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may safely pronounce that, notwithstanding the familiar patronage of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, Chaucer would never have held the stations in which we find him placed, if he had not been of what courts and courtiers would have called respectable family: if indeed we could readily believe that, under any circumstances, such familiar patronage would have been accorded by that lofty aspiring prince to the son of a vintner or city tradesman.
His having been successively a student of Cambridge and Oxford would make indeed but little for the question, since Chaucer himself has shewn, and we have abundant evidence from other sources, what classes of people might be included among the “poure clerkes,” or scholars of our universities. To say nothing of Hendy Nicholas, the "younge clerke of Oxenforde,” in his room or loft over the “ Carpentere's” shop, or the “younge poure scholeres of Solere Hall of Cambrege,” with their broad vulgar northern dialect,—the good Parsun, a right “ learned man-a clerke,” is accompanied in the pilgrimage by his brother," a ploughman, who had spread many a fother of dung.”
“ With him ther was a Ploughman, was his brother,
And though in the age of Chaucer, “ ploughman” might be synonimous to“ farmer"-to which class and not to that of mere labourers (who were then in a state of predial slavery or villainage) our pilgrim ploughman evidently belongs,-yet we must go not to our present race of Norfolk farmers, who drink their old port, and go fox-hunting with their landlords in green coats and jockey boots ; but to the worsted-hosed rustics with hobnail shoes, who in the dreary fenns of Lincolnshire, or on the Welsh mountains, still hold their own ploughs and spread the donge with their own hands, if we would form even a remote idea of the rank which the ploughmen farmers of those times held in the scale of society.
This double matriculation of our poet seems, however, to
rest upon no semblance of authority; and we believe, with Mr. Tyrwhitt, that Oxford must be thrown entirely out of calculation. But the manner in which he speaks of himself in The Court of Love, (v.912, &c.)
Philogenet I calld am far and nere,
Of Cambrige clerke,"* may, we think, be regarded as tolerably decisive of his claim upon that university, though it will avail him nothing on the score of hereditary gentility.
But we have, nevertheless, said enough perhaps upon this subject, (notwithstanding Mr. Tyrwhitt's objection of the sim
* The passage being tolerably descriptive of the amatory vein of Chaucer, it may perhaps be acceptable that we should quote it more at large. Our poet pleads his pretensions to the Lady Love: for with Chaucer, love is generally (with something more than classical propriety) a lady
Or Anthony for Cleopatra bright;
“ My destiny, my fate, and hour I bless,
Humble unto your excellence so digne,
Emprint my speech in your memorial, Sadly my princes, salve of all my sore ! And think that for I would becomen thrall, And been your own as I have said before, Ye must of pity cherish more and more Your man ; and tender after his desert, And give him courage for to been export.
The Lady, however, does not seem all at once so readily to acknowledge his acquaintance, and admit his claims.
Truely gramercy, friend, of your good will From you that with your heavenly streames clear And of your proffer in your humble wise ! Ravish mine heart and ghost, and all in fear. But for your service, take and keep it still ; This is the first I write my bill for grace, And where ye say I ought you well cherishe Me think I see some mercy in your face. And of your grief the remedy devise, I know not why: I n'am (am not)acquainted well And what I mean, by gods that all have wrought, With you, ne wot not soothly where ye dwell. My bill that maketh final mention
That ye been lady in mine inward thought
of all mine heart, without offencion, What is your name ? rehearse it here I pray: That I best love, and have since I begun of whence and where, of what condition To draw to court, lo then what might I see That ye been of ? let see come off and say. I yield me here, unto your noblerie. Fain would I know your disposition Ye have put upon your old intention.
And if that I offend, or wilfully, But what ye mean to serve me Ine wote
By pomp of heart, your precept disobey, Save that ye say, ye love me wonder hote. Or doen against your will unskilfully,
Or grieven you for earnest or for play, My name, alas, my heart, why been it straunge ? Correct ye right sharply then I pray me Philogenét I call'd am far and near,
As it is seen unto your womanhede; of Cambridge clerk; that never think to chaunge And rue on me, or else I n'am but dede.
plicity of his escutcheon) to satisfy those readers, who (even in these equalizing days) can discover additional beauties in a poetical composition, when they find a sprig of gentlemanship, or nobility, in the title-page.
That foreign travel had also constituted a part of his education may readily be concluded, without resting much of our confidence upon the authority on which Mr. Speght asserts, that “when he left the university, he travelled through France, and the Low Countries, in order to see the world, and to improve the knowledge which he had acquired from books :” a statement, the confident tone of which is but indifferently supported by the ensuing acknowledgement, that, “ when he went abroad, or at what time he returned, are circumstances not easily to be determined.” As a conjecture, however, his youthful travel into foreign parts, is somewhat more than possible; as it is not likely, that without such previous qualification, he should have been employed by such a Prince as Edward III., in those successive embassies to Genoa, and to the court of Rome, in which we find him engaged.
