Fictitious Lives of Chaucer
ENGLISH literature can boast of but one name greater than that of Chaucer; but to the lofty position which he occupies on its rolls is not due in the slightest the little acquaintance we have with his life. Hardly a single event of his career would have come to the knowledge of modern times, if for that knowledge we had been compelled to trust to records which owed their existence to the respect and regard inspired by his writings. Besides being an author, Chaucer was a government official, a soldier, a diplomatist; and in his capacity as a man of affairs there are constant references made to him which would never have been made had he lived merely the life of a man of letters. Had he, indeed, been only a poet, had he not been employed in various offices of public trust, we should, in spite of his literary eminence, have scarcely known with certainty a single incident of his history; and by a process of a like kind to that which has been applied to Shakespeare, men at this day might have been engaged in the attempt to prove that his works were produced by the reformer Wycliffe. Many errors, previously held, as to the details of his career, have been dissipated during the last forty years; some fresh facts have, especially of late, been brought to light. Yet it has not been by the discovery of contemporary references made by admirers of his genius that we are indebted for whatever new information has been gained. On the contrary, it has been wholly due to notices of his duties, expenses, and emoluments that have been found among the public records, writings that stand at the farthest remove from literature. The examination of these records, a disagreeable as well as a laborious task, is also apt to be a thankless one; for while the subjects of the documents are indexed, their contents are not, and hours of toil must often be spent over papers which when read furnish nothing at all to reward the inquirer. Still, it is only by exertions of this kind that we can expect to have any further light thrown upon a career, the details of which are at best obscure. It was the examination of the Issue Rolls of the Exchequer, in particular, that enabled Sir Harris Nicolas to overthrow the elaborate fiction founded upon the Testament of Love, which for centuries had done duty as a conspicuous portion of the life of Chaucer. And though most of the Records have already been searched from which valuable results seemed in a fair way to be secured, yet there are still collections that remain to be inspected. They may contain new facts in the poet’s history; they may not, and perhaps will most likely not, mention his name or make the slightest allusion to him. Too much cannot be said in praise of that enthusiastic zeal which, in the hope of the possible result, ventures to encounter the wearisome drudgery and thankless toil of the probable.
Since the formation of the Chaucer Society, in 1867, this work of searching the Records has been carried on to some extent; and though not so much has been gained as might have been hoped, still more has been gained than, perhaps, there was reason to expect. Two general statements, however, of some importance can be made as results of this renewed examination: one is that “ every single original document drawn up and signed by Chaucer has disappeared from its proper place. Some one who knew the Records thoroughly has systematically picked out — probably scores and hundreds of years ago — all Chaucer’s works from every set of Records, and either stolen them or tied them up in some bundle which may be among the unindexed Miscellaneous Records.” The autograph-hunter had early begun his career of spoliation. The second fact is that persons with the same family name as the poet turn up occasionally in these documents. There are Chaucers and Chaucers. While, therefore, every reference that has been found points pretty certainly to the poet, there does exist the possibility that there may be another man with the same name to whom some of these entries apply. And while the probability is all another way, stilt that possibility ought never to be overlooked.
It might have been supposed that this slow process of searching after facts would of itself have the tendency to develop a habit of mind that would look with impatience upon statements founded on theorizing, no matter how plausible. But, unfortunately, this has not been the case. No sooner does one fiction in regard to Chaucer fall to the ground than another rises to take its place. This last one, furthermore, is made peculiarly aggravating to the feelings by the fact that it owes its acceptance, so far as it has been received, to men who have been among the most conspicuous in their efforts to facilitate the study of the poet’s writings. Worse than this, it owes its origin to the one man of all whose self-sacrificing and enthusiastic zeal and whose manifold labors have caused his name and work to be esteemed and cherished, not simply by every lover of Chaucer, but by every student of our early literature. To his energy and exertion is mainly due the discovery of the details that have been lately added to the scanty records of the poet’s life. But to him also is due the attempt to make up for the lack of actual knowledge by the creation of a tale as artificial and unsubstantial as ever came from the unreal world of dreams.
