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At nighte was come into that hostelrie
Although written nearly five centuries ago, this work, notwithstanding its obsoleteness of style, has never been more popular among scholars than it is at this time. There is, indeed, to us of the present day, a charm in its very antiquity, as Campbell remarks,—“something picturesque in it,—like the moss and ivy on some majestic ruin.”
This noble production of the early English muse, which was probably suggested by the Decameron of Boccaccio, supposes a company to have convened at the Tabard,' Southwark, where they are entertained by the host, on the evening prior to their commencing pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Thomas à Becket, at Canterbury Cathedral ; and that these “nine and twenty sondry folk,” by way of beguiling time, agree amongst themselves to contribute each a tale for the entertainment of the company. The old “hostelrie,” or rather part of it, is yet extant, under the name of “ The Talbot;” where may be seen a sign-post bearing the inscription,—“This is the Inne where Sir Geoffrey Chaucer and the twenty-nine pilgrims lodged in their journey to Canterbury, anno 1383." Chaucer was given to the world in the year 1328; and he wrote his Canterbury Tales in the full maturity of his genius, when he had passed his sixtieth year. He was undoubtedly a laborious student, for, according to his own confession, he preferred* reading to every other amusement, with the exception of “a morning walke in Maytide.” He was fond of retirement, temperate in diet, “rose with the larke and lay
1 Tabard, a sleeveless coat, worn by nobles in early times, now by herald; only.
down with the lambe.” He seems to have surrendered himself to the inspiring influences of nature, and to have revelled, as at a festival, amid birds and flowers : hence the rich arabesque character of his poetry, and the marvellous freshness and bloom of his pastoral pictures : witness the following :
The busy larke, the messenger of day,
Chaucer is said to have been one of the handsomest personages attached to the gallant court of the Plantagenets. As a court ecclesiastic he became involved in the controversies of his times, having espoused the doctrines of Wicliff; and he was, for a season, obliged to leave his native land. He afterwards returned, married Philippa, sister of the renowned John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and closed his career in the year 1400. His tomb is one of the earliest of the illustrious dead in Poets' Corner, Westminster Abbey.
Now let us bear him company in one of his morning rambles in “ Maytide,” and mark how observant he is of all that is delicious to soul and sense :
And that the foures of many divers hewe,
Here is that most charming of descriptions and pictures, Emelie in the Garden :
Thus passeth yere by yere, and day by day,
The great charm of Chaucer consists in his simplicity of detail, combined with dramatic effect, and his love of rural sights and sounds. We find the following estimate of his genius in the British Quarterly Review :-“He is, perhaps, the most picturesque poet we possess : his paintings are fresh, glittering and off-hand, done to the life. His love of nature resembles an intoxication of spirit: his sketches are bright with perpetual sunshine,—his Aowers are always in bloom, fragrant with odoriferous perfumes, and gemmed with sparkling dew-drops. From mere narrative and playful humor, up to the heights of imaginative and impassioned song, his genius has exercised itself in nearly all styles of poetry, and won imperishable laurels in all.” Need we wonder, then, that Coleridge, like many others in the line of the Muses' priesthood, took such especial delight in poring over his beautiful living pictures and vivid sketches of character? We might, indeed, rather marvel, with another noted poet, that the bard should have seen so distinctly in that gray, misty morning of literature, and that his landscapes should still look green in the very dews of Spring. Tennyson beautifully styles him
The first warbler, whose sweet breath
Preluded those melodious bursts, that fill
Campbell, with all a poet's appreciation, has thus beautifully expressed our obligations to the great pioneer poet :
Chaucer ! our Helicon's first fountain-stream,
Our morning Star of song, that led the way
Of Spenser's lights and Shakspeare's perfect day.
Old England's fathers live in Chaucer's lay,
Their likeness with a spirit of life so gay,
The evils of the protracted civil war in England, prevented not only the progress of literature, but even prostrated its very existence for upwards of a century after the death of Chaucer. With the exceptions of Gower, Wyatt, Raleigh, and Surrey, we meet with no great poet till the age of Spenser. The brilliant character of the EARL OF SURREY,—both as to his military career and scholastic attainments, as well as his sad end, -alike endear him to memory. His celebrated poem, written during his unjust imprisonment at Windsor, is universally admired; and some of his sonnets are no less beautiful. Here is one :
The sootè seson, that bud and bloom forth brings,
With green hath clad the hill, and eke the vale ;
The turtle to her make hath told her tale.
The hart hath hung his old head on the pale ;
The buck in brake his winter coat he Aings ;
The fishes Aete, with new repaired scale ;
The swift swallow pursueth the flies smale ;
Winter is worn that was the Aowers' bale.
Of Sir Philip Sidney, it has been said, that his literary renown rests more upon his prose than his verse; Cowper indeed refers to him as “ warbler of poetic prose ;”—yet he has his eminent place