Sidor som bilder
PDF
ePub

and ceremonial. We find here a little social drama, as it were, bearing strongly the stamp of nature and reality, and the parties are unreservedly communing with each other-riding, talking, laughing, eating together. Here is the knight, "a very perfect, gentle knight," newly returned from his adventures, and modest with the memories of many a battle on sea and land, fought with the Moors and the foes of the faithful far away. With him comes his

son, full of gayety and gallantry, “wakeful as a nightingale with his amorous ditties;" and the rest of the company is made

up

of a demure prioress, a monk, a friar and other ecclesiastical functionaries; a merchant, a franklin, a sea-captain, the doctor of physic, “whose study was but little on the Bible;” the lawyer, "a very busy man, yet seeming busier than he really was;" the parson, drawing mankind to heaven by gentleness; the miller, crafty in cheating his customers; the ploughman, a good, constant, labouring man, living in peace and charity, working hard, and cheerfully paying his dues to the church, along with other hearty commoners, spruced up for the pilgrimage in holiday-dress. There is the frolicsome wife of Bath; and a very different character, not to be forgotten, the Oxford student, silent or sententious, thoughtful and thin by dint of hard study, riding on a lean horse :

“He had rather have at his bed's head
Some twenty volumes, clothed in black or red,
Of Aristotle and his philosophy,
Than richest robes, fiddle or psaltery.
But tho' a true philosopher was he,
Yet had he little gold beneath his key;
But every farthing that his friends e'er lent,
In books and learning was it always spent.”

These various characters are brought into happy companionship; and indeed the spirit of all Chaucer's poetry shows that if his own lot was cast in the company of kings and nobles, his human heart had large spaces to hold his fellow-beings in. His sympathies were with freedom in all created things, as in a passage, which is enough, I think, of itself, to open the prison-door and give to liberty and life again any caged bird in the world

" Where birds are fed in cages,
Though you should day and night tend them like pages,
And strew the bird's room fair and soft as silk,
And give him sugar, honey, bread, and milk :
Yet had the bird, by twenty thousand fold,
Rather be in a forest wild and cold :
And right anon, let but his door be up,
And with his feet he spurneth down his cup,
And to the wood will be and feed on worms.
In that new college koepeth he his terms,
And learneth love of his own proper kind:

No gentleness of home his heart may bind.” The poetry of Chaucer is distinguished also for what is an inseparable quality of all high poetry, its genuine and healthy morality, for true imagination is ever one of virtue's ministers. The indelicacy and grossness which stain some of his pages seem to belong rather to the colloquial coarseness of his times, than to fasten on the purity of his feelings. He pleads forgiveness for these blemishes, as not of evil intent, and it is easy to follow his advice when he bids his reader,

“Turn over the leaf, and choose another tale;
For he shall find enough, both great and smale,
Of storial thing that toucheth gentilesse,

And eke morality and holiness."
One of the purest and wisest of the great English poets

[ocr errors]

who have succeeded Chaucer, has said of him, “If Chaucer is sometimes a coarse moralist, he is still a great one. The plain-spoken coarseness is a spot here and there, but the great body of his poetry is a poet's pure and lofty discipline, thoughtful and affectionate reverence of womanly worth, teaching of Christian well-doing, of heroic morality, and of the morality of every-day life. He moralizes in the poet's happiest mood, imaginatively, feelingly, humorously, as when he teaches us that much-neglected art, the art of living with one another, the social duty of mutual forbearance.

" One thing, sirs, full safely dare I say,
That loving friends each other must obey,
If they would long remain in company :
Love will not be constrain'd by mastery.
When mastery cometh, the God of Love, anon
Beateth his wings, and, farewell! he is gone.
Love is a thing as any spirit free :
Women, by nature, wish for liberty,
And not to be constrain'd as in a thrall;
And so do men-to speak truth-one and all.
Note well the wight most patient in his love :
He standeth, in advantage, all above.
That patience is a virtue high, is plain,
Because it conquers, as the clerkes explain,
Things that rude vigour never could attain.
Chide not for every trifle, nor complain;
Learn to endure, or, so betide my lot,
Learn it ye shall, whether ye will or not.
For in this world is no one, certain ’tis,
But that he sometimes doth or saith amiss.
Anger, ill health, or influence malign
Of planets, changes in the blood, woe, wine,

* Wordsworth, as quoted in the Introduction to Chaucer Modernized, p. xcviii.

Oft cause in word or deed that we transgress;
For, for every wrong we should not seek redress.
After a time there must be temperance

In every man that knows self-governance." There is a deeper strain of poetic wisdom on a kindred subject, showing that indeed“ we live by admiration, hope, and love,” in that fine exposition of the moral influences of well-directed affection, when, speaking of dutiful love,

he says:

“In this world no service is so good
For every wight that gentle is of kind,
For thereof comes all goodness and all worth ;
All gentleness and honour thence come forth;
Thence worship comes, content, and true heart's pleasure,
And full-assured trust, joy without measure,
And jollity, fresh cheerfulness, and mirth:
And bounty, lowliness, and courtesy,
And seemliness and faithful company,

And dread of shame that will not do amiss." The same spirit, connecting all true passion with its deeper moral associations, is to be traced in that stanza of Wordsworth’s, conveying in a few lines at once the simplest and sublimest conception of the passion of Love :

“Learn by a mortal yearning, to ascend-
Toward a higher object. Love was given,
Encouraged, sanctioned chiefly for that end;
For this the passion to excess was driven,
That self might be annulled : her bondage prove

The fetters of a dream, opposed to love."* Such is the affinity between the souls of great poets, though centuries are between them.

It is now well-nigh four hundred and fifty years since

* Laodamia, Works, p. 142. Am. Edition.

of

the body of Chaucer was entombed in that corner of Westminster Abbey where, in after generations, the perishable remains of other of England's great poets were to be gathered round his. Four centuries pass not over the writings of any mortal without defacing and obliterating. Language is liable to undergo perpetual changes; any person may observe, in even a short space years, new forms of expression coming into use, old ones growing obsolete. Time brings along with it new modes of life, of thought, and action. Opinions and feelings often grow old-fashioned-fall behind the times, as the phrase is; and, as these are things that enter so largely into the composition of books, it needs must be that they, too, grow old-fashioned, obsolete, obscure. Chiefly will this happen when it has fallen to an author's lot to write in an unformed language, when the speech of men is made up of various and unsettled dialects, and, therefore, most quickly perishes for want of that consistency which alone perpetuates it. Time is busy in the work of change with all that is upon the earth : the brow is furrowed, the voice is broken, and the sight fails; temple and tower moulder with its touch; empires and dynasties are varying and wasting; but the strangest work of mutability is that which is at work with language. The most wondrous mortality the world witnesses is the dying of language. It almost baffles human conception to speculate either upon the birth or the death of the multitude, or rather the family of words that make up a nation's speech; to think how thousauds of mankind come to utter their thoughts and feelings in the same words and the same combinations of words; and then, that, in the course of time, as if the earth and all earthly

« FöregåendeFortsätt »