Maurice Francis Egan.

Studies in literature. Some words about Chaucer, and other essays online

. (page 2 of 8)
Online LibraryMaurice Francis EganStudies in literature. Some words about Chaucer, and other essays → online text (page 2 of 8)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

Her hosen weren of fine scarlet red,
Full strait y tied and shoes full moist and new;
Bold was her face, and fair and red of hew."

She had made pilgrimages; she knew the
world; and, in the "Prologue" 3 to her story,
she remarks:

1 Religio Poetae, p. 102.

2 Riches of Chaucer: Charles Cowden Clarke (Expurgated

3 Skeat.

Some Words about Cliaucer. 21

"Experience, though noon auctoritee

Were in this world, were right y-nough to me,

To speak of wo that is in mariage ;

For, lordinges, since I twelf yeer was of age,

Thonked be God that is eterne on lyve,

Husbands at church^-dore I have had five ;

For I so oftd have y-wedded be,

And alle were worthy men in hir degree."

She has heard the Scriptures preached, and
a scruple very slight has been raised by the

"That sith Crist ne wentfe never but onis
To wedding in the Cane of Galilee,
That by the same ensample taught he me
That I ne sholdS wedded be but once."

She admits, not with contempt, as Professor
Lounsbury suggests, but with entire simplicity,

a lord in his household,

He hath nat every vessel al of gold ;

Somme been of tree, and doon hir lord servyse,

God clepeth folk to Him in sondry wyse,

And everich hath of God a propre yiftd,

Som this, som that as Him lyketh shifte.

Virginitee is great perfeccioun,

And continence eek with devocioun."

If Chaucer, in the second half of the four-
teenth century, had taken upon himself the
mission of combating St. Paul, St. Jerome,
and the general voice of the Church on this
counsel of perfection, the "Wife of Bath's
Tale" might have been of greater comfort to
Henry VIII., who, in his own showing, had

22 Studies in Literature.

certain scruples, too ; but it would not be the
recital of a man of genius, who was conse-
quently a man of insight, of a story-teller
who drew life and character as he saw it, with
humor and pathos. And these, joined with
moral perception, make that quality which, in
Montaigne and Thackeray, some call " cyni-
cism. 77

A man, bred in Protestantism, cannot, un-
less he has almost miraculous perception,
understand the point of view of the Catholic
of the fourteenth century; and, I admit, it is
very difficult for a Catholic, tinged with the false
asceticism of Protestantism, as we all are,
more or less, to condone that old-time plain-
speaking which goes to the root of things with-
out concealment.; And yet Chaucer had a certain
reserve and modesty by which moderns might
profit. His persons accept the eternal varieties ;
there is no question of the spiritual authority
of the Church, no doubt as to the Trinity, the
Godhead of Christ and His attributes are
lovingly spoken of, there are no sneers at the
Sacrament of Penance and the Eucharist. In
Chaucer's time, or even in Sir Thomas More ? s,
if a man could not distinguish the precious
wine of Ood from the earthen vessel that held
it, he was accounted a fool. This distinction
was often made with a vengeance. Whether
it was expedient or not is not now the ques-
tion. Whether the earthen vessel could be
roughly touched without injury to the treasure
it held, is another question. The Continental
and English peoples thought it could, the

Some Words about Chaucer. 23

Irish were of a different opinion or of a
different temperament.

The "merry words of the host to the monk"
in the "Monk's Prologue" are quoted fre-
quently in support of Chaucer's "reforming"
proclivities. This wise, humorous, keen and
sympathetic observer of humanity, it is said,
was ahead of his time ; he foresaw that, if the
best men entered the Church and bound them-
selves to celibacy, the English race, indeed all
the races of the earth, must dwindle into
feeble folk. It was not only the lessening of
the physique he feared, but the lessening of the
intellect of the future. If the Church, the
pestilant cormorant of John Foxe and Buny-
on, seized the most comely, the wisest,
surely the heretics were benefactors of the
world, when they declared that all vows of
celibacy were cursed of God ! It is this view
that many serious-minded persons, determined
to make the poet polemical, have read into the
"Monk's Prologue." The "tale of Melibee"
is finished, and the host, whose language is
"plain," cries out that he wishes he had a
patient wife.

"I had lever than a barel of ale
That goode lief my wyf hadde herd this tale !
For she nis nothing of swich pacience
As was this Melibeus wfe Prudence."

