William Godwin.

Life of Geoffrey Chaucer, the early English poet: including memoirs of his near friend and kinsman, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster: with sketches of the manners, opinions, arts and literature of England in the fourteenth century (Volume v. 1) online

. (page 24 of 24)
Online LibraryWilliam GodwinLife of Geoffrey Chaucer, the early English poet: including memoirs of his near friend and kinsman, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster: with sketches of the manners, opinions, arts and literature of England in the fourteenth century (Volume v. 1) → online text (page 24 of 24)
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admirable drama ; and they have agreed, as
far as possible, to transfer to another author
the honour of having supplied materials to
the tragic artist. Dr. Johnson says, " Shake-
speare has in his story followed, for the greater
part, the old book of Caxton, which was then
very popular ; but the character of Thersites,
of which it makes no mention, is a proof that
this play was written after Chapman had pub-
lished his version of Homer." Mr. Steevens
asserts that " Shakspeare received the greatest
part of his materials for the structure of this
play from the Troye Boke of Lydgate." And
Mr. Malone repeatedly treats the '* History
of the Destruction of Troy, translated by
Caxton," as *' Shakspeare's authority" in the
composition of this drama.

These assertions however are far from Reputation
being accurate. It would have been strange cerin
indeed if Shakespear, with a soul so poetical, teemh

V<3L. r» K K



CHAP, and in so many respects congenial to that of
===== Chaucer, had not been a diUgent student of
the works of his great predecessor. Chaucer
made a much greater figure in the eyes of a
reader of poetry in the sixteenth century, than
it has been his fortune to do among the
scholars of the eighteenth. After the death
of Chaucer, the English nation experienced
a long dearth of poetry, and it seemed as if
the darkness introduced by the first destroyers
of the Roman empire was about once more
to cover our isle. Nothing worthy the name
of poetry was the produce of the following
century. English poets indeed existed of
great reputation and merit, beside Chaucer,
whose works might recommend themselves
to the attention of Shakespear : Sackville,
Marlow, Drayton, Donne, and Spenser. But
all these were the contemporaries of Shake-
spear, men whom he might have seen, and
with whom he had probably conversed.
Chaucer was almost the only English poet
in the juvenile days of Shakespear, upon
whose reputation death had placed his seal ;
the only one whose laurels were consecrated


and rendered venerable by being seen through chap.
the mild and harmonising medium of a di- ■
stant age. A further direct proof that Shake-*
spear was familiarly conversant with the
works of Chaucer may be derived from an
examination of the early Poems of our great
dramatic bard. His Rape of Lucrece is writ-
ten precisely, and his Venus and Adonis
nearly, in the versification and stanza used by
Chaucer in the Troilus and Creseide and in
many other of his works. Nor is it reasonable
to doubt that the idea of the luscious paint-
ings contained in these two pieces of Shake-
spear, was drawn from the too great fidelity
and detail with which Chaucer has entered
into similar situations in the poem before us.
We have already seen a striking instance in
which Shakespear has imitated a passage from
the Troilus and Creseide, in his tragedy of
Romeo and Jiiliet.

The fact is, that the play of Shakespear we Tragedy of
are here considering has for its main found- andcres-
ation the poem of Chaucer, and is mdebted "^'p^''^


for many accessory helps to the books men- "p°"
tioned by the commentators. The Troilus and

K K 7.


CHAP. Creseide seems long to have been regarded
S5==by our ancestors in a manner somewhat
similar to that in which the -^neid was
viewed among the Romans, or the Iliad by
the ancient Greeks. Every reader who ad-
vanced any pretensions to poetical taste, felt
himself obliged to speak of it as the great
classical regular English poem, which re-
flected the highest lustre upon our language.
Shakespear therefore, as a man, felt it but a
just compliment to the merits of the great
father of our poetry, to introduce his cha-
racters in tangible form, and with all the
advantages and allurements he could bestow
upon them, before the eyes of his country-
men ; and as a constructor of dramas, ac-
customed to consult their tastes and par-
tialities, he conceived that he could not adopt
a more promising plan, than to entertain
them with a tale already familiar to their
minds, which had been the associate and
delight of their early years, which every
man had himself praised, and had heard ap-
plauded by all the tasteful and the wise.
We are not however left to probability an<J


conjecture as to the use made by Shakespear chap.
of the poem of Chaucer. His ether sources ■

were Chapman's translation of Homer, the
Troy Book of Lydgate, and Caxton's His-
tory of the Destruction of Troy. It is well
known that there is no trace of the particular
story of Troilus and Creseide among the
ancients. It occurs indeed in Lydgate and
Caxton ; but the name and actions of Pan-
darus, a very essential personage in the tale
as related by Shakespear and Chaucer^ are
entirely wanting, except a single mention of
him by Lydgate "", and that with an express
reference to Chaucer as his authority. Shake-
spear has taken the story of Chaucer with all
its imperfections and defects, and has copied
the series of its incidents with his customary
fidelity ; an exactness seldom to be found in
any other dramatic writer.

