1902 Encyclopedia > English Literature > Early English Literature (1350-1477): Langland, Chaucer, Gower

English Literature
(Part 4)


Langland, Chaucer, Gower...

The period at which we have arrived about 120 years, ending at the date of the introduction of printing into England. During all this time the scholastic philosophy reigned undisturbed at the universities. Wickliffe, so far, as his methods of argument and reliance on logic were concerned, was as much a schoolman as the friars who contended with him. The time not yet come when a churchman would be found, like Colet, to decry the scholastic methods, and rarely on literature rather than on logic. Wickliffe’s first attacks upon the established order were directed, not against doctrine, but against the encroachment of the church upon the state, against the holding of temporal "lordship" or authority by ecclesiastical persons, and against the claim asserted by the Pope to receive " Peter’spence," or an equivalent, from the English nation. These views he was said to have borrowed from Marsillius of Padua and John oif Gaudun ; but in truth such Ghilbeline sentiments were so common in France and Germany, as well as Italy, that it is needless, inWickliffe’s case, to attempt to trace them to particular authors. Afterwards he broached some singular abstruse points of metaphysics, which led to "determinations" or treatises being published against him by John Kynigham, a Carmelite, and John Tyssington, a Franciscan. Lastly, he aroused a theological storm, about 1380, by reviving something like the condemned heresy of Berengarius on the mode of the presence of Christ in the sacrament. Replies were written by Wynterton, Wells, Berton, and other. A synod met in London and condemned Wickliffe’s doctrine; he died at Lutterworth soon afterwards. The whole complex controversy which he had stirred up was taken in hand, some years later, by a man of vast ability and learning, Thomas Walden the Carmelite, one of the English theologians who took part in the council of Constance.Walden’s Doctrinale Fidei has been more than once printed on the Continent.

All the writings hirtherto described were in Latin. But Wickliffe, on the principle "Flectere si nequeo superos, Archeronta movebo," resolved to carry the conflict into a more spacious arena, and to appeal to popular sympathy by writing in the language, of the people. He preached and circulated many English sermons; he organized his "pore priestes" as a body of itinerant preachers; assisted by his followers he put into circulations an incredible number of English tracts, directed against abuses in discipline, and what he deemed errors in doctrine. Lastly, he caused to be made a complete English translation of the Vulgate Bible, and himself, in all, probability, took a considerable share in the work. His efforts, seconded by those of his principal adherents, such as Herford, Repington, Purvey, &c., gave rise to the sect of the Lollards, which must have rapidly grown into importance, since it received marked notice in the poetry ( written probably between 1380 and 1390), of both Chaucer and Gower. The famous Act "De heretico comburrendo" of 1410, and the rigid, inquisitorial measures instituted by Archibichop Arundel, and carried on by Chichely, drove Lollardism beneath the surface of society and from the pages of avowed literature. Yet, though repressed, the spirit of discontent survived. Many Lollards were burnt so late as in the first year of Henry VIII, and the rain of pamphlets and ballads against the chirch and the clergy, which burst forth as soon as the king was ascertained to be hostile to them, was a sufficient indication of the paent – up hatred which filled the breasts of thousands.

The career of Pecock, bishop of Chichester, may be regarded as an indicent of Lollardiam. Feeling sore and uneasy under the attacks which men, many of whom are undeniably earnest and moral, making on the clergy and their doings, Pecock wrote in English The Repressor of over-much wytingwe [blaming] of the Clergie. He thought that the time for appealing to authority was gone by, and that the Lollards could only be reconciled to the church by proving that her precepts and her ritual were in themselves reasonable. In short, he made the reason of the individual the judge of the goodness, or otherwise, of what the church did and commanded. On this ground his brother bishop/ps could not follow him; his books were condemned at a synold held in 1457, and he was deposed from his bishopric.

English literature in the full and proper sense, of which we saw the beginnings in the cumbrous alexandrines of Robert of Gloucester, and the more pleasing and successful writings of Manning, asserts itself in this period as a growth of time, destined to have thenceforward an independent being and a powerful; influence. It is interesting to note that two distinct and rival tendencies now make their appearance, which may be described as the Teutonic affinity and the Franco Latin affinity. The sturdiness and self-reliance of the old Saxon blood led may Englishmen to undervalue the culture of the day, which came from the South, and to look lovingly towards the old Teutonic rock from which they were hewn, in the faith that true light and deliverance were to be fund there. Of this tendency Langland is the chief representative in the 14th century. He employs the old rhythm of the Teutonic nations – alliteration; he rejects French models, and studies not French poets; the homely kindly of the English lower and lower middle classes is what he loves to depict; the covetousness and ambition of the foreign ecclesiastics who absorb English prelacies he is never tired of denouncing. The whole body of alliterating poets – and recent investigation has shown that either number was considerable even down to the 16th century, the last known alliterative piece is by Dunbar, - represent, with Langland, this Teutonic affinity. Chaucer, Gower, Lydgate, and the writers who formed themselves upon them, represent the Franmco Latin affinity. Endowed with a more receptive temper and finer perceptions than the men of the opposite school, Chaucer opened his large heart and capacious intelligence to all forms of excellence within his reach; and a man so minded could not fail to see that what had been written in French and Italian for outweighed what had hitherto been written in English or German. Neither could his more cultivated ear fail to prefer the rhyme of the South to the alliteration of the North. "I am a Southron man," he says under the mask of the Persone –

