Fictitious Lives of Chaucer
IN 1628, twelve years after the death of Shakespeare, appeared the first edition of the Microcosmographie of John Earle, then fellow of Merton College, Oxford, afterward successively the bishop of Worcester and of Salisbury. This work belonged to a class of writings — the delineation of individual characters — which the intensely introspective life of the earlier half of the seventeenth century had made extremely popular. Among some fifty others sketched was that of A Vulgar-Spirited Man, by whom was meant one who merely followed in all things the common cry, who had no opinions but the received opinions of the majority about him. In the description of this character occurs a passage which is of some importance to us as marking the position then held in popular estimation by the first great writer of our literature. The vulgar-spirited man is characterized as one “ that cries Chaucer for his money above all our English poets, because the voice has gone so,
and he has read none.” At the time when this appeared, it must be borne in mind that a succession of writers had come and gone who had made the Elizabethan age the proudest in our literary annals. The intellectual outburst of that period, it is true, had long before reached its point of highest flow, and was then running in narrow channels or losing itself entirely among shallows. But if the power of production was beginning to fail, self-respect still survived unimpaired. A certain degree of distance, indeed, is usually needed to gain a proper conception of the magnitude of large objects; and Shakespeare was as yet too near the time to have the fullness and extent of his superiority generally appreciated. But it is certainly creditable to the honesty and healthy spirit of that age that the first poet, in point of time, of our literature, strictly so called, was still reckoned by the common voice the first in point of greatness; and, with an exception in favor of one man only, that verdict has never been set aside. No higher tribute can be paid to the freshness and power of Chaucer’s genius than to say that it has never failed in any period to triumph over the obsoleteness of his diction and the capriciousness of popular taste, and that, though nearly five centuries have gone by since his death, in the long and illustrious roll of English poets the opinions of all competent to judge set the name only of Shakespeare above his own.
At the same time it need not be denied that to many, even of professedly literary men, Chaucer is a name rather than a power. Up to a comparatively late period a large share of his poetry was practically inaccessible in any form to the vast majority of the Englishspeaking race. Four centuries went by before his greatest work was competently edited; and his other poems still wait for some one to do for them what Tyrwhitt did for the Canterbury Tales. In regard to his personal history, our information, though still scanty, is far fuller than could reasonably have been expected. If later investigations have not added much to our real knowledge of the poet, they have taken away a good deal that had been unpleasant to contemplate in the character of the man. During the last twenty years, but in particular since the forming of the Chaucer Society, in 1867, light has been obtained on many points which were previously uncertain or unknown. Facts have been discovered, doubts have been dispelled, and suspicious statements have been exploded. Along with this, it must be confessed, there has been and still is manifested a disposition to make assumption and assertion do the work of investigation and argument. Even when results probably right have been reached, they have not unfrequently been defended by wrong reasons. Worse than this, the wildest, not to say the absurdest, inferences have been elevated to the dignity of certainties. And nowhere have these methods been more conspicuously exhibited than in the treatment of the personal details which make up what little we know, or think we know, of the poet’s life. One fictitious story was looked upon for centuries as perfectly trustworthy, and is still far from dead, though slowly dying: but now that it is disappearing, another is apparently coming in to take its place, fully as irrational in its character, and based upon even less substantial grounds. The present, therefore, seems a fitting time to investigate carefully what we do know and what we do not know in regard to Chaucer; to separate sharply what has been assumed from what has been actually ascertained; and, especially, to make a full examination of those two fictitious histories of his life, or rather of supposed events in his life, which resemble each other in nothing save in the fact that both are equally unsupported by any evidence. The story which is dying out naturally takes the precedence. It has, moreover, a special interest of its own from its intimate connection with a purely literary question of some importance, though not a question in regard to which there has been as yet much controversy.
Of all the writings produced by Chaucer, or ascribed to him, the prose Testament of Love is the most wearisome to read and the hardest to understand. Nevertheless, it forms the foundation upon which was built that monstrous account of his life which still survives, and even flourishes with all the vitality belonging to a story not merely false but also injurious. The scattered statements of that treatise were early brought together so as to frame a consistent narrative; the events directly mentioned in it or indirectly alluded to were ingeniously connected with well-known political occurrences that took place in the reign of Richard II.; and both statements and events were cleverly made to fit in with certain incidents in the career of Chaucer in regard to which we have positive information from special records. As a result of this a life of the poet was formed, under the plastic hands of successive biographers, which had all the plausibility of truth with scarcely a trace of its reality. Yet for two centuries at least this account was accepted without question; and its inaccurate and even contradictory assertions are still to be found in some of our most valuable works of reference. It is indeed, only likely to die out in the same gradual way in which it came into being. For the story did not spring up at once : each generation added something of its own to what had been invented by the preceding. The conjectures of one man became the certainties of another, and from these inferences were drawn by a third, to which constant repetition finally gave all the sacredness of unquestionable truth.
