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Virtue to courts, and, what I longed to see,
O daughter of the Rose, whose cheeks unite
All is your lord's alone; even absent, he
The soft recesses of your hours improve
II. SELECTED PASSAGES FROM DRYDEN'S PREFACE [The following passages are chosen from Dryden's Preface to give in his own words his opinion of Chaucer. It is to be regretted that the famous bit of criticism cannot be printed entire, or at least all parts which in any way relate to Chaucer. Dryden, after speaking of the general purpose of his critique, and after comparing Homer and Ovid, and Ovid and Chaucer, to the advantage, in the last comparison, of the latter, continues his discussion of the English poet.]
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 ancients, excepting Virgil and Horace.
Chaucer followed nature everywhere; but was never so 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 modest behaviour and affectation. The verse of Chaucer, I confess, is not harmonious to us; but is like the eloquence of one whom Tacitus commends, it was auribus istius temporis accommodata ; they who lived with him, and some time after him, thought it musical; and it continues so even in our judgment, if compared with the numbers of Lydgate and Gower, his contemporaries: there is the rude sweetness of a Scotch tune in it, which is natural and pleasing, though not perfect.
He must have been a man of a most wonderful comprehensive rature, because, as it has been truly observed of him, he has taken into the compass of his Canterbury Tales the various manners and humours (as we now call them) of the whole English nation, in his age. Not a single character has escaped him. All his pilgrims are severally distinguished from each other; and not only in their inclinations, but in their very physiognomies and persons. Baptista Porta 1 could not have described their natures better than by the marks which the poet gives them. The matter and manner of their tales and of their telling are so suited to their different educations, humours, and callings, that each of them would be improper in any other mouth. Even the grave and serious characters are distinguished by their several sorts of gravity: their discourses are such as belong to their age, their calling, and their breeding; such as are becoming of them, and of them only. Some of his persons are vicious, and some virtuous; some are unlearned or (as Chaucer calls them) lewd, and some are learned. Even the ribaldry of the low characters is different: the Reeve, the Miller, and the Cook are several men, and distinguished from each other, as much as the mincing lady Prioress and the broad-speaking, gap-toothed
· An Italian physiognomist.
Wife of Bath. But enough of this: there is such a variety of game springing up before me, that I am distracted in my
, choice, and know not which to follow. 'Tis sufficient to say, according to the proverb, that here is God's plenty. We have our forefathers and great-grandames all before us, as they were in Chaucer's days; their general characters are still remaining in mankind, and even in England, though they are called by other names than those of monks and friars, and canons, and lady abbesses, and nuns: for mankind is ever the same, and nothing lost out of nature, though everything is altered.
I have almost done with Chaucer, when I have answered some objections relating to my present work. I find some people are offended that I have turned these tales into modern English; because they think them unworthy of my pains, and look on Chaucer as a dry, old-fashioned wit, not worth reviving. I have often heard the late Earl of Leicester say, that Mr. Cowley himself was of that opinion; who having read him over at my lord's request, declared he had no taste of him. I dare not advance my opinion against the judgment of so great an author; but I think it fair, however, to leave the decision to the public. Mr. Cowley
, was too modest to set up for a dictator: and being shocked, perhaps, with his old style, never examined into the depth of his good sense. Chaucer, I confess, is a rough diamond, and must first be polished e'er he shines. I deny not, likewise, that, living in our early days of poetry, he writes not always of a piece, but sometimes mingles trivial things with those of greater moment. Sometimes also, though not often, he runs riot, like Ovid, and knows not when he has said enough. But there are more great wits besides Chaucer, whose fault is their excess of conceits, and those ill sorted. An author is not to write all he can, but only all he ought. Having observed this redundancy in Chaucer (as it is an easy matter for a man of ordinary parts to find a fault in one of greater), I have not tied myself to a literal
translation; but have often omitted what I judged unnecessary, or not of dignity enough to appear in the company of better thoughts. I have presumed farther in some places, and added somewhat of my own where I thought my author was deficient, and had not given his thoughts their true lustre, for want of words in the beginning of our language. And to this I was the more emboldened, because (if I may be permitted to say it of myself) I found I had a soul congenial to his, and that I had been conversant in the same studies. Another poet, in another age, may take the same liberty with my writings; if at least they live long enough to deserve correction.
In sum, I seriously protest, that no man ever had, or can have, a greater veneration for Chaucer than myself. I have translated some part of his works, only that I might perpetuate his memory, or at least refresh it, amongst my countrymen. If I have altered him anywhere for the better, I must at the same time acknowledge that I could have done nothing without him: Facile est inventis addere is no great commendation; and am not so vain to think I have deserved a greater.
I prefer in our countryman, far above all his other stories, the noble poem of Palamon and Arcite, which is of the epic kind, and perhaps not much inferior to the Ilias or the Æneis: the story is more pleasing than either of them, the manners as perfect, the diction as poetical, the learning as deep and various, and the disposition full as artful; only it includes a greater length of time, as taking up seven years at least; but Aristotle 'has left undecided the duration of the action; which yet is easily reduced into the compass of a year by a narration of what preceded the return of Palamon to Athens. I had thought, for the honour of our nation, and more particularly for his whose laurel, though unworthy, I have worn after him, that this story was of English growth and Chaucer's own; but I was undeceived by Boccace.
III. NOTE ON THE ASTROLOGICAL TERMS
The astrological references in Palamon and Arcite are rather numerous and are decidedly perplexing. Dryden borrowed from Chaucer, and with some looseness of terminology ; for the science, though by no means dead in Dryden's time, had not the great vogue which it had enjoyed for many centuries previous. For the general reader, it is sufficient to say that astrology was the science, or,-better, the art, of determining the influence of the planets and the stars on human life and earthly events. The various positions in the sky of the heavenly bodies and their combination with one another were supposed to have direct influence in the ordering of the lives of men. Accordingly, at the birth of a child, the “horoscope” (I., 245) was cast or set up. This was a plan of the positions of the principal planets and constellations, with an analysis of their influences. Thus, Arcite (I., 247) speaks of the evil planets which “ ruled our birth.”
The student who wishes more exactly to understand the specific astrological references of the text should have in mind the scheme of the astrological system. There are three things to be considered :
1. The planets and luminaries which were thought to exercise sway over human life were the Moon, the Sun, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Of these Mars and Saturn chiefly concern us here. Their influence was for different sorts of evil.
2. The Zodiac is an imaginary belt in the heavens, sixteen degrees in width, parallel with the ecliptic, or plane of the apparent yearly motion of the sun around the earth, and extending an equal number of degrees on each side of this plane. The Zodiac was made of this width to include the apparent orbits of the other planets, which accordingly always appear within the limits of the belt. This belt was divided into twelve equal parts, each of thirty degrees; these were called the “Signs of the Zodiac," and were Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpio, Sagittarius, Capricornus, Aquarius, and Pisces. The sun entered Aries at the vernal equinox; thence it ran, in its apparent yearly circuit from west to east, along these twelve signs ; that is, through each in the course of about thirty days. For example, we learn that “May, within the Twins, received the Sun” (II., 10). It is important to remember that the sun and the planets might, owing to their different rates of motion, appear now in the same sign, now widely separated. (The moon, of
course, made the entire circuit thirteen times a year.) The sign in which a particular planet was most powerful was called his “planetary house." Thus, Capricorn (III., 384) was the “house” of Saturn, whereas Mars was less powerful in this sign, his so-called “exaltation.”