Verse > Anthologies > T. H. Ward, ed. > The English Poets > Vol. I. Chaucer to Donne
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Thomas Humphry Ward, ed.  The English Poets.  1880–1918.
Vol. I. Early Poetry: Chaucer to Donne
 
Critical Introduction by Thomas Humphry Ward
Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1340–1400)
 
[Geoffrey Chaucer, born in London probably about 1340, died at Westminster in 1400. He was the son of a vintner; was page in Prince Lionel’s household, served in the army, was taken prisoner in France. He was afterwards valet and squire to Edward III, and went as king’s commissioner to Italy in 1372, and later. He was Controller of the Customs in the port of London from 1381 to 1386, was M. P. for Kent in 1386, Clerk of the King’s Works at Windsor in 1389, and died poor. Mr. Furnivall divides his poetical history into four periods: (1) up to 1371, including the early poems, viz. the A. B. C., the Compleynte to Pité, the Boke of the Duchesse, and the Compleynte of Mars; (2) from 1372 to 1381, including the Troylus and Criseyde, Anelida, and the Former Age; (3) the best period, from 1381 to 1389, including the Parlement of Foules, the Hous of Fame, the Legende of Goode Women, and the chief of the Canterbury Tales; (4) from 1390 to 1400, including the latest Canterbury Tales, and the Ballades and Poems of Reflection and later age, of which the last few, like the Steadfastness, show failing power.]  1
 
IT is natural that a book which aims at including the best that has been done in English verse should begin with Chaucer, to whom no one has ever seriously denied the name which Dryden gave him, of the Father of English poetry. The poems of an earlier date, the Brut and the Ormulum, the Romances and the Homilies, have indeed an interest of their own; but it is a purely antiquarian interest, and even under that aspect it does not exist for the reader of Chaucer, who cannot in any sense be said to have been inspired by them. English poetry, distinguished on the one hand from the ‘rym dogerel’ of the romancers, which is not poetry, and on the other from Beowulf, which is poetry but not, in the ordinary sense, English, begins in the reign of Edward III, with Chaucer and his lesser contemporaries. In them we see at a glance that the step has been taken which separates the rhymer from the poet, the ‘maker,’ who has something new to say, and has found the art of saying it beautifully. The poet, says an Elizabethan critic, ‘can express the true and lively of everything which is set before him, and which he taketh in hand to describe’—words that exactly meet Chaucer’s case, and draw the line between himself and his predecessors. In the half century before Chaucer there had indeed been isolated poems—a lyric or two of real freshness and beauty—but not till that time of heightened national life, of wider culture, and of more harmonised society into which he was born, was there a sufficiency either of ideas or of accessible poetical material on English ground to shape and furnish an imaginative development like his. To him first among the writers of English it was given to catch and to express ‘the true and lively’ throughout a broad life of human range and feeling. Before him there had been story-telling, there had been stray notes of poetry: but in Chaucer England brought forth her first poet, as modern times count poetry; her first skilled and conscious workman, who, coming in upon the stores of natural fact open to all alike, was enabled to communicate to whatever he touched that colour, that force, that distinction, in virtue of which common life and common feelings turn to poetry. And having found her poet, she did not fail to recognise him. Very soon, as Gower’s ‘Venus’ says of him in the often-quoted lines,
 ‘Of ditës and of songës glad
The whiche he for my sakë made
The land fulfilled is over al.’
The themes of his books run glibly from the tongue of his own ‘Sergeaunt of Lawe,’ like matter familiar to all. His literary contemporaries felt and confessed in him the Poet’s mysterious gifts, and his height above themselves. The best English poetical opinion, in the mouth of Spenser, Sidney, Milton, Dryden, has continuously acknowledged him; while the more our later world turns back to him, and learns to read and understand him, the stronger grows his claim in even our critical modern eyes, not only to the antiquarian charm of the story-teller and the ‘translateur,’ but to the influence and honours of the poet.