The complete comprehension of the story involves in consequence a careful examination of the ultimate source from which it was derived. This is all the more necessary because the Testament of Love is a work which very few men ever meet with, fewer still read, and nobody understands. It has never been printed save in the clumsy folio volumes which contain the complete works of the poet; and these are not often found except on the shelves of great libraries or of curious collectors. Not one of these, in fact, is of a later date than the early part of the eighteenth century; and the only one of them that can be looked upon as in any degree an authority for the text of this particular treatise is the first edition of 1532. All others are mere reprints, so far as this production is concerned.
The Testament of Love is a treatise in three books, and is directly modeled upon the Consolation of Philosophy of Boethius. The latter is a work which seems to have made a profound impression upon the minds of men in the Middle Ages, — an impression which at this day it is somewhat hard for us to realize. Whether it was that the fate of the Roman senator was constantly before the minds of the actors in the stormy scenes of those periods, or that the present could never be so prosperous but there existed a secret feeling that the future had in reversion great store of sorrow, certain it is that the reflections with which the latest of the philosophers consoled his prison hours had a special interest for men who knew not how soon they might be called upon to repeat his experience. Chaucer himself, it is well
known, made a translation into English of this treatise, and indeed in his other works speaks of his version of it twice, with an approval in which, it is to be feared, very few of his readers would ever feel disposed to share. Like its model, the Testament of Love is in the form of a dialogue. As philosophy appears to Boethius in his prison in the shape of a venerable but beautiful woman to comfort and strengthen, so in this case a being appears to the writer who seems at first to represent an earthly love, but as the work proceeds assumes more and more the character of an incarnation of divine love. Like its model, also, it is to a certain extent autobiographical; at least it is full of references to events, real or fictitious, in the life of the author. Accepting these references as relating to occurrences which actually took place, the following facts can be made out: At the supposed time of composition, the writer is in prison; at any rate he has been released from it only a short time before. He had been possessed of wealth and honor, but had lost both. He had held positions of great public trust, of which he had been deprived. In particular, he had, to use his own words, “ administered the office of common doing, as in ruling the establishments among the people,” whatever may be meant by that language. And he had fallen from this position because he had been led to take part in certain political intrigues and conspiracies, which seem to have had for their immediate aim the possession of the government of the city of London. Seem to have had, it is well to observe, for the language of the Testament of Love is throughout oracular in its obscurity, and any given passage can often bear an unlimited number of interpretations. But in consequence of his participation in these “conjurations and other great matters of ruling of citizens,” he had been forced to flee and to live for some time in exile; where, it is not once stated, though he mentions incidentally that he had paid the expenses of some of his associates until they were turned out of Seland. But the men for whom he suffered proved unfaithful to him, and even endeavored to defraud him. So at last he appears to have returned to his native country, determined to take the chance of the fate which fortune had in store for him. Arriving there he had been thrown into prison, but had been offered both safety and release if he would make full confession of whatever he knew in regard to the matters in which he had been concerned. To solicitations of this kind he had finally yielded. But although by this compliance he had secured for himself the safety and liberty which had been promised, he had secured them at the expense of his reputation; for he was charged with having betrayed his associates, and from the odium of the accusation and the hatred caused by the general belief in it, he had been unable to free himself.
These are the main facts which can be made out from the Testament of Love; and even in the simple form in which they are here stated, it is probable that too much certainty has been imputed to what, after all, is but mere inference. For illustration, the writer speaks of himself as having been in exile; but neither is the time when nor the place where mentioned, nor does he say that he returned from it of his own accord, or that having returned he was thrown into prison. It is, indeed, possible that “ to be exiled ” may be used in this work as in the first book of the Consolation of Philosophy, not in the sense of being driven from one’s country, but of having gone astray from the true path of thought and action. However that may be, all of the points above given had to be assumed in order to make the scattered statements of the treatise have any consistence whatever. Thus welded together they formed the groundwork of a biography, which was enlarged by such successive additions of minute detail, and covered with such a superstructure of inference, that in process of time the original foundation disappeared both from sight and consideration.
