« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »
administration of justice in the Middle Ages, when a little judicious bribery of the officers of the law was recognized as a part of the regular course of business. No one who reads the poem often enough to surmount the initial difficulties of language can fail to recognize in it, not a mere happy accident of composition, but a bit of the work of a genuine artist in comedy floated down to us in the wreckage of time.
RICHARD ROLLE (p. 14) is one of the most interesting figures in English religious history. His mystical experiences of the love of God entitle him to a place beside St. Catharine of Sienna. As a poet, his technical skill is rather unusual for his time; but curiously enough none of his poetry, though he wrote much, rises to the heights of passionate beauty reached by the best of his Latin prose. His longest and best known poem is The Pricke of Conscience (9544 lines) dealing, in seven parts, with the wretchedness of human nature, the transitoriness of the world, the death of the body, purgatory, doomsday, the pains of hell, and the joys of heaven. Our selection is from the first part, and is a good specimen of his manner when untouched by strong emotion.
The author of PEARL (p. 15) and SYR GAWAYN And the Grene Knyght (p. 18) — if they are really by the same author, as is usually supposed was not merely a writer of great natural powers but a careful and conscious artist. It is supposed that Gawayn was written while the author was still occupied with worldly thoughts and interests and that Pearl and two (or three) other religious poems were composed after his conversion to a serious religious life, and this is doubtless true if the poems be all the work of one man. Gawayn belongs, of course, to the number of metrical romances dealing with the knights of the Round Table and their adventures, but in one important respect it is very different from most of them. They are as a rule the work of authors who had little qualification for their task beyond a certain ease in narration and versification and a retentive memory. The author of Gawayn, however, does not merely repeat a story which he has heard or read; he uses the materials of tradition as freely as Tennyson or Arnold or Swinburne or any other modern artist, and displays a power of construction, a skill in climax, a sense of pictorial effects, fairly comparable with theirs. All this can be seen in the brief episode here given, which we have chosen not because it is better than many others but because it is self-explanatory. The interest of the reader is maintained unflaggingly throughout the 2550 lines of the poem. Pearl (1212 lines), though entirely different in subject and tone and manner, is equally admirable. It seems to give the experience of a father who has lost a beloved little daughter, his "Pearl," and who, a few years later, falling asleep in his arbor, sees her in a vision, not as the helpless child he has lost, but as a radiant and beautiful young maiden, the Bride of the Lamb, and talks with her about the joys of her heavenly abode. Recently it has been argued with great learning and ingenuity that the poet is a cleric and can have had no child, and that he is merely a man who, being interested in the theological doctrine of grace, not works, as the basis of rewards in heaven, attempted to illustrate and enforce the doctrine by an imaginary case of a baptised child dying in infancy and receiving in heaven rewards equal to those given the greater saints. There can be no doubt that, whether cleric or not, the poet was deeply versed in theology and believed ardently in the doctrine of grace, but no sufficient reason has been adduced for refusing to recognize the genuine personal tone of the poet's grief and love. That the child was not his own is reasonably clear from his remark that she was nearer to him than aunt or niece (line 233), and from the absence of the terms father and daughter in their conversation. But many a man has loved with great devotion a child not his own; Mr. Swinburne's charming poems (see pp. 561 and 562, and the whole series entitled A Dark Month, written when the beloved child was away on a visit) may serve as a notable instance. That the bereaved heart of a lonely man here found consolation in the new and blessed doctrine of grace seems
more likely than that a mere theologian devised this most beautiful of poems as the framework for promulgating a favorite dogma.
GOWER (p. 22) and LANGLAND (p. 24) are so fully treated in the text-books that only a word on each need be added here. Gower is not a great poet, but through being contrasted with Chaucer he has had less than his due of recognition. Mr. Lowell, one of the most genial of critics, sought to enhance his praise of Chaucer by setting him off against a dark background and playfully celebrating his contemporary and friend Gower as dull with the dullness of super-man. But Chaucer needs no such setting; we now know his age to have been one of extraordinary mental activity and poetical production; and he shines with undiminished brightness above all its light. And Gower, though no artist and undeniably monotonous, is not altogether lacking in power of swift narrative and picturesque description, as the story of Medea and Eson clearly proves.
