Geoffrey Chaucer, the Critical Heritage

By Derek Brewer | Go to book overview

14.

ALEXANDER SMITH, CHAUCER THE ENGLISH CONSERVATIVE

1863

Alexander Smith (1830-67), Scottish man of letters and university administrator, gives Chaucer somewhat equivocal praise as English, in an essay on William Dunbar, ‘Dreamthorp’, 1863 (text from edition of 1906, ed. J. Hogben, pp. 66-7).

[Smith comments on the fancifulness of Chaucer’s early poems, then his varied experience of life.] And so it was that, after mixing in kings’ courts and sitting with friars in taverns, and talking with people on country roads, and travelling in France and Italy, and making himself master of the literature, science, and theology of his time, and when perhaps touched with misfortune and sorrow, he came to see the depth of interest that resides in actual life,—that the rudest clown even, with his sordid humours and coarse speech, is intrinsically more valuable than a whole forest full of goddesses, or innumerable processions of cardinal virtues, however well mounted and splendidly attired.

It was in some such mood of mind that Chaucer penned those unparalleled pictures of contemporary life that delight yet, after five centuries have come and gone. It is difficult to define Chaucer’s charm. He does not indulge in fine sentiment; he has no bravura passages; he is ever master of himself and of his subject. The light upon his page is the light of common day. Although powerful delineations of passion may be found in his ‘Tales’ and wonderful descriptions of nature, and although certain of the passages relating to Constance and Griselda in their deep distresses are unrivalled in tenderness, neither passion, nor natural description, nor pathos, are his striking characteristics. It is his shrewdness, his conciseness, his ever-present humour, his frequent irony, and his short, homely line—effective as the play of the short Roman sword—which strikes the reader most. In the ‘Prologue to the Canterbury Tales’—by far the ripest thing he has done—he seems to be writing the easiest, most idiomatic prose, but it is poetry all the while. He is a poet of natural manner, dealing with outdoor life. Perhaps, on the whole, the

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