The story, so far as it has already been elaborated, is a short one, though with every repetition it grows in breadth of statement and extent of inference. It is based almost entirely upon separate passages that are found in three of Chaucer’s minor poems, The Compleynte to Pite, The Boke of the Duchesse or The Dethe of Blaunche, and The Parlament of Foules. Told as briefly as possible, it is in its present form about as follows: —
The poet, when twenty-one years of age, that is in 1361, fell desperately in love with a lady above him in rank. He loved her with a long and hopeless passion, for she rejected him even before he ventured to declare himself openly. The effect of this unhappy affair was to keep him miserable for eight years, that is from 1361 to 1369. During that time he composed but little poetry, his sorrow having the tendency to dry up the fountain of his verse; but after 1369, it “ left him free to work and, later, to enioy Ms life.”
The main outlines of this somewhat touching episode in the poet’s career were first revealed to the public in a letter addressed by Mr. Furnivall, the director of the Chaucer Society, to the London Athenæum of July 1, 1871. The evidence upon which it rested was there given in full. Though the communication was a long one, we shall endeavor in abridging it to do no injustice to the argument it contained, and as far as possible shall make use of the writer’s own words. The starting-point was the following passage in The Dethe of Blaunche the Duchesse, in which the poet is explaining why he cannot sleep:
That I have suffred this eight yere:
And yet my boote is never the nere
For there is phisicien but one
That may me heale. But that is done.
Passe we over untille efte :
That wil not be mot nedes be lefte.”
What is the sickness here referred to? According to Mr. Furnivall, these lines clearly point to a long, hopeless love of eight years, which has been rejected and now is over. It will not be, and must needs be left. The poet is free to go on with his work. But the question thereupon arises, Is there any allusion to this same hopeless love, while it was existing in a prior stage, in any other poem? Mr. Furnivall sees such allusions in The Compleynte to Pite, a composition from which no one has hitherto been enabled to extract much meaning. But he finds that “ read by the light of the lines quoted from the Blaunche, it tells plainly that when the writer had for ' lengthe of certeyne yeres ’ (not yet eight) sought a time to speak, he ran to the Pity in his Love to pray her not to be cruel to him: but ere he could speak, he found Pity dead and buried in his Love’s heart.” Yet though he sees Pity’s hearse and knows she is dead, he appeals to her as if she lived; he implores his Love: —
That yaw have sought so tendirly and yore !
Let somme streme of youre light on me be sene,
That love and drede yow ever lenger more . . .
For goddis love, have mercy ou my peyne ”
And he ends by declaring, —
Though ye me slee by Crueltee, your foo,
Algate my spirite shal never dissever
Fro your servise, for eny peyne or woo.”
Here, therefore, is an earlier stage of this eight years’ malady than that shown in the poem on the death of Blaunche. Here it is not done. Here no intention is expressed of abandoning a useless pursuit; but, on the contrary, “ hope even in despair, and passionate love.”
In the third poem cited as evidence, The Parlament of Foules, Chaucer has become tricky. He purposely introduces in that the following “blind:” —
No wot how that he quitith folk here byre,”
yet his real feelings undesignedly crop out in two other lines, when he is complaining how he went to bed, —
For bothe I hadde thinge that I nolde,
And eke I n' hadde thinge that I wolde.”
These words, Mr. Furnivall declares, point directly to the following lines of The Compleynte to Pite: —
That have I not, ne nothing like therto
Eke on that other syde, wherso I goo,
That have I redy, unsoghte, everywhere,
What maner thinge that may encrese my woo,”
Another point of undesigned evidence in The Parlament of Foules is this speech of Africanus to Chaucer: —
As sek man hath of swete and bitternesse.”
