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THE DAWN OF ENGLISH POESY-DIFFICULTIES OF DESCRIBING IT-OBSOLETE LAN
GUAGE-CHAUCER THE FATHER OF ENGLISH POETRY-LATIN POETRY-REVIVAL OP LEARNING-ENGLISH LANGUAGE-ITS TRANSITION-STATUTES OF EDWARD THE THIRD-GOWER-AGE OF CHIVALRY-INVASION OF FRANCE-CRESSY AND POITIERS-THE BLACK PRINCE-THE CHURCH-WICLIF-CHAUCER'S BIRTH, A.D. 1328-FRIENDSHIP WITH GOWER-TASTE FOR NATURAL SCENERY-THE FLOWER AND THE LEAF-BURNS'S DAISY-ROMAUNT OF THE ROSE-CANTERBURY TALESITS OUTLINE-HIS RESPECT FOR THE FEMALE SEX-CHAUCER'S INFLUENCE ON THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE_" THE WELL OF ENGLISH UNDEFILED "-HIS VERSIFICATION-HIS DEATH, A. D. 1400.
MHE era of English poetry may be described as a period of about five
I hundred years. At the remote point of time forming the distant boundary of those five centuries stands a name illustrious enough to justify the usage of placing it at the head of the English poets when they are considered chronologically. A great living poet closes the catalogue.* It is a consideration of some interest that the calendar which opens so nobly with the name of Chaucer closes worthily in our day with that of Wordsworth. It is a gratification to the literary student to know that, when he seeks acquaintance with the earliest English poets, he will encounter, not the feeble and dull productions of rudeness and mediocrity, but works belonging to the higher order of the art; and also that, when he brings down the study to the literature of the present time, he will not have occasion to mourn over the degeneracy of modern inspiration. Upon each frontier of those five hundred years stands the landmark of high poetic genius. It is also worthy of remark that the history of English poetry is contemporaneous with that of the language. Almost as soon as the language spoken in England assumed a form which has continued intelligible to later generations, there appeared a poet of the first rank, who made it the voice of bis inspiration. In the primitive age of English literature there is one (and but one) name of distinguished eminence. If, therefore, our subject is to be treated with regard to historical considerations, there cannot be a moment's hesitation as to the period when it is to be taken up.
* In 1841, Wordsworth was living.
The arrangement of this course of lectures is attended, in this particular, with a disadvantage to which it is proper to advert, though I am not aware that it can be avoided except by the sacrifice of more important considerations. The portion of literature in which any reader is naturally first interested is that which is accessible in the fresh and familiar forms of contemporaneous language, and it is only as the taste is invigorated and the knowledge of former ages increased that he carries his reading into earlier literature, no longer displeased or dismayed by antiquated or obsolete dialects. This is properly the course of every student in his individual investigations as he follows the guidance of his own taste. His course is against the stream of time. To obey the same instinct in presenting the subject to your consideration would have enabled me better to conciliate your attention than, I fear, I can hope to do in treating the old English poetry. The advantage of beginning the course with modern poetry and passing by a retrogade movement into its previous eras was not to be relinquished without reflection; but, at the same time, such a method would have involved an abandonment of the advantages arising from giving to the subject somewhat of an historical form. I have therefore concluded rather to encounter the risk and inconveniences alluded to, in order to trace the march of the English Muse, and, collaterally, the rise and progress of the English language.
I shall not therefore struggle against the tide of time, though in moving with it, and setting out at a period when the language was in many respects not the English language now spoken, we must hold converse with extinct dialects,—words and forms of expression which have yielded to the same power of death which long ago conquered the lips that uttered them. It is a weary thing, no doubt, communing with our native language through the medium of dictionaries and glossaries, to meet, as it were, the curse of Babel upon our own hearth. It is painful to hear the dear voice of our mother tongue like the voice of a stranger and an alien. The relation in which Chaucer stands to succeeding poets is that of an ancestor to a long lineage of descendants. “ The line of English poets,” says Mr. Southey, “ begins with him, as that of English kings with William the Conqueror; and, if the change introduced by him was not so great, his title is better. Kings there were before the Conquest, and of great and glorious memory too. But the poets before Chaucer are like the heroes before Agamemnon: even of those whose works have escaped oblivion the names of most have perished.” “ The Father of English Poetry," “ The Morning Star,” are the metaphorical phrases so tritely associated with Chaucer's name as REVIVAL OF LEARNING.
to show the general sentiment respecting him. It could scarcely have happened that this kind of rank would have been assigned to an author of secondary merit. But it should be distinctly understood that his fame rests not only upon the fact of his being the acknowledged father of English poetry, but as one of our greatest poets.
