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grief. It is, nevertheless, wide in i-ts scope as the
conflict between Death and Life, although dealing
with the individual and not with the race. The
former poems named of Pierce Ploughman are the
cry of John the Baptist in the English wilderness ;
this is the longing of Hannah at home, having left
her little son in the temple. The latter seems a
poorer matter; but it is an easier thing to utter
grand words of just condemnation, than, in the silence
of the chamber, or with the well-known household-
life around, forcing upon the consciousness only the
law of things seen, to regard with steadfastness the
blank left by a beloved form, and believe in the
unseen, the marvellous, the eternal. In the midst
of "the light of common day," with all the per-
sistently common things pressing upon the de-
spairing heart, to hold fast, after what fashion may
be possible, the vanishing song that has changed its
key, is indeed a victory over the flesh, however
childish the forms in which the faith may embody
itself, however weak the logic with which it may
defend its intrenchments.

The poem which has led me to make these re-
marks is in many respects noteworthy. It is very
different in style and language from any I have
yet given. There was little communication to blend
the different modes of speech prevailing in different
parts of the country. It belongs,^ according to
students of English, to the Midland dialect of the

1 For the knowledge of this poem I am indebted to the Early Eng-
lish Text Society, now printing so many valuable manuscripts.



fourteenth century. The author is beyond con-

It is not merely the antiquity of the language that
causes its difficulty, but the accumulated weight of
artistically fantastic and puzzling requirements which
the writer had laid upon himself in its composition.
The nature of these I shall be enabled to show by
printing the first twelve lines almost as they stand
in the manuscript.

Perle plesaunte to prynces paye,
To clanly clos in golde so clere !
Oute of oryent I hardyly saye,
Ne proued I neuer her precios pere ;
So rounde, so reken in vche araye,
So smal, so smothe her sydes were !
Quere-so-euer I iugged gemmes gaye,
I sette hyr sengeley in synglure :
Alias ! I leste hyr in on erbere,
Thurh gresse to grounde hit fro me yot ;
I dewyne for-dolked of luf daungere,
Of that pryuy perle with-outen spot.

Here it will be observed that the Norman mode —
that of rhymes — is employed, and that there is a far
more careful measure in the line that is found in the
poem last quoted. But the rhyming is carried to
such an excess as to involve the necessity of constant
invention of phrase to meet its requirements — a
fertile source of obscurity. The most difficult form
of stanza in respect of rhyme now in use is the
Spenserian, in which, consisting of nine lines, four
words rhyme together, three words, and two words.
But the stanza in the poem before us consists of
twelve lines, six of which, two of which, four of

D 2


which, rhyme together. This we should count hard
enough ; but it does not nearly exhaust the tyranny
of the problem the author has undertaken. I have
already said that one of the essentials of the poetic
form in Anglo-Saxon was the commencement of
three or more words in the line with the same
sound : this peculiarity he has exaggerated : every line
has as many words as possible commencing with the
same sound. In the first line, for instance, — and it
must be remembered that the author's line is much
shorter than the Anglo-Saxon line, — there are four
words beginning with /; in the second, three begin-
ning with cly and so on. This, of course, necessitates
much not merely of circumlocution, but of con-
trivance, involving endless obscurity.

He has gone on to exaggerate the peculiarities of
Norman verse as well ; but I think it better not to
run the risk of wearying my reader by pointing out
more of his oddities. I will now betake myself to
what is far more interesting as well as valuable.

The poem sets forth the grief and consolation of a
father who has lost his daughter. It is called The
Pearl Here is a literal rendering, line for line, into
modern English words, not modern English speech,
of the stanza which I have already given in its original
form :

Pearl pleasant to prince's pleasure,
Most cleanly closed in gold so clear !
Out of the Orient, I boldly say,
I never proved her precious equal ;
So round, so beautiful in every point !
So small, so smooth, her sides were !


Wheresoever I judged gemmes gay

I set her singly in singleness,

Alas ! I lost her in an arbour ;

Through the grass to the ground it from me went.

I pine, sorely wounded by dangerous love

Of that especial pearl without spot.