It is upon these quotations that this new episode in the poet’s life has been founded. To speak of anything in it as resting upon evidence is simply an abuse of language. The passages which are said to “clearly point,” or to “point directly,” to some other passages, or which “plainly” denote this or that, have no such aim or meaning in themselves, but only in the mind of the writer. Yet it is to be noticed that every assertion is expressed as unhesitatingly and as strongly as if there were a bundle of contemporary affidavits to support it. Not the slightest concession is made to the skeptic. Things are not stated as possible or probable, but as certain. Indeed, there was nothing more striking about the story, as given in this letter to the Athenæum, than the perfect confidence which its originator had in its truth. He could not have expressed himself much more positively had Chaucer in person communicated to him the facts. Nor was the manner in which the story was told due to that excited state of mind, not uncommon with men of enthusiastic temperament, in which for the moment things hoped for look as if seen. He has repeated it on different occasions; and every time the statements have been more precise, the assertions more positive, and the results reached more full. In his Trial Forewords, which accompanied the Parallel - Text Edition of the Minor Poems, both of which appeared in the same year as the article in the Athenæum, he had already evolved some further knowledge by the same process which before had been productive of such astounding results. The Compleynte to Pite, he was enabled to declare distinctly, was “ Chaucer’s first poem and should be studied first,” and the date of its composition was assigned to somewhere between 1366 and 1368. As if this were not enough for mere inference to accomplish for a work whose origin we know absolutely nothing about and whose meaning we can hardly guess, he went on to ascribe the peculiar versification found in this and several other poems of a similar nature to the fact of the writer’s indulgence in a hopeless passion. The reasons for this assumption we shall not venture to give in our own words. “ Being bound,” says Mr. Furnivall, speaking of the poet, “ in the strait bonds of unreturned love himself, he naturally preferred a tied - up form of stanza and of poem to express the thoughts his ropes squeezed out of him. He chose the seven - line stanza and the triple tern; seven and three, mystic numbers both.”
Lapse of time, moreover, has not caused the faith of the originator of this story to waver in the slightest. In November, 1873, the journal already mentioned contained a short account, evidently inspired if not actually written by Mr. Furnivall, of the results of some suggest this course to his opponent he was unwise enough to reinforce his views by illustrative comment. He quoted a passage from The Court of Love, in which occurred the phrase, “ This godely fresh,” as applied to the principal female character in the poem. To this he appended a note, in which he spoke of the expression as “imitated from Chaucer’s ‘ semely swete,’ but clearly not Chaucer’s.” Statements in regard to usage should always be couched in general terms. It is rarely safe to introduce particulars. In this instance it is especially unfortunate, for in the twelfth stanza of the third book of Troylus and Cryseyde “ O godely fresh ” is the very phrase with which the hero addresses the heroine.
of the searches then going on in the public records; and there was in it a singular mixture of facts, precise and positive in their character, which had been secured by the dreariest drudgery, and of fancies which had not that decent probability supposed to be essential to the wildest creations of fiction. Not only was the original statement in regard to the poet’s eight years of misery reiterated in the strongest terms, but the further discovery was announced that he had had the somewhat peculiar experience of having been rejected before he had even proposed. “ Of what Chaucer did between 1360 and 1366,” said the account, “ we are still ignorant, except that we are sure he was making continuous love from 1361, at least, to his pitiless mistress, who rejected him even before he dared declare his love.” It is, perhaps, an excuse for Mr. Furnivall’s faith in his own discovery that it seems never to have met anywhere with public contradiction. Some of his coadjutors, indeed, have fallen in with it; others preserve silence, certainly not because they believe in it, but probably because