Изображения страниц
PDF
EPUB

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or three centuries the French language was spoken by the higher classes of society in England, until it was gradually superseded by the new dialect, in which the language of the Norman conquerors was combined with the native speech of the Saxons.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.

49

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, therefore, 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

E

hand began to stiffen with age, the sword was wielded by his illustrious son,--the bright pattern to the nobles who formed his court and emulated the character portrayed in the lines of Shakspeare :

“In war was never lion raged so fierce,

In peace was never gentle lamb more mild,
Than was that young and princely gentleman.
When he frowned, it was against the French,
And not against his friends : his noble hand
Did win what he did spend, and spent not that

Which his triumphant father's hand had won.It would not be easy to point to any period when the adventurous spirit of the people was more elevated by national enthusiasm. That remarkable writer whose wit could touch without profaning a serious subject, the church-historian, Fuller, said of the long-continued war in France, “ that it made the English na exceeding proud and exceeding poor.” But the chivalry of England, stimulated by the victories of Cressy and Poitiers, rested not content with those laurels. Following the banner of their prince, they penetrated into the monarchy of Castile; and, doubtless, when the war-worn soldier came home again, he brought with him legends gathered from Iberian and Moorish romances to mingle with the popular literature of his own country.

The times of Chaucer were a stirring period in the annals of the Church. The first great Reformer was his contemporary. It is not necessary, even were it appropriate, for me to say more on this point than that it was then that voice of Wiclif was raised against Papal domination. The slumbering sentiments of ecclesiastical disaffection were widely agitated. The veil between the oracle of God and the hearts of the people was torn away; for the Bible was brought from the sepulchres of a dead language and made a living English book. Not only was there the agitation of war and religious controversy, but there was, moreover, civil convulsion,--the first struggle of an oppressed peasantry nerved with the hope of freedom, when sixty thousand SERFS, bursting their vassalage, were for a brief season masters of the metropolis. I allude to these subjects very cursorily; but the student of literature must reflect on the leading characteristics of each literary epoch,-of no one more than this of the early English poetry. It is thus that we learn the influences which modify and often control the poet's inspirations, and which fashion the nation's heart to which those inspirations are addressed. Geoffrey Chaucer was born in the year 1328, at London.

He was a man of gentle birth. His education befitted his birth, and his lot was

[blocks in formation]

cast in noble and kingly company. His long life was spent not in monastic or clerkly seclusion, but in the busy public life of two animated reigns. The royal favour of Edward III. and Richard II. was bestowed on him; and official records perpetuate the fact of his appointment to several stations, the precise nature of which cannot well be ascertained after the lapse of ages, with the exception of the one in which he was associated in an embassy to the court of France, charged with the important and delicate diplomacy of negotiating a marriage between the young Prince of Wales and a daughter of the French monarch-probably to confirm that peace which had for a time closed the long war between the two kingdoms. There is a biography of Chaucer, written by the novelist Godwin, which fills four well-sized octavo volumes ; and yet the authentic facts of his life may be stated in less than that number of pages. Very little is known of him, and that little has less connection with his literary character. It would, in truth, be a strange thing if memorials had been preserved of any man letters, no matter how worthy, who lived in the early ages of a nation's literature. That kind of merit was yet but imperfectly appreciated; and, besides, let it be remembered that Chaucer flourished before the invention of printing, and his labours were therefore only known by the more limited and uncertain process of manuscript. A few isolated particulars, .chancerecorded, are all that can be reasonably looked for touching the lives of the early English poets. There is often a disposition to lay hold of these few incidents, and from them, by means of conjecture, sometimes plausible, sometimes preposterous, and always fantastic, to spin out 'a theory of the unknown life. Of the few authentic events of Chaucer's life I have stated all I mean to state,—all that appears to be of interest. As subserving the purposes of criticism, I can attach little value to the fact of his having, during one period of his life, held an office connected with the collection of customs in the port of London, with an injunction in the patent of his office :- “ That the said Geoffrey write with his own hands his rolls touching the said office, and continually reside there, and do and execute all things pertaining to said office in his own proper person and not by a substitute;" for, whatever conclusion one might arrive at, whether that such an office with such a condition of tenure was adverse to the freedom of song, or whether it was favourable, or, as is most probable, inoperative for either good or evil, the opinion would be no more than empty hypothesis. It is, however, of interest to know that Chaucer was not only a scholar, but a gentleman and a courtier; not because of any narrow considerations of courtly patronage, but because his intercourse with the world was cal

culated to give his poetry a more enlarged character than commonly prevailed. The literature of the Middle Ages was cast in scholastic moulds. The favourite form of imaginative composition was allegory, varied only by classical story or romances devoted to the celebration of supernatural heroes and their monstrous dangers and exploits. In all this there was a weary repetition of commonplaces, and, in a word, a want of the life of poetry. What seemed therefore needed to give the first great impulse to English poetry was the appearance of some one not only endowed with poetic genius, and an intellect cultivated with the best scholarship of the age, but also adding to the love of books familiarity with the human heart, gained by intercourse with men in the arena of actual life. Hence it is that I have attached importance to Chaucer's courtly and public career. He brought the English Muse from cloistered seclusion forth into the light of open day, and, no longer enveloping her in the veil of antiquity, he displayed her in the native freshness of her youth. In these respects the contrast between Chaucer and his most eminent contemporary, the poet Gower, is strongly marked. The chief production of Gower, bearing the Latin title Confessio Amantis, is a voluminous didactic poem, composed of the extinct mythology of ancient paganism quaintly intermingled with narratives from the Hebrew Scriptures and the legends of Greek and Roman story,—the adventures of Jupiter and Hercules, of Gideon and Job, of Medea and Lucretia. It consequently bears, apart from its language, the stamp of no particular time or country, and might as appropriately have belonged to any other century as to its own.

But not so with Chaucer, whose poetry, while true to nature, and therefore to all ages and climes, shows the impress of England and the fourteenth century. With his bodily vision, and with that spiritual eyesight,—the imagination,—he looked upon the world in which he lived and on the men in whose thronged company he moved; and hence

“Old England's fathers live in Chaucer's lay
As if they ne'er had died. He group'd and drew
Their likeness with a spirit of life so gay
That still they live and breathe, in fancy's view,

Fresh beings fraught with time's imperishable hue.” One great proof of the genius of Chaucer and his superiority over his contemporaries is to be traced in this that he gave to his poetry a deeper and stronger sympathy with man's actual life. Not content with the conventional topics of the poetry of the Middle Ages, he followed the guidance of his own inspirations and found nature. When we find him portraying his countrymen such as he saw them in the

« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »