Beacon Lights of History, Volume 3, Part 2
John Lord

Part 1 out of 6

The numbering of volumes in the earlier set reflected
the order in which the lectures were given. In the
later version, volumes were numbered to put the subjects
in historical sequence.

Beacon Lights of History

by John Lord, LL.D.

Volume III.

Part II--Renaissance and Reformation.




The antiquity of Poetry
The greatness of Poets
Their influence on Civilization
The true poet one of the rarest of men
The pre-eminence of Homer, Dante, Shakspeare, and Goethe
Characteristics of Dante
His precocity
His moral wisdom and great attainments
His terrible scorn and his isolation
State of society when Dante was born
His banishment
Guelphs and Ghibellines
Dante stimulated to his great task by an absorbing sentiment
Dante's passion for Beatrice analyzed
The worship of ideal qualities the foundation of lofty love
The mystery of love
Its exalted realism
Dedication of Dante's life-labors to the departed Beatrice
The Divine Comedy; a study
The Inferno; its graphic pictures
Its connection with the ideas of the Middle Ages
The physical hell of Dante in its connection with the Mediaeval
doctrine of Retribution
The Purgatorio; its moral wisdom
Origin of the doctrine of Purgatory
Its consolation amid the speculations of despair
The Paradiso
Its discussion of grand themes
The Divina Commedia makes an epoch in civilization
Dante's life an epic
His exalted character
His posthumous influence



The characteristics of the fourteenth century
Its great events and characters
State of society in England when Chaucer arose
His early life
His intimacy with John of Gaunt, the great Duke of Lancaster
His prosperity
His poetry
The Canterbury Tales
Their fidelity to Nature and to English life
Connection of his poetry with the formation of the English Language
The Pilgrims of the Canterbury Tales
Chaucer's views of women and of love
His description of popular sports and amusements
The preponderance of country life in the fourteenth century
Chaucer's description of popular superstitions
Of ecclesiastical abuses
His emancipation from the ideas of the Middle Ages
Peculiarities of his poetry
Chaucer's private life
The respect in which he was held
Influence of his poetry



Marco Polo
His travels
The geographical problems of the fourteenth century
Sought to be solved by Christopher Columbus
The difficulties he had to encounter
Regarded as a visionary man
His persistence
Influence of women in great enterprises
Columbus introduced to Queen Isabella
Excuses for his opponents
The Queen favors his projects
The first voyage of Columbus
Its dangers
Discovery of the Bahama Islands
Discovery of Cuba and Hispaniola
Columbus returns to Spain
The excitement and enthusiasm produced by his discoveries
His second voyage
Extravagant expectations of Columbus
Disasters of the colonists
Decline of the popularity of Columbus
His third voyage
His arrest and disgrace
His fourth voyage
His death
Greatness of his services
Results of his discoveries
The mines of Peru and Mexico
The effects on Europe of the rapid increase of the precious metals
True sources of national wealth
The destinies of America
Its true mission



The age of Savonarola
Revival of Classic Literature
Ecclesiastical corruptions
Religious apathy; awakened intelligence; infidel spirit
Youth of Savonarola
His piety
Begins to preach
His success at Florence
Peculiarities of his eloquence
Death of Lorenzo de Medici
Savonarola as a political leader
Denunciation of tyranny
His influence in giving a constitution to the Florentines
Difficulties of Constitution-making
His method of teaching political science
Peculiarities of the new Rule
Its great wisdom
Savonarola as reformer
As moralist
Terrible denunciation of sin in high places
A prophet of woe
Contrast between Savonarola and Luther
The sermons of Savonarola
His marvellous eloquence
Its peculiarities
The enemies of Savonarola
Savonarola persecuted
His appeal to Europe
The people desert him
Months of torment
His martyrdom
His character
His posthumous influence



