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GEOFFREY CHAUCER.—THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE.
* The first finder of our language."-Occlere.
" Dan Chaucer well of English undefyled.”—Spenser. In the south aisle of Westminster Abbey, one fine old Gothic piece of ornamental sculpture stands out, distinguishably from all others for its look of hoar antiquity, though little more than three centuries have elapsed since, as a labour of love, “one Nicholas Brigham ” erected it.That marks the burial-place of Chaucer, the first true distinctively English poet,—the first tenant, too, of this transept, which, on account of the poetical dust enshrined in it, is now called Poets' Corner. Though “black oblivion's rust” has played “ fantastic tricks with the singer's effigy, it has little dimmed his fame ; for the preservative magic of genius has been thrown around it in undecaying spells, so that“ near it there may never come suspect or danger.” This, however, was not the earliest memorial of
“ The noble rhetor poet of Britain,
Into our tongue;" for Caxton (who collected, edited, and printed an issue of the Can. terbury Tales) placed above his grave a slab with this inscription, written by a learned Milanese :
“Gulfredus Chaucer vates, et fama poesis
Maternæ, hac sacra sum tumulatus humo," Of one to whom such unwonted honours had been paid, it would be fair to conclude that there was warrant in his life, works, and influence for them all, and that those dear “remembrances of the
dead” were but indications of the worth of the living. Nor would the inference be uncorroborated by the fact. Chaucer's life was eventful ; his works have even yet a living interrat for living men, and his influences pulsate even now in the heart oi' modern civilization. In the morning of our English life this keenly nationalized poet became not only the exponent of the buxom age of Edward III., but also a marked leader in that progress party whose genius insinuates the principles of development into their own generation, and thus become the progenitors of the progress of after times. He is a great, healthy, vigorous soul, whose Norman nature had been thoroughly impressed in the Saxon mint, and who issued the “coinage of his brain ” in the despised vernacular currency of thought in actual life; broke the Latin moulds and the French dies in which language was then cast or pressed ; and touched with everlasting nationality the form and substance of our English speech.
To those who rightly comprehend the immense importance of a pure and noble language in bringing about and sustaining a healthy and generous nationality of thought and feeling; who look upon literature not only as one of the issues, but also as one of the communicators of life; who trace the influence of words upon the natural and spiritual energies of man ;-it will appear at once an invaluable service done to our race, to suffuse and vivify the expressions which men must use with the dyes of poesy and the formative activity of genius. The testimony of centuries unanimously accords to Chaucer the glory of having been the masculine factor in the evolution and begetting of our present English speech; and, as the father of English literature, he merits acknowledgment as the creator of an epoch from which men date the birth and uprise of an English language and an English nationality; for then, indeed, did the antagonistic forces which, since the invasion of the Norman conqueror, had kept the races which peopled England asunder, coalesce and cooperate, till they became a new unity, and attained a unique individuality and being-a being which is one and indivisible with the rich traditions of our past history, and the freshest facts in our present literature. To the life and times of this “our morning star of song,” a little attention may be not unprofitably or uninstructively devoted, if we have hearts alive to the admiration and emulation of the great forefathers of our country's glory.
The name Chaucer—is decidedly Norman in form, and it occurs in Battel Abbey Roll,-a list of the men of note who accompanied William the Conqueror to England, 1066. We read also of one Joannes Chaucer, cives Londinensis, in 1299; and we know on the best authority-his own statement-that Geoffrey Chaucer was born in “the Citye of London,” which, he says, “is to me so dere and swete, in which I was forth grouen; and more kindly love have I to that place than to any other in yearth, -as every kindly creature has to that place of his kindly engendure--and to virtue, rest, and peace in that stede to abide." The date of his birth, 1328, has been usually construed from the inscription, said to have been placed on the earliest monument, which asserted that he “ died in 1400, aged 72;" and though an attempt has been made to upset, or at least invalidate, this chronology by reference to a document in the Heralds' College, bearing date 1386, wherein Chaucer, upon oath, inter alia, deposes that he was then “of the age of forty years and upwards, arnied for twenty-seven years,” we see no good ground for unsettling the concurrent belief of centuries. The poet does not here seem to be attesting his precise age, but to be merely and formally asserting that he is above that age, below which testimony regarding points in heraldry would be possessed of little reliability. If this were his exact age, he must have borne arms when little more than thirteen, and been then engaged in the French wars, which is rather improbable. We accept, therefore, and homologate the current synchronism, that Chaucer was born seven years after the death of Dante (1265-1321) and that he was the junior by four years of the reformer Wycliffe (1324—1384).
