Copyright
William Hazlitt.

Lectures on the English poets : [and] The spirit of the age; or contemporary portraits. online

. (page 3 of 38)
Online LibraryWilliam HazlittLectures on the English poets : [and] The spirit of the age; or contemporary portraits. → online text (page 3 of 38)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


flags, from the continued earnestness of the author's mind. Dante's
great power is in combining internal feelings with external objects.
Thus the gate of hell, on which that withering inscription is written,
seems to be endowed with speech and consciousness, and to utter its
dread warning, not without a sense of mortal woes. This author
habitually unites the absolutely local and individual with the greatest
wildness and mysticism. In the midst of the obscure and shadowy
regions of the lower world, a tomb suddenly rises up with the
inscription, ' I am the tomb of Pope Anastasius the Sixth ' : and half
the personages whom he has crowded into the Inferno are his own
acquaintance. All this, perhaps, tends to heighten the effect by the
bold intermixture of realities, and by an appeal, as it were, to the
individual knowledge and experience of the reader. He affords few
subjects for picture. There is, indeed, one gigantic one, that of
Count Ugolino, of which Michael Angelo made a bas-relief, and
which Sir Joshua Reynolds ought not to have painted.

Another writer whom I shall mention last, and whom I cannot
persuade myself to think a mere modern in the groundwork, is
Ossian. He is a feeling and a name that can never be destroyed in
the minds of his readers. As Homer is the first vigour and
lustihed, Ossian is the decay and old age of poetry. He lives only
in the recollection and regret of the past. There is one impression
which he conveys more entirely than all other poets, namely, the
sense of privation, the loss of all things, of friends, of good name, of
country — he is even without God in the world. He converses only
with the spirits of the departed ; with the motionless and silent
clouds. The cold moonlight sheds its faint lustre on his head ; the
fox peeps out of the ruined tower ; the thistle waves its beard to the
wandering gale ; and the strings of his harp seem, as the hand of age,
as the tale of other times, passes over them, to sigh and rustle like the
dry reeds in the winter's wind ! The feeling of cheerless desolation,
of the loss of the pith and sap of existence, of the annihilation of the
ance, and the clinging to the shadow of all things as in a mock-
embrace, is here perfect. In this way, the lamentation of Selma for
the loss of Salgar is the finest of all. If it were indeed possible to
shew that this writer was nothing, it would only be another instance
or mutability, another blank made, another void left in the heart,
another confirmation of that feeling which makes him so often
complain, ' Roll on, ye dark brown years, ye bring no joy on your
wing to Ossian ! '
tH



ON CHAUCER AND SPENSER

LECTURE II

ON CHAUCER AND SPENSER

Having, in the former Lecture, given some account of the nature of
poetry in general, I shall proceed, in the next place, to a more
particular consideration of the genius and history of English poetry.
I shall take, as the subject of the present lecture, Chaucer and
Spenser, two out of four of the greatest names in poetry, which this
country has to boast. Both of them, however, were much indebted
to the early poets of Italy, and may be considered as belonging, in a
certain degree, to the same school. The freedom and copiousness
with which our most original writers, in former periods, availed
themselves of the productions of their predecessors, frequently
transcribing whole passages, without scruple or acknowledgment, may
appear contrary to the etiquette of modern literature, when the whole
stock of poetical common-places has become public property, and no
one is compelled to trade upon any particular author. But it is not
bo much a subject of wonder, at a time when to read and write was of
itself an honorary distinction, when learning was almost as great a
rarity as genius, and when in fact those who first transplanted the
beauties of other languages into their own, might be considered as
public benefactors, and the founders of a national literature. — There
are poets older than Chaucer, and in the interval between him and
Spenser ; but their genius was not such as to place them in any point
of comparison with either of these celebrated men ; and an inquiry
into their particular merits or defects might seem rather to belong to
the province of the antiquary, than be thought generally interesting to
the lovers of poetry in the present day.

Chaucer (who has been very properly considered as the father or
English poetry) preceded Spenser by two centuries. He is supposed
to have been born in London, in the year 1328, during the reign of
Edward m. and to have died in 1400, at the age of seventy-two.
He received a learned education at one, or at both of the universities,
and travelled early into Italy, where he became thoroughly imbued
with the spirit and excellences of the great Italian poets and prose-
writers, Dante, Petrarch, and Boccace ; and is said to have had a
personal interview with one of these, Petrarch. He was connected,
by marriage, with the famous John of Gaunt, through whose interest
he was introduced into several public employments. Chaucer was an
active partisan, a religious reformer, and from the share he took in
some disturbances, on one occasion, he was obliged to fly the country.

l 9



LECTURES ON THE ENGLISH POETS

On his return, he was imprisoned, and made his peace with govern-
ment, as it is said, by a discovery of his associates. Fortitude does not
appear, at any time, to have been the distinguishing virtue of poets.
— There is, however, an obvious similarity between the practical turn
of Chaucer's mind and restless impatience of his character, and the
tone of his writings. Yet it would be too much to attribute the one
to the other as cause and effect : for Spenser, whose poetical tempera-
ment was an effeminate as Chaucer's was stern and masculine, was
equally engaged in public affairs, and had mixed equally in the great
world. So much does native disposition predominate over accidental
circumstances, moulding them to its previous bent and purposes ! For
while Chaucer's intercourse with the busy world, and collision with
the actual passions and conflicting interests of others, seemed to
brace the sinews of his understanding, and gave to his writings the
air of a man who describes persons and things that he had known
and been intimately concerned in ; the same opportunities, operating
on a differently constituted frame, only served to alienate Spenser's
mind the more from the ' close-pent up ' scenes of ordinary life, ami
to make him ' rive their concealing continents,' to give himself up to
the unrestrained indulgence of ' flowery tenderness.'

It is not possible for any two writers to be more opposite in this
respect. Spenser delighted in luxurious enjoyment ; Chaucer, in
severe activity of mind. As Spenser was the most romantic and
visionary, Chaucer was the most practical of all the great poets, the most
a man of business and the world. His poetry reads like history.
Every thing has a downright reality ; at least in the relator's mind.
A simile, or a sentiment, is as if it were given in upon evidence.
Thus he describes Cressid's first avowal of her love.

And as the new abashed nightingale,
That stinteth first when she beginneth sing,
When that :he heareth any herde's tale,
Or in the hedges any wight stirring,
And after, sicker, doth her voice outring;
Right so Cresseide, when that her dread stent,
Open'd her heart, and told him her intent. 1

This is so true and natural, anil beautifully simple, that the two
things seem identified with each other. Again, it is said in the
Knight's Tale—

' Thus passeth yere by yere, and day by day,
Till it felle ones in a morwe of May,
That Emelie that fayrer was to sene
Than is the lilie upon his stalke grene ;
20



ON CHAUCER AND SPENSER

And fresher than the May with floures newe,
For with the rose-colour strof hire hewe :
I n'ot which was the finer of hem two.'

This scrupulousness about the literal preference, as if some question of
matter of fact was at issue, is remarkable. I might mention that
other, where he compares the meeting between Palamon and Arcite
to a hunter waiting for a lion in a gap ; —

' That stondeth at a gap with a spere,
Whan hunted is the lion or the bere,
And hereth him come rushing in the greves,
And breking both the boughes and the leves : * —

or that still finer one of Constance, when she is condemned to
death : —

' Have ye not seen somtime a pale face
(Among a prees) of him that hath been lad
Toward his deth, wheras he geteth no grace,
And swiche a colour in his face hath had,
Men mighten know him that was so bestad,
Amonges all the faces in that route 5
So stant Custance, and loketh hire aboute.'

The beauty, the pathos here does not seem to be of the poet's
seeking, but a part of the necessary texture of the fable. He speaks
of what he wishes to describe with the accuracy, the discrimination
of one who relates what has happened to himself, or has had the
best information from those who have been eye-witnesses of it. The
strokes of his pencil always tell. He dwells only on the essential,
on that which would be interesting to the persons really concerned :
yet as he never omits any material circumstance, he is prolix from the
number of points on which he touches, without being diffuse on any
one ; and is sometimes tedious from the fidelity with which he
adheres to his subject, as other writers are from the frequency of
their digressions from it. The chain of his story is composed of a
number of fine links, closely connected together, and rivetted by a
single blow. There is an instance of the minuteness which he
introduces into his most serious descriptions in his account of Palamon
when left alone in his cell :

f Swiche sorrow he maketh that the grete tour
Resouned of his yelling and clamour:
The pure fetters on his shinnes grete
Were of his bitter sake teres wete.'

21



LECTURES ON THE ENGLISH POETS

The mention of this last circumstance looks like a part of the instruc-
tions he had to follow, which he had no discretionary power to leave
out or introduce at pleasure. He is contented to find grace and
beauty in truth. He exhibits for the most part the naked object,
with little drapery thrown over it. His metaphors, which are few,
are not for ornament, but use, and as like as possible to the things
themselves. He does not affect to shew his power over the reader's
mind, but the power which his subject has over his own. The
readers of Chaucer's poetry feel more nearly what the persons he
describes must have felt, than perhaps those of any other poet. His
sentiments are not voluntary effusions of the poet's fancy, but founded
on the natural impulses and habitual prejudices of the characters he
has to represent. There is an inveteracy of purpose, a sincerity of
feeling, which never relaxes or grows vapid, in whatever they do or
say. There is no artificial, pompous display, but a strict parsimony
of the poet's materials, like the rude simplicity of the age in which he
lived. His poetry resembles the root just springing from the ground,
rather than the full-blown flower. His muse is no ' babbling gossip
of the air,' fluent and redundant ; but, like a stammerer, or a dumb
person, that has just found the use of speech, crowds many things
together with eager haste, with anxious pauses, and fond repetitions
to prevent mistake. His words point as an index to the objects, like
the eye or finger. There were none of the common-places of poetic
diction in our author's time, no reflected lights of fancy, no borrowed
roseate tints ; he was obliged to inspect things for himself, to look
narrowly, and almost to handle the object, as in the obscurity of
morning we partly see and partly grope our way; so that his descrip-
tions have a sort of tangible character belonging to them, and produce
the effect of sculpture on the mind. Chaucer had an equal eye for
truth of nature and discrimination of character . and his interest in
what he saw gave new distinctness and force to his power of observa-
tion. The picturesque and the dramatic are in him closely blended
together, and hardly distinguishable; for he principally describes
external appearances as indicating character, as symbols of internal
sentiment. There is a meaning in what he sees ; and it is this which
catches his eye by sympathy. Thus the costume and dress of the
Canterbury Pilgrims — of the Knight — the Squire — the Oxford
Scholar — the Gap-toothed Wife of Bath, and the rest, speak for
themselves. To take one or two of these at random :

' There was also a nonne, a Prioresse,
That of hire smiling was ful simple and coy;
Hire gretest othe n'as but by seint Eloy:
22



ON CHAUCER AND SPENSER

And she was cleped Madame Eglentine.
Ful wel she sange the service divine
Entuned in hire nose ful swetely ;
And Frenche she spake ful fayre and fetisly,
After the scole of Stratford atte Bowe,
For Frenche of Paris was to hire unknowe.
At mete was she wel ytaughte withalle ,-
She lette no morsel from hire lippes falle,
Ne wette hire fingres in hire sauce depe.

*******

And sikerly she was of great disport,
And ful plesant, and amiable of port,
And peined hire to contrefeten chere
Of court, and ben estatelich of manere,
And to ben holden digne of reverence.

But for to speken of hire con cience,
She was so charitable and so pitous,
She wolde wepe if that she saw a mous
Caughte in a trappe, if it were ded or bledde.
Of smale houndes hadde she, that she fedde
With rested flesh, and milk, and wastel brede.
But sore wept she if on of hem were dede,
Or if men smote it with a yerde smert :
And all was conscience and tendre herte.

Ful semely hire wimple ypinched was ;
Hire nose tretis ; hire eyen grey as glas ;
Hire mouth ful smale ; and therto soft and red j
But sickerly she hadde a fayre forehed.
It was almost a spanne brode, I trowe.'

A Monk there was, a fayre for the maistrie,
An out-rider, that loved venerie :
A manly man, to ben an abbot able.
Ful many a deinte hors hadde he in stable :
And whan he rode, men mighte his bridel here,
Gingeling in a whistling wind as clere,
And eke as loucle, as doth the chapell belle,
Ther as this lord was keper of the celle.

The reule of Seint Maure and of Seint Beneit,
Because that it was olde and somdele streit,
This ilke monk lette olde thinges pace,
And held after the newe world the trace.
He yave not of the text a pulled hen,
That saith, that hunters ben not holy men ; —
Therfore he was a prickasoure a right :
Greihoundes he hadde as swift as foul of flight :
Of pricking and of hunting for the hare
Was all his lust, for no cost wolde he spare.



2 3



LECTURES ON THE ENGLISH POETS

I saw his sieves purfiled at the bond
With gris, and that the finest of the lond.
And for to fasten his hood under his chinne,
He had of gold ywrought a curious pinne :
A love-knotte in the greter end ther was.
His hed was balled, and shone as any glas,
And eke his face, as it hadde ben anoint.
He was a lord ful fat and in good point.
His eyen stepe, and rolling in his hed,
That stemed as a fomeis of a led.
His botes souple, his hors in gret estat,
Now certainly he was a fayre prelat.
He was not pale as a forpined gost.
A fat swan loved he best of any rost.
His palfrey was as broune as is a bery.'

The Serjeant at Law is the same identical individual as Lawyer
Dowling in Tom Jones, who wished to divide himself into a hundred
pieces, to be in a hundred places at once.

' No wher so besy a man as he ther n'as,
And yet he semed besier than he was.'

The Frankelein, in ' whose hous it snewed of mete and drinke' ; the
Shipman, ' who rode upon a rouncie, as he couthe ' ; the Doctour of
Phisike, < whose studie was but litel of the Bible ' ; the Wif of
Bath, in

'All whose parish ther was non,
That to the offiing before hire shulde gon,
And if ther did, certain so wroth was she,
That she was out of alle charitee ; '

— the poure Persone of a toun, ' whose parish was wide, and houses
fer asonder ' ; the Miller, and the Reve, ' a slendre colerike man,'
are all of the same stamp. They are every one samples of a kind ;
abstract definitions of a species. Chaucer, it has been said, numbered
the classes of men, as Linnxus numbered the plants. Most of them
remain to this day: others that are obsolete, and may well be dis-
pensed with, still live in his descriptions of them. Such is the
Sompnoure :

' A Sompnoure was ther with us in that place,
That hadde a fire-red chcrubinnes face,
For sausefleme he was, with eyen narwe,
As bote he was, ami likerous as a sparwe,
Witli scalled browes blake, and pilled berd :
Of his visage children were sore aferd.
24



ON CHAUCER AND SPENSER

Ther rfas quicksilver, litarge, ne brimston,

Boras, ceruse, ne oile of tartre non,

Ne oinement that wolde dense or bite,

That him might helpen of his whelkes white,

Ne of the knobbes sitting on his chekes.

Wei loved he garlike, onions, and lekes,

And for to drinke strong win as rede as blood.

Than wolde he speke, and crie as he were wood.

And whan that he wel dronken had the win,

Than wold he speken no word but Latin.

A fewe termes coude he, two or three,

That he had lerned out of som decree ;

No wonder is, he heard it all the day. —

In danger hadde he at his owen gise
The yonge girles of the diocise,
And knew hir conseil, and was of hir rede.
A gerlond hadde he sette upon his hede
As gret as it were for an alestake :
A bokeler hadde he made him of a cake
With him ther rode a gentil Pardonere—
That hadde a vois as smale as hath a gote.*

It would be a curious speculation (at least for those who think that
the characters of men never change, though manners, opinions, and
institutions may) to know what has become of this character of the
Sompnoure in the present day ; whether or not it has any technical
representative in existing professions ; into what channels and conduits
it has withdrawn itself, where it lurks unseen in cunning obscurity,
or else shews its face boldly, pampered into all the insolence of office,
in some other shape, as it is deterred or encouraged by circumstances.
Chaucer's characters modernised, upon this principle of historic deriva-
tion, would be an useful addition to our knowledge of human nature.
But who is there to undertake it ?

The descriptions of the equipage, and accoutrements of the two
kings of Thrace and Inde, in the Knight's Tale, are as striking and
grand, as the others are lively and natural :

'Ther maist thou se coming with Palamon
Licurge himself, the grete king of Trace :
Blake was his berd, and manly was his face.
The cercles of his eyen in his hed
They gloweden betwixen yelwe and red,
And like a griffon loked he about,
With kemped heres on his browes stout ;
His limmes gret, his braunes hard and stronge,
His shouldres brode, his armes round and longe.



LECTURES ON THE ENGLISH POETS

And as the guise was in his contree,
Ful highe upon a char of gold stood he,
With foure white bolles in the trais.
Instede of cote-armure on his harnais,
With nayles yelwe, and bright as any gold,
He hadde a beres skin, cole-blake for old.
His longe here was kempt behind his bak,
As any ravenes fether it shone for blake.
A wreth of gold arm-gret, of huge weight,
Upon his hed sate full of stones bright,
Ot fine rubins and of diamants.
About his char ther wenten white alauns,
Twenty and mo, as gret as any stere,
To hunten at the leon or the dere,
And folwed him, with mosel fast ybound. —

With Arcita, in stories as men find,
The grete Emetrius, the king of Inde,
Upon a stede bay, trapped in stele,
Covered with cloth of gold diapred wele,
Came riding like the god of armes Mars.
Hi* cote-armure was of a cloth of Tars,
Couched with perles, white, and round and grete.
His sadel was of brent gold new ybete ;
A mantelet upon his shouldres hanging
Bret-ful of rubies red, as fire sparkling.
His crispe here like ringes was yronne,
And that was yelwe, and glitered as the Sonne.
His nose was high, his eyen bright citrin,
His lippes round, his colour was sanguin,
A fewe fraknes in his face yspreint,
Betwixen yelwe and blake somdel ymeint,
And as a leon he his loking caste.
Of five and twenty yere his age I caste.
His berd was wel begonnen for to sprin , j
His vois was as a trompe thondering.
Upon his hed he wered of laurer grene
A gerlond freshe and lusty for to sene.
Upon his hond he bare for his deduit
An egle tame, as any lily whit. —
About this king ther ran on every part
Ful many a tame leon and leopart.''

What a deal of terrible beauty there is contained in this description!
The imagination of a poet brings such objects before us, as when we
look at wild beasts in a menagerie ; their claws are pared, their eyes
glitter like harmless lightning ; but we gaze at them with a pleasing
awe, clothed in beauty, formidable in the sense of abstract power.

Chaucer's descriptions ot natural scenery possess the same sort of

26



ON CHAUCER AND SPENSER

characteristic excellence, or what might be termed gusto. They
have a local truth and freshness, which gives the very feeling of the
air, the coolness or moisture of the ground. Inanimate objects are
thus made to have a fellow-feeling in the interest of the story ; and
render back the sentiment of the speaker's mind. One of the finest
parts of Chaucer is of this mixed kind. It is the beginning of the
Flower and the Leaf, where he describes the delight of that young
beauty, shrowded in her bower, and listening, in the morning of the
year, to the singing of the nightingale ; while her joy rises with the
rising song, and gushes out afresh at every pause, and is borne along with
the full tide of pleasure, and still increases and repeats, and prolongs
itself, and knows no ebb. The coolness of the arbour, its retirement,
the early time of the day, the sudden starting up of the birds in the
neighbouring bushes, the eager delight with which they devour and rend
the opening buds and flowers, are expressed with a truth and feeling,
which make the whole appear like the recollection of an actual scene :

'Which as me thought was right a pleasing sight,
And eke the briddes song for to here,
Would haue rejoyced any earthly wight,
And I that couth not yet in no manere
Heare the nightingale of all the yeare,
Ful busily herkened with herte and with eare,
If I her voice perceiue coud any where.

And I that all this pleasaunt sight sie,
Thought sodainly I felt so sweet an aire
Of the eglentere, that certainely
There is no herte I deme in such dispaire,
Ne with thoughts froward and contraire,
So ouerlaid, but it should soone haue bote,
If it had ones felt this savour sote.

And as I stood and cast aside mine eie,

I was ware of the fairest medler tree

That ever yet in all my life I sie

As full of blossomes as it might be,

Therein a goldfinch leaping pretile

Fro bough to bough, and as him list he eet

Here and there of buds and floures sweet.

And to the herber side was joyning
This faire tree, of which I haue you told,
And at the last the brid began to sing,
Whan he had eaten what he eat wold,
So passing sweetly, that by manifold
It was more pleasaunt than I coud deuise,
And whan his song was ended in this wise,

27



LECTURES ON THE ENGLISH POETS

The nightingale with so merry a note

Answered him, that all the wood rong

So sodainly, that as it were a sote,

I stood astonied, so was I with the song

Thorow rauished, that till late and long,

I ne wist in what place I was, ne where,

And ayen me thought she song euen by mine ere.

Wherefore I waited about busily
On euery side, if I her might see,
And at the last I gan full well aspie
Where she sat in a fresh grene laurer tree,
On the further side euen right by me,
That gaue so passing a delicious smell,
According to the eglentere full well.

Whereof I had so inly great pleasure,
That as me thought I surely rauished was
Into Paradice, where my desire
Was for to be, and no ferther passe
As for that day, and on the sote grasse,
I sat me downe, for as for mine entent,
The birds song was more conuenienr,

And more pleasaunt to me by manifold,

Than meat or drinke, or any other thing,

Thereto the herber was so fresh and cold,

The wholesome sauours eke so comforting,

That as I demed, sith the beginning

Of the world was neur seene or than

So pleasaunt a ground of none earthly man.

And as I sat the birds harkening thus,
Me thought that I heard voices sodainly,
The most sweetest and most delicious
That euer any wight I trow truly
Heard in their life, for the armony
And sweet accord was in so good musike,



Online LibraryWilliam HazlittLectures on the English poets : [and] The spirit of the age; or contemporary portraits. → online text (page 3 of 38)