The editions of Chaucer’s complete works which came out in 1598 and 1602, under the superintendence of Thomas Speght, contained also a life of the poet. This, however, did not make much personal application of the events spoken of in the Testament of Love. Speght did little more than remark that it was evident from this treatise that Chaucer was in trouble during the reign of Richard II.; and he added that he had seen a manuscript of the Complaint to his Purse, containing ten times more than the printed copy, in which the poet had spoken of his wrongful imprisonment. This biographer, however, did not venture to go at all into detail. He contented himself simply with complimenting the prudence of Chaucer in those troublous times; for he tells us that “ as he was learned, so was he wise, and kept himself much out of the way in Holland, Zealand, and France, where he wrote most of his books.”
The next edition of Chaucer, excluding, of course, mere reprints, was that of Urry, which came out in 1721. This is the last of the folios. But it has several other claims to notice. Among the many poor editions of the poet’s works, it early acquired and has ever since retained the double distinction of being the poorest and most pretentious. Tyrwhitt, in fact, in his preface to the Canterbury Tales, declared that, it ought never to be opened by any one for the purpose of reading Chaucer. Still, as the volume is pretty scarce, and on that account held at a somewhat high price, it is not likely that many have been seriously injured by its perusal, or that the reputation of the poet as poet has suffered in consequence to any great extent. But so much cannot be said for the elaborate biography prefixed to it. This, however, was not written by Urry himself, who had died before the work was finished, but by a certain Mr. Dart, who was employed for that purpose by the University of Oxford. It is always interesting to observe how much more positive and precise men become in their knowledge of events the farther they are removed from the time in which the events occurred; but in this particular case it is almost startling to find into what magnificent proportions the simple story of Chaucer’s life had been developed during the little more than one century that had elapsed between the appearance of these two editions. Doubt had become certainty, surmise had been turned into explicit assertion. Nothing new had actually been discovered, but an infinitude of exact detail had been secured by a thorough and systematic utilization of the hints scattered up and down the pages of the Testament of Love. The personal statements of that treatise were made to refer to certain well-known facts in Chaucer’s career, which had been carefully dovetailed with other facts in the political history of the times; and from the union of these three sources of information, each of which standing by itself was probably true, a clear and consistent narrative was formed which has turned out to be absolutely false.
This is an abstract of the story as told in Urry’s edition and repeated with more or less fullness of detail by every biographer up to about the middle of the present century. Chaucer was attached to the party of John of Gaunt, the “ timehonored Lancaster” of Shakespeare, the uncle of the boy-king, Richard II. At a period when the influence of that nobleman was on the wane, and while he himself was absent from England, the country was disturbed by civil commotions excited by his followers. The culmination of the troubles came in 1384, when John of Northampton, a creature of the Duke of Lancaster, took advantage of the favor in which he stood with the multitude to seek reëlection as lord mayor of London. This brought him into collision with the court, and in the conflict which ensued the poet, who was at that time controller of the customs, took sides with the popular party. The latter were defeated. The success of the court was followed by the downfall and ruin of all opposed to it who had been concerned in these disturbances. Chaucer was forced to go into exile. He made his escape to Hainault, afterwards went to France, and finally took refuge in Zealand. There he struggled for a while with all sorts of privations; but finding, at last, his means of support entirely cut off by the treachery of pretended friends, he carried into effect the apparently desperate resolution of returning to his native country. Soon after his arrival in England he was arrested and imprisoned, probably in the Tower; and he was informed that his only way to obtain mercy was to make a full confession of the treasonable practices in which he had been engaged, and thereby expose his confederates. After evading this for a long time he at last consented. By so doing he gained the favor of the monarch, but brought upon himself the ill-will of his previous associates and of the people; and as a sort of apology for his conduct, and of consolation for the miserable straits into which he had fallen, he wrote the treatise which goes under the name of the Testament of Love.
