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Swift, to suppose that if they wrote a book that is how they would write, not having the necessary genius to attempt to write like a Euphuist or a Précieux. It is said that when Lord Roberts undertook to write a book on his forty-four years in India he spent many laborious weeks on his first chapter, and then submitted it to a man of letters whom he knew. The verdict was that the book promised to be quite interesting, ‘but’, asked the man of letters, 'why have you spun it out with all those similes and far-fetched literary allusions ? ' Good God!' said Lord Roberts. Doesn't one have to do that? Those things have given me ever so many sleepless nights. I thought a real book would never do without them.' The advice not only saved the author much labour : it saved the book from failure and contempt. For if life without art is apt to be tedious, art without life is intolerable. Lord Roberts's book may not be fine literature, but it is at any rate a book that can be read.
I think this action and reaction may be traced all down the history of our poetry. I am afraid I am the very opposite of well-read in our early poetry. But from what I have read about it, and, with difficulty, of it, I think it is safe to say that it has more of life than art in it. This is, I suppose, the usual weakness of all primitive literatures. Man can hardly help being interested in observing himself and his own life, and drawing his conclusions from what he observes : so that a people will have a thousand proverbs before they have one poem. Sancho Panza is many centuries older than his creator, or than his companion in immortality, the more poetic Don Quixote. We are aware of ourselves and other human beings as soon as we are aware of anything, while many of us—perhaps the majority-pass the whole of life without ever being aware of art at all. Ars longa, vita brevis : and life takes revenge for its shortness by interesting us at once, and interesting all of us, even the most primitive, simple, and uneducated people. So Early English literature
was often full of truth and moral insight, but, being deficient in art, failed to be a permanent factor in English life. Its own defects, for which it was responsible, united with the change of language, for which it was not, to make it unreadable, and to leave it where it has remained-in an antiquarian and linguistic backwater. The stream got very thin, clogged sometimes by defects of the opposite sort, and wasting itself in the backwaters of ingenuity : echoes of Provence and Northern France, echoes that were only echoes, exercises in imitation, art divorced from life, the dilettante entertainment of the idleness of courts and castles. Then at last it widened out into the noble reach which we associate with the name of Chaucer, the first English poet in whom the equipoise of art and life begins to be seen in something like perfection. Here at last was a man who understood life and had mastered his difficult art : who had something to be say and know how to say it.
We can never overpraise Chaucer. What we should have been without him no one can say. He first made us European: he gathered his subjects and learnt his art from the greatest European masters of his own day and of the days before him, and from those ancients who had been their masters : and he first brought to the work of poetry a genius for living and observing and thinking and writing which enabled him to deal freely both with life and with the art of his masters, and to make a new creation of his own. And there is another thing. He is the first to sound the free, fresh, natural, and easy note which we think of as modern, though many of the Greeks and some of the Romans had it. But the Middle Age had largely lost it. There are exceptions to all rules of course ; but as a whole the utterance of the Middle Age is choked with pedantry and clumsiness. Before Chaucer Christianity had produced only one truly great poet of the order which the intelligent reader of any age or country instantly recognizes as belonging to all. For I do not think
that even Petrarch is that. Dante stands alone. And Dante's position is peculiar. Mighty as is his genius, vast as his learning, exalted perhaps beyond all others as his spirit, he looks backward rather than forward. So far as I know the great literature of the world, I should suppose him to be, without rival or question, the greatest poet of the greatest of all subjects. But his task is not to anticipate the world which was coming ; it is to sum up in one mighty work of art the whole life, learning, and politios of a world which was rapidly passing away. Nowhere is his genius better shown than in the way he triumphed over the narrow limitations which he imposed on himself. On every page of Milton one feels the hampering effects on poetry of a strictly defined logical creed. Dante's creed was a hundred times more detailed than Milton's : and it was further limited by philosophical explanations of every article it contained. Yet his genius can carry all this heavy baggage with him into the empyrean of poetry. Still, heavy baggage it is : most of us have little to do to-day with the ingenious subtleties of the School philosophy, or even with a local Hell and Purgatory, or with such questions as the penalty paid by children for dying unbaptized. Dante's great poem is largely an apotheosis, the most magnificent in the world. But, after all, apotheosis is for things and persons which on earth are dead. I am not forgetting for a moment the eternal truth of the human faith and Divine love which fill the poem, nor the delight which it so often exhibits in the works and ways of man and in the beautiful things among which he passes his earthly life: nor, again, the consummate force, brevity, and decision of its style : without these the poem would not be the thing of immortality which it unquestionably is. But, nevertheless, even these things in part, and all others in entirety, are given a strictly mediaeval clothing, and to move from them to Chaucer is to move from the old world to the new, and even, in one sense, from darkness to light.