Since then two of the greatest writers this chaucer
island has produced have treated the same ^''^^e-

■*■ spear

Story, each in his own peculiar manner, it ^^""p^'^-

"' Troye Boke, Book III, cap. xxv.


CHAP, may be neither unentertaining nor u.nin-
===== structive to consider the merit of their re-
spective modes of composition as illustrated
in the present example. It has already been
sufficiently seen that Chaucer's poem includes
many beauties, many genuine touches of na-
ture, and many strokes of an exquisite pathos.
It is on the whole however written in that
style which has unfortunately been so long
imposed upon the world as dignified, classical
and chaste. It is naked of incidents, of or-
nament, of whatever should m.ost aw^aken the
imagination, astound the fancy, or hurry
away the soul. It has the stately march of a
Dutch burgomaster as he appears in a pro-
cession, or a French poet as he shows himself
in his works. It reminds one too forcibly
pf a tragedy of Racine. Every thing par-
takes of the author, as if he thought he should
be everlastingly disgraced by becoming na-
tural, inartificial and alive. We travel through
^ work of this sort as we travel over some
of the immense downs with which our island
is interspersed. All is smooth, or undulates
with so gentle and slow a variation as scarcely


to be adverted to by the sense. But all is chap.
homogeneous and tiresome ; the mind sinks ^■'

into a state of aching torpidity ; and we feel
as if we should never get to the end of our
eternal journey ^ What a contrast to a
journey among mountains and vallies, spotted
with herds of various kinds of cattle, inter-
spersed with villages, opening ever and anon
to a view of the distant ocean, and refreshed
with rivulets and streams ; where if the eye
is ever fatigued, it is only with the boundless
flood of beauty which is incessantly pouring
upon it ! Such is the tragedy of Shakespear.
The historical play of Troilus and Cres-
sida exhibits as full a specimen of the different
styles in which this wonderful writer was
qualified to excel, as is to be found in any
of his works. A more poetical passage, if
poetry consists in sublime picturesque and
beautiful imagery, neither ancient nor mo-
dern times have produced, than the exhorta-

" These remarks apply to nine-tenths of the poem, though
by no means to those happier passages in which the author un-
folds the sentiments of his personages.


CHAP, tion addressed by Patrocius to Achilles, to
==: persuade him to shake off his passion for
Polyxena, the daughter of Priam, and reas-
sume the terrors of his military greatness.

Sweet, rouse yourself; and the weak wanton

Shall from your neck unloose his amorous


And like a dew-drop from the lion's mane,

Be shook to air.

Act III, Scene 3.

Never did morality hold a language more
profound, persuasive and irresistible, than in
Shakespear's Ulysses, who in the same scene,
and engaged in the same cause with Patrocius,
thus expostulates with the champion of the
Grecian forces.

For emulation hath a thousand sons,
That one by one pursue. If you give way,
Or hedge aside from the direct forthright,
Like to an enter'd tide, they all rush by,
And leave you hindmost : there you lie,
Like to a gallant horse fallen in first rank,
For pavement to the abject rear, o'er-run
And trampled on.


•O, let not virtue seek ^^.^^-

X V Jr.

Remuneration for the thing it was ! =

For beauty, wit, high birth, desert in service,
Love, friendship, charity, are subjects all
To envious and calumniating time.
One touch of nature makes the whole world

kin,. . .
That all with one consent praise new-born

And give to dust, that is a little gilt,
More praise than they will give to gold o'er-

Then marvel not, thou great and complete

man !
That all the Greeks begin to worship Ajax.

The cry went once on thee,
And still it might, and yet it may again.
If thou wouldst not entomb thyself alive,
And case thy reputation in thy tent.

