Imagens das páginas
PDF
ePub

much in Chaucer's thoughts at this time. The Host, describing him, observes—

"He semeth elvisch by his countenaunce,
For unto no wight doth he dalliaunce."

And the Wyf of Bathes Tah sets out with an arch , contrast between past and present:—

"In olde dayes of the Kyng Arthour,
Of which that Britouns ppeken gret honour,
Al was this lond fulfilled of fayrie;
The elf-queen, with hir joly compaignye,
Dauncede ful oft in many a grene medc.
This was the old oppynyoun, as I rede;
I speke of many hundrid yer ago;
But now can no man see noon elves mo.
For now the grete charite and prayeres
Of lymytours and other holy freres,
That sechen every lond and every streem,
As thik as motis in the sonne-beem,
Blessynge hallos, chambres, kitchenes, and boures,
Citees, burghes, castels hihe and toures,
Thropes, bemes, shepnes, and dayeres,
That makith that ther ben no fayeries.
For ther as wont was to walken an elf,
Ther walkith noon but the lymytour himself,
In undermelcs and in niorwenynges,
And saith his matyns and his holy thinges,
As he goth in his lymytatioun.
Wommen may now go saufly up and down,
In every bussch or under every tre
There is non other incubus but he,
And he ne wol doon hem no dishonour."

It is unnecessary to point out how much there is in these introductory lines, so blithe in tone and so delicate in fancy, to remind us of A Midsummer's Night's Dream. Indeed, the whole narrative is essentially a fairy-tale retold for adults.

Reserving for the moment the poet's relations with

Gower, from whom he borrowed the idea, and who

was perhaps his sole authority for the

Sources. ...

outline of the story, it is important to notice Chaucer's varying and independent treatment of his material. Sometimes, as in the case of his "moral tale vertuous," which is a simple translation of Le Livre de Melibee et de Dame Prudence, he adheres closely to the original; sometimes he departs so widely from it that it is hard to decide which of two writings has served as model. Thus, it is open to question whether the Tale of the Nonne Preste is founded on the fifth chapter of the Soman de Renart (" Si come Renart prist Chantecler le coc ") or on a lai of Marie de France; but in all cases, even where no original has been traced,1 it may, I think, be safely assumed that Chaucer did not vom Grande aus invent the story. Having found it, he subjects it to any changes he may deem advisable. The Knightes Tale is an instance of curtailment; the Tale of the Nonne Preste, of expansion.

1 The source of the MarchanU Tale seems to have baffled Tyrwhitt. He adduces an elegiac Latin poem of one Adolphus, dating from the year 1313, but a more probable source is the Cento Norelic Antiehe, in which God and St Peter take the parts which Chaucer has assigned to Pluto and Porserpina. In the Italian version, however, the woman excuses herself by saying, "S' io non avessi fatto cosl con costui, tu non avresti mai veduto lume," while May maintains that it was an optical illusion. The latter explanation, in a wholly different setting, occurs in Garin's/«6/in w, Du Prestre hi abevete. All known Pear-tree Stories have been carefully collected in the Chaucer Society's Originals and Analogues.

The wonderful Wyf of Bathes Tale suggests an important observation. A poet by nature, Chaucer was by education a theologian, and when he

Tnnptsitinn.

listed, could preach excellently. In the Tale, the curtain lecture of the old crone, so soon to become a radiant young bride, is worthy of a school divine, and even Ten Brink admits the incongruity of her discourse, whilst excusing it on the ground of poetical necessity. But the learning of the old crone, incongruous as it is, must be considered with reference to the narrator. The wife of Bath herself is a portent of erudition, which circumstance is accounted for, in her case, by the fact of her fifth husband being a clerk of Oxenford. However, it is useless to deny that Chaucer is, as we judge, far too ready to parade his acquirements. The Merchant's allusions to Seneca, Theophrastus, Ovid, and the " poete Alarcian " certainly betray forgetfulness of the speaker. But, as in the case of Shakespeare's anachronisms, earlier generations were in this respect less critical than our own, and there is an easy and obvious explanation of Chaucer's insistence on his clerkliness. It was scholarship, intellectual attainments, that made all the difference, both social and literary, between himself and the uneducated minstrel.

The Wyf of Bathes Tale is one out of several proofs of the rivalry that existed at this time between Chaucer and Gower. To the " moral Gower" and the "philosophical Strode" Chaucer had waggishly dedicated

Troilus ami Cryseyde, but Gower had not then entered the field of English composition, in which

John Gower.

his younger contemporary, having rightly interpreted the signs of the times, was winning his laurels. Thus Chaucer may be likened to Dante and Boccaccio, while Gower resembled Petrarch in that he failed to discern the importance, with respect to his own fame, of the changes that were going on in the world. He began his career in letters with the making of French ballades which, whatever may be said about the position of the caesura, are good enough to be criticised as French poetry. Gower was a man of family, so that French, in a sense, was his native tongue. Perhaps some ten years older than Chaucer, he was—partially for that reason — more strongly attached to manners and customs fated to become obsolete. Gower's conservatism shows itself in several particulars. His long ajmidauee of English for literary purposes is, of course, the most notable. When at last the force of circumstances, rather than personal inclination, caused him to adopt the English speech, he employed grammatical forms— e.g., the present particle in ende—which were no longer current, and which Chaucer at least had definitely discarded. Again, his metre is the short couplet, not any of the metres that Chaucer had introduced. Herein, it must be allowed, ho displays good judgment. Not only is this simple form exactly suited to his poetical range, but he handles it with an ease never before attained by English versifier, not even by Chaucer. In the last place Gower is thoroughly aristocratic. The right attitude of the people, in his eyes, is " obeisaunce under the reule of governaunce." Chaucer, as we have seen, was no politician, but he exhibits much sympathy with common life, and in the Persones Tale gives utterance to sentiments rather Christian than courtly.

The Cinquante Ballades, save that they are in French, may be compared with Chaucer's early poems. The cinquaute They treat of platonic love. There are Ballades. May-scenes and birds' minstrelsy. Allegory also, and old-world instances. But the cleavage between Gower and Chaucer is perceptible from the very beginning. Not only is Gower more learned, but he is more didactic. Already he is earning his epithet "moral." The justice of this epithet is established by later works—the Speculum Meditantis and the Vox Clamantis. From the titles it might be inferred that these writings were in Latin, but Gower had a weakness for Latin superscriptions. Even his English poem must be known as Confessio Amantis. It was a symptom of incorrigible pedantry. The Speculum Meditantis, long lost, has been recovered, but is not yet accessible in print. Like the Cinquante Ballades, it is in French.

The events of the year 1381—the memorable year of Wat Tyler's rebellion—were the occasion of Gower's Ct^vox third experiment, which not only bore a ciamantis. j^in name, but was actually a Latin poem. If Gower's temper and point of view had not been so hopelessly mediaeval, we might have seen in this an earnest of the Renaissance. The style and versifica

« AnteriorContinuar »