Michael Angelo as representative of reviving Art
Ennobling effects of Art when inspired by lofty sentiments
Brilliancy of Art in the sixteenth century
Early life of Michael Angelo
His aptitude for Art
Patronized by Lorenzo de Medici
Sculpture later in its development than Architecture
The chief works of Michael Angelo as sculptor
The peculiarity of his sculptures
Michael Angelo as painter
History of painting in the Middle Ages
Da Vinci
The frescos of the Sistine Chapel
The Last Judgment
The cartoon of the battle of Pisa
The variety as well as moral grandeur of Michael Angelo's paintings
Ennobling influence of his works
His works as architect
St. Peter's Church
Revival of Roman and Grecian Architecture
Contrasted with Gothic Architecture
Michael Angelo rescues the beauties of Paganism
Not responsible for absurdities of the Renaissance
Greatness of Michael Angelo as a man
His industry, temperance, dignity of character, love of Art for
Art's sake
His indifference to rewards and praises
His transcendent fame



Luther's predecessors
Corruptions of the Church
Luther the man for the work of reform
His peculiarities
His early piety
Enters a Monastery
His religious experience
Made Professor of Divinity at Wittenberg
The Pope in great need of money to complete St. Peter's
Indulgences; principles on which they were based
Luther, indignant, preaches Justification by Faith
His immense popularity
Grace the cardinal principle of the Reformation
The Reformation began as a religious movement
How the defence of Luther's doctrine led to the recognition of the
supreme authority of the Scriptures
Public disputation at Leipsic between Luther and Eck
Connection between the advocacy of the Bible as a supreme authority
and the right of private judgment
Religious liberty a sequence of private judgment
Connection between religious and civil liberty
Contrast between Leo I. and Luther
Luther as reformer
His boldness and popularity
He alarms Rome
His translation of the Bible, his hymns, and other works
Summoned by imperial authority to the Diet of Worms
His memorable defence
His immortal legacies
His death and character



Importance of the English Reformation
Cranmer its best exponent
What was effected during the reign of Henry VIII.
Thomas Cromwell
Suppression of Monasteries
Their opposition to the revival of Learning
Their exceeding corruption
Their great wealth and its confiscation
Ecclesiastical courts
Sir Thomas More; his execution
Main feature of Henry VIII.'s anti-clerical measures.
Fall of Cromwell
Rise of Cranmer
His characteristics
His wise moderation
His fortunate suggestions to Henry VIII.
Made Archbishop of Canterbury
Difficulties of his position
Reforms made by the government, not by the people.
Accession of Edward VI
Cranmer's Church reforms: open communion; abolition of the Mass;
new English liturgy
Marriage among the clergy; the Forty-two Articles
Accession of Mary
Persecution of the Reformers
Reactionary measures
Arrest, weakness, and recantation of Cranmer
His noble death; his character
Death of Mary
Accession of Elizabeth, and return of exiles to England
The Elizabethan Age
Conservative reforms and conciliatory measures
The Thirty-nine Articles
Their doctrines and discipline
The great Puritan controversy
The Puritans represent the popular side of the Reformation
Their theology
Their moral discipline
Their connection with civil liberty
Summary of the English Reformation



The counter-reformation effected by the Jesuits
Picture of the times; theological doctrines
The Monastic Orders no longer available
Ignatius Loyola
His early life
Founds a new order of Monks
Wonderful spread of the Society of Jesus
Their efficient organization
Causes of success in general
Virtues and abilities of the early Jesuits
Their devotion and bravery
Jesuit Missions
Veneration for Loyola; his "Spiritual Exercises"
Singular obedience exacted of the members of the Society
Absolute power of the General of the Order
Voluntary submission of Jesuits to complete despotism
The Jesuits adapt themselves to the circumstances of society
Causes of the decline of their influence
Corruption of most human institutions
The Jesuits become rich and then corrupt
Esprit de corps of the Jesuits
Their doctrine of expediency
Their political intrigues
Persecution of the Protestants
The enemies they made
Madame de Pompadour
Suppression of the Order
Their return to power
Reasons why Protestants fear and dislike them