  2
  Chaucer then is for us the first English poet, and as such has all the interest that attaches to a great original figure. But he makes no parade of his originality; on the contrary, like all mediæval writers, he translates, and borrows, and is anxious to reveal his authorities, lest he should be thought to be palming off mere frivolous inventions of his own. Other men’s work is to him an ever open storehouse to be freely used, now for foundation, now for ornament. Hence with a writer like Chaucer the examination of his sources is at once more possible and more fruitful than is the case with a later poet. We know that every writer is in a great measure the creation of the books he has read and the times he has lived in; but with a modern writer, or one like Virgil, it is impossible to disengage these influences with any real success. Not so with Chaucer and the poets of a young, unformed civilisation; they bear on their foreheads the traces of their origin. They reflect simply and readily the influence of the moment; happiness or sorrow, success or failure, this book or that—each has its instant effect on their work, so that it becomes a matter of real importance for him who would appreciate an early poet to know what he read and how he lived. Accordingly, from very early times, from the time of Stowe, Speght, and the Thynnes, those who have cared for Chaucer have shown a curiosity about the influences that formed him. A century ago, Tyrwhitt did as much as one man could to set the study of these influences on a sound footing, and in our own day the labours of the Chaucer Society and of Professor Ten Brink and other Germans have furnished us with a nearly complete apparatus for conducting it. With infinite industry, such as is shown in Mr. Furnivall’s Six-Text edition of the poet, they have given us what materials exist for settling Chaucer’s text; they have separated, on evidence both internal and derived from the circumstances of his life and times, his genuine work from the spurious pieces that tradition had thrust upon him; and they have skilfully tracked his poems to their sources. On ground so prepared we may tread firmly, and even in a short sketch like the present, which attempts no more than to present results that are generally agreed upon, it is possible to speak with some approach to certainty.  3
  Chaucer was a great reader, and in more than one well-known passage he tells us what he felt for books.
 ‘On bookës for to rede I me delyte,
And to hem yive I feyth and ful credence,’
he says, in the prologue to the Legende of Goode Women. Books are to him the soil from which knowledge springs:—
 ‘For out of oldë feldës, as men saith,
Cometh al this newë corn from yeer to yere,
And out of oldë bokës, in good faith,
Cometh al this newë science that men lere.’
He reads ‘the longë day ful fast’; and it is no vain fancy which would discover in the book-loving ‘Clerke of Oxenford’ some traits that the poet has transferred from his own character. He knew Latin, French, and Italian, and was familiar with the best that had been written in those languages. His Latin studies included Boethius, whose book De Consolatione Philosophiae he translated into English; Macrobius, as far as the Somnium Scipionis is concerned; Livy and others of the great Roman prose writers, and many of the poets, ‘Ovide, Lucan, Stace,’ with Virgil and probably Claudian. But it must be remembered that he read Latin not as we read it, but as we read a modern foreign language, rapidly rather than exactly, with more desire to come by a rough and ready way to the sense than to be clear about the structure of the sentences. He cared very little either for grammar or for prosody; he talks of Ænas and Anchses, and some would believe that he makes of Lollius, the correspondent of Horace, ‘myn auctour Lollius,’ a historian of the Trojan war. 1 In the same way, of the historical study of Latin literature, of the conscious attempt to realise the life of classical times, there is no trace in Chaucer. His favourite Latin writers were unquestionably Boethius and Ovid, as they were the favourites of the middle ages in general; Boethius, of whom a recent editor has counted nineteen imitations before the end of the fifteenth century, and Ovid, whose Ars Amandi and Metamorphoses were the storehouse of the mediæval love-poet and story-teller. Nothing, on the other hand, shows more clearly the limitations of Chaucer’s genius than his attitude towards Virgil. No ‘long study and great love’ had made him search the volume of that ‘honour and light of other poets’ as Dante was made to search it; on the contrary, he prefers the romantic exaggerations of Statius, and it is for the rhetorical Lucan that he reserves the epithet of ‘the gret poete.’ Among the Good Women of the Legende comes Dido, it is true, and her story is taken more from the Æneid than from the Heroides. But what a change has passed over the tale since the religious Roman, charged with the sense of destiny, called away his hero from the embraces of the love-lorn queen to the work of founding the empire of the world!