The poems which go under the name of Langland (p. 24) are the work of several distinct and very different men. One of these men wrote the Prologue and the first eight passus or cantos of the A-text (1800 lines) about 1362. The poem became very popular and was continued by another man who carried it on to about the middle of the twelfth passus and left it unfinished. A certain John But then finished it by a hasty and absurd account of the sudden death of the author. About 1377 another writer, almost equal to the first in picturesqueness of phrasing and vividness of detail, but woefully deficient in power of consecutive thought and constructive ability, revised the whole poem composed by the first two writers, neglecting the passus containing the death of the author. His method of revision was to leave practically unchanged what he found written but to make numerous insertions, expanding suggestions of the original, and numerous additions, developing themes untouched by the earlier writers. The work as he left it is called the B-text. Fifteen or twenty years later a man of greater learning than any of the others and of a more orderly and systematic habit of mind than the author of the B-text, but of much less poetic ability -a pedant, in fact - revised the B-text, rearranging, inserting, and adding. The poem as he left it is called the C-text. The moral earnestness, the satirical power, the picturesque phrasing, of the poem have long been recognized, but, until recently, when it was discovered that it was not all the work of one man, the poem was charged with vagueness, obscurity, formlessness. Now it appears that we ought to read and criticise the different parts separately; and if we do so, we find that the work of the first author (the first half of the A-text) is as clear as it is picturesque, that one need never be at a loss as to its meaning or the relation of its parts, and that its author was a man of remarkable constructive and organizing power. Confusion and uncertainty do not enter until his work has received the well-meant but inartistic insertions and additions of others. His work may be seen in the first and third selections. That of the writer of the B-text is seen at its very best, and free from its usual defects, in the second selection, which constitutes his first insertion in the poem as he found it.
HOCCLEVE (p. 47) and LYDGATE (p. 48) are of historical interest only. Each professed himself a follower and devoted pupil of Chaucer's, and there can be no doubt of their affection and admiration, but both singularly failed to reproduce any of his characteristic qualities. Neither seems to have understood his versification or to have had the ability to adapt it to the language of their time. Chaucer's verse, as everybody now knows, is as smooth and musical as the best verse of any age, if the final vowels which were pronounced in his speech are sounded in his verse. Hoccleve and Lydgate knew that final e was sometimes sounded, but in their own speech apparently sounded it much less often than Chaucer, and consequently, when they read his verse with their own pronunciation, it sounded to them as rough and uncertain as their own.
There must have been very great and sudden changes in the pronunciation of English during Chaucer's lifetime, especially in regard to sounding final e. He and Gower apparently spoke and wrote the more conservative speech of the upper classes. The younger generation, to which Hoccleve and Lydgate belonged, apparently spoke very differently. This may have been due to the sudden rise in social position of a vast multitude of people in consequence of the general political and social movements of the age. Such people would naturally try to acquire the pronunciation of the new class into which they had risen, but because of the multitude of them their own earlier habits of speech could not fail to exercise some influence upon standard English.
But it is clear also that neither Hoccleve nor Lydgate was possessed of much intellectual fineness or artistic sensibility. Neither of them understood the spirit and aims of Chaucer's work. To them and, sad to relate, to most men for a century to come Chaucer's merits were not those of a great artist, a true poet, but merely those of a voluminous writer of interesting stories and songs. Doubtless they enjoyed his work more than they did Gower's, but he and Gower seemed to them to belong essentially to the same class of writers. It is not strange, therefore, that Hawes and Skelton and other writers of the age of Henry VII and Henry VIII praised Chaucer and Gower and Lydgate in the same breath and with the same note of praise. The matter was all they could understand or appreciate; and Gower and Lydgate had as much material as Chaucer, if not more. In our own day the sudden addition to the reading public of a multitude of readers of uncultivated minds and undeveloped taste has resulted in a somewhat similar state of affairs. The success of a book — that is, of one of "the best sellers" -depends not upon its artistic qualities or its power and beauty of thought, but solely upon its presentation of the sort of material liked by the general public. Now, as in the fifteenth century, it is not even necessary that the material should be novel; the public swallows with avidity to-day absolutely the same story that it swallowed yesterday, provided the names of the hero and the heroine are changed. A century or two hence critics will find it as hard to account for the great vogue of some of our popular novels as we find it to account for the failure of the men of the fifteenth century to distinguish between Chaucer and Gower and Lydgate.
ROBERT HENRYSON, the Scot (p. 52), was also an imitator of Chaucer, and he was one of the few men of the time who at all understood him. Though much inferior to Chaucer in power, he has no little artistic skill, and in humor is a not unworthy follower of the great master. The charming ballad of Robyn and Maukyn is perhaps his best known poem, but his beast fables seem more characteristic and better illustrative of his humor and psychological power. The Mouse and the Paddock belongs to that peculiar class of beast fables begun in English with Chaucer's Nonne Prestes Tale and continued in our own time with Kipling's Jungle Books.
THE NUTBROWNE MAIDE (p. 54) is curiously modern in every respect: in versification, in language, in tone, and in sentiment. One would like to know who was the author to what class of society he belonged, of what education and experience of life he was, whether he ever wrote anything else. The existence of such isolated originality as is shown in this poem, in The Owl and the Nightingale, in The Man in the Moon, in some of the Early Tudor lyrics, and a few other ancient poems, makes one slow to believe that our remote ancestors were less capable of excellence in literature than we are, and confirms the view that the variation in the number of good writers in different periods is not due so much to differences in intellectual equipment as to variation in the interests that attract the attention of different periods.
WILLIAM DUNBAR, the Scot (p. 58), and STEPHEN HAWES, the Englishman (p. 59), belong also to the list of followers of Chaucer. They, like the rest of these imitators,
are insensible to those qualities of the master which make him significant not for the Middle Ages only but for all time. The literary forms and the style which attracted them and which they most frequently try to reproduce are those which Chaucer himself in the course of his marvelous artistic development outgrew and abandoned. They imitate The Boke of the Duchesse, The Prologue to the Legende of Goode Women, The Parlement of Foules, The Hous of Fame, and above all the Roman de la Rose or the translation of it. Allegory is the chosen form, abstractions are the favorite personages; the ancient conventional machinery of spring mornings and grassy arbors and dreams. and troupes of men and fair ladies is used again and again, though all its parts have become loose and worn with use and age and creak audibly at every movement. To all this they add a pretentious diction that smells of schools and musty Latinity. The flowers that deck their fields are withered blossoms that they have picked up and painted and tied to the bare and lifeless stalks. Gaudy they are, but odorless, lifeless, and obviously painted.
DUNBAR's greatest poem is The Golden Targe, a long, tedious allegory setting forth the dangers of love and the efficacy of the golden shield of reason. Equally famous and less wearisome is The Thrissill and the Rois, a poem celebrating by means of the national flowers of Scotland and England the marriage of James IV of Scotland with Mary Tudor, daughter of Henry VII of England, a marriage of so much significance later for England and the history of Great Britain. In his satires, such as The Dance of the Sevin Deidly Sinnis, and in his shorter poems, such as his Lament for the Makaris (i.e. Poets), Dunbar is much more original and vigorous and less pedantic.
STEPHEN HAWES's most important poem is also an elaborate allegory. The full title of it is significant, The Pastime of Pleasure; or the History of Graunde Amour and La Bell Pucell; conteining the knowledge of the seven Sciences and the course of mans life in this worlde. All this is set forth in a series of incidents in which the hero Graunde Amour (Love of Knowledge) falls in love with and wins La Bell Pucell (the beautiful maiden, Knowledge). Our first extract gives a fair idea of the method and merits of the poem. After the marriage, Graunde Amour lives happily with his bride for many years; then, summoned by Old Age and Death, he dies and is buried, his epitaph being written by Remembrance. This epitaph is perhaps the most interesting passage of the poem to a modern reader.
