Geoffrey Chaucer, the Critical Heritage

By Derek Brewer | Go to book overview

4.

‘CHRISTOPHER NORTH’ (JOHN WILSON), THE ALLEGORY OF LOVE

1845

Wilson (1785-1854), educated at Glasgow University and Oxford, a critic and professor of moral philosophy at Edinburgh, writes an intelligent and very full commentary on Chaucer’s poetry in a discussion of Dryden’s criticism in ‘Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine’, LVII (May 1845), pp. 617ff. He expresses a preference for Chaucer’s ‘real and human’ poems, but is one of the earliest critics to note the new feeling of—or about—love that began in medieval Europe, the ‘religion of love’; and is apparently the first to think of Chaucer as an allegorical writer. Here seems to be the origin of the ‘allegory of love’.

Nothing is gained by attempting to deny or to disguise a known and plain fact, simply because it happens to be a distasteful one—Time has estranged us from Chaucer. Dryden and Pope we read with easy, unearned pleasure. Their speech, their manner of mind, and their facile verse, are of our age, almost of our own day. The two excellent, graceful, and masterly poets belong, both of them, to THIS NEW WORLD. Go back a little, step over an imperceptible line, to the contemporary of Dryden, Milton, and you seem to have overleaped some great chronological boundary; you have transported yourself into THAT OLD WORLD. Whether the historical date, or the gigantic soul, or the learned art, make the separation, the fact is clear, that the poet of the ‘Paradise Lost’ stands decidedly further off; and, more or less, you must acquire the taste and intelligence of the poem. Why, up to this hour, probably, there are three-fifths of the poem that you have not read; or, if you have read all, and go along with all, you have yourself had experience of the progress, and have felt your capacity of Milton grow and dilate. So has it been with your capacity for Shakspeare, or you are a truant and an idler. To comprehend with delight Milton and Shakspeare as poets, you need, from the beginning, a soul otherwise touched, and gifted for poesy, than Pope claims of you, or Dryden. The great elder masters, being original, require of you springs of poesy welling in your own spirit; while the two latter,

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