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But rather wolde he yeven, out of doute, Un-to his povre parisshens aboute Of his offring, and eek of his substaunce. He coude in litel thing han suffisaunce. Wyd was his parisshe, and houses fer a-sonder, But he ne lafte nat, for reyn ne thonder, In siknes nor in meschief, to visyte The ferreste in his parisshe, muche and lyte, Up-on his feet, and in his hand a staf. This noble ensample to his sheep he yaf, That first he wroghte, and afterward he taughte; Out of the gospel he tho wordes caughte; And this figure he added eek ther-to, That if gold ruste, what shal iren do ? For if a preest be foul, on whom we truste, No wonder is a lowed man to ruste ; Wel oghte a preest ensample for to yive, By his clennesse, how that his sheep shold live. He sette nat his benefice to hyre, And leet his sheep encombred in the myre, And ran to London, un-to sëynt Poules, To seken him a chaunterie for soules, Or with a bretherhed to been withholde ; But dwelte at hoom, and kepte wel his folde, So that the wolf ne made it nat miscarie ; He was a shepherde and no mercenarie. And though he holy were, and vertuous, He was to sinful man nat despitous, Ne of his speche daungerous ne digne, But in his teching discreet and benigne. To drawen folk to heven by fairnesse ; By good ensample, was his bisinesse : But it were any persone obstinat, What-so he were, of heigh or lowe estat, Him wolde he snibben sharply for the nones. A bettre preest, I trowe that nowher noon is. He wayted after no pompe and reverence, Ne maked him a spyced conscience, But Cristes lore, and his apostles twelve, He taughte, and first he folwed it him-selve ;
as did also his brother, a Plowman :
God loved he best with al his hole herte
Withouten hyre, if it lay in his might.11 Admiration is not to be sought for Chaucer by way of alms, with a kind of compassionate indulgence for him as phenomenal for his period. For work like the Prologue, the Knight's and Clerk's Tales, enthusiasm is a right. If I speak of the writing rather than always of the writer, it is that I prefer to economize miracles. Such creations, not leaves and blossoms alone, but ripe fruit also, would have been impossibilities had they not been maturing beneath the surface. They issued from no wilderness. The soil was of courtly manners, of chivalrous, high-bred sentiment. Norman exclusiveness, in crumbling into Saxon mother-earth, had carried thither dignity and grace, Though English literature hitherto had reckoned for little, French was accessible to Englishmen. The language itself was daily being embroidered with French diction and its larger ideas. Besides, there was always Italy. Dante had just been. Petrarch and Boccaccio were. Every hungry Italian prelate, every wandering friar, every returned noble, pilgrim, and merchant was an evangelist of the new gospel of letters. Centuries were to pass before writers, of whatever race, were ashamed to borrow plots and thoughts. Chaucer, as he tells us everywhere, drank deep of the open fountains, and gloried in his draughts from them.
We cannot tell what he would have been without them. He returned them, as he slaked his thirst, with happier results than King Midas, into virgin gold. His merit, in their
transmutation, in his borrowings of ideas and tone from a half-French Court, in his acceptance of foreign enrichments of his native tongue, is large enough for his admirers to be content to extol him, not for making his tools, but for his use of them. There he wrought miracles indeed. He found the nation divided by a barrier of two spoken languages. Operating from an English heart and brain for English ears, he compelled the whole to understand one tongue. English verse cannot be said to have really existed before him. He composed poems which through succeeding centuries never ceased to be read and loved. The rhythm he planted struck root so deeply that it has never lost its hold on the national ear. Dryden and Pope tried to improve upon it. Read their monotonously measured heroics, in their so-called translations, before or after the original, in its natural changefulness, and judge which is the more musical. I am almost tempted to add, which is the more intelligible.
Whatever the amount of his debts to continental literature, one constituent of his work Petrarch, Boccaccio, Dante, with the entire bounteous French tongue thrown in, could not have supplied. He contributed himself; his own spacious nature. That is visible throughout story, learning, diction, and thought. It animates and transforms the whole. His curiosity was devouring. He must have read whatever in contemporary or classical literature was for the period available. Through his reading he endeavoured to live back into the past. It may be admitted that he made at times a strange medley of his knowledge. Greek and Roman gods and goddesses ply, as it were, for reverence and worship along with the mysteries of the Christian Faith. Legend, history, and mythology, Caesar and Aeneas, Ovid and Titus Livius, are used as of equal authority for the reconstruction of antiquity. The results may sometimes be grotesque; they compose a fabric in which at any rate Chaucer, with his public, felt at home; even enraptured and on wings :
On bokes for to rede I me delyte,
That from my bokes make me to goon. Only one other joy takes precedence of his homage to them. It is
in the joly tyme of May; Whan that I here the smale foules singe,
And that the floures ginne for to springe. Then
Farwel my studie, as lasting that sesoun ! 12
that han left hir song,
Hir blisful swete song pitous.13 He loves all Nature's works, great and small, and, best among them, the simple and humble :
Of alle the floures in the mede,
As I seyde erst, whan comen is the May,
That blisful sighte softneth al my sorwe. A gale of fresh, dewy fragrance from green grass and lowly flowers breathes over the inspirations he has borrowed from the great of Italy, and naturalizes the whole on English soil.
Spirit and thought are equally delightful. The singer is so manifestly, so piquantly, gay. His glad surprise at finding the numbers come infects his audience. A bystander cannot help rejoicing with him. Yet Black Death had been devastating the cities. Wars of royal ambition had been watering foreign fields with the blood of thousands. Excessive taxation had driven labourers and farmers into armed sedition. Religion and conscience had their profound upheavals. The poet, among his divers moods, preserved unsullied that of a sweet equanimity. He ceased not, at due seasons, to write, and even laugh, though his heart had ached. A keen satirist who hated all mockery, he had a smile for individual prioresses and friars, even for sompnours and pardoners, while he lashed the system by which they fattened. The courage of the courtier, who could thus defy the Church a short generation before it burnt Cobham at the stake must have been undaunted How he could honour and love ministers of that Church who were Christians also, we can gather from his adorable picture of a ' poure Persone of the toun'.
Altogether English poetry could want no nobler progenitor than Geoffrey Chaucer. How he shines in the light of his own halo against a curtain of darkness behind, and a darkness almost blacker to come!