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THE English have invented a mode of writing biography, which probably never entered even the dreams of Plutarch, and which is a perfect anomaly to the simple barbarians on this side of the Atlantic. It is well known, that we are never weary of reading any thing connected with such names as Chaucer and Shakespeare; and that few persons will fail to purchase a book, which professes, in the titlepage, to throw new light upon the characters of men, to whom we daily pay the homage of our admiration. Now, a man's character is influenced, directly or remotely, by every thing, which existed, at the time when he flourished. The genius of the government, the state of learning and religion, the systems of education, cotemporary games, sports, and diversions of every sort,-even the condition of a man's birth-place, and the scenery of the neighbourhood,-must have some effect in forming his habits, and modifying his faculties. If, therefore, you should find it convenient or necessary to write two immense quartos, which would command a good price and a ready market, avail yourself of some name, that will communicate a charm to whatever is said concerning it; and, professing to write the Life of such an author, fill your pages with a history of every thing, which, by the most distant association, can be shown to have some reference to your title-page.

The invention of this device is, we believe, unquestionably due to Mr. William Godwin; who, although the authentic particulars of Chaucer's biography may be included in a few sentences, has written two thick volumes, in quarto, under the attractive title of his Life.* To some it may be difficult to conceive, how so vast a pile could be erected upon such narrow foundations; but this achievement appears to be nothing to Mr. Godwin; and, had it not been for the merciful interference of the bookseller, we might have had twenty volumes instead of two.

'I had advanced as far as the middle of the second volume, when I saw my materials growing under my hand, and became sensible, that, if they were fully treated, the work would extend beyond the dimensions originally prescribed to it. But, if I, enamoured of my subject, might have thought no number of pages or of volumes too much for its development, it was by no means impossible, that purchasers and readers would think otherwise. My bookseller, who is professionally conversant with matters of this sort, assured me, that two volumes in quarto were as much as the public would allow the title of my book to authorise.'t

Perhaps the reader will acquire a better idea of Mr. Godwin's book, and of the mode in which such books are compiled, if we copy the heads of a few initial chapters.


Birth of Chaucer.-Description of London in the fourteenth century.


Education of Chaucer.-State of Learning in England under the Norman and Plantagenet Princes.

London, 1803.

+ Pref. p. 23.


School-boy Amusements of Chaucer.-Romance.Growth and Intimate Connection of the Feudal System, of Chivalry, and Romance.


Practices of the Church of England in the fourteenth century.


Diversions of the fourteenth century, &c.


Same subject continued.-Stage.-Pageants, &c.


Same subject continued, &c.


Architecture of the fourteenth century, &c.


Sculpture, Painting, &c. of the fourteenth century.

Upon this plan, Mr. Godwin writes upwards of two hundred pages; and, finding himself to have wandered, he knows not whither, he concludes upon a 'recapitulation,' and informs us, by an adjustment of courses and distances, how much real progress he has made in the narrative. From this summary, the reader may form a conception of the work at large. Having stated a fact, the author observes, that 'it is fraught with various inferences;' and then we are entertained with a series of speculations founded upon the remotest probabilities, and the most idle conjectures.

'It was the good fortune of Chaucer,' we are told, 'that he led the early years of his life in scenes of concourse and variety, that he was condemned to no premature and compulsory solitude, and that his mind was not suffered to vegetate in that indolence and vacuity, which, when they occupy an extensive portion of human life, are so destructive and deadly to the intellectual powers. He was born in London. In the midst of this famous and flourishing metropolis, he was, as he expresses it, 'forth growen.' His father was probably a merchant; and Chaucer was furnished, from his earliest hours of observation, with an opportunity of remarking upon the insensible growth of that new rank of men, the burgesses, which about this time gave a new face to the political constitutions of Europe. Private and domestic education had scarcely any where been heard of; and Chaucer in all probability frequented some of those populous and tumultuary schools so circumstantially described by William Fitzstephen. Here his mind was excited by example, and stimulated by rivalship; he passed much of his time in the society of his equals, observed their passions, and acted and was acted upon in turn by their sentiments and pursuits. When he had finished his classes here, he was removed to Cambridge, where six thousand fellow students waited to receive him. He had no difficulty in finding solitude when his inclination prompted him to seek it, and we may be certain that a mind which relished so exquisitely the beauties of nature, sought it often; but he was never palled with it. The effect of both these circumstances is conspicuous in his writings. He is fond of allegories and reveries; for oft the poet,

-brush'd with hasty step the dews away, To meet the sun;'

and he is the poet of manners, because he frequented the haunts of men, and was acquainted with his species in all their varieties of modification.**

The only thing new, which Mr. Godwin can boast of having produced, is the deposition of Chaucer in a case of chivalry, between Sir Richard Grosvenour and Sir Richard Le Scrope. It is dated, Oct. 12, 1386; and, in the beginning, states Chaucer to be of the age of forty years and upwards, and to have borne arms twenty-seven years. Upon the tombstone of the author, he is said to have died in 1400, aged 72; and it has, therefore, been common to date his birth in 1328. But, by subtracting 40, the age mentioned in the deposition, from 1386, the date of that instrument, we have 1346, as the time of his birth. This difference occasions much perplexity and labour to Mr. Godwin; and he devotes a separate treatise, at the commencement of his first volume, to the investigation of the real time, when his author was born. After many surmises and reasonings, objections and replies, he finally satisfies himself, that the common account is correct, and that some error has slid into his deposition. Mr. Godwin is a contemner of all courts; and may, therefore, be excused for a total ignorance of legal proceedings: but, with a little enquiry of proper persons, he might have ascertained, that, in taking depositions, the precise age of the witness is never material, if he be only twentyone; and that, whatever may be the real number of years, he is stated, at random, to be twenty-five, thirty, or forty, and upwards.

Jeffery, or Geoffrey, Chaucer, it may, therefore, be stated, was born in 1328; and, according to his Testament of Love, London was the place of his 'kindly engendure.' The antiquity of his name, and the rank of his family, have been the subject

*Vol. i. p. 203.

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