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This poem is
CHAUCER, the remaining member of this bright trio, next demands our attention; but before we proceed to investigate his life and genius, we must glance at those of his predecessors who immediately preceded him; for until that time, English poetry assumed no other form than that of the Chronicle, and the Romance. Henceforward, however, we shall be called upon to regard it under all those varied and interesting aspects under which it has been employed to point a moral lesson, to describe natural scenery, to convey satiric reflections, and to give expression to refined and delicate sentiment. The dawn of miscellaneous poetry, as these poems may be comprehensively called, is to be faintly discovered about the middle of the thirteenth century, during the reign of Henry the Third. The earliest of these poems which can be said to possess any literary merit, is an Elegy, written 1307, on the death of king Edward the First. executed in musical and energetic stanzas, of which the following may be taken as a fair specimen :
Jerusalem, thou hast i-lore,
Er we such a kyng han y-founde! The first name that occurs in this department of English literature, is that of Lawrence Minot, who about 1350 composed a series of short poems on the victories of Edward the Third, beginning with the battle of Halidon Hill, and ending with the Siege of Guines Castle. At about the same time flourished Richard Rolle, a hermit of the order of St. Augustine, who lived a solitary life in the vicinity of the nunnery of Hampole, near Doncaster. He wrote paraphrases of various parts of the Scriptures, and an original poem of a moral and religious nature, entitled, The Precke of Conscience. From this long and generally tedious poem, we select the following agreeable passage, and present it in the original spelling.
WHAT IS IN HEAVEN.
Ther is lyf withoute ony deth,
And ther is grete melodie of aungeles songe,
The Vision of Pierce Ploughman, a satirical poem of the same period, ascribed to Robert Langlande, a secular priest, also shows very clearly and expressively the progress which was made about the middle of the fourteenth century, toward a literary style. This poem is, in many respects, one of the most important works that appeared in England previous to the invention of printing. It is the popular representative of the doctrines which were even then silently bringing about the Reformation; and it is also a peculiarly national poem, not only as being a purer specimen of the English language than even Chaucer's poetry presents, but as exhibiting the revival of the same system of alliteration to which we have already alluded as characterizing the Anglo-Saxon poetry. It is, in fact, both in this particular, and in its political character, characteristic of a great literary and political revolution, in which the language as well as the independence of the AngloSaxons had at last gained the ascendency over those of the Normans.
Pierce is represented as falling asleep on the Melvern hills, and as seeing, in his sleep, a series of visions. In describing these, he exposes the corruptions of society, and particularly the dissolute lives of the religious orders, with much bitterness. From this poem we present the allegory of Mercy and Truth, as fairly indicating the spirit of the entire work.
MERCY AND TRUTH ALLEGORIZED.
Out of the west coast, a wench, as me thought,
With these imperfect models before him as his only native guides, arose the great Father of English poetry, GEOFFREY CHAUCER. Though the English language had risen into importance with the rise of the Commons in the time of Edward the First, yet the French long kept possession of the court,
the schools, and the higher circles; and it required a genius like that of Chaucer-familiar with different modes of life both at home and abroad, and openly patronized by his sovereign-to give literary permanence and consistency to the language and poetry of England. From that period his native style, which Spencer terms 'the pure well of English undefiled,' formed a standard for composition, though the national distractions which followed, and the absence of any striking poetical genius for at least a century and a half after his death, too truly exemplified the fine simile of Warton, that 'Chaucer was like a genial day in an English spring, when a brilliant sun enlivens the face of nature with unusual warmth and luster, but is succeeded by the redoubled horrors of winter, and those tender buds and early blossoms which were called forth by the transient gleams of a temporary sunshine, are nipped by frosts and torn by tempests.'
GEOFFREY CHAUCER was born in the city of London, 1328, one year after that eminent monarch Edward the Third ascended the English throne. He entered the university of Cambridge in the sixteenth year of his age, and during that part of his collegiate course which he there pursued, though he did not neglect his more important duties, yet much of his attention was deroted to poetry. Before he reached the eighteenth year of his age, and while he was still a student at Cambridge, he wrote and published the Court of Love, and some other minor poems, all of which gave promise of the future poetic eminence to which he was destined to attain.
From Cambridge Chaucer removed, according to Warton and others, to the university of Oxford ; and having there completed his collegiate studies, he thence returned to London, and soon after left his native country for the purpose of travelling upon the continent, that he might thus, by freely intermingling with other nations, increase his accomplishments both of mind and manners. Having travelled through France, Holland, and some other countries, and critically regarded whatever fell under his observation, he returned to London, and soon after entered the Inner Temple as a student of law. He, however, was not permitted long to remain in the obscurity of a law student; for the beauty of his person, and his distinguished accomplishments, attracting the attention of the court, he was invited to leave his prospective profession, and enter into the service of the king. Assenting without hesitation to this proposition, Edward the Third at once appointed him one of his pages, with an annuity of twenty marks per annum—a sum equal to about two hundred pounds sterling.
