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Divine Comedies, not only of a higher mood in every element of poetry, but interesting as delineations of religious manners, and records of the spectacles previously exhibited in Spanish monasteries.
Of the English Miracle-plays three separate series exist; the Chester, the Townley, and the Coventry. Some of these have been examined by Mr. Collier, and present a curious picture of the habits of our early ancestors. They constituted the popular amusements of the age at all the great festivals of the church. Allusions to them are found in Gower and Chaucer, who describes the Wife of Bath recreating herself with them in Lent.
From Chester, after an interval of more than a hundred years, the Miracle-play obtained admission into the metropolis; and it has been shown that in 1378, the scholars, or choristers of St. Paul's, petitioned Richard the Second to prohibit the representation of the Mystery of the Old Testament; the clergy of that cathedral having devoted a large sum of money to the preparation of plays for the following Christmas. The simple narrative of Scriptural events, or the legend of a saint, as it received the embellishment of allegory, gave birth to the Moral; and in the course of time, as the allegorical character became tinctured with natural feelings and contemporary allusions, the Moral, in its turn, expanded into the tragedy and comedy of real life*. Thus—and the analogy deserves attention—as the cart of Thespis was soon lost in the pomp of the Attic theatre; so the coarse humour and unpicturesque extravagance of the English Mystery, gradually glimmered into that sublime drama which rose with Shakspeare.
Without lingering upon Richard Hampole who flourished in 1349, and who partially paraphrased the Book of Job, and wrote a poem entitled the Pricke of Conscience, we
•Collier's History of Dramatic Poetry, vol.i. p. 17; and Malone's Shakspeare, by Boswell, vol iii. p. 24.
may proceed to that extraordinary composition, the Visions of Pierce Plowman, in which a modern writer discovers the commencement of our poetry.
The reputed author was Robert, or William Langland, a secular priest and fellow of Oriel College: of the place of his birth or the period of his death no information has been obtained; but Dr. Whitaker conjectures him to have been a native of one of the midland counties. Tyrwhitt has ascertained from internal evidence that the Visions were composed in 1362. At that time Chaucer was thirtyfour years old, and although some of his minor works may have been written, the publication of the Canterbury Tales has been assigned to 1381. Whitaker, therefore,, controverting the opinion of Warton, and arguing that the Vision of Pierce Plowman preceded the great poems of Chaucer more than twenty years, claims for Langland, if that be the author's name, the venerable title of the Father of English Poetry*. He has been imitated by Drayton and Spenser; Selden acknowledged the healthy spirit of his invective; Warton calls him an allegorical satirist, abounding in humour, spirit, and fancy, though obscured by harsh versification and obsolete diction; and Ellis regards the Visions as moral and religious discourses, full of piety and good sense; neither deficient in the interest of incident, nor the graces of natural description.
Whitaker, whose opinion, from his diligent study of the author, is entitled to more than common respect, says that his conscience held the torch to his understanding; that his imagination might have supplied subjects to the pencil of Fuseli; and that his eloquence, when inspired by the sacred mysteries of Revelation, frequently rises to the moral dignity of Cowper. A very striking picture of
* See his Introductory Discourse, p. 46. Drayton has introduced into his legend of the Great Cromwel, a passage from the Passus Vicesimus of Plowman's Vision. Collier's Bibliographical Catalogue of Early English Literature in the library of Bridgewater House.
Nature, sending out diseases at the command of Conscience, has been noticed for its resemblance to the description of the Lazar-house, in the eleventh book of Paradise Lost.
Kind Conscience* then heard, and came out of the planets,
And sent forth his forriers f, fevers, and fluxes,
Coughs, and cardiacles t, cramps, and toothaches,
Boils and hlotches, and burning agues,
Phrensies, and foul evil, foragers of Kind!
There was " Harowe! and help! here cometh Kind!
