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EMINENT BRITISH POETS,
FROM CHAUCER TO BURNS
BORN, 1328; DIED, 1400.
Campbell. GEOFFREY CHAUCER has been justly designated the
Father of English Poetry.” He was the great inrover of the diction of his native tongue;
and amongst he early English poets, he ranks with Spenser, Shakpeare, and Milton. His birth and parentage have not een clearly traced by his biographers. In his “ Testapent of Love,” one of his prose works, he states that be was born in London; and according to the inscription
his tomb, that event took place in the year 1328. is a question of uncertainty, whether he received his ducation entirely at Cambridge, or partly at Oxford. has been alleged that he studied at the latter place I learning under the celebrated Wickliffe, who was at lat time Warden of Canterbury College. According the statements of some of his biographers, he went Paris, and studied in some of the scientific schools of
that city. That Chaucer possessed considerable erudition, and that his mind was enlarged and improved by foreign travel, admit not of a doubt. His family were supposed to be respectable, and must have had sufficient means to afford him the advantages of a liberal education. He lived during the reigns of Edward III. and Richard II. He travelled early into Italy, where he made himself thoroughly acquainted with the works of the most eminent authors of that country,—Dante, Bocaccio, and Petrarch, with the last of whom he is said to have had a personal interview. On his return from the Continent, it is recorded that he studied law in the Temple; and at a subsequent period, he was appointed yeoman to Edward III. He was married to a near connexion of the celebrated John of Gaunt, through whose patronage he became a favourite at court, obtained profitable employment, and was sent on successive embassies to Genoa and Rome. His conduct while abroad, in managing the official business entrusted to him, seems to have given satisfaction to his sovereign. On his return from Genoa he was appointed Comptroller of the Customs in London, and had a pitcher of wine daily from the royal table, which was afterwards commuted into a pension of twenty marks.
In Chambers's “Cyclopedia of English Literature, there is a brief and interesting sketch of the leading events in Chaucer's life, from which the following additional information respecting him is extracted :“The opening of the reign of Richard II. was unpropitious to Chaucer. He became involved in the civil and religious troubles of the times, and joined with the party of John of Northampton, who was attached to the doctrines of Wickliffe, in resisting the measures of the court. The poet fled to Hainault (the country of his wife's relations), and afterwards to Holland. He ventured to return in 1386, but was thrown into the Tower and deprived of his Comptrollership. In May, 1388 he obtained leave to dispose of his two patents, of twenty marks each—a measure prompted, no doubt, by necess He obtained his release by impeaching his pret to associates, and confessing to his misdemeanours, offe
also to prove the truth of his information by entering the lists of combat with the accused parties. How far this transaction involves the character of the poet, we cannot now ascertain. He has painted his suffering and distress, the odium which he incurred, and his indig. nation at the bad conduct of his former confederates, in powerful and affecting language in his Testament of Love. The sunshine of royal favour was not long withheld after this humiliating submission. In 1389 Chaucer was registered as Clerk of the Works at Westminster; and next year he was appointed to the same office at Windsor. These were only temporary situations, held about twenty months; but he afterwards received a grant of £20, and a tun of wine, per annum.
