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doth appere. Cum privilegio ad imprimendum solum. Printed by Wyllyam Bonham, dwellyng at the syne of the Kynges Armes, in Paul's Church Yarde, 1542. Fol. b. 1.
The Workes of our Antient and Learned English Poet, Geffray
The Canterbury Tales of Chaucer. To which are added, An Essay on his Language and Versification, and an Introductory Discourse, together with a Glossary. By the late Thomas Tyrwhitt, Esq. F.R.S. The second edition: Oxford, at the Clarendon Press, 1798. 2 vols. 4to.
There are few circumstances connected with the present taste for literature, more creditable than the frequent recurrence that is made to the works of those elder wits, with whom the frame and energies of our language may be said to have originated: who conduct us to the well-head and fountains of our composite dialect, and by shewing the sources and primal usages of our speech, give us an accurate and distinctive perception of the significance of its terms and idioms. Researches of this kind. in every language, and particularly in languages which have passed through such mutations as ours, appear to be indispensable, not only to the attainment of that pregnant conciseness, imaginative at once and definite, which is the highest accomplishment of literary composition, but to the preservation of that standard purity of phrase and idiom, which the arbitrary affectations of fashion and the influence of foreign intercourse have a perpetual tendency to disturb.
It is true, that a taste for this kind of literature may be carried to excess. Imitation may be substituted for research; and instead of tracing derivatives, we may look for models. The rust of antiquity may be mistaken for its ore; and age may monopolise the veneration, which can only belong to merit. By those who are infected by a mere rage for the obsolete, neither the language nor the ideas of succeeding generations are likely to be benefited. Instead of preserving from unmerited disuse what was nervous, consonant, and expressive, they would intrude again what, as crude and incongruous, has been deservedly dismissed for more comprehensive terms, and
more harmonious constructions.
Not satisfied with the correction of modern fopperies, they would strip us bare to the necessities of our forefathers; without recollecting that what was simplicity in them, might be quaintness and affectation in us. We should know the past, that we may make the best of the present, and avail ourselves of the wisdom, not assume the ignorance, of former times. Even in the best wisdom of our ancestors, every thing may not be fitting for their posterity. We were born in the midst of modern associations, and therefore can never be ancients. In order to write like our forefathers, we must learn to think and feel as our forefathers felt and thought; and must re-adopt their opinions, their prejudices, and their modes of life, before we can resort again to the peculiarities of their phraseology, or the modes and combinations of their ideas.
This is no reason, however, why the treasures of their wit should not be among the objects of our study and research: why we should not preserve the memory of what is estimable in their remains, and restore what has been unwisely neglected. Even their obscurities may occasionally throw additional light upon what in present usage is but loosely understood; and they have their points of brilliant light, which ought not to be lost from the intellectual horizon. They are the beacons and landmarks of our language, to which our eyes should occasionally be turned, to prevent us from floating too far on the sea of innovation and it should never be forgotten, that the more fixed and permanent the standard of any language can be rendered, the richer is the bank of accumulated knowledge: for the wisdom that is preserved in a language that is obsolete, is a treasure buried in the earth, which we know not where to delve for.
In treasures of this description, the neglected glebe of Chaucer is particularly affluent-treasures both of instruction and delight. As a fabulist and a poet, Dryden gives him the decided preference over Ovid: though Dryden, as we shall hereafter shew, was not capable of appreciating all his beauties. But there are other reasons for recommending him to the attention of the English student.
To the philologist, he is a classic of the first order: for he is pre-eminently the most conspicuous of the makers and methodizers of the language: the first who taught it to flow in expressive harmony, and gave to it consistency and energy. Not that he invented and introduced a verbiage and idiom of his own, or compounded, as some have supposed, a melange of imported phraseology; but because, (as will be obvious to those who consult his contemporaries, Lydgate, Gower, Hocleve, Scogan, &c.) he selected and methodised from the unsettled idioms then in use, what was fittest and most congruous, and gave consist
ence and solidity to that foundation, upon which the polished structure of our present language has gradually risen.
Even in point of rhythmical harmony, the obligations of our language to Chaucer are not less decisive than in phraseology and structure and we shall endeavour to shew hereafter, that in his versification are to be found, not only the less rigid models of our present septasyllabic and octosyllabic measures, but the exemplars also, which Spenser has acknowledged, and of which Milton has availed himself, of that heroic metre, to which the former gave so much sweetness, and the latter such majestic sublimity; and to which Pope has imparted all the elaborate terseness of polished uniformity :-of that metre, in fact, which has now become the established national hexameter of our poesy, and the constant vehicle of our graver and more stately modes of composition.