The father calls himself a jeweller ; the pearl is his
daughter. He has lost the pearl in the grass ; it has
gone to the ground, and he cannot find it ; that is,
his daughter is dead and buried. Perhaps the most
touching line is one in which he says to the grave :

O moul, thou marrez a myry mele.
(O mould, thou marrest a merry talk. )

The poet, who is surely the father himself, cannot
always keep up the allegory ; his heart burns holes in
it constantly ; at one time he says she, at another
it^ and, between the girl and the pearl, the poem is
bewildered. But the allegory helps him out with
what he means notwithstanding ; for although the
highest aim of poetry is to say the deepest things
in the simplest manner, humanity must turn from
mode to mode, and try a thousand, ere it finds the
best. The individual, in his new endeavour to make
" the word cousin to the deed," must take up the
forms his fathers have left- him, and add to them, if
he may, new forms of his own. In both the great
revivals of literature, the very material of poetry was

The father falls asleep on his child's grave, and has
a dream, or rather a vision, of a country where every-
thing — after the childish imagination which invents


differences instead of discovering harmonies — is super-
naturally beautiful : rich rocks with a gleaming glory,
crystal cliffs, woods with blue trunks and leaves of
burnished silver, gravel of precious Orient pearls, form
the landscape, in which are delicious fruits, and birds
of flaming colours and sweet songs : its loveliness no
man with a tongue is worthy to describe. He comes
to the bank of a river :

Swinging sweet the water did sweep
With a whispering speech flowing adown ;
(Wyth a rownande rourde raykande ar>'ght)

and the stones at the bottom were shining like stars.
It is a noteworthy specimen of the mode in which
the imagination works when invention is dissociated
from observation and faith. But the sort of way in
which some would improve the world now, if they
might, is not so very far in advance of this would-be
glorification of Nature. The barest heath and sky
have lovelinesses infinitely beyond the most gorgeous
of such phantasmagoric idealization of her beauties ;
and the most wretched condition of humanity strug-
gling for existence contains elements of worth and
future development inappreciable by the philanthropy
that would elevate them by cultivating their self-love.
At the foot of a crystal cliff, on the opposite side
of the river, which he cannot cross, he sees a maiden
sitting, clothed and crowned with pearls, and wearing
one pearl of surpassing wonder and spotlessness
upon her breast. I now make the spelling and forms
of the words as modern as I may, altering the text
no further.



"O pearl," quoth I, '* in pedes pight,
Art thou my pearl that I have plained?
Regretted by myn one, on night ?
Much longing have I for thee layned
Since into grass thou me a-glyghte ;
Pensive, payred, I am for-pained,i
And thou in a life of liking light
In Paradise-earth, of strife unstrained !
What wyrde hath hither my jewel vayned,
And done me in this del and great danger ?
Fro we in twain were towen and twayned,
I have been a joyless jeweller."

That jewel then in gemmes gente,
Vered up her vyse with eyen gray,
Set on her crown of pearl orient,
And soberly after then gan 'she say :

" Sir, ye have your tale myse-tente,
To say your pearl is all away,
That is in coffer so comely clente
As in this garden gracious gay,
Herein to lenge for ever and play,
There mys nor mourning come never — here.
Here was a forser for thee in faye,
If thou wert a gentle jeweller.

" But jeweller gente, if thou shalt lose
Thy joy for a gem that thee was lef.
Me thinks thee put in a mad purpose,
And busiest thee about a reason bref.
For that thou lostest was but a rose,
That flowered and failed as kynd hit gef.
Now through kind of the chest that it gan close,
To a pearl of price it is put in pref ;2
And thou hast called thy wyrde a thef.
That ought of nought has made thee, clear !
Thou blamest the bote of thy mischef :
Thou art no kynde jeweller."

pitched, dressed.


by myself.


didst glide from me.

pined away.

bright pleasure.

untortnred with strife.

destiny: carried off.


since: pulled: divided.

turned : face.




where: wrong.

strong-box : faith.

had left thee.

poor object.

nature gave it.

doom^fate: theft,
something of nothing,
remedy: hurt,
natural, reasonable.

1 The for here is only an intensive.

2 Pref \% proof . Put in pref sttms to stand for something more than
being tested. Might it not mean proved to be a pearl of price ?


When the father pours out his gladness at the
sight of her, she rejoins in these words :

" I hold that jeweller little to praise

That loves well that he sees with eye ;

And much to blame, and uncortoyse, uncoicrteous.

That leves our Lord would make a lie, believes.

That lelly hyghte your life to raise who truly promised.

