Imagens das páginas
PDF
ePub

William Caxton, under whose superintendance an edition of that work seems to have been published in 1475 or 6; which coming to the knowledge of William Thynne, Esq. who happened to be in possession of a much better MS. and communicated it to Caxton ; a second and much improved edition was given to the world, about six years afterwards, by the same patriotic publisher. A third edition of the Canterbury Tales, supposed to have been a copy of the second, is said to have appeared in 1495, “ collected by William Caxton, and printed by Wynken de Worde, at Westmester," but which, at any rate, could only have been a copy of Caxton's second edition, as he himself died in 1491. These were successively followed by two editions by Pynson; the first without date; the second in 1526, which was the first in which was added a collection of some other of the poems, &c. of Chaucer.

By this time, the popularity of what had already undergone the ordeal of the press seems to have excited a general curiosity for the whole remains of our author; and a complete edition of all that had then come to light seems to have been carefully superintended by Mr. Thynne, who dedicated it to Henry VIII. that “most gracious, victorious, and of God most elect and worthy prince, in whom of very merite, duty, and succession, was renewed the glorious title of Defensor of the Christen Faith ;” and who, as the “most excellent, and in all virtues most prestant prince,” was alone deemed worthy to be the patron of the works of this most excellent poet.

Whether of this primitive edition of the collected works of Chaucer, any copy be extant, does not appear. But Mr. Tyrwhitt is decidedly of opinion, that if the edition printed by Thomas Godfray in 1532, a copy of which is now before us, and which is one of the texts in our title, be not (which he suspects it is) the very edition alluded to, it was assuredly copied from it; and may therefore be regarded, in all critical reference, as the original edition of the general works of our author. And to this (if we except “ The Conclusion to the Astrolabie,* and the spurious “ Tale of the Ploughman,” in the edition principally referred to by Mr. Tyrwhitt, --that of 1542,) no further additions seem to have been made till the successive editions of Stowe and Speght appeared in 1561, 1598,+ and 1602. For some of the additions made by

* This edition seems to have escaped the observation of Mr. Tyrwhitt. See Appen. to the Pref. p. 10.

+ The date assigned by Mr. Tyrwhitt to one of these editions is 1597. The copy before us is dated in the title-page as above. The prefixed letter of Francis Beaumont is indeed dated 1597, which these and later editors, the reputation of Chaucer owes but small obligations; and for the emendations made by them of the text, and alterations of the spelling, still less. The conclusions of The Cooke's Tale and The Squire's and the Cooke's Second Tale, Gamelyn, are evidently spurious; as are also some of the smaller pieces. But The Court of Love, The Flower and the Leaf, Chaucer's Dream (properly so called), and some others, may be regarded as valuable accessions to the previous collection of our author's Miscellaneous Works. Lydgate's Siege of Thebes may be considered as an acceptable Appendix: but we have certainly nothing to do with it in a review of the Works of Chaucer.

Of the poetical productions, thus successively added to The Canterbury Tales, the most considerable are Troilus and Creseide, a species of epic poem in five books, taken from the Filostrato of Boccacio, in which "fierce wars and faithful loves," and “unfaithful loves, also, moralize the strain ;” and The Romaunt of the Rose—a free translation from Le Roman de Rose of Wace : into both of which, Chaucer has infused, as usual, the spirit and fire of his own original genius : in the latter especially mingling the amatory and the satiric with all the licence of the age in which he wrote. These two contain a number of verses almost equal to all that has descended to us of The Canterbury Tales ; and next to them, in point of extent, are The Legend of Good Women and The Book of Fame. The translation of Boethius, the conclusion to The Astrolabe, and The Testament of Love, (like Chaucer's Tale of Melibeus and The Parson's Tale, or Sermon), are in prose. The Court of Love, The Flower and the Leaf, &c. &c., would make a third division of not inferior quantity; and, in a complete review of nur author, if we could afford the space, would almost all of them be found worthy of some degree of critical notice.

To The Canterbury Tales however the latest of his considerable works), we must, for several considerations, give priority; especially for the notice we feel it incumbent upon us to take of the very ample assistance that is furnished by Tyrwhitt, in his edition of that work, towards the general appreciation and enjoyment of our author.

Too much commendation cannot easily be bestowed on the labours of that learned and laborious editor. For though we are far from giving an unqualified assent to al the metrical principles he has laid down ; and although, even with respect to the arrangement of the text, we are of opinion that, in some in

may inadvertently have been set down by Mr. T. as the date of publication : for it is scarcely probable that two editions should have been published in two successive years.

stances, his desire of doing the most ample justice to the language and rhythmical harmony of his author, might have been more completely accomplished by adopting the reading of the earliest authentic edition, (that of 1532), to which he has himself borne such honourable testimony, than by confining himself so exclusively to MS. authorities, however carefully collated,* there can be no sort of doubt that his labours have. produced a much more faithful and inviting text, than without the assistance of his indefatigable zeal was likely to have been produced : while, at the same time, the dissertations he has prefixed are so luminous, and his annotations in general so judicious, that he may fairly be ranked with Caxton and Thynne, as one of the greatest benefactors to the fame of Chaucer.

Of the election of the particular object of his editorial labours, there can be but one opinion. The Canterbury Tales seem always to have been the most popular of all our author's works. It was the first, as we have shewn, that had the distinction of being rescued from the danger of unmerited oblivion by the intervention of the press; and it has invariably maintained its pre-eminence in favour. Nor is this preeminence of popularity at all to be wondered at. It owes that distinction not only to the excellence and variety of its materials (though these alone might have justified all its celebrity) but to the attractive form into which those materials are wrought, and the ingenuity with which what would otherwise have constituted a mere collection of unconnected narratives, are coherently united into one great and interesting drama, which,whoever takes up, feels irresistibly impelled to pursue to its conclusion; for the dramatic is the most interesting, and perhaps the most instructive of all the forms of literary composition.