According to his further account, the lady
of his thoughts is a rather difficult person. It
becomes evident that, supposing the monas-
teries have assumed nearly all the strong-
limbed and strong-minded men, the convents

24 Studies in Literature.

have not succeeded in securing all the valiant
women. If, for instance, as the host pro-
claims, a neighbor jostles his wife at church
or does not salute her, she

"cryeth false coward, wreck thy wyf.

By corpus bones! I wol have thy knyf,

And thou shalt have my distaff and go spinnS !

Fro day to night right thus she wol begin n6 ;

'Alias,' she saith, 'that ever I was shape,

To wed a milksop or a coward ape,

That will be overlad with every wight.

Though darst not stonden by thy wyves right !"

The host prophesies that he will be forced
to murder by this belligerent wife of his, and
then turns to the monk, audibly regretting
that such a fine man of religion is not married.
After his description of the woes of married
life, there is an ironical humor in this regret
which the serious-minded polemist can not
see. It is logical enough that, reflecting on
the masterful strength of the lady hostess, he
sighs to consider the brawn and sinew of the
monk, who might have withstood her, "so big
in armes . ' J It is not logical , under the circum-
stances, that he should commend marriage to
the guest, "but," he says:

and I were pope

That only thou but every mighty man,
Thogh he were shorn ful hye upon the pan
Should have a wyf ; for all the world is lorn
Religioun hath take up al the corn
Oftreding, and we borel men ben shrimpes !
Of feble trees their comen wretched imps.' "

Some Words about Chaucer. 25

The host here makes a compliment perhaps
unconsciously to the strictness with which the
monks kept their vows, a compliment which
is generally overlooked by interpreters who
would turn the lark-like poems of Chaucer in-
to "problem" essays. The host suddenly
drops into a tone of banter quite in his own
manner, for which he apologizes, as well he

"But be not wrooth, my Lord, for that I pleye ;
Ful oft in game a sooth I have herd seye.
'This worthy monk took al in pacience.' "

This monk, "worthy," as Chaucer names
him, was a "manly man," given to hunting
and not to study, not a recluse or a hard
worker, or a strict follower of the rule of St.
Benedict, but a believer in the newer and more
worldly ways, in which Chaucer seems to
sympathize with him. He was a "fair prelate,"
splendid in the adornments of himself and his
hounds, his fur-trimmed sleeves and his berry-
brown palfrey, his well-colored face and his
curious gold pin give Chaucer as much pleasure
as the tints in a cardinal's robe give Vibert or
the rain drops on a soldier's helmet, Detaille.
There is a place for this dignified and splendid
monk in the pleasant world as for the hard-
working parson and the clerk of Oxenford.
Even the friar, who would have been declared
accursed by St. Francis d 7 Assisi, finds ironical
tolerance with Chaucer,

"And in his harping, when that he had sung,
His eyen twinkled in his head aright
As do the starres on a frosty night."

26 Studies in Literature.

He makes a picture ; he will tell his story in
the soft April weather, by the Thames. It is
no time or place for denunciation, God will
give every man his desert in good time. And
Geoffrey Chaucer is not Hamlet, born to set
the world right.

Let us take him as he was, and let us not
fesk that he be other than he was. He was not
Dante, eagle-like, but bitter and brooding.
He did not hate both the sin and the sinner,
after the manner of the great Florentine. He
did not penetrate to Hell or soar to Heaven.
Earth, the daisied earth, where the little
birds sang, and gay voices joined with them,
was beloved of him. Nothing natural was
alien to him; he was a humanist, but not a
Hedonist, in love with life, but not an Epi-
curean. That beneath him was the sure rock
of eternal truth he never seems to have doubted.
Safe and certain, like Sir Thomas More, his
later brother, with whose humor he had so much
in common, he could let his fancy play with no
thought of danger. His geniality, his acute-
ness in knowledge of the foibles of humanity,
his optimism, his power of picturing, his grace
and immortal freshness make him beloved of
the world. He borrowed his stories as Shake-
spere did; he. was the first to English them,
and they are his, whether Dante or Petrarch
or Boccaccio or old folks by the fire told them
before or not. On the verdant ground of the
spring time of a nation he planted a garden of
perennial beauty. On the gray walls of a
gloomy palace, half -Saxon mead hall, half-