But it is not only to the philologist and the prosodist that the memory of Chaucer should be dear. He has other claims upon our admiration and gratitude, or he could never have had these. The language and idiom of an author, however erudite, can never become popular, nor his versification, however elaborate, a model of general imitation, but from the merit or the fascination of his ideas. It is the soul within that must give vital expression and influence to exterior form; and the most beautiful mechanism of period or stanza, if only applied to the drawlings of inanity, could but share in the oblivious slumber they would facilitate. That Chaucer had the soul, as well as the voice of poesy, is sufficiently evinced in the admiration he has excited in those who were neither familiar with his language, nor in possession of the clue that would unravel the harmony of his numbers: nay, who could not, from the defective transcripts they consulted, or by their mode of pronunciation, make out even the numerical proportion of his feet, or his syllables.* "His style," at any rate, notwithstanding the charm which undoubtedly it had in his own day for ears familiar with the ac
We refer, in this observation, to Dryden in particular, who, emphatic as he is in his admiration in other respects, seems to deny to our author all pretensions to rhythmical proportion and harmony, partly from the circumstance of his researches not having brought him sufficiently acquainted with that fulness of vowel-ative pronunciation, especially in the terminative syllables, which was the usage of our ancestors, even almost to the extent in which is still preserved by the Italians; but still more from his having consulted the more modern, but degenerated edition of Speght, instead of ascending to the impression edited by Thynne, (or the transcript from that, if such it be) in
cents and quantities he made use of, cannot now be considered (as a paradoxical critic has considered that of Virgil) "as the pickle that preserves his mummy from corruption." The imperishability of his works must be evidently ascribed to some thing more inherent, to that superiority of poetical and intellectual merit-that pregnancy of thought and brilliant versatility of genius which, commanding the admiration of his contemporaries, gave currency to his idioms, and rendered his rythmical arrangements the models of succeeding generations.
The history of the progress of English versification (if this were a proper place to enter upon such a subject) would place this suggestion beyond the pale of controversy. It would be seen how the successive experiments of inferior, though far from despicable writers had their day and perished; while the heroic and octo-syllabic measures of Chaucer still continue to be the models of our serious and our familiar versification.
But it is not merely in a literary point of view, as works of
1532. An observation which will be sufficiently illustrated in the following parallel columns: especially if it be remembered that the e final, when followed by a consonant, is always to be pronounced as a syllable.
Prologue, v. 726 to v. 744. Edit. 1532.
But firste I pray you, of your curtesy,
The MSS. consulted by Mr. Tyrwhitt give the line thus:
"For this ye knowen al so wel as I."-Tyrwhitt.
"Who so shal telle," &c.-Tyr.
The same Passage, as quoted by Dryden, from Edit. 1598.
But first, I pray you of your courtesy,
Eke Plato saith, who so can him rede,
That Mr. Dryden ascended not to MS. collation for the purest text of his author, is scarcely to be imputed to him as a fault. But it is too much, to make the poet responsible in his reputation for all the errors of ignorant transcribers, and all the fantastical innovations of successive editors, and the accumulating blunders of the press.
amusement and effusions of a poetical imagination, that the writings of Chaucer are entitled to particular attention. They are pregnant with instruction of a higher order. They are an essential portion of the authentic history of his country; not of its sieges, its battles, and its revolutions-like The Pharsalia of Lucan, or The Civil Wars of Daniel; or of the successions of names and dates, the installations, and the demises of kings and bishops, like our old monkish chronicles !-but of the history of the national mind. It is something to know even the tastes of former ages,-for taste has an inseparable connection with the state of morals and of intellect, and the general condition of society; and, in this point of view, even the wildest and most extravagant romance of antiquity may be read with some degree of profit, if we have any means of ascertaining its degree of popularity in the age to which it is ascribed. But certainly the works of Chaucer, his Canterbury Tales in particular, minister to our information, in a more unequivocal way, and on a much more extensive scale. They bring the genuine picture of society alive and breathing before us. We mingle with our long-buried ancestors, as though they were cotemporary with us-converse with them, listen to them, enter into their humours and their habits; and become as familiar with the moral, the intellectual, and the social state of the community of those times, as though the living drama, with all its actual incidents, had passed in review before us. This is an essential and an edifying part of history, that of the progress and revolutions of the social mind: a portion of history in which the generality of us have, in reality, a more vital interest, than in the changes of dynasties and the revolutions of empires.
In this point of view, indeed, works of imagination, when its higher attributes are employed upon local scenes and cotemporary subjects, are frequently more instructive than the most elaborate pages of history. The latter affect to perpetuate the actions of potentates and the exploits of heroes; though the authors of those panegyrics cannot but know how perpetually the record must be falsified; since those who are most interested in disguising the truth, have also most the means, and have the passions, the prejudices, and the vanity of their cotemporaries generally on their side, to assist them in the imposition : and he must have passed through the world with unobservant eyes, or had few opportunities of reading the narrative of any transaction "all of which he saw, and part of which he was,' who has not been induced to reflect how wide the difference is apt to be, between the doings that have actually been done, and the deeds that are to be recorded to posterity. But the imaginative historian, who adorns his record with names of his own creation, and selects the character he assigns to his imaginary
VOL. IX. PART I.