Lectures on the English Poets, by William Hazlitt

Lecture ii.

On Chaucer and Spenser.

Having, in the former Lecture, given some account of the nature of poetry in general, I shall proceed, in the next place, to a more particular consideration of the genius and history of English poetry. I shall take, as the subject of the present lecture, Chaucer and Spenser, two out of four of the greatest names in poetry, which this country has to boast. Both of them, however, were much indebted to the early poets of Italy, and may be considered as belonging, in a certain degree, to the same school. The freedom and copiousness with which our most original writers, in former periods, availed themselves of the productions of their predecessors, frequently transcribing whole passages, without scruple or acknowledgment, may appear contrary to the etiquette of modern literature, when the whole stock of poetical common-places has become public property, and no one is compelled to trade upon any particular author. But it is not so much a subject of wonder, at a time when to read and write was of itself an honorary distinction, when learning was almost as great a rarity as genius, and when in fact those who first transplanted the beauties of other languages into their own, might be considered as public benefactors, and the founders of a national literature. — There are poets older than Chaucer, and in the interval between him and Spenser; but their genius was not such as to place them in any point of comparison with either of these celebrated men; and an inquiry into their particular merits or defects might seem rather to belong to the province of the antiquary, than be thought generally interesting to the lovers of poetry in the present day.

Chaucer (who has been very properly considered as the father of English poetry) preceded Spenser by two centuries. He is supposed to have been born in London, in the year 1328, during the reign of Edward III. and to have died in 1400, at the age of seventy-two. He received a learned education at one, or at both of the universities, and travelled early into Italy, where he became thoroughly imbued with the spirit and excellences of the great Italian poets and prose-writers, Dante, Petrarch, and Boccace; and is said to have had a personal interview with one of these, Petrarch. He was connected, by marriage, with the famous John of Gaunt, through whose interest he was introduced into several public employments. Chaucer was an active partisan, a religious reformer, and from the share he took in some disturbances, on one occasion, he was obliged to fly the country. On his return, he was imprisoned, and made his peace with government, as it is said, by a discovery of his associates. Fortitude does not appear, at any time, to have been the distinguishing virtue of poets. — There is, however, an obvious similarity between the practical turn of Chaucer’s mind and restless impatience of his character, and the tone of his writings. Yet it would be too much to attribute the one to the other as cause and effect: for Spenser, whose poetical temperament was an effeminate as Chaucer’s was stern and masculine, was equally engaged in public affairs, and had mixed equally in the great world. So much does native disposition predominate over accidental circumstances, moulding them to its previous bent and purposes! For while Chaucer’s intercourse with the busy world, and collision with the actual passions and conflicting interests of others, seemed to brace the sinews of his understanding, and gave to his writings the air of a man who describes persons and things that he had known and been intimately concerned in; the same opportunities, operating on a differently constituted frame, only served to alienate Spenser’s mind the more from the “close-pent up” scenes of ordinary life, and to make him “rive their concealing continents,” to give himself up to the unrestrained indulgence of “flowery tenderness.”

It is not possible for any two writers to be more opposite in this respect. Spenser delighted in luxurious enjoyment; Chaucer, in severe activity of mind. As Spenser was the most romantic and visionary, Chaucer was the most practical of all the great poets, the most a man of business and the world. His poetry reads like history. Every thing has a downright reality; at least in the relator’s mind. A simile, or a sentiment, is as if it were given in upon evidence. Thus he describes Cressid’s first avowal of her love.

“And as the new abashed nightingale,

That stinteth first when she beginneth sing,

When that she heareth any herde’s tale,

Or in the hedges any wight stirring,

And after, sicker, doth her voice outring;

Right so Cresseide, when that her dread stent,

Open’d her heart, and told him her intent.”

This is so true and natural, and beautifully simple, that the two things seem identified with each other. Again, it is said in the Knight’s Tale —

“Thus passeth yere by yere, and day by day,

Till it felle ones in a morwe of May,

That Emelie that fayrer was to sene

Than is the lilie upon his stalke grene;

And fresher than the May with floures newe,

For with the rose-colour strof hire hewe:

I n’ot which was the finer of hem two.”

This scrupulousness about the literal preference, as if some question of matter of fact was at issue, is remarkable. I might mention that other, where he compares the meeting between Palamon and Arcite to a hunter waiting for a lion in a gap —

“That stondeth at a gap with a spere,

Whan hunted is the lion or the bere,

And hereth him come rushing in the greves,

And breking both the boughes and the leves:"—

or that still finer one of Constance, when she is condemned to death:—

“Have ye not seen somtime a pale face

(Among a prees) of him that hath been lad

Toward his deth, wheras he geteth no grace,

And swiche a colour in his face hath had,

Men mighten know him that was so bestad,

Amonges all the faces in that route;

So stant Custance, and loketh hire aboute.”

The beauty, the pathos here does not seem to be of the poet’s seeking, but a part of the necessary texture of the fable. He speaks of what he wishes to describe with the accuracy, the discrimination of one who relates what has happened to himself, or has had the best information from those who have been eye-witnesses of it. The strokes of his pencil always tell. He dwells only on the essential, on that which would be interesting to the persons really concerned: yet as he never omits any material circumstance, he is prolix from the number of points on which he touches, without being diffuse on any one; and is sometimes tedious from the fidelity with which he adheres to his subject, as other writers are from the frequency of their digressions from it. The chain of his story is composed of a number of fine links, closely connected together, and rivetted by a single blow. There is an instance of the minuteness which he introduces into his most serious descriptions in his account of Palamon when left alone in his cell:

“Swiche sorrow he maketh that the grete tour

Resouned of his yelling and clamour:

The pure fetters on his shinnes grete

Were of his bitter salte teres wete.”

The mention of this last circumstance looks like a part of the instructions he had to follow, which he had no discretionary power to leave out or introduce at pleasure. He is contented to find grace and beauty in truth. He exhibits for the most part the naked object, with little drapery thrown over it. His metaphors, which are few, are not for ornament, but use, and as like as possible to the things themselves. He does not affect to shew his power over the reader’s mind, but the power which his subject has over his own. The readers of Chaucer’s poetry feel more nearly what the persons he describes must have felt, than perhaps those of any other poet. His sentiments are not voluntary effusions of the poet’s fancy, but founded on the natural impulses and habitual prejudices of the characters he has to represent. There is an inveteracy of purpose, a sincerity of feeling, which never relaxes or grows vapid, in whatever they do or say. There is no artificial, pompous display, but a strict parsimony of the poet’s materials, like the rude simplicity of the age in which he lived. His poetry resembles the root just springing from the ground, rather than the full-blown flower. His muse is no “babbling gossip of the air,” fluent and redundant; but, like a stammerer, or a dumb person, that has just found the use of speech, crowds many things together with eager haste, with anxious pauses, and fond repetitions to prevent mistake. His words point as an index to the objects, like the eye or finger. There were none of the common-places of poetic diction in our author’s time, no reflected lights of fancy, no borrowed roseate tints; he was obliged to inspect things for himself, to look narrowly, and almost to handle the object, as in the obscurity of morning we partly see and partly grope our way; so that his descriptions have a sort of tangible character belonging to them, and produce the effect of sculpture on the mind. Chaucer had an equal eye for truth of nature and discrimination of character; and his interest in what he saw gave new distinctness and force to his power of observation. The picturesque and the dramatic are in him closely blended together, and hardly distinguishable; for he principally describes external appearances as indicating character, as symbols of internal sentiment. There is a meaning in what he sees; and it is this which catches his eye by sympathy. Thus the costume and dress of the Canterbury Pilgrims — of the Knight — the Squire — the Oxford Scholar — the Gap-toothed Wife of Bath, and the rest, speak for themselves. To take one or two of these at random:

“There was also a nonne, a Prioresse,

That of hire smiling was ful simple and coy;

Hire gretest othe n’as but by seint Eloy:

And she was cleped Madame Eglentine.

Ful wel she sange the service divine

Entuned in hire nose ful swetely;

And Frenche she spake ful fayre and fetisly,

After the scole of Stratford atte Bowe,

For Frenche of Paris was to hire unknowe.

At mete was she wel ytaughte withalle;

She lette no morsel from hire lippes falle,

Ne wette hire fingres in hire sauce depe.

And sikerly she was of great disport,

And ful plesant, and amiable of port,

And peined hire to contrefeten chere

Of court, and ben estatelich of manere,

And to ben holden digne of reverence.

    But for to speken of hire conscience,

She was so charitable and so pitous,

She wolde wepe if that she saw a mous

Caughte in a trappe, if it were ded or bledde.

Of smale houndes hadde she, that she fedde

With rosted flesh, and milk, and wastel brede.

But sore wept she if on of hem were dede,

Or if men smote it with a yerde smert:

And all was conscience and tendre herte.

    Ful semely hire wimple ypinched was;

Hire nose tretis; hire eyen grey as glas;

Hire mouth ful smale; and therto soft and red;

But sickerly she hadde a fayre forehed.

It was almost a spanne brode, I trowe.”

“A Monk there was, a fayre for the maistrie,

An out-rider, that loved venerie:

A manly man, to ben an abbot able.

Ful many a deinte hors hadde he in stable:

And whan he rode, men mighte his bridel here,

Gingeling in a whistling wind as clere,

And eke as loude, as doth the chapell belle,

Ther as this lord was keper of the celle.

    The reule of Seint Maure and of Seint Beneit,

Because that it was olde and somdele streit,

This ilke monk lette olde thinges pace,

And held after the newe world the trace.

He yave not of the text a pulled hen,

That saith, that hunters ben not holy men —

Therfore he was a prickasoure a right:

Greihoundes he hadde as swift as foul of flight:

Of pricking and of hunting for the hare

Was all his lust, for no cost wolde he spare.

    I saw his sleves purfiled at the hond

With gris, and that the finest of the lond.

And for to fasten his hood under his chinne,

He had of gold ywrought a curious pinne:

A love-knotte in the greter end ther was.

His hed was balled, and shone as any glas,

And eke his face, as it hadde ben anoint.

He was a lord ful fat and in good point.

His eyen stepe, and rolling in his hed,

That stemed as a forneis of a led.

His botes souple, his hors in gret estat,

Now certainly he was a fayre prelat.

He was not pale as a forpined gost.

A fat swan loved he best of any rost.

His palfrey was as broune as is a bery.”

The Serjeant at Law is the same identical individual as Lawyer Dowling in Tom Jones, who wished to divide himself into a hundred pieces, to be in a hundred places at once.

“No wher so besy a man as he ther n’as,

And yet he semed besier than he was.”

The Frankelein, in “whose hous it snewed of mete and drinke”; the Shipman, “who rode upon a rouncie, as he couthe”; the Doctour of Phisike, “whose studie was but litel of the Bible”; the Wif of Bath, in

“All whose parish ther was non,

That to the offring before hire shulde gon,

And if ther did, certain so wroth was she,

That she was out of alle charitee;”

— the poure Persone of a toun, “whose parish was wide, and houses fer asonder”; the Miller, and the Reve, “a slendre colerike man,” are all of the same stamp. They are every one samples of a kind; abstract definitions of a species. Chaucer, it has been said, numbered the classes of men, as Linnaeus numbered the plants. Most of them remain to this day: others that are obsolete, and may well be dispensed with, still live in his descriptions of them. Such is the Sompnoure:

“A Sompnoure was ther with us in that place,

That hadde a fire-red cherubinnes face,

For sausefleme he was, with eyen narwe,

As hote he was, and likerous as a sparwe,

With scalled browes blake, and pilled berd:

Of his visage children were sore aferd.

Ther n’as quicksilver, litarge, ne brimston,

Boras, ceruse, ne oile of tartre non,

Ne oinement that wolde clense or bite,

That him might helpen of his whelkes white,

Ne of the knobbes sitting on his chekes.

Wel loved he garlike, onions, and lekes,

And for to drinke strong win as rede as blood.

Than wolde he speke, and crie as he were wood.

And whan that he wel dronken had the win,

Than wold he speken no word but Latin.

A fewe termes coude he, two or three,

That he had lerned out of som decree;

No wonder is, he heard it all the day. —

    In danger hadde he at his owen gise

The yonge girles of the diocise,

And knew hir conseil, and was of hir rede.

A gerlond hadde he sette upon his hede

As gret as it were for an alestake:

A bokeler hadde he made him of a cake.

With him ther rode a gentil Pardonere —

That hadde a vois as smale as hath a gote.”

It would be a curious speculation (at least for those who think that the characters of men never change, though manners, opinions, and institutions may) to know what has become of this character of the Sompnoure in the present day; whether or not it has any technical representative in existing professions; into what channels and conduits it has withdrawn itself, where it lurks unseen in cunning obscurity, or else shews its face boldly, pampered into all the insolence of office, in some other shape, as it is deterred or encouraged by circumstances. Chaucer’s characters modernised, upon this principle of historic derivation, would be an useful addition to our knowledge of human nature. But who is there to undertake it?

The descriptions of the equipage, and accoutrements of the two kings of Thrace and Inde, in the Knight’s Tale, are as striking and grand, as the others are lively and natural:

“Ther maist thou se coming with Palamon

Licurge himself, the grete king of Trace:

Blake was his berd, and manly was his face,

The cercles of his eyen in his hed

They gloweden betwixen yelwe and red,

And like a griffon loked he about,

With kemped heres on his browes stout;

His limmes gret, his braunes hard and stronge,

His shouldres brode, his armes round and longe

And as the guise was in his contree,

Ful highe upon a char of gold stood he,

With foure white bolles in the trais.

Instede of cote-armure on his harnais,

With nayles yelwe, and bright as any gold,

He hadde a beres skin, cole-blake for old.

His longe here was kempt behind his bak,

As any ravenes fether it shone for blake.

A wreth of gold arm-gret, of huge weight,

Upon his hed sate full of stones bright,

Of fine rubins [sic] and of diamants.

About his char ther wenten white alauns,

Twenty and mo, as gret as any stere,

To hunten at the leon or the dere,

And folwed him, with mosel fast ybound. —

    With Arcita, in stories as men find,

The grete Emetrius, the king of Inde,

Upon a stede bay, trapped in stele,

Covered with cloth of gold diapred wele,

Came riding like the god of armes Mars.

His cote-armure was of a cloth of Tars,

Couched with perles, white, and round and grete.

His sadel was of brent gold new ybete;

A mantelet upon his shouldres hanging

Bret-ful of rubies red, as fire sparkling.

His crispe here like ringes was yronne,

And that was yelwe, and glitered as the Sonne.

His nose was high, his eyen bright citrin,

His lippes round, his colour was sanguin,

A fewe fraknes in his face yspreint,

Betwixen yelwe and blake somdel ymeint,

And as a leon he his loking caste.

Of five and twenty yere his age I caste.

His berd was wel begonnen for to spring;

His vois was as a trompe thondering.

Upon his hed he wered of laurer grene

A gerlond freshe and lusty for to sene.

Upon his hond he bare for his deduit

An egle tame, as any lily whit. —

About this king ther ran on every part

Ful many a tame leon and leopart.”

What a deal of terrible beauty there is contained in this description! The imagination of a poet brings such objects before us, as when we look at wild beasts in a menagerie; their claws are pared, their eyes glitter like harmless lightning; but we gaze at them with a pleasing awe, clothed in beauty, formidable in the sense of abstract power.

Chaucer’s descriptions of natural scenery possess the same sort of characteristic excellence, or what might be termed gusto. They have a local truth and freshness, which gives the very feeling of the air, the coolness or moisture of the ground. Inanimate objects are thus made to have a fellow-feeling in the interest of the story; and render back the sentiment of the speaker’s mind. One of the finest parts of Chaucer is of this mixed kind. It is the beginning of the Flower and the Leaf, where he describes the delight of that young beauty, shrowded in her bower, and listening, in the morning of the year, to the singing of the nightingale; while her joy rises with the rising song, and gushes out afresh at every pause, and is borne along with the full tide of pleasure, and still increases, and repeats, and prolongs itself, and knows no ebb. The coolness of the arbour, its retirement, the early time of the day, the sudden starting up of the birds in the neighbouring bushes, the eager delight with which they devour and rend the opening buds and flowers, are expressed with a truth and feeling, which make the whole appear like the recollection of an actual scene:

“Which as me thought was right a pleasing sight,

And eke the briddes song for to here,

Would haue rejoyced any earthly wight,

And I that couth not yet in no manere

Heare the nightingale of all the yeare,

Ful busily herkened with herte and with eare,

If I her voice perceiue coud any where.

And I that all this pleasaunt sight sie,

Thought sodainly I felt so sweet an aire

Of the eglentere, that certainely

There is no herte I deme in such dispaire,

Ne with thoughts froward and contraire,

So ouerlaid, but it should soone haue bote,

If it had ones felt this savour sote.

And as I stood and cast aside mine eie,

I was ware of the fairest medler tree

That ever yet in all my life I sie

As full of blossomes as it might be,

Therein a goldfinch leaping pretile

Fro bough to bough, and as him list he eet

Here and there of buds and floures sweet.

And to the herber side was joyning

This faire tree, of which I haue you told,

And at the last the brid began to sing,

Whan he had eaten what he eat wold,

So passing sweetly, that by manifold

It was more pleasaunt than I coud deuise,

And whan his song was ended in this wise,

The nightingale with so merry a note

Answered him, that all the wood rong

So sodainly, that as it were a sote,

I stood astonied, so was I with the song

Thorow rauished, that till late and long,

I ne wist in what place I was, ne where,

And ayen me thought she song euen by mine ere.

Wherefore I waited about busily

On euery side, if I her might see,

And at the last I gan full well aspie

Where she sat in a fresh grene laurer tree,

On the further side euen right by me,

That gaue so passing a delicious smell,

According to the eglentere full well.

Whereof I had so inly great pleasure,

That as me thought I surely rauished was

Into Paradice, where my desire

Was for to be, and no ferther passe

As for that day, and on the sote grasse,

I sat me downe, for as for mine entent,

The birds song was more conuenient,

And more pleasaunt to me by manifold,

Than meat or drinke, or any other thing,

Thereto the herber was so fresh and cold,

The wholesome sauours eke so comforting,

That as I demed, sith the beginning

Of the world was neur seene or than

So pleasaunt a ground of none earthly man.