Though fortune did your flesh to die ; caused.

To set his words full westernays^

That love no thing but ye it syghe ! see.

And that is a point of surquedrie, presumption.

That each good man may evil beseem, ill become.

To leve no tale be true to tryghe, trust in.

But that his one skill may deme. " 2

Much conversation follows, the glorified daughter
rebuking and instructing her father. He prays for a
sight of the heavenly city of which she has been
speaking, and she tells him to walk along the bank
until he comes to a hill. In recording what he saw
from the hill, he follows the description of the New
Jerusalem given in the Book of the Revelation. He
sees the Lamb and all his company, and with them
again his lost Pearl. But it was not his prince's plea-
sure that he should cross the stream ; for when his eyes
and ears were so filled with delight that he could no
longer restrain the attempt, he awoke out of his dream.

My head upon that hill was laid

There where my pearl to grovmde strayed.

I wrestled and fell in great affray, fear.

And sighing to myself I said,

" Now all be to that prince's paye." pleasure.

1 A word acknowledged to be obscure. Mr. Morris suggests on tht
left hand, as unbelieved,

^ " Except that which his sole wit may judge."


After this, he holds him to that prince's will, and
yearns after no more than he grants him.

" As in water face is to face, so the heart of man."
Out of the far past comes the cry of bereavement
mingled with the prayer for hope : we hear, and lo !
it is the cry and the prayer of a man like ourselves.

From the words of the greatest man of his age,
let me now gather two rich blossoms of utterance,
presenting an embodiment of religious duty and
aspiration, after a very practical fashion. I refer to
two short lyrics, little noted, although full of wisdom
and truth. They must be accepted as the conclusions
of as large a knowledge of life in diversified mode as
ever fell to the lot of man.


Fly from the press, and dwell with soothfastness ; truthfulness.

Suffice ^ unto thy good, though it be small ;

For hoard hath hate, and climbing tickleness ;^

Praise hath envy, and weal is blent over all.^

Savour'* no more than thee behove shall.

Rede well thyself that other folk shalt rede ; counsel.

And tmth thee shall deliver — it is no drede. there is no doubt.

Paine thee not each crooked to redress, every crooked thing.

In trust of her that turneth as a ball : Fortune.

Great rest standeth in little busi-ness.

Beware also to spurn against a nail ; nail — to kick against

Strive not as doth a crocke with a wall. [the pricks.

Deme thyself that demest others' deed ; Judge.

And truth thee shall deliver— it is no drede.

^ " Be equal to thy possessions : " " fit thy desires to thy means."
2 "Ambition has uncertainty." We use the word ticklish still.
^ " Is mingled everywhere."

4 To relish, to like. " Desire no more than is fitting for thee."


That thee is sent receive in buxomness : submission.

The wrestling of this world asketh a fall. tempts destruction.
Here is no home, here is but wilderness :
Forth, pilgrim, forth ! — beast, out of thy stall !
Look up on high, and thanke God of i all.
Waive thy lusts, and let thy ghost 2 thee lead,
' And truth thee shall deliver— it is no drede.

This needs no comment. Even the remark that
every line is worth meditation may well appear
superfluous. One little fact only with regard to the
rhymes, common to this and the next poem, and
usual enough in Norman verse, may be pointed out,
namely, that every line in the stanza ends with the
same rhyme-sound as the corresponding line in each
of the other stanzas. A reference to either of the
poems will at once show what I mean.

The second is superior, inasmuch as it carries one
thought through the three stanzas. It is entitled
A Balade made by Chaucer, teaching what is gentil-
7iesse, or whom is worthy to be called gentill.

The first stock-father of gentleness — ancestor of the race of

What man desireth gentle for to be [the gentle.

Must follow his trace, and all his wittes dress track^ footsteps : apply.
Virtue to love and vices for to flee ;
For unto virtue longeth dignity, belongeth.

And not the reverse falsely dare i. deem,»

All wear he mitre, crown, or diadem. although he wear.

The first stock was full of righteousness ; the progenitor.

True of his word, sober, piteous, and free ;
Clean of his ghost, and loved busi-ness, pure in his spirit.

Against the vice of sloth in honesty ;

1 For.

2 " Let thy spiritual and not thine animal nature guide thee."
8 "And I dare not falsely judge the reverse."



