Page images



Chaucer in English literature, is signalized above all other men ; against the times which precede him he stands out, by the light that his genius sheds around him, as a beacon, evincing that the greatest perils in the progress of learning are past. The luster that he sheds upon his age, proclaims the reunion of the pure intellect and the imagination, of taste and judgment, of the solid sciences and the fine arts. To the times that immediately succeed him, he is equally conspicuous; he raised learning to such a pitch of glory that it relapsed as soon as he ceased to act on it. Thus viewed in either direction, he forms a point of light in English literature, of which he is signalized as the "glory and the light."

More than a century elapsed without producing a single name nearly as illustrious as his, in polite learning. Gower, his friend and contemporary, labored successfully with him in imparting ideas drawn from

other languages, and in reforming and establishing the idiom of his native tongue. He drew as Chaucer did, to some degree, from the French and Italian, and added something of elegance and cultivation, to Chaucer's original Saxon spirit. But he betrays in all his writings the airs of the moralist and the scholar. His language is perspicuous, his versification is not destitute of harmony, and he is always grave and sententious; indeed, he is so serious and didactic on all occasions, that his friend terms him the moral Gower. Instead of making his lovers talk of flowers and moonlight; instead of leading them into enchanted bowers, or by the banks of beautiful rivers, he takes them through the whole circle of Aristotelic philosophy, and develops to them the principles of the Hermetic Science !

In his time, the reputation of learning conferred the highest honors, and he was more ambitious to be thought a scholar than a poet; he sacrificed his native powers of invention to the display of extensive reading and profound erudition. In these times, the uneducated minstrels alone, who poured forth their divine lays from an overflowing soul, exhibit the real strokes of passion and imagination. Chaucer, though learned, belongs to this class, for his native powers were too strong to be suppressed by habit, and his genius triumphs over his learning. This is an admirable illustration of the force of genius; superior to the circumstances of the time, to the common ties which bind the mass of mankind to earth, and bursting the bonds of position and education, it rises above them all, and, soars in the direction dictated by the instincts of his own spirit.

In tracing the origin and progress of the language, we looked forward to Chaucer as a star whose light shone cheerfully over the darker ages, and it is with reluctance now that we leave him.

Those who succeed him, incapable of supporting the vigor of his versification, or of sustaining the flight of his fancy, seem rather to relapse into barbarism again. So far from improving upon him, they are incapable even of imitating the beauties which his taste and imagination disclosed.

John Lydgate is inferior to him in versatility of genius and harmony of versification, yet he amplified our language, taught the art of versification, and diffused a taste for the elegancies of composition - combining the qualifications of a theologist, an astronomer, a geometrician, a rhetorician and a poet, he opened a school in a monastery, and with philology as his professed object, became a distinguished proficient in polite letters.

Without any sacrifice to perspicuity he approached true beauty of style; he aided in giving solidity to the English idiom; and in his own beautiful language,

Like as the dew descendeth on the rose
With silver drops,

so genial was his influence upon our literature.

He has some facility of delineation, and combines a copious diction with a variety of poetical phraseology: his description is admired for its delicate touches of fancy.

I pretend not,” says Gray, “to set him on a level with Chaucer, but he certainly comes nearest to him of any contemporary writer I am acquainted with. His choice of expression, and the smoothness of his verse, far surpass both Gower and Occleve. He wanted not art in raising the more tender emotions of the mind.”


Till at the last, among the bower's glade
of adventure, I caught a pleasant shade;
Full smoothe and plain, and lovely for to seene,
And soft as velvet was the young greene:
Where from my horse I did alight as fast,
And on a bough aloft his reins cast,
So faint and full of weariness I was,
That I me laid adown upon the grass,
Upon a brink, shortly for to tell
Beside a river of a crystal well ;
And the water as I rehearse, can,
Like quicksilver in his streams ran,
Of which the gravel and the bright stone
As any gold against the sun shone,

Caxton, the celebrated printer, who enriched the English language with many valuable publications drawn from the French and the Latin, and also from vernacular writers, thus giving an impulse to learning by diffusing it abroad, is reputed to have been also a poet. The work, however, upon which his friends found his reputation as a poet, is by others attributed to Lydgate, thereby filching from him his good name," and at once depriving him of the honor of an allegorical fiction, concerning the courts of the castle of Sapience, containing systems of natural philosophy, logic, rhetoric, and astronomy, with other like topics, but destitute of a particle of imagination: so at the best, his questionable fame as a poet, is lost in the sure luster of his name as the introducer of printing into England.

Printing facilitates the access of literature, but it cannot advance it or prevent its decline; it only multiplies its forms without affecting its intrinsic merit. It diffuses knowledge, but cannot add to or improve it.

Caxton, in his issues from the press, evinced a preference for the English, and thus he sowed widespread the seeds of our vernacular literature. The spirit of reformation was every where diffused through the press; and that, together with the growing taste for a new literature, gave an impulse to the human mind ; until about the close of the fifteenth century the fabrics of scholastic literature and religion fell together, and the triumph of truth and learning remained no longer problematical,

These convulsions were at first unpropitious to the repose so desirable for study and science; but when the fanaticisms of honest but misguided zealots subsided, and the liberal genius of Protestantism began to exert itself; every species of elegant and useful knowledge recovered its strength, and arose with increased vigor. Learning was no longer confined to the monastery; nor was the time of the learned exhausted in frivolous speculations; the mind eagerly

« PreviousContinue »