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The Vision of Piers Ploughman is our earliest poetical work of any considerable extent that may still be read with pleasure; but not much of its attraction lies in its poetry. It interests us chiefly as rather a lively picture (which, however, would have been nearly as effective in prose) of much in the manners and general social condition of the time, and of the new spirit of opposition to old things which was then astir; partly, too, by the language and style, and as a monument of a peculiar species of versification. Langland, or whoever was the author, probably contributed by this great work to the advancement of his native tongue to a larger extent than he hcs had credit for. The grammatical forms of his English will be found to be very nearly, if not exactly, the same with those of Chaucer's; his vocabulary, if not equally extensive, has the same composite and diversified character; nor is his style much inferior in mere regularity and clearness. So long a work was not likely to have been undertaken except by one who felt himself to be in full possession of the language as it existed; the writer was no doubt prompted to engage in such a task in great part by his gift of ready expression; and he could not fail to gain additional fluency and skill in the course of the com
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position, especially with a construction of verse demanding so incessant an attention to words and syllables. The popularity of the poem, too, would diffuse and establish whatever improvements in the language it may have introduced or exemplified. In addition to the ability displayed in it, and the popular spirit of the day with which it was animated, its position in the national literature naturally and deservedly gave to the Vision of Piers Ploughman an extraordinary influence; for it has the distinction (so far as is either known or probable) of being the earliest original work, of any magnitude, in the language. Robert of Gloucester and Robert de Brunne, Langland's predecessors, were both, it may be remembered, only translators or paraphrasts.
If Langland, however, is our earliest original writer, Chaucer is still our first great poet, and the true father of our literature, properly so called. Compared with his productions, all that precedes is barbarism. But what is much more remarkable is, that very little of what has followed in the space of nearly five centuries that has elapsed since he lived and wrote is worthy of being compared with what he has left us. He is in our English poetry almost what Homer is in that of Greece, and Dante in that of Italy—at least in his own sphere still the greatest light.
Chaucer is supposed to have been born about the beginning of the reign of Edward III.— in the year 1328, if we may trust what is said to have been the ancient inscription on his tombstone; so that he had no doubt begun to write, and was probably well known as a poet, at least as early as Langland. They may indeed have been contemporaries in the strictest sense of the word, for anything that is ascertained. If Langland wrote the 'Creed of Piers Ploughman,' as well as the 'Vision,' which (although it has not, we believe, been suggested) is neither impossible nor very unlikely, he must have lived to as late, or very nearly as late, a date as Chaucer, who is held to have died in 1400. At the same time, as Langland's greatest, if not only, work appears to have been produced not long after the middle of the reign of Edward III., and the composition of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales not to have been begun till about the middle of that of Richard II., the probability certainly is, regard being had to the species and character of these poems, each seemingly impressed with a long experience of life, that Langland, if not the earlier writer, was the elder man.
The writings of Chaucer are >ery voluminous; comprising, in so far as they have come down to us, in verse, 'The Canterbury Tales;' the ' Romaunt of the Rose,' in 7701 lines, a translation from the French Roman de la Rose of Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun; 'Troilus and Creseide,' in Five Books, on the same subject as the Filostrato of Boccaccio; 'The House of Fame,' in Three Books; 'Chaucer's Dream,' in 2235 lines; the 'Book of the Dutchess' (sometimes called the ' Dream of Chaucer'), 1334 lines; the 'Assembly of Fowls,' 694 lines; the 'Flower and the Leaf,' 595 lines; the 'Court of Love,' 1442 lines; together with many ballads and other minor pieces: and in prose (besides portions of the ' Canterbury Tales'),—a translation of Boethius ' De Consolatione Philosophiae;' the ' Testament of Love,' an imitation of the same treatise; and a 'Treatise on the Astrolabe,' addressed to his son Lewis in 1391, of which, however, we have only two out of five parts of which it was intended to consist. All these works have been printed, most of them more than once; and a good many other pieces have also been attributed to Chaucer which are either known to be the compositions of other poets, or of which at least there is no evidence or probability that he is the author. Only the Canterbury Tales, however, have been as yet edited with any correctness or critical skill: no confidence can be placed, as to points affecting the language or versification, in the printed text of' any of the other poems. Tyrwhitt's admirable edition of the Canterbury Tales was first published, in 4 vols. 8vo., in 1775; and was followed by his Glossary to all the genuine works of Chaucer in 1778.
In his introductory ' Essay on the Language and Versification of Chaucer,' Tyrwhitt observes, that at the time when this great writer made his first essays the use of rhyme was established in English poetry, not exclusively (as we have seen by the example of the 'Vision of Piers Ploughman'), but very generally, " so that in this respect he had little to do but to imitate his predecessors." But the metrical part of our poetry, the learned editor conceives, "was capable of more improvement, by the polishing of the measures already in use, as well as by the introduction of new modes of versification." "With respect," he continues, " to the regular measures then in use, they may be reduced, I think, to four. First, the long Iambic metre, consisting of not more than fifteen nor less than fourteen syllables, and broken by a caesura at the eighth syllable. Secondly, the Alexandrine metre, consisting of not more than thirteen syllables nor lees than twelve, with a caesura at the sixth. Thirdly, the Octosyllable metre, which was in reality the ancient dimeter Iambic. Fourthly, the stanza of six verses, of which the first, second, fourth, and fifth were in the complete octosyllable metre, and the third and last catalectic—that is, wanting a syllable, or even two." The first of these metres Tyrwhitt considers to be exemplified in the Ormulum, and probably also in the Chronicle of Robert of Gloucester, if the genuine text could be recovered; the second, apparently, by Robert de Brunne, in imitation of his French original, although his verse in Hearne's edition is frequently defective: the third and fourth were very common, being then generally used in lighter compositions, as they still are. "In the first of these metres," he proceeds, "it does not appear that Chaucer ever composed at all (for I presume no one can imagine that he was the author of Gamelyn), or in the second; and in the fourth we have nothing of his but the Rhyme of Sire Thopas, which, being intended to ridicule the vulgar romancers, seems to have been purposely written in their favourite metre. In the third, or octosyllable metre, he has left several compositions, particularly an imperfect translation of the Roman de la Rose, which was probably one of his earliest performances, The House of Fame, The Dethe of the Duchesse Blanche, and a poem called his Dreme; upon all which it will be sufficient here to observe in general, that, if he had given no other proofs of his poetical faculty, these alone must have secured to him the pre-eminence above all his predecessors and contemporaries in point of versification. But by far the most considerable part of Chaucer's works is written in that kind of metre which we now call the Heroic, either in distichs or stanzas; and, as I have not