That LYRICS (p. 63) were written in great numbers before the influence of Italy seriously affected English poetry in the sixteenth century is well known, but most historians of English literature entirely neglect these lyrics and speak as if England owed all her wealth of song in the age of Elizabeth to Italian influence. That there was much imitation of sonnet and madrigal and other Italian forms of lyric poetry is beyond question, but in many of the most charming of the lyrics of the latter part of the century one hears, I think, the same notes and discovers the same poetic method that had marked English lyrics at the beginning of the century and for ages before. Only a few specimens of these native wood-notes wild are given here, but they will serve to enforce what has just been said. One of them, it will be remarked, is curiously unlike the rest and curiously modern. In both tone and poetic method the love song: Lully, lulley, lulley, lulley!
The fawcon hath born my make away! (p. 65)
smacks, not of the Middle Ages, but of that interesting nineteenth-century imitation. of medievalism associated with the Pre-Raphaelite Movement.
The BALLADS (p. 66) here given are specimens of a kind of literature which has attracted a great deal of attention and aroused a great deal of controversy in modern
times. Composed during the Middle Ages for the common people, they attracted scarcely any attention from cultivated readers and played little part in literature until the second half of the eighteenth century. Sir Philip Sidney knew and loved "the old song of Percy and Douglas," Shakespeare and some of the other dramatists quoted brief snatches of them in certain of their plays, and Addison devotes a critique in the Spectator to one of the best of them; but they had no general literary standing until some men of the eighteenth century, sick of the conventionalities and prettinesses of the poetry of their day, turned for relief to the rude vigor and simplicity of these old poems. The book most influential in this introduction of them to modern readers was Bishop Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, published in 1765.
But, although obscure until the time of the Romantic Movement, the ballads, as has been said, were composed centuries before that time. Even approximate dates of composition can be set for very few of them, for they were usually not written down but only preserved in memory and transmitted orally through the centuries, and consequently in most cases no certain conclusions as to their dates can be drawn from the forms of the language in which they are expressed. But we know that some of those that have come down to us belong to the fifteenth, the fourteenth, and even the thirteenth centuries. Perhaps the earliest of those printed here is St. Stephen and Herod (p. 79), one of the most remarkable for a vivid simplicity which no art could improve. This and Sir Patrick Spens, by some curious chance, have precisely the artistic qualities which we look for in the best modern verse; the excellences of some of the others, such as the Battle of Otterburn and Captain Car, though perhaps as great in their way, belong to an ideal of art entirely different from that of the modern individualistic, conscious artist.
Most of the lyrics of SIR THOMAS WYATT (p. 80) and the EARL OF SURREY (p. 82) were first printed in a little volume entitled Songs and Sonnets, written by the Right Honourable Lord Henry Howard, late Earl of Surrey, and others, but commonly known, from the publisher's name, as Tottel's Miscellany. The significance of this volume is duly emphasized in all histories of English literature.
GEORGE SANDYS (p. 157) is usually regarded as too unimportant to find a place in a brief history of English literature; but it has seemed worth while to give three brief specimens of his translations, because they show the falsity of the common opinion, shared by some of the best literary critics, that it is impossible to translate the poetry of the Old Testament into English verse and preserve the dignity and simplicity and force which are so finely preserved in the prose of the Authorized Version. The student may also be interested to notice that two of the verse-forms Sandys uses were afterwards made famous by Tennyson.
LADY WINCHILSEA (p. 213) finds a place here because of recent years the romantic qualities of her work, noted long ago by Wordsworth, have met with general recognition and have received special significance from their existence at a time when the Classical Movement seemed supreme.
WILLIAM HAMILTON OF BANGOR produced in his paraphrase of Hamlet's soliloquy (p. 260) what has been regarded as the very reductio ad absurdum of the "classical " method and style. Hamilton's own lack of ability is of course responsible for the absolute lifelessness of the lines, and bad writers will always write badly; but the tone, the manner of approaching the subject, the choice of imagery and of stylistic devices, are distinctly "classical." A comparison of the soliloquy with its original would be a good elementary exercise in defining the two contrasted ideals of literary art. It would also emphasize anew the great fact that in literature, as in life, the idea is little, while the emotions it awakens, the images it arouses, the associations that