And but his heir love virtue as did he,
He is not gentle, though he rich seem,
All wear he mitre, crown, or diadem.

Vicesse may well be heir to old Richesse,

Cut there may no man, as men may well see,

Bequeath his heir his virtue's nobleness ;
That is appropried unto no degree.
But to the first father in majesty,

That maketh his heires them that him queme,

All wear he mitre, crown, or diadem.


Vice: Riches.


please him.

I can come to no other conclusion than that by the
first stock-father Chaucer means our Lord Jesus.



After the birth of a Chaucer, a Shakspere, or a
Milton, it is long before the genial force of a nation
can again culminate in such a triumph : time is required
for the growth of the conditions. Between the birth
of Chaucer and the birth of Shakspere, his sole
equal, a period of more than two centuries had to
elapse. It is but small compensation for this, that
the more original, that is simple, natural, and true
to his own nature a man is, the more certain is he to
have a crowd of imitators. I do not say that such
are of no use in the world. They do not indeed
advance art, but they widen the sphere of its
operation ; for many will talk with the man who
know nothing of the master. Too often intending
but their own glory, they point the way to the
source of it, and are straightway themselves for-

Very little of the poetry of the fifteenth century is
worthy of a different fate from that which has befallen
it. Possibly the Wars of the Roses may in some
measure account for the barrenness of the time ; but


I do not think they will explain it. In the midst of
the commotions of the seventeenth century we find
Milton, the only English poet of whom we are yet
sure as worthy of being named with Chaucer and

It is in quality, however, and not in quantity that
the period is deficient. It had a good many writers
of poetry, some of them prolific. John Lydgate, the
monk of Bury, a great imitator of Chaucer, was the
principal of these, and wrote an enormous quantity
of verse. We shall find for our use enough as it
were to keep us alive in passing through this desert to
the Paradise of the sixteenth century — a land indeed
flowing with milk and honey. For even in the desert
of the fifteenth are spots luxuriant with the rich
grass of language, although they greet the eye
with few flowers of individual thought or graphic

Rather than give portions of several of Lydgate's
poems, I will give one entire — the best I know. It
is entitled, Thonke God of alle}

Thank God for All.

By a way wandering as I went,

Well sore I sorrowed, for sighing sad \

Of hard haps that I had hent

Mourning me made almost mad; 2

1 A poem so like this that it may have been written immediately
after readnig it, is attributed to Robert Henryson, the Scotch poet. It
has the same refrain to every verse as Lydgate's,

2 " Mourning for mishaps that I had caught made me almost mad."



Till a letter all one me lad,i
That well was written on a wall,

A blissful word that on I rad,2
That alway said, ' Thank God for ^ all.

And yet I read furtheiTnore ^ —

Full good intent I took there till :"
Christ may well your state restore ;

Nought is to strive against his will ;

He may us spare and also spill :
Think right well we be his thrall.

What sorrow we suffer, loud or still,
Alway thank God for all.

Though thou be both blind and lame,
Or any sickness be on thee set.

Thou think right well it is no shame —
The grace of God it hath thee gret.^
In sorrow or care though ye be knit,

And worldes weal be from thee fall,
I cannot say thou mayst do bet,

But alway thank God for all.

Though thou wield this world's good,

And royally lead thy life in rest,
Well shaped of bone and blood.

None the like by east nor west ;

Think God thee sent as him lest ;
Riches turneth as a ball ;

In all manner it is the best
Alway to thank God for all.

If thy good beginneth to pass,

And thou wax a poor man,
Take good comfort and bear good face.

And think on him that all good wan

it is useless.


think thoti.




as it pleased him.
in every condition.

did win.

1 "Led me all one :" "brought me back to peace, unity, harmony. "(?)

2 "That I read on (it)."

** O/" in the original, as in the title.

4 Does this mean by contemplation on it ?

6 " I paid good attention to it."

^ " Greeted thee " — in the very affliction.


Christ himself forsooth began —
He may renew both bower and hall :

No better counsel I ne lean am capable of.

But alway thank God for all.

Think on Job that was so rich :

He waxed poor from day to day ;
His beastes died in each ditch ;

His cattle vanished all away ;

He was put in poor array,
Neither in purple nor in pall,

But in simple weed, as clerkes say, clothes : learned men.
And alway he thanked God for all.