they are unwilling to enter into a dispute with a man whose services far outweigh any errors of judgment or any rashness in rushing to conclusions. Furthermore, it must be conceded that a controversy with Mr. Furnivall is not a matter to be undertaken without forethought by a person of shrinking and sensitive temperament. There are certain literary views of his which he is apt to tell us can only be appreciated by him who has an ear and a soul; and the consequence is that if one ventures to differ with him on these points he is reluctantly compelled to dispense with these two useful appendages. Nor, on the other hand, will he fare much better if he controverts Mr. Furnivall’s views on language. In that case it is not impossible that he will be told that he ought “ to enter himself at King’s College School for a course of early English.” This is a somewhat formidable prospect for any one who has got on in years. It ought to be added, however, that in the discussion which led Mr. Furnivall to Of course, the difficulty of dealing with a story of this kind is mainly due to the fact that, as it is founded entirely upon conjecture and assumption, it is hard to be overthrown by any process of reasoning. In order to knock anything down, something must first have been set up. In the very unsubstantiality of these statements lies their strength. This phantom of an argument bids defiance to all blows aimed at it, simply because it is a phantom. But like all such creatures of the imagination, shadowy and elusive as it is to him who openly assails it, for him who has faith in it it is possessed of wonder-working powers. The only statement in the whole story that advances on the road to certainty so far even as probability is the generally accepted though far from positively known date of the composition of The Boke of the Duchesse. This is supposed to have been written in 1369, or a little later, because it is supposed to refer to Blanche, the wife of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and in that year her death took place. From this apparently barren root has sprung a tree which fairly overshadows eight years at least of the poet’s life. The reasoning employed has, furthermore, an exceedingly economical and efficient reciprocal action. The poems are first used to establish the theory of Chaucer’s love; then the theory of his love is used to settle the date of the poems. And as in grammar the combination of two negatives makes an affirmative, so throughout in Mr. Furnivall’s reasoning upon this subject the combination of two or more uncertainties seems to make a certainty.
In truth it is not alone an ear and a soul that are needed in the discussion of a theory based upon scattered passages in poems, the very date and circumstances of whose composition are unknown; brains may likewise not unprofitably be employed. Certainly, it is full time that a story of Chaucer’s love, so utterly without foundation, should meet with emphatic protest. The respect due to its creator has given it a consideration and a circulation which would never have been accorded it a moment had it had its source in any other quarter. It has, in fact, already been introduced into text-books of English literature, — a class of works which in addition to their being the most useless to give any real knowledge of their subject are the first to receive, the last to give up, and the most potent to spread incorrect statements and absurd theories. In the Life of Chaucer also, prefixed to the later issues of Dr. Morris’s admirable edition of selections from the Canterbury Tales, we are given full details of the whole pathetic story. There we have it complete : the poet’s desperate love and the lady’s persistent refusal, and how his life was made desolate by it, and how he felt that there was no use in crying for the moon, and how he worked himself out of the shadow of disappointment into freshness and brightness; all this is told us with a gravity and an assurance which fill the reader’s mind with a lively confidence that future editions will furnish us the lady’s name, an accurate description of her personal appearance, and the motives which led her to take the course she did. The little primer of English literature, by Stopford Brooke, published in the early part of 1876, is not quite so particular and positive in its language. It simply informs us that there are lines in some of his poems “ which seem to speak of a luckless love-affair, and in this broken love it has been supposed we find the key to Chaucer’s early life.”
