Geoffrey Chaucer, the Critical Heritage

By Derek Brewer | Go to book overview

24.

MATTHEW ARNOLD, CHAUCER LACKS SERIOUSNESS

1880

Arnold (1822-88), educated at Balliol College, Oxford, poet, critic and schools-inspector, emphasises and overemphasises Chaucer’s debt to the French, and expresses again the strong nineteenth-century feeling for Chaucer’s genial worldliness and humanity. With more originality he has good things to say about Chaucer’s metre and diction. In a famous judgment he denies him ‘high and excellent seriousness’; perhaps by this he meant to imply the lack of some sense of passionate commitment. It is curious to note how Arnold’s quotation from Dante, and his reference to Villon, were taken up for independent use by Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. The extract is from the General Introduction to ‘The English Poets’, ed. T.H. Ward (1880), reprinted in ‘Essays in Criticism’, 2nd series (1888), pp. xxx-xxxvi.

The predominance of French poetry in Europe, during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, is due to its poetry of the langue d’oil, the poetry of northern France and of the tongue which is now the French language. In the twelfth century the bloom of this romance-poetry was earlier and stronger in England, at the court of our Anglo-Norman kings, than in France itself. But it was a bloom of French poetry; and as our native poetry formed itself, it formed itself out of this. The romance-poems which took possession of the heart and imagination of Europe in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries are French; ‘they are,’ as Southey justly says, ‘the pride of French literature, nor have we anything which can be placed in competition with them.’ Themes were supplied from all quarters; but the romance-setting which was common to them all, and which gained the ear of Europe, was French. This constituted for the French poetry, literature, and language, at the height of the Middle Age, an unchallenged predominance. The Italian Brunetto Latini, the master of Dante, wrote his ‘Treasure’ in French because, he says,

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