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Chaucer, we know, was born early in the fourteenth century, during the reign of Edward the Third. We also know that the English language was then in a most uncouth and barbarous state: how then is it possible that those who live nearly five hundred years after him should be able to enjoy his poetry? This is the language of those who have never attempted what they describe as impossible, and poor Chaucer is left very quietly to sleep on the shelf, undisturbed, except by the researches of the antiquary. The verse of Chaucer certainly does not constantly appear harmonious to our ears; neither do I imagine that an uninterrupted flow of metre, and equality of numbers, were then considered as essentials: it was not till centuries after our poet's death, that English verse acquired that smoothness and polish which it now possesses. It was left for WALLER and DRYDEN to give the finish to what CHAUCER had so nobly begun.
It is much to be lamented that Mr. GODWIN did not devote some part of his Life of this great poet to a more extensive history of, and criticism upon, the Canterbury Tales, in comparison of which the greater part of Chaucer's other productions will seem uninteresting. They are so descriptive of the character and manners of the times, that "the pilgrims," says Dryden, “their humors, their features, and their very dress, are so very distinctly before me, as'if I had supped with them at the Tabard, in Southwark.” Perhaps a few extracts from the prologue to the Canterbury Tales may not be unacceptable to the lovers of poetry, which, when divested of the disguise of old spelling, will not appear so unintelligible as is generally supposed. Chaucer, after informing us, that in the month of April it was usual for pilgrims to assemble at the shrine of “ the holy martyr, at Canterbury,” thus proceeds:
Befel that in that season on a day
* Chaucer very frequently finishes a sentence with the first line of the
He then describes the person, character and condition of each of these pilgrims. I shall extract part of his description of “THE PARSON:"
A good man there was of religion,
That first he wrought, and afterwards he taught. The other characters are described in the same simple and unaffected manner.
Our pilgrims having partaken of the good cheer which the host of the Tabard set before them, who is described as “bold of his speech, and wise, and well ytaught,” were thus addressed by him:
Lordings, quoth he, now bearken to the best,
This proposal of the host's was assented to by the whole party, who proceeded on their journey the following morning, escorted by their new companion. They decided the order of the tales by lot, and it fell to the knight to relate the first. Of the knight's tale Dryden thus speaks: “ I prefer in Chaucer, far above his other stories, the noble poem of Palamon and Arcite, which is of the epic kind, and perhaps not much inferior to the Ilias or the Æneis: the story is more pleasing than either of them, the manners as perfect, the diction as poetical, the learning as deep and various, and the disposition full as artful, only it includes a greater length of time, taking up ten years at least.” The story was taken by Chaucer from an old Italian author, for Boccacio refers to it in his seventh Giornata. I think Dryden, in his great zeal to praise his favourite author, has said more than the poem in question will warrant, especially when he talks of the manners being perfect, since Chaucer has strangely enough jumbled together the customs and practices of chivalry with the times and persons of remote antiquity. However, it is certainly a proof of the great and intrinsic excellence of the poem that we acquiesce in this incongruity, and find ampie amends for it in the interest of the story, and the vivid coloring of the poetry.
The Knight having finished his tale, the Miller, the Reve, the Cook, the Man of Law, the Squire, the Merchant, and the rest of the party in turn, each relates a story. The prologue prefixed to each contains the observations of the company on the preceding narrative, many of which are highly descriptive of the manners and the temper of the times. The friar having inveighed against the bribery and corruption of the spiritual courts, the somphour retaliated very severely on the friar, by relating in his tale an instance of their fraud and hypocrisy. After the prioress had related her story of the murder of a christian child by the Jews, who, notwithstanding its throat had been cut, sang, to the amazement of the beholders, “ both loude and clere," it came to Chaucer's turn to tell his story.
When said was this miracle, every man
Fot ever on the ground I see thee stare.
Chaucer then begins to relate “The Rime of Sir Thopas," in a metre and style quite different from the rest, as if he was not the author, but merely the reporter of the tales. This story, however, does not at all please “mine host," who interrupts Chaucer, after he had related about two hundred lines
“No more of this, for God his dignity,”
Chaucer accordingly obeys, and tells his story in “plain, simple prose.” The parson, whose turn was last, excuses himself from telling a story, but offers to give them an exhortation, as more suitable to the gravity of his character. This is agreed to on the part of the company, and with his discourse the tales finish, for we are not informed what befel the company on their arrival at Canterbury, nor whether they journeyed home together.
THE FRENCH MISER. AVARICE of all other passions is the least to be accounted for, as it precludes the miser from all pleasure except that of hoarding; the prodigal, the gamester, the ambitious, having something to
lead by way of palliation for their inordinate affections to their respective objects and pursuits; but the miser gratifies his passion at the expense of every conveniency, indulgence, or even necessary of life. He is aptly compared to a magpie, who hides gold which he can make no use of.
M. Vandille was the most remarkable man in Paris, both on account of his immense riches and his extreme avarice. He lodged as high up as the roof would admit him, to avoid noise or visits; maintained one poor old woman to attend him in his garret, allowing her only seven sous per week, or a penny per diem. His usual diet was bread and milk, and, for indulgence, some sour wine on Sunday; on which day he constantly gave one farthing to the poor, being one shilling and a penny per annum, which he cast up; and, after his death, his extensive charity amounted to forty-three shillings and four pence. This prudent economist had been a magistrate, or officer, at Boulogne; from which obscurity he was promoted to Paris, for the reputation of his wealth, which he lent upon undeniable security to the public funds, not caring to trust individuals with his life and soul. While a magistrate at Boulogne, he maintained himself by taking upon him to be milktaster-general at the market, and went from one to another washing down his bread at no expense of his own, not doubtless from any other principle than that of serving the public in regulating the goodness of milk. When he had a call to Paris, knowing that stage vehicles are expensive, he determined to go thither on foot; and to avoid being robbed, he took care to export with himself neither more nor less than the considerable sum of three pence sterling, to carry him one hundred and thirty miles; and with the greater facility to execute his plan of operation, he went in the quality of a poor priest or mendicant, and no doubt gathered some few pence on the road from such pious and well disposed persons who were strangers to him.
The great value a miser annexes to a farthing will make us less surprised at the infinite attachment he must have to a guinea, of which it is the seed, growing by gentle gradations into pence, shillings, pounds, thousands and ten thousands, which made this worthy connoisseur to say Take care of the farthings, and the pence and shillings will take care of themselves; these semina of wealth may be compared to seconds of time, which generate years, centuries, and even eternity itself.
When he became extensively rich, being in the year 1735 worth seven or eight hundred thousand pounds, which he begot or mulVOL. IV.