The favor, however, with which the story has been received renders it worth while to subject it to a strict examination, in order to ascertain precisely what statements in it are based upon fact, and what upon supposition. As Mr. Furnivall, in speaking of any one of its details, is apt to assert that he knows it, it is well to point out definitely what there is in it which is not known, using “ know ” as referring not to conjecture, no matter what its degree of probability, but to that for which there is satisfactory proof. At the very outset, then, we do not know that in 1361 Chaucer was twenty-one years old. We do not know that The Dethe of Blaunche the Duchesse was written in 1369. We do not know that in the lines quoted from it Chaucer referred to himself with the idea of stating a fact in his personal history; or if these lines do thus refer to himself, we do not know that the malady mentioned in them had anything to do with love. For aught that can be proved to the contrary, the eight years’ disease upon which this story is built may have been an affection of the liver and not of the heart. We do not know that The Compleynte to Pite was Chaucer’s first poem. We do not know that it was written between 1366 and 1368. That assertion is simply an unauthorized inference from an improbable conjecture. We do not know whether it was written before The Dethe of Blaunehe or after it. We do not know that in it Chaucer made the slightest allusion to himself whatever. We do not know when The Parlament of Foules was written. We do not know that the lines,
Ne wot how that he quitith folk here hyre,”
spoken of as being purposely introduced as a " blind,” were introduced for any such object; nor can any satisfactory reason be given for employing a blind of that sort in regard to a matter which, according to the theory of the story, had on previous occasions been openly avowed. In short, in nearly every detail referred to in the letter addressed
to the Athenaeum, there is scarcely any limit to what Mr. Furnivall does not know. One or two of the statements made in it may possibly be true; certainty cannot be claimed for a single one of them. Yet upon this series of particulars, not one of which can be proved, and some of which are, to put it mildly, highly improbable, has been reared a story that has been widely accepted in spite of the fact that it has no external evidence upon which to found it, no internal evidence to confirm it, and no intrinsic probability to recommend it; the whole mass of baseless assumption and wild conjecture crumbles the moment that criticism touches any part of it.
The formation of such a story out of such materials is one of the most striking instances of the inability to appreciate the nature or weigh the value of evidence, which has brought so much discredit upon literary investigations. For the principles which underlie all proof in cases of personal illusion by any author are by no means difficult to find; indeed, it requires some ingenuity to miss them. With a precise knowledge of certain circumstances in the life of a man, it is usually a matter of comparative ease to tell whether they are referred to or not in his writings. But if the circumstances are not known, the task of making them out from allusions or supposed allusions becomes not only a blind one, but in most instances is sure to be a misleading one. Especially must this be the case when the allusion is not to fact but to feeling. The power of genius to project itself into states of mind which at the time it is not only not going through, but which it has actually never gone through, of giving utterance to emotions which it has itself never experienced, is one of its most signal characteristics. A sorry life would have to be attributed to most poets, if they were compelled to assume personal responsibility for the views and sentiments they express in their writings; certainly, if that be the case, most of us ought to be thankful that our faculty of production is limited to prose. When special events are spoken of, there is little danger of mistaking the reference if the events themselves are known. But if they are not known, the knowledge conveyed by the allusion may vary all the way from a certainty essentially absolute to the barest possibility. No one has any doubt that Milton means himself, when he speaks of his blindness in the apostrophe to light with which the third book of the Paradise Lost opens. Even if we did not know the fact beforehand, we might feel reasonably sure of it from the language there used. Or, let us take an instance of a more obscure nature from Chaucer himself. We know that from 1374 until 1386 he was controller of the customs for the port of London. When, therefore, in his House of Fame the poet reports the eagle as saying to him,
And hast ymade rekenynges,
Instid of reate and news thynges,
Thou goost home to thy house anoon,
And, also dombe as any stoon,
Thou sittest at another booke,”
it is possible, perhaps probable, that he was here referring to these particular official duties, and that in consequence the poem was written somewhere between the dates above given. Yet such a conclusion is at best only a probability; certainty is a term that can never be justly applied to it.
But the moment that allusion is made to sentiment, the task of explanation can never be successfully achieved without a knowledge of the facts. In the most favorable point of view it can be no more than a happy guess, and can have no further rightful claim to acceptance than that which attaches to a guess. Knowing as we do the circumstances of Milton’s career and the date of the composition of the poem, we plainly understand the allusions in Samson Agonistes to the evil times upon which he had fallen, to the unjust tribunals that had brought, his friends to the block, and to the fickleness of an ungrateful people which had changed its sentiments with its rulers. But when Chaucer, in The House of Fame, speaks of himself as “ utterly disesperat of alle blys,” we are equally at a loss to know the particular experience in his career to which he refers, or whether he refers to himself at all, or whether he means anything if he does refer to himself. As well might one hope to squeeze rain from a Saharic sand-cloud, as out of materials so empty and juiceless as these to gather the facts for a narrative of a life.