This in the main became the accepted story, and was the one generally given. For more than a century it met with neither contradiction nor criticism. Even Tyrwhitt, though some of the statements struck him as singular and indeed as inexplicable, did not venture to question the substantial accuracy of the narrative. Elaborate as it was, it was destined to be still further elaborated in the next biography of any importance. This appeared in 1803 in two large volumes, and was the work of William Godwin, the author of the treatise on Political Justice, and the father-in-law of the poet Shelley. How any one could manage, by any conceivable device of the human intellect, to fill two enormous folios with the life of a man, all the known facts of whose history could be easily compressed into the space of a few pages, was a mystery which at first puzzled the critics of that period. An examination of the book speedily made that point entirely plain. It is an account of everything that Chaucer took part in or knew or mentioned, or might have taken part in or have known or mentioned. The process has been made so familiar to modern readers by the life of another poet, which has not yet been completed, that in this case no more than a single illustration will be needed. The antiquary Leland had handed down the story that Chaucer was a student at law in London.
It is entirely traditional. It may be true, or it may not be true. Strictly speaking, there is nothing that can be called good evidence either for it or against it. Godwin, after mentioning the statement and the uncertainty attending it, goes on to say: “ Let us, however, for a moment conceive of Chaucer as a student at law, and let us examine what ideas and conceptions would have been produced in his mind by this study.” On this most insecure of pegs he thereupon proceeds to hang several pages of disquisition, in which he gives an account of the civil law, of the canon law, of the feudal law, of the English constitution, of early writers on English law, of modes of pleading, of the venality of the administration of justice, and of the attempts for its reformation. This is no extreme case; and the application of this process through two volumes causes Chaucer himself often to appear to the reader as an exceedingly dim and dubious speck on the horizon of the book devoted to his life. Nor did the biographer stop here. Not only was everything examined anew, but satisfactory reasons were given for everybody’s conduct and precise dates assigned to everybody’s actions. Godwin, indeed, added something specific to our knowledge of the poet by printing some official documents which had never before been brought to light; and it is curious to observe how gallantly he struggled with the difficulties which the very records he had himself unearthed raised in the way of his theories. It was in the beginning of 1384 that the disturbances in the city of London had taken place. It was then that John of Northampton had been the candidate for lord mayor. It was in the middle of that same year that this popular leader was brought to trial and sentenced to imprisonment. It would have been reasonable to suppose, Godwin justly remarked, that the flight of Chaucer began about the time of the arrest of the man whose cause he had supported. Hut unfortunately the records of the reign of Richard II. show that in November,
1384, leave of absence for one month from the duties of his office was granted the poet on the ground of urgent business connected with his private affairs. Accordingly, he must then have been in London. But the biographer felt that it was incumbent to exile him, and therefore inclined to the belief that Chaucer took advantage of this leave of absence to withdraw to the Continent. So nine months after the arrest, and three months after the trial and imprisonment of the ringleader in whose plot he was concerned, the poet, without any apparently adequate motive, got a leave of absence from his duties in order to run away from his native land. Even this was not all. Godwin discovered, from the records that Chaucer was not deprived of his office as controller of the customs; and, moreover, that in the beginning of 1385 he was granted the special favor of executing its functions by deputy. But his faith in the common story was of the kind that removes mountains. Difficulties did not daunt him, impossibilities only made it dearer to him. Dating Chaucer’s flight from November, 1384, he insisted that the time of his exile lasted two years, and even went so far as to assure us that he doubtless took his wife with him, that is, if she were living. The reasons given for this assertion were certainly as convincing as those advanced for most of the statements contained in this narrative. Though prudence would have dictated the separation, the poet “was too deeply pervaded with the human and domestic affections to be able to consent to such a measure.” The taking with him of his wife necessarily involved the taking also of his little son Lewis, who was then about four years old. Doubt was graciously expressed as to whether he was accompanied by his elder son, Thomas; a hesitation which is fortunate for the biographer, as modern investigations seem to prove that Thomsas Chaucer was not the poet’s son. Godwin, having started the family on their travels, landed them at last in Zealand; and his account of what happened there does not differ from the one usually given, save in the greater minuteness of detail.
He returned the poet to England in 1386, where he had him immediately arrested and confined,though he added he had searched in vain among the records for the warrant committing him to prison. There he remained until 1389, when after confessing his treason and exposing his accomplices he was set at liberty; and in June of that year he composed the Testament of Love, though it was not published sooner than 1393.