But the great beauty of this play, as it is
of all the genuine writings of Shakespear,
beyond all didactic morality, beyond all mere
flights of fancy, and beyond all sublime, a
beauty entirely his own, and in which no
writer ancient or modern can enter into com-
petition with hira, is that his men are men;


CHAP his sentiments are livine:, and his characters
'■••• marked with those delicate, evanescent, un-

definable touches, which identify them with
the great dehneations of nature. The speech
of Ulysses just quoted, when taken by itself,
is purely an exquisite specimen of didactic
morality ; but when combined with the ex-
planation given by Ulysses, before the en-
trance of Achilles, of the nature of his design,
it becomes the attribute of a real man, and
starts into life. — Achilles (says he)

-stands in the entrance of his tent.

Please it our general to pass strangely by him.
As if he were forgot; and princes all,
Lay negligent and loose regard upon him :
I will come last : 'tis like, he'll question me,
Why such unplausive eyes are bent, why

turn'd on him :
If so, I have derision med'cinable.
To use between your strangeness and his

Which his own will shall have desire to drink.

When we compare the plausible and seem-
ingly affectionate manner in which Ulysses


addresses himself to Achilles, with the key chap.


which he here furnishes to his meaning, and -^

especially with the epithet " derision," we
have a perfect elucidation of his character^
and must allow that it is impossible to exhibit
the crafty and smooth-tongued politician in a
more exact or animated style. The advice
given by Ulysses is in its nature sound and
excellent, and in its form inoffensive and
kind ; the name therefore of " derision" which
he gives to it, marks to a wonderful degree
the cold and self-centred subtlety of his cha-

The following is a most beautiful example
of the genuine Shakespearian manner, such
as I have been attempting to describe ; where
Cressida first proceeds so far as to confess to
Troilus that she loves him,

Boldness comes to me now, and brings me
heart : —
Prince Troilus, I have lov*d you night and

For many weary months.


CHAP. Troilus.


;, ,1 Why was my Cressid then so hard to win ?

Hard to seem won ; but I was won, my lord,
With the fii'st glance that ever — Pardon me —
If I confess much, you will play the tyrant.
I love you now ; but not, till now, so much
But I might master it : — in faith, I lie;
My thoughts were like unbridled children,

Too headstrong for their mother :— See, we

fools !
Why have I blabb'd ? Who shall be true to us,
When we are so un secret to ourselves ? —
But, though I lov'd you well, I woo'd you

not ; —
And yet, good faith, I wish'd myself a man ;
Or that we women had men's privilege
Of speaking first. — Sweet, bid me hold my

tongue ;
For, in this rapture, I shall surely speak
The thing I shall repent. — See, see, your

Cunning in dumbness, from my weakness

My very soul of counsel.— Stop my mouth.

Act III, Scene 2.


What charming ingenuousness, what ex- chap.
quisite naivete^ what ravishing confusion of
soul, are expressed in these words ! We
seem to perceive in them every fleeting
thought as it rises in the mind of Cressida, at
the same time that they deHneate with equal
skill all the beautiful timidity and innocent
artifice which grace and consummate the
feminine character. Other writers endeavour
to conjure up before them their imaginary
personages, and seek with violent effort to
arrest and describe what their fancy presents
to them : Shakespear alone (though not with-
out many exceptions to this happiness) ap-
pears to have the whole train of his characters
in voluntary attendance upon him, to listen
to their effusions, and to commit to writing
all the words, and the very words, they

The whole catalogue of the dramatis 'per- Homeland

soncs in the play of Troilus and Cressida, so spear

1 • • 1 Corn-
far as they depend upon a rich and origmal pared.

vein of humour in the author, are drawn with

a felicity which never was surpassed. The

genius of Homer has been a topic of ad-


CHAP, miration to almost every generation of men
— since the period in which he wrote. But
his characters will not bear the slightest com-
parison with the delineation of the same
characters as they stand in Shakespear. This
is a species of honour which ought by no
means to be forgotten when we are making
the eulogium of our immortal bard, a sort of
illustration of his greatness which cannot fail
to place it in a very conspicuous light. The
dispositions of men perhaps had not been
sufficiently unfolded in the very early period
of intellectual refinement when Homer wrote;
the rays of humour had not been dissected by
the glass, or rendered perdurable by the pen-
cil, of the poet. Homer's characters are drawn
with a laudable portion of variety and con-
sistency ; but his Achilles, his Ajax and his
Nestor are, each of them, rather a species
than an individual, and can boast more of the
propriety of abstraction, than of the vivacity
of a moving scene of absolute life. The
Achilles, the Ajax, and the various Grecian
heroes of Shakespear on the other hand, are
absolute men, deficient in nothing which can


tend to individualise them, and already touch- chap.
ed with the Promethean fire that might infuse -.=1

a soul into what, without it, were lifeless
form. From the rest perhaps the character
of Thersites deserves to be selected (how
cold and school boy a sketch in Homer!) as
exhibiting an appropriate vein of sarcastic
humour amidst his cowardice, and a pro-
foundness and truth in his mode of laying
open the foibles of those about him, im-
possible to be excelled.