John Calvin's position
His early life and precocity
Becomes a leader of Protestants
Removes to Geneva
His habits and character
Temporary exile
Convention at Frankfort
Melancthon, Luther, Calvin, and Catholic doctrines
Return to Geneva, and marriage
Calvin compared with Luther
Calvin as a legislator
His reform
His views of the Eucharist
Excommunication, etc
His dislike of ceremonies and festivals
The simplicity of the worship of God
His ideas of church government
Absence of toleration
Church and State
Exaltation of preaching
Calvin as a theologian; his Institutes
His doctrine of Predestination
His general doctrines in harmony with Mediaeval theology
His views of sin and forgiveness; Calvinism
He exacts the same authority to logical deduction from admitted
truths as to direct declarations of Scripture
Puritans led away by Calvin's intellectuality
His whole theology radiates from the doctrine of the majesty of God
and the littleness of man
To him a personal God is everything
Defects of his system
Calvin an aristocrat
His intellectual qualities
His prodigious labors
His severe characteristics
His vast influence
His immortal fame



Lord Bacon as portrayed by Macaulay
His great defects of character
Contrast made between the man and the philosopher
Bacon's youth and accomplishments
Enters Parliament
Seeks office
At the height of fortune and fame
His misfortunes
Consideration of charges against him
His counterbalancing merits
The exaltation by Macaulay of material life
Bacon made its exponent
But the aims of Bacon were higher
The true spirit of his philosophy
Deductive philosophies
His new method
Bacon's Works
Relations of his philosophy
Material science and knowledge
Comparison of knowledge with wisdom



A brilliant portent
The greatness of the sixteenth century
Artists, scholars, reformers, religious defenders
Maritime discoveries
Literary, ecclesiastical, political achievements
Youth of Galileo
His early discoveries
Genius for mathematics
Professor at Pisa
Ridicules the old philosophers; invents the thermometer
Compared with Kepler
Galileo teaches the doctrines of Copernicus.
Gives offence by his railleries and mockeries.
Theology and science
Astronomical knowledge of the Ancients
Utilization of science
Construction of the first telescope
Galileo's reward
His successive discoveries
His enemies
High scientific rank in Europe
Hostility of the Church
Galileo summoned before the Inquisition; his condemnation and
His new offences
Summoned before a council of Cardinals
His humiliation
His recantations
Consideration of his position
Greatness of mind rather than character
His confinement at Arceti
Opposition to science
His melancholy old age and blindness
Visited by John Milton; comparison of the two, when blind
Consequence of Galileo's discoveries
Later results
Vastness of the universe
Grandeur of astronomical science



A.D. 1265-1321.


The first great genius who aroused his country from the torpor of
the Middle Ages was a poet. Poetry, then, was the first influence
which elevated the human mind amid the miseries of a gloomy period,
if we may except the schools of philosophy which flourished in the
rising universities. But poetry probably preceded all other forms
of culture in Europe, even as it preceded philosophy and art in
Greece. The gay Provencal singers were harbingers of Dante, even
as unknown poets prepared the way for Homer. And as Homer was the
creator of Grecian literature, so Dante, by his immortal comedy,
gave the first great impulse to Italian thought. Hence poets are
great benefactors, and we will not let them die in our memories or
hearts. We crown them, when alive, with laurels and praises; and
when they die, we erect monuments to their honor. They are dear to
us, since their writings give perpetual pleasure, and appeal to our
loftiest sentiments. They appeal not merely to consecrated ideas
and feelings, but they strive to conform to the principles of
immortal art. Every great poet is as much an artist as the
sculptor or the painter: and art survives learning itself. Varro,
the most learned of the Romans, is forgotten, when Virgil is
familiar to every school-boy. Cicero himself would not have been
immortal, if his essays and orations had not conformed to the
principles of art. Even an historian who would live must be an
artist, like Voltaire or Macaulay. A cumbrous, or heavy, or
pedantic historian will never be read, even if his learning be
praised by all the critics of Germany.