For Christ es love so do we ;i

He may both give and take j
In what mischief that we in be, whatever trouble we

He is mighty enough our sorrow to slake. \be in.

Full good amends he will us make,
And we to him cry or call : if.

What grief or woe that do thee thrall,^
Yet alway thank God for all.

Though thou be in prison cast,

Or any distress men do thee bede, offer.

For Christes love yet be steadfast.

And ever have mind on thy creed ;

Think he faileth us never at need,
The dearworth duke that deem us shall ;3

When thou art sorry, thereof take heed,*
And alway thank God for all.

Though thy friendes from thee fail,

And death by rene hend ^ their life.
Why shouldest thou then weep or wail ?

It is nought against God to strive : it is useless.

1 " For Christ's love let us do the same."

2 " Whatever grief or woe enslaves thee." But thrall is a blunder, for
the word ought to have rhymed with make.

3 " The precious leader that shall judge us."

4 " When thou art in sorry plight, think of this."

* " And death, beyond renewal, lay hold upon their life.**


Himself maked both man and wife —
To his bliss he bring us all : may he bring.

However thou thole or thrive, suffer.

Alway thank God for all.

W^at diverse sonde i that God thee send,

Here or in any other place.
Take it with good intent ;

The sooner God will send his grace.

Though thy body be brought full base, low.

Let not thy heart ado^vn fall,

But think that God is where he was.
And alway thank God for all.

Though thy neighbour have world at will,

And thou far'st not so well as he,
Be not so mad to think him ill, wish. (?)

For his wealth envious to be :

The king of heaven himself can see
Who takes his sonde,^ great or small ;

Thus each man in his degree,
I rede thanke God for all. comtsel.

For Cristes love, be not so wild,

But rule thee by reason within and without ;
And take in good heart and mind

The sonde that God sent all about ; the gospel, f^)

Then dare I say with^uten doubt.
That in heaven is made thy stall. place^ seat^ room.

Rich and poor that low will lowte, bow.

Alway thank God for all.

I cannot say there is much poetry in this, but there
is much truth and wisdom. There is the finest
poetry, however, too, in the Hne — I give it now
letter for letter: —

But think that God ys ther he was.

1 Sending^ message: "whatever varying decree God sends thee."
* " Receives his message :" " accepts his will."


There is poetry too in the line, if I interpret it rightly
as intending the gospel —

The sonde that God sent al abowte.

I shall now make a few extracts from poems of the
same century whose authors are unknown.^ A good
many such are extant. With regard to the similarity
of those I choose, I would remark, that not only will
the poems of the same period necessarily resemble
each other, but, where the preservation of any has
depended upon the choice and transcription of one
person, these will in all probability resemble each
other yet more. Here are a few verses from a hymn
headed The Sweetness of Jesus : —

If I for kindness should love my kin, for natural reasons.

Then me thinketh in my thought \^Kind is nature.

By kindly skill I should begin by natural judgment.

At him that hath me made of nought ;
His likeness he set my soul within,

And all this world for me hath wrought ;
As father he fondid my love to win, set about.

For to heaven he hath me brought.

Our brother and sister he is by skill, reason.

For he so said, and lerid us that lore, taught.
That whoso wrought his Father's will,

Brethren and sisters to him they wore. were.

My kind also he took ther-tille ; my nature also he took

Full truly trust I him therefore ^for that purpose.

That he will never let me spill, perish.

But with his mercy salve my sore.

1 Recently published by the Early English Text Society.

S.L. IV. 5


With lovely lore his works to fill, fulfil .

Well ought I, wretch, if I were kind — natural.
Night and day to work his will.

And ever have that Lord in mind.
But ghostly foes grieve me ill, spiritual.

And my frail flesh maketh me blind ;
Therefore his mercy I take me till, betake me to.

For better bote can I none find. aid.

In my choice of stanzas I have to keep in view
some measure of completeness in the result. These
poems, however, are mostly very loose in structure.
This, while it renders choice easy, renders closeness
of unity impossible.

From a poem headed — again from the last line of
each stanza — Be my comfort^ Christ Jesus, I choose
the following four, each possessing some remarkable
flavour, tone, or single touch. Note the alliteration
in the lovely hne, beginning "Bairn y-born." The

1 3 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19

Online LibraryGeorge MacDonaldEngland's antiphon → online text (page 3 of 19)