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supposed to be a transcript of the works of Chaucer. The name of Richard Chawfir having been accidentally scrawled on a spare leaf of the MS. (probably the name of its ancient possessor), the framer of the Cotton catalogue, very goodnaturedly converted it into Geoffrey Chaucer. By this circumstance Mr. Tyrwhitt, when seeking materials for his edition of the Canterbury Tales," accidentally discovered an English versifier older than Chaucer himself. The style of Minot's ten military ballads is frequently alliterative, and has much of the northern dialect. He is an easy and lively versifier, though not, as Mr. G. Chalmers denominates him, either elegant or energetic*.
In the course of the fourteenth century our language seems to have been inundated with metrical romances, until the public taste had been palled by the mediocrity and monotony of the greater part of them. At least, if Chaucer's host in the "Canterbury Tales" be a fair representation of contemporary opinion, they were held in no great reverence, to judge by the comparison which the vintner applies to the "drafty rhymings" of Sir Topaz+. The practice of translating French metrical romances into English did not, however, terminate in the fourteenth century. Nor must we form an indiscriminate estimate of the ancient metrical romances, either from Chaucer's implied contempt for them, nor from mine host of the Tabard's ungainly comparison with respect to one of them. The ridiculous style of Sir Topaz is not an image of them all. Some of them, far from being chargeable with impertinent and prolix description, are concise in narration, and paint, with rapid but distinct sketches, the battles, the banquets, and the rites of worship of chivalrous life. Classical poetry has scarcely ever conveyed in shorter boundaries so many interesting and complicated events, as may be found in the good old romance of Le Bone Florence +. Chaucer himself, when he strikes into the new or allegorical
[* An edition of Minot's poems was one of Ritson's many contributions to the elucidation of early English language and literature.]
[The Rime of Sir Topaz, which Chaucer introduces as a parody, undoubtedly, of the rhythmical romances of the age, is interrupted by mine host Harry Bailly with the strongest and most energetic expressions of total and absolute contempt.-SIRWALTER SCOTT, Misc. Prose Works, vol. vi. p. 209.]
Given in Ritson's Old Metrical Romances.
school of romance, has many passages more tedious and less affecting than the better parts of those simple old fablers. For in spite of their puerility in the excessive use of the marvellous, their simplicity is often touching, and they have many scenes that would form adequate subjects for the best historical pencils.
The reign of Edward III. was illustrious not for military achievements alone; it was a period when the English character displayed its first intellectual boldness. It is true that the history of the times presents a striking contrast between the light of intelligence which began to open on men's minds, and the frightful evils which were still permitted to darken the face of society. In the scandalous avarice of the church, in the corruptions of the courts of judicature, and in the licentiousness of a nobility who countenanced disorders and robbery, we trace the unbanished remains of barbarism; but, on the other hand, we may refer to this period for the genuine commencement of our literature, for the earliest diffusion of free inquiry, and for the first great movement of the national mind towards emancipation from spiritual tyranny. The abuses of religion were, from their nature, the most powerfully calculated to arrest the public attention; and poetry was not deficient in contributing its influence to expose those abuses, both as subjects of ridicule and of serious indignation. Two poets of this period, with very different powers of genius, and probably addressing themselves to different classes of society, made the corruptions of the clergy the objects of their satire-taking satire not in its mean and personal acceptation, but understanding it as the moral warfare of indignation and ridicule against turpitude and absurdity. Those writers were Langlande and Chaucer, both of whom have been claimed as primitive reformers by some of the zealous historians of the Reformation. At the idea of a full separation from the Catholic Church, both Langlande and Chaucer would possibly have been struck with horror. The doctrine of predestination, which was a leading tenet of the first Protestants, is not, I believe, avowed in any of Chaucer's writings, and it is expressly reprobated by Langlande. It is, nevertheless, very likely that their works contributed to promote the Reformation. Langlande, especially, who was
an earlier satirist and painter of manners than Chaucer, is undaunted in reprobating the corruptions of the papal government. He prays to Heaven to amend the Pope, whom he charges with pillaging the Church, interfering unjustly with the king, and causing the blood of Christians to be wantonly shed; and it is a curious circumstance, that he predicts the existence of a king, who, in his vengeance, I would destroy the monasteries.
The work entitled "Visions of William concerning Piers Plowman *,” and concerning the origin, progress, and perfection of the Christian life, which is the earliest known original poem, of any extent, in the English language, is ascribed to Robert Langlande [or | Longlande], a secular priest, born at Mortimer's Cleobury, in Shropshire, and educated at Oriel College, Oxford. That it was written by Langlande, I believe, can be traced to no higher authority than that of Bale, or of the printer Crowley; but his name may stand for that of its author, until a better claimant shall be found.
