« PreviousContinue »
turn of words, in which Ovid particularly excels all poets ; they are fometimes a fault, and sometimes a beauty, as they are used properly or improperly ; but in ftrong putions always to be funnel, becaule passions are serious, and wili admit no playing. The French have a high value for them; and I confesi, they are often what they call delicate, when they are introduced with julginent; but Ch?ucer writ with more fimplicity, and followed nature more closely, than to use thein. I have thus far, to the best of my knowJeilge, been an upright judge betwixt the parties in competition, not meillling with the design nor the difposition of it; because the design was not their own ; and in the disposing of it they were equil. It remains that I lay fomewhat of Chaucer in particular.
In the first place, as he is the father of English poetry, so I hold him in the fame degree of veneration as the Grecians held Homer, or the Romans Virgil : he is a perpetual fountain of goud leníe ; learned in all sciences; and therefore speaks properly on all subjects: as he knew what to say, so he knows also when to leave off; a continence which is practised by few writers, and scarcely by any of the ancients, excepting Virgil and Horace. One of our late great poets is funk in his reputation, because he couid never forgive any conceit which came in his way; but swept like a drag-net, great and finall. There was plenty enough, but the dishes were ill-forted; whole pyramids of tweet-meats, for boys and women ; but litile of folid meat, for men : all this proceeded not from any want of knowledge,
but of judgment; neither did he want that in discerning the beauties and faulis of other poets ; but only indulged himself in the luxury of writing ; and perhaps knew it was a fault, but hoped the reader would not find it. For this reason, though he must always be thought a great poet, he is no longer esteemed a good writer: and for ten iimprefsions, which his works have had in so many successive years, yct at present a bundred books are scarcely purchased once a twelvemonth :for, as my last lord Rochester said, though somewhat profanely, Not being of God, he could not stand.
Chaucer followed nature every where; but was never so bokd to go beyond her : and there is a great difference of beiny Poeta and nimis Poeta, if we believe Catullus, as much as betwixt a modest behaviour and affectation. The verse of Chaucer, I confe!s, is not harmonious to us; but it is like the eloquence of one whoin Tacitus co.r mends, it was “ auribus iftius tem
poris accommodata :" 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 Lidgate and Gower, his contemporaries : there is the rude fweetness of a Scotch tune in it, which is natural and pleasing, though not perfect. It is true, I cannot
go so far as he who published the last edition of him; for he would make us believe the fault is in our ears, and that there were really ten fyllables in a verse where we find but nine: but this opinion is not worth confuting; it is so gross and obvious an error, that cominon sense (which is a rule in every thing but matters of faith
and revelation) must convince the reader, that equality of numbers in every verse, which we call Heroic, was either not known, or not always practised in Chaucer's age. It were an easy matter to produce some thousands of his verses, which are lame for want of half a foot, and sometimes a whole one, and which no pronunciation can make otherwise. We can only fay, that he lived in the infancy of our poetry, and that nothing is brought to perfection at the first. We must be children before we grow men. There was an Ennius, and in process of time a Lucilius, and a Lucretius, before Virgil and Horace ; even after Chaucer there was a Spenser, a Harrington, a Fairfax, before Waller and Denham were ia being : and our numbers were in their nonage till these Jast appeared. I need say little of his paren-age, life, and fortunes :
: they are to be found at large in all the editions of his works. He was employed abroad, and favoured by Edward the Third, Richard the Second, and Henry the Fourth, and was poet, as I suppose, to all three of them. In Richard's time, I doubt, he was a little dipt in the rebellion of the commons ; and being brother-in-law to John of Graunt, it was no wonder if he followed the fortunes of that family; and v'as well with Henry the Fourth when he had deposed Lis predecessor. Neither is it to be admired, that Henry, who was a wise as well as a valiant prince, who claimer by succession, and was sensible that his title was not fi und, but was rightfully in Mortimer, who had married the heir of York; it was not to be admired, I say, it that great politician should be pleased to have the
greatest wit of those times in his interests, and to be the trumpet of his praises. Auguftus had given him the example, by the advice of Mæcenas, who recommended Virgil and Horace to him; whose praises helped to make him popular while he was alive, and after his death have made him precious to pofterity. As for the religion of our poet, he seems to have fome little bias towards the opinions of Wickliff, after John of Gaunt his
patron ; fomewhat of which appears in the tale of Piers Flowman : yet I cannot blame him for inveighing so sharply against the vices of the clergy in his age : their pride, their ambition, their pomp, their avarice, their worldly interest, deserved the lashes which he gave them, both in that, and in most of his Canterbury tales: neither has his contemporary Boccace spared thein. Yet both those poets lived in much esteem with good and holy men in orders : for the scandal which is given by particular priests, reflects not on the sacred function. Chaucer's Monk, his Chanon, and his Fryer, took not from the character of his Good Parson. A satyrical poet is the check of the laymen, on bad priests. We are only to take care, that we involve not the innocent with the guilty in the same condemnation. The good cannot be too much honoured, nor the bad too coarsely used : for the corruption of the best becomes the worst. When a clergyman is whipped, his gown is first taken off, by which the dignity of his order is secured : if he be wrongfully accused, he has his action of lander ; and it is at the poet's peril, if he transgress the law. But they will tell us, that all kind of satire, though never
so well deserved by particular priests, yet brings the whole order into contempt. Is then the peerage of England any thing dishononed, when a peer suffers for his treason? If he be libeled, or any way defamed, he has his “ Scandalum Magnatum” to punish the offender. They, who use this kind of argument, seem to be conscious to themselves of somewhat which has deserved the peet's lash, and are less concerned for their public capacity, than for their private ; at least there is pride at the bottom of their reasoning. If the faults of men in orders are only to be judged among them le'ves, they are all in some fort parties : for, since they say the honour of their order is concerned in every member of it, how can we be sure, that they will be impartial judge: -? How far I may be allowed to speak my opinion in this cale, I know not: but I am sure a difpute of this nature caused mischief in abundance betwixt a king of England and an archbishop of Canterbury; one standing up for the Laws of his land, and the other for the honour (as he called it) of God's Church; which ended in the murther of the prelate, and in the whipping of his majefty from post to pillar for his penance. The learned and ingenious Dr. Drake has saved me the labour of inquiring into the esteem and reverence which the priests have had of old; and I would rather extend than diminish any part of it: yet I must needs say, that whien a priest provokes me without
occasion iven him, I have no reason, unless it be the charity of a Christian, to forgive him. 66 Prior læfit" is justification fufficient in the Civil Law.