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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

§ 17. His Poetical Quality

Something has been said of the poetic means which he used to work this picture out. They were, practically, those which English poetry had been elaborating for itself during the preceding two or three centuries, since the indrafts of Latin or Romance vocabulary, and the gradual disuse of inflection, and revolutionised the language. But he perfected them, to, probably, their utmost possible point at the time, by study of French and Italian models as regards arrangement of lines in groups, and by selecting a diction which, even in his own time, was recognised as something quite extraordinary. The old delusion that he “Frenchified” the language has been nearly dispelled as regards actual vocabulary; and, in points which touch grammar, the minute investigations undertaken in the case of the doubtful works have shown that he was somewhat more scrupulous than were his contemporaries in observing formal correctness, as it is inferred to have been. The principal instance of this scrupulousness—the management of the valued final -e, which represented a crowd of vanished or vanishing peculiarities of accidence—was, by a curious consequence, the main cause of the mistakes about his verse which prevailed for some three centuries; while the almost necessarily greater abundance of unusual words in The Prologue, with its varied subjects, probably had something to do with the concurrent notion that his language was obsolete to the point of difficulty, if not to that of unintelligibility. As a matter of fact, his verse (with the exception of one or two doubtful experiments, such as the nine-syllabled line where ten should be) is among the smoothest in English; and there are entire pages where, putting trifling differences of spelling aside, hardly a single word will offer difficulties to any person of tolerable reading in the modern tongue.

It is sometimes complained by those who admit some, if not all, of these merits in him that he rarely—a few would say never—rises to the level of the highest poetry. Before admitting, before even seriously contesting, this we must have a definition of the highest poetry which will unite the suffrages of the competent, and this, in the last two thousand years and more, has not been attained. It will, perhaps, be enough to say that any such definition which excludes the finest things in Troilus and Criseyde, in The Knight’s and Prioress’s Tales and in some other places, will run the risk of suggesting itself as a mere shibboleth. That Chaucer is not always at these heights may be granted: who is? That he is less often at them than some other poets need not be denied; that he has access to them must be maintained. While as to his power to communicate poetic grace and charm to innumerable other things less high, perhaps, but certainly not always low; as to the abounding interest of his matter; as to the astonishing vividness in line and idiom of his character-drawing and manners-painting; and, above all, as to the wonderful service which he did to the forms and stuff of English verse and of English prose, there should be no controversy; at least the issue of any such controversy should not be doubtful.