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were of the Church, attack that institution. Chaucer was a man of the world, preaching the gospel of joyful living; perhaps somewhat skeptical regarding those matters which theologians and priests might deem essential, but yet broad enough to appreciate the efforts of those who were trying to improve the condition of the sons of men on earth. No one has more sympathetically portrayed the character of the good pastor than Chaucer in his delineation in The Prologue of the parish priest — a passage that does not suffer in comparison with the later portrayal by Goldsmith in The Deserted Village. It is the passage beginning with:
“A good man was ther of religioun
And was a Poure Persoun of a Toun;" And ending with that wonderful touch of genius:
But Cristes loore, and his Apostles twelve,
He taughte, but first he folwed it hym selve." In the last two lines we have the very quintessence of the method which if followed will regenerate the world.
Chaucer's temper is not that of the argumentative reformer; unlike Milton he is not a controversialist; nor is his poetry laden with an antiquated theology. Milton is great in spite of his zeal as a reformer ; Chaucer is great because he portrays the world of men as they are, not as he might think they ought to be. Lowell writes:
“If character may be divined from works, he was a good man, genial, sincere, hearty, temperate of mind, more wise, perhaps, for this world than the next, but thoroughly humane, and friendly with God and men.".
He seems well satisfied with the world as it is, and is pleased to describe it. And yet the very absence of the zeal of the reformer may have helped the reformers.
"But it is a question (writes one critic] if the very absence of the qualities that excite irritation and opposition did not make him more effective in bringing about the results at which the reformers aimed than could have been accomplished by the most impassioned and flaming invectives.”
In this connection a word must be added about a certain
coarseness and vulgarity found in his writings. It must be confessed that Chaucer would have done well never to have written some passages. It is not sufficient excuse to say that coarseness was a characteristic of the age in which he lived, for his apology for his plain-speaking in the prologue of the Canterbury Tales reveals his own consciousness of the fault, or why should he apologize? In excuse it might be said that some of the passages
most offensive to modern taste are nearly literal translations from the treatise of the Christian father" from whom Chaucer got his material. William Dean Howells in his Literary Passions has well said:
“The worst of the literature of past times, before an ethical conscience began to inform it, or the advance of the race compelled it to decency, is that it leaves the mind foul with filthy images and base thoughts. . I wish they were not there, and I hope the time will come when the beast man will be so far subdued and tamed in us that the memory of him in literature shall be left to perish; that what is lewd and ribald in the great poets shall be kept out of such editions as are meant for general reading. ... I do not see why they should not be dropped from literature, as they were long ago dropped from the talk of decent people.”
The Text of Chaucer.- We have no accurate text of Chaucer, for, as in the case of Shakspere, the writer of the poems has not given us a single page of his handwriting. We have about fifty MSS. of the Canterbury Tales, but most of them belong to a period of from twenty to fifty years after Chaucer's death. Even today when author and publisher take great pains to produce a book without a typographical error, a first edition without an error is a rare feat. What must have been the vexations of an author five or six hundred years ago when his MS. passed from copyist to copyist! Sometimes the copyist tried to improve Chaucer's spelling, or his grammar, or his ethics! Anticipating alterations Chaucer occasionally threw out a warning, as in his Troilus and Criseyde:
"And for there is so great diversity
And the same thought appears in the oft-quoted poem addressed to Adam the scrivener:
"Adam Scriveyn, if ever it thee befalle,
But these hopes and prayers of the poet were unavailing. There are many puzzles that defy solution because of the hopeless condition of the texts. Some of these mistakes are due to the wish of the copyist to improve Chaucer, but the most puzzling are undoubtedly due to carelessness. In the Knight's Tale "scratching of cheeks ” was changed to "scratching of chickens.” In the Clerk's Tale occurs
“Not only he but all his country merry
“Hery” is an Anglo-Saxon word meaning praise, but an ignorant copyist changed this to “ for he was hairy.”
