« НазадПродовжити »
to time in English and American literature. There has been no real evolution among them. They come from change and experiment. They represent, at most, a slow development, with some retrogressions and many fresh starts. New varieties have come in from abroad, or have been devised at home; have prospered according to their fitness for the needs of the age; have declined and given place to others. Five times at least the wave of a foreign culture or a foreign civilization has brought a new short story with it into England, and twice in England and once in America a new form has been developed by native writers. These varieties are not all equally important as literature, however they may rank in the historical development of a type. There can be no adequate understanding of the short story in English without a survey of the successive experiments, successful and unsuccessful, which have followed one another throughout so many centuries. But it is from the early nineteenth century onward that the short story becomes most significant in English literature, most important and most interesting for us; and it is with this period that the following pages will more especially deal.
THE MEDIEVAL SHORT STORY
THREE famous collections of stories, the Gesta Romanorum (? 14th century), originally in Latin, and of unknown authorship, Gower's Confessio Amantis (14th century), and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (14th century), fairly sum up and fairly represent the medieval English short story. The first two contain all of its most notable
varieties in very typical forms; the third registers the high-water mark of artistic perfection. The Gesta Romanorum and the Confessio Amantis represent that European literature of the short story of which England had its part; The Canterbury Tales contain the fruits of an individual English genius freely at work upon this literature. Let us outline the varieties of the medieval short story with these three great type-collections, and the examples they contain, as goal.
Earliest in point of time, most characteristically medieval in spirit and in substance, are the contes dévots. These little pious narratives seem to have originated with the Greeks of the early Christian centuries, who made shortstory plots from the miraculous happenings of Christian mythology. From Greek they passed into Latin. Then the most gifted of medieval races, the French, took these miraculous anecdotes, for they were little more, and from them made exquisite verse-stories, in which the imagination of the French poet worked freely upon his old plot. The process was not different from that by which the Greeks and Romans wrought their myths into artistic forms.
To the old stories the French writers added many new ones, the greater number inspired by the growing cult of the Virgin Mary. These stories spread to England, both in great cycles of Miracles of Our Lady, and in contes dévots of other saints, or, again, as separate tales of a miracle which had happened to a layman, a monk, a nun, or a priest. In England they permeated all the literature of the church. The South English Legendary has many, Robert of Brunne's quaint: and instructive Handlyng Synne (1303) has many; but the most charming of the earlier specimens are to be found in the ruins of a great collection which was copied into the Vernon manuscript
(E. E. T. S. 98). One of its few surviving stories recounts how Our Lady drew out
a new leg for her worshipper who had lost his by disease; another how she cured a quinsied monk by milk from her own breast; and a third is the dubiously moral tale of a monk who ran wanton in his wilde-hede, yet was saved from hell-fire because he said his Ave Maria each night before he started on his rakish way. But these naïve and simple tales are only preliminary to the supreme English composition in this mode, Chaucer's Prioress's Tale, of the little clergeoun whose throat was cut by the envious Jews, and who, thanks to Mary, was restored to sing Alma Redemptoris loud and clear. Simply told, earnestly told, not consciously fictitious, yet with a good plot, these stories are myths just passing into artistic form. And this, indeed, is the characteristic of the conte dévot. No remnant of our earlier literature is more charming, and more redolent of medievalism.
Scarcely less naïve than the conte dévot, quite as charming, but much rarer, was the lai. The lai was a Celtic fairy-story which had been given form and orderly development in French verse. It was born and named in the twelfth century, and to a mysterious Frenchwoman, Marie de France, probably of the English court of Henry II, we owe the best examples. But one, at least, was done in the English of the thirteenth century, the excellent Orfeo and Heurodis, a verse-story in which the old legend of Orpheus and Eurydice has been medievalized and transferred, with a Celtic glamour, to the faery world. More lais appear later, of which the finest is Chaucer's Wife of Bath's Tale, where the fairy-hag transforms herself into beautiful youth for the knight who gives her sovereignty over him. Gower tells the story in his Florent, more directly but with less charm.
Except in grace, melody, and wisdom, these later writers do not excel the simple tale of Orfeo.
Much closer to the heart of the Middle Ages is the fabliau, a story of humor and realism, which served the frolic or the satiric mood as the co dévot served devotion, and was at the opposite pole from romance. The
good story,” told from the earliest ages, was the root of the fabliau; its plot was often immeasurably old; but its verse form, its elaboration, its flavor of a specific age, came at the hands of French minstrels in the twelfth and the thirteenth centuries, and to such verse-stories alone is the name properly applied. In French many survive, in English, before Chaucer, but few, although there is every reason to suppose that once they were plentiful."
But whatever may have existed of English fabliau before Chaucer sinks into insignificance beside his transformation of this variety of the short story. terpieces, The Miller's Tale, of a reeve duped by his wife, The Reeve's Tale, of a miller tricked by two Cambridge boys, and The Merchant's Tale, of old January and his frail but lovely May, offend against modern taste in their indecency, but this indecency belongs to the satiric, cynical, eminently realistic fabliau. Indeed, they are more indecent, as they are more vigorous, more 'true to character, more picturesque, and more witty than any other fabliaux, whether in French or in English. Furthermore, there is a consummate art in these stories which more than makes up for their grossness. Chaucer had traveled to Italy; had been touched by the spirit of the earliest Renaissance; had acquired that interest in individual human nature which the full Renaissance was to spread. In these fabliaux the human nature of the Middle Ages comes to life with all the trappings of individuality. The humorous reflection upon life which is at the root of this short-story form flowers forth in satiric comment upon character and upon life; the fabliau, in short, develops its full potentiality and becomes one of the most successful forms of the short story. Unfortunately, Chaucer, and only Chaucer, was able to do all this, and these Canterbury fabliaux have had few successors and no rivals.
* Of the early ones that remain only one is noteworthy: the quaint tale of Dame Siriz and how, by trickery, she overcame the chastity of a credulous wife. In a dialect so far from modern English that it can be read only by a student of the period, this story has nevertheless enough homely vigor of style, and flavor, to give it a humble place in English literature.
But there is another kind of fabliau in The Canterbury Tales, the Nun's Priest's Tale of beauteous Pertelote, of Chauntecleer, and of the fox that beguiled him. This tale is descended from the famous beast-epic; no epic, indeed, but a vast collection of stories originating in France, in which the lion was king, the fox the villain, the wolf the dupe, and the donkey the victim.
In spirit and in form a fabliau, narrowing its range to a little world of animal actors, but closely and satirically reflecting the real world outside, the beast-fabliau was a thoroughly medieval invention. The unknown author of The Vox and the Wolf (13th century) has given us the earliest in English. His, at most, is an adaptation from the French. Chaucer's is infinitely more original, and for the reader not skilled in Middle English his story is by far the best example of the type. But, fortunately, in this case another man was born before the end of the Middle Ages, who had the power to repeat and vary Chaucer's achievement, and we must bring him in, even though we go beyond our three collections to do so. The so-called fables of the Scotchman, Henryson, who lived in the fif