With Death that is dreadful to undo us all."—
Age, the hoar, he was in the van-ward,
And bare the banner before Death ; by right he it claimed.
Kind came after with many keen sores,—
Death came driving after, and all to dust passed,
Kings and kaysers, knights and popes.
Many a lovely lady, and leman of knights,
Swooned, and swelted for sorrow of Death's dints.
The portraiture of Age bearing the banner before Death may be allowed to contest the palm with Milton's sublime representation of Death shaking the dart over the head of the victim.
Immediately a place
Before his eyes appeared, sad, noisome, dark:
Living in the dawn of literature, Langland had not the • Nature. t Foragers. } Cardialgia, Iieart-ach.—Ellis.
benefit of those lights
by which modern authors have
directed their course. The Maeonian star was not yet brought within the scope of poetical vision. He possessed a partial knowledge of French, and was evidently familiar with the Scriptures and the schoolmen. The Visions were especially addressed to the people, and being shaped upon the Anglo-Saxon model, offer a very interesting subject of investigation to the scholar. As a portraiture of manners, they are essentially valuable, both on account of the vigour of the sketches, the truth of their colouring, and the freedom of their application.
In reading the analysis given by Whitaker, it is impossible not to be reminded of that allegory, which, in a later age, a Spenser of the people—an appellation not more■ happy than appropriate—constructed for the delight and edification of the world. The Vision of Pierce Plowman seems to recall the Pilgrim's Progress more freshly than Painter's Pastime of Pleasure, which Mr. Hallam has compared with the story of Bunyan. True Religion, Conscience* Reason, Repentance, are among the characters to whom, so to speak, the dramatic action of the poem is intrusted. The allegory itself is often beautiful and impressive; as in the picture of mankind, summoned by Hope, to unite in the search after Truth, but failing in every effort, until informed that the only path to the Tower of Truth, of which Grace keeps the gate, lies by Meekness and the Ten Commandments. The influence of such a composition upon the popular mind could not fail of being salutary; the coarseness of the descriptions harmonized with the rudeness of the age; and the strictures upon the vices and crimes of the great and powerful, display a remarkable courage and rectitude of intention.
But, though we should admit the priority of Langland, our heart, nevertheless, turns to Chaucer, with those feelings of reverence and affection which he has inspired in every poetic bosom. Coleridge said that he took unceasing delight in his works, and that his hilarity of disposition was especially pleasing to him in his old age.
The author of Pierce Plowman is a shadowy personage, whom it is impossible to bring clearly before our eyes; but Chaucer stands prominently forward in one of the most interesting epochs of our history. Langland, with a vigorous mind and abundant powers of satire, spoke in the harshest language and with the most unmusical voice; Chaucer, with a fancy infinitely richer, and a vein of humour, more keen and brilliant, combined all the learning and accomplishments of the time. Instead of wandering among the Malvern Hills, he mingled in the pageantry of Edward's court, and cultivated his taste by foreign travel, and by intercourse, not only with the most distinguished persons of his age and country, but with the poets and scholars of the South. It would be difficult to imagine a more delightful subject for a picture than the meeting of Petrarch, Boccacio, Froissart, and Chaucer, at the marriage of the daughter of the Duke of Milan.
Sir Philip Sidney marvelled that he should have seen so distinctly in that gray and misty morning of literature. The thoughts, the habits, and the feelings of the fourteenth century are reflected in his verse. If he was not the earliest painter of our manners, he certainly was of our scenery. His landscapes look green in the dews of Spring. Nor does he put in his figures with inferior skill; we see the thirty pilgrims winding out of the Tabard in the Borough. Shakspeare alone enjoyed a wider versatility of genius. The sublimity of Chaucer is brief, vivid, energetic; his simplicity is of nature; his pathos of truth.
Though accommodating himself to the popular spirit, he was not altogether uninfluenced by that graver and more solemn train of thought which the labours of his contemporary Wicliffe subsequently diffused. The Canterbury