 ‘The fresshë lady, of the citee queene,
Stood in the temple, in her estat royalle,
So richëly, and eke so faire withalle,
So yong, so lusty, with her eighen glade,
That yf the God that heven and erthë made
Wolde han a love, for beautë and goodnesse,
And womanhode, and trouthe, and semlynesse,
Whom sholde he loven but this lady swete?
Ther nys no woman to him half so mete.’
Such is Dido; while the grave Trojan, for whom in Virgil the gods are contending, becomes in Chaucer’s hands a mere vulgar deceiver, a ‘grete gentilman’ indeed to outward seeming, that has the gifts of pleasing, and can
         ‘Wel doon al his obeÿsaunce
To hire at festeÿngës and at daunce,’
but hollow at heart, false in his oaths and in his tears; in a word, a cool, unscrupulous seeker of bonnes fortunes. And again, at the central point of all, what has become of the ‘conscious heaven’ and ‘pronuba Juno’?
 ‘For ther hath Æneas yknyled soo,
And tolde her al his herte and al his woo;
And sworn so depë to hire to be trewe
For wele or woo, and chaungë for noo newe,
And as a fals lover so wel kan pleyne
That sely Dido rewed on his peyne,
And toke him for housbonde, and was his wife
For evermor, whil that hem lastë lyfe.’
  4
  Chaucer, in fact, is purely mediæval in his rendering of antiquity, and among the ancient writers he turns with the greatest sympathy to those in whom the romantic element is strongest. The spirit of the Renascence is stirring within him, but it is not in his relation to the ancients that we detect it; it is rather in his ‘humanism’—in his openness of mind, in his fresh delight in visible and sensible things, in his sense of the variety of human character and motive, and of the pity of human fate.  5
  French poetry plays a far larger part in Chaucer’s work than do the classical writers. Whether or not his name implies that he was partly French in blood, he certainly spent some time in France, first as a prisoner of war (A.D. 1359) and afterwards on the king’s business. He began life as a page in the household of the Duke of Clarence, where French was no doubt spoken as much as English; and his attention was early drawn to that trouvère-literature which in the days of his youth formed the chief reading of the court circles. In point of fact, all his writings up to 1372 (the date of his first visit to Italy) are either translations or imitations, more or less close, of French poems; and even after he had returned, impressed with the ineffaceable charm of Italy, he still looked to France for much of his material. One of his earliest and one of his very latest poems, the A. B. C. and the Compleynte of Venus, are translations from De Deguileville and Gransson; the Boke of the Duchesse derives much from a poem of Machault; the Ballads and Roundels, of which a few remain to us, probably out of very many, are French in form; and it is in a poem of Eustache Deschamps that we find what appears to be the first model of the ten-syllabled rhyming couplet which Chaucer made his own, and which has since become one of the most distinctive forms of English verse. The comic stories in the Canterbury Tales are mostly based on the fabliaux, a department of literature which has always seemed to belong pre-eminently to the countrymen of la Fontaine. But among French poems, that which made the deepest mark on him was the ‘Roman de la Rose,’ the first and principal specimen of what M. Sandras, Chaucer’s French critic, has happily called the psychological epic. This poem, as is well known, was begun by Guillaume de Lorris under Louis IX, and continued at immense length by Jean de Meung forty years later, under Philip the Fair; the former poet’s work being an elaborate and thrice-refined love allegory, and that of the latter being a fierce satire against all that the Middle Age was accustomed to reverence—women, nobles, priests. The two parts of the poem, however, agreed in form; that is, they substituted for the heroic romances of the preceding centuries those allegorical abstractions, those ‘indirect crook’d ways,’ with which scholasticism had infected European thought. L’Amant, in his search for the Rose of Beauty, Déduit, Papelardie, l’Oiseuse, Faux-Semblant, are, as a French critic puts it, ‘members of the family of Entities and Quiddities that were born to the realist doctors.’ The vogue of the ‘Roman’ was immense, and Chaucer, that ‘grant translateur,’ translated it, as the Prologue to the Legende bears witness, and as Lydgate also affirms in his catalogue of the master’s works. The most recent critics, with Mr. Bradshaw and Professor Ten Brink at their head, have indeed denied Chaucer’s claim to that version of the Romaunt which till lately has always passed for his; and in obedience to their opinion we have separated from the body of Chaucer’s acknowledged writings the passage of that poem that we are able to quote; but the question is one which, as far as Chaucer’s debt to French literature is concerned, is of little importance. Translate the Romaunt he certainly did, and the impression it made upon him was deep and lasting. On the one hand it furnished him with a whole allegorical mythology, as well as with his stock landscape, his stock device of the Dream, and even (we may at least imagine) confirmed him in the choice of the flowing eight-syllabled couplet for the Hous of Fame; and on the other, it furnished him with those weapons of satire which he used with such effect in the Pardoner’s prologue and elsewhere.  6