"I cannot geste, rom, ram, ruf, by my letter;"

that is, I cannot write alliterative poems like Langland. Wherever good words were to be had, Chaucer appropriated them, whether their origin were Saxon or Romance; wherever he found a good poem, he imitated it, often bettering the instruction. This veracity of the intellect, this large-mindedness, were the cause that our early literature was laid on broad foundations, and contributed not a little to the many-sided and symphathetic character of our language.

The labours of Tywhitt and Warton, and in our own day of Sandras and Ten – Brink, have laid bare the sources whence the genius of Chaucer drew its materials and derived its kindling suggestions. The old notion that his earliest writings show the influence of the Provenmcal poetry has been abandoned on more accurate inquiry. The Complaynt of the Dethe of Pile, which is among the earliest, if not the earliest, of the extant compositions, is saturated with the French spirit. The great work of his early youth was the translation of the Roman de la Rose of Lorris and Meung, - a poem, be it remembered, not the growth of Normandyn, but of France proper, not the work of trouveres, but of French poets. This transformation and sublimation of the romance of the earlier into the dream and allegory of the Middle Ages, originated by the genius of Lorris was eagerly adopted by Chaucer, most of whose pieces, prior to the great work of his life, the Canterbury Tales,l were cast in the allegorical mould. This is the case with Assembly of Foules, where the gentle "formel eagle" is believed to represent Isabel, daughter of Edward III., betrothed in 1364 to Engelram de Couci, as the formel is in the poem to the "royal tercel." Again the Boke of the Duchesse, on the death of Blanche, duchess of Lancester, in 1369, is, in form, a vision seen in a dream; it is also full of actual borrowings manneries of the French poets, is also present in the Court of Love and the House of Fame, compositions which probably belong to Chaucer’s middle life. Even in the Legende of Goode Women, a work of his later years, many passages, particularly the beautiful lines rehearsing his annual worship of the daisy, are significant of the degree in which his mind was still imbued with the graceful and fanciful conception of the French poets.

But the sunny south produced in that age other poets beside the French, poets the force and melody of whose writings caused the glory of Lords and Machault to wax pae in comparison. Chaucer must have become acquainted with Boccaccio at an early age, for in the Assembly of Foules, written when he was only twenty – four or twenty five, several stanzas are translated from the description, in the Theseide of the Italian poet, of the garden of Queen Nature. With Petrarch he is believed on reasonable grounds to have become acquainted during his visit to Italy in 1373; the charming allusion to the "lauret peote", in the prolongue to the "Clerk’s Tale", is familiar to every reader. Dante, whom he calls "the grete poete of Itaille," supplied him with a vision in the "House of Fame" and with the materials of one of the tragedies in the "Monke’s Tale," the story of Count Ugolino. But it was to Boccacio that his obligations were the largest, from his Filostrato he translated, though with many additions and alteration, his Troylus and Cryseyde; the "Knight’s Tale" is in the main a translation of the Theseider, and two or three other Canterbury Tales are more or less close rendering of stories in the Decamerous. Italian was then in a far more advanced stage, one better suited for literacy purposes, the English; and it must be set down as undoubtedly due to his Italian studies that in Chaucer’s hands our language, which seventy years before had appeared as a barbarous dialect in the mouth of Robert of Gloucester, and, even as used by Langland, Chaucer’s contemporary, is harsh and crabbed, - was proved to be rich in sweetness and harmony, no less than in force.

After all, had Chaucer done no more than has been already indicated, though he would deserved credit for polishing and regularizing the languages, and would have left models of style for later ages to imitate, he would not have earned the praise of a great and immortal poet. In this category, however, he is definitely place, in virtue of the original portions of the Canterbury Tales. Not only is the Prologue the work of a great literacy artist, drawing from nature with an incomparable force, sureness and freedom of hand, but the whole series of linking passages, besides many tales, which, though the materials are old, are transfigured by the treatment they receive, attest the presence of a masterly intellect and an unfailing imagination. He "saw life thoroughly and saw it whole;" his somewhat keen and caustic temper opened his eyes to the tricks of hypocrites and pretenders, which his mainly straightforwardness made him expose without ceremony; on the other hand, the noble and really superior cast of his character placed him min full sympathy with those who in heroic self – denial were following under his eyes the counsels of perfection. Over against the portraits of Monk, Friar, and Pardoner in the Prologue, may be set the legend of Saintee Cecile, the "Man of Lawe’s Tale," and the exquisite opening stanzas of the "Prioress’s Tale." In that peculiar combination of great force of handling with grace and versatility, on which the availability and effect of poetic genius so largely depend, Chaucer may be placed in a trio with Shakespeare and Pope, and no fourth name in English literature can, this point of view, he raised to their level.