It, is not simply that this elaborate story was a fiction throughout that made its constant reappearance disagreeable. But from its very nature It conveyed an imputation upon the character of the man which every admirer of the poet felt called upon to apologize for and explain away, so far as lay in his power. As a matter of fact, all sorts of palliating circumstances were introduced by every one of his biographers. But the need of all explanation and apology was finally to pass away. In 1845 the distinguished antiquary, Sir Nicolas Harris Nicolas, prefixed to the Aldine edition of Chaucer’s poetical works a life which was largely based upon official documents that had never before been printed, nor probably for this purpose even perused. The biography, it must be confessed, was not in itself particularly entertaining; but dry as it was, it was far more destructive, The whole edifice of fiction that had been so carefully reared toppled at once. The records that were published destroyed forever any autobiographic value that could be attached to the Testament of Love, at least as regards Chaucer. They demonstrated beyond a doubt that during the time he was supposed to be in exile, he was living in London; that from 1380 to 1388 he received half of his pension semi-annually with his own hands; that he held both his offices in the customs from 1382 to 1386; and that in the last-named year, when he was theoretically in prison in the Tower, he was actually a member of Parliament as knight of the shire for the county of Kent.
But, after all, nothing has much more vitality than a lie. Though the absurdity of these statements has been shown
beyond cavil, they still hold a place in most of the popular accounts that are given of the poet. They still continue to deform books of reference generally trustworthy. Naturally they would be found in all of them that were published before 1845; but since that time there has appeared the eighth edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica,1 Allibone’s Dictionary of Authors, and two editions of the New American Cyclopædia, and in every one of them this exploded story is gravely told as a truth. Worse than this, there has been an effort to reconstruct it so as to make it fit in with another period of Chaucer’s life, during which we are pretty certain that he was in trouble and perhaps in disgrace. As late as 1867, Professor Morley, of University College, London, evolved a new arrangement of the events referred to in the Testament of Love. After criticising the previous explanation of the autobiography as placing “ Chaucer at an impossible date, 1384, in the impossible position of a supporter of the citizens of London against the king,” he went on to advance another theory, which had nothing to recommend it save its novelty, and which cannot be disproved simply and solely because it cannot be proved. He established, to his own satisfaction at least, that Chaucer was thrown into prison during the sitting of the Parliament that met in February, 1388; and he added some reflections as to the loss which English literature would have sustained had the poet been executed before he wrote the Canterbury Tales; for it is to be borne in mind that those were days of somewhat liberal and indiscriminate hanging. Following the fashion of making history which Godwin had introduced, he likewise informed us that the son of the Duke of Lancaster, the Earl of Derby, who subsequently ascended the throne as Henry IV., was the person who persuaded Chaucer to separate himself from his dishonorable associates, and to confess the plots in which they had been concerned. Singularly enough, Morley took no notice of the plain reference to exile which appeared in the Testament of Love, although he quoted the very passage in which it occurred.
About this time, however, an unexpected turn was given to the whole discussion. Hitherto no doubt had been expressed as to the genuineness of the treatise upon which this story had been founded; at least no doubt had been publicly expressed, whatever may have been the views privately entertained. Sir Harris Nicolas had simply contented himself with denying the autobiographic value of the Testament of Love, which he spoke of as an “ allegorical composition, of which it is equally difficult to comprehend the meaning or the purport.” But in 1866 Wilhelm Hertzberg, a German author, published a translation into that language of the Canterbury Tales. To this he prefixed an introduction, in which he devoted a good deal of attention to several obscure points in the poet’s life and writings. As a result of his examination he was led to deny not merely that the Testament of Love had any value as illustrating passages in Chaucer’s career, but even that it was written by Chaucer at all. He pointed out how insignificant was the evidence in favor of this, and against it brought forward three arguments. The first was that the treatise was not mentioned by Lydgate, who, in his prologue to his translation of Boccaccio’s Fall of Princes, specifically named both the poetical and prose works of the man he called his master. The second was that the author of the Testament of Love, whoever he was, invariably spoke of himself in the first person, and thereby separated himself from Chaueer, of whom he spoke in the third. And lastly, the manner in which he spoke of him was in terms of the very highest praise, in words, indeed, which would not only be out of taste as coming from the poet’s own mouth, but wholly out of character. For while in Chaucer’s writings there are frequent allusions to himself, these allusions, so far from being of a self-asserting nature, are almost invariably depreciatory. In this respect they present a marked contrast to the passage in which he is mentioned in the Testament of Love. This occurs in the third book, which is largely taken up with the discussion of the questions of God’s foreknowledge and of man’s free will, but does no more than suggest their inevitable entail of endless controversy as to the origin of evil. To the query propounded by the writer whether, if certain points of view are insisted on, it does not necessarily follow that God is the maker and author of bad works, and therefore cannot rightfully punish the evil doings of mankind, Love rather cleverly shifts the burden of reply to Chaucer’s shoulders. The passage, with the spelling modernized, reads as follows: —
“ Quoth Love, I shall tell thee, this lesson to learn, mine own true servant, the noble philosophical poet in English, which ever more him busieth and travaileth right sore, my name to increase; wherefore all that willen me good, owe to do him worship and reverence both: truly, his better ne his peer in school of my rules could I never find; he, quoth she, in a treatise that he made of my servant Troilus hath this matter touched, and at the full this question assoiled. Certainly his noble sayings can I not amend: in goodness of gentle manly speech, without any nicety of starieres imagination, in wit and in good reason of sentence he passeth all other makers.”
