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agents from the great book of nature, as it lies spread before
In the way of this familiarity and enjoyment, there are still (notwithstanding the praise-worthy and successful labours of Mr. Tyrwhitt, with reference to one essential portion of these works) considerable difficulties; more especially with respect to those ample portions which that diligent and ingenious editor has not collated and revised. The barbarous corruptions of the text, printed originally, and of necessity, from imperfect transcriptions, and (restricting the observation to all that followed the more careful edition of Mr. Thynne,) still more and more corrupted in each successive impression, are not to be regarded as among the smallest of these difficulties; and we have already shewn that even the harsh judgment pronounced by his great admirer, Mr. Dryden, on the versification of our poet, is in part at least attributable to the blunders and injudicious innovations of these successive editors. Independently however of those corruptions which have resulted from the errors of transcription and of the press, there are still great and discouraging difficulties to be encountered in Mr. Tyrwhitt's revised edition of the Canterbury Tales : difficulties resulting from the obscurity of obsolete language, and still more obsolete spelling; from the obvious changes that have taken place in our modes of pronunciation-particularly with respect to syllabication, and the seat of the thesis, or percussive accent,
and that indolent elision of the vowel, which our Midas' ears bave suffered to be carried to such an extent, and by which so many of our dissyllables have been melted, or rather crushed, into monosyllabic words, * &c. But if ever we should have such an edition of the works of Chaucer as is still to be regarded among the desiderata of our restored literature -an edition which would obviate the obscurity without impairing the venerable features of antiquity-which would remove some portion of the rust of time, without superadding the varnish-like glare of the modern mint, or impairing the lines and characteristics of the original impression, which would soften down some of those grossnesses of diction, in the looser tales, which the fashion of Chaucer's days somewhat too freely admitted, without precisely substituting that fastidious phraseology with which modern prudery disguises its looser thoughts,—the difficulties in the way of the complete enjoyment of these literary treasures of the fourteenth century would disappear.*
* That this barbarous practice of elision was not the fashion of our pronunciation, even in the time of Henry VIII., is obvious from the observation of Polidore Virgil, a well-travelled writer of that age, and himself a foreigner, who expressly says, that the English language approached much nearer to the Italian, in the fulness of its vowel-ative sounds, than any of the other languages of Europe.
+ Take for example (if we may have the presumption to offer an example of the species of edition we would recommend) the following version of that beautiful passage, the description of the Good Parson. We shall quote, in another place, the same passage, verbatim, from the collated text of Mr. Tyrwhitt, taking only the liberty of a little modernization of the spelling; and it will be seen how slight, in every other respect, are the innovations we would propose. Pope, in his beautiful and splendid versions of the January and May, &c. has polished away almost every mark and vestige of venerable antiquity; and Dryden, in his smoothly Aowing (sometimes abridged and sometimes dilated) translation of Palemon and Arcite, in some of the most delighttul passages of our author, sacrifices the pathos, by losing the simplicity of the original. Certainly neither one nor the other can give the modern reader a correct idea of the native style and peculiar beauties of Chaucer.
In the mean time be it our task to remove, as far as the nature of our function will admit, the cloud that involves this temple of the elder muse, by furnishing the spell by which a considerable portion at least of the obscurity, may be dispersed; and by placing in a somewhat clearer light, some specimens of those treasures, to the enjoyment of which we invite the curious reader.
Some portion of this task, as we have admitted, has already been performed in Tyrwhitt's judicious revision of about onethird of the works of our voluminous author; and the introductory essays and discourses prefixed, and the notes and glossary subjoined to that edition of the Canterbury Tales, are lights and guides of inestimable value in the furtherance of our design: though at the same time we are not prepared, in all instances, to accord with Mr. Tyrwhitt, and are of opinion, that
As proven oft; to all who lack'd a friend.
Wide was his cure; the houses far asunder,
This noble ensample to his flock he gave
He never set his benefice to hire,
Tho holy in himself, and virtuous,
He waited not on pomp or reverence
much as he has done. be has still left much to do even with reference to that portion which he has undertaken.
