Geoffrey Chaucer, the Critical Heritage

By Derek Brewer | Go to book overview

20.

JOHN WESLEY HALES, PITY AND IRONY

1873

Hales (1836-1914), educated at Glasgow University and Christ’s College, Cambridge, became Professor of English Literature at King’s College, London. In an essay on Chaucer and Shakespeare in ‘The Quarterly Review’, CXXXIV (1873), pp. 225-55, after an account of the recent founding of the Chaucer Society, he presents Chaucer as unsentimental and ironic, as well as sympathetic.

(p. 236) Assuredly Chaucer was endowed in a very high degree with what we may call the pathetic sense. It would seem to have been a favourite truth with him that

Pite renneth sone in gentil herte.

It ran ‘sone’ and abundantly in his own most tender bosom. But he is never merely sentimental or maudlin. We can believe that the Levite of the Parable shed a tear or two as he crossed over to the ‘other side’ from where that robbed and wounded traveller lay, and perhaps subsequently drew a moving picture of the sad spectacle he had so carefully avoided. Chaucer’s pity is of no such quality. It springs from the depths of his nature; nay, from the depths of Nature herself moving in and through her interpreter.

Another respect in which Chaucer is not unworthy of some comparison with his greater successor is his irony. We use the word in the sense in which Dr. Thirlwall uses it of Sophocles in his excellent paper printed in the ‘Philological Museum’ some forty years ago, and in which Schlegel, in his ‘Lectures on Dramatic Literature,’ uses it of Shakespeare, to denote that dissembling, so to speak, that self-retention and reticence, or at least, indirect presentment, that is a frequent characteristic of the consummate dramatist, or the consummate writer of any kind who aims at portraying life in all its breadth. We are told often enough of the universal sympathy that inspires the greatest souls, and it is well; but let us consider that universal sympathy does not mean blind, undiscriminating, wholesale sympathy, but precisely the opposite. Only that sympathy can be all-inclusive that is

-178-

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