Some Words about Chaucer. 27

feudal castle, he hung a tapestry, filled with
the crimson of love and the azure of hope.
He waved his wand, and henceforth England
was called "merrie." His gaiety had the
naivete of a child, of a child who does not
doubt and who does not fear. It came from
a heart that knew the beauty of Truth. All
those high human qualities, which Christianity
illuminates but does not create, were beloved
of him. As in the cathedral carvings of his
time, we find in his work strange things which
modern taste, more delicate, rejects. Like all
men of genius, he was of his time, but not of
the worst of it. That he hated the faith that
conserved beauty in England we may as soon
believe as that Shakespere would have torn the
door from the tabernacle of his own church at
Stratford, or blotted the "requiescat" from a
neighbor's tomb. Polemist he was not; cru-
sader he was not; but what he was, in heart,
we can guess from his prayer

" Glorious mayde and moder, which that never 1
Were bitter, neither in erthe nor in see,
But ful of swetnesse and of mercy ever,
Help that my fader be not wroth with me."

. B. C. Skeat.


HPHE teaching of the English language and
literature is at present largely experimental.
So composite is the language and so varied the
literature, that men differ widely even as to
the manner of approaching them for the pur-
pose of serious study. It is only of late and
mostly here in the United States that the
literature, apart from the language, has come
to be looked on as worthy of earnest considera-

In Italy, even foolish men would have cried
shame had Dante been left by the schools and
universities to the mercy of the first reader
who should take up the Divine Comedy. To
have ignored the greatest of all poets in the
scheme of education would have seemed mon-
strous. To have reduced the most spiritual
of all poems, except Isaias and Job and the
Apocalypse, to a mere exercise in philology
would have caused the driest-minded of the
Italians to laugh. Similarly, the Germans,
when they regard our methods of instruction
at all, wonder why we seem to look on a vital
principle in our natural life with such little in-
terest. The literature of a country is its song
of battle and its hymn of immortality. It
sends the blood to the heart and out again ; it
is a part of life. It is not an accomplishment ;
in a certain sense, it is the science of life, for
as Professor Monlton, of the University of

On the Teaching of English. 29

Chicago, has recently pointed out, the poet
and the novelist, like the modern physicist,
choose the qualities of life and set them in
motion before us. Dante, for instance, con-
cretes the supernatural, and we see the spirit-
ual life of man humanized, brought to us, as
the physicist brings the very essence of the
frost and the heat and the impalpable forces
of the air within the knowledge of the growing
child. Dante did for philosophy what Plato
had attempted in his " Symposium/' and for
theology what nobody had the genius to do
until he, with sublime self-confidence, began
to write. The Divine Comedy of Dante is to
scientia what modern laboratory work is to
modern science. The Germans understand
this better than we do, and, in the earliest
schools for their children, they assume that
literature, which is, at the same time, univer-
sal and personal, ought to be correlated with
the other studies that go to make the man and
the citizen. The growth of the literary feeling
is gradual; it is a part of life of every-day
life . A man or woman of education in Germany
does not suddenly awaken to the fact of the
existence of literature and clutch at it as a part
of culture. There is among the Germans no
frantic efforts to grasp the "Heliand," or the
"Song of Roland, " or Marlowe's versification,
or Sordello as a thing exotic, apart and
special from its fecundating stream of litera-
ture. The German specialists, like Herr
Delius, do not disregard the spirit of literature,
however wedded to the letter they may be. It

30 Studies in Literature.

is certain, at least, that whatever attitude they
may take towards the literature of other
peoples, they are heart to heart with their own.
They do not look on the lightest lyric of
Goethe as altogether trivial ; nor do they men-
tally rush at his Alpine heights without having
acquired that surety of balance which comes
of having laboriously ascended the rocks be-
low. This can not be said of English-speaking
people, and it may be said less of Americans
even than of the English themselves. The
road to university work in English literature
is, consequently, neither wide nor unimpeded.
There are two sides from which learners
approach the study of English from the
philological side and from the philosophical
side we may almost say, with Matthew
Arnold, from the ethical side. The philologist
seems at times to underrate the necessity of
interpretation or exposition; he believes in
"words, words, words/ 7 without the accent of
scorn which Hamlet used in speaking to Polo-
nius. He is unduly reverent to the least
motion of evolution in the word and some-
what contemptuous of the changes of the
thought. Words are only attempts to speak
what is unspeakable until genius wrenches
them to its purpose. Yet words are history.
The Elgin marbles are no more important to
the archaelogist than the verbal form "are" is
to the philologist ; and the Pelasgic survivals
in Greek are as epoch-making to him as the
discoveries at Troy. Words, after all, are only
symbols of the volatile essence of life; the

On the Teaching of English. 31

thoughts, the emotions, the moods, which
caught forever in the right phrase, are litera-
ture. The inordinate preponderance of mere
philology in the university study of English
has really as a basis the fear that literature,
apart from its garb of words, cannot give a
concrete form for examinations for honors.

