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CHAPTER I.

You need not fear a surfeit; here is but little, and that light of digestion. QUARLES.

FRIENDS and fellow-students of poetry, said HARTLEY, on the following evening-putting on a certain gravity and pompousness of manner, as he spoke-behold the face of one revered bard smiling at us through the vista of faroff centuries, before English literature had an existence, or English history its most spirit-stirring chapters. Do you wish that Chaucer had lived nearer the age of Shakspeare and had written in a more intelligible language; or are you not the rather grateful that from his "well of English undefiled," every student of our tongue has been able ever since to draw an unceasing supply of illustrations, and that from that well-call it rather an everflowing stream-Shakspeare and Spenser, Milton and Wordsworth have quaffed draughts, purer and more sparkling than any that could be drawn from Helicon?

STANLEY. Chaucer's poetry is so good, that it is assuredly worth while to study the language in which it is written, even though it be, which it is not, as difficult as Latin or Greek. Yet it needs no small painstaking, to become a complete master of Chaucer's English; and, although well repaid for the toil, one cannot help wishing that the original cost had been less.

HARTLEY. So do not I. All earnest study brings its own reward, and the labour in this instance serves to deepen the love. Besides an acquaintance with some of the most humorous and the most pathetic poetry in the language, I have gained from reading Chaucer divers odd pieces of knowledge, and an insight into the condition of society in his age that I could not have derived from other sources. Thanks to Mr. Wright for his text, and more thanks still to Mr. Bell, for the most useful and readable edition we possess of the poet. Until the appearance of that edition, about eight or ten years ago, I had read and admired Chaucer, but I had never entered into the spirit of his poetry with that hearty, downright enjoyment of which I am conscious now. Those eight small volumes form a precious part of my poetical library.

STANLEY. To translate Chaucer into modern English is to destroy all his raciness. It is like eating a stale cucumber, or drinking wine that has been a long time decanted. "Hermann und Dorothea," that sweet German pastoral, would be scarcely more injured in an English dress.

TALBOT. I don't think Chaucer suffers more than every great poet inevitably must, by such a transmutation. Language is more important to the poet, than colour is to the artist. His whole conception is linked to certain words in which alone he can express it; his every thought is married to a special vocable; and a divorce between them threatens as much injury in its way, as any which can be inflicted in the court of Sir James Wilde.

HARTLEY. Yes, indeed; it is something like sacrilege to attempt to modernize such a poet as Chaucer. Rob

him of his antique garb, give him a modern hat and coat, and you no longer see him

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and whose calm and sweet face, as depicted by Occleve, gives you the idea of

"Elysian beauty, melancholy grace

Brought from a pensive, though a happy place."

Let us only have a correct text-I mean as correct as it can be a copious glossary, and explanatory notes, and we have all the aids to the study of Chaucer, which we can hope for or require. By the way, Chaucer, like almost all great men, must have been an early riser; for he delights in pictures of the morning; and one of those pictures in "The Knightes Tale" is not to be surpassed for its simplicity and beauty. Yet it is not more remarkable in itself, than for the manner in which it has been modernized by Dryden.

Listen first to Dan, and then to his interpreter :

"The busy larke, messager of daye,
Salueth in hire song the morwe gray;
And fyry Phebus ryseth up so bright
That all the orient laugheth of the sight,
And with his stremes dryeth in the greves
The silver dropes hongyng on the leeves."

So far Chaucer. Can any picture be more fresh and life-like? That fourth line could only have been conceived by a truly great poet. Now for Dryden :

“The morning lark, the messenger of day, Saluted in her song the morning grey;

And soon the sun arose with beams so bright

That all the horizon laughed to see the joyous sight.
He with his tepid rays the rose renews,

And licks the drooping leaves, and dries the dews."

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Thus we have one of the most charming touches of poetry transformed into a common-place description, with an additional, and essentially prosaic image; one of the "beauties," forsooth, which, as Dryden says, "if I lose in some places, I give to others which had them not originally." Up roos the sonne, and up roos Emelye," is a fine line, also betokening Chaucer's love of early rising; and near the commencement of "The Knightes Tale" we have an exquisite morning glimpse of Emelye. After describing the imprisonment of Palamon and his "felawe Arcite," who expect evermore to lie in durance vile, since "ther may no gold hem quyte," the poet says:—

"This passeth yeer by yeer, and day by day,
Till it fell oones in a morwe of May

That Emelye, that fairer was to seene

Than is the lilie on hire stalkes grene,

And fresscher than the May with floures newe—
For with the rose colour strof hire hewe,
I not which was the fyner of hem two—
Er it was day, as sche was wont to do,
Sche was arisen, and al redy dight;
For May wole have no sloggardye a night.
The sesoun priketh every gentil herte,
And maketh him out of his sleepe sterte,
And seith, Arys, and do thin observance,'
This maked Emelye han remembrance.

To do honour to May, and for to ryse,
I-clothed was sche, fressh for to devyse;

Hire yolwe heer was browdid in a tresse
Byhynde hire bak, a yerde long I gesse.
And in the gardyn at the sonne upriste
Sche walketh up and doun wher as hire liste-
Sche gadereth floures, partye whyte and reede,
To make a sotel* gerland for hire heede,

And as an aungel, hevenly sche song."

Sir Walter Scott owns that Dryden's description of Emily must yield the palm to Chaucer's original. It certainly must.

TALBOT. Give us some more passages, HARTLEY, from Chaucer's morning songs. Again and again, if I remember rightly, he doffs his nightcap, leaps out of his bed, and goes forth into the woods to hear the singing of the birds.

HARTLEY. Yes, the old Father loved well every sweet scene, and every lovely sound and colour that unite to make this world a blessed place still, in spite of all its sorrow. Nothing was too simple to attract his notice and win his love. The little birds, which make the bushes quake and tremble with their joy, the daisies whitening the grass, the noise of the hidden brook, the chirp of the grasshopper-all made his heart rejoice, and compelled him to sing for very gladness. Much as he loved books, he loved nature more; and when the spring called him out to "do observance," he threw aside his studies, and went into the green fields to solace his fancy, and gain a higher inspiration than any which books can yield. In the "Legende of Goode Women," Chaucer tells us how he

* Curiously braided.

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