And as I sat the birds harkening thus,

Me thought that I heard voices sodainly,

The most sweetest and most delicious

That euer any wight I trow truly

Heard in their life, for the armony

And sweet accord was in so good musike,

That the uoice to angels was most like.”

There is here no affected rapture, no flowery sentiment: the whole is an ebullition of natural delight “welling out of the heart,” like water from a crystal spring. Nature is the soul of art: there is a strength as well as a simplicity in the imagination that reposes entirely on nature, that nothing else can supply. It was the same trust in nature, and reliance on his subject, which enabled Chaucer to describe the grief and patience of Griselda; the faith of Constance; and the heroic perseverance of the little child, who, going to school through the streets of Jewry,

“Oh Alma Redemptoris mater, loudly sung,”

and who after his death still triumphed in his song. Chaucer has more of this deep, internal, sustained sentiment, than any other writer, except Boccaccio. In depth of simple pathos, and intensity of conception, never swerving from his subject, I think no other writer comes near him, not even the Greek tragedians. I wish to be allowed to give one or two instances of what I mean. I will take the following from the Knight’s Tale. The distress of Arcite, in consequence of his banishment from his love, is thus described:

    “Whan that Arcite to Thebes comen was,

Ful oft a day he swelt and said Alas,

For sene his lady shall he never mo.

And shortly to concluden all his wo,

So mochel sorwe hadde never creature,

That is or shall be, while the world may dure.

His slepe, his mete, his drinke is him byraft.

That lene he wex, and drie as is a shaft.

His eyen holwe, and grisly to behold,

His hewe salwe, and pale as ashen cold,

And solitary he was, and ever alone,

And wailing all the night, making his mone.

And if he herde song or instrument,

Than wold he wepe, he mighte not be stent.

So feble were his spirites, and so low,

And changed so, that no man coude know

His speche ne his vois, though men it herd.”

This picture of the sinking of the heart, of the wasting away of the body and mind, of the gradual failure of all the faculties under the contagion of a rankling sorrow, cannot be surpassed. Of the same kind is his farewel to his mistress, after he has gained her hand and lost his life in the combat:

    “Alas the wo! alas the peines stronge,

That I for you have suffered, and so longe!

Alas the deth! alas min Emilie!

Alas departing of our compagnie;

Alas min hertes quene! alas my wif!

Min hertes ladie, ender of my lif!

What is this world? what axen men to have?

Now with his love, now in his colde grave

Alone withouten any compagnie.”

The death of Arcite is the more affecting, as it comes after triumph and victory, after the pomp of sacrifice, the solemnities of prayer, the celebration of the gorgeous rites of chivalry. The descriptions of the three temples of Mars, of Venus, and Diana, of the ornaments and ceremonies used in each, with the reception given to the offerings of the lovers, have a beauty and grandeur, much of which is lost in Dryden’s version. For instance, such lines as the following are not rendered with their true feeling.

“Why shulde I not as well eke tell you all

The purtreiture that was upon the wall

Within the temple of mighty Mars the rede —

That highte the gret temple of Mars in Trace

In thilke colde and frosty region,

Ther as Mars hath his sovereine mansion.

First on the wall was peinted a forest,

In which ther wonneth neyther man ne best,

With knotty knarry barrein trees old

Of stubbes sharpe and hidous to behold;

In which ther ran a romble and a swough,

As though a storme shuld bresten every bough.”

And again, among innumerable terrific images of death and slaughter painted on the wall, is this one:

“The statue of Mars upon a carte stood

Armed, and looked grim as he were wood.

A wolf ther stood beforne him at his fete

With eyen red, and of a man he ete.”

The story of Griselda is in Boccaccio; but the Clerk of Oxenforde, who tells it, professes to have learned it from Petrarch. This story has gone all over Europe, and has passed into a proverb. In spite of the barbarity of the circumstances, which are abominable, the sentiment remains unimpaired and unalterable. It is of that kind, “that heaves no sigh, that sheds no tear”; but it hangs upon the beatings of the heart; it is a part of the very being; it is as inseparable from it as the breath we draw. It is still and calm as the face of death. Nothing can touch it in its ethereal purity: tender as the yielding flower, it is fixed as the marble firmament. The only remonstrance she makes, the only complaint she utters against all the ill-treatment she receives, is that single line where, when turned back naked to her father’s house, she says,

“Let me not like a worm go by the way.”

The first outline given of the character is inimitable:

“Nought fer fro thilke paleis honourable,

Wher as this markis shope his marriage,

Ther stood a thorpe, of sighte delitable,

In which that poure folk of that village

Hadden hir bestes and her herbergage,

And of hir labour toke hir sustenance,

After that the erthe yave hem habundance.

Among this poure folk ther dwelt a man,

Which that was holden pourest of hem all:

But highe God sometime senden can

His grace unto a litel oxes stall:

Janicola men of that thorpe him call.

A doughter had he, faire ynough to sight,

And Grisildis this yonge maiden hight.

But for to speke of vertuous beautee,

Than was she on the fairest under Sonne:

Ful pourely yfostred up was she:

No likerous lust was in hire herte yronne;

Ful ofter of the well than of the tonne

She dranke, and for she wolde vertue plese,

She knew wel labour, but non idel ese.

But though this mayden tendre were of age,

Yet in the brest of hire virginitee

Ther was enclosed sad and ripe corage:

And in gret reverence and charitee

Hire olde poure fader fostred she:

A few sheep spinning on the feld she kept,

She wolde not ben idel til she slept.

And whan she homward came she wolde bring

Wortes and other herbes times oft,

The which she shred and sethe for hire living,

And made hire bed ful hard, and nothing soft:

And ay she kept hire fadres lif on loft

With every obeisance and diligence,

That child may don to fadres reverence,

Upon Grisilde, this poure creature,

Ful often sithe this markis sette his sye, [sic]

As he on hunting rode paraventure:

And whan it fell that he might hire espie,

He not with wanton loking of folie

His eyen cast on hire, but in sad wise

Upon hire chere he wold him oft avise,

Commending in his herte hire womanhede,

And eke hire vertue, passing any wight

Of so yong age, as wel in chere as dede.

