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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

§ 15. The Court of Love

In The Court of Love, on the other hand, we are, at any rate as to prosody, out of what has been called the “period of staggers”; and, perhaps, this is a stronger argument for a late origin than some that have been advanced on that side—though it opens fresh difficulties. The rime royal here is of an accomplishment, an assured competence, which we do not find elsewhere in southern English in any writer between Chaucer and Sackville. The stanzas are frequently run on—not a common thing with this metre, and, on the whole, not an improvement, because it destroys the rest-effect of the final couplet. But, in themselves, and in the individual lines, there is plenty of spring and cadence. The language is of a somewhat composite kind, showing aureation; and faults are found with the grammar, while a great deal of indebtedness to Lydgate has been urged. But, in fact, all these poets, and Chaucer their master, had a community of goods in the matter of phraseology. What is undeniable is that “Philogenet,” if really “of Cambridge, clerk,” adds one to its nest of singing birds that even the university of Spenser, Milton and Dryden cannot afford to oust. He may be an interloper or a coiner, but his goods are sound and his standard pretty high. The title of the piece—if the obvious pitfall of mistaking the reference as being to the half-fabulous, half-historical cours d’amour be avoided—speaks it plainly enough. The poet strays to the palace of Citherea (near, of course, the mount, instead of the isle, of “Citheree”), finds Alcestis and Admetus vice-king and queen there; and makes interest with a lady of the court, one Philobone, who had been a friend of his. She shows him over the palace, where he beholds and rehearses at great length the statutes of love, some of which are hard enough and, in fact, mere counsels of perfection. He makes solemn profession, and is assigned as “servant” to a beautiful damsel, named Rosiall, whose heart is yet untouched and by whom he is received with the proper mixture of cruelty and kindness. After this he is once more consigned to Philobone to see the rarities of the place. Various allegorical personages and scenes pass before him: the most famous and beautiful of which is the picture of those who have wilfully denied themselves love. After a gap (of which there are more than one in the poem) Pity, who has been lying tranced in a shrine, rises and bids Rosiall be gracious to him; and the piece, which comes a little short of 1500 lines, ends with a charming, if not entirely original, bird chorus to the initial words of favourite psalms and passages of Scripture, the nightingale choosing Domine labia, the eagle Venite and the throstle cock Te deum amoris, while the peacock appropriately delivers Dominus regnavit.

The mere descriptions here are a little less artistic, and the atmosphere and colouring of a less dewy freshness than in The Flower and the Leaf; but a much larger range of qualities is brought into play. The actual narrative power, which is apt to be wofully wanting in these allegorical poems, is not small; and there is some character both about Philogenet and about “little Philobone,” though Rosiall, naturally, has not much to do save smile or frown in look and speech. Further, there is not a little humour, and the whole is distinctly free from the invertebrate character of the usual fifteenth century poem; while, if we look to the parts, very few stanzas out of the more than two hundred lack the salt or the sweetness which are both constantly wanting at this time. But there is no doubt that the episode of the repentant ascetics and the conclusion are the choicest parts of the poem; and that neither of them ought to be absent from any full and representative collection of specimens of English poetry. The special quality of the stanza, its power of expressing passion and complaint, is thoroughly well brought out in the Regrets, and it is very noteworthy that the running-on, which was commented on above as a mistake, is not attempted in these places. It is, however, quite certain, even from this passage, that the sole MS. is not the original.

The conclusion, besides its intrinsic beauty, has (if it actually be late) the interest of being one of the latest examples of a habit which began quite early in Middle English, of mixing Latin phrases, chiefly of the Scriptural kind. This became specially popular in the late fifteenth century just before it died out; and we have remarkable examples of it both from Skelton and Dunbar. But in them it usually shows itself by taking whole lines of Latin, not, as here, by interweaving scraps. The effect of the mixture is curiously pleasing, if a little fantastic, and gives a kind of key to the rhetorical attraction, in prose and poetic style, of the intermixture of words of Romance and other origin.

Taking it altogether, if The Court of Love is to be placed within the sixteenth century, we must regard it as the latest piece of purely English poetry which exhibits strictly medieval characteristics in a condition either genuine or quite astonishingly imitated—the very last echo with us, putting aside examples in Scots, of the actual music, the very last breath of the atmosphere, of The Romance of the Rose. That it should have been written by Chaucer, in its present state, is philologically impossible; that, in any form, it was his, there is no evidence whatever to show. But that it is good enough as literature to have been his, and strangely like him in temper and complexion, may be laid down as a critical certainty.