To those who are familiar with Chaucer’s writings and with his manner of referring to himself it seems almost incredible that such a passage could have come from his own pen. For this reason, and those above given, Hertzberg concluded that the Testament of Love was not written by the poet himself, but by one of his contemporaries and admirers. He seemed to think, indeed, that no satisfactory explanation or excuse could be made for this result not having been reached previously, except on the ground that no one before himself had ever read the treatise entirely through. For the passage in regard to Chaucer occurs near the end of the incomprehensible third book, while almost every one of the personal references is to be found In the first. But Hertzberg was not the pioneer in the exploration of that literary jungle. Others had earlier made their way through it; but the toilsomeness of the journey doubtless prevented them from thinking of anything beyond the speediest means to reach the journey’s end.
Moreover about the same time, and entirely independent of Hertzberg, the same conclusion in regard to the genuineness of the treatise was reached and publicly expressed in England. The fifth annual report of the Early English Text Society gave as a reason for not reprinting the Testament of Love, which had been previously promised, that the committee had been “advised by Mr. Bradshaw, Mr. R. Morris, and Mr. Furnivall — following Mr. Payne Collier and prior critics — that the work is not Chaucer’s; that there is no evidence for its being so, and much against.” This statement led to a very vigorous remonstrance from Mr. Collier, who in August, 1867, the date of his Introduction to his Reprint of the Seven Poetical Miscellanies, had denied the authenticity of this production. He objected strongly to the phrase " prior critics,” inasmuch as he claimed that he was the first person who had publicly declared that it could not have been written by Chaucer. A somewhat angry discussion sprang up in consequence between him and Mr. Furnivall, the director of the Early English Text Society, which was carried on in the columns of the London Athenæum for 1869. Into the details of this it is not necessary to enter; but in a communication sent by the latter gentleman to that journal in the course of the controversy, he stated that somewhere between 1863 and 1865, Mr. Bradshaw, the librarian of Trinity College, Cambridge, had denied to him the genuineness of certain poems commonly attributed to Chaucer, and also of this prose treatise which he “judged to be a late translation of a French original; that there was not a scrap of good external evidence for its being the work of the poet; that it was put into the 1532 edition of his work for no sufficient reason and in wholly uncritical times; and from internal evidence it could not be his.” What Mr. Bradshaw meant by speaking of the Testament of Love as a late translation of a French original, it is hard to say. It is almost impossible, for many reasons, to make this treatise of a later date than the fourteenth century, though there are instances, in the form in which we have it now, where the language has pretty certainly been modernized. Outside of any other consideration the fact that Chaucer in the paragraph cited above seems to be spoken of as alive may be regarded as of itself practically decisive of that question. That there is anywhere for it a French original is full as doubtful; certainly we can afford to wait for its production before accepting such a statement. But beyond the assertions quoted there has apparently been no further examination of this work, no effort of the slightest sort made to prove or disprove its genuineness, with the single exception of two facts contained in a communication from Mr. Brae, the editor of the treatise on the Astrolabe. In this he pointed out that the planetary hours, as described and correctly described by Chaucer, are not at all like the description given of them in the Testament of Love; and, furthermore, that that treatise invariably made use of neverthelater for nathless or nevertheless, the forms found in the undoubted works of the poet. But the simple assertion of its unauthenticity seems to have been all that was necessary. Accordingly this singular state of things has been reached, that a production which for more than three centuries at least has been admitted to be the composition of a particular author is now discarded from the list of his writings, without any attempt at proof and scarcely any at explanation. So much may be conceded to human nature, that men who find their old belief thus summarily shattered may feel that they have a just right to complain of the mysterious and arbitrary manner in which it has been demolished.
