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cret languor enters the soul. The cuckoo throws his monotonous voice like a mournful and tender sigh between the white ash-tree boles; the nightingale makes his triumphant notes roll and ring above the leafy canopy; fancy breaks in unsought, and Chaucer hears them dispute of Love. They sing alternately an antistrophic song, and the nightingale weeps for vexation to hear the cuckoo speak in depreciation of Love. He is consoled, however, by the poet's voice, seeing that he also suffers with him :
66. For love and it hath doe me much wo.'
That shall full greatly lessen thee of thy pine.
And I wol sing one of the songes new,
To such exquisite delicacies love, as with Petrarch, had carried poetry; by refinement even, as with Petrarch, it is lost now and then in its wit, conceits, clinches. But a marked characteristic at once separates it from Petrarch. If over-excited, it is also graceful, polished, full of archness, banter, fine sensual gaiety, somewhat gossipy, as the French always paint love. Chaucer follows his true masters, and is himself an elegant speaker, facile, ever ready to smile, loving choice pleasures, a disciple of the Roman de la Rose, and much less Italian than French. The bent of French character makes of love not a passion, but a gay banquet, tastefully arranged, in which the service is elegant, the food exquisite, the silver brilliant, the two guests in full dress, in good humor, quick to anticipate and please each other, knowing how to keep up the gaiety, and when to part. In Chaucer, without doubt, this other altogether worldly vein runs side by side with the sentimental element. If Troilus is a weeping lover, Pandarus is a lively rascal, who volunteers for a singular service with amusing urgency, frank immorality, and carries it out carefully, gratuitously, thoroughly. In these pretty attempts Chaucer ac
1 The Cuckow and Nightingale, vi. p. 126, l. 230-241.
companies him as far as possible, and is not shocked. On the contrary, he makes fun out of it. At the critical moment, with transparent hypocrisy, he shelters himself behind his "author." If you find the particulars free, he says, it is not my fault; “so writen clerks in hir bokes old,” and “I mote, aftir min auctour, telle ." Not only is he gay, but he jests throughout the whole tale. He sees clearly through the tricks of feminine modesty; he laughs at it archly, knowing full well what is behind; he seems to be saying, finger on lip: “Hush ! let the grand words roll on, you will be edified presently." We are, in fact, edified; so is he, and in the nick of time he goes away, carrying the light : “For ought I can aspies, this light nor I ne serven here of nought.” “Troilus," says uncle Pandarus, "if ye be wise, sweveneth not now, lest more folke arise." Troilus takes care not to swoon; and Cressida at last, being alone with him, speaks wittily and with prudent delicacy; there is here an exceeding charm, no coarseness. Their happiness covers all, even voluptuousness, with a profusion and perfume of its heavenly roses. At most a slight spice of archness flavors it: “and gode thrift he had full oft." Troilus holds his mistress in his arms: “with worse hap God let us never mete.” The poet is almost as well pleased as they: for him, as for the men of his time, the sovereign good is love, not damped, but satisfied; they ended even by thinking such love a merit. The ladies declared in their judgments, that when people love, they can refuse nothing to the beloved. Love has become law; it is inscribed in a code; they combine it with religion; and there is a sacrament of love, in which the birds in their anthems sing matins.1 Chaucer curses with all his heart the covetous wretches, the business men, who treat it as a madness :
“As would God, tho wretches that despise
Service of love had eares al so long
God yeve hem mischaunce,
And every lover in his trouth avaunce." 2 He clearly lacks severity, so rare in southern literature. The
i The Court of Love, about 1353, et seq. See also the Testament of Love.
2 Troilus and Cressida, vol. v. ii. pp. 44, 45.
Italians in the middle age made a virtue of joy; and you perceive that the world of chivalry, as conceived by the French, expanded morality so as to confound it with pleasure.
IV. There are other characteristics still more gay. The true Gallic literature crops up; obscene tales, practical jokes on one's neighbor, not shrouded in the Ciceronian style of Boccaccio, but related lightly by a man in good humor;1 above all, active roguery, the trick of laughing at your neighbor's expense. Chaucer displays it better than Rutebeuf, and sometimes better than La Fontaine. He does not knock his men down; he pricks them as he passes, not from deep hatred or indignation, but through sheer nimbleness of disposition, and quick sense of the ridiculous; he throws his gibes at them by handfuls. His man of law is more a man of business than of the world :
His three burgesses:
“Everich, for the wisdom that he can
And eke hir wives wolde it wel assent.”3
“ His wallet lay beforne him in his lappe,
Bret-ful of pardon come from Rome al hote." 4 The mockery here comes from the heart, in the French manner, without effort, calculation, or vehemence. It is so pleasant and so natural to banter one's neighbor! Sometimes the lively vein becomes so copious that it furnishes an entire comedy, indelicate certainly, but so free and life-like! Here is the portrait of the Wife of Bath, who has buried five husbands :
“Bold was hire face, and fayre and rede of hew,
i The story of the pear-tree (Merchant's Tale), and of the cradle (Reeve's Tale), for instance, in the Canterbury Tales. 2 Canterbury Tales, prologue, p. 10, 3 Ibid. p. 12, l. 373.
4 Ibid. p. 21, l. 688.
That to the offring before hire shulde gon,
What a tongue she has ! Impertinent, full of vanity, bold, chattering, unbridled, she silences everybody, and holds forth for an hour before coming to her tale. We hear her grating, highpitched, loud, clear voice, wherewith she deafened her husbands. She continually harps upon the same ideas, repeats her reasons, piles them up and confounds them, like a stubborn mule who runs along shaking and ringing his bells, so that the stunned listeners remain open-mouthed, wondering that a single tongue can spin out so many words. The subject was worth the trouble. She proves that she did well to marry five husbands, and she proves it clearly, like a woman who knew it, because she had tried it :
“God bad us for to wex and multiplie;
Upon his flesh, while that I am his wif.” 2 Here Chaucer has the freedom of Molière, and we possess it no longer. His good wife justifies marriage in terms just as technical as Sganarelle. It behooves us to turn the pages quickly, and follow in the lump only this Odyssey of marriages. The
i Canterbury Tales, ii. prologue, P. 14, l. 460.
experienced wife, who has journeyed through life with five husbands, knows the art of taming them, and relates how she persecuted them with jealousy, suspicion, grumbling, quarrels, blows given and received; how the husband, checkmated by the continuity of the tempest, stooped at last, accepted the halter, and turned the domestic mill like a conjugal and resigned ass :
“For as an hors, I coude bite and whine;
I coude plain, and I was in the gilt.
For which I hope his soule be in glorie.” 1
“And Jankin oure clerk was on of tho:
I trow, a twenty winter old,
And faire, and riche, and yonge, and well begon.” Yonge,” what a word ! Was human delusion ever more happily painted ? How life-like is all, and how easy the tone. It is the satire of marriage. You will find it twenty times in Chaucer. Nothing more is wanted to exhaust the two subjects of French mockery than to unite with the satire of marriage the satire of religion.
We find it here; and Rabelais is not more bitter. The monk whom Chaucer paints is a hypocrite, a jolly fellow, who knows good inns and jovial hosts better than the poor and the hospitals :
i Canterbury Tales, Wife of Bath's Prologue, ii. p. 179, l. 5968–6072.
2 Ibid. p. 185, l. 6177-6188.