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that the true reason was, that the budget of novels was exhausted : not to mention, that every day after the first may properly be considered as containing a new action, or, what is worse, a repetition of the action of the former day. The second defect is in the characters, which are so nearly resembling to each other, in age, rank, and even natural disposition, that if they had been strictly supported, their conversation must have been incapable of that variety which is necessary to carry the reader through so long a work. The third defect has arisen from the author's attempt to remedy the second. In order to diversify and enliven his narrations, he has made a circle of virtuous ladies and polite gentlemen hear and relate, in their turns, a number of stories, which cannot, with any degree of probability, be supposed to have been suffered in such an assembly.”
What Mr. Tyrwhitt calls the action of the “ Decameron," is therefore, in any dramatic sense of the word, no action at all. It is merely an expedient, for giving an arbitrary connexion to a variety of miscellaneous narratives. And, even in this point of view, the merit of the invention is not due to Boccaccio. The " Arabian Nights' Entertainments,” (which, may confidently be inferred from sufficient evidence, were not unknown to the novelists of the age of Boccaccio,) had already given an example of a better machine ; for though the narrator in that case be but one, and the other characters have a very subordinate part to play, there is an action and object running through the whole, (and that of deep interest,) which gives connexion to the successive stories, and for the furtherance of which they are told. Here, then, we have that unity of design, which the “Decameron" wants, and the only defect ofthe a ction is, that it has obviously no necessary
limit. Mr. Tyrwhitt is, however, much more happy in the succeeding observation: " That the closer any such composition shall copy
the most essen, tial forms of comedy, the more natural and defined the plan shall be, the more the characters shall be diversified, the more the tales shall be suited to the characters, so much the more conspicuous will be the skill of the writer, and his works approach the nearer to perfection.”
And in this respect it is that the Canterbury Tales have an advantage so conspicuous, as almost to entitle our Chaucer to the whole merit of the original invention ;--that the work is, in reality, “a Comedy not intended for the stage." It has a main action running through and connecting the whole; with its obvious and necessary duration, and equally necessary catastrophe;
its critical unity of object; its natural beginning, middle, and end. It is rich in all the requisite contrast and diversity of character which can give amusing variety to the dialogue. The respectiveTales themselves become consistent and necessary parts
of that dialogue; and at once fill out and sustain the respective characters, and constitute the essential means of accomplishing the catastrophe which the author has designed. The Tales of the Reve and the Miller, the Frere and the Sompnour, for example, as naturally and as forcibly elucidate the personal and professional animosities, and display the humourous and moral (or immoral) habitudes of those personages, and of their class, as their colloquial scurrilities and sarcasms: and the epic narrative of the Knight,* the Monastic Legend of the Prioress, the Witch Tale of the Wife of Bath, the Sermon of the Good Parson, and so of the other Tales, as correctly sustain the characters of the respective narrators, as the dialogue, little or much, that is put into their respective mouths.
The main object in view is not in itself very important; but it is sufficiently comic for interest and effect; and promises a termination in a scene of jollity and high convivial enjoyment: and it is curious to observe, that two compositions of such sterling merit, as the first closet and the first stage Comedy in our language, should have had, for the object of their respective actions, the former the attainment of a jolly supper, cost-free, at the Tabbard Inn in Southwark; and the latter, the finding of Gammer Gurton's needle in the seam of her man Hodge's old small-clothes, which she had been mending. But what possible subject is there, which, touched by the hand of genius, may not become interesting and amusing ?
But the general plan of the Canterbury Tales cannot, perhaps, be better recapitulated than in the words of Mr. Tyrwhitt.
“ He,” (the author) “supposes,” (as we have seen,) “ that a company of pilgrims going to Canterbury assemble at an inn in Southwark, and agree that, for their common amusement on the road, each of them shall tell at least one Tale in going to Canterbury, and another in coming back from thence, and that he who shall tell the best Tales shall be treated by the rest with a supper upon their return to the same inn. The characters of the pilgrims are as various as at that time could be found in the several departments of middle life; that is, in fact, as various as could with any probability be brought together so'as to form one company, the highesi and the lowest ranks of society being necessarily excluded. It appears further, that the design of Chaucer was not barely to recite the Tales told by the Pilgrims, but also to describe their journey, And all the remnant of their pilgrimage, including, probably, their adventures at Canterbury, as well as upon the road. "If we add that the Tales, besides being nicely adapted to the characters of their respective relators, were inteuded to be connected together by suitable introductions, and interspersed with diverting episodes, and that the greatest part of them was to have been executed in verse, we shall have a tolerable idea of the extent and difficulty of the whole undertaking; and admiring, as we must, the vigour of that genius which, in an advanced age, could begin so vast a work, we shall rather lament than be surprised that it has been left imperfect."