But, as it is not our intention to confine our disquisition to the Canterbury Tales, before we enter either into the consideration of the versification of Chaucer (which has been the subject of so much controversy), or of his poetical merits and peculiarities, it may be necessary to take a general survey of the life and various writings of the author, and the circumstances under which he wrote.
Geffrey Chaucer flourished in the age of Edward the Third, and continued his literary career through the succeeding reign of Richard II. and a very small part of that of Henry IV.: a period when what we now.call the English language, of which he was the acknowledged “ lode-sterre,” was struggling into existence through the rude chaos of Anglo-Saxon, Norman, French, and barbarous or monkish Latin. He was born, as appears from satisfactory inference, in the year 1328 (2 Edward III.) and died Oct. 25th, 1400, (the beginning of 2 Henry IV.) in the full possession of that high reputation deservedly acquired, by those “ ditees and songes glade,” with which he had, as Gower says, “ the londe full-filled over all;" and through which, as Lydgate adds, he had
“ made first to dystylle and rayne
Into our tunge thrugh his excellence.” He was buried in Westminster Abbey, in the great south aisle it seems; but with what ceremonial honours we are not informed.
Considering the figure he made in the world during his life-time, not only in a literary, but also in a political point of view, and the rank and station he had held in society, it appears perfectly astonishing, in this biographic age, that so few particulars of his personal history should have been handed: down to us; that even the date and place of his birth should bave no positive record ; and that of the latter we should not have any rational grounds even for probable conjecture. Of the family from which he descended, so destitute are we of documental or even traditional information, that it has been alternately conjectured, and with equal confidence maintained, that he was the son of a vintner or tavern-keeper, of a London merchant, a country gentleman, and of an illustrious knightin an age when knighthood was one of the highest patents of nobility. Nothing can in reality be more nugatory than the grounds upon which these respective pretensions are founded. The circumstance of his being a Londoner, for which we have his own testimony in two different places in his Testament of . Love (fol. 321 and 325, edit. 1542) together with some coincidences of name, seem to have been the only bases for the presumption of his descent from a vintner on the one hand, or from a merchant on the other: the fabricators of those genealogies not seeming to have been aware that, in the age of Chaucer, the city was not the residence of trading classes only ; but of nobility also, and frequently of the royal court.
But, obscure as are all the circumstances relative to the birth and actual family of our poet, the station to which he attained in the court of Edward, and the functions and negociations in which we find him employed, sufficiently prove that he must have been of what is called gentle blood; for although Mr. Tyrwhitt has sufficiently exposed the mistakes which have occasioned Speght to dignify his first entrance into the royal household with the rank of Page, and afterwards to grace him with that of royal shield-bearer, the first authentic memorial in which we have any mention of Chaucer calling him only Valetus noster (our yeoman) and that of 46 Edward III. in which the king appoints him one of his envoys to Genoa, entitles him only Scutifer noster (our esquire),—yet, as the former of these titles was given in those days even to young men of the highest quality before they were knighted, it is not likely it should have been conferred, in the royal household, upon any individual of mere plebeian family. The feudal, or high aristocratic feeling was then in its full vigour; even commercial wealth, however disproportionate, had not yet been able to break into the ranks of the proud nobility; and rarely could any degree of plebeian merit enter into official association with those who“ disdeigned to consider the peasant or burgher as of the same species with themselves.” The profession of the church furnished, as yet, the only exceptions. The sacerdotal robe indeed conferred a nobility of its own, and efficiently of the first order; and, in episcopal mantle, or beneath a cardinal's hat, a vintner's son, or a butcher's, might jostle or might trample the proudest peerage, and even maintain equality with royalty itself: but by no other path could the offspring of“ peasant or burgher” enter so far into the ranks of gentlemanship, as to mingle with the highborn pages of the court,* or be esquired in royal patent: and we
* Even the suites of the nobility, &c. were in those days composed of different classes from those of the present. Ladies of high rank were waited upon by unmarried Ladies not very much their inferiors; and the sons of the second order of nobility were not degraded by being pages to those of the first. The rank and hereditary station of those who to this day hold, as badges rather of distinction than humiliation, the nominal offices of Groom of the Stole, &c., in the royal household, is a memorial relique of this economy.