Yet the present text is fairly accurate, for many scholars both English and foreign have patiently compared the various MSS. and gathered information from all sources until the reader can feel assured that he has approximately the text of Chaucer. The work of Tyrwhitt, one of the greatest of English scholars, did much to remove the inaccuracies that had accumulated about the name and work of Chaucer. His edition appeared in 1775 in four volumes; a fifth volume with glossary was published in 1778. Since his time many other editions have appeared, notably those of Morris and Skeat. At present Professor Flügel of the University of California is editing under the auspices of the Carnegie Institution what will be the authoritative glossary.
Rank as a Poet. - Although it is possible that Chaucer's historical position as the earliest great English poet may have some unconscious influence in our estimate of his rank, yet it would be wrong to infer that Chaucer does not intrinsically deserve a very high place among the masters of English literature. We may refuse to place him, as does F. J. Furnivall, “second only to Shakspere,” but we cannot refuse him a place among the few who are close to Shakspere.
An adverse critic, the poet Bryant, thinks that Chaucer is lacking in majesty, fire, and conciseness. And Matthew Arnold considers that Chaucer's defect is the absence of "the high and excellent seriousness, which Aristotle assigns as one of the grand virtues of poetry.” But this is merely saying that Chaucer does not belong to the chosen few who, like Shakspere, Dante, and Homer, are the supreme masters in literature.
A more appreciative critic, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, thinks “Chaucer is a king and inherits the earth, and expands his great soul smilingly to embrace his great heritage. Nothing is too high for him to touch with a thought, nothing too low to dower with an affection.” And Mr. Lounsbury, at the conclusion of his great study of this poet, writes:
“I am not claiming for Chaucer that he is one of the few supremest poets of the race. His station is near them, but not of them. Yet, whatever may be the rank we accord him among the writers of the world's chief literatures, the position he holds in his own literature is one that can no longer be shaken by criticism or disturbed by denial. Time has set its final seal upon the verdict of his own age, and the refusal to acknowledge his greatness has now no effect upon the opinion we have of the poet himself, but upon our opinion of those who are unable to appreciate his poetry.”
What are some of the qualities that for more than five hundred years have made Chaucer one of the great and popular poets? In the first place he is an artist. It is puerile to think that Chaucer's versifications and the arrangement of his material into good form are the result of accident. A study of his work shows the steady development of his artistic ability. He studied and labored to subdue his thought to his modes of expression. It was not by chance that he became a master of English versification. He was also a good story-teller. Lowell calls him one of the world's three or four great story-tellers.” He had a keen and loving eye for nature. Writes Mr. J. C. Shairp:
“One associates him with the green lanes and downs of Surrey and Kent, their natural copsewoods and undulating greenery. I know not that the habitual forms of English landscape, those which are most rural and most unchanged, have ever since found a truer poet, one who so brings before the mind the scene and the spirit of it uncolored by any intervention of his own thought or sentiment.”
“ And his favorite season- —it is the May time. Of this he is never tired of singing. When there comes a really springlike day in May, the east wind gone, and the west wind blowing softly, the leaves coming out, and the birds singing, at such a season one feels instinctively this is the Chaucer atmosphere and time. He speaks of the daisy very lovingly. He turns again and again to the same flower, proving that it was a favorite with one poet before either Burns or Wordsworth.”
He also has a comprehensive sympathy with human nature. A broad tolerance of all varieties of human kind enables him to describe with realistic accuracy the pageant of human life as it passes before his kindly but keenly observing eye. He sees both the humor and the pathos of life. But the greatest quality of all, perhaps, the quality that has served as a preservative through these five centuries, is his wholesomeness. In this respect he reminds one of Shakspere and Scott. We feel that these are men whom we could love even more than we admire. Chaucer had learned, as Lowell puts it, that the first business of a poet is to “burn his own smoke.” There is no morbid introspection in him. To Chaucer the world was fresh and fair in its wholesome beauty; men and women were God's creatures who had inherited this wonderful world. With his healthy nature he looked out upon the world of beauty and action, where crime and catastrophe and sorrow were but interludes in the great game of life, and said, “It is good to be here."
“He listeneth to the lark Whose song comes with the sunshine through the dark
Of painted glass in leaden lattice bound;
He listeneth and he laugheth at the sound,