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English poet, if we except Shakspeare, ever exhibited such striking instances of comic and tragic powers united in the same mind. His humor and wit were also of the brightest and keenest character; his pathos too was tremendous, and his descriptive powers were of the highest order of excellence.
Of Chaucer's minor poems, after the Court of Love, the principal are, The Flower and Leaf, a spirited and graceful allegorical poem, The House of Fame, and Troilas and Cresseide ; from the latter of which we quote the following passages chiefly for the sake of the delicate and beautiful similes which they contain.
But right as floures through the cold night
Inclosed stoupen in hir stalke lowe,
And spreden in hir kindlie course by rowe;
Right so began his eyen up to throw
In Marche that changeth ofttimes his face,
Which oversprad the sunne, as for a space
A cloudy thought gan through her soule to pace,
That stinteth first when she beginneth sing,
Or in the hedges any wright stirring.
And after sicker, doth her voice outring;
(Emong a prus) of him that hath been lad
And soch a colour in his face hath had
That men might know his face that was bestad
But the best and most durable monument of Chaucer's genius is the Canterbury Tales. This is clearly a narrative poem, and the model upon which it was constructed was evidently the Decameron of Bocaccio, though our poet greatly improved upon the original. He supposes a company of pilgrims, consisting of twenty-nine sundry folk,' to meet together in fellowship at Tabard Inn, Southwark, all being bent upon a pilgrimage to the shrine of Thomas-à-Becket at Canterbury. The poet himself is one of the party. They all sup together in the large room of the hostelrie, and after great cheer, the landlord proposes that they shall travel together to Canter bury; and to shorten the way, that each shall tell a tale, both in going and
returning, and whoever told the best should have a supper at the expense of the rest. The company assent, and ‘mine host' who was both
Bold of his speech, and wise and well taught, is appointed judge and reporter of the stories.
The characters compo sing this social party, are inimitably drawn and discriminated. We have a knight, a mirror of chivalry, who had fought against the Ileathenesse in Palestine; his son a gallant young squire with curled locks, laid in presse, and all manner of debonnair accomplishments; a nun, or prioresse, beautifully drawn in her arch simplicity and coy reserve; and a jolly monk, who boasted a dainty, well-caparisoned horse :
And when he rode, men might his bridle hear
And eke as loud as doth the chapel bell. A wanton prior is also of the party,—full of sly and solemn mirth, and well beloved for his accommodating disposition :
Full sweetly heard he confession,
And pleasant was his absolution. We have a pardoner from Rome with some sacred relics, such as a part of the sail of St. Peter's ship, and who is also
Brim full of pardons come from Rome all hot. In satirical contrast to these merry and interested churchmen, we have a poor parson of a town,
Rich in holy thought and work, and a clerk of Oxford also, who was skilled in logic:
Sounding in moral virtue was his speech,
And gladly would he learn, and gladly teach. Among the other characters are a doctor of physic, a great astronomer and student, whose study was but little on the Bible;' a purse-proud merchant; a sergeant-at-law, who was always busy, yet seemed busier than he was ; and a jolly Franklin, a freeholder, who had been a lord of sessions, and who was fond of good eating :
Withouten baked meat never was his house,
It snowed in his house of meat and drink. This character is a fine picture of the wealthy rural Englishman, and it shows how much of enjoyment and hospitality was even then associated with this station of life. The Wife of Bath is another lively national portrait : she is shrewd and witty, has abundant means, and is always first with her offering at church.
Besides these, there are many humbler characters, which, combined with those already noticed, form so genuine a Hogarthian picture that we may well exclaim with Campbell, “What an intimate scene of English life in the fourteenth century do we enjoy in these tales, beyond what history displays
by glimpses through the stormy atmosphere of her scenes, or the antiquary can discover by the cold light of his researches. Yet with all the inimitable description and truth to nature with which the Canterbury Tales abound, we are constrained to confess that we have looked in vain throughout the entire poem for any thing that inculcates an important moral lesson.
The following brief extracts are all that our space will allow us to introduce from this great work, the last extract, the Good Parson, being somewhat modernized :
DESCRIPTION OF A POOR COUNTRY WIDOW.
A poore widow, somedeal stoop’n in age,
THE DEATH OF ARCITE.
Swelleth the breast of Arcite, and the sore
1 Thrift, economy.
3 Not a bit. 4 Cot, cottage. 5 Temperate. o Prevented. 7 Injured.
& Singed. 9 Mr. Tyrwhitt supposes the word 'dey' to refer to the management of a dairy; and that it originally signified a hind. · Manner dey may therefore be interpreted 'a species of hired or day laborer.' 10 Medical skill.
11 Body. 12 Ventousing, (Fr.) cupping; hence the term, 'breathing a vein.'
The virtue expulsive or animal,
Naught may the woful spirit in mine heart
* Alas the woe! alas the paines strong,
'I have here with my cousin Palamon
And with that word his speeche fail began;
1 Called. * Work.
He is able for.
3 Ruined, destroyed.
The cold of death that had him overnome;'
DEPARTURE OF CUSTANCE.
Custance is banished from her husband, Alla, king of Northumberland, in consequence of the treachery of the king's mother. Her behaviour in embarking at sea, in a rudderless ship, is thus described :
Weepen both young and old in all that place,
He that me kepte from the false blame,
Her little child lay weeping in her arms;
Mother, quod she, and maiden bright, Mary!
'Thou saw'st thy child y-slain before thine eyen,
4 Message. 8 Undone. 12 Have Pity.