Poets are the great artists of language. They even create
languages, like Homer and Shakspeare. They are the ornaments of
literature. But they are more than ornaments. They are the sages
whose sayings are treasured up and valued and quoted from age to
age, because of the inspiration which is given to them,--an insight
into the mysteries of the soul and the secrets of life. A good
song is never lost; a good poem is never buried, like a system of
philosophy, but has an inherent vitality, like the melodies of the
son of Jesse. Real poetry is something, too, beyond elaborate
versification, which is one of the literary fashions, and passes
away like other fashions unless, redeemed by something that arouses
the soul, and elevates it, and appeals to the consciousness of
universal humanity. It is the poets who make revelations, like
prophets and sages of old; it is they who invest history with
interest; like Shakspeare and Racine, and preserve what is most
vital and valuable in it. They even adorn philosophy, like
Lucretius, when he speculated on the systems of the Ionian
philosophers. They certainly impress powerfully on the mind the
truths of theology, as Watts and Cowper and Wesley did in their
noble lyrics. So that the most rapt and imaginative of men, if
artists, utilize the whole realm of knowledge, and diffuse it, and
perpetuate it in artistic forms. But real poets are rare, even if
there are many who glory in the jingle of language and the
structure of rhyme. Poetry, to live, must have a soul, and it must
combine rare things,--art, music, genius, original thought, wisdom
made still richer by learning, and, above all, a power of appealing
to inner sentiments, which all feel, yet are reluctant to express.
So choice are the gifts, so grand are the qualities, so varied the
attainments of truly great poets, that very few are born in a whole
generation and in nations that number twenty or forty millions of
people. They are the rarest of gifted men. Every nation can boast
of its illustrious lawyers, statesmen, physicians, and orators; but
they can point only to a few of their poets with pride. We can
count on the fingers of one of our hands all those worthy of poetic
fame who now live in this great country of intellectual and
civilized men, one for every ten millions. How great the pre-
eminence even of ordinary poets! How very great the pre-eminence
of those few whom all ages and nations admire!

The critics assign to Dante a pre-eminence over most of those we
call immortal. Only two or three other poets in the whole realm of
literature, ancient or modern, dispute his throne. We compare him
with Homer and Shakspeare, and perhaps Goethe, alone. Civilization
glories in Virgil, Milton, Tasso, Racine, Pope, and Byron,--all
immortal artists; but it points to only four men concerning whose
transcendent creative power there is unanimity of judgment,--
prodigies of genius, to whose influence and fame we can assign no
limits; stars of such surpassing brilliancy that we can only gaze
and wonder,--growing brighter and brighter, too, with the progress
of ages; so remarkable that no barbarism will ever obscure their
brightness, so original that all imitation of them becomes
impossible and absurd. So great is original genius, directed by
art and consecrated to lofty sentiments.

I have assumed the difficult task of presenting one of these great
lights. But I do not presume to analyze his great poem, or to
point out critically its excellencies. This would be beyond my
powers, even if I were an Italian. It takes a poet to reveal a
poet. Nor is criticism interesting to ordinary minds, even in the
hands of masters. I should make critics laugh if I were to attempt
to dissect the Divine Comedy. Although, in an English dress, it is
known to most people who pretend to be cultivated, yet it is not
more read than the "Paradise Lost" or the "Faerie Queene," being
too deep and learned for some, and understood by nobody without a
tolerable acquaintance with the Middle Ages, which it interprets,--
the superstitions, the loves, the hatreds, the ideas of ages which
can never more return. All I can do--all that is safe for me to
attempt--is to show the circumstances and conditions in which it
was written, the sentiments which prompted it, its historical
results, its general scope and end, and whatever makes its author
stand out to us as a living man, bearing the sorrows and revelling
in the joys of that high life which gave to him extraordinary moral
wisdom, and made him a prophet and teacher to all generations. He
was a man of sorrows, of resentments, fierce and implacable, but
whose "love was as transcendent as his scorn,"--a man of vast
experiences and intense convictions and superhuman earnestness,
despising the world which he sought to elevate, living isolated in
the midst of society, a wanderer and a sage, meditating constantly
on the grandest themes, lost in ecstatic reveries, familiar with
abstruse theories, versed in all the wisdom of his day and in the
history of the past, a believer in God and immortality, in rewards
and punishments, and perpetually soaring to comprehend the
mysteries of existence, and those ennobling truths which constitute
the joy and the hope of renovated and emancipated and glorified
spirits in the realms of eternal bliss. All this is history, and
it is history alone which I seek to teach,--the outward life of a
great man, with glimpses, if I can, of those visions of beauty and
truth in which his soul lived, and which visions and experiences
constitute his peculiar greatness. Dante was not so close an
observer of human nature as Shakspeare, nor so great a painter of
human actions as Homer, nor so learned a scholar as Milton; but his
soul was more serious than either,--he was deeper, more intense
than they; while in pathos, in earnestness, and in fiery emphasis
he has been surpassed only by Hebrew poets and prophets.

