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ON CHAUCER AND SPENSER.
HAVING, in the former lecture, given some
account of the nature of poetry in general, I shall proceed, in the next place, to a more particular consideration of the genius and history of English poetry. I shall take, as the subject of the present lecture, Chaucer and Spenser, two out of four of the greatest names in poetry of which this country has to boast. Both of them, however, were much indebted to the early poets of Italy, and may be considered as belonging, in a certain degree, to the same school. The freedom and copiousness with which our most original writers, in former periods, availed themselves of the productions of their predecessors, frequently transcribing whole passages without scruple or acknowledgment, may appear contrary to the etiquette of modern literature, when the whole stock of poetical common-places has become public property, and no one is compelled to trade
upon any particular author. But it is not so much a subject of wonder at a time when to read and write was of itself an honorary distinction, when learning was almost as great a rarity as genius, and when, in fact, those who first transplanted the beauties of other languages into their own, might be considered as public benefactors and the founders of a national literature. There are poets older than Chaucer, and in the interval between him and Spenser; but their genius was not such as to place them in any point of comparison with either of these celebrated men; and an inquiry into their particular merits or defects might seem rather to belong to the province of the antiquary than be thought generally interesting to the lovers of poetry in the present day.
Chaucer who has been very properly considered as the father of English poetry-preceded Spenser by two centuries. He is supposed to have been born in London, in the year 1328, during the reign of Edward III., and to have died in 1400, at the age of seventy-two. He received a learned education at one or at both of the universities,1 and
1 This is excessively doubtful. See Bell's Chaucer, i. 10-13.-ED.
travelled early into Italy, where he became thoroughly imbued with the spirit and excellences of the great Italian poets and prosewriters, Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio, and is said to have had a personal interview with one of these, Petrarch. He was connected by marriage with the famous John of Gaunt,1 through whose interest he was introduced into several public employments. Chaucer was an active partisan, a religious reformer, and from the share he took in some disturbances on one occasion, he was obliged to fly the country. On his return, he was imprisoned, and made his peace with Government, as it is said, by a discovery of his associates. Fortitude does not appear at any time to have been the distinguishing virtue of poets. There is, however, an obvious similarity between the practical turn of Chaucer's mind and restless impatience of his character, and the tone of his writings. Yet it would be too much to attribute the one to the other as cause and effect; for Spenser, whose poetical temperament was as effeminate as Chaucer's was stern and masculine, was equally engaged in public affairs, and had mixed equally in the great world. So much
1 He merely married the sister of one of John of Gaunt's first duchess's maids-of-honour. — ED.
does native disposition predominate over accidental circumstances, moulding them to its previous bent and purposes! For while Chaucer's intercourse with the busy world, and collision with the actual passions and conflicting interests of others, seemed to brace the sinews of his understanding, and gave to his writings the air of a man who describes persons and things that he had known and been intimately concerned in, the same opportunities, operating on a differently constituted frame, only served to alienate Spenser's mind the more from the close-pent-up' scenes of ordinary life, and to make him 'rive their concealing continents,' to give himself up to the unrestrained indulgence of 'flowery tenderness.'
It is not possible for any two writers to be more opposite in this respect. Spenser delighted in luxurious enjoyment; Chaucer, in severe activity of mind. As Spenser was the most romantic and visionary, Chaucer was the most practical of all the great poets, the most a man of business and the world. His poetry reads like history. Everything has a downright reality, at least in the relator's mind. A simile or a sentiment is as if it were given in upon evidence. Thus he describes Cressid's first avowal of her love :
'And as the new abashed nightingale,
And after, sicker, doth her voice outring,
Right so Cresseide, when that her dread stent,
This is so true and natural and beautifully simple that the two things seem identified with each other. Again, it is said in the Knight's Tale,
'Thus passeth yere by yere, and day by day,
This scrupulousness about the literal preference, as if some question of matter of fact was at issue, is remarkable. I might mention that other, where he compares the meeting between Palamon and Arcite to a hunter waiting for a lion in a gap,
'That stondeth at a gap with a spere,
And hereth him come rushing in the greves,
1 I. e., 'ne not,' do not know. - ED.