  Twenty years ago a vigorous attempt was made in M. Sandras’ Étude sur Chaucer to show that the English poet, though a man of original genius, was in point of matter, from first to last, an imitator of the trouvères. A more rational criticism has since then put the case in a truer light, and shown not only the bold independence of his models which Chaucer exhibited from the beginning, but the fact that it was only in early life that he got his chief models from France. The great event of his life was undoubtedly his first Italian journey, during which, if we are to trust an old tradition that has never been disproved, he met Petrarch at Padua. From this time onward he wrote with a firmer pen and with a closer adherence to truth, and the foreign examples that he henceforth followed were not French but Italian, not Guillaume de Lorris and Machault, but Dante, Boccaccio, and, to a certain extent, Petrarch. He does not, it is true, altogether depart from his old methods; the dream of the Romaunt reappears in the Parlement and in the Hous of Fame; the May morning and the daisy introduce the Legende. But there is no comparison between the workmanship of the two periods, and whereas that of the first is loose and disjointed, that of the second—except perhaps in the case of the Hous of Fame, which is more than half comic, a sort of travesty of the Divina Commedia, and therefore not to be judged by strict rules—that of the second is compact, well-ordered, and guided by the true artist’s mastery over his materials. Italy in fact gave to Chaucer at precisely the right moment just that stimulus and that external standard which he required for the true completion of his work; and rendered him in its own way the same service that the study of Greek rendered to Europe in general a century later. His debt to Italy was both direct and indirect. From Dante, whose genius was so wholly unlike his own, he took a great number of isolated passages (the Troylus and the Parlement especially are full of reminiscences of the great Florentine); and he took also, as we said, the hint for the Hous of Fame, that most notable burlesque poem, where the serious meaning lies so near to the humorous outside. From Petrarch,
             ‘Whos rethorykë sweete
Enlumined al Itaille of poetrye,’
he took, besides minor borrowings, the Clerkes Tale, almost exactly translating it from the laureate’s Latin rendering of Boccaccio’s story. From Boccaccio, whom by a strange irony of literary fortune he seems not to have known by name, he freely translated his two longest and, in a sense, greatest poems, Troylus and Criseyde and The Knightes Tale; and it is possible, though by no means certain, that the framework of the Canterbury Tales was suggested by the Decameron. But more important than this direct debt was what he indirectly owed to these great writers. He first learnt from them the art of constructing a story, that art which, as he afterwards developed it, has made of him unquestionably our chief narrative poet. It was from them—for, strange to say, he had read Virgil without learning it—that he first learnt the necessity of self-criticism; of that severe process, so foreign to the mediæval mind, which deliberates, sifts, tests, rejects, and alters, before a work is sent out into the world.
  7
  So much for Chaucer’s books and their effect on him. Were there however no more in him than what his books put into him, he would be of no greater importance to us than Gower or Lydgate. It takes more than learning, more than a gift for selection and adaptation, to make a poet. Those intimate verses, which we have quoted from the Legende, themselves proceed to tell us of a passion which is stronger in him than the passion for reading. ‘I reverence my books,’ he says,
 ‘So hertëly that there is gamë noon
That fro my bokës maketh me to goon
But yt be seldom on the holy day,
Save certeynly whan that the moneth of May
Is comen, and that I here the foulës synge,
And that the flourës gynnen for to springe,
Farewel my boke, and my devocioun!’