And untrustworthy as all such references to personal feelings are in every case, they are especially so when the feeling referred to is that of love. Least of all can any allusion to it be submitted to strict interpretation and rigid analysis when we are unacquainted with the real facts. For the passion, while varying the widest of all in internal experience, varies perhaps the least of all in the range of its expression. The idle fancy of a moment or the absorbing devotion of a life is apt to find voice for the time being in almost the same terms. Moreover, within this limited range, the intensity of utterance varies not so much with the intensity of the passion as with the capacity of the individual to give it vivid representation; and for this reason the power of expression possessed by the poet as poet must always make us doubly careful concerning the weight to be attached to his words. Even could we be sure in any given instance that he was referring to his own experience, we could form no certain conclusion as to its precise nature or duration. Nor do we need to go to the writings of men of genius to learn that many persons can put very shallow feeling on this subject into very intense language. Easier than any other kind the poetry of love can be made a fashion. It has been so at some period in the literature of many races; and in our own no more striking illustration of it can be seen than in the productions of the court poets of the former half of the sixteenth century. That the sentiment then was as superficial as the expression of it was exaggerated is clear enough now; that in this respect it differed materially from much of the love poetry that has been produced both before and since is, however, not so evident.
One, indeed, cannot but wonder at what results Mr. Furnivall would arrive, if he applied to the whole works of Surrey and Wyatt and other poets of that period the same principles of interpretation which have yielded him such rich returns when applied to a few scattered passages in Chaucer. Certainly no ampler field can be offered anywhere to him who is on the lookout for suggestion, and who revels in inference. The verse of that time was largely employed in depicting the sentiment of love. Every variation of tune the world - old passion has played upon the human heart found expression in song. The special subject of the poet was generally complaint of cruelty in some form on the part of his mistress. In the exaggerated language of gallantry then prevailing, all nature sympathized with the sorrowing lover. At his unhappy state the rivers stopped in their course, earth wept in dew, and forests sighed for grief. The tale of Orpheus was renewed again; only in this time rock, tree, and stream danced no longer with joy at the magic music of the singer, but conducted themselves in the most dismal manner to accord with his misery. And, indeed, his condition as depicted by himself in these poems was sad enough to justify a good deal of depression on the part of inanimate nature. At night he tossed, he turned, he groaned; sleep failed him or fearful dreams haunted his slumbers; agues burned him, chills froze him, mind and body were both in a hell of torment. He woke from his restless sleep in tears and plaints, crying out, “ Alas! alas!" which in these times, it has been accurately observed, no one ever does save in print. His utterances during the day were generally sobs and sighs, intermingled with occasional curses at his ill fortune. Absent from his mistress, his sufferings were doubled; present with her, her conduct only added fuel to the fires of misery that were wasting him to ashes. At times he resolved that he would renounce forever her who used a despairing lover so cruelly; at other times he was determined that no pain, however great, no treatment, however capricious and cruel, should cause him to waver in his constant faith. On the contrary, when fortunate, his hours were not much better employed. Instead of sleeping, he spent the night in meditating upon the perfections of his mistress, the beauties of her person, and the graces of her mind. But it was rarely the case that he was fortunate. Chaucer’s misery, as depicted by Mr. Furnivall, is not to be compared for one moment with the sufferings which all the men of that time seem to have undergone as a regular part of life’s experience. It is a consoling thought for the happiness of the world that the damsels of the present day are not quite so hardened to entreaty, nor so pitiless to prayer. Judging from internal evidence which the poems of that period furnish in abundance, the fair ones of the sixteenth century must have had hearts like the nether millstone. No less an agency than that which shakes the earth or melts the elements with fervent heat would seem to have had the power to move them in the slightest degree. The whole stock in trade of poetical simile was exhausted in vain efforts to give an adequate conception of their cruelty. Water, we are told, by continual dropping will wear away the solid rock; humbleness of demeanor will sometimes turn to pity the raging fury of the lion; there are circumstances under which even the tiger becomes gentle. But no such display of weakness is recorded of the fair ones whom the poets of that day sang. Time, which crumbles everything else, could not even soften their hearts; entire submission could not make them relent, nor opportunity dispose them to be favorable. Death seemed to be the lover’s only remedy for the cruelty of his mistress; and even to the bitterness of death was added the keener pang that she would regard it not.
