« PreviousContinue »
their respective times, both have contrived to embody the realities they had witnessed in the persons and transactions they have feigned, and to render the knowledge, derived from the secondary sources of written and traditionary science, subservient to the more efficient and authentic intelligence derived from actual intercourse with their species. One delighted, indeed, in the contentions of camps and councils, the din of arms and strife of the dusty field; the other was most at home in the mingled intercourses of familiar life~its occupations and its pastimes, its humours, passions, absurdities; its squabbling garrulities, and ludicrous intrigues. One shews us human nature, such as power and public station, and ambition, and all the gigantic passions of the aspiring mind, have a tendency to make it; the other, such as its instincts and propensities render it, under the restriction of more humble or more sordid circumstances ; where ambition becomes dwarfed into petty rivalry, and the same emulous and hostile feelings which might have desolated realms and trampled nations in the dust, vent themselves in breaking a head at cudgel-play, or a scurrilous jest in the conflicts of conversational recrimination. One pictures the splendid atrocities of illustrious homicides, and thrills us with sublime and pathetic descriptions of the miseries entailed on warring nations by a lascivious queen; the other is content to excite our laughter over the ludicrous consequences of a clerk of Oxenford's intrigue with the light-heeled spouse of a sely old carpenter; or the pleasant vengeance of a brace of
poor scholars on the crafty miller, who had robbed them of a part of their grain. But the characters of Homer in the highly imaginative adventures of the Odyssey, and the equally imaginative conflicts of the Iliad, and those of Chaucer, whether in the suppositious adventures of the Pilgrims, or the comic stories they relate, bear alike the authentic stamp of nature in every word and circumstance ascribed to them. They are alike, indeed, in every instance, distinct creations of the genius of the respective authors; but endued with appropriate passions, habitudes, and characteristics, evidently derived from the co-existing realities of human life and incident. They were fitted, therefore, alike to be the great exemplars, one of the tragic, the other of the comic drama, in their respective regions.
It has not, indeed, happened to Chaucer as to Homer, to have his individual characters and incidents consecrated by name and circumstance to the purposes of the stage. But it was he, nevertheless, who first shewed the way how comedy should be constructed, and its characters grouped and diversified ; and his is the storehouse into which some of our best dramatic poets, (Shakspeare among the rest) were in the habit of looking, not only for examples, but for specific materials, and
from which the genuine spirit of English comedy has been drawn.
This dramatic form of writing has indeed sufficient advantages to recommend its adoption to all who have the requisite endowments. It leaves the author at liberty to escape out of his own individualities-to emerge from the egotistical monotony of detailing merely his own sentiments and opinions, and to indulge his imagination without responsibility for every sentiment he may amplify, or every passion he may call into play: It duplicates and multiplies him into a thousand shapes and distinct identities; and gives him the opportunity of adopting the idiom of every vice, as well as every virtue ; of every humour, impulse, and caprice; of the lowest degradations, as well as the most towering sublimities of human passion; and even of the grossest ignorance and fatuity, without taint or humiliation: provided only that in the selection of persons and incidents there be so much discretion, as not to shock the ear of modesty, or trespass beyond the limits of moral decorum.
Chaucer, in his general prologue, has thought fit to claim the full benefit of this dramatic privilege ; and as it may perhaps be thought, that he occasionally stands in need of all the indulgence that can be granted to him, we will let him speak for himself.
Having enumerated and described the several pilgrims or persons of his drama, the poet thus proceeds.
“ But now is time to you for to tell
But first, I pray you, of your courtesy,
knowen all as well as I,
spare altho’ he were his brother; He must as well say one word as another. Christ spake himself full broad, in holy writ, And well ye wot no villany is it;
Eke Plato sayeth, whoso can him read,
The wordes must be cousin to the deed." Chaucer, it will be seen, has thus, in the very outset, put in his plea of indulgence pretty broad; and whether he has, in all respects, or as far as morality is concerned, complied with our premised condition of decorous selection, in the Tales especially which he has put into the mouths of some of his characters, or how far, if now brought to the bar of decorous criticism, he might avail himself of excuse from those changes which have taken place since his time in the fashions of phraseology, which are sometimes mistaken for moral distinctions, it is not necessary at present to discuss. Though perhaps it may not be amiss to observe, by the way, that (however we may admire the delicacy and refinement of the present age in these respects, as far as manners are concerned) it is not always the coarsest language, or even the coarsest incident, that is most injurious. If we look, through surfaces, to latent consequences, we perhaps may find, that “vice” is so far from
losing half its evil by losing all its grossness,” that the gross-
" that soft persuasive art,
The loosest wishes to the chastest heart.*"
“ This drunken Miller spake full soon again,
* The Sentimental Journey of Sterne, for example, is more immoral in its tendencies than his Tristram Shandy. At the gross
incidents of the latter we laugh, and the virgin would blush; and with the laugh and the blush the joke passes away; but the garnished looseness of principle, and refined impurity of the other, steal into the imagination, and endanger the moral principle in proportion as we neither blush nor laugh.
There been full goode wives many one
What should I more say, but this Miller
And eke men should not make ernest of game.”
END OF VOL. IX. PART I.
Vol. IX. Part II.
Art. I.-Britain ; or, a Chorographicall Description of the
most flourishing Kingdomes, England, Scotland, and Ireland, and the Islands adjoining, out of the depth of Antiquitie : leautified with Mappes of the several Shires of England : written first in Lutine by William Camden, Clarencieur King of Arms; translated newly into English by Philemon Holland, Doctor of Physick; finally revised, amended, and enlarged with sundry additions by the said Author. Folio, 1637.
“ I hope” (thus saith the author to the reader) “ it shall be no discredit if I now use again, by way of preface, the same words, with a few more, that I used twenty four years since in the first edition of this work. Abraham Ortelius, the worthy restorer of ancient geography, arriving here in England about thirty four years past, dealt earnestly with me that I would illustrate this isle of Britain, or (as he said) that I would restore antiquity to Britain, and Britain to antiquity; which was, (I understood), that I would renew ancientry, enlighten obscurity, clear doubts, and recall home verity, by way of recovery, which the negligence of writers and credulity of the common sort had in a manner
proscribed and utterly banished from among A painful matter, I assure you, and more than difficult; wherein what toil is to be taken, as no man thinketh, so no man believeth but he who hath made the trial. Nevertheless, how much the difficulty discouraged me from it, so much the glory of my country encouraged me to undertake it. So, while at one and the same time I was fearful to undergo the burthen, and yet desirous to do some service to my country, I found two different affections, fear and boldness, I know not how, conjoined in one. Notwithstanding, by the most gracious direction of the Almighty, taking industry for my consort, I adventured upon it; and, with all my study, care, cogitation, continual meditation, pain, and travail, I employed myself thereunto when I
VOL. IX, PART II.