For though the people have no gret insight

In vertue, he considered ful right

Hire bountee, and disposed that he wold

Wedde hire only, if ever he wedden shold.

Grisilde of this (God wot) ful innocent,

That for hire shapen was all this array,

To fetchen water at a welle is went,

And cometh home as sone as ever she may.

For wel she had herd say, that thilke day

The markis shulde wedde, and, if she might,

She wolde fayn han seen som of that sight.

She thought, “I wol with other maidens stond,

That ben my felawes, in our dore, and see

The markisesse, and therto wol I fond

To don at home, as sone as it may be,

The labour which longeth unto me,

And than I may at leiser hire behold,

If she this way unto the castel hold.”

And she wolde over the threswold gon,

The markis came and gan hire for to call,

And she set doun her water-pot anon

Beside the threswold in an oxes stall,

And doun upon hire knees she gan to fall.

And with sad countenance kneleth still,

Till she had herd what was the lordes will.”

The story of the little child slain in Jewry, (which is told by the Prioress, and worthy to be told by her who was “all conscience and tender heart,”) is not less touching than that of Griselda. It is simple and heroic to the last degree. The poetry of Chaucer has a religious sanctity about it, connected with the manners and superstitions of the age. It has all the spirit of martyrdom.

It has also all the extravagance and the utmost licentiousness of comic humour, equally arising out of the manners of the time. In this too Chaucer resembled Boccaccio that he excelled in both styles, and could pass at will “from grave to gay, from lively to severe”; but he never confounded the two styles together (except from that involuntary and unconscious mixture of the pathetic and humorous, which is almost always to be found in nature,) and was exclusively taken up with what he set about, whether it was jest or earnest. The Wife of Bath’s Prologue (which Pope has very admirably modernised) is, perhaps, unequalled as a comic story. The Cock and the Fox is also excellent for lively strokes of character and satire. January and May is not so good as some of the others. Chaucer’s versification, considering the time at which he wrote, and that versification is a thing in a great degree mechanical, is not one of his least merits. It has considerable strength and harmony, and its apparent deficiency in the latter respect arises chiefly from the alterations which have since taken place in the pronunciation or mode of accenting the words of the language. The best general rule for reading him is to pronounce the final e, as in reading Italian.

It was observed in the last Lecture that painting describes what the object is in itself, poetry what it implies or suggests. Chaucer’s poetry is not, in general, the best confirmation of the truth of this distinction, for his poetry is more picturesque and historical than almost any other. But there is one instance in point which I cannot help giving in this place. It is the story of the three thieves who go in search of Death to kill him, and who meeting with him, are entangled in their fate by his words, without knowing him. In the printed catalogue to Mr. West’s (in some respects very admirable) picture of Death on the Pale Horse, it is observed, that “In poetry the same effect is produced by a few abrupt and rapid gleams of description, touching, as it were with fire, the features and edges of a general mass of awful obscurity; but in painting, such indistinctness would be a defect, and imply that the artist wanted the power to pourtray the conceptions of his fancy. Mr. West was of opinion that to delineate a physical form, which in its moral impression would approximate to that of the visionary Death of Milton, it was necessary to endow it, if possible, with the appearance of super-human strength and energy. He has therefore exerted the utmost force and perspicuity of his pencil on the central figure.”— One might suppose from this, that the way to represent a shadow was to make it as substantial as possible. Oh, no! Painting has its prerogatives, (and high ones they are) but they lie in representing the visible, not the invisible. The moral attributes of Death are powers and effects of an infinitely wide and general description, which no individual or physical form can possibly represent, but by a courtesy of speech, or by a distant analogy. The moral impression of Death is essentially visionary; its reality is in the mind’s eye. Words are here the only things; and things, physical forms, the mere mockeries of the understanding. The less definite, the less bodily the conception, the more vast, unformed, and unsubstantial, the nearer does it approach to some resemblance of that omnipresent, lasting, universal, irresistible principle, which every where, and at some time or other, exerts its power over all things. Death is a mighty abstraction, like Night, or Space, or Time. He is an ugly customer, who will not be invited to supper, or to sit for his picture. He is with us and about us, but we do not see him. He stalks on before us, and we do not mind him: he follows us close behind, and we do not turn to look back at him. We do not see him making faces at us in our life-time, nor perceive him afterwards sitting in mock-majesty, a twin-skeleton, beside us, tickling our bare ribs, and staring into our hollow eye-balls! Chaucer knew this. He makes three riotous companions go in search of Death to kill him, they meet with an old man whom they reproach with his age, and ask why he does not die, to which he answers thus:

“Ne Deth, alas! ne will not han my lif.

Thus walke I like a restless caitiff,

And on the ground, which is my modres gate,

I knocke with my staf, erlich and late,

And say to hire, “Leve mother, let me in.

Lo, how I vanish, flesh and blood and skin,

Alas! when shall my bones ben at reste?

Mother, with you wolde I changen my cheste,

That in my chambre longe time hath be,

Ye, for an heren cloute to wrap in me.”

But yet to me she will not don that grace,

For which ful pale and welked is my face.”

They then ask the old man where they shall find out Death to kill him, and he sends them on an errand which ends in the death of all three. We hear no more of him, but it is Death that they have encountered!

The interval between Chaucer and Spenser is long and dreary. There is nothing to fill up the chasm but the names of Occleve, “ancient Gower,” Lydgate, Wyatt, Surry, and Sackville. Spenser flourished in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, and was sent with Sir John Davies into Ireland, of which he has left behind him some tender recollections in his description of the bog of Allan, and a record in an ably written paper, containing observations on the state of that country and the means of improving it, which remain in full force to the present day. Spenser died at an obscure inn in London, it is supposed in distressed circumstances. The treatment he received from Burleigh is well known. Spenser, as well as Chaucer, was engaged in active life; but the genius of his poetry was not active: it is inspired by the love of ease, and relaxation from all the cares and business of life. Of all the poets, he is the most poetical. Though much later than Chaucer, his obligations to preceding writers were less. He has in some measure borrowed the plan of his poem (as a number of distinct narratives) from Ariosto; but he has engrafted upon it an exuberance of fancy, and an endless voluptuousness of sentiment, which are not to be found in the Italian writer. Farther, Spenser is even more of an inventor in the subject-matter. There is an originality, richness, and variety in his allegorical personages and fictions, which almost vies with the splendor of the ancient mythology. If Ariosto transports us into the regions of romance, Spenser’s poetry is all fairy-land. In Ariosto, we walk upon the ground, in a company, gay, fantastic, and adventurous enough. In Spenser, we wander in another world, among ideal beings. The poet takes and lays us in the lap of a lovelier nature, by the sound of softer streams, among greener hills and fairer valleys. He paints nature, not as we find it, but as we expected to find it; and fulfils the delightful promise of our youth. He waves his wand of enchantment — and at once embodies airy beings, and throws a delicious veil over all actual objects. The two worlds of reality and of fiction are poised on the wings of his imagination. His ideas, indeed, seem more distinct than his perceptions. He is the painter of abstractions, and describes them with dazzling minuteness. In the Mask of Cupid he makes the God of Love “clap on high his coloured winges twain”: and it is said of Gluttony, in the Procession of the Passions,

