any considerable quotations of verses, by in fans of which to verify such opinions as may be advanced; in our author's concise work, quotations are necessarily but sparly introduced. It will be found, however, to be a useful for the student when about to peruse the works of the poets nologically arranged, to carry with him such a convenient, simpled intelligent guide. But take a few lines which are descrip of the sentimentality of Chaucer's prioress.

here

it for to speken of hire conscience,
e was so charitable and so pitous,
wolde wepe if that she saw a mous
ghte in a trappe, if it were ded or bledde.
Smale houndes hadde she, that she fedde

roasted flesh, and milke, and wastel brede,
Bsore wept she if on of hem were dede,
Of men smote it with a yerde smert:
Acall was conscience, and tendre herte."

Now he be touches of human nature that hold true and characteristicat a times, although in many other parts of her portraiture, as i all Cucer's pieces, there are the most vivid pictures"a true unadulte.ted transcript of the manners, feelings, and intelligence of his a "

Afte Chaucer the are few names worthy to be mentioned till we cone to the reign oQueen Elizabeth. To be sure there is a considerable list of poets ho in their day attained to great celebrity; There was Gower, the temporary of Chaucer, but he, with all his accomplishments, was geatly inferior in the higher requisites of the true bard; there were so in the North, James the First, Dunbar, and Sir David Lyndsy all of them impressing upon the ages in which they lived lasting marks and signs, and forming no mean portion of that treasury of the byegone history of mind and manners so deserving of study, and bequeathing also beautiful specimens of minstrel power. But in espect of originality or variety of excellence, none of them can staid even as a second to the author of the " Canterbury Tales." The same thing may be said of the unfortunate Earl of Surrey and hi friend Wyatt, and à fortiori of a goodly number of others. Surey, however, ought to be honoured as the first English composer of sustained blank verse, as is admirably exemplified in his translation of Virgil's Æneid.

Some of the causes that had contributed to deaden or enfeeble the British muse are thus pointed out :—

"The revival of learning threw open the rich stores of classical literature to the studious; and they were too absorbed in contemplating the treasures of antiquity, and fathoming the subtle discussions of the old philosophers, to cultivate the bold yet simple strains of national poetry. Humbler minstrels strove for the wreaths of the muses, and in their unpolished ballads and fugitive verses, full of strong and marked character and expression, spoke plainly of the popular feelings and common tastes of the period. Soon afterwards the invention of printing multiplied the ancient manuscripts, and with them were sent to the world the legends of monks and controversies of divines, until the spirit of meta. physical enquiry became general, and damped for a while the more creative genius of imagination.

"But adverse to poetry as this new turn of study may have been, the troubles of the times were far more fatal to its success. Amidst the turbulence and fever of the civil wars the young spirit of intelligence struggled with a feeble power, and required the peace and reflection of after years to strengthen into maturity. It would seem that literature and the fine arts are among the bright influences which mark the happiness and prosperity of a nation: for like delicate flames they have flickered and smouldered in the tempests of internal discord, and brightened with renewed beauty and animation in the ensuing calm of public security."

What, for example, could be hoped for in the reign of Queen Mary? But let us pass onto that of her sister; here the drama suggests itself, which at once "sprung into existence, like Venus from the waste of waters, in all its power and proportion." The drama, however, falls not within the scope which our author has chosen for himself, and we therefore pass on to Spenser, whose " Faery Queen," as an allegorical poem, and in various other respects, is without a rival in our language. The following is part of Mr. Busby's concise sketch of the poet and poem :

"Spenser possessed in an exalted degree a boundless and creative fancy. He held the golden keys of romance, and at his bidding visions crowded with life and beauty streamed upon the world. Nature teemed with a new existence, with new features and new forms. Scenes aerialized with the most delicate tints stretched far and wide; all was sunny and spiritual. Enchantment yielded her wonders and her glowing superstitions, Imagination breathed over them the breath of life, and the result was one of the most exquisite and delightful poems that fancy ever conceived or genius realized. He supposes the Faery Queen presiding at her annual court, which lasted in splendour and festivity for twelve days. Every day some suppliant is presented at her throne; she listens to the prayers of all, and commands twelve knights (each of whom personifies some exalted virtue) to espouse the cause and redress the grievances of the mourners. Prince Arthur representing Magnificence in pursuit of Glory, is by turns the counsellor and ally of these embodied phantoms of

