Geoffrey Chaucer, the Critical Heritage

By Derek Brewer | Go to book overview

23.

ADOLPHUS WILLIAM WARD, DRAMATIST AND NOVELIST

1879

Sir Adolphus William Ward (1837-1924), educated at Peter-house, Cambridge, famous for its interest in Chaucer in the sixteenth century, was a distinguished academic, and scholar of English and of European history, at Manchester and Cambridge. His view of Chaucer as dramatist and novelist sums up the emphasis developed since Dryden, and is frequently repeated in the twentieth century. The extract is from pp. 146ff. of ‘Chaucer’ (1879), in the series English Men of Letters.

(p. 146) One very pleasing quality in Chaucer must have been his modesty. In the course of his life this may have helped to recommend him to patrons so many and so various, and to make him the useful and trustworthy agent that he evidently became for confidential missions abroad. Physically, as has been seen, he represents himself as prone to the habit of casting his eyes on the ground; and we may feel tolerably sure that to this external manner corresponded a quiet, observant disposition, such as that which may be held to have distinguished the greatest of Chaucer’s successors among English poets. To us, of course, this quality of modesty in Chaucer makes itself principally manifest in the opinion which he incidentally shows himself to entertain concerning his own rank and claims as an author. Herein, as in many other points, a contrast is noticeable between him and the great Italian masters, who were so sensitive as to the esteem in which they and their poetry were held. Who could fancy Chaucer crowned with laurel, like Petrarch, or even, like Dante, speaking with proud humility of ‘the beautiful style that has done honour to him,’ while acknowledging his obligation for it to a great predecessor? Chaucer again and again disclaims all boasts of perfection, or pretensions to pre-eminence, as a poet. His Canterbury Pilgrims have in his name to disavow, like Persius, having slept on Mount Parnassus, or possessing ‘rhetoric’ enough to describe a heroine’s beauty; and he openly allows that his spirit grows dull as he grows older, and that he finds a difficulty as a translator in matching his rhymes to his French original. He acknowledges as incontestable the

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