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Our little company is made up of men and women of many sorts and conditions. Chivalry is represented by the Knight and the Squire. The Knight has been in fifteen battles, but he is plainly dressed, for he is modest and brave. The young Squire, on the other hand, with his curled hair and embroidered dress, is as fresh as the month of May. The Knight has a single attendant, dressed in the green of the forester, and bearing a mighty bow. Various typical personages suggest the ecclesiastical life of the time. There is a coy and smiling Prioress, who affects court manners; a fat Monk, a begging Friar, and a Parish Priest, faithful and patient. Law, medicine, and learning, too, as well as many of the humbler trades or occupations, have their representatives. Last of all is the poet himself, noting with twinkling eyes every trick of costume, and looking through all to the soul beneath. In this truly wonderful group the moving and varied life of Chaucer's England survives in all its bloom and freshness, in the vital power of its intense humanity. Student of books as Chaucer was, and teller of old tales, we see here and elsewhere the shrewd observer and interpreter of life and character, the man with the poet's gift of fresh and independent vision.
As we have said, the several stories in the Canterbury Tales are dramatic studies as well as masterpieces of narrative, as each narrator unconsciously reveals something of his own character in the tale he tells. Thus the Knight's Tale is steeped in the golden atmosphere of chivalry, and the gorgeous description of the tournament sparkles and glitters with the luster of that romantic and knightly world. Yet the “ Knight's Tale” is not wholly medieval. The luxurious beauty of the description of the temple of Venus seems to breathe the spirit of beautiful and pagan
Italy. The Knight takes us into his world of the gentles; so the drunken Miller, a consummate example of obtuse vulgarity, brutally strong and big of brawn and bones, incidentally acquaints us with life as he knows it; while the dainty Prioress, speaking from her sheltered nook of pious meditation, tells her tender story of a miracle.
Among the most beautiful of the tales are those told by the Clerk and the Man of Law, two stories that in some respects may be placed together. Both reveal Chaucer's deep reserve of gentleness and compassion; both reveal his reverential love of goodness; both bring before us, as the central figure, a patient and holy woman, unjustly treated and bearing all wrongs and griefs with meek submission.
In the Middle Ages it was not customary to invent new plots, and Chaucer, like many another poet, translated or adapted old stories gathered from many sources
French, Italian, or Latin. Critics have discovered the sources of many of the Canterbury Tales, and it is quite possible that none of them was entirely original with Chaucer. But Chaucer, the teller of the Canterbury Tales, was not an imitator or translator, but a new creative force. Chaucer's originality became more pronounced as his genius matured. As we read his masterpieces we feel that he painted from life, and that, whether he borrowed from France or from Italy, he made a style of his own, breathing into it the breath of his own spirit.
Chaucer's Last Years. - On the accession of Henry IV in 1399, the son of Chaucer's old patron, John of Gaunt, the poet's fortunes again improved. Chaucer lost no time in bringing his poverty to the notice of the King, by sending him a humorous little poem, the Complaint of his Empty Purse. It was evidently in response to this appeal that Henry promptly granted a pension of forty marks a year to his father's old protégé. But
Chaucer had nearly done with pensions and Court favor. He died on the 25th of October, 1400.
Chaucer the Flower of Two Civilizations. - Chaucer's relation to literary history has been already indicated. Through him those foreign influences which for three centuries had been enriching the civilization of England found expression in English poetry. Ignorant of the poetry of the Anglo-Saxon, Chaucer's work marks a final break with the literary traditions native to the English people. Not only is he un-English in manner, but he also has a lightness of touch, an easy cheerfulness, grace, and humor, very different from the somber earnestness and ponderous strength of the Anglo-Saxon. He is indeed sensitive to suffering, quickly touched by the sadness “in mortal things;” but, like a lighthearted child, he turns away from this aspect of life with relief. In his own phrase, he is “so weary for to speke of sorwe.” Arcite, in the Knight's Tale, dies in the strength of his youth, and Chaucer accepts the fact with characteristic philosophy. It is tragic, but why should we cry over spilt milk? Can he thank us if we make ourselves miserable ? "Nay, God woot, never a del." Let his rival and sworn brother be sensible. Why should he wish to die also ? has he not "gold enough and Emely?” In such passages there is an avoidance of painful reflection, a Gallic gaiety foreign to the natural bent of the Teutonic mind.
But we must not think of Chaucer as a mere transmitter, or Anglicizer of foreign influences. His genius had another side. He chooses to write in the English language, while his contemporary, John Gower, composes the greater part of his poetry in Latin and in French. If Chaucer began by translating French romance, he became before he died the great painter
of the contemporary life of England. His foot was firmly planted on English soil, and few poets of any age have surpassed him in his power to observe and reproduce the external aspects of the world around him. His genius is objective; he has a strong grasp of plain fact. He has no touch of morbid grief or of maudlin sentimentality. He hates shams; he is eminently frank, robust, and wholesome. Dryden called him “a perpetual fountain of good sense." Now in these things Chaucer seems essentially English. In his frank realism, his appreciation of human nature, he resembles Shakespeare and Scott; his broad humor, free from malice or restraint, suggests the robust presence and hearty laughter of Fielding. Chaucer, then, is neither Norman nor Saxon, but a mixture of both. He united the Norman spirit of romance with English solidity and com
His very language, a fusion of French and English, shows that in him a long process of amalgamation is nearly completed, and that once separate elements are being welded into one.
Chaucer and the Renaissance. Nor must we forget that Italy, as well as France and England, contributed to the full development of Chaucer's powers. Dante, the first great poet of modern Europe, stands at the end of the Middle Ages: Chaucer, born three quarters of a century later, stands at once at the close of the medieval and at the beginning of the modern world. The inheritance of the past and the promise of the future mingle in his work; and, like his century, he marks both the end of an old order and the beginning of a new.
His Genius. - Genius is often associated with the excessive or abnormal development of a single faculty. In such cases one side of the man's nature grows at the expense of the rest.
From this besetting weakness of
genius, Chaucer is conspicuously free. The artist in him did not warp or spoil the man; the varied life of the man contributed to the triumph of the artist. Perhaps the most remarkable fact about Chaucer is his ability to keep each of the diverse elements that make up life in its proper place, and his ability to use all, while he prevented any one from gaining an undue ascendency. Chaucer's healthy contact with life and his marvelous equipoise of character give a sane, wholesome, normal quality to his work. He is truthful, setting down what he sees honestly and naturally; he can enjoy life with almost the frank delight of a child, capable of laughter without malice; and, boisterous or coarse as he may sometimes seem, he is at heart surprisingly gentle and compassionate. If he is the poet of the Wife of Bath, he is also the poet of Griselda and Constance. He reveres a good woman; he writes of little children with a wonderful tenderness. He is not bitter, rebellious, or complaining, but accepts what life gives him with a cheerful courage and manly resignation. There is something natural, almost childlike, in his delight in birds and grass, in flowers and sunshine, in
Maytime and the cheerful dawn.” He is among the greatest comic writers; the father of English humor, he has a Shakespearian sympathy with the follies or the absurdities which he describes.
The Music of His Verse. When Chaucer wrote, our English language, with its more frequent vowel sounds, was softer and smoother in men's mouths, and Chaucer, the master of this melodious English, is one of the most musical of English poets. When we compare the line,
“And smale fowles maken melodie,” with
“And the small birds make melody,"