At the same time it is only internal evidence that can settle this question satisfactorily; and while this may be very strong to the special student, it is hard to make it appear decisive to him who has only a general acquaintance with an author. Moreover, the internal evidence derived from language and style is far more conclusive than that more tangible sort on which Hertzberg mainly relied. The latter, after all, raised only a presumption. It created difficulties, but they were difficulties that could be surmounted. But the evidence from language and style is something that can hardly be shaken, if the whole work ever receives that thorough critical examination to which as yet it has never been subjected. In this place only the most obvious differences between it and the admitted prose productions of Chaucer can receive attention; and it is proper to say that any close comparison will be peculiarly troublesome from the uncertainty prevailing as to the correct text of the Testament of Love. No manuscript of the treatise is known to exist; and the copy which appeared in the first edition of 1532 has been the one which has been followed in all subsequent publications. All criticism must, therefore, be somewhat modified by the fact that the text, as we now have it, is to a greater or less extent corrupt. Still it is not so corrupt that certain general statements cannot be safely made in regard to the work as a whole, and especially to its character as a prose production.
The art of writing prose is always of comparatively late development. It usually takes many years of literary culture before it is ever done at all; centuries before it is done well. No more striking illustration of this truth can be found in the history of our own literature than in the writings of Chaucer himself. His prose works not only have nothing of the deeper qualities of his poetry, but they show scarcely a sign of its lightness and grace, its fancy and its fun. It may be said, to be sure, that the treatise on the Astrolabe, designed as it was merely for instruction, does not afford any opportunity for the exhibition of those characteristics; and in his version of the Consolation of Philosophy, the poet was naturally bound by the necessity which the translator labors under of reproducing the original. But there are two prose pieces included in the Canterbury Tales, — the Tale of Melibeus and the Persones Tale, — and not only are they the least read, they are the least worth reading. It is, in fact, hardly an exaggeration to say that they are never read at all. Men now talk of the shackles of verse; and the linguistic and literary revolution that has taken place since the fourteenth century is nowhere more strikingly brought to notice than in the restraint which was laid upon Chaucer’s genius by the shackles of prose. The Tale of Melibeus is very much in the nature of those impositions that some modern novels have made familiar to all of us, in which when we ask for bread in the shape of a story, we get a stone in the shape of a sermon. It reminds one of nothing so much as of those short and easy lessons in statesmanship and morals which the average American college student is accustomed to furnish in some prize essay as his contribution to the speculative thought of the times. The Persones Tale is even duller. Nothing more wearisome to the carnal heart can well be imagined than the worthy priest’s disquisition upon the various venial and deadly sins to which man’s frail being is exposed, and the various remedies against them. It is one long, dead level of tediousness, save in two or three places where the preacher steps aside to denounce some particular manifestation of evil, as, for instance, that of “ outrageous array of clothing,” and thereby gives us a glimpse of practices then prevalent. Nevertheless it should in justice be added that there is a certain quaintness about Chaucer’s prose which has an interest of its own; but it is probably due more to the language of his age than to any special characteristics of his own style.