It was a favourite axiom of the celebrated philologist, John Horne Tooke, that the cream of the literature of every language was to be found in its dramatic poetry. And it must be admitted that the popular diffusion of intellectual civilization seems in almost every country to have originated in the amusements of the stage. It must, however, have happened in every language that some portion of attention must have been devoted to literary composition long before the drama could

: * The edition published under the superintendence of Thynne,

it appears to us ought to be regarded, in point of authority, as a col.lated MS. and among existing copies that which gives the reading most intelligible, expressive, and harmonious, ought, in fairness to the author, to be regarded as the most authentic, whatever may be the general reputation, or, in other parts, the prevalent deficiencies of the transcript. It is much more likely that a blundering transcriber should have marred a thousand passages, than that he should have mended one

become a source of intellectual excitement. Nor can it be for-, gotten that Homer was anterior to Eschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. He wrote, however, dramatically; and has been regarded as the great exemplar both of the tragic and comic drama.* If referring, however, to our language and country, we look towards that splendid morning of our intellectual daythe reign of Elizabeth, (though we must not forget the invaluable lucubrations of Bacon, or the mighty mass of wisdom and of science which his philosophic spirit bequeathed and generated), in what is generally understood by literary genius, the contributions of dramatic talent sustained an unrivalled preeminence. No other species of literature can produce a name comparable to that of Shakspeare ; and Beaumont, Fletcher, Massinger, Ben Jonson, and a considerable catalogue of dramatists, who either flourished or were fostered in that intellectual reign, demonstrate the superiority of the dramatic over every other species of contemporary composition.

But our literature had also its Homer, if we may so express ourselves, before its Eschylus or its Menander :-its poet for the closet, long before its dramatists for the stage. Gammar Gurton's Needle, the oldest English composition entitled to the name of Comedy, (and we have no Tragedy of so early date,) is traceable no further back than to the year 1551-a century and a half posterior to the death of Chaucer, and three-fourths of a century after the printed publication of his Canterbury Tales. And though the mysteries and moralities of the monks, which seem to have been performed in the churches, and the mummeries of the booths and fairs, which these pious absurdities were intended to rival, had long preceded the representations of the legitimate stage, the researches of antiquarian literature do not carry us much more than half a century further back for any known remains of dramatic composition even of these descriptions. We are told indeed of theatrical entertainments almost as early as the conquest, and William Fitz-Stephen, a monk of Canterbury, in the reign of Henry II., tells us in his Descriptio. Nobilissimoe Civitatis Londini, that “ London, instead of common interludes belonging to the theatre, hath plays of a more holy subject; representations of those miracles

[ocr errors][ocr errors]

* In the character of Thersites, he has been supposed to have given the first hint for comedy, as he did for tragedy in the more pathetic parts of the Iliad and Odyssey. It might, with equal justice, be said that he gave therein at once the hint and the exemplification of that composite species of drama, the tragi-comedy, or mixture of the ludicrous and pathetic, in which some of our elder dramatists so happily excelled, but which has produced so many barbarous incongruities in more modern times.

which the holy confessors wrought, or the sufferings wherein the glorious constancy of the martyrs did appear;" yet no fragments of these religious dramas of such antiquity have descended to us; and how little popularity bad attached to these holy mummeries in Chaucer's time may be inferred from no allusions to them occurring in that work in which he has preserved to us so lively a picture of the manners and characteristics of his age.

As for the “ Wastours, Master-Rimours, Minstrels, and other Vagabonds,” consigned to the whipping-post by an act of Edward III., for making masquerades through the whole city, and representing scandalous things, in little ale-houses, &c., they were probably of a description too infamous, (and under the ban, perhaps, of excommunication,) to have been associated in holy pilgrimage. But if either these masquerades, &c.(which were probably mere drolleries of indecent buffoonery,) or the miracles and mysteries of the monks, (some of which, though taken from stories of the New Testament, were early stigmatised for their tendency“ to encourage libertinism and infidelity,”) had been of a description, even to rank among the favourite amusements of any of the classes of society represented in this pilgrimage, it is not likely that some allusion to them would not have been introduced, either in the dialogue or some of the tales related. In short, it is sufficiently notorious, that our dramatic literature, if it deserved that name, was in a state of the most sordid abasement, till the time of Elizabeth ; while the poetic literature of the age of Edward III. was adorned by the names of Chaucer, Gower, Lydgate, and Occleve, the meanest of whom would at least eclipse the very best of those mystery mongers, who monopolised during ten intervening reigns the dramatic function.

But the foundations of the drama had been already laid : we find them in the work before us : the propension to the dramatic form of composition, being indeed, as it should seem, one of the universal instincts of the poetic mind. The oldest poem, perhaps, extant in the world, (the book of Job) is cast in that mould; as are many of the choicest specimens of oriental antiquity. The Eclogues of Theocritus, a large portion of the Iliad, and the finest episodes of the Odyssey, are essentially dramatic; and if Homer be justly considered as the father of the ancient tragedy, the venerable patriarch of English poesy is no less entitled to be considered as the father of the modern comedy. Both seem to have drawn their principal resources from the pages of the great book of Nature spread before them -to have collected their materials by observation of the living realities of human character; and though the machine, or fable of both, in detail at least, may be equally fictitious, and the minds of both were probably enriched with all the learning of

« AnteriorContinuar »