Geoffrey Chaucer, the Critical Heritage

By Derek Brewer | Go to book overview

27.

WILLIAM MORRIS, GENTLEMAN AND HAPPY CHILD

1888

William Morris (1834-96), poet, artist, and socialist, was educated at Exeter College, Oxford. Love of his idea of the Middle Ages and of fourteenth-century England was a mainspring of his multifarious activity and almost universal genius. Chaucer, however, does not appear greatly to interest him, and his only substantial comment is in a popular summary, Feudal England, ‘Signs of Change’ (1888), pp. 73-5.

The successor of the deposed king, the third Edward, ushers in the complete and central period of the Middle Ages in England. The feudal system is complete: the life and spirit of the country has developed into a condition if not quite independent, yet quite forgetful, on the one hand of the ideas and customs of the Celtic and Teutonic tribes, and on the other of the authority of the Roman Empire. The Middle Ages have grown into manhood; that manhood has an art of its own, which, though developed step by step from that of Old Rome and New Rome, and embracing the strange mysticism and dreamy beauty of the East, has forgotten both its father and its mother, and stands alone triumphant, the loveliest, brightest, and gayest of all the creations of the human mind and hand.

It has a literature of its own too, somewhat akin to its art, yet inferior to it, and lacking its unity, since there is a double stream in it. On the one hand is the court poet, the gentleman, Chaucer, with his Italianizing metres, and his formal recognition of the classical stories; on which, indeed, he builds a superstructure of the quaintest and most unadulterated mediaevalism, as gay and bright as the architecture which his eyes beheld and his pen pictured for us, so clear, defined, and elegant it is; a sunny world even amidst its violence and passing troubles, like those of a happy child, the worst of them an amusement rather than a grief to the onlookers; a world that scarcely needed hope in its eager life of adventure and love, amidst the sunlit blossoming meadows, and green woods, and white begilded manor-houses. A kindly and human muse is Chaucer’s, nevertheless, interested in and amused by all life, but of her very nature devoid of

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