These are not mere inferences. They are direct statements scattered by scores up and down these poems, and repeated again and again with every conceivable sort of variation. But in spite of them, nobody seriously believes that a single one of the sturdy warriors and statesmen of the time of Henry VIII., who were full as hard-hearted as they were hard-headed, ever lost half a dozen nights' sleep in consequence of the affection he bore to his mistress. If it be absurd to suppose so in this case, it is a far grosser travesty of evidence to found a story of Chaucer’s love upon detached passages much more obscure in expression than those which have just been described. Every one has a right to form any theory he pleases; but he has no right to state it as a fact, especially when he is in a position to mislead others who have not the special knowledge requisite to criticise or to controvert. We wish to speak of Mr. Furnivall with all possible respect. The most unstinted recognition is due to his self-sacrificing exertions; and his claims upon the gratitude of all students of our language and literature are of a kind that can neither be disregarded nor forgotten. But the very qualities which have made him invaluable in his present position — the enthusiasm, the positiveness, the disregard of apparent obstacles, the determination to secure and show immediate results — are the very ones which unfit him for weighing delicate and complicated cases of evidence. No partisan of any sort is more hasty in forming and expressing his opinions; and not even a member of the English Society for the Discovery of Great American Poets is more dogmatic in asserting them, more pertinacious in adhering to them, or more intolerant of those who reject them. But we can well afford to discard his whole elaborate story until he brings forward in support of it some evidence besides indefinite allusions of doubtful import, contained in compositions whose dates are unascertained, and, in the present state of our knowledge, are unascertainable; until, in particular, he can base it upon something stronger than the vague statements of poems like The Compleynte to Pite, which belongs to that allegorical class of writings whose chief attraction seems to he in the obscurity with which the leading idea can be expressed, and which so far from being a genuine lovepoem does not, outside of a few lines, exhibit so much the language of real passion as the fantastic utterances of an. emotion which is painfully put through its paces. No such theory is needed, as Mr. Furnivall seems to think, to account for that “ undertone of tender pathos and sadness ” which is heard in so many of the poet’s works. That would naturally be found in the writings of any man of genius, and most of all in those of one who shows in manifold instances that he was a profound and sympathetic observer of the care and sorrow that go to make up so much of human life. So far from that, indeed, the baseless character of the story, when the evidence in its favor is considered, is made even more conspicuous by the intrinsic improbability of Chaucer’s having gone through eight years of constant suffering, and yet exhibiting no vestige of its effects in what he produced. No healthier nature than his can be found in the whole range of our literature among the poets whose personality appears prominent in their writings. There is not a trace of morbid feeling in his lines, which still glow for us with all the freshness of immortal youth. The sadness and misery of the times in which he lived and acted, and his own personal misfortunes, which must have been many, seem never to have warped the clearness of his vision, never to have depressed the cheerfulness of his spirit, never to have led him to fall in with the gloomy anticipations so common with even the greatest of his contemporaries, who fancied, in looking upon the wide ravages of pestilence and war, that the opening of the seven seals had begun, and that the kingdom of heaven was at hand. In that serene air of calm we can afford to let him dwell. Whatever theory we may form, for our own gratification, to explain his words and acts, let us leave entirely the field of conjecture in recounting to others the story of his life, and frankly admit that we know nothing where it is impossible for us to know anything.
T. R. Lounsbury.