Sivut kuvina
PDF
ePub

his passion like Narcissus ? Would he think of inopen me copia fecit, and a dozen more of such expressions, poured on the neck of one another, and fignifying all the same thing? If this were wit, was this a time to be witty, when the poor wretch was in the agony of death! This is juft John Littlewit in Bartholomew: Fair, who had a conceit (as he tells you) left him in his misery ; a miserable conceit. On these occasions the poer should endeavour to raise pity : but instead of this, Ovid is tickling you to laugh. Virgil never made use of such machines, when he was moving you to commiserate the death of Dido: he would not destroy what he was building. Chaucer makes Arcite violent in his love, and unjust in the pursuit of ir: yet when he came to die, he made him think more reasonably : he repents not of his love, for that had altered his character; but acknowledges the injustice of his proceedings, and resigns Ernilia to Palamon. What would Ovid have done on this occasion ? He would certainly have made Arcite witry on his death-bed. He had complained he was farther off from poffeffion, by being so near, and a thousand such boyisms, which Chaucer rejected as below the dignity of the subject. They, who think otherwise, would by the same reafon prefer Lucan and Ovid to Homer and Virgil, and Martial to all four of them. As for the turn of words, in which Ovid particularly excels all poets; they are sometimes a fault, and sometimes a beauty, as they are used properly or improperly; but in strong pas. fions always to be shunned, because passions are serious, and will admit no playing. The French have a high value for them; and I confess, they are often what they call delicate, when they are introduced with judgment; but Chaucer writ with more simplicity, and followed nature more closely, than to use them. I have thus far, to the best of my knowledge, been an upright judge betwixt the parties in competition, not meddling with the design nor the disposition of it; be. cause the design was not their own ; and in the dispose ing of it they were equal. le remains that I say somewhat of. Chaucer in particular. . .. In the first place, as he is the father of English poetry, so I hold him in the same degree of veneration as the Grecians held Homer, or the Romans Virgil : he is a perpetual fountain of good sense ; learned in all sciences; and therefore speaks properly on all subjects: as he knew what to say, so he knows also when to leave off, a continence which is practised by few writers, and scarcely by any of the antients, excepting Virgil and Horace, One of our late great poets is sunk in his reputation, because he could never forgive any conceit which came in his way; but swept like a drag-net, great and small. There was plenty enough, but the dishes were ill-forted; whole pyramids of sweet-meats, for boys and women; but little of solid meat, for men: all this proceeded not from any want of knowledge, but of judgment; neither did he want that in discerning the beauties and faults of other poets ; but only indulged himself in the luxury of writing; and perhaps knew it was a fault, but hoped the reader would not find it. For this reaSun, though he must always be thought a great poet, he is no longer esteemed a good writer : and for ten impressions, which his works have had in so many successive years, yet at present a hundred books are Scarcely purchased once a twelvemonth : for, as my last lord Rochester said, tho fomewhat profanely, Not being of God, he could not stand.

Chaucer followed nature every where; but was never fo bold to go beyond her : and there is a great difference of being Poeta and nimis Poeta, if we believe Catullus, as much as betwixt a inodest behaviour and affectation. The verse of Chaucer, I confess, is not harmoniqus to us; but it is like the eloquence of

one whom Tacitus commends, it was auribus iftius temporis accommodata : they who lived with him, and some time after him, thought it musical; and it continues to even in our judgment, if compared with the numbers of Lidgate and Gower, his contemporaries: there is the rude sweetness of a Scotch tune in it, which is natural and pleasing, though not perfect. It is true, I cannot go so far as he who published the ļast edition of him ; for he would make us believe the fault is in our ears, and that there were really ten fyllables in a verse where we find but nine : but this opinion is not worth confuting; it is so gross and obvious an error, that common sense (which is a rule in every thing but matters of faith and revelation) must convince the reader, that equality of numbers in every verse which we call Heroic, was either not known, or not always practised in Chaucer's age. It were an easy matter to produce some thousands of his verses, which are lame for want of half a foot, and sometimes a whole one, and which no pronunciation can make otherwise. We can only say, that he lived in the infancy of our poetry, and that nothing is brought to perfection at the first. We must be children before we grow men. There was an Ennius, and in process of time a Lucilius, and a Lucrețius, before Virgil and Horace ; even after Chaucer there was a Spenser, a Harrington, a Fairfax, before Waller and Denham were in being: and our numbers were in their nonage till these last appeared, I need say little of his parentage, life, and fortunes : they are to be found at large in all the editions of his works. He was employed abroad and favoured by Edward the Third, Richard the Second, and Henry the Fourth, and was poet, as I suppose, to all three of them. In Richard's time, I doubt, he was a little dipt in the rebellion of the commons; and being brotherin-law to John of Gaunt, it was no wonder if he followed the fortunes of that family, and was well with

Henry the Fourth when he had deposed his prede.. cessor. Neither is it to be admired, that Henry, who was a wise as well as a valiant prince, who claimed by succession, and was sensible that his title was not sound, but was rightfully in Mortimer, who had married the heir of York, it was not to be admired, I say, if that great politician should be pleased to have the greatest wit of those times in his interests, and to be the trumpet of his praises. Augustus had given himn the example, by the advice of Mæcenas, who recommended Virgil and Horace to him ; whose praises helped to make him popular while he was alive, and after his death have made him precious to posterity. As for the religion of our poet, he seems to have some little bias rowards the opinions of Wickliff, after John of Gaunt his patron ; somewhat of which appears in the tale of Piers Plowman: yet I cannot blame him for inveighing so sharply against the vices of the clergy in his age : their pride, their ambition, their pomp, their avarice, their worldly interest, deserved the lashes which he gave them, both in that, and to most of his Canterbury tales : neicher has his contemporary Boccace spared them. Yet both those poets lived in much esteem with good and holy men in orders : for the scandal which is given by particular priests, reflects not on the sacred function. Chaucer's Monk, his Chanon, and his Fryer, took not from the character of his Good Parson. A satyrical poet is the check of the laymen, on bad priests. We are only to take care, that we involve not the innocent with the guilty in the same condemnation. The good cannot be toa much honoured, nor the bad too coarsely used : for the corruption of the best becomes the worst. When a clergyman is whipped, his gown is first taken off, by which the dignity of his order is secured : if he be wrongfully acculed, he has his action of Bander; and it is at the poet's peril, if he transgress the law. But they will tell us, that all kind of satire, though never so well deserved by particular priests, yet brings the whole order into contempt. Is then the peerage of England any thing dishonoured, when a peer suffers for his treason? If he be libelled, or any way defamed, he has his Scandalum Magnatum to punis the offender. They, who use this kind of argument, seem to be conscious to themselves of somewhat which has deserved the poet's lash ; and are less concerned for their public capacity, than for their private ; at least there is pride at the bottom of their reasoning. If the faults of men in orders are only to be judged among themselves, they are all in some fort parties : for, since they say the honour of their order is concerned in every member of it, how can we be fure, that they will be impartial judges ? How far I may be allowed to speak my opinion in this case, I know not : but I am sure a dispute of this nature caused mischief in abundance betwixt a king of England and an archbishop of Canterbury; one standing up for the Laws of his land, and the other for the honour (as he called it) of God's Church ; which ended in the murther of the prelate, and in the whipping of his majesty from post to pillar for his penance. The learned and ingenious Dr. Drake has saved me the labour of inquiring into the esteem and reverence which the priests have had of old ; and I would rather extend than diminish any part of it : yet I must needs say, that when a priest provokes me without any occasion given him, I have no reason, unless it be the charity of a Christian, to forgive him? Prior lafit is justification sufficient in the Civil Law. If I answer him in his own language, self-defence, I am sure, must be allowed me ; and if I carry it farther, even to a sharp recrimination, somewhat may be indulged to human frailty. Yet my resentmeni has not wrought so far, but that I have followed Chaucer

« EdellinenJatka »