It would seem from his numerous biographies that he was remarkable
from a boy; that he was a youthful prodigy; that he was precocious,
like Cicero and Pascal; that he early made great attainments,
giving utterance to living thoughts and feelings, like Bacon, among
boyish companions; lisping in numbers, like Pope, before he could
write prose; different from all other boys, since no time can be
fixed when he did not think and feel like a person of maturer
years. Born in Florence, of the noble family of the Alighieri, in
the year 1265, his early education devolved upon his mother, his
father having died while the boy was very young. His mother's
friend, Brunetto Latini, famous as statesman and scholarly poet,
was of great assistance in directing his tastes and studies. As a
mere youth he wrote sonnets, such as Sordello the Troubadour would
not disdain to own. He delights, as a boy, in those inquiries
which gave fame to Bonaventura. He has an intuitive contempt for
all quacks and pretenders. At Paris he maintains fourteen
different theses, propounded by learned men, on different subjects,
and gains universal admiration. He is early selected by his native
city for important offices, which he fills with honor. In wit he
encounters no superiors. He scorches courts by sarcasms which he
can not restrain. He offends the great by a superiority which he
does not attempt to veil. He affects no humility, for his nature
is doubtless proud; he is even offensively conscious and arrogant.
When Florence is deliberating about the choice of an ambassador to
Rome, he playfully, yet still arrogantly, exclaims: "If I remain
behind, who goes? and if I go, who remains behind?" His
countenance, so austere and thoughtful, impresses all beholders
with a sort of inborn greatness; his lip, in Giotto's portrait, is
curled disdainfully, as if he lived among fools or knaves. He is
given to no youthful excesses; he lives simply and frugally. He
rarely speaks unless spoken to; he is absorbed apparently in
thought. Without a commanding physical person, he is a marked man
to everybody, even when he deems himself a stranger. Women gaze at
him with wonder and admiration, though he disdains their praises
and avoids their flatteries. Men make way for him as he passes
them, unconsciously. "Behold," said a group of ladies, as he
walked slowly by them, "there is a man who has visited hell!" To
the close of his life he was a great devourer of books, and
digested their contents. His studies were as various as they were
profound. He was familiar with the ancient poets and historians
and philosophers; he was still better acquainted with the abstruse
speculations of the schoolmen. He delighted in universities and
scholastic retreats; from the cares and duties of public life he
would retire to solitary labors, and dignify his retirement by
improving studies. He did not live in a cell, like Jerome, or a
cave, like Mohammed; but no man was ever more indebted to solitude
and meditation than he for that insight and inspiration which
communion with God and great ideas alone can give.