The name of the poet does not occur again for some years; and he is supposed to have retired to Woodstock, and there composed his 'Canterbury Tales.' In 1398 a patent of protection was granted to him by the crown; but from the terms of the deed, it is difficult to say wbether it is an amnesty for political offences, or a safeguard from creditors. In the following year, still brighter prospects opened on the aged poet. Henry of Bolingbroke, the son of his brother-in-law, John of Gaunt, ascended the throne: Chaucer's annuity was continued, and forty marks additional were granted. Thomas Chaucer, whom Mr. Godwin seems to prove to have been the poet's son, was made Chief Butler, and elected Speaker of the House of Commons. The last time that the poet's name occurs in any public document, is in a 'lease made to him by the abbot, prior, and convent of Westminster, of a tenement situate in the garden of the chapel, at the yearly rent of 53s. 4d. This is dated on the 24th of December, 1399; and on the 25th of October, 1400, the poet died in London, most probably in the house he had just leased, which stood on the site of Henry VII.'s chapel. He was buried in Westminster Abbey—the first of that llastrious file of poets whose ashes rest in the sacred Edifice." Though seventy-two years of age, at the period of
death, he retained his mental faculties clear and gorous to the last. One of his biographers states, that he composed a few verses upon his death-bed, entitled the “Good Councel of Chaucer," of which the object was to expose the vanity of human expectations, and the fleeting nature of human enjoyments. Chaucer left two sons, whose history is involved in doubt. In his youth he is represented to have committed some indiscretions, though he kept himself comparatively free from the profligacy of the times. Many of his tales, it must be admitted, are coarse and impure; but it is well known that in his after life, he deeply regretted having composed them. Of his private habits, Mr. Cowden Clarke gives the subjoined account, in his work called the “Riches of Chaucer.” “During his relaxations from the duties of public business, he continually retired to his study. Reading, indeed, was his chief delight, as appears by his own confession, in the introduction of his “Dream," and to the "Legend of Good Women.' He preferred it to every amusement, with the exception of a morning walk in May-tide. He lived almost exclusively in his own world of meditation, never interfering, as he says of himself, in the concerns of others. He was temperate and regular in his diet; he “arose with the lark, and lay down with the lamb:” hence the marvellous truth and freshness of his early morning pictures, not inferior to the celebrated “Castle Landscape” of Rembrandt; and this is the most perfect representation of a morning twilight that, perhaps, ever was painted.”
This outline of Chancer's life is not intended to embrace a critical account of his voluminous works. Those best known and most generally admired are the “Romaunt of the Rose,” “Troilus and Cresseide,” the “House of Fame,” “ Chaucer's Dream,” the "Assembly of Fowls,” the "Flower and the Leaf,” and the “Canterbury Tales;" the last of which is the most popular, and displays the greatest variety of talent. It consists of a series of sportive and pathetic narratives, related by a miscellaneous company, in the course of a religious pilgrimage to Canterbury. Chaucer was also the author of three clever works in prose, which have been warmly praised; and a number of minor poetical effusions.
His productions do not afford many examples of sacred poetry, though a serious spirit pervades some of his most remarkable compositions. Of this class may
be mentioned his lines on the “Soul,” the lamentation of
Mary Magdalen,” and the beautiful story of the “ Christian Martyr," related by the Prioress in the
Canterbury Tales.” His graphic description of the “Good Parson,” will remind the reader of Goldsmith's inimitable portrait of the “Village Pastor,” the idea of which is said to have been borrowed from Chaucer.
We have selected the following extracts from the ablest criticisms that have appeared at various times on Chaucer's works. In Southey's edition of the “Select Works of the British Poets,” that distinguished author observes, that “Chaucer is not merely the acknowledged Father of English Poetry—he is also one of our greatest poets. His proper station is in the first class, with Spenser, Shakspeare, and Milton; and Shakspeare alone has equalled him in variety and versatility of genius. In no other country has any writer effected so much with a half formed language: retaining what was popular, and rejecting what was barbarous, he at once refined and enriched it. He drew largely from French and Italian authors: but in all his translations there is the stamp of his own power; and his original works are distinguished by a life, and strength, and vivacity, which nothing but original
genius, and that of the highest order, can impart. Whoever aspires to a lasting name among the original poets, must go to the writings of Chaucer. It should be remembered, that Chaucer expresses contrition for such of his writings as ‘Sounen unto Sin;' and prays Christ of his mercy to forgive him for the guilt he had incurred thereby. He is said to have cried out repeatedly on his death-bed, 'Woe is me, that I cannot recall and annul those things ! but, alas, they are continued from man to man, and I cannot do what I desire.''
Hazlitt, in his "Lectures on the English Poets," has instituted an ingenious comparison between Chaucer, Spenser, Shakspeare, and Milton, whom he considers to be the four greatest names in English Poetry. He