It has been matter of dispute whether Chaucer's father was a knight, a merchant, or a vintner-a matter of no great importance to us. The balance of probabilities inclines to the conclusion that his parents were in easy circumstances, within the then pretty wide limits of the court circle, and that he was educated with a view to diplomatic or at least civil service life--as if, indeed, his education was to be his outfit for the world. We never hear of his having any patrimonial inheritance or other resources than those conferred on him by State grant, or derived from government appointments. That his education was carefully conducted, assiduously forwarded, and well taken advantage of, we have the best of proofs—in the multifarious erudition which his works display. He was early fitted for commencing a university career, where “ he might leren gentilesse aright,” which he began, it has been generally believed, at Cambridge. This appears highly probable, for in his poems he is minute in his Cambridge localization; and he speaks of himself in “ The Court of Love,"-his earliest poem, written in his eighteenth year—as “Philogenet of Cambridge, Clerk ;” but we do not know whether at the
“Gret college Men clepe the Soler Hall at Cantebrege,” or elsewhere. The universities were not in those days frequented by the sons of the nobility, nor had they that air of wealthy luxury which they now have and aspire after. They were then the resorts rather of the middle classes, as is manifest from the fact that in the youth of Chaucer-we have the statement on the authority of FitzRalph, Archbishop of Armagh, before Pope Innocent VI., in at Avignon—the University of Oxford had about 30,000 students. The proverbial adjective of poor, so often and so truly predicable of scholars, was then an almost unexceptionable connotative term. Chaucer's own maxim, “Sondrie scoles maken subtil clerkes," may be one of those unconscious autobiographic strokes which few writers
have been able altogether to avoid giving; for Wood records a tradition that he was a pupil of Wycliffe's ; and Leland--who is, however, not over trustworthy-talks of his being, on leaving Oxford, "an acute, logical, and pleasant speaker, a poet, a grave philosopher, an ingenious mathematician, and lastly, a sound theologian.” It is even stated that his studies were finished at Paris, whence, after travelling through France and Holland, he returned about 1355, and commenced, as is supposed, a course of readings in the law. While spending so many years in the pursuit and acquirement of know. ledge, in a seemingly omnivorous gluttony of books, and in the attainment of a manifold experience of men and their ways, besides employing himself in the making,
In the flowre of his youthe,
Of dytyes and of songés glad; we cannot but suppose the poet, either consciously or uncon. sciously, to have been engaged in meet preparation for the great tasks which lay before him in life. In his power and inclination to work his own experience into verse, Chaucer is quite Goethean, and the myriad phases of existence which he paints are our chief key to the peculiarities of his age. He was implicated, complicated, and entwined with much of the thought and action of his century, and he touched and impressed it with a vigour and energy which made a distinct and lasting mark on the future of the nation. It was an age of rare vitality and variety of event. There was a hearty, healthy, home-felt, emphatic enthusiasm in it. The differing streams of race were now confluent and neighbourly. The stripling king-Edward III.,—who but a year before the birth of Chaucer had set his step on the throne of his murdered father, as his years increased, displayed a self-willed ambition, a chivalry and gallantry, which endeared him to his subjects, while it added to the glory of their country. The stout, stubborn, politic course of his grandfather fired him to emulation, while the vanity and luxurious. ness of his nature led him to indulge in costly pageantries and dainty banquets, in emblematic jousts and well-consorted shows. In his court, therefore, there was a sort of spring-tide lite.-young, lusty, free, showy, though unripe. Before Chaucer had reached his thirtieth year, the king's crown was encircled with the laurels of Halidon Hill (1333), Sluys (1340), Crecy (1346), Calais (1317), and Poictiers (1356); and his queen Philippa had shown the heroism of her disposition at Nevil's Cross (1346), and the kindliness of her heart at Calais. And at this particular time, wherever the British forces
“do tread the measures of their tragic march," victory smiles upon their “painful traffic,” and bestows upon them the bloody glory of success. Though the fætid vapours and putri: fic malaria of the Black Death had swept with mysterious and
relentless destructiveness through the land, prosperity seemed to favour the sovereign who had so encouraged industrial pursuits as to welcomeand befriend those skilled in the processes of textile manufactures. “The Order of the Garter" (1344) had been instituted within the castle of Windsor, which, under the careful eye of William Wykeham, had lately been built as a fit residence for an English sovereign, with a pageant of unparalleled grandeur, and a liberality and gorgeousness such as had never before been seen in the memory of man. The Commons of England were gaining a voice in public affairs, and, acting on the maxim that “the sovereign's exigencies are the subjects' chances," were striving after a constitutional form of government, and the realization of a distinct and self-contained nationality.
Would we be far wrong, remembering the tradition of the occasion of its origin, to suppose that the Court of Lore” was sug. gested to the young poet by the grand ongoings of the institution of the Order of the Garter, and that it was intended as a delicate allusion to, and celebration of, the splendid ceremony with which it waa inaugurated? We know that the court was not entirely insensible to literary merit; for Queen Philippa was the patroness of Froisaart (whose “ Chronicles,” extending from 1326--1400, rather more than cover the entire era of Chaucer's life), and that he held an office in the household of Edward III. ; we have besides good reason to believe that Chaucer, though mainly valued on account of his excellent and rare business capacity, was somewhat favoured, too, in consideration of his poetical abilities. But of this more anon!
Perhaps the next occupation of our author was the translation of the "De Consolatione Philosophiæ ” of Boethius-a work preriously translated into Saxon by Alfred the Great, and subsequently into modernized English by Elizabeth,—the favourite classic of that age, and a favourable specimen of the prose style of this "garnisher of Englishe rude." To this period, also, is generally ascribed the production of " Troilus and Creseide," a work of singular excellence, as might indeed be inferred, if from nought else, that its rhythm and rhyme have been imitated during Shakespeare's apprenticeship to the muses, in “The Rape of Lucrece," and in 1609 was made the foundation of one of his favourite plays. Chaucer seems at this time to have been diligently and purposely engaged in the polishing and modulation of the English tongue. This is made particularly evident from the anxiety which the poet exhibits towards the conclusion of the poem, regarding his work, and how it might be transcribed or recited, saying,
" And, for; there is so great diversitie
In Eoglish and in writing of our tong,
That thou be understood, God I beseech,