« FöregåendeFortsätt »
respect. His poems are not in a dead language; they cannot be said to be in a living language. They are not in a foreign tongue, and yet they are hardly in our own. There is much that is the English still in use, and there is much that is very different. A reader not accustomed to English so antiquated, opens a volume of Chaucer, and he meets words that are familiar and words that are uncouth to him. In this, there is something repulsive to the eye and the ear, especially in finding words strangely syllabled and accented. He is not prepared to apply himself to it as he might to a poem in a foreign or dead language, to be toilsomely translated; and yet he cannot approach it as the literature of his own living speech. The use of glossaries and explanatory vocabularies cannot be dispensed with ; but, to most readers, this is a wearisome process, for there is something thwarting and vexatious in finding ourselves at fault in dealing with our own mother-tongue. It seems like encountering the curse of Babel in our own homes, on our own hearths; and that is a misery. In forming acquaintance with ancient or foreign literature, the student knows that a well-defined exertion is needed, and this he makes in working his way through ancient or foreign words and idioms; and thus he comes to know the literature of Greece and Rome, of France, or Italy, or Germany. But the antiquated dialect of his own language is a mingled mass of sunshine and shadow, with sharp and sudden changes from one to the other, so that the mind is distracted in the uncertainty how long the clearness will last, and how soon the obscurity will come again, going along, like Christabel, “ now in glimmer and now in gloom.” This proves a greater obstacle than the total separation of lan
guage which enforces the task of translation, and it has been remarked with truth that, “if Chaucer's poems had been written in Greek or Hebrew, they would have been a thousand times better known. They would have been translated."*
A process akin to translation has been attempted, the most noted of the paraphrases of Chaucer's poems being those by Dryden and Pope. Those versions are, however, of little avail for what should have been their chief purpose; for, while they serve to give the reader a notion of Dryden and Pope, the genius of Chaucer, with all its natural simplicity and power, is lost by being transmuted into the elaborate polish of the verse of the times of Charles the Second and of Queen Anne.
The only successful attempt to make the approach to the poetry of Chaucer more easy, by modifying his diction and metre, has been made within the last few years, in a small work entitled “Chaucer Modernized.” It may be recommended as a safe introduction to a knowledge of Chaucer's poetry, for the versions are from the pens of several distinguished living poets, combining in this service of filial reverence to the memory of the Father of English Poetry; and the versions are composed strictly on this principle, that the paraphrase is limited to such changes as are absolutely necessary to render the meaning and metre of the original intelligible; and thus the reader in the nineteenth century is placed in the same relative position as the reader of the fourteenth, communing with the imagination of the Poet, through verse which is readily and naturally familiar.
* Introduction to “Chaucer Modernized,” p. 5.
Now, considering these difficulties of language, it is remarkable that the few readers of Chaucer's poetry should have had authority, from generation to generation, to sustain his traditionary fame; for if he is not known and felt to be the earliest of the great English poets, he is at least always named as such.
“That noble Chaucer, in those former times,
He made it do."* Usually, in the history of a nation's literature, it may be observed that the language and the literature move forward together—the rude dialect being adequate to express the motives of the rude mind; so that what is handed down in an unformed language is commonly nothing more than the imperfect products of the early intellect or fancy. But the peculiarity of Chaucer's position in literary history is just this, that in the era of an unshaped language, we have an author of the very highest rank of poetic genius.
That Chaucer took the language of his own time, and in its best estate, (for language always makes gift of its best wealth to a great poet,) need not be doubted; but it is difficult to conceive the condition of the language during his time, in the fifty years' reign of Edward the Third. For the scholastic uses of the learned, and for
ecclesiastical purposes, the Latin was still a living language. The French was the speech of the court, and in private correspondence had superseded the Latin. But with the great body of the people there was the great body of Anglo-Saxon words and forms of speech, with a living power in them which no foreign or ancient dialects could quench; and to that, the English language, imperfect, unformed, and changing as it was, this great poet gave his heart; showing, like his most illustrious successors, that the great poet is ever a true patriot also. “Let, then," said Chaucer, “clerkes enditen in Latin, for they have the propertie of science, and the knowing of that facultie; and lette Frenchmen in their French also enditen their queint termes, for it is kindly to their mouthes; and let us show our fantasies in such wordes as we learnden of our Dame's tongue." And when he wrote for the teaching of his little son, he used English, because, said he, "curious enditying and harde sentences are full hevy at once for such a childe to lerne," and bids the boy think of it as the King's English.*
It needed the large soul of a great poet to make choice of the People's speech rather than the dialects of the learned or the nobles. Chaucer's contemporary and senior brother-poet, honoured by him as the “moral Gower," ventured upon no such confidence in the language of the land. The legacy of his song was committed to Latin and to French words; and yet what might he not have achieved, had he oftener trusted the rude mothertongue, as in that passage in which he pictures Medea
* Prologue to Testament of Love. Ed. 1542, cited in Pickering's Edition of Chaucer, vol. i. p. 202.
going forth at midnight to gather herbs for the incantations of her witchcraft? I give you without a change, the words and the metre, five hundred years old, of the poet Gower:
“Thus it befell upon a night,
Whann there was naught but sterre light,
She glode forth, as an adder doth." If Chaucer was unfortunate in the period of his country's language, he was happy in the era of his country's history. The Saxon and the Norman, the conqueror and conquered, had grown together into one people. It was Chaucer's fortune to be an eye-witness of that vast ambition which fired his sovereign in grasping at the diadem of France, to make the two great monarchies of Europe one; and how could the fire in a great poet's heart sleep, when he beheld his king and his prince, those proud Plantaganets, the third Edward and his heroic son, going forth like royal knights-errant in quest of majestic adventures. The reign was one of high monarchal pride, displayed, however, so as to animate a high national pride by lifting up the sense of the nation's dignity, and power, and magnificence. Kings were suppliant to England's princes for help-kings were captive in England's capital; and that ambitious noble, “old John of Gaunt,” Chaucer's patron and kinsman, not content with his English dukedom, was proclaimed King of Castile. It was a period of highwrought martial enthusiasm, and the early modes of war