Open main menu
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
15
Chaucer

Machault's Le Dit du lion, has perished altogether. The strength of French influence on Chaucer's early work may, however, be amply illustrated from the first of his poems with which we are on sure ground, the Book of the Duchesse, or, as it is alternatively called, the Deth of Blaunche. Here not only are individual passages closely imitated from Machault and Froissart, but the dream, the May morning, and the whole machinery of the poem are taken over from contemporary French conventions. But even at this stage Chaucer could prove his right to borrow by the skill with which he makes his materials serve his own purpose, and some of the lines in the Deth of Blaunche are among the most tender and charming he ever wrote.

Chaucer's A.B.C., a poem in honour of the Blessed Virgin, of which the stanzas begin with the successive letters of the alphabet, is another early example of French influence. It is taken from the Pèlerinage de la vie humaine, written by Guillaume de Deguilleville about 1330. The occurrence of some magnificent lines in Chaucer's version, combined with evidence that he did not yet possess the skill to translate at all literally as soon as rhymes had to be considered, accounts for this poem having been dated sometimes earlier than the Book of the Duchesse, and sometimes several years later. With it is usually moved up and down, though it should surely be placed in the 'seventies, the Compleyut to Pity, a fine poem which yet, from its slight obscurity and absence of Chaucer's usual ease, may very well some day prove to be a translation from the French.

While Chaucer thus sought to reproduce both the matter and the style of French poetry in England, he found other materials in popular Latin books. Among his lost works are renderings of "Origenes upon the Maudeleyne," and of Pope Innocent III. on "The Wreced Engendring of Mankinde" (De miseria conditionis humanae). He must have begun his attempts at straightforward narrative with the Lyf of Seynt Cecyle (the weakest of all his works, the second Nun's Tale in the Canterbury series) from the Legenda Aurea of Jacobus de Voragine, and the story of the patience of Grisilde, taken from Petrarch's Latin version of a tale by Boccaccio. In both of these he condenses a little, but ventures on very few changes, though he lets his readers see his impatience with his originals. In his story of Constance (afterwards ascribed to the Man of Law), taken from the Anglo-Norman chronicle of Nicholas Trivet, written about 1334, we find him struggling to put some substance into another weak tale, but still without the courage to remedy its radical faults, though here, as with Grisilde, he does as much for his heroine as the conventional exaltation of one virtue at a time permitted. It is possible that other tales which now stand in the Canterbury series were written originally at this period. What is certain is that at some time in the 'seventies three or four Italian poems passed into Chaucer's possession, and that he set to work busily to make use of them. One of the most interesting of the poems reclaimed for him by Professor Skeat is a fragmentary "Compleynt," part of which is written in terza rima. While he thus experimented with the metre of the Divina Commedia, he made his first attempt to use the material provided by Boccaccio's Teseide in another fragment of great interest, that of Quene Anelida and Fals Arcyte. More than a third of this is taken up with another, and quite successful, metrical experiment in Anelida's "compleynt," but in the introduction of Anelida herself Chaucer made the first of his three unsuccessful efforts to construct a plot for an important poem out of his own head, and the fragment which begins so well breaks off abruptly at line 357.

For a time the Teseide seems to have been laid aside, and it was perhaps at this moment, in despondency at his failure, that Chaucer wrote his most important prose work, the translation of the De Consolatione Philosophiae of Boethius. Reminiscences of this helped to enrich many of his subsequent poems, and inspired five of his shorter pieces (The Former Age, Fortune, Truth, Gentilesse and Lak of Stedfastnesse), but the translation itself was only a partial success. To borrow his own phrase, his "Englysh was insufficient" to reproduce such difficult Latin. The translation is often barely intelligible without the original, and it is only here and there that it flows with any ease or rhythm.

If Chaucer felt this himself he must have been speedily con-sold by achieving in Troilus and Criseyde his greatest artistic triumph. Warned by his failure in Anelida and Arcyte, he was content this time to take his plot unaltered from the Filostrato, and to follow Boccaccio step by step through the poem. But he did not follow him as a mere translator. He had done his duty manfully for the saints "of other holinesse" in Cecyle, Grisilde and Constance, whom he was forbidden by the rules of the game to clothe with complete flesh and blood. In this great love-story there were no such restrictions, and the characters which Boccaccio's treatment left thin and conventional became in Chaucer's hands convincingly human. No other English poem is so instinct with the glory and tragedy of youth, and in the details of the story Chaucer's gifts of vivid colouring, of humour and pity, are all at their highest.

An unfortunate theory that the reference in the Legende of Good Women to "al the love of Palamon and Arcyte" is to a hypothetical poem in seven-line stanzas on this theme, which Chaucer is imagined, when he came to plan the Canterbury Tales, to have suppressed in favour of a new version in heroic couplets, has obscured the close connexion in temper and power between what we know as the "Knight's Tale" and the Troilus. The poem may have been more or less extensively revised before, with admirable fitness, it was assigned to the Knight, but that its main composition can be separated by several years from that of Troilus is aesthetically incredible. Chaucer's art here again is at its highest. He takes the plot of Boccaccio's Teseide, but only as much of it as he wants, and what he takes he heightens and humanizes with the same skill which he had shown in trans-forming the Filostrato. Of the individual characters Theseus himself, the arbiter of the plot, is most notably developed; Emilie and her two lovers receive just as much individuality as they will bear without disturbing the atmosphere of romance. The whole story is pulled together and made more rapid and effective. A comparison of almost any scene as told by the two poets suffices to show Chaucer's immense superiority. At some subsequent period the "Squire's Tale" of Cambuscan, the fair Canacee and the Horse of Brass, was gallantly begun in something of the same key, but Chaucer took for it more materials than he could use, and for lack of the help of a leader like Boccaccio he was obliged to leave the story, in Milton's phrase, "half-told," though the fragment written certainly takes us very much less than half-way.

Meanwhile, in connexion (as is reasonably believed) with the betrothal or marriage of Anne of Bohemia to Richard II. (i.e. about 1381-1382), Chaucer had brought to a successful completion the Parlement of Foules, a charming sketch of 699 lines, in which the other birds, on Saint Valentine's day, counsel the "Formel Egle" on her choice of a mate. His success here, as in the case of the Deth of Blaunche the Duchesse, was due to the absence of any need for a climax; and though the materials which he borrowed were mainly Latin (with some help from passages of the Teseide not fully needed for Palamon and Arcyte) his method of handling them would have been quite approved by his friends among the French poets. A more ambitious venture, the Hous of Fame, in which Chaucer imagines himself borne aloft by an eagle to Fame's temple, describes what he sees and hears there, and then breaks off in apparent inability to get home, shows a curious mixture of the poetic ideals of the Roman de la rose and reminiscences of the Divina Commedia.

As the Hous of Fame is most often remembered and quoted for the personal touches and humour of Chaucer's conversation with the eagle, so the most-quoted passages in the Prologue to the Legende of Good Women are those in which Chaucer professes his affection for the daisy, and the attack on his loyalty by Cupid and its defence by Alceste. Recent discoveries have shown, however, that (besides obligations to Machault) some of the touches about the daisy and the controversy between the partisans of the Flower and of the Leaf are snatches from poems by his friends Froissart and Deschamps, which Chaucer takes up