From the office of king's page, Chaucer was elevated to the position of "Gentleman of the King's Privy Chamber,' with twenty additional marks to his annual income. From the position of ‘Gentleman of the King's Privy Chamber,' he became shield-bearer to his majesty, and in that capacity attended the king during his celebrated invasion of France, which terminated in the prostration of that nation by the victory obtained upon the field of Cressy, and the siege and capture of Calais.
In 1372, in preparation for that invasion, Chaucer was sent by the king on an embassy to the Duke of Genoa, the object of which was to hire ships to aid him in transporting his army across the English Channel; and having successfully closed his mission, he improved a brief period of leisure which followed, by visiting the famous Italian poet Petrarch, then residing at Padua. For this incident in the life of Chaucer, we are entirely indebted to the following lines found in the tale of the Oxford Clerk, in Canterbury Tales.
Learned at Padua of a worthy clerk-
Enlumined all Italy of poetry. During the whole of this rapid advancement of Chauceris fortunes, John of Ghent, Duke of Lancaster, had been his professed patron and personal friend; and at the duke's suggestion, he married Philippa Pyckard, sister to lady Swainford, governess in the duke's family. As both Philippa and lady Swainford were very great favorites of the Duke and the Duchess of Lancaster, this marriage contributed greatly to Chaucer's advantage; and as an expression of his personal regard for him, the duke obtained from the king as his residence, a delightful mansion in Woodstock Park. The scenery surrounding this park was beautiful in the extreme, and it is thus described by the poet in The Dream, one of his minor poems :
And right anon as I the day espied,
All green and white was nothing else seen. Immediately after the return of Edward from the invasion of France, that monarch appointed Chaucer to the important and responsible post of collector of the customs of the port of London; and such were the emoluments arising from this new post, that Chaucer's income now amounted to a thousand pounds sterling per annum—a sum so great as to place his revenue upon an equality with that of the princes of the royal family.
Surrounded now by affluence, and with daily occupation, Chaucer's time glided smoothly and happily on until the close of the reign of his munificent monarch, and the accession of Richard the Second to the throne. But henceforth we are to contemplate his whole career under a very different aspect. He had early imbibed many of the tenets of Wickliffe, and in the second
year of Richard the Second's reign, he used all his influence to aid Camberton, usually known as John of Northampton, mayor of London, to promote the doctrines of the Reformer in that city. These measures were resented by the clergy, who had meantime gained an ascendency over the
mind of their weak king, with such earnestness and severity that the mayor was apprehended and cast into prison, and Chaucer, in order to escape a similar fate, sought safety in flight from his country. He repaired to Flanders, and as he there spent some years before he dared venture to return to London, many writers suppose that during his exile he conceived the design of his Canterbury Tales, and partially executed it. Wearied, however, with his long absence from his native home, and his early associations, Chaucer, at length, ventured to return to London; but he had scarcely arrived in that city before he was apprehended and cast into prison. And here a shade rests upon his hitherto
pure and unsullied fame; for he is more than suspected of having obtained his release from imprisonment by revealing the names of
many eminent individuals who were associated with himself and the lord mayor in the project which had terminated so fatally to their temporal interests.
From this period Chaucer resumed his residence in Woodstock Park, and there passed the remainder of his life in that quiet retirement, and in those literary pursuits for the enjoyment of which his previous life had so eminently qualified him; and though the duke of Lancaster had meantime married lady Swainford, and thus become Chaucer's brother-in-law, no consideration could induce the venerable poet to leave his quiet retirement, notwithstanding the most flattering offers of court favor were extended to him. It was during this period that he completed his 'Canterbury Tales,' and composed many other works, the last of which was the Testament of Love, an allegory in prose.
Upon the death of the duke of Lancaster, Chaucer left Woodstock Park, and retired to Dunnington Castle, where he passed the last two years of his life. Upon the accession of Henry the Fourth, son of the late duke of Lancaster, 1399, the new king granted to Chaucer an annuity of forty marks, or four hundred pounds sterling. The aged poet did not, however, long live to enjoy his new monarch’s munificence, but died in the following year, on the twenty-fifth of October, 1400, in the seventy-third year of his
age, and was the first of the illustrious band of English poets buried in Westminster Abbey.
Chaucer's genius was vast, versatile, and original. He was evidently thoroughly familiar with classical, with French, and with Italian literature, with the sciences so far as they were at that time known, and with the polemical and theological questions, which were then the favorite and fashionable studies of all the higher classes of society. His knowledge of human nature was really profound. Though the knights, the monks, the Reves, and the prioresses, which he has painted, have long since passed away, yet wherever we look we still recognize the same passions, and feelings, and characters, which he has so faithfully exhibited; for the poet who 'dips his pencil in the human heart,' as Garrick said of Shakspeare, will produce forms and colors, the truth and beauty of which will be recognized whereever such a heart beats. His versatility, too, was extraordinary. No other