Coming to speak of Gower after Chaucer, we descend, as we now clearly see, through an enormous interval; but this distance was not so support to their contemporaries and immediate successors. "Among Gower" was a favourite with Richard II., and was also prudent enough to pay his court betimes to the young Duke of Lancaster, soon to be Henry IV. His Confessio Amantis is coloured by all the profanity and much of the cynicism which belong to Jean de Meung’s portion of the Roman de la Rose. It may be observed, in passing, that the Roman was the product of a kind of minor renaissance, or revival of ancient learning. The Somnium Scipionis of Macrobius gave the dream – form, and Ovid’s Ars Amandi supplied an abundant store of amatory details. From this last, and from others of his poems, the counsels and warnings to lovers, with which the Roman, the Confessio Amantis, and many another popular poem of that day was stocked, were, partly suggestion, partly by direct translation, derived. That the Ars Amandi should come to spread so wide an influence was a fact of no good omen to the morals of Europe. Refinement, even when little more that external, seems to exercise an invincible attraction on the human mind. The wit and suppleness of the Greek intellect, the polished luxury of the Roman empire, dazzled more and more the semi –cultivated society of Europe, and created a paganizing fashion, of which the moral results were often deplorable. Numbers even of ecclesiastics were carried away; bishops prided themselves on their elegant symposia; abbots, "purple as their wines", thumbed Anacreon instead of their breviaries; and in spite of Savonarola and other reformers from within, no effectual check appeared for these evils till it was supplied by the rude blasts of the Reformation.

John Lydgate, the monk of Bury, was a loyal admirer and follower of Chaucer; and if the practice of poetry could make a perfect poet, he should stand, in virtue of his innumerable compositions, among those of the highest rank. But the language, - already rich and various, but unsettled in form and deficient in precedents, - escaped out of his control; to bend and tame it effectually while in such a condition required the strength of an intellectual giant, such as Chaucer was, but Lydgate certainly was not. We know that Chaucer took the greater pains with his metre –

"So praye I to God, that none miswrite thee,
Ne thee mysmetre for defant of tonge:"

but Lydgate, though, to recommend his mediocre thoughts, he should have taken much greater pains, took in fact much less. Perhaps some crude theory of poetic inspiration misled him, as it misleads poets of our own day, whose roughness and obscurity yield as unsatisfactory results as Lydgate’s roughness and mediocrity. The materials for his more important productions were chiefly French and Latin works of his own day, or not much earlier in date. Thus his Falls of Princess is from a French metrical version of Boccaccio’s Latin prose work, De Casibus Illustrations Virorum, and his Troy –book is founded on the Historia Trojana of Guido di Collonna, a Sicilian jurist of the 13th century. Lydgate’s admiration for Chaucer was undoubtedly sincere, and he probably attempted to imitate the best points of Chaicer’s style. If yet to a great extent he failed, this was perhaps due, not merely to the carelessness to which we have before adverted, but also to the influence of the barbarous writers of alliterative verse, whose activity at this period we described in the early part of this section. Alliterative rhythm is accentual, heroic rhythm is syllabic. An alliterative verse may have a varying number of syllables, but must have four accents, but must contain ten, or at most eleven, syllables. Of course the variation in either case is confined within certain limits, and the rules themselves are not without exceptions; but into these details we have space to enter. Suffice it to say, that the reason why there is so much halting metre in Lydgate, Hawes, Barchy, Harding, Juliana Berners, and others versifies of the 15th and 16th centuries, would seem to be that, unlike Chaucer, they indulged in much of the syllabic license of the alliterators, while, while yet they were not Goths enough to adopt their rhythm altogether. Between the Teutonic and Franco – Latin stools, so to speak, they fell to the ground.

A recent writer, to whose labours the history of English literature is much indebted, desiring to mark picturesquely the appearance of an art, which he thought was destined to give the death-blow to mediaeval superstition, has said that "in the year of the condemnation of Reginald Pecock for declaring that all the truth would bear the test of reason and injury, John Fust or Faust and Peter Schoeffer printed a magnificient edition of the Psalter ." This shows how easily an attractive antithesis may become a trap for the unwary. The statement made in the protasis of the above sentence is untrue, and that in the apodosis irrelevant. Pecock was not condemned for " declaring that all truth would bear the test of reason and injury (which of course his opponents believed as well as he), but for maintaining, along with other novel opinions, that reason was a better guide than authority as to the matter of revealed religion. Doubtless many would agree with him, but this is a very different proposition from the other. Nor again was the appearance of Fust’s Psalter an epoch in the history of printing, as the coincidence of dates, to be worth noticing, would require, for it was both preceded and followed by the production of more important work.