Those Visions, from their allusions to events evidently recent, can scarcely be supposed to have been finished later than the year 1362, almost thirty years before the appearance of the Canterbury Tales +.
It is not easy, even after Dr. Whitaker's labo!rious analysis of this work, to give any concise account of its contents. The general object is to expose, in allegory, the existing abuses of society, and to inculcate the public and private duties both of the laity and clergy. An imaginary seer, afterwards described by the name of William, wandering among the bushes of the Malvern hills, is overtaken by sleep, and dreams that he beholds a magnificent tower, which turns out to be the tower or fortress of Truth, and a dungeon, which, we soon after learn, is the abode of Wrong. In a spacious plain in front of it, the whole race of mankind are employed in their respective pursuits; such as husbandmen, merchants, minstrels with their audiences, begging friars, and itinerant venders of pardons, leading a dissolute life
• The work is commonly entitled the "Visions of Piers Plowman," but incorrectly, for Piers is not the dreamer who sees the visions, but one of the characters who is beheld, and who represents the Christian life. (See Mr. Price's Note in Warton, vol. ii. p. 101, and Appendix to the same volume.]
under the cloak of religion. The last of these are severely satirized. A transition is then made to the civil grievances of society; and the policy, not the duty, of submitting to bad princes, is illustrated by the parable of the Rats and Cats. In the second canto, True Religion descends, and demonstrates, with many precepts, how the conduct of individuals, and the general management of society, may be amended. In the third and fourth canto, Mede or Bribery is exhibited, seeking a marriage with Falsehood, and attempting to make her way to the courts of justice, where it appears that she has many friends, both among the civil judges and ecclesiastics. The poem, after this, becomes more and more desultory. The author awakens more than once; but, forgetting that he has told us so, continues to converse as freely as ever with the moral phantasmagoria of his dream. A long train of allegorical personages, whom it would not be very amusing to enumerate, succeeds. In fact, notwithstanding Dr. Whitaker's discovery of a plan and unity in this work, I cannot help thinking with Warton, that it possesses neither; at least, if it has any design, it is the most vague and ill-constructed that ever entered into the brain of a waking dreamer. The appearance of the visionary personages is often sufficiently whimsical. The power of Grace, for instance, confers upon Piers Plowman, or "Christian Life," four stout oxen, to cultivate the field of Truth; these are, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the last of whom is described as the gentlest of the team. She afterwards assigns him the like number of stots or bullocks, to harrow what the evangelists had ploughed; and this new horned team consists of saint or stot Ambrose, stot Austin, stot Gregory, and stot Jerome ‡.
The verse of Langlande is alliterative, without rhyme, and of triple time. In modern pronunciation it divides the ear between an anapastic and dactylic cadence; though some of the verses are reducible to no perceptible metre. Mr. Mitford, in his "Harmony of Lan
[ If some of the criticisms in this genial Essay prove rather startling to the zealous admirer of our early literature, he will attribute them to the same cause which, during an age of romantic poetry, makes the effusions of Mr. Campbell's Muse appear an echo of the chaste simplicity and measured energy of Attic song.-PRICE, Warton, vol. i. p. 107.]
guages," thinks that the more we accommodate the reading of it to ancient pronunciation, the more generally we shall find it run in an anapæstic measure. His style, even making allowance for its antiquity, has a vulgar air, and seems to indicate a mind that would have been coarse, though strong, in any state of society. But, on the other hand, his work, with all its tiresome homilies, illustrations from school divinity, and uncouth phraseology, has some interesting features of originality. He employs no borrowed materials; he is the earliest of our writers in whom there is a tone of moral reflection; and his sentiments are those of bold and solid integrity. The zeal of truth was in him; and his vehement manner sometimes rises to eloquence, when he denounces hypocrisy and imposture. The mind is struck with his rude voice, proclaiming independent and popular sentiments, from an age of slavery and superstition, and thundering a prediction in the ear of papacy, which was doomed to be literally fulfilled at the distance of nearly two hundred years. His allusions to contemporary life afford some amusing glimpses of its manners. There is room to suspect that Spenser was acquainted with his works; and Milton, either from accident or design, has the appearance of having had one of Langlande's passages in his mind, when he wrote the sublime description of the lazar-house, in "Paradise Lost *."
Chaucer was probably known and distinguished as a poet anterior to the appearance of Langlande's Visions. Indeed, if he had produced nothing else than his youthful poem, "The Court of Love," it was sufficient to indicate one destined to harmonise and refine the national strains. But it is likely, that before his thirty-fourth year, about which time Langlande's Visions may be supposed to have been finished, Chaucer had given several compositions to the public.