chivalry, and was intended to represent a brave knight perfected in the twelve moral virtues. The whole allegory celebrates the triumph of good principles over the various temptations of sense and dangers of worldly dissipation. It was originally contained in twelve books, but of these six and part of the seventh only are extant, and each book is divided into twelve cantos. The first book contains the legend of the Knight of the Red Cross, or Holiness; the others the several legends of Temperance, Chastity, Friendship, Justice, Courtesy, and a fragment of that of Constancy. Each of these knightly virtues is exposed to the machinations of the vices most interested in its overthrow, and these vices are personified with an ingenuity at once marvellous and precise. The spirit of knight-errantry runs through the whole poem. All is chivalrous and adventurous; and notwithstanding the difficulty of the design, the interest is generally lively, and the mind is too fascinated by the variety of images and change of character thronging before it in rapid succession, to be palled by the length or satiated by the subject. The great strength of the poem lies in the legends of Holiness, Temperance, and Chastity; and it is questioned from the occasional want of spirit in some of the succeeding books, whether Spenser's fame has suffered by the loss of part of his manuscript. His versification is elegant, sustained, and frequently lofty; musically harmonious and simple, and written in the stanza which is now called by the poet's name, and has been adopted in later times with great success by Beattie and Byron. The language of Spenser is less modern than that of some of his contemporaries or immediate followers; a circumstance that may perhaps be attributed to the nature of his subject, which the quaintness and antiquity of his expressions serve rather to embellish. As a specimen of the power of personification and description I will quote his picture of the House of Sleep.

"He making speedy way through spersed ayre,
And through the world of waters wide and deepe,
To Morpheus' house doth hastily repaire.
Amid the bowels of the earth full steepe,
And low, where dawning day doth never peepe,
His dwelling is, there Tethys his wet bed

Doth ever wash, and Cynthia still doth steepe,

In silver deaw, his ever-drouping hed,

Whiles sad Night over him her mantle black doth spred.

Whose double gates he findeth locked fast,

The one fayre fram'd of burnisht yvory,
The other all with silver overcast;

And wakeful dogges before them farre doe lye,
Watching to banish Care their enimy,
Who oft is wont to trouble gentle sleepe.
By them the sprite doth passe in quietly,

And unto Morpheus comes, whom drowned deepe
In drowsie fit he findes ; of nothing he takes keepe.

And more to lulle him in his slumber soft,

A trickling streame from high rock tumbling downe,
And ever-drizling raine upon the loft,

Mixt with a murmuring winde, much like the sowne
Of swarming bees, did cast him in a swowne.
No other noyse, nor peoples troublous cryes,
As still are wont t'annoy the walled towne,
Might there be heard; but careless Quiet lyes

Wrapt in eternal silence farre from enimyes."

Raleigh, though a poet, is justly alluded to by our author, as having been more indebted to his historical character for his fame in the former respect, than to the superiority of his muse; and even Sir Philip Sydney, with all the refinement and delicacy of his genius, which, indeed, were the faithful transcripts of his entire nature, was infected with those conceits of thought and expression which came to be in vogue among lesser men. But there was another name belonging to Elizabeth's age, which must never be so summarily treated, when the master poets of Great Britain are the theme; and this was William Shakspeare, not, in the present notice, considered as a dramatist, but as a writer of sonnets and other poems. Hear our author,

"They have a consolidation of thought, a sterling and deep imagination, a terseness yet comprehensiveness of expression unrivalled, almost unattainable. Spenser individualized and abstracted the passions, and produced spiritual characters, Shakspeare massed and blended them, and created living and human beings; the one rendered the most real things fanciful and ideal, the other gave life and substance to the most imaginative. The one was delicate, aerial, and precise, the other glowing, powerful, and impressive. The mistiness of Romance hangs like a vapour over the creations of the one, harmonizing their tints, and softening down their most fantastic forms; the productions of the other stand out in the bold and massive characters and distinct colours of nature-thoughts, sensations, affections and passions are not weakened by the refinements of a metaphysical speculation, but burst into poetry in all their freshness and proportion, warm as the mind that conceived them, and genuine as the nature from which they sprang. Spenser was the Claude of poetry, Shakspeare was an Angelo or a Raphael. His Rape of Lucrece, and Venus and Adonis, inferior only to his nobler and better works, are full of fine imagination and glowing language. They were the compositions of his early manhood, and were lit with the dawnings of that genius which brightened and immortalized his dramatic works.

"The sonnet is perhaps the most difficult style of poetical composition. Being restricted to the exact number of fourteen lines, there is to epitomize into that narrow compass a complete and dignified image or reflection, every part and expression of which should preserve its due proportion. If the composition be not spiritedly sustained, the whole stanza appears languid and unpleasing; and if it be attempted to crowd too much into the poem, it consequently becomes obscure and confused. To the writers of sonnets great poetic judgment, a delicate power of balancing words and concentrating ideas are indispensable; and these properties the mind of Shakspeare instinctively possessed. An epithet from his pen is often suffi

« PreviousContinue »