“And for there is so
In English, and in wryting of our tonge,
So preye I God that noon miswryte thee,
Ne thee mismetre for defaute of tonge.
And red wher-so thou be, or elles songe,
That thou be understoude I God beseche!...”
And therewith, as though on purpose to defeat his fears, he proceeded to turn three stanzas of Boccaccio into English that tastes almost as freshly after five hundred years as on the day it was written. He is speaking of Hector’s death:—
“And whan that he was
slayn in this manere,
His lighte goost ful blisfully it went
Up to the holownesse of the seventh spere
In convers leting every element;
And ther he saugh, with ful avysement,
The erratik starres, herkening armonye
With sownes ful of hevenish melodye.
“And down from thennes
faste he gan avyse
This litel spot of erthe, that with the see
Embraced is, and fully gan despyse
This wrecched world, and held al vanitee
To respect of the pleyn felicitee
That is in hevene above; and at the laste,
Ther he was slayn, his loking down he caste;
“And in himself he lough
right at the wo
Of hem that wepten for his death so faste;
And dampned al our werk that folweth so
The blinde lust, the which that may not laste,
And sholden al our harte on hevene caste.
And forth he wente, shortly for to telle,
Ther as Mercurie sorted him to dwelle....”
Who have prepared our ears to admit this passage, and many as fine? Not the editors, who point out very properly that it is a close translation from Boccaccio’s “Teseide,” xi. 1-3. The information is valuable, as far as it goes; but what it fails to explain is just the marvel of the passage—viz., the abiding “Englishness” of it, the native ring of it in our ears after five centuries of linguistic and metrical development. To whom, besides Chaucer himself, do we owe this? For while Chaucer has remained substantially the same, apparently we have an aptitude that our grandfathers and great-grandfathers had not. The answer surely is: We owe it to our nineteenth century poets, and particularly to Tennyson, Swinburne, and William Morris. Years ago Mr. R.H. Horne said most acutely that the principle of Chaucer’s rhythm is “inseparable from a full and fair exercise of the genius of our language in versification.” This “full and fair exercise” became a despised, almost a lost, tradition after Chaucer’s death. The rhythms of Skelton, of Surrey, and Wyatt, were produced on alien and narrower lines. Revived by Shakespeare and the later Elizabethans, it fell into contempt again until Cowper once more began to claim freedom for English rhythm, and after him Coleridge, and the despised Leigh Hunt. But never has its full liberty been so triumphantly asserted as by the three poets I have named above. If we are at home as we read Chaucer, it is because they have instructed us in the liberty which Chaucer divined as the only true way.