Page images


throughout the poem-dissimilarity in poetic effect. Dryden's manner impresses us as far less natural and spontaneous than Chaucer's; he is artificial and conventional. For example, out of Chaucer's simple "smyler," he has constructed a personified “Hypocrisy.” He speaks vaguely of " youthful prime." In general, we shall find between “ The Knightes Tale” and “Palamon and Arcite" a great difference in poetical effect arising from the large amount of metaphor and simile and personification, not of Chaucerian origin, in Dryden's poem.

One other cause which probably contributes to the marked difference in poetical effect should be touched onthe verse-form. The measure of “The Knightes Tale” is a verse of five feet, or usually ten syllables, arranged in rimed couplets. These couplets Chaucer, while using very correct rimes, treated freely. His sentence or clause, though nearly always ending at the end of a line, is by

means coincident with his couplet, and indeed a paragraph break often divides the two verses. Of such freedom there is only one instance in “Palamon and Arcite” (II., 308). The point is that Dryden's thought, although arranged for the most part in the same sort of verse, breaks oftener into couplets, and hence seems more rigid. Moreover, we find in “ Palamon and Arcite” no less than 67 triplets, that is, 201 lines, or about nine per cent. of the whole number of verses. There are also many Alexandrines, or verses of six feet (twelve syllables), broken by a pause at the end of the third foot. Neither the fivefoot triplet nor the Alexandrine is very common in English; hence their use seems artificial. Dryden, of course, employs them when the idea will not settle into a couplet. The following is an example:

“ This done, he marched away with warlike sound, And to his Athens turned with laurels crowned, Where happy long he lived, much loved, and more re

nowned ” (I., 162).

The fact that Dryden did not hesitate now and then to pad out a thought to make it fill the measure tends to add to the strained effect which his poem, in comparison with “ The Knightes Tale," produces.

The main differences which have been stated are, in different ways, the partial cause of one great difference which remains to be mentioned—the lack of humour in Dryden's poem. Humour is rarely the result of artifice, and in “ The Knightes Tale” its quality is marvellous and its fund unfailing.

The freshness of Chaucer's ideas, the delicacy of his expression, and his sly manner (with a touch of the man of the world) are the qualities which make a reader continually smile as he peruses the poem. Of this effect there is hardly a trace in “ Palamon and Arcite." Where Dryden could take a saying bodily from Chaucer he has done so, as in the case of his inferior

“For women, to the brave an easy prey, Still follow Fortune where she leads the way” (III.,


[ocr errors]

for Chaucer's

“For wommen, as to speken in comune, They folwen al the favour of fortune.”

But of the manner of Chaucer, of his constant and enlivening humour, Dryden has nothing.

A word may be added about certain other points of dissimilarity, which have little to do with the general effect of the poems. Dryden has frequently cast aside certain ideas of Chaucer, and added bodily ideas of his own. For example, Dryden has omitted from his description of the temple of Mars the following striking figure:

“A wolf ther stood biforn him at his feet, With eyen rede, and of a man he eet."

[ocr errors]

On the other hand, he has deliberately introduced the

following couplet, which Scott calls “a political sarcasm of the Tory poet":

“Laughed all the powers who favour tyranny,

And all the standing army of the sky” (III., 665). From an earlier poet, Thomas Carew, he took the following lines:

“Of such a goddess no time leaves record, Who burned the temple where she was adored” (II.,

115). Such examples merely go to show the freedom of Dryden's methods in retelling the tales. They point to the conclusion that we can hardly judge Dryden as if he were a mere translator; he must be judged on the intrinsic merits and defects of his poem as an original work.

[ocr errors]


We have seen that Dryden, taking a narrative poem of Chaucer, and keeping the same situations and characters, retold it at greater length, in a somewhat weakened form, with less simplicity and humour, and more artificiality and conventionality than the original; that he has, in other words, written a poem of considerably less charm than his original. What, then, are the merits of “Palamon and Arcite” which make it the great poem that it undoubtedly is? Setting aside the elements common to both poems, the plot, the characters, and the like, we shall find our answer in the fact that we listen to a great poet telling a story in his own way. Dryden was obviously bound to the manner of his own time,—that he could not escape, and he was retelling Chaucer's tale for the amusement of his own contemporaries. This fact alone is sufficient explanation for the differences which we have discussed. Now, what of “ Palamon and Arcite itself? What are the merits which arise from Dryden's peculiar treatment?

The chief characteristic is undoubtedly vigour. In spite of the weakening which goes with added length, Dryden never lets the story lag. It moves straight from start to finish. It is not, however, equally strong at all points. Possibly the most glowing part of the poem is the narrative of the tourney, a passage which Scott thought better than Chaucer's account. Lines 574-658 of Book III. certainly present a very vivid picture. The closing lines of the passage are admirable:

“ The sound of trumpets to the voice replied,
And round the royal lists the heralds cried,
'Arcite of Thebes has won the beauteous bride!”

[ocr errors]

These and the opening three lines of the passage are excellent examples of how skilful and effective the unnatural triplet became in Dryden's hands. They are much better indications of Dryden's real strength than the emotional speeches and prayers, which, as we have seen, the poet generally weakened. Other good examples of his vigour occur in the narrative of the march against Creon, and in his descriptions of the temples, in those parts especially where he freed himself from his figures of speech and his excessive personification of crimes and misdemeanors and misfortunes. The lines,

“ There saw I Mars his ides, the Capitol, The seer in vain foretelling Caesar's fall; The last triumvirs, and the wars they move,

And Antony, who lost the world for love ” (II., 604), are-saving the rimes—as compactly and powerfully written as would be possible.

Dryden's power is also shown in single lines, as in such sounding verses as

“ Cheered with the promise of a glorious day” (I., 212), “And glared like angry lions as they passed ” (I., 356), “ The lengthened night gave length of misery” (I.,


[ocr errors]


[ocr errors]

where one feels that the idea could scarcely have been better put. In his use of the Alexandrine, too, we note his skill, as, for example, Till sense was lost in sound, and silence fled the place

(II., 575), and

Then grasped the hand he held, and sighed his soul

away” (III., 837),

which are distinctly better than would have been the usual five-foot verses, though in these two instances the effect is largely due to alliteration. Best of all are the lines where Dryden had good sense and feeling enough to allow Chaucer's line to stand nearly unaltered: “ That fields are full of eyes and woods have ears

72), “ To make a virtue of necessity” (III., 1079),


and even that much admired pun,

“Up rose the sun, and up rose Emily” (III., 190).

One couplet,

“Fool, not to know that love endures no tie,
And Jove but laughs at lovers' perjury” (II., 148),

though less familiar than Shakspere's

“At lovers' perjuries, they say, Jove laughs,”

has, according to the compiler of “Familiar Quotations," become a stock phrase in our language.

Other qualities are less striking. Humour, in the relative absenee of which we have seen one of the differences between the two poems, is sometimes to be found, and of Dryden's own. For example, speaking of the wisdom of

« PreviousContinue »