Yet it would not be easy to overrate the effect produced by the invention of printing on the development of literature, and the diffusion of those complex influences and arrangements which we call civilization. Language and its devices, as Horne Tooke showed in his Diversions of Purley, exist but to promote the rapid interchange of ideas between man and man; and the device of printing is a further long step in the same march, and a part of five years countries which before they had not reached in twenty, and readers were multiplied a hundred fold. Through it the speculations of scholars and the theories of philosophers could be quickly brought before the whole body of learned men and philosophers in Europe, hence arose counter speculations and adverse theories, which again obtained publicity with the same rapidity as the first, and to this process there was no limit. Poetry, as being one of those more spontaneous growths of the human mind, - the child of passion and imagination, not of controversy, owed comparatively little to the new invention. The literary annals of Spain furnish us with names of more than a hundred poets who adorned the long reign of John II. of Castile, ere printing came into being; while for a century after the discovery, the poetic art was in a feeble and inert condition, both in Spain and England. On the other hand, historical studies of all kinds, since they flourished in proportion to the facilities given of collecting facts and materials, - printing greatly enhanced these facilities, - received a sudden and highly beneficial impulse.

The first book known to have been printed in England is the Dictes and Saying of the Philosophers, a translation form the French; this was printed by Caxton in 1477, within the precints of the abbey of Wewstminster. The monks of St. Alban’s soon up a printing – press in their great monastery; and Oxford and Cambridge quickly followed suit. For fifteen years more Caxton laboured diligently in his vocation, and at his death in 1492 left the art of printing firmly established in England. An examination of the list f works which he printed shows what branches of literature were most in esteem in the English society of his day. Professor Craik enumerates forty – five works, which comprise all Caxton’s more important typographical performances. Of these, thirteen are religious and devotional, twelve are works of romances and chivalry or other prose fiction, seven are historical or legal works, five are English versions of classical authors, five handbooks or didactic works, and three editions of English poets. To the first class belong the Golden Legend (a translation of the collection of lives of saints under that name compiled by Jacobus de Voragine), a Liber Festivalis, or guide to church festivals, a Life of Saint Wynefrid and several pious books translated from the French. Under the second head fall Malory’s English version of the great French prose romances of Arthur, the Ryal Book, a "Troy book" translated from the French of Raoul Le Fevre, the Book of Feats of Arms, and the Historye of Reynard the Foxe, translated from the Flemish. To the historical section belong Trevisa’s version of Higden’s Polychronicon, the Chronicles of England by Fabyan, and the statutes passed in the first year Richard III. Among the classics offered to the English public were versions of the AEneid and of Cicero DeSenctute and De Amicitia, translated from French versions, and Chaucer’s rendering of Boethiu’s De Consolatione Philosophieoe. The handbooks contain the Moral Proverbs of Christine de Pisan, a Boke of Good Manners, a Boke for Travellers, &c. the English poets, editions of parts of whose works were printed by Caxton, were, as was to be expected, Chaucer, Gower, and Lydgate.

In the period ending with 1350, we saw that the plant of English literature, thugh putting out some vigorous offshoots, in the poems of Nicholas of Guildford and Robert Manning, was still struggling with great linguistic difficulties, so that it remained uncertain whether, like Flemish literature in Belgium, it would, not have to content itself with appealing to the humbler classes of the people, and leave to France the office of ministering to the intellectual and imaginative wants of all cultivated persons. In 1470 this doubt remained no more; the question had been finally settled in favour of native genius. England had now a literature in her own speech of which she might be proud, authors whose manner and phraseology supplied models to allied but less advanced nationalities. James I. of Scotland, who was killed in 1436, speaks in the King’s Quhair of the trio of English poets in terms of reverence comparable to those which Chaucer himself, in Troylos and Cryseyde, had used of the great poets of antiquity. But this success had only been gained by the wise exercise of that talent for compromise which we English, even to this day, are said to posses almost to a fault. English literature was to employ a language which in its structure and grammar indeed was Teutonic, but was to admit without scruple into its vocabulary thousands of French words which the upper classes, the descendants of the Norman, invaders, were in the habit of using. It seemed as if both language and people were destined to hold a position midway between the European nations of Teutonic and those of Latin origin, to be interpreters between the one and the other, and thus to facilitate, for the numerous communities which in due time the English race was to plant, over the world, the comprehension of the thoughts and the appreciation of the ideals of both.

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