But whatever were the family or other distinctions of our poet, it is obvious, that he had not passed through life without familiarity with the inferior classes of society. If his connexion with the court had been favourable to that elevation of thought conspicuous in his more epic strains, and to that polish of diction (as compared with that of his cotemporaries) so conspicuous in his descriptive and more imaginative passages, his thorough acquaintance with the language and manners of the lower and intermediate gradations is equally demonstrable. Without such familiarity, it would have been utterly impossible that he should have sketched, with such obvious fidelity, that wide variety of characters grouped together in his Canterbury Tales, and have sustained them throughout with such appropriate colloquy-such truth of nature, and fullness of dramatic effect.
“ It has been truly observed of him," says Dryden, (in the preface to his Fables,) that “ he has taken into the compass of his Canterbury Tales, the various manners and humours, as we now call them, of the whole English nation in his age; not a single character has escaped him. All his pilgrims are severally distinguished from each other, not only in their inclinations, but in their very physiognomies and persons. Baptista Porta could not have described their natures better, than by the marks which the poet gives them. The matter and manner of their tales, and of their telling, are so suited to their different educations, humours, and callings, that each of them would be improper in any other mouth. Even the grave and serious characters are distinguished by their several sorts of gravity; their discourses are such as belong to their age, their calling, and their breeding; such as are becoming of them, and of them only. Some of his persons are
vicious, and some virtuous ; some are unlearned, or, (as Chaucer calls them) lewd, and some learned. Even the ribaldry of the low characters is different; the reeve, the miller, and the cook, are several men, and distinguished from each other, as much as the mincing Lady Prioress, and the broad-speaking gap-toothed Wife of Bath.” have our forefathers and great grandams all before us as they were in Chaucer's days; their general characters are still remaining in mankind, and in England, though they are called by other names than those of monks and friars, of chanons, and lady-abbesses, and nuns; for mankind is ever the same, and nothing lost out of nature, though every thing is altered.”_
But to catch the modifications which times and circumstances, professions and intercourses, produce on general character, we must have mingled in the scenes in which those modifications are exhibited and brought into play.
The succeeding incidents of his life have not been very amply or very authentically stated; and conjecture, in many instances, has been permitted to supply the place of record. But the errors of fanciful biographers have been so far corrected by the “ abstract of historical passages connected with the Life of Chaucer,” subjoined to Mr. Tyrwhitt's “ preface,” that by comparing these with the accounts prefixed to the editions of Speght and Urrey, &c., the reader may be enabled to collect all the information we are ever likely to obtain upon this subject : unless (which is not very probable) any portion of his own memoranda, or correspondence, should yet be extant in the dusty corners of some museum, or library, which accident, or the diligent curiosity of the antiquary, may be destined to bring to light.* The actual revolutions in bis pecuniary circumstances (though the causes of some of them are in dispute) are, however, involved in somewhat less obscurity.
Whatever might have been the circumstances which first introduced bim into the household, and successively recommended him to royal favour, it appears that, in addition to such advantages as he might derive from his situation there, and his respective diplomatic missions, Chaucer had grants, at different times, of certain pensions of twenty and forty marks, &c. amounting, altogether, to between 50 and 601. a year :-no despicable income in those days, as we shall shew hereafter. He received
* If Sir Richard Phillips found, by chance, a genuine portrait of Chaucer, in the lumber loft of an obscure old-fashioned house, in a provincial town or village, why may we not hope for some additional remains of his writings in some mouldy old chest, in some situation equally obscure? Alas! mildew, and moth, and rat, and the destroying hand of ignorance, are more fatal to old, neglected papers than even to the panel and canvass of old pictures.
also from the royal bounty, first, a certain pitcher of wine daily, and afterwards a certain annual pipe of wine : the only pretence, we believe, which is furnished either by record, or remote tradition, for decorating our poet with the imaginary title of Poet Laureat : though Dryden lays such confident claim to him as a predecessor in the laurel-a distinction, real and titular, unknown, we believe, to the court of our heroic Edwards,-however worthy of poetic celebration.
To these pensions were successively added the appointments of comptroller of wools, and of wines in the port of London; clogged, however, with an injunction, not very indicative of the patronizing taste of his royal master, "'that the said Geffrey, write with his own hand his rolls touching the said office, and continually reside there, and do and erecute all things pertaining to the said office, in his own person, and not by substitute.” This is
something like the patronage (though not so meagre of emolu? ment) that took poor Burns
“from the sickle and the plough
To gauge ale-firkins !” Nor shall we wonder that, under these circumstances, Chaucer, notwithstanding his epic vein, sang not of Cressey and of Poictiers. He could have little expectation of an Augustan ear from the sovereign, however magnanimous in the field, who imposed upon the first of poets the mechanical drudgery of writing all the documents, keeping all the accounts, and transacting all the business connected with the importations, &c. of wools, and felts, and wines, in the port of London.
The comptroller of these wares, however, found leisure, it should seem, notwithstanding, to pay his devotions to the muses; and Mr. Tyrwhitt appears to be sufficiently justified in his in-. ference from the following passage, in Ilie House of Fame, (whose merits have been acknowledged and popularised by the paraphrase of Pope,) that this highly imaginative work was written while the poet was in that office.
“ For when thy labour al done is,