“In green vine leaves he was right fitly clad.”

At times he becomes picturesque from his intense love of beauty; as where he compares Prince Arthur’s crest to the appearance of the almond tree:

“Upon the top of all his lofty crest,

    A bunch of hairs discolour’d diversely

With sprinkled pearl and gold full richly drest

    Did shake and seem’d to daunce for jollity;

Like to an almond tree ymounted high

    On top of green Selenis all alone,

With blossoms brave bedecked daintily;

    Her tender locks do tremble every one

At every little breath that under heav’n is blown.”

The love of beauty, however, and not of truth, is the moving principle of his mind; and he is guided in his fantastic delineations by no rule but the impulse of an inexhaustible imagination. He luxuriates equally in scenes of Eastern magnificence; or the still solitude of a hermit’s cell — in the extremes of sensuality or refinement.

In reading the Faery Queen, you see a little withered old man by a wood-side opening a wicket, a giant, and a dwarf lagging far behind, a damsel in a boat upon an enchanted lake, wood-nymphs, and satyrs, and all of a sudden you are transported into a lofty palace, with tapers burning, amidst knights and ladies, with dance and revelry, and song, “and mask, and antique pageantry.” What can be more solitary, more shut up in itself, than his description of the house of Sleep, to which Archimago sends for a dream:

“And more to lull him in his slumber soft

    A trickling stream from high rock tumbling down,

And ever-drizzling rain upon the loft,

    Mix’d with a murmuring wind, much like the sound

Of swarming Bees, did cast him in a swound.

    No other noise, nor people’s troublous cries.

That still are wont t’ annoy the walled town

    Might there be heard; but careless Quiet lies

Wrapt in eternal silence, far from enemies.”

It is as if “the honey-heavy dew of slumber” had settled on his pen in writing these lines. How different in the subject (and yet how like in beauty) is the following description of the Bower of Bliss:

“Eftsoones they heard a most melodious sound

    Of all that mote delight a dainty ear;

Such as at once might not on living ground,

    Save in this Paradise, be heard elsewhere:

Right hard it was for wight which did it hear,

    To tell what manner musicke that mote be;

For all that pleasing is to living eare

    Was there consorted in one harmonee:

Birds, voices, instruments, windes, waters, all agree.

The joyous birdes shrouded in chearefull shade

    Their notes unto the voice attempred sweet:

The angelical soft trembling voices made

    To th’ instruments divine respondence meet.

The silver sounding instruments did meet

    With the base murmur of the water’s fall;

The water’s fall with difference discreet,

    Now soft, now loud, unto the wind did call;

The gentle warbling wind low answered to all.”

The remainder of the passage has all that voluptuous pathos, and languid brilliancy of fancy, in which this writer excelled:

“The whiles some one did chaunt this lovely lay;

    Ah! see, whoso fayre thing dost thou fain to see,

In springing flower the image of thy day!

    Ah! see the virgin rose, how sweetly she

Doth first peep forth with bashful modesty,

    That fairer seems the less ye see her may!

Lo! see soon after, how more bold and free

    Her bared bosom she doth broad display;

Lo! see soon after, how she fades and falls away!

So passeth in the passing of a day

    Of mortal life the leaf, the bud, the flower;

Ne more doth flourish after first decay,

    That erst was sought to deck both bed and bower

Of many a lady and many a paramour!

    Gather therefore the rose whilst yet is prime,

For soon comes age that will her pride deflower;

    Gather the rose of love whilst yet is time,

Whilst loving thou mayst loved be with equal crime. 2

He ceased; and then gan all the quire of birds

    Their divers notes to attune unto his lay,

As in approvance of his pleasing wordes.

    The constant pair heard all that he did say,

Yet swerved not, but kept their forward way

    Through many covert groves and thickets close,

In which they creeping did at last display 3

    That wanton lady with her lover loose,

Whose sleepy head she in her lap did soft dispose.

Upon a bed of roses she was laid

    As faint through heat, or dight to pleasant sin;

And was arrayed or rather disarrayed,

    All in a veil of silk and silver thin,

That hid no whit her alabaster skin,

    But rather shewed more white, if more might be:

More subtle web Arachne cannot spin;

    Nor the fine nets, which oft we woven see

Of scorched dew, do not in the air more lightly flee.

Her snowy breast was bare to greedy spoil

    Of hungry eyes which n’ ote therewith be fill’d,

And yet through languor of her late sweet toil

    Few drops more clear than nectar forth distill’d,

That like pure Orient perles adown it trill’d;

    And her fair eyes sweet smiling in delight

Moisten’d their fiery beams, with which she thrill’d

    Frail hearts, yet quenched not; like starry light,

Which sparkling on the silent waves does seem more bright.”