And yet, though recluse and student, he had great experiences with
life. He was born among the higher ranks of society. He inherited
an ample patrimony. He did not shrink from public affairs. He was
intensely patriotic, like Michael Angelo; he gave himself up to the
good of his country, like Savonarola. Florence was small, but it
was important; it was already a capital, and a centre of industry.
He represented its interests in various courts. He lived with
princes and nobles. He took an active part in all public matters
and disputations; he was even familiar with the intrigues of
parties; he was a politician as well as scholar. He entered into
the contests between Popes and Emperors respecting the independence
of Italy. He was not conversant with art, for the great sculptors
and painters had not then arisen. The age was still dark; the
mariner's compass had not been invented, chimneys had not been
introduced, the comforts of life were few. Dames of highest rank
still spent their days over the distaff or in combing flax. There
were no grand structures but cathedral churches. Life was
laborious, dismal, and turbulent. Law and order did not reign in
cities or villages. The poor were oppressed by nobles. Commerce
was small and manufactures scarce. Men lived in dreary houses,
without luxuries, on coarse bread and fruit and vegetables. The
crusades had not come to an end. It was the age of quarrelsome
popes and cruel nobles, and lazy monks and haughty bishops, and
ignorant people, steeped in gloomy superstitions, two hundred years
before America was discovered, and two hundred and fifty years
before Michael Angelo erected the dome of St. Peter's.

But there was faith in the world, and rough virtues, sincerity, and
earnestness of character, though life was dismal. Men believed in
immortality and in expiation for sin. The rising universities had
gifted scholars whose abstruse speculations have never been
rivalled for acuteness and severity of logic. There were bards and
minstrels, and chivalric knights and tournaments and tilts, and
village fetes and hospitable convents and gentle ladies,--gentle
and lovely even in all states of civilization, winning by their
graces and inspiring men to deeds of heroism and gallantry.

In one of those domestic revolutions which were so common in Italy
Dante was banished, and his property was confiscated; and he at the
age of thirty-five, about the year 1300, when Giotto was painting
portraits, was sent forth a wanderer and an exile, now poor and
unimportant, to eat the bread of strangers and climb other people's
stairs; and so obnoxious was he to the dominant party in his native
city for his bitter spirit, that he was destined never to return to
his home and friends. His ancestors, boasting of Roman descent,
belonged to the patriotic party,--the Guelphs, who had the
ascendency in his early years,--that party which defended the
claims of the Popes against the Emperors of Germany. But this
party had its divisions and rival families,--those that sided with
the old feudal nobles who had once ruled the city, and the new
mercantile families that surpassed them in wealth and popular
favor. So, expelled by a fraction of his own party that had gained
power, Dante went over to the Ghibellines, and became an adherent
of imperial authority until he died.

It was in his wanderings from court to court and castle to castle
and convent to convent and university to university, that he
acquired that profound experience with men and the world which
fitted him for his great task. "Not as victorious knight on the
field of Campaldino, not as leader of the Guelph aristocracy at
Florence, not as prior, not as ambassador," but as a wanderer did
he acquire his moral wisdom. He was a striking example of the
severe experiences to which nearly all great benefactors have been
subjected,--Abraham the exile, in the wilderness, in Egypt, among
Philistines, among robbers and barbaric chieftains; the Prince
Siddartha, who founded Buddhism, in his wanderings among the
various Indian nations who bowed down to Brahma; and, still
greater, the Apostle Paul, in his protracted martyrdom among Pagan
idolaters and boastful philosophers, in Asia and in Europe. These
and others may be cited, who led a life of self-denial and reproach
in order to spread the truths which save mankind. We naturally
call their lot hard, even though they chose it; but it is the
school of greatness. It was sad to see the wisest and best man of
his day,--a man of family, of culture, of wealth, of learning,
loving leisure, attached to his home and country, accustomed to
honor and independence,--doomed to exile, poverty, neglect, and
hatred, without those compensations which men of genius in our time
secure. But I would not attempt to excite pity for an outward
condition which developed the higher virtues,--for a thorny path
which led to the regions of eternal light. Dante may have walked
in bitter tears to Paradise, but after the fashion of saints and
martyrs in all ages of our world. He need but cast his eyes on
that emblem which was erected on every pinnacle of Mediaeval
churches to symbolize passing suffering with salvation infinite,--
the great and august creed of the age in which he lived, though now
buried amid the triumphs of an imposing material civilization whose
end is the adoration of the majesty of man rather than the majesty
of God, the wonders of creation rather than the greatness of the

But something more was required in order to write an immortal poem
than even native genius, great learning, and profound experience.
The soul must be stimulated to the work by an absorbing and
ennobling passion. This passion Dante had; and it is as memorable
as the mortal loves of Abelard and Heloise, and infinitely more
exalting, since it was spiritual and immortal,--even the adoration
of his lamented and departed Beatrice.