But the light was soon extinguished. The school of Chaucer was only a school : none of the scholars in it ever came to be masters. The art of Chaucer had no equal till Spenser came, nearly two centuries later : and as to the wide knowledge of Chaucer, his combined shrewdness, humour, sympathy, his common sense, in both the meanings of the word 'sense', that is, his understanding of his fellowmen and his feeling for them, his power of entering both into their point of view and into their feelings, they were not to be seen again till the full two centuries produced Shakespeare.
Before the Faery Queen was written, Europe and, in its wake, England had been transformed by two mighty movements, the Renascence of the ancient world, and the Reformation which was at first mainly the ally of the Renascence and later mainly its enemy. The first effort of the Reformation was directed against mediaevalism, the follies of the schools, the idleness and degradation of the monasteries, the worldliness and corruption of the Papacy and the Hierarchy. That phase is best seen, perhaps, in Erasmus, who was heartily in sympathy with the new learning. But as the Reformation became more Jewish and more Puritan, i. e. more exclusively interested in conduct, and the Renascence became more intellectual, i. e. more interested in free speculation of every kind, they necessarily parted company; and the last occasion on which they appear in perfect harmony is perhaps the publication of the pre-Civil War poems of Milton. But this is to anticipate. What I was coming to say was that both the art and the life which we find in Spenser and Shakespeare were necessarily very different from those of Chaucer. Chaucer was as much in advance of his age as a poet can be; but no man, or at least no poet or artist, whatever may be true of a man of science, can get out of his own age altogether. Lover of light and freedom as Chaucer is, he is still a man of the Middle Age which loved neither. We can set no limits to what he might
have been if he had lived two hundred years later. But we must take him as he is, and take him with thankfulness. And as he is, part of his delightfulness is due to a certain mental naivety, one may almost say childishness, the childishness of his age, which even he could not escape. But, for good or for evil, with the Renascence and Reformation we put away childish things. No one was ever saner than Chaucer, but he could not have the large and rational view of life which the great Elizabethans owed to the Renascence. And he could not have the profound moral seriousness which all the churches and religious parties, including that which it assailed, owed to the Reformation. In spite of his occasional indecency, he is fundamentally on the side of the angels. But a faith and morals which are inherited and undisputed cannot have the heat of conviction of those but just emerging from a struggle of life and death. You may say, and say with truth, that we know nothing of the religious opinions of Shakespeare, and little of those of most of the Elizabethan writers. Explicit religious utterances belong rather to the next generation which begins with Donne. But, nevertheless, can it be denied that in the great writers of the Elizabethan age, and notably in Shakespeare, there is a pervading sense of the greatness of the moral issues of life, a moral seriousness, which there was not, and could not be, in Chaucer ? Life has become an affair for grown men ; not merely, as in Chaucer, a thing to be accepted, played with, enjoyed, suffered, but a thing to be understood and to be conquered : difficult of comprehension, requiring all our thought, difficult of mastery, requiring an unceasing vigilance of will and conscience. This is truer, of course, of Shakespeare than of Spenser. In fact, Spenser is, in many ways, one of those who look back to the age behind them. He is decidedly more mediaeval than either of his masters, Ariosto or Tasso. Ariosto’s story is almost as mediaevally involved as Spenser's : but in himself there are none of the limita