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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

§ 6. The Romaunt of the Rose

It has, however, been used largely in the discussion of the last important poem assigned to Chaucer, The Romaunt of the Rose, and is, perhaps, here of most importance. It is not denied by anybody that Chaucer did translate this, the most famous and popular poem in all European literature for nearly three centuries. The question is whether the translation that we have—or part of it; if not the whole—is his. No general agreement has yet been reached on this point even among those who admit the validity of the rime test and other tests referred to; but most of them allow that the piece stands on a different footing from others, and most modern editions admit it to a sort of “court of the gentiles.” The two prose works, The Tales, The Legend, Troilus, The House of Fame, the A B C, The Duchess, the three Complaints (unto Pity, of Mars and to his Lady), Anelida and Arcite, The Parliament of Fowls, and some dozen or sixteen (the number varies slightly) of minor poems ranging from a few lines to a page or so, are admitted by all. Of these, some critical account must now be given. But something must fist be said on a preliminary point of importance which has occupied scholars not a little, and on which fairly satisfactory agreement has been reached: and that is the probable order of the works in composition.

It has been observed that the facts of Chaucer’s life, as known, furnish us with no direct information concerning his literary work, of any kind whatsoever. But, indirectly, they, as collected, furnish us with some not unimportant information—to wit, that in his youth and early manhood he was much in France, that in early middle life he was not a little in Italy and that he apparently spent the whole of his later days in England. Now, if we take the more or less authenticated works, we shall find that they sort themselves up into three bundles more or less definitely constituted. The first consists of work either directly or pretty closely translated or imitated from the French, and couched in forms more or less French in origin—The Romaunt of the Rose, The Complaints, The book of the Duchess, the minor ballades, etc. The second consists of two important pieces directly traceable to the Italian originals of Boccaccio, Troilus and Criseyde and The Knight’s Tale, with another scarcely less suggested by the same Italian author, The Legend of Good Women, and, perhaps, others still, including some of The Canterbury Tales besides The Knight’. The third includes the major and most characteristic part of The Tales themselves from The Prologue onward, which are purely and intensely English. Further, when these bundles (not too tightly tied up nor too sharply separated from each other) are surveyed, we find hardly disputable internal evidence that they succeeded each other in the order of the events of his life. The French division is not only very largely second-hand, but is full of obvious tentative experiments; the author is trying his hand, which, as yet, is an uncertain one, on metre, on language, on subject; and, though he often does well, he seldom shows the supremacy and self-confidence of mature genius. In the Italian bundle he has gained very much in these respects: we hear a voice we have not heard before and shall not hear again—the voice of an individual, if not yet a consummate, poet. But his themes are borrowed; he embroiders rather than weaves. In the third or English period all this is over. “Here is God’s plenty,” as Dryden admirably said; and the poet is the steward of the god of poets, and not the mere interpreter of some other poet. He has his own choice of subject, his own grasp of character and his own diction and plot. He is at home. And it is a significant fact that we have references to other works in The Tales, but none to The Tales in other works. We may therefore conclude, without pushing the classification to a perilous particularity, that it is generally sound.

We now come, without further difficulty or doubt, to those parts of the works about which there is little or no contention; only prefixing a notice of the English Romaunt of the Rose with full reference to the cautions given previously. For this we have but one MS. (in the Hunterian collection at Glasgow) and the early printed version of Thynne. The translation is very far from complete, representing only a small part of the great original work of Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun, and it is not continuous even as it is. The usual practice of modern commentators has been to break it up into three parts—A, B and C; but, by applying to this division the rime and other tests before referred to, very different results have been reached. The solution most in favour is that Chaucer may not improbably have written A, may more or less possibly have written C, but can hardly have written B, which abounds in northern forms. It is, however, certain that he actually translated this very part, inasmuch as he refers to it in The Legend. Whatever may be the facts in these respects, there is a general agreement of the competent that, from the literary point view, the whole is worthy of Chaucer and of the original. Of this original, the earlier or Lorris part is one of the most beautiful works of the Middle Ages, while the second or longer part by Jean de Meun is one of the shrewdest and most characteristic. The two authors were singularly different, but their English translator, whoever he was, has shown himself equal to either requirement, after a fashion which only a consummate man of letters could display—such a man for instance as he to whom we owe both the Prioress and the Wife of Bath. The soft love allegory of the earlier part, with its lavish description and ornament, is not rendered more adequately than the sharp satire and somewhat pedantic learning of the second. The metre is that of the original—the octosyllabic couplet—which was, on the whole, the most popular literary measure of the Middle Ages in English, French and German alike, and which has been practised in England for nearly 200 years. To escape monotony and insignificance in this is difficult, especially if the couplets are kept more or less distinct, and if the full eight syllables and no more are invariably retained. The English poet has not discovered all his possibilities of variation, but he has gone far in this direction. He has also been curiously successful in sticking very closely to the matter of his original without awkwardness, and, where he amplifies, amplifying with taste. English literature up to, and even after, the time is full of translation; is, indeed, very largely made up of it. But there is no verse translation which approaches this in the combined merits of fidelity, poetry and wit. The date is very uncertain, but it must be early; some, who think the poem may all be the Chaucer’, connect it with an early possible sojourn of his in the north with the household of Lionel or his wife.