2 Taken from Tasso.

3 This word is an instance of those unwarrantable freedoms which Spenser sometimes took with language.

The finest things in Spenser are, the character of Una, in the first book; the House of Pride; the Cave of Mammon, and the Cave of Despair; the account of Memory, of whom it is said, among other things,

“The wars he well remember’d of King Nine,

Of old Assaracus and Inachus divine”;

the description of Belphoebe; the story of Florimel and the Witch’s son; the Gardens of Adonis, and the Bower of Bliss; the Mask of Cupid; and Colin Clout’s vision, in the last book. But some people will say that all this may be very fine, but that they cannot understand it on account of the allegory. They are afraid of the allegory, as if they thought it would bite them: they look at it as a child looks at a painted dragon, and think it will strangle them in its shining folds. This is very idle. If they do not meddle with the allegory, the allegory will not meddle with them. Without minding it at all, the whole is as plain as a pike-staff. It might as well be pretended that we cannot see Poussin’s pictures for the allegory, as that the allegory prevents us from understanding Spenser. For instance, when Britomart, seated amidst the young warriors, lets fall her hair and discovers her sex, is it necessary to know the part she plays in the allegory, to understand the beauty of the following stanza?

“And eke that stranger knight amongst the rest

    Was for like need enforc’d to disarray.

Tho when as vailed was her lofty crest,

    Her golden locks that were in trammels gay

Upbounden, did themselves adown display,

    And raught unto her heels like sunny beams

That in a cloud their light did long time stay;

    Their vapour faded, shew their golden gleams,

And through the persant air shoot forth their azure streams.”

Or is there any mystery in what is said of Belphoebe, that her hair was sprinkled with flowers and blossoms which had been entangled in it as she fled through the woods? Or is it necessary to have a more distinct idea of Proteus, than that which is given of him in his boat, with the frighted Florimel at his feet, while

“——— the cold icicles from his rough beard

Dropped adown upon her snowy breast!”

Or is it not a sufficient account of one of the sea-gods that pass by them, to say —

“That was Arion crowned:—

So went he playing on the watery plain.”

Or to take the Procession of the Passions that draw the coach of Pride, in which the figures of Idleness, of Gluttony, of Lechery, of Avarice, of Envy, and of Wrath speak, one should think, plain enough for themselves; such as this of Gluttony:

“And by his side rode loathsome Gluttony,

    Deformed creature, on a filthy swine;

His belly was up blown with luxury;

    And eke with fatness swollen were his eyne;

And like a crane his neck was long and fine,

    With which he swallowed up excessive feast,

        For want whereof poor people oft did pine.

In green vine leaves he was right fitly clad;

    For other clothes he could not wear for heat:

And on his head an ivy garland had,

    From under which fast trickled down the sweat:

Still as he rode, he somewhat still did eat.

    And in his hand did bear a bouzing can,

Of which he supt so oft, that on his seat

    His drunken corse he scarce upholden can;

        In shape and size more like a monster than a man.”

Or this of Lechery:

“And next to him rode lustfull Lechery

    Upon a bearded goat, whose rugged hair

And whaly eyes (the sign of jealousy)

    Was like the person’s self whom he did bear:

Who rough and black, and filthy did appear.

    Unseemly man to please fair lady’s eye:

Yet he of ladies oft was loved dear,

    When fairer faces were bid standen by:

        O! who does know the bent of woman’s fantasy?

In a green gown he clothed was full fair,

    Which underneath did hide his filthiness;

And in his hand a burning heart he bare,

    Full of vain follies and new fangleness;

For he was false and fraught with fickleness;

    And learned had to love with secret looks;

And well could dance; and sing with ruefulness;

    And fortunes tell; and read in loving books;

        And thousand other ways to bait his fleshly hooks.

Inconstant man that loved all he saw,

    And lusted after all that he did love;

Ne would his looser life be tied to law;

    But joyed weak women’s hearts to tempt and prove,

        If from their loyal loves he might them move.”

This is pretty plain-spoken. Mr. Southey says of Spenser:

                    “——— Yet not more sweet

Than pure was he, and not more pure than wise;

High priest of all the Muses’ mysteries!”

On the contrary, no one was more apt to pry into mysteries which do not strictly belong to the Muses.

Of the same kind with the Procession of the Passions, as little obscure, and still more beautiful, is the Mask of Cupid, with his train of votaries:

“The first was Fancy, like a lovely boy

    Of rare aspect, and beauty without peer;

His garment neither was of silk nor say,

    But painted plumes in goodly order dight,

Like as the sun-burnt Indians do array

    Their tawny bodies in their proudest plight:

As those same plumes so seem’d he vain and light,

    That by his gait might easily appear;

For still he far’d as dancing in delight,

    And in his hand a windy fan did bear

        That in the idle air he mov’d still here and there.

And him beside march’d amorous Desire,

    Who seem’d of riper years than the other swain,

Yet was that other swain this elder’s sire,

    And gave him being, common to them twain:

His garment was disguised very vain,

    And his embroidered bonnet sat awry;

Twixt both his hands few sparks he close did strain,

    Which still he blew, and kindled busily,

        That soon they life conceiv’d and forth in flames did fly.

Next after him went Doubt, who was yclad

    In a discolour’d coat of strange disguise,

That at his back a broad capuccio had,

    And sleeves dependant Albanese-wise;

He lookt askew with his mistrustful eyes,

    And nicely trod, as thorns lay in his way,

Or that the floor to shrink he did avise;

    And on a broken reed he still did stay

        His feeble steps, which shrunk when hard thereon he lay.

With him went Daunger, cloth’d in ragged weed,

    Made of bear’s skin, that him more dreadful made;

Yet his own face was dreadfull, ne did need

    Strange horror to deform his grisly shade;

A net in th’ one hand, and a rusty blade

    In th’ other was; this Mischiefe, that Mishap;

With th’ one his foes he threat’ned to invade,

    With th’ other he his friends meant to enwrap;

        For whom he could not kill he practiz’d to entrap.

Next him was Fear, all arm’d from top to toe,

    Yet thought himselfe not safe enough thereby,

But fear’d each shadow moving to and fro;

    And his own arms when glittering he did spy

Or clashing heard, he fast away did fly,

    As ashes pale of hue, and winged-heel’d;

And evermore on Daunger fixt his eye,

    ‘Gainst whom he always bent a brazen shield,

        Which his right hand unarmed fearfully did wield.

With him went Hope in rank, a handsome maid,

    Of chearfull look and lovely to behold;

In silken samite she was light array’d,

    And her fair locks were woven up in gold;

She always smil’d, and in her hand did hold

    An holy-water sprinkle dipt in dew,

With which she sprinkled favours manifold

    On whom she list, and did great liking shew,

        Great liking unto many, but true love to few.