What he here calls May, with its birds and flowers, really means Nature as a whole; not external nature only, but the world with its rich variety of sights and sounds and situations, especially its most varied product, Man. As to his feeling for external nature, indeed, it might be called limited; it is only to the birds and the flowers, the ‘schowres swote’ and the other genial gifts of spring that it seems to extend. Not only is there no trace in him of that ‘religion of Nature’ which is so powerful a factor in modern poetry, but there is nothing that in the least resembles those elaborate backgrounds in which the genius of Spenser takes such delight. Nay, in the poet to whom we owe the immortal group of pilgrims, there is little even of that minute local observation of places and their features, that memory for the grave-covered plains of Arles or the shattered banks of the Adige, which made a part of Dante’s genius, and gives such vividness to the phantom landscape of his poem. While the Inferno has been mapped out for centuries, it is only to-day, after long discussion, that our scholars are able to make a map of the pilgrimage to Canterbury. But although the distinctive sense of landscape is for the most part absent, how keen is the poet’s eye for colour, for effective detail! Who but Chaucer, while avoiding altogether the inventory style of the ordinary romancer, a style on which he himself poured ridicule in his Sir Thopas, could have brought such a glittering barbaric presence before us as this of the King of Inde?—
 ‘The gret Emetrius, the King of Inde,
Upon a stedë bay trapped in stele
Covered with cloth of gold diapred wele,
Came riding like the god of armës, Mars.
His cote-armure was of a cloth of Tars
Couchëd with perlës white and round and grete;
His sadel was of brent gold new ybete;
His mantelet upon his shouldre hanging
Bret-ful of rubies red as fyr sparkling;
His crispë heer like ringës was yronne,
And that was yelwe and glitered as the sonne …
And as a leon he his looking cast.’
Or such a sketch in black and white as this first glimpse of Creseide?—
 ‘Among these other folkë was Creseide
In widowes habit blak: but nathëles
Right as our firstë lettre is now an A
In beautee first so stood she makëles; 2
Her goodly looking gladed all the prees. 3
Nas never seen thing to be praised derre,
Nor under cloudë blak so bright a sterre,
As was Creseide, they sayden everichone
That her behelden in her blakkë wede.’
Or such an intense and concentrated piece of colour as his Chanticlere?—
 ‘His comb was redder than the fyn coral
And batayled as it were a castel wal;
His bil was blak and as the geet 4 it schon;
Like asure were his leggës and his ton; 5
His naylës whiter than the lily flour,
And like the burnischt gold was his colour.’
  8
  As for the world of man and human character, it is here admittedly that Chaucer’s triumphs have been greatest. In this respect his fame is so well established that there is little need to dwell on qualities with which he makes his first and deepest impression, and which moreover will be abundantly illustrated by the extracts which follow. In his treatment of external nature, there are limits beyond which Chaucer cannot go—the limits of his time, of a more certain, a more easily satisfied age than ours. But in his sympathy with man, with human action and human feeling, his range is very great and his handling infinitely varied. The popular opinion of centuries has fixed upon the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales as his masterpiece, because it is there that this dramatic power of his, this realistic gift which can grasp at will almost any phase of character or incident, noble or trivial, passionate or grotesque, finds its fullest scope. Other fourteenth-century writers can tell a story (though none indeed so well as he), can be tragic, pathetic, amusing; but none else of that day can bring the actual world of men and women before us with the movement of a Florentine procession-picture and with a colour and a truth of detail that anticipate the great Dutch masters of painting. To pass from the framework of other mediæval collections, even from the villa and gardens of the Decameron, to Chaucer’s group of pilgrims, is to pass from convention to reality. To reality; for, as Dryden says in that Preface which shows how high he stood above the critical level of his age, in the Prologue ‘we have our forefathers and great-grandames 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 Canons, and Lady Abbesses, and Nuns: for mankind is ever the same, and nothing lost out of nature, though everything is altered.’  9
