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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.

VIII. The English Chaucerians

§ 14. The Flower and Leaf

The case is different with the two others, The Flower and the Leaf and The Court of Love. To begin with, the positive external evidence in their favour is of the weakest kind—is, indeed, next to non-existent. Of The Flower and the Leaf we have no MS. whatsoever, though one is said to have been heard of; and it was not even admitted to the printed works till 1597–8 by Speght. The Court of Love had been printed by Stow in 1561, and we have, apparently, the MS. which he used; but there is no other, and this would not appear to be much older than the date of the print. Yet, further, it is evident that, if either poem was written anywhere near Chaucer’s time, it must have been considerably tampered with by scribes. In The Court of Love, particularly, there is a remarkable jumble of archaic and modernised forms, which has led some to think that it was forged by a writer who actually had Thynne’s Chaucer,as well as works by Lydgate and other Chaucerians before him.

It will be observed that this is rather a dangerous argument, because it admits the strongly Chaucerian character of the poem: and, indeed, this may be asserted of both pieces. They are, in fact, so good and so Chaucerian that it is not too much to say that, between Chaucer himself and Wyatt (whose manner they do not in the least resemble), we know of no southern English poet who could have written either, and must place two anonymi at the head of the actual list. But, in face of the philological difficulties above stated, and of the fact that there is absolutely no internal claim to Chaucerian authorship—the “daughter,” who is spoken to in The Flower, is unnamed, and the author of The Court styles himself “Philogenet, of Cambridge, clerk”—it is impossible to pronounce them Chaucer’. Yet it must be pointed out that the arguments against his authorship from the feminine attribution in The Flower are absolutely valueless. Pushed to their legitimate and logical conclusion, they would lead us to strike out The Wife of Bath’s Prologue, had it survived alone of The Canterbury Tales. We do not know in whose mouth the author intended to put the piece any more than we know who that author was. Nor is the stress laid on description of dress much better. Was Sir Piercie Shafton a lady, or John Chalkhill of Thealma and Clearchus fame? It may be added that The Flower and the Leaf is conjecturally put at about the middle of the fifteenth century and The Court of Love at some half-century or even three-quarters of a century later. But these dates are, admittedly, guess-work.

What is not guess-work is the remarkable excellence of the poems themselves, which have been too seldom considered of late on their own merits, apart from polemical and really irrelevant considerations. When we take The Flower and the Leaf in the only text which we possess—not as vamped up to a possible or impossible Chaucerian norm—we find in it more than a trace of that curious prosodic vertigo which seems to have beset the whole fifteenth century. There is not only uncertainty about the use of the final -e as a syllable, and a vacillating sense of its value; but, though the decasyllable is not extended in the wild fashion which we find from Lydgate downwards, it is often cut short, sometimes to the Chaucerian, and even the Lydgatian, “nine”—sometimes to a frank dimeter. But these shortcomings, most of which are, at least possibly, scribal, do not interfere with general smoothness of the metre; nor do a few infelicities of diction (such as the comparison of grass to “green wool”) interfere with its attractiveness, in that respect also unusual for its time, undue aureation and undue beggarliness being equally avoided. Still, the great charm of the piece is a certain nameless grace of choice, arrangement and handling of subject. The main theme, which has some connection with the story of Rosiphele in Confessio Amantis, and which, in another way, is anticipated by Chaucer himself in The Legend of Good Women, is an allegory—not, perhaps, exactly of chastity and unchastity, but of something like the Uranian and Pandemic Venus, adjusted to medieval ideas and personified by Diana and Flora respectively. Each of these has her train of knights and ladies devoted to the Leaf (regarded as something permanent), and the Flower (gay, but passing) and wearing liveries of green and white. The lady who tells the tale beholds the processions and sports of the two parties and the small disaster, which, in the shape of a sudden squall of wind and rain, tarnishes the finery of the Flower party, and drives them and their queen to take shelter with the lady of the Leaf under the greenery. The piece is not long—less than 600 lines—and its scheme is quite common form: sleeplessness, early rising, walk abroad and the like; but there is a singular brightness and freshness over it all, together with a power of pre-Raphaelite decoration and of vivid portraiture—even of such action as there is—which is very rare. Indeed, out of Chaucer himself and the original beginning of Guillaume de Lorris in the Roman de la Rose, it would be difficult to find anything of the kind better done.

For literary history, the interest of the poem is, of course, increased by the fact that Dryden, having no doubts about its being Chaucer’, took it for the canvas of one of his “fable” translations, and reproduced it with remarkable success on the different system which he brought into play. But this neither adds to, nor lessens, its intrinsic merit. It may, however, be added that, though simpler and less pedantic, it has strong points of likeness to The Kingis Quair, and that, after a long and careful reading, it gives the impression of having, though complete in itself, been probably intended by its author, if not exactly as a continuation of other pieces in a larger whole, at any rate as a production to be taken in connection with them. This impression, however, may be individual and arbitrary. The question of its merit is a different one.