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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

§ 14. Minor Verse

The remaining minor verse, accepted with more ore less agreement as distinguished from “Chauceriana,” which will be dealt with separately, requires but brief mention. Of the ballade To Rosemounde, The Former Age, the Fortune group, Truth, Gentilesse and Lack of Steadfastness—though none is quite without interest, and though we find lines such as

  • The lambish peple, voyd of alle vyce,
  • which are pleasant enough—only Truth, otherwise known as The Ballad of Good Counsel, is unquestionably worthy of Chaucer. The note of vanity is common enough in the Middle Ages; but it has seldom been sounded more sincerely or more poetically than here, from the opening line
  • Flee fro the prees, and dwelle with sothfastnesse
  • to the refrain
  • And trouthe shal delivere it is no drede;
  • with such fine lines between as
  • Hold the hye wey, and lat thy gost thee lede.
  • The Envoys, or personal epistles to Scogan and Bukton, have some biographical attraction, and what is now called The Complaint of Venus, a translation from Otho de Granson, and the wofully-comical Empty Purse, are not devoid of it; the elaborate triple roundel (doubted by some) of Merciles Beaute is pretty, and one or two others passable. But it is quite evident that Chaucer required licence of expatiation in order to show his genius. If the reference to “many a song and many a licorous lay” in the retraction is genuine and well-founded, it is doubtful whether we have lost very much by their loss.

    The foregoing observations have been made with a definite intent to bring the account of this genius as much as possible under the account of each separate exercise of it, and to spare the necessity of diffuse generalisation in the conclusion; but something of this latter kind can hardly be avoided. It will be arranged under as few heads and with as little dilation upon them as may be; and the bibliography of MSS., editions and commentaries, which will be found in another part of this volume, must be taken as deliberately arranged to extend and supplement it. Such questions as whether the Canterbury pilgrimage took place in the actual April of 1395, or in any month of the poetical year, or whether it is safe to date The House of Fame from the fact that, in 1383, the 10th of December fell on a Thursday, the day and month being given by the text and the day of the week being that of Jove, whose bird carries the poet off—cannot be discussed here. Even were the limits of space wider, the discussion might be haunted by memories of certain passages in The Nun’s Priest’s Tale and elsewhere. But some general points might be handled.