  It is not enough for a poet to observe, however: what he observes must first be transformed by feeling before it can become matter for poetry. What distinguishes Chaucer is that he not only observes truly and feels keenly, but that he keeps his feeling fresh and unspoiled by his knowledge of books and of affairs. As the times went he was really learned, and he passed a varied active existence in the Court, in the London custom-house, and in foreign missions on the king’s service. From his life his poetry only gained; the Knight, the Friar, the Shipman—nay, even young Troylus and Constance and ‘Emilye the schene,’—are what they are by virtue of his experience of actual human beings. But it is even more notable that the study of books, in an age when study so often led to pedantry, left him as free and human as it found him; and that his joy in other men’s poetry, and his wish to reproduce it for his countrymen, still gave way to the desire to render it more beautiful and more true. Translator and imitator as he was, what strikes us in his work from the very earliest date is his independence of his models. Even when he wrote the Boke of the Duchesse, at a time when he was a mere novice in literature, he could rise and did rise above his material, so that one enthusiastic Chaucerian, in his desire to repel M. Sandras’ charge of ‘imitation servile,’ flatly refuses to believe that Chaucer ever read Machault’s ‘Dit’ at all. This indeed is too patriotic criticism; but it is certainly true to say that Chaucer worked up Machault and Ovid in this poem, as he worked up his French and Italian materials generally, so as thoroughly to subordinate them to his own purpose. The most striking instance of this free treatment of his model is, of course, his rendering of the Troylus and the Knightes Tale from Boccaccio. The story of Palamon and Arcite possessed a great fascination for Chaucer, and it seems certain that he wrote it twice, in two quite distinct forms. With the earlier, in stanzas, which has perished except for what he has embodied in one or two other writings, we are not concerned; but it is open to any one to compare the Knightes Tale, in the final shape in which Chaucer’s mature hand has left it to us, with the immense romantic epic of Boccaccio. Tyrwhitt’s blunt common-sense long since pointed out the ethical inferiority of the Teseide; and we may point in the same way to the judgment that Chaucer has shown in stripping off episodes, in retrenching Boccaccio’s mythological exuberance, in avoiding frigid personifications, and in heightening the interest of the end by the touches which he adds in his magnificent description of the Temple of Mars. In the ‘Troylus’ the difference between the two poets is even deeper, for it is a difference as much moral as artistic. Compare those young Florentine worldlings—for such they are—Troilo and Pandaro, with the boyish, single-minded, enthusiastic, pitiable Troylus, and his older friend who stands by to check his passionate excesses with a proverb and again a proverb, like Sancho by the side of the Knight of la Mancha; worldly experience controlling romance! Compare Griseida, that light-o’-love, that heroine of the Decameron, with the fragile, tender-hearted and remorseful Cryseyde, who yields through sheer weakness to the pleading and the sorrow of ‘this sodeyn Diomede’ as she has yielded to her Trojan lover:
 ‘Ne me ne list this sely womman chyde
Ferther than the storië wol devyse;
Hire name, allas! is published so wyde,
That for hire gilte it ought ynough suffise;
And if I mighte excuse her any wyse,
For she so sory was for her untrouthe,
Ywis I wolde excuse hire yet for routhe.’
‘Routhe’ indeed, pity for inevitable sorrow, is a note of Chaucer’s mind which for ever distinguishes him from Boccaccio, and marks him out as the true forerunner of the poet of Hamlet and Othello. To him the world and human character are no simple things, nor are actions to be judged as the fruit of one motive alone. Who can wonder if, possessed with this new sense of the complexity of human destiny, he should sometimes have failed to render it with the clearness of an artist dealing with a simpler theme? Those critics are probably right who pronounce the Troylus inferior to the Filostrato in point of literary form; but their criticism, to be complete, should add that it is far more interesting in the history of poetry.