Before entering on the question of his merits, it is proper to examine his position relatively to the literature of Europe generally and then to the language of England. The fourteenth century,—the period from the year 1300 to 1400,-it will be remembered, was the first century of the rising literature of Europe. The Latin language, which had long since ceased to be a living, colloquial language, had not fallen into the entire obsoleteness of a dead language; for it continued to be the medium of communication for the learned community of all Europe. But in the time just alluded to—the latter Middle Ages—the vernacular tongues in the respective countries were beginning to assume a distinctive form, and thus to furnish to the author an instrument by which he could not only move the monastic intellect of the scholar, but arouse the neglected faculties of all to whom his writings could be made accessible in times when printing had not yet superseded the toilsome and limited labours of the copyist. In the history of modern European literature the foremost great name is that of Dante, and in immediate succession is that of Petrarch. These were men of the fourteenth century; and I have alluded to them for the purpose of showing that the little island we trace our history from was not far behind old Italy in the intellectual career. When poetic genius, after its slumber of more than a thousand years, began to breathe again beneath the genial atmosphere of the South, the strain was quickly caught by the cold nations of the North, and the inspiration of the Muse found a fit tone in words which before were known only as the rude and uncouth dialect of barbarism. Between the death of Dante and the birth of Chaucer there was an interval of a very few years. With the second great poet, Petrarch, the life of Chaucer was contemporary. All belonging to the fourteenth century, it will be perceived that the rise of English poetry was coincident with the early era of the modern literature of Europe. The ancestral position of Chaucer in the annals of our poetry makes it important to fix in the mind a distinct idea of the period of time in which he flourished. This may readily be done by the recollection that he died, at an advanced age, in the year 1400,-the border-year of two centuries. He was an author during the last half of the fourteenth century.
Fixing the date of Chaucer's time, let us next briefly examine the condition of the language of his nation. For the information of those whose attention has not been drawn to the subject, it may be proper to state that the English language is a composite language, the chief elements being the Saxon and the Norman. It is extremely difficultperhaps impossible—to say when the English language had its beginning, because the transformation from the Anglo-Saxon was a series of slow and gradual changes. What was the nature of those changes would be an inquiry leading me away from the present subject, and too important to be disposed of cursorily. The Norman or French dialect was a great tributary to the main current of Saxon words, and the two streams which long flowed in separate channels were at length flowing together. The earliest specimens of English writing, as distinguished from the more ancient Anglo-Saxon, belong to the latter part of the thirteenth century, not long before the year 1300; but they show a rude and imperfect condition of language. The process of formation was still going on; and it was not till the time of Chaucer that the language was saturated with the infusion of French it was capable of receiving. It must be borne in mind that changes in written language would not be concurrent with changes in spoken language. For some two or three centuries the French language was spoken by the higher classes of society in England, until it was gradually superseded by the
new dialect, in which the language of the Norman conquerors was com• bined with the native speech of the Saxons. In all that was written
the change came on more slowly :—the statutes of the realm,—the pleas in courts of justice,—the proceedings of various tribunals,epistolary correspondence, even of a private nature,—were for a time in Latin, and afterward, and still longer, in French. Now, after the elements of the English language had, by means of colloquial use, begun to acquire a consistency and a form, it had yet to acquire a literary existence. And how was this to be gained ? In the reign of Edward III., it was enacted by Parliament that all pleas in the courts of justice should be pleaded and adjudged in English instead of French; and yet, a hundred years after, we are told that the provision was only partially enforced. If legislation was too feeble to control the form in which judicial and technical thought was to be clothed, nothing could be expected from it in modifying or changing the mould of literature. No; it was not for the decree of legislation or philosophy to work out this revolution,—to raise the colloquial dialect, the familiar forms of speech, to the dignity of the learned idiom in which men pronounced the thoughts they desired to perpetuate in writing,—to give honour to the vulgar English,—to set the vernacular speech (long literally the dialect of slaves) as high as the clerkly Latin and the royal, aristocratic French TRANSITIONS OF THE LANGUAGE.
of the Norman nobility. The change was to be wrought by the magic influence of the poet. The poet, addressing himself to the heart of the people, needs the people's own speech. So it is in all languages; their hidden powers are first disclosed by the poets; for their theme is the knowledge which should be open unto all. Telling, in measured strains, of the passions and the feelings common to humanity, they lay aside the learned dialect, secret to all but the initiated, and reveal the unknown powers of common speech, and, at the same time, refine and improve it. The literary existence of all languages has its date, there. fore, with their early poetry. The poet who contributed to this influence in a larger degree than any other was, unquestionably, Geoffrey Chaucer. He did not, however, stand alone; and the measure of his genius may be taken not only by a positive standard, but by comparison with his contemporaries, among whom stands Gower, the second in point of merit of the poets of the age of Edward III. The reign of that ambitious and warlike prince was signalized not less by the glory of foreign conquests in his wars for the crown of France than by the intellectual activity and the outbreak of imagination which distinguished its literature. I shall have occasion hereafter to show that, as in this first era of English poetry, each brilliant period that followed was also distinguished for its national importance in a political point of view. It may perhaps impress the consideration to allude to these in anticipation. After the age of Edward III., the next great literary era was the age of Queen Elizabeth, then of the Commonwealth, then of Queen Anne, and then the late period in which England was again, as in the first period, summoning all its energies in the strife with France. As far as I may be justified in drawing a general principle from the induction, it would seem that an exalted state of national feeling was the atmosphere best fitted to sustain the poetic spirit. During the period I am treating of, the enthusiasm of the English people had been wrought to its highest pitch: they had aimed to achieve the vast ambition of their king to seize the diadem of France ; and never did the pulse of the nation beat higher than when victory perched upon their banners on the plains of Cressy and of Poitiers. The manners and habits of the Middle Ages were still untouched by the changes which afterward distinguished that period of European history from more modern times. The spirit of chivalry was in its vigour, giving life to institutions and customs which have now long been obsolete and extinct. The fifty years during which Edward occupied the throne make the most brilliant half-century in the annals of England. The strong arm of the king had shaken the monarchy of France to its centre; and when that