* A masterly version, at once compressed and improved, of the Theseida of Boccaccio.
In the regret, however, that it should so have been left, every admirer of genuine poetry and comic huniour cannot fail to join: for although, independently of Chaucer's long moral tale of Melibæus, and “the good Parson's” not very brief tale (or sermon)—which are in prose--the portion of this work which has descended to us, extends to between seventeen and eighteen thousand verses; yet, with those who have once surmounted the difficulties resulting from obsolete words, and still more obsolete spelling, and the great changes that have taken place in our national pronunciation, it will be matter of mortification to find themselves arrived (with yet unsated curiosity) at an abrupt termination-when to all appearance, on comparing those parts of the Canterbury Tales of which we are in possession, with the sketch that has just been given, or with the prologue as it now stànds, it is apparent that more than one-half is wanting.
“ The prologue,” as Mr. Tyrwhitt observes, we have, perhaps, nearly complete, and the greatest part of the journey to Canterbury, * but not a word of the transactions at Canterbury,+ or of the journey homeward, or of the epilogue which we may suppose was to have concluded the work, with an account of the prize supper I and the separation of the company:” that glorious prize supper, with the jolly host again at the head of the table--at which we would gladly have relinquished a Lord Mayor's feast, or a Coronation banquet, to have been present !
We have thus, at length, completed our review of “ the Canterbury Tales ;” and, we should hope, have not only furnished to the miscellaneous reader the materials for a more general and due appreciation of the merits of that extraordinary work, than he would have been likely to have toiled for through the voluminous obscurities of obsolete spelling, or than could be derived from the existing fragments of paraphrastic versions;
* The Pilgrims are twenty-six in number. Each was to tell two stories on the way to Canterbury; and two on their way back. But we have only twenty-three tales altogether.
A rich subject for such a pen as Chaucer's.
Where we might have expected to meet the jolly host again, in all his triumphant glee.
but, also, have contributed, in some degree, to facilitate the pursuits of those who may be disposed to encounter the difficulties of the obsolete diction in which such high and varied excellencies are enveloped, and to all but antiquarian eyes obscured.
At some convenient interval we shall probably return to the other works of our author: a general analysis of which, with some specimens of their many characteristic beauties, in the mode of quotation adopted in our present and former article, together with a clear developement of the metrical system and versification of Chaucer, (involving, as it will be found to do, the primitive and inherent prosody of our language,) would perhaps comprise all that might be desired by the general reader, with reference to the great patriarch of our national poetry : unless, indeed, a version of the entire works could be hoped for, such as we have repeatedly glanced at; and which might render our Chaucer (undisguised by incongruous ornament and paraphrastic interpolation) not only more readily accessible to modern apprehension, but acceptable to the ear, in the present very altered state of our customary pronunciation.
As respects the structure and harmony of our author's verse, and the prosodial principles upon which it is constructed, though we are very far from wishing to depreciate the value of Mr. Tyrwhitt's disquisition on these, it can by no means be considered as having gone into those profound principles of metrical harmony, upon which the prosody of our language and the structurre of our rhythms, as conceived by Chaucer and exemplified by the most accomplished of his successors, will be found to rest. If Mr. Tyrwhitt has in this department done much, he has still left much to do; and there are few, perhaps, at this day, even of the most critical students of our poetic literature, who will not be surprised at the demonstration of how many parallels to some of the boldest and finest specimens of versification, even in the Paradise Lost, may be produced from the heroic hexameters of Geoffrey Chaucer. Nor will it, perhaps, be either uninteresting or unprofitable, if, in the process of analyzing and exemplifying the metrical and rhythmical system of our venerable bard, we should be enabled in some degree to ascertain what our language has lost, in point of harmonic power, from the misdirection of an erroneous theory of prosodial criticism, as well as what it has gained by the diligence of literary culture, and the progress of civilization and refinement.
END OF PART II. VOL. XIV.
VOL. XIV. PART II.