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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume II. The End of the Middle Ages.

VII. Chaucer

§ 10. The Legend of Good Women

It failed to satisfy the writer, however; and, either because he did not find the plan congenial, or because he found the metre—once for all and for the last time even as he had improved it—too cramping for his genius, he tried another experiment in The Legend of Godd Women, an experiment in one way, it would seem, as unsatisfactory as that of The House of Fame, in another, a reaching of land, firmly and finally. The existence of a double prologue to this piece, comparatively lately found out, has, of necessity, stimulated the mania for arranging and rearranging Chaucer’s work; but it need not do so in the very least. The whole state of this work, if it teaches us anything, teaches us that Chaucer was a man who was as far as possible removed from the condition which labours and “licks” at a piece of work, till it is thoroughly smooth and round, and then turns it out to fend for itself. If two of Chaucer’s friends had prevailed on him to give them each an autograph copy of a poem of his, it is much more probable than not that the copies would have varied—that that “God’s plenty” of his would have manifested itself in some changes. The work itself is quite unaffected by the accident of its double proem. Whether it was really intended as a palinode for abuse of women in earlier books may be seriously doubted; the pretence that it was is quite like “Chaucer’s fun,” and quite like the usual fashion of ushering in literary work with some excuse, once almost universal and still not quite unknown. For the actual substance—stories of famous and unhappy dames and damsels of old, who were, like Guinevere, “good lovers”—he had precedents in two of his favourite authors, Ovid and Boccaccio; and this would have been more than enough for him. But, in handling them, he took a metre—which we cannot say he had never used before, because we do not know the exact dates of the original forms of The Knight’s Tale and other things, but—which had been sporadically and half-accidentally practised in Middle English to no very small extent; which had recently been used in France, where the single decasyllabic line had been familiar ever since the dawn of French literature proper; and of which, as it was, he had written many hundreds at the end of his rime royal in Troilus and elsewhere. This is the great decasyllabic or heroic couplet; the “riding time” (not yet “riding,” as Troilus was not yet “royal”); the ouster of the octosyllabic as staple of English verse; the rival of the stanza for two centuries, and something like the tyrant of English prosody for two more; and still one of the very greatest of English metres for every purpose but the pure lyric.

The work resulting is of the greatest interest, and has been, as a rule, rather undervalued. Tennyson judged better when he made it the inspiration of one of the greatest of his own early poems. The prologue, in whichever form we take it, is the most personal, the most varied and, perhaps, the most complete utterance that we have from Chaucer as far as substance goes, though it is not his most accomplished performance as art. He is evidently at a sort of watershed, looking before and after—but especially after—at his own work. The transitions of mood, and of attention to subject, are remarkable. In particular, that instantaneous shifting from grave to gay, and from the serious to the humorous, which puzzles readers not to the English manner born, and of which he, Shakespeare and Thackeray are the capital representatives, pervades the whole piece like the iridescence in shot silk or in certain enamels. The allegory of the leaf and the flower &pipe;; the presence of the god of love and his wrath with those who treat him lightly; the intercession of the gracious lady Alcestis; the poet’s apology and his determination to turn into English divers classical stories as a penance, are all mixed up with descriptions of nature, with innocent pedantry (which, in fact, determines the fashion of the penance or for which the penance is an excuse) and with touches of temporal colour and respect of distinguished persons. All combine to make the thing unique. And both here and in the actual legends of the martyrs of love, from Cleopatra to Hypermnestra, the immense capacities of the metre are well manifested, though not, of course, wither with the range or with the perfection of The Canterbury Tales themselves. It is very interesting to find that in this first essay in it he has had a presentiment of its great danger—monotony—and, though he has naturally not discovered all the preservatives, he is almost naïvely observant of one—the splitting of the couplet at a paragraph’s end.

Still, that he was dissatisfied is evident, not merely from the incompleteness of the actual scheme, but from off-signs of impatience and discomfort in its course. The uniformity of subject, and the mainly literary character of the treatment required, obviously weighed on him. He “wanted life and colour,” which here he could not give, or, rather, which he could have given, but which he was anxious to apply to a larger and fresher scheme, a more varied repertory, and one which, above all, would enable him not only to take his models from the actual, but often, if not always, to give manners and character and by-play, as well as fresco painting from the antique, with a mainly sentimental connection of background and subject.