The simple old narrative romance had become too familiar in Chaucer's time to invite him to its beaten track. The poverty of his native tongue obliged him to look round for subsidiary materials to his fancy, both in the Latin language, and in some modern foreign source that should not appear to be trite and
[* B. xi. l. 475 &c. This coincidence is remarked by Mrs. Cooper in her Muses' Library.-ELLIS, vol. i. p. 157.]
exhausted. His age was, unfortunately, little conversant with the best Latin classics. Ovid,Claudian, and Statius, were the chief favourites in poetry, and Boethius in prose +. The allegorical style of the last of those authors seems to have given an early bias to the taste of Chaucer. In modern poetry, his first and long continued predilection was attracted by the new and allegorical style of romance which had sprung up in France in the thirteenth century, under William de Lorris. We find him, accordingly, during a great part of his poetical career, engaged among the dreams, emblems, flower-worshippings, and amatory parliaments of that visionary school. This, we may say, was a gymnasium of rather too light and playful exercise for so strong a genius; and it must be owned, that his allegorical poetry is often puerile and prolix. Yet, even in this walk of fiction, we never entirely lose sight of that peculiar grace and gaiety which distinguish the muse of Chaucer; and no one who remembers his productions of the "House of Fame," and "The Flower and the Leaf," will regret that he sported for a season in the field of allegory. Even his pieces of this description the most fantastic in design and tedious in execution are generally interspersed with fresh and joyous descriptions of external nature.
In this new species of romance, we perceive the youthful muse of the language in love with mystical meanings and forms of fancy, more remote, if possible, from reality than those of the chivalrous fable itself; and we could sometimes wish her back from her emblematic castles to the more solid ones of the elder fable; but still she moves in pursuit of those shadows with an impulse of novelty, and an exuberance of spirit, that is not wholly without its attraction and delight.
Chaucer was afterwards happily drawn to the more natural style of Boccaccio, and from him he derived the hint of a subject, in which, besides his own original portraits of contemporary life, he could introduce stories of every description, from the most heroic to the most familiar.
[t The Consolation of Boethius was translated by Alfred the Great and by Queen Elizabeth. No unfair proof of its extraordinary popularity may be derived from The Quair of King James I. It seems to have been a truly regal book.] [The Canterbury Tales.]
Gower, though he had been earlier distinguished in French poetry, began later than Chaucer to cultivate his native tongue. His * Confessio Amantis," the only work by which he is known as an English poet, did not appear till the sixteenth year of Richard II. He must have been a highly accomplished man for his time, and imbued with a studious and mild spirit of reflection. His French sonnets are marked by elegance and sensibility, and his English poetry contains a digest of all that constituted the knowledge of his age. His contemporaries greatly esteemed him; and the Scottish, as well as English writers of the subsequent period, speak of him with unqualified admiration. But though the placid and moral Gower might be a civilising spirit among his contemporaries, his character has none of the bold originality which stamps an influence on the literature of a country. He was not, like Chaucer, a patriarch in the family of genius, the scattered traits of whose resemblance may be seen in such descendants as Shakspeare and Spenser *. The design of his " Confessio Amantis" is peculiarly ill contrived. A lover, whose case has not a particle of interest, applies, according to the Catholic ritual, to a confessor, who, at the same time, whimsically enough, bears the additional character of a pagan priest of Venus. The holy father, it is true, speaks
like a good Christian, and communicates more scandal about the intrigues of Venus than pagan author ever told. A pretext is afforded by the ceremony of confession, for the priest not only to initiate his pupil in the duties of a lover, but in a wide range of ethical and physical knowledge; and at the mention of every virtue and vice a tale is introduced by way of illustration. Does the confessor wish to warn the lover against impertinent curiosity? he introduces, apropos to that failing, the history of Acteon, of peeping memory. The confessor inquires if he is addicted to a vain-glorious disposition; because if he is, he can tell him a story about Nebuchadnezzar. Does he wish to hear of the virtue of conjugal patience? it is aptly inculcated by the anecdote respecting Socrates, who, when he received the contents of Xantippe's pail upon his head, replied to the provocation with only a witticism. Thus, with shrieving, narrations and didactic speeches, the work is extended to thirty thousand lines, in the course of which the virtues and vices are all regularly allegorized. But in allegory Gower is cold and uninventive, and enumerates qualities when he should conjure up visible objects. On the whole, though copiously stored with facts and fables, he is unable either to make truth appear poetical, or to render fiction the graceful vehicle of truth.
