Geoffrey Chaucer, the Critical Heritage

By Derek Brewer | Go to book overview

18.

STOPFORD A. BROOKE, NATURAL BEAUTY

1871

The Rev. Stopford A. Brooke (1832-1916), cleric and man of letters, in an essay on The Descriptive Poetry of Chaucer, ‘Macmillan’s Magazine’, XXIV (1871), pp. 268-79, makes a fresh analysis of a characteristic nineteenth-century interest in Chaucer, promoting comparison with painting. Unluckily, he has a genius for selecting for discussion poems which in many cases we now know are not by Chaucer.

The greatest world of Poetry and the most varied has been built up by the English nation. It began with Caedmon long ago on the wild headland of Whitby, and was ‘of the grace of God,’ and the first song it sung was of things divine. Then it sang of battles and the wrath of men, of old romance, of monkish evils, and by and by of the social and political movements, ‘of the passions and feelings of rural and provincial England,’ by a voice which came, not like that of Chaucer, from the court and castle, but from the rude villages which clustered round the Malvern Hills. At last in Chaucer it came to sing of men.

The first excellence of Chaucer, an excellence un-approached save by Shakespeare, and in Shakespeare different in kind, was the immense range of his human interest and his power of expressing with simplicity and directness the life of man. His second excellence, and it was an excellence new to English poetry, was his exquisite appreciation and description of certain phases of natural beauty. With him began that descriptive poetry of England, which, passing through many stages, has reached in our century its most manifold development. For as the English Painters have created the art of landscape, so have its Poets more than those of all other nations described the beauty of the natural world. No work, by any people, has ever been done so well. We have passed from the conventional landscape of Chaucer to the allegorical landscape of Spenser. The epic landscape of Milton, varied with ease into lighter forms in the Pastoral and the Lyric, was followed by the landscape of Gray and Collins, a landscape where nature was subordinated to man and to morality. Beattie, Logan, and others infused a

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