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fare passed not away without fierce employment, as if the arrow could not cease to be a weapon of death without drinking its last deep draught of blood, when the air was darkened over the plains of Crecy and Poictiers, by the shafts from the hosts of English archers. With all the animating movements of the reign, Chaucer was in close and active sympathy; he was a courtier and a soldier, as well as a student. No poet has ever held such large and free communion with the world and his fellow-men. He stood in the presence of kings and nobles; and became versed in the love of chivalry, its principles and its fashions: he went forth from the pomp of the court to do a soldier's service, and in the season of peace to muse in the fields, to look with loving eyes upon the flowers, to sympathize with the simple hearts of children and of peasants, to honour womanhood alike in humble or in high estate, and to commune with the faithful and the zealous of the priesthood. He travelled into foreign lands, an envoy or an exile, (so varied was his career,) happy, if the conjecture be not unfounded, in listening to words falling from the living lips of Italy's great poet, then the aged Petrarch, possibly meeting Boccacio and Froissart. When, near three hundred years later, the youthful Milton visited the shores of Italy, amid all the classical associations that were thronging into his heart, he found room for the proud memory that the father of English poetry had stood on the same soil.*
* In the Epistle to Manso, the friend of Tasso, a production which Mr. Hillard, in his charming book on Italy, calls “the most Virgilian of all compositions not written by Virgil,” Milton says:
Ergo ego te, Clius et magni nomine Phoebi,
The times in which Chaucer lived were momentous also as a period in which were first seen the forecast shadows of mighty changes in the Christian church; and we can well believe that his heart must have leaped up when he beheld the bold British hand of John Wyclif, a hundred years and more before the days of Luther, strike the first blow at ecclesiastical tyranny—the same hand which was an instrument of Providence in taking the seal from off the Bible, and spreading it in living English words throughout the land.
The last half of the fourteenth century, which period of Chaucer's manhood, (for he died, let it be remembered, an aged man, in the year 1400,) was an era in which the English mind was touched by many of its finest and most quickening influences. The impulse it received was manifest in various departments of human thought. The arts were cultivated, civic architecture especially, and chiefly that sacred form of it which has been the wonder of after ages. Painting was cultivated, and the more glorious sister art of poetry was taught by two poets more eminent than England had yet produced, John Gower and Geoffry Chaucer. It was fitting that in such an age the Parliament of England should decree that the statutes of the
Missus Hyperboreo juvenis peregrinus ab axe.
Mitford 8 Milton, vol. 3, p. 317. W. B. R.
realm were no longer to be enrolled in a foreign dialect, but that the voice of British legislation should speak in the nation's own language.
The student of literature, who will take the pains to master the difficulties of Chaucer's antiquated poems, and they will quickly diminish before him—will find an abundant reward. His powers are as varied as they are voluminous, rich in original materials and in that which, drawn from foreign sources—the Latin, French, and Italian literature—bears in the transmutation the glory of a great poet's invention. What most distinguishes the genius of Chaucer is the comprehensiveness and variety of his powers. You look at him in his gay mood, and it is so genial that that seems to be his very nature, an overflowing comic power, or, rather, that power touched with thoughtfulness and tenderness—“humour” in its finest estate. And then you turn to another phase of his genius, and with something of wonder, and more of delight, you
find it shining with a light as true and natural and beautiful into the deeper places of the human soul—its woes, its anguish, and its strength of suffering and of heroism. In this, the harmonious union of true tragic and comic powers, Chaucer and Shakspeare stand alone in our literature: it places these two above all the other great poets of our language, for such combination is the highest endowment of poetic genius.
The genius of Chaucer is manifest also in that other characteristic of the poetic spirit, wise and genial communion with the spiritual influences of the material world, “Earth, air, ocean, and the starry sky.” All nature is with him alive with a fresh and active life-blood. His green leaves, it has been well said, are the greenest that
were ever seen.
His grass is the gladdest green;
the cool and fragrant breezes he sings of seem to fan the reader's cheek; his birds pour forth notes the most thrilling, the most soothing, that ever touched mortal ear
“ There was many and many a lovely note,
And some did sing all out with the full throat." The earth and sky-his earth and sky-are steeped in brightest sunshine, and all things else about him drawn from May-time and the cheerful dawn.'
* Introduction to Chaucer Modernized, p. xcvi., and Wordsworth's Version of the Cuckoo and the Nightingale, p. 41. I am tempted in this connection to make an extract from a most graceful tribute to my brother's memory in a private letter from Lady Richardson, the wife of Sir John Richardson of Arctic celebrity, and a lady of high intelligence and accomplishments. It is descriptive of the first impression of a bright May morning, with its gentle companionship of singing birds and flowers, among the English lakes and amid Wordsworth’s haunts: “It must have been," writes Lady Richardson, “about the middle of May that we heard of Mr. Reed's arrival at Rydal Mount; on the next day he called. The day was so beautiful, that, fearing he might not see the valley of the Ensedale again on so fine a day, I took him to Wordsworth's Wall and round the Terrace Walk for a first view. We had little time for more than to walk quickly round, I pointing out where “the Prelude" was composed, and where so many summer hours were passed. He did not say much; but the expression of his face showed me the deep delight he felt, both in the present beauty and in the associations the place recalled. As we returned, the “Wandering Voice” was peculiarly blythe and near to us on that May morning, and I remember he told me he had heard the cuckoo for the first time at Rydal Mount. He remarked on the beauty of the holly, which he did not seem to know before. He spoke of Southey's lines on the holly-tree, the loss of its thorns, and its smooth leaves as it grows high, compared to what old age should be. We paused to talk and sit and quote some of our favourite
A favourite form of imaginative composition of those times was the romantic allegory, and Chaucer, taking up the fashion, has perpetuated it, especially in two poems, which the life-giving power of genius yet preserves. One of these, the “ House of Fame,” is known to modern readers chiefly through Pope's paraphrase, bearing the statelier title—a characteristic alteration—of the “Temple of Fame.” This
poem is not one on which I need stop for criticism, and I am about to mention it for quite a different purpose. It contains a passage which has struck me as in curious anticipation of a scientific hypothesis suggested in our own days; poetic imagination foreshadowing the results of scientific reasoning. In the ninth Bridgewater Treatise, from the pen of Mr. Babbage, he propounded a thcory respecting the permanent impressions of our words—spoken words—a theory startling enough almost to close a man's lips in perpetual silence : “That the pulsations of the . air, once set in motion by the human voice, cease not to exist with the sounds to which they give rise; that the waves of the air thus raised perambulate the earth and
lines; and all that he said impressed me with the feeling of his being of that genial, elevated, and kindly stamp which Wordsworth most delighted in. . On coming to a walk at the foot of some rocks which my husband had engineered during his last visit, Mr. Reed said, How pleasant it is, that one whose heroic character and sufferings interested me so much, as a boy, in America, can now be associated with this lovely scene!' We parted with a promise that they would come and see me in the South. This they were unfortunately prevented doing, and we never met again.”—MS. Letter. I hope I violate no propriety in using a letter which never was intended for the public eye; but the temptation to give this glimpse of the last bright hours, the simple, natural tastes and pure imaginings, associated, like his great poetic models, with all that was beautiful in nature, of one whom it is now no flattery to praise, has been irresistible. W. B. R.