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A History of English Romanticism in the Eighteenth

But Chaucer is always straight grained


the farther such study is carried, the more evident it becomes that "mediaeval" and "romantic" are not synonymous. The Middle Ages was not, at all points, romantic: it is the modern romanticist who makes, or finds, it so. He sees its strange, vivid peculiarities under the glamour of distance. Chaucer's temper, for instance, was by no means romantic. This "good sense" which Dryden mentions as his prominent trait; that "low tone" which Lowell praises in him, and which keeps him close to the common ground of experience, pervade his greatest work, the "Canterbury Tales," with an insistent realism. It is true that Chaucer shared the beliefs and influences of his time and was a follower of its literary fashions. In his version of the "Romaunt of the Rose," his imitations of Machault, and his early work in general he used the mediaeval machinery of allegory and dreams. In "Troilus and Cresseide" and the tale of "Palamon and Arcite," he carries romantic love and knightly honor to a higher pitch than his model, Boccaccio. But the shrewdly practical Pandarus of the former poem--a character almost wholly of Chaucer's creation--is the very embodiment of the anti-romantic attitude, and a remarkable anticipation of Sancho Panza; while the "Rime of Sir Thopas" is a distinct burlesque of the fantastic chivalry romances.[2] Chaucer's pages are picturesque with tournament, hunting parties, baronial feasts, miracles of saints, feats of magic; but they are solid, as well, with the everyday
life of fourteenth-century England. They have the _naivete_ and garrulity which are marks of mediaeval work, but not the quaintness and grotesquerie which are held to be marks of romantic work. Not archaic speech, but a certain mental twist constitutes quaintness. Herbert and Fuller are quaint; Blake is grotesque; Donne and Charles Lamb are willfully quaint, subtle, and paradoxical. But Chaucer is always straight-grained, broad, and natural.

Even Dante, the poet of the Catholic Middle Ages; Dante, the mystic, the idealist, with his intense spirituality and his passion for symbolism, has been sometimes called classic, by virtue of the powerful construction of his great poem, and his scholastic rigidity of method.

The relation between modern romanticizing literature and the real literature of the Middle Ages, is something like that between the literature of the renaissance and the ancient literatures of Greece and Rome. But there is this difference, that, while the renaissance writers fell short of their pattern, the modern schools of romance have outgone their masters--not perhaps in the intellectual--but certainly in the artistic value of their product. Mediaeval literature, wonderful and stimulating as a whole and beautiful here and there in details of execution, affords few models of technical perfection. The civilization which it reflected, though higher in its possibilities than the classic civilization, had not yet arrived at an equal grade of development, was inferior in intelligence and the natured results of long culture. The epithets of Gothic ignorance, rudeness, and barbarism, which the eighteenth-century critics applied so freely to all the issue of the so-called dark ages, were not entirely without justification. Dante is almost the only strictly mediaeval poet in whose work the form seems adequate to the content; for Boccaccio and Petrarca stand already on the sill of the renaissance.

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