I wish to dwell for a moment, perhaps longer than to some may seem
dignified, on this ideal or sentimental love. It may seem trivial
and unimportant to the eye of youth, or a man of the world, or a
woman of sensual nature, or to unthinking fools and butterflies;
but it is invested with dignity to one who meditates on the
mysteries of the soul, the wonders of our higher nature,--one of
the things which arrest the attention of philosophers.

It is recorded and attested, even by Dante himself, that at the
early age of nine he fell in love with Beatrice,--a little girl of
one of his neighbors,--and that he wrote to her sonnets as the
mistress of his devotion. How could he have written sonnets
without an inspiration, unless he felt sentiments higher than we
associate with either boys or girls? The boy was father of the
man. "She appeared to me," says the poet, "at a festival, dressed
in that most noble and honorable color, scarlet,--girded and
ornamented in a manner suitable to her age; and from that moment
love ruled my soul. And after many days had passed, it happened
that, passing through the street, she turned her eyes to the spot
where I stood, and with ineffable courtesy she greeted me; and this
had such an effect on me that it seemed I had reached the furthest
limit of blessedness. I took refuge in the solitude of my chamber;
and, thinking over what had happened to me, I proposed to write a
sonnet, since I had already acquired the art of putting words into
rhyme." This, from his "Vita Nuova," his first work, relating to
the "new life" which this love awoke in his young soul.

Thus, according to Dante's own statement, was the seed of a never-
ending passion planted in his soul,--the small beginning, so
insignificant to cynical eyes, that it would almost seem
preposterous to allude to it; as if this fancy for a little girl in
scarlet, and in a boy but nine years of age, could ripen into
anything worthy to be soberly mentioned by a grave and earnest
poet, in the full maturity of his genius,--worthy to give direction
to his lofty intellect, worthy to be the occasion of the greatest
poem the world has seen from Homer to modern times. Absurd!
ridiculous! Great rivers cannot rise from such a spring; tall
trees cannot grow from such a little acorn. Thus reasons the man
who does not take cognizance of the mighty mysteries of human life.
If anything tempted the boy to write sonnets to a little girl, it
must have been the chivalric element in society at that period,
when even boys were required to choose objects of devotion, and to
whom they were to be loyal, and whose honor they were bound to
defend. But the grave poet, in the decline of his life, makes this
simple confession, as the beginning of that sentiment which never
afterwards departed from him, and which inspired him to his
grandest efforts.

But this youthful attachment was unfortunate. Beatrice did not
return his passion, and had no conception of its force, and perhaps
was not even worthy to call it forth. She may have been beautiful;
she may have been gifted; she may have been commonplace. It
matters little whether she was intellectual or not, beautiful or
not. It was not the flesh and blood he saw, but the image of
beauty and loveliness which his own mind created. He idealized the
girl; she was to him all that he fancied. But she never encouraged
him; she denied his greetings, and even avoided his society. At
last she died, when he was twenty-seven, and left him--to use his
own expression--"to ruminate on death, and envy whomsoever dies."
To console himself, he read Boethius, and religious philosophy was
ever afterwards his favorite study. Nor did serenity come, so deep
were his sentiments, so powerful was his imagination, until he had
formed an exalted purpose to write a poem in her honor, and worthy
of his love. "If it please Him through whom all things come," said
Dante, "that my life be spared, I hope to tell such things of her
as never before have been seen by any one."

Now what inspired so strange a purpose? Was it a Platonic
sentiment, like the love of Petrarch for Laura, or something that
we cannot explain, and yet real,--a mystery of the