WARTON, with great beauty and justice, compares the appearance of Chaucer in our | Fet language to a premature day in an
English spring; after which the gloom of winter returns, and the buds and blossoms, which have been called forth by a transient sunshine, are nipped by frosts and scattered by storms. The causes of the relapse of our poetry, after Chaucer, seem but too apparent in the annals of English history, which during five reigns of the fifteenth century continue to display but a tissue of conspiracies, pro
Milton was the poetical son of Spenser, and Mr. Wader of Fairfax. Spenser more than once insinuates
that the soul of Chaucer was transfused into his body, and that he was begotten by him two hundred years after his decease.-DRYDEN. Malone, vol. iv. p. 592.]
scriptions, and bloodshed. Inferior even to France in literary progress, England displays in the fifteenth century a still more mortifying contrast with Italy. Italy too had her religious schisms and public distractions; but her arts and literature had always a sheltering place. They were even cherished by the ri valship of independent communities, and received encouragement from the opposite sources of commercial and ecclesiastical wealth. But we had no Nicholas the Fifth, nor house of Medicis. In England, the evils of civil war agitated society as one mass. There was no refuge from them-no inclosure to fence in the field of improvement-no mound to stem the torrent of public troubles. Before the
death of Henry VI., it is said that one half of the nobility and gentry in the kingdom had perished in the field, or on the scaffold. Whilst in England the public spirit was thus brutalised, whilst the value and security of life were abridged, whilst the wealth of the rich was employed only in war, and the chance of patronage taken from the scholar; in Italy, princes and magistrates vied with each other in calling men of genius around them, as the brightest ornaments of their states and courts. The art of printing came to Italy to record the treasures of its literary attainments; but when it came to England, with a very few exceptions, it could not be said, for the purpose of diffusing native literature, to be a necessary art. A circumstance, additionally hostile to the national genius, may certainly be traced in the executions for religion, which sprung up as a horrible novelty in our country in the fifteenth century. The clergy were determined to indemnify themselves for the exposures which they had met with in the preceding age, and the unhallowed compromise which Henry IV. made with them, in return for supporting his accession, armed them, in an evil hour, with the torch of persecution. In one point of improvement, namely, in the boldness of religious inquiry, the North of Europe might already boast of being superior to the South, with all its learning, wealth, and elegant acquirements. The Scriptures had been opened by Wickliff, but they were again to become "a fountain sealed, and a spring shut up." Amidst the progress of letters in Italy, the fine arts threw enchantment around superstition; and the warm imagination of the South was congenial with the nature of Catholic institutions. But the English mind had already shown, even amidst its comparative barbarism, a stern independent spirit of religion; and from this single proud and elevated point of its character, it was now to be crushed and beaten down. Sometimes a baffled struggle against oppression is more depressing to the human faculties than continued submission.
Our natural hatred of tyranny, and we may safely add, the general test of history and experience, would dispose us to believe religious persecution to be necessarily and essentially baneful to the elegant arts, no less than to the intellectual pursuits of mankind. It is natural
to think, that when punishments are let loose upon men's opinions, they will spread a contagious alarm from the understanding to the imagination. They will make the heart grow close and insensible to generous feelings, where it is unaccustomed to express them freely; and the graces and gaiety of fancy will be dejected and appalled. In an age of persecution, even the living study of his own species must be comparatively darkened to the poet. He looks round on the characters and countenances of his fellow-creatures; and instead of the naturally cheerful and eccentric variety of their humours, he reads only a sullen and oppressed uniformity. To the spirit of poetry we should conceive such a period to be an impassable Avernus, where she would drop her wings and expire. Undoubtedly this inference will be found warranted by a general survey of the history of Genius. It is, at the same time, impossible to deny, that wit and poetry have in some instances flourished coeval with ferocious bigotry, on the same spot, and under the same government. The literary glory of Spain was posterior to the establishment of the Inquisition. The fancy of Cervantes sported in its neighbourhood, though he declared that he could have made his writings still more entertaining, if he had not dreaded the Holy Office. But the growth of Spanish genius, in spite of the co-existence of religious tyranny, was fostered by uncommon and glorious advantages in the circumstances of the nation. Spain (for we are comparing Spain in the sixteenth with England in the fifteenth century) was, at the period alluded to, great and proud in an empire, on which it was boasted that the sun never set. Her language was widely diffused. The wealth of America for a while animated all her arts. Robertson says, that the Spaniards discovered at that time an extent of political knowledge, which the English themselves did not attain for more than a century afterwards. Religious persecutions began in England, at a time when she was comparatively poor and barbarous; yet after she had been awakened to so much intelligence on the subject of religion, as to make one half of the people indignantly impatient of priestly tyranny. If we add to the political troubles of the age, the circumstance of religious opinions being silenced and stifled by penal horrors, it will seem