Next after them, the winged God himself

    Came riding on a lion ravenous,

Taught to obey the menage of that elfe

    That man and beast with power imperious

Subdueth to his kingdom tyrannous:

    His blindfold eyes he bade awhile unbind,

That his proud spoil of that same dolorous

    Fair dame he might behold in perfect kind;

        Which seen, he much rejoiced in his cruel mind.

Of which full proud, himself uprearing high,

    He looked round about with stern disdain,

And did survey his goodly company:

    And marshalling the evil-ordered train,

With that the darts which his right hand did strain,

    Full dreadfully he shook, that all did quake,

And clapt on high his colour’d winges twain,

    That all his many it afraid did make:

        Tho, blinding him again, his way he forth did take.”

The description of Hope, in this series of historical portraits, is one of the most beautiful in Spenser: and the triumph of Cupid at the mischief he has made, is worthy of the malicious urchin deity. In reading these descriptions, one can hardly avoid being reminded of Rubens’s allegorical pictures; but the account of Satyrane taming the lion’s whelps and lugging the bear’s cubs along in his arms while yet an infant, whom his mother so naturally advises to “go seek some other play-fellows,” has even more of this high picturesque character. Nobody but Rubens could have painted the fancy of Spenser; and he could not have given the sentiment, the airy dream that hovers over it! With all this, Spenser neither makes us laugh nor weep. The only jest in his poem is an allegorical play upon words, where he describes Malbecco as escaping in the herd of goats, “by the help of his fayre hornes on hight.” But he has been unjustly charged with a want of passion and of strength. He has both in an immense degree. He has not indeed the pathos of immediate action or suffering, which is more properly the dramatic; but he has all the pathos of sentiment and romance — all that belongs to distant objects of terror, and uncertain, imaginary distress. His strength, in like manner, is not strength of will or action, of bone and muscle, nor is it coarse and palpable — but it assumes a character of vastness and sublimity seen through the same visionary medium, and blended with the appalling associations of preternatural agency. We need only turn, in proof of this, to the Cave of Despair, or the Cave of Mammon, or to the account of the change of Malbecco into Jealousy. The following stanzas, in the description of the Cave of Mammon, the grisly house of Plutus, are unrivalled for the portentous massiness of the forms, the splendid chiaro-scuro, and shadowy horror.

“That house’s form within was rude and strong,

    Like an huge cave hewn out of rocky clift,

From whose rough vault the ragged breaches hung,

    Embossed with massy gold of glorious gift,

And with rich metal loaded every rift,

    That heavy ruin they did seem to threat:

And over them Arachne high did lift

    Her cunning web, and spread her subtle net,

        Enwrapped in foul smoke, and clouds more black than jet.

Both roof and floor, and walls were all of gold,

    But overgrown with dust and old decay, 4

And hid in darkness that none could behold

    The hue thereof: for view of cheerful day

Did never in that house itself display,

    But a faint shadow of uncertain light;

Such as a lamp whose life doth fade away;

    Or as the moon clothed with cloudy night

        Does shew to him that walks in fear and sad affright.

And over all sad Horror with grim hue

    Did always soar, beating his iron wings;

And after him owls and night-ravens flew,

    The hateful messengers of heavy things,

Of death and dolour telling sad tidings;

    Whiles sad Celleno, sitting on a clift,

A song of bitter bale and sorrow sings,

    That heart of flint asunder could have rift;

        Which having ended, after him she flieth swift.”

4 “That all with one consent praise new-born gauds,

Tho’ they are made and moulded of things past,

And give to Dust, that is a little gilt,

More laud than gold o’er-dusted.”

Troilus and Cressida.

The Cave of Despair is described with equal gloominess and power of fancy; and the fine moral declamation of the owner of it, on the evils of life, almost makes one in love with death. In the story of Malbecco, who is haunted by jealousy, and in vain strives to run away from his own thoughts —

“High over hill and over dale he flies”—

the truth of human passion and the preternatural ending are equally striking. — It is not fair to compare Spenser with Shakspeare, in point of interest. A fairer comparison would be with Comus; and the result would not be unfavourable to Spenser. There is only one work of the same allegorical kind, which has more interest than Spenser (with scarcely less imagination): and that is the Pilgrim’s Progress. The three first books of the Faery Queen are very superior to the three last. One would think that Pope, who used to ask if any one had ever read the Faery Queen through, had only dipped into these last. The only things in them equal to the former, are the account of Talus, the Iron Man, and the delightful episode of Pastorella.

The language of Spenser is full, and copious, to overflowing; it is less pure and idiomatic than Chaucer’s, and is enriched and adorned with phrases borrowed from the different languages of Europe, both ancient and modern. He was, probably, seduced into a certain license of expression by the difficulty of filling up the moulds of his complicated rhymed stanza from the limited resources of his native language. This stanza, with alternate and repeatedly recurring rhymes, is borrowed from the Italians. It was peculiarly fitted to their language, which abounds in similar vowel terminations, and is as little adapted to ours, from the stubborn, unaccommodating resistance which the consonant endings of the northern languages make to this sort of endless sing-song. — Not that I would, on that account, part with the stanza of Spenser. We are, perhaps, indebted to this very necessity of finding out new forms of expression, and to the occasional faults to which it led, for a poetical language rich and varied and magnificent beyond all former, and almost all later example. His versification is, at once, the most smooth and the most sounding in the language. It is a labyrinth of sweet sounds, “in many a winding bout of linked sweetness long drawn out”— that would cloy by their very sweetness, but that the ear is constantly relieved and enchanted by their continued variety of modulation — dwelling on the pauses of the action, or flowing on in a fuller tide of harmony with the movement of the sentiment. It has not the bold dramatic transitions of Shakspeare’s blank verse, nor the high-raised tone of Milton’s; but it is the perfection of melting harmony, dissolving the soul in pleasure, or holding it captive in the chains of suspense. Spenser was the poet of our waking dreams; and he has invented not only a language, but a music of his own for them. The undulations are infinite, like those of the waves of the sea: but the effect is still the same, lulling the senses into a deep oblivion of the jarring noises of the world, from which we have no wish to be ever recalled.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/h/hazlitt/william/lectures-on-the-english-poets/chapter2.html

Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38