The rigid pedagogue shrinks from things of
taste ; they are subtle and undefined ; they are
gaseous, more than gaseous, or less. You
cannot catch them in a glass globe or tabulate
them. What the rhetoricians have said of the
classics he may accept, but no literature, in
his estimation, has vitality until it is dead.
He genuflects to Homer and bows to Virgil ;
he is respectful to Anacreon and Horace ; they
can be made subjects for examinations. Even
the historical value of words is held by him to
be less than their worth as parts of the letter.
Consequently, it is often the case that one finds
a learned man, sympathetic only for words,
who condescends to smile at all talk about the
spiritual value of literature in the higher edu-
cation, who scorns its scientific treatment, who
longs for a heaven in which he might give the
same attention to the vocative case which, in
this life, he had already given to the dative !

Shakespere is not actually great to every
man who calls himself educated and cultivated ;
nor is Dante. There are men who yawn over
Job and rave about that sublime introduction
to "Faust," which G-oethe has appropriated
from Job. These men need to be illuminated ;
for they accept things blindly ; they have eyes,

32 Studies in Literature.

but they have not been taught to see. It is
the vocation of the teacher of English litera-
ture to show them how to see. If Shakespere
is great, there must be reasons for his great-
ness reasons which only the thoughtless will
tell us can be left to intuition. The scientific
method, if it be worth anything, ought to be
capable of application to the works of a man
who is held by the human race to be one of
its glories.

Dante is nothing to many men of special
training in colleges and universities, because
he has never been interpreted to them. We
Catholics, who accept the Sacred Books only
as the Church gives them to us, ought certainly
to see that the word of genius is as " caviare
to the general" until reverently and lucidly

There is a feeling among us Americans that
every man who votes is able to understand
anything symbolized by English words. To
read, with us, means to understand. To admit
that anything in English letters is beyond our
capacity is un-American and un-English. If
the careless tyro, fed on newspapers, finds
Newman or Tennyson or Browning incom-
prehensible, it is the writer who is obscure!
In China they are more civilized than this.

It is almost heresy to say that there is a
lapse in a man's educational training if he can-
not understand Tennyson's "Two Voices" or
Patmore's "Ode to the Body." The beauty
and meaning of these poems are hidden to ten
thousand men out of every ten thousand and

On the Teaching of English. 33

one, because their minds and hearts have not
been educated to discover them. In our depths
we have a tradition that, while reading and
writing do not come by nature, the power of
perceiving the beauty of works which God
takes thousands of years to formulate is a
faculty which requires neither systematic edu-
cation nor cultivation; and that literature is
valuable as a kind of decoration to more solid

The French long ago set the example by
taking their literature as seriously as the
Greeks. A Frenchman may differ from
another Frenchman on almost every subject,
but when it is a matter of literary judgment of
the classics of his own country you will find
harmony. He may hate Voltaire's object,
which was to scorn and degrade, but he will
admire those qualities of style which made
Voltaire so dangerous. And just as we find
the old and the new regimes meeting in Paris
in the museum of national relics in the house
of Madame de Sevigne , we observe that litera-
ture, the approved litreature of France, is
common ground. After all, the French are
the most artistic of peoples; they are the
modern Greeks; love of art with them is
virtue followed by a black shadow of vice;
there are those among them who have
no love for St. Genevieve, except when their
first woman patriot is portrayed by Puvis de
Chavannes. So fine is their art in literature
that they have almost persuaded the world of
the greatness of their modern poets. There is

