« PreviousContinue »
to discern a poor creature in whatever century he lived ; and not only were there some very poor creatures among the early English poets, but many of the best of them wrote a great deal of very sorry stuff, and were far from being uniformly miraculous. Yet, all in all, and even apart from such supreme chiefs as Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton, the body of English poetry that has come down to us from before the middle of the seventeenth century is as rich and interesting a possession of its kind as any modern language can exhibit. It belongs to all who can read, and ought by no means to be abandoned to the scholar only, or the literary antiquarian. After the newspaper, the novel, the last new book of whatever kind, and our classics in prose or in verse back to Dryden, have all had their due, there remains in our older English poetry, for as many as choose, an abundance of the exact kind of enjoyment most suitable for summer holidays or long winter evenings.
One test of what is really good in literature is that it shall leave a strong mark in the memory. Our greatest writers might be appraised, relatively to each other, by the numbers of memorable phrases, lines, and passages, from their texts, that have passed into common speech. Shakespeare and Milton, among the older poets, have contributed such in far the largest proportion, Chaucer and Spenser having yielded a good deal, though considerably less. But what a wealth of lines and phrases of keen and happy thought, fine and mystic suggestion, or sweet and musical form, lies bedded still in the less known parts of Chaucer and Spenser themselves, and in the poetry of their minor contemporaries and intermediates ! One may cull a few examples : “O ring of which the ruby is out-fall!”
“The smiler with the knife under the cloak.”
" When maistrie comth, the god of love anon
“ It is not all good to the ghost that the gut asketh.”
“ I learnt never read on book, And I ken no French, in faith, but of the farthest end of Norfolk.”
Langland. " For the best been some rich, and some beggars and poor ;
For all are we Christ's creatures, and of his coffers rich,
James I. of Scotland.
“ The sugared mouths with minds therefrae,
The figured speech with faces tway,
6. The wind made wave the red weed on the dike."
“ Victorious William Meldrum was his name.”
Upon the golden skies :
“ And there that Shepherd of the Ocean is.”
" For of the soul the body form doth take; For soul is form, and doth the body make."
Spenser. “ Let Gryll be Gryll, and have his hoggish mind.
Spenser. " Then came October, full of merry glee; For yet his nowl was totty with the must."
Spenser. “ Therefore I mourn with deep heart's sorrowing, Because I nothing noble have to sing.”
Spenser. “ Fear is more pain than is the pain it fears."
Sidney. 6. Her eyes are sapphires set in snow, Refining heaven with every wink.”
Chapman. " When all that ever hotter spirits expressed Comes bettered by the patience of the North.”
Daniel. • They now to fight are gone :
Armour on armour shone;
To hear was wonder,
High and aloof,
The very quaintness of the old language now and then makes such verbal memorabilia more impressive. In these days, when what passes for “style” is often a conventional velvety verbiage, and when our best speakers rarely “say” a thing, but only“ do not hesitate to assert” it, there is refreshment in going back among writers whose notion of style was to fold words as closely as possible round the very things meant, and who used, with more or less of tact, every means for that purpose that their English afforded. Sir Walter Raleigh was not a perfect expert in verse; but there is something all the more delightful in the attempt of this “Shepherd of the Ocean," whose main business was with ships and the handling of tarry ropes, to express that mood of high ideality, high poetic spiritualism, which was the leading characteristic of all the Elizabethans
" Blood must be my body's balmer;
No other balm will here be given,
Travels to the Land of Heaven,
More peaceful pilgrims I shall see,
And walk apparelled fresh, like me.
I'll take them first
To slake their thirst,
At those clear wells
Where sweetness dwells,
High walls of coral, and pearly doors.” But not in stray passages only will even the minor old English poetry answer well to that test of worth which consists in sure hold on the memory. While much of the effect of the old poems, especially the lyrics and meditative or reflective pieces, is produced, as in modern poetry, in the act and at the moment of reading, and we afterwards remember only that we were interested, stirred, thought this ingenious and that graceful or powerful, there are many of the poems, especially the narrative poems, that leave permanent pictures and visions in our chambers of imagery. One might instance, more particularly, Chaucer's poetry and Spenser's. In Chaucer, besides the main stories themselves, with all their variety of beauty, pathos, and humour, what a furnishing for the memory, and for all future thinking in which the memory may bear part, in those little dreams, allegories, visionary landscapes and situations, which occur in the stories, and of which some of them are but constructions! Take the House of Fame singly. Who that has ever read that poem of Chaucer's but has the whole optical grotesque or phantasy as if burnt into his mind, so that he finds himself recollecting it again and again, and thinking in terms of it whenever there is occasion? Is there any test of worth in a poem equal to this ? The case selected