J.W. Mackail (1859-1945), educated at Balliol College, Oxford, was a man of letters and civil servant, who wrote on Classical and English Literature. Though slightly hampered by the implicit nineteenth-century theory of poetry represented by Mill and Arnold, and repeating commonplaces about childishness and dramatic quality, he nevertheless achieves an independent rich multiplicity of response to both romance and realism, praises the fabliaux, and with some originality identifies Chaucer’s highest achievement as the mingling of romance and realism in ‘Troilus and Cryseyde’. Reprinted from ‘The Springs of Helicon’, Longmans Green & Co. (1909), pp. 6-7, 49-69, by permission of Longman Group Ltd.
(p. 6) He has much of the spirit of the child, easily pleased and easily fatigued, prone to follow the suggestions of an alert but vagrant fancy.
Love is too young to know what conscience is;
Yet who knows not conscience is born of love?
And so we may see Chaucer writing sometimes with a grace and charm that are quite idle and irresponsible, and then kindling to some piteous or tragic motive, some beauty of situation or splendour of passion, until the bird-note thrills us by turning into the song of an angel.
Hence, in a world which always tends to be obtuse towards poetry, to feel safe with dulness and to take kindly to the second-best, it is not surprising that Chaucer’s fame as a poet has been much confused with false issues. It rests, or has rested, in great part on work which is not his best, or which is not his at all. To the normal modern reader he is known mainly through extracts; and it is singular how often these extracts seem chosen to miss his highest poetry, his specific greatness as a poet. We may be pretty sure to find among them the description of the Squire or the Miller, the Clerk of Oxford or the Parson—admirable sketches of character, terse, lifelike, humorous, executed in quite fluent and workmanlike verse, but not exactly poetry, or if so, only poetry with a