Before we quit this branch of Shakespear's Causes of

■*• ■•• the excel.

l:nce oi


praise, it may not be unworthy of our atten-
tion to advert to one of the methods by which T"'*

/ chaiaC'

he has attained this uncommon superiority.
It has already been observed that one of the
most formidable adversaries of true poetry, is
an attribute which is generally miscalled dig-
nity. Shakespear possessed, no man in higher
perfection, the true dignity and loftiness of
the poetical afflatus, which he has displayed
in many of the finest passages of his works
with miraculous success. But he knew that
no man ever w^as, or ever can be, always
dignified. He knew that those subtler traits


CHAP, of character which identify a man, are familiar

XVI. .

^rr - and relaxed, pervaded with passion, and not

played off with an eternal eye to decorum.
In this respect the peculiarities of Shake-
spear's genius are no where more forcibly
illustrated than in the play we are here con^
sidering. The champions of Greece and
Troy, from the hour in which their names
were first recorded, had always worn a certain
formality of attire, and marched with a slow
and measured step. No poet till this time,
had ever ventured to force them out of the
manner which their epic creator had given
them. Shakespear first suppled their limbs,
took from them the classic stiffness of their
gait, and enriched them with an entire set
of those attributes, which might render them
completely beings of the same species with

Particulars Yct, aftcr every degree of homage has been

in which

Chaucer paid to the glorious and awful superiorities
superio- Qf Shakespear, it would be unpardonable in

rity over ^ ^

Shake, yg^ Qjj ^i^Q present occasion, to forget one par-
ticular in which the play of Troilus and
Cressida does not eclipse, but on the contrary


fails far short of its great archetype, the poem chap.
of Chaucer. This too is a particular, in — ^
which, as the times of Shakespear were much
more enlightened and refined than those of
Chaucer, the preponderance of excellence
might well be expected to be found in the -
opposite scale. The fact however is unques-
tionable, that the characters of Chaucer are
much more respectable and loveworthy than
the correspondent personages in Shakespear,
In Chaucer Troilus is the pattern of an ho-
nourable lover, choosing rather every ex-
tremity and the loss of life, than to divulge,
whether in a direct or an indirect manner,
any thing which might compromise the re-
putation of his mistress, or lay open her
name as a topic for the comments of the
vulgar. Creseide, however (as Mr. Urry
has observed) she proves at last a *' false un-
constant whore," yet in the commencement,
and for a considerable time, preserves those
ingenuous manners and that propriety of
conduct, which are the brightest ornaments
of the temale character. Even Pandarus,


CHAP, low and dishonourable as is the part he

T has to play, is in Chaucer merely a friendly

and kind-hearted man, so easy in his temper
that, rather than not contribute to the hap-
piness of the man he loves, he is content
to overlook the odious names and con-
struction to which his proceedings are en-
titled. Not so in Shakespear : his Troilus
shows no reluctance to render his amour a
subject of notoriety to the whole city ; his
Cressida (for example in the scene with the
Grecian chiefs ", to all of whom she is a
total stranger) assumes the manners of the
most abandoned prostitute ; and his Pandarus
enters upon his vile occupation, not from
any venial partiality to the desires of his
friend, but from the direct and simple love
of what is gross, impudent and profligate.
For. these reasons Shakespear's play, how-
ever enriched with a thousand various beau-
ties, can scarcely boast of any strong claim

" Act iv, Scene 5.


upon our interest or affections.— -It may be chap.

. . XVI.

alleged indeed that Shakespear, having ex- '

hibited pretty much at large the whole cata-
logue of Greek and Trojan heroes, had by
no means equal scope to interest us in the
story from which the play receives its name :
but this would scarcely be admitted as an
adequate apology before an impartial tribunal.


Printed by T. Davison, "Uliite-friars.


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Online LibraryWilliam GodwinLife of Geoffrey Chaucer, the early English poet: including memoirs of his near friend and kinsman, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster: with sketches of the manners, opinions, arts and literature of England in the fourteenth century (Volume v. 1) → online text (page 24 of 24)