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The flew Tongue.
I. AMID so many barren endeavors, throughout the long impotence of Norman literature, which was content to copy, and of Saxon literature, which bore no fruit, a definite language was nevertheless formed, and there was room for a great writer. Geoffrey Chaucer appeared, a man of mark, inventive though a disciple, original though a translator, who by his genius, education, and life, was enabled to know and to depict a whole world, but above all to satisfy the chivalric world and the splendid courts which shone upon the heights. He belonged to it, though learned and versed in all branches of scholastic knowledge; and he took such a share in it that his life from beginning to end was that of a man of the world, and a man of action. We find him by turns in King Edward's army, in the king's train, husband of a maid of honor to the queen, a pensioner, a placeholder, a member of Parliament, a knight, founder of a family which was hereafter to become allied to royalty. Moreover, he was in the king's council, brother-in-law of John of Gaunt, employed more than once in open embassies or secret missions at Florence, Genoa, Milan, Flanders, commissioner in France for the marriage of the Prince of Wales, high up and low down on the political ladder, disgraced, restored to place. This experience of business, travel, war, and the court, was not like a book-education. He was at the court of Edward III., the most splendid in Europe, amidst tourneys, grand receptions, magnificent displays; he took part in the pomps of France and Milan; conversed with Petrarch, perhaps with Boccaccio and Froissart; was actor in, and spectator of, the finest and most tragical of dramas. In these few words, what ceremonies and cavalcades are implied ! what processions in armor, what caparisoned horses, bedizened ladies! what display of
1 Born between 1328 and 1345, died in 1400.
gallant and lordly manners! what a varied and brilliant world, well suited to occupy the mind and eyes of a poet! Like Froissart, and better than he, Chaucer could depict the castles of the nobles, their conversations, their talk of love, and anything else that concerned them, and please them by his portraiture.
II. Two notions raised the middle age above the chaos of barbarism : one religious, which had fashioned the gigantic cathedrals, and swept the masses from their native soil to hurl them upon the Holy Land; the other secular, which had built feudal fortresses, and set the man of courage erect and armed, within his own domain : the one had produced the adventurous hero, the other the mystical monk; the one, to wit, the belief in God, the other the belief in self. Both, running to excess, had degenerated by the violence of their own strength : the one had exalted independence into rebellion, the other had turned piety into enthusiasm : the first made man unfit for civil life, the second drew him back from natural life: the one, sanctioning disorder, dissolved society; the other, enthroning infatuation, perverted intelligence. Chivalry had need to be repressed because it issued in brigandage; devotion restrained because it induced slavery. Turbulent feudalism grew feeble, like oppressive theocracy; and the two great master passions, deprived of their sap and lopped of their stem, gave place by their weakness to the monotony of habit and the taste for worldliness, which shot forth in their stead and flourished under their name.
Gradually, the serious element declined, in books as in manners, in works of art as in books. Architecture, instead of being the handmaid of faith, became the slave of phantasy. It was exaggerated, became too ornamental, sacrificing general effect to detail, shot up its steeples to unreasonable heights, decorated its
churches with canopies, pinnacles, trefoiled gables, open-work * galleries. “Its whole aim was continually to climb higher, to
clothe the sacred edifice with a gaudy bedizenment, as if it were a bride on her wedding morning."1 Before this marvelous lacework, what emotion could one feel but a pleased astonishment ? What becomes of Christian sentiment before such scenic ornamentations ? In like manner literature sets itself to play. In
i Renan, De l' Art au Moyen Age.
the eighteenth century, the second age of absolute monarchy, we saw on one side finials and floriated cupolas, on the other pretty vers de société, courtly and sprightly tales, taking the place of severe beauty-lines and noble writings. Even so in the fourteenth century, the second age of feudalism, they had on one side the stone fretwork and slender efflorescence of aerial forms, and on the other finical verses and diverting stories, taking the place of the old grand architecture and the old simple literature. It is no longer the overflowing of a true sentiment which produces them, but the craving for excitement. Consider Chaucer, his subjects, and how he selects them. He goes far and wide to discover them, to Italy, France, to the popular legends, the ancient classics. His readers need diversity, and his business is to “provide fine tales :" it was in those days the poet's business. The lords at table have finished dinner, the minstrels come and sing, the brightness of the torches falls on the velvet and ermine, on the fantastic figures, the motley, the elaborate embroidery of their long garments; then the poet arrives, presents his manuscript, “richly illuminated, bound in crimson violet, embellished with silver clasps and bosses, roses of gold:” they ask him what his subject is, and he answers “Love."
III. In fact, it is the most agreeable subject, fittest to make the evening hours pass sweetly, amid the goblets filled with spiced wine and the burning perfumes. Chaucer translated first that great storehouse of gallantry, the Roman de la Rose. There is no pleasanter entertainment. It is about a rose which the lover wished to pluck: the pictures of the May months, the groves, the flowery earth, the green hedgerows, abound and display their bloom. Then come portraits of the smiling ladies, Richesse, Fraunchise, Gaiety, and by way of contrast, the sad characters, Daunger and Travail, all fully and minutely described, with detail of features, clothing, attitude; they walk about, as on a piece of tapestry, amid landscapes, dances, castles, among allegorical groups, in lively sparkling colors, displayed, contrasted, ever renewed and varied so as to entertain the sight. For an evil has arisen, unknown to serious ages—ennui: novelty and brilliancy followed by novelty and brilliancy are necessary to withstand it; and
See Froissart, his life with the Count of Foix and with King Richard II.
Chaucer, like Boccaccio and Froissart, enters into the struggle with all his heart. He borrows from Boccaccio his history of Palamon and Arcite, from Lollius his history of Troilus and Cressida, and rearranges them. How the two young Theban knights, Arcite and Palamon, both fall in love with the beautiful 'Emily, and how Arcite, victorious in tourney, falls and dies, bequeathing Emily to his rival; how the fine Trojan knight Troilus wins the favor of Cressida, and how Cressida abandons him for Diomedes—these are still tales in verse, tales of love. A little tedious they may be; all the writings of this age, French, or imitated from French, are born of too prodigal minds; but how they glide along! A winding stream, which flows smoothly on level sand, and sparkles now and again in the sun, is the only image we can compare it to. The characters speak too much, but then they speak so well! Even when they dispute we like to listen, their anger and offenses are so wholly based on a happy overflow of unbroken converse. Remember Froissart, how slaughters, assassinations, plagues, the butcheries of the Jacquerie, the whole chaos of human misery, disappears in his fine ceaseless humor, so that the furious and grinning figures seem but ornaments and choice embroideries to relieve the skein of shaded and colored silk which forms the groundwork of his narrative! but, in particular, a multitude of descriptions spread their gilding over all. Chaucer leads you among arms, palaces, temples, and halts before each beautiful thing. Here:
6. The statue of Venus glorious for to see
Above hire hed hire doves fleckering.”
“First on the wall was peinted a forest,
In which ther wonneth neyther man ne best,
1 Knight's Tale, ii. p. 59. I, 1957–1964.
As though a storme shuld bresten every bough:
Was tonne-gret, of yren bright and shene.” 1 Everywhere on the wall were representations of slaughter; and in the sanctuary
“ The statue of Mars upon a carte stood
With eyen red, and of a man he ete.” 2 Are not these contrasts well designed to rouse the imagination ? You will meet in Chaucer a succession of similar pictures. Observe the train of combatants who came to joust in the tilting field for Arcite and Palamon :
“With him ther wenten knightes many on.
1 Knights Tale, ii. p. 59,
1977-1996. 2 Ibid. p. 61, l.