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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

§ 7. Early Poems

There are few data for settling the respective periods of composition of the early minor poems. If The bookof the Duchess (Blanche of Lancaster, who died in 1369) be really of the earliest—and The Complaint unto Pity is not usually assigned to an earlier date—Chaucer was a singularly late-writing poet. But we may, of course, suppose that his earlier work is lost, or that he devoted the whole of his leisure (it must be remembered that he was “in the service” in various ways) to the Rose. On the other hand, the putting of The Complaint of Mars as late as 1379 depends solely upon a note by Shirley, connecting it with a court scandal between Isabel of Castille, duchess of York, and John Holland, duke of Exeter—for which there is no intrinsic evidence whatsoever. From a literary point of view one would put it much earlier. With the exception of The Parliament of Fowls, which has been not unreasonably connected with the marriage of Richard II to Anne of Bohemia in 1382, internal evidence of style, metrical experiment, absence of strongly original passages and the like, would place all these poems before Troilus, and some of them at a very early period of the poet’s career, whensoever it may have begun. Of the three which usually dispute the position of actual primacy of date, The book of the Duchess or The Death of Blanche is a poem of more than 1300 lines in octosyllables, not quite so smooth as those of The Romaunt, but rather more adventurously split up. The matter is much patched together out of medieval commonplaces, but has touches both of pathos and picturesqueness. The much shorter Complaint unto Pity has, for its special interest, the first appearance in English, beyond all reasonable doubt, of the great stanza called rime royal—that is to say, the seven-lined decasyllabic stanza rimed ababbcc, which held the premier position for serious verse in English poetry till the Spenserian dethroned it. The third piece, Chaucer’s A B C, is in the chief rival of rime royal, the octave ababbcbc. The other he probably took from the French: it is noticeable that the A B C (a series of stanzas to our Lady, each beginning with a different letter of the alphabet in regular order), though actually adapted from the French of Deguileville, is in a quite different metre, which may have been taken from Italian or French. And one would feel inclined to put very close to these The Complaint of Mars and A Complaint to his Lady, in which metrical exploration is pushed even further—to nine-line stanzas aabaabbcc in the first, and ten-line as well as terza rima in the second. These evidences of tentative work are most interesting and nearly decisive in point of earliness; but it is impossible to say that the poetical value of any of these pieces is great.

In Anelida and Arcite and The Parliament of Fowls this value rises very considerably. Both are written in the rime royal—a slight anachronism of phrase as regards Chaucer, since it is said to be derived from the use of the measure by James I of Scotland in The Kingis Quair, but the only distinguishing name for it and much the best. To this metre, as is shown from these two poems and, still more, by Troilus, Chaucer had taken a strong fancy; and he had not merely improved, if not yet quite perfected, his mastery of it purely as metre, but had gone far to provide himself with a poetic diction, and a power of writing phrase, suitable to its purely metrical powers. The first named piece is still a “complaint”—queen Anelida bewailing the falseness of her lover Arcite. But it escapes the cut-and-dried character of some of the earlier work; and, in such a stanza as the following:

  • Whan she shal ete, on him is so hir thoght,
  • That wel unnethe of mete took she keep;
  • And whan that she was to hir reste broght,
  • On him she thoghte alwey till that she sleep;
  • Whan he was absent, prevely she weep;
  • Thus liveth fair Anelida the quene
  • For fals Arcite, that did hir al this tene—
  • the poem acquires that full-blooded pulse of verse, the absence of which is the fault of so much medieval poetry. That it is not, however, very late is clear from the curious included, or concluding, Complaint in very elaborate and varied choric form. The poem is connected with The Knight’s Tale in more than the name of Arcite.

    It is, thus, the inferior of The Parliament of Fowls. This opens with the finest piece of pure poetry which, if the order adopted be correct, Chaucer had yet written,

  • The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne,
  • Th’s assay so hard, so sharp the conquering,
  • The dredful joye, that alwey slit so yerne,
  • Al this mene I by love, that my feling
  • Astonyeth with his wonderful worching
  • So sore y-wis, that whan I on him thinke
  • Nat wot I wel wher that I wake or winke;
  • and it includes not a few others, concluding, like Anelida, with a lyric, shorter and more of the song kind, “Now welcom somer,” in roundel form. This piece is also the first in which we meet most of the Chaucerian qualities—the equally felicitous and felicitously blended humour and pathos, the adoption and yet transcendence of medieval commonplaces (the dream, the catalogues of trees and birds, the classical digressions and stuffings), and, above all, the faculty of composition and handling, so as to make the poem, whatever its subject, a poem, and not a mere copy of verses.

    As yet, however, Chaucer had attempted nothing that much exceeded, if it exceeded at all, the limits of occasional poetry; while the experimental character, in metre especially, had distinguished his work very strongly, and some of it (probably most) had been mere translation. In the work which, in all probability, came next, part of which may have anticipated The Parliament of Fowls, he was still to take a ready-prepared canvas of subject, but to cover it with his own embroidery to such an extent as to make the work practically original, and he was to confine it to the metre that he had by this time thoroughly proved—the rime royal itself.