But whatever else may be said about Chaucer’s prose, it is perfectly intelligible. He was never in any doubt as to his own meaning, and, little plastic as the language then was, had command enough of it to express that meaning clearly to others. Especially was he too full of the simplicity of genius to make that pretense to profundity which consists in stating the most ordinary commonplaces in the most oppressively solemn and obscure manner. In this respect, particularly, the Testament of Love is altogether different from any of the prose works of the poet which we know to be certainly his. It is not alone that it is not interesting; it never escapes from being excessively commonplace except by becoming excessively obscure. A few venturesome souls have read it through; but no one has ever really understood it. There are those, to be sure, who think they have; but they forget that comprehension of parts of a work by no means involves the comprehension of it as a whole. Its form and subject-matter are of a kind to deter investigation. Allegory is obscure, metaphysics are dry; and the union of both in this one treatise has resulted in making it the darkest and dullest production that can be found in the whole range of early if not of all English literature. Moreover, in addition to the difficulty of understanding it, the mind of the reader is constantly haunted by a dreadful suspicion which paralyzes all continuous effort, that after the task of making out the meaning shall have been accomplished it will be found to have not been worth making out. The text, as has already been said, must be in a more or less corrupt state. Certainly, parts of it in their present form are absolutely incomprehensible. There are passages from which, as they appear, no one can get an intelligible idea, conceding that in their original shape they expressed an intelligible idea. Generally the style may be said to be a most vicious specimen of a most vicious kind. Sentences are not only long, but are inextricably involved. In many places, besides, the grammar is in a hopelessly muddled condition. Adjectives are torn away from the nouns which they qualify, or are left without anything to qualify at all. Substantives which seem to be designed to stand for the subject of the sentence are left in the most helpless way without any verb to be attached to, and are finally shut out from sight and lost to memory by intervening masses of parenthetical clauses that rise up on every side; and very few readers, in consequence, have the patience to trust themselves for any length of time to this stream of muddy metaphysics, that winds its way through a channel of still muddier syntax to nowhere in particular.
And not only is the general style entirely different from that of the prose works which are certainly Chaucer’s, but peculiarities of construction occur constantly in this treatise which are found rarely, if at all, in the former. One of them, especially, is the excessive tendency to throw the verb to the end of the sentence. It is only in the Tale of Melibeus that there is any resemblance at all to this in the unquestionably genuine works of the poet, and in that it is far from being so noticeable. Another though much less marked feature is the employment of double comparison, as more hardier, more sweeter, noblerer. This is common in many of the writers of the fourteenth century, but is exceptionally rare in Chaucer. The Harleian manuscript, as edited by Wright, exhibits, to be sure, in the Tale of Melibeus, three instances of this usage, twice in more easier, once in most greatest; but these forms do not appear in the other manuscripts that have been printed, nor are any examples of a similar construction found in the Persones Tale, the translation of Boethius, or in the treatise on the Astrolabe. So also the frequent employment of are in the Testament of Love as the third person plural of the present tense of the verb to be contrasts strongly with the almost invariable employment by Chaucer of ben. It is easy to lay too much stress upon such particulars; they can only be regarded as corroboratory evidence, not as conclusive. There is but little limit to changes that may have been due to the copyist; and there is certainly nothing to prevent a writer from using forms and expressions at one time of his life which he would not or did not use at another. After all, the essential difference is in the clearness with which the ideas are expressed. The author of the Testament of Love was the slave of his language. He had no mastery over it, no power to mold it into the shape best suited to convey his meaning. Not unfrequently when he began a sentence, he was dominated by some word or clause that suggested a new thought or a modification of the previous thought, and was carried away by it to an entirely different point from that for which he set out: so that the reader who embarks on the stream of his statement can never be quite sure as to where he is to be landed. At the very opening of the prologue he took pains to say that such skill in writing is attained by some that the subject of which they treat is not heeded at all; but he flattered himself that his manner of composition was so poor that it would have the effect of turning the attention of his readers to the matter. It is a curious comment upon this that the “rude words and boistous,” on which he rather prided himself, are so put together that no one has as yet been fully able to comprehend what they are written about. The author, whoever be was, apparently never lived to perpetrate a second treatise, which near the beginning of the second book he threatened; or if he did, it has fortunately perished.
It would simply be unjust and unfair to convey the idea that the Testament of Love has not many portions which are clearly expressed. It would be even more unfair at a period like this, when poets are no longer born but are discovered, when there is no production of our early literature, whether in prose or verse, so tedious and stupid that it does not find admirers, to imply that there are not those who see in this treatise numerous passages of great beauty. Still it is safe to say that, like many far more famous works, it has been admired chiefly by those who have not read it. But whatever may be its value in itself, its value as throwing any light whatever upon Chaucer’s career is now forever gone.
Whether the story it tells or implies be a real or a fictitious one, it is one with which the poet has no concern. But it is little creditable to literary history that the carelessness of the first editors in admitting into the collection of his works a treatise that did not belong to it, and the ingenuity of later biographers in deducing from this unauthentic production unfounded inferences, have combined to cast, for more than three centuries, upon the foremost writer of our early speech a stain which has not yet been wholly effaced.
T. R. Lounsbury.
- The story is not found, however, in the article on Chaucer, in the ninth edition, now coming out.↩