34 Studies in Literature.

no question that their prose is the most ex-
quisite prose written in our time. There are
pages of Bossuet and Pascal, of Fenelon and
Voltaire, of Chateaubriand and Grautier which
seem to have exhausted all the capabilities of
the written phrase. These pages are not the
result of racial temperament. They are the
outcome of serious study of the art of personal
expression, subjected to certain canons dis-
covered through intense devotion to the pro-
duction of style. No cultivated Frenchman
affects to hold the great authors of his nation
lightly, or as unworthy of strenuous attention
and careful study. In the earlier schools his
memory has been filled with beautiful passages
from them. The French teachers are not
afraid of memory tasks in literature, because
they know how to make them lead to some-
thing better. Nearly every French schoolboy
knows by heart splendid things from the great
authors, and, out of ten schoolboys, I found
not long ago that eight knew by heart the
whole of Malherbe's "Consolation a M. Per-
rier," the other two substituting for this minor
poem some verses from Coppee and the "Con-
nais tu le pays," translated from Goethe. I
found that they had been taught to believe
that the study of their literature was as im-
portant as that of Latin and Euclid.

With us it has been different. We have
only recently begun to look on the study of
English, excepting, of course, the rudi-
mentary grammar and philology, as of any
real importance. We are still afraid of the

On the Teaching of English. 35

"cram" in our preparatory schools; it is to be
hoped that the words Professor Dowden says
in favor of the earlier "cram," in his "New
Studies in Literature," may turn the advocates
of everything inductive to that system of mem-
ory-work which has had so much to do with the
unexampled success of the Jesuits in the teach-
ing of Latin to the young. Miss Austin, in the
beginning of this century, complains of the
Philistine point of view of the English towards
the novel, and with gentle sarcasm alludes to
the "elegant extracts," which, arranged by
some dullard, were accepted by teachers as the
commencement and the end of English litera-
ture. When the English interpreted the phrase
"belles-lettres" into "polite learning," they
did literature a bad turn, for it has taken them
a good many years to discover that anything
"polite 7 ? can be worth serious attention. Addi-
son might have passed under this title, but
how Swift could ever have been signalized by
it is beyond comprehension; and it is lucky
it went out of fashion before Carlyle made his
mark. At last one of the greatest universities
in the world, Oxford, has begun a school of
English, only begun it ! And there are some
among her dons and disciples who fear that
the term "polite learning" or "belles-lettres,"
may be thrown at them and detract from the
dignity of a faculty that every year condescends
to offer a prize for a poem in English.

The action, or reaction, against the ultra-
conservative view of English literature is
almost too violent. It has taken the form of a

36 Studies in Literature.

protest against philology and memory work,
in forgetfulness of the truth that the spirit of
the text lies hidden until the letter is mastered.
There is something humorous in the flight of
an American teacher of English from mere
philology in his own country to Oxford and
Cambridge, and from thence, in despair, to
Leipsic or Freiburg. If he should import
Fritz Renter's books to study the modern
development of the Anglo-Saxon, or dig into
Platt-Deutsch, as some men study modern
Greek after Homer and Theocritus, there
would be more reason in his mission. But,
although in the teaching of English neither
the Anglo-Saxon nor the root languages of
the Anglo-Saxon, nor the composite tongues
that make up our language can be neglected,
the means of showing the student how to gain
perspective and sympathy and insight in our
literature are to be found at home. The per-
spective must be historical, a vista of epochs ;
the sympathy genuine and made concurrent
with the steps of taste by the study of a few
great works, and the insight secured by re-
search into the forces that produce these great
works. G-oethe had his effect on Sir Walter
Scott, and Rousseau affected G-pethe ; but,
beyond this, there was something in the air
that colored the spirit of Sir Walter, roman-
tical and unseen influences that perpetuated
the sentimental feeling of Provost's "Manon
Lescaut" and "The New Hdloise" in Sterne,
in "The Sorrows of Werther," and in "Paul
and Virginia. " To trace this influence, to

On the Teaching of English. 37

analyze it, to make it clear through its develop-
ment in the letters, the memoirs, the novels,
the essays of the time, is one of the first duties
of the teacher of literature. Whether literature
be the experimental science of life or not,
whether poetry offer a standard of living or
not, this thing is true : that literature is as
much the reflector of life in all times as archi-
tecture was of certain phases of life.

To speak more clearly on this matter of com-
paring literature, great artists, not artists of

2 4 5 6 7 8

Online LibraryMaurice Francis EganStudies in literature. Some words about Chaucer, and other essays → online text (page 2 of 8)