Geoffrey Chaucer, the Critical Heritage

By Derek Brewer | Go to book overview

16.

‘MATTHEW BROWNE’ (WILLIAM BRIGHTLY RANDS), CHAUCER THE LAODICEAN

1869

Rands (1823-82) an amiable and eccentric man who wrote under the pseudonyms of Henry Holbeach and Matthew Browne, educated himself chiefly at second-hand bookstalls, and after various occupations became a reporter in the House of Commons. He wrote prolifically, especially for children, but his ‘Chaucer’s England’, 2 vols (1869), has much penetrating observation, though discursive and sometimes slapdash. He uses his knowledge of the world, wide reading, and independent turn of mind, to make an interestingly modern, sceptical assessment of some aspects of Chaucer.

(II, 147-8) It has been said that this [description of the Parson] is a portrait of Wickliffe, and Chaucer has himself been called a Wickliffite; but there is no proof that he was entitled to bear that name. There is, in the meanwhile, every reason that the nature of the case admits of, for judging Chaucer to have been a man incapable of such high degrees of faith and moral steadfastness as we must inevitably associate with the work and career of Wickliffe. Is it conceivable that the author of the Canterbury Tales could, under any circumstances, have become a martyr? Could Shakspeare? I confess, I cannot conceive it of either. But the moral intensity of men like Wickliffe, and still more their faith (i.e. their reliance, avouched by their conduct, upon unseen aid), are essentially heroic; their whole meaning is, ‘This course of conduct upon which I have entered is dictated to me by the Divine Spirit; its consequences are no concern of mine; and, if death awaits me, I am ready to die.’ This is not a spirit which finds a welcome in the most cultivated circles of modern times; but it is undeniably the spirit of the Founder of Christianity, and of all the martyrs and heroes that ever lived. I certainly do not believe that the man who wrote the slippery prologue to the Canterbury Tales was capable even of sympathising with the high heroic spirit, much less of sharing it. Assuredly, he could only have had a superficial understanding of the man Wickliffe, and there is, in reality,

-128-

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