Page images
PDF
EPUB

If I answer him in his own language, self-defence, I am sure, must be allowed ine; and if I carry it farther, even to a sharp recrimination, somewhat may be indulged to human frailty. Yet my resentment has not wrought fo far, but that I have followed Chaucer in his character of a holy man, and have enlarged on that fubject with some pleasure, reserving to myself the right, if I fall think fit hereafter, to describe another fort of prietts, such as are more easily to be found than the good parson; such as have given the last blow to Christianity in this age, by a practice so contrary to their doctrine. But this will keep cold till another time. In the mean while, I take up Chaucer where I left him. He must have been a man of a most wonderful comprehensive nature, because, as it has been truly observed of him, he has taken into the compass of his Canterbury tales the various manners and humours (as we now call them) of the whole English nation, in his age. Not a single character has escaped bim. All his pilgrims are severally distinguished from each other; and not only in their inclinations, but in their very physiognomies and persons. Baptista Porta could not have described their natures better, than by the marks which the poet gives them. The inatter and manner of their tales, and of their telling, are so suited to their different educations, humours, and callings, that each of them would be improper in any other mouth. Even the grave and serious characters are distinguished by their several sorts of gravity: their discourses are such as belong to their age, their calling, and their

breeding i

breeding ; such as are becoming of them, and of them only. Some of his persons are vicious, and some virtuous ; some are unlearned, or (as Chaucer calls them) lewd, and some are learned. Even the ribaldry of the low characters is different : the Reeve, the Miller, and the Cook, are several men, and distinguished from each other, as much as the mincing ladly prioress, and the broad-!pcaking gap-toothed wife of Bath. But enough of this : there is such a variety of game springing up before me, that I am distracted in my choice, and know not which to follow. It is sufficient to say, according to the proverb, that here is God's plenty. We have our fore-fathers and great grand-dames all before us, as they were in Chaucer's days; their general characters are still remaining in mankind, and even in England, though they are called by other names than those of Monks and Friars, and Chanons, and lady Abbesses, and Nuns: for mankind is ever the same, and nothing lost out of nature, though every thing is altered. May I have leave to do myself the justice, (since my enemies will do me none, and are so far from granting me to be a good poet, that they will not allow me so much as to be a Christian, or a moral man); may I have leave, I say, to inform my reader, that I have confined

my

choice to such tales of Chaucer as favour nothing of immodesty. If I had desired more to please than to instruct, the Reeve, the Miller, the Shipman, the Merchants, the Sumner, and, above all, the Wife of Bath, in the prologue to her tale, would have procured me as many friends and readers, as there are

like;

beaux and ladies of pleasure in the town. But I will no more offend against good-manners : I am sensible, as I ought to be, of the scandal I have given by my loose writings ; and make what reparation I am able, by this public acknowledgment. If any thing of this nature, or of profaneness, be crept into these poems, I am so far from defending it, that I disown it. “ Totum hoc indictum volo." Chaucer makes another manner of apology for his broad-speaking, and Boccace makes the

but I will follow neither of them. Our countryman, in the end of his characters, before the Canterbury tales, thus excuses the ribaldry, which is very gross in many of his novels.

But first, I pray you of your courtesy,
That ye ne arrettee it nought my villany,
Though that I plainly speak in this mattere
To tellen you her words, and eke her chere :
Ne though I speak her words properly,
For this ye knowen as well as I,
Who shall tellen a tale after a man,
He mote rehearse as nye, as ever he can :
Everich word of it been in his charge,
All speke he, never so rudely, ne large.
Or else he mote tellen his tale untrue,
Or feine things, or find words new :
He may not spare, although he were his brother,
He mote as well say o word as another.
Christ spake himself full broad in holy writ,
And well I wote no villany is it,
VOL. III.

D

Eke

[ocr errors]

Eke Plato faith, who fo can him rede,
The words mote been cousin to the decie.

Yet if a man should have inquired of Boccace or of Chaucer, what need they had of introducing such characters, where obscene words were proper in their mouths, but very indecent to be heard; I know not what anfwer they could have made: for that reason, such tale Thall be left untold by me.

You have here a specimen of Chaucer's language, which is so obsolete, that his sense is scarce to be understood; and you have likewise more than one example of his unequal numbers, which were mentioned before. Yet many of his verses confift of ten fyllables, and the words not much behind our present English : as for example, these two lines, in the description of the carpenter's young

wife : Wincing the was, as is a jolly colt,

Long as a mast, and upright as a bolt. I have almost done with Chaucer, when I have anfwered some objections relating to my present work. I find some people are offended that I have turned these tales into modern English ; because they think them unworthy of my pains, and look on Chaucer as a dry, old-fashioned wit, not worth reviving. I have often heard the late earl of Leicester say, that Mr. Cowley himself was of that opinion; who, having read him over at my lord's request, declared he had no taste of him. I dare not advance my opinion against the judgment of so great an anthor : but I think it fair, however, to leave the decision to the public : Mr. Cowley

[ocr errors]

was too modest to set up for a dictator ; and being shocked perhaps with his old stile, never examined into the depth of his good sense. Chaucer, I confess, is a rough diamond, and must first be polished, ere he shines. I deny not likewise, that, living in our early days of poetry, he writes not always of a piece: but sometimes mingles trivial things with those of greater moment, Sometimes also, though not often, he runs riot, like Ovid, and knows not when he has said enough. But there are more great wits besides Chaucer, whose fault is their excess of conceits, and thofe ill forted. An author is not to write all he can, but only all he ought. Having observed this redundancy in Chaucer (as it is an easy matter for a man of ordinary parts to find a fault in one of greater), I have not tied myself to a literal translation; but have often omitted what I judged unnecessary, or not of dignity enough to appear in the company of better thoughts. I have presumed farther, in some places, and added somewhat of my own where I thought my author was deficient, and had not given his thoughts their true lustre, for want of words in the beginning of our language. And to this I was the more emboldened, because (if I may be permitted to say it of myself) I found I had a foul congenial to his, and that I had been conversant in the same studies. Another poet, in another age, may take the same liberty with my writings ; if at least they live long enough to deserve correction. It was also necessary fometimes to restore the sense of Chaucer, which was loft er mangled in the errors of the press ; let this example suffice at present;

in

D2

« PreviousContinue »