  10
  The first of a poet’s gifts is to feel; the second is to express. Chaucer possesses this second gift as abundantly as he possesses the first. The point which contemporary and later poets almost invariably note in him is, not his power of telling a story, not his tragedy, his humour, or his character-drawing, but his language. To Lydgate he is
 ‘The noble rethor poete of Britayne;’
his great achievement has been
 ‘Out of our tongue to avoyde all rudënesse,
And to reform it with colours of swetenesse.’
To Occleve he was ‘the floure of eloquence,’
 ‘The firstë fynder of our faire langage.’
Dunbar, at the end of the fifteenth century, speaks of his ‘fresh enamel’d termës celical’; and long afterwards Spenser gave him the immortal epithet of ‘the well of English undefiled.’ Chaucer, like Dante, had the rare fortune of coming in upon an unformed language, and, so far as one man could, of forming it. He grew up among the last generation in England that used French as an official tongue. It was in 1362, when Chaucer was just entering manhood, that the session of the House of Commons was first opened with an English speech. Hence it is easy to see the hollowness of the charge, so often brought against him since Verstegan first made it, that ‘he was a great mingler of English with French,’ that ‘he corrupted our language with French words.’ Tyrwhitt long since refuted this charge; and if it wanted further refutation, we might point to Piers Plowman’s Vision, the work of a poet of the people, written for the people in their own speech, but containing a greater proportion of French words than Chaucer’s writings contain. And yet Chaucer is a courtier, a Londoner, perhaps partly French by extraction; above all, he is a translator, and some influence from the language he is translating passes into his own verse. The truth is that in his hands for the first time our language appears as it is; in structure of course purely Germanic, but rich, assimilative, bold in its borrowings, adopting and adapting at its pleasure any words of any language that might come in its way. How Chaucer used this noble instrument is not to be demonstrated; it is to be felt. De sensibus non est disputandum; it is vain to discuss matters of personal experience, to point to qualities in a poet’s verse which must really be judged by the individual ear. Otherwise we might dwell on Chaucer’s use of his metre, which varies in such subtle response to his subject and his mood; or on his skill in rhyming, though, as he says, ‘ryme in Englisch hath such skarsetë’; or on the ‘linked sweetness’ of the love-passages in the Troylus; or on the grandeur of his tragic descriptions, where the sound gives so solemn an echo to the sense:—
 ‘First on the wal was peynted a forest,
In which ther dwelleth neither man ne best,
With knotty knarry bareyne treës olde
Of stubbës scharpe and hidous to byholde
In which ther ran a swymbel in a swough.’
  11
  These qualities come into view at a first reading of Chaucer; and why should the pleasure to be gained from them be kept for the few? ‘How few there are who can read Chaucer so as to understand him perfectly,’ says Dryden, apologising for ‘translating’ him. In our day, with the wider spread of historical study, with the numerous helps to old English that the care of scholars has produced for us, with the purification that Chaucer’s text has undergone, this saying of Dryden’s ought not to be true. It ought to be not only possible, but easy, for an educated reader to learn the few essentials of Chaucerian grammar, and for an ear at all trained to poetry to tune itself to the unfamiliar harmonies. For those who make the attempt the reward is certain. They will gain the knowledge, not only of the great poet and creative genius that these pages have endeavoured to sketch, but of the master who uses our language with a power, a freedom, a variety, a rhythmic beauty, that, in five centuries, not ten of his successors have been found able to rival.  12
 
Note 1. Horace to Lollius, Epp. I. 2. 1—
  ‘Trojani belli scriptorem, maxime Lolli,
Dum tu declamas Romae, Praeneste relegi.’
Dr. Latham supposes that Chaucer mistook the name of the person addressed for the historian, and Prof. Ten Brink suggests that he read—
  ‘Trojani belli scriptorum maxime, Lolli,
Dum tu declamas Romae, Praeneste te legi.’
The false quantity would be no argument against this ingenious supposition; but what is more to the point is that the context shows Horace to be writing about a third person. Besides, it is not certain that Chaucer had read Horace. [back]
Note 2. without mate or peer. [back]
Note 3. crowd. [back]
Note 4. jet. [back]
Note 5. toes. [back]
 
 
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