Back to top

On Chaucer and His Writings

* [editor's note] The original placement of quotation marks has been preserved.
1 Troylus and Creseid.
2 The Knights Tales.
3 His Canterbury Tales.
4 The Life of Chaucer, written for the Dean and Canons of Christ-Church, Oxford, and prefix’d before the new Edition of Mr. Urry, for building the Peck-water Quadrangle.


WHEN in some curious Gallery we stand,
Lin’d with the Draught of every Master’s Hand,
Nature in all her different Forms appears,
And justly charms whatever Dress she wears.
Looking around, we feast the ravish’d Sight,
On Titian’s Day, or Tintoretto’s Night,
Ruben’s bold Stroaks, or Raphael’s awful Grace,
Or Kneller’s just Similitude of Face.
Our Eyes the vast Variety pursue,
And take the whole Creation at a View.
    WONDERS, no less than these, my Mind engage,
Unfolding CHAUCER, and the deathless Page;
Fill’d with as various, and as just Designs,
In deeper Colours laid, and drawn in stronger Lines.
    WHETHER he first prepares the Landskip clean,
And e’er he mingles Life, describes the Scene:
“ Strikes out the Sun that ruddy seems and broad,*
“ When early mounting through the misty Road;
Or when he spreads around a clearer Ray,
“ And all th’Horizon laughs to see the Day;
Seiz’d with Delight, we see the Prospect spread
“ O’er the dun Heath, or through the woodland Shade;
The Feather’d Race with secret Transport hear,
And smell the Blossoms of the opening Year:
Or shudder when we view the dreery Place
“ Of Mars’s Fane, and frory Realms of Thrace.
Still as he finely varies different Times,
Or shifts the Seasons, or describes the Climes,
The lively-colour’d Painting, bold and strong,
Is just as Nature, and shall last as long.
    IF Life he draws, and earliest Love pursues,
How artless sighs the Elegiack Muse!
E’en while we see unhappy1 Troylus’ Flame,
And the loose Conduct of the Trojan Dame;
Love shown so soft and moving we admire,
Tho’ bearing Torches of unhallow’d Fire.
    BUT when he boldly strikes th’embattled Plain,
And daring Actions of the Warrior train;
Draws2 Arcite, like Atrides, fiercely Brave,
Slave to Desire, to head-strong Lust a Slave:
Or makes Palæmon’s softer Bosom prove
The Dues of Honour, and the Pow’r of Love,
Or shews their Claims in equal Ballance laid,
And gives, where Virtue calls, the votive Maid,
Such Strength, such Vigour, glows in ev’ry Line,
An Iliad rises through the great Design,
    IF3 lowly Life he offers to the View,
And takes the Vizor off, or gives a new;
Thrown in its Shade, we see the Face appear;
The Look design’d, the artificial Leer,
The Features drawn so true, the Men explain:
The grave Physician, studious of his Gain;
The Glutton Frankleyn, with his pamper’d Case;
The Lawyer, seeming busier than he was.
The Prioress, fond of Rev’rence, courtly nice;
The Friar with Eyes expressive of his Vice.
The Monk with thoughtless Face and double Chin;
The waspish Reeve with Visage soure and thin.
The buxom Wife, industrious to explain
The Pride and Folly of the Female Train;
Whose Tale so justly pointed all admire,
While Woman tells what Women most desire.
The sordid Vices of the Rabble Throng,
Their Thirst of Drink, and Ribaldry of Tongue.
    NOR less exact, the Picture charms the Sight,
Where shines in fairer View th’obliging Knight.
The Scholar humble, mild, and slow of Speech,
Submissive to be taught, and glad to teach.
The Peasant poor, with calm Contentment blest:
And, far the finest Draught, the Parish Priest.
True to his Cure, nor studious after more,
Pure as the holy Linen that he wore:
With heavenly Look, and soft perswasive Tongue,
Charming to Virtue the attentive Throng:
By Practice strict instructing to be good,
Making his Text the better understood:
Like a true Master in the Christian School,
Giving th’Example while he read the Rule.
Thus CHAUCER painted Life in different Ways;
Earnest to blame, yet not displeas’d to praise.
    GREAT was his Task, who singly durst engage,
To draw at once the Humours of an Age;
Mankind the Actors, and the World his Stage:
Where ev’ry Character so just design’d,
We see the Person, and we read his Mind;
View Nature as she seems in all Degrees,
All various, just, and ever of a-piece.
Tho’ different, tending still to moral Use;
The chief Intent and Glory of the Muse.
    WHAT Reader but must Wonder when he sees
Him reach Perfection not by slow Degrees,
But at one Step the lofty Summit climb;
A Work for Ages, and the Task of Time:
Thence point his Hand to Followers straggling wide,
And shew the Paths he found without a Guide.
    FOR long the Poets Hill obscur’d its Head,
By, worse than thick Bæotian, Fogs o’rspread:
Conceal’d from Sight the winding Passage lay,
And choak’d with Thorns th’imaginary Way:
Year follow’d Year, and Age succeeded Age,
Unworth Remark in the Historick Page:
No Bard as yet had rear’d his Head to sight,
To mark the dusky Time with dawning Light:
Rome, now no more, could boast her antient Fame,
Her Learning, Language lost, almost her Name:
No curious Trav’ller made the sweet Sojourn,
To hang up recent Wreaths at Maro’s Urn:
From Europe’s utmost Bounds a num’rous Band,
Forth issuing to possess the Holy Land:
Thoughtless the Adriatick Coast explore,
Unmindful of the sweet Sicilian Shore;
Coast by the Cities boasting Homer’s Fame;
Nor know the Contest, nor revere the Name.
    FIRST Italy the breaking Light survey’d,
A little springing Dawn that edg’d the Shade:
Boccace in Prose began the gay Rehearse,
And Petrarch tun’d the pleasing Tale to Verse.
    BUT England yet beheld no morning Light,
No chearful Day to dissipate her Night:
Poets she had, but dark as was the Time,
Who never reach’d a Verse, and seldom Rhyme:
Like jangling Smiths, th’alternate Hammer beat,
Alike the Musick, and alike they sweat:
His awful Head till CHAUCER rear’d to View,
And still’d the Jargon of the barb’rous Crew:
Then strain’d the juster Cord with manly Power,
And made that Musick, which was Noise before.
    OUR Language, which intractable he found,
A lumpish Ore, insensible of Sound,
He melted down, enriching more the Mass,
With Thuscan Silver, and Provencal Brass:
Then stamp’d with just Impress the pure Produce,
And left the standard Coin for future Use.
    NATURE, by those ill-judging Writers drest,
Appear’d a beauteous Antick at the best:
This seen, with Indignation and Surprize,
He kindly stripp’d her of the gay Disguise;
Then plac’d the beauteous Wanton in his View,
And, as he saw, the artless Charmer drew.
    BUT how have some revil’d his awful Name,
And tax’d the Master of our Art with Blame;
For Nature in Disgrace expos’d too clear,
And Words obscene ungrateful to the Ear.
They cry, He sports with what he should engage,
Prophanes the Satyr, and pollutes the Page.
    HARD Change! For sure ill speed the Poet’s Lines,
Who dwells on hateful Views, and leud Designs:
Ne’er can the vile Performances succeed,
When only Miscreants, like himself, will read.
    THE sacred Nine their Oracles declare,
To virgin Minds alone, and the unsully’d Ear;
While he who basely prostitutes his Muse,
And frames his Book a Classick for the Stews,
Quaffs standing Pools for pure Castalian Streams,
And shares for heavenly Visions fev’rish Dreams.
Whose Soul is mean, will find his Works the same;
As that to Virtue strange, so these to Fame.
But those who thus have censur’d CHAUCER wrong,
Too rashly blame his Liberty of Tongue:
‘Tis true, with Phrase not always over-nice,
He makes each Wretch expose his fav’rite Vice:
But we unjustly Censure while we see,
Their rude Discourse and Characters agree;
Not well observing th’inoffensive Joke,
Is to expose the Vices, not provoke.
    THE Man whom such Deformities can please,
Who raises Lust by Images like these,
Must, with a Fancy so deprav’d, define
The Scourge a Play-thing, and the Potion Wine.
While he who studies Use from what he reads,
Selects the Flow’rs, unmindful of the Weeds:
And tho’ perchance such Images arise,
And hateful Views are open’d by Surprize,
Careless he throws his Eyes a-cross the Scene,
Secure, and far above a Thought so mean:
But like the Sun, whose spreading Lustre gilds
Promiscuously the Dunghill and the Fields,
Yet unaffected views the loathsome Sight,
His Beams untainted, and unstain’d his Light.
    BUT would you see the Poet justly shine,
His Parson’s Tale will shew you the Divine:
If you the calm Philosopher would prove,
Attend him through his Testament of Love;
Dishonour’d, hated, poor, distress’d, confin’d,
Yet see the just Composure of his Mind.
He spreads to Providence a chearful View,
And smiles with Rules the Antients never knew.
Pleas’d with a Character so great, I try
To mark his Steps, and keep him in my Eye.
Now, follow to the Schools, and grave Resort,
Now, see him shining in Great Edward’s Court:
Observe his fine Address, his graceful Air,
And Conduct, pleasing to the Brave and Fair;
Blest with a generous Monarch’s kind Regard,
Who knew to value Merit, and reward.
Thus with Delight the glorious Man I trace,
In private Favour, or in publick Place,
In foreign Realms, in Glory and Disgrace:
In every Station equally admir’d,
Greatly depress’d, or gloriously retir’d:
There see the Bards, his Rules had made, attend,
The candid Critic, and instructive Friend,
With generous Hand dispensing out his Fame,
By publick Praises, or by private Blame.
    DESIROUS thus to do my Master Right,
And bring his Actions, Time conceal’d, to Light;
Long on the dusty Roll and mouldring File,
I urg’d the intricate laborius Toil:4
Toil, ill return’d by this ungen’rous Age,
Unthank’d the Labour, and defac’d the Page.
    Yet not discourag’d thus, with grateful Fire,
I try at Verse, and reassume the Lyre,
Suspend, Great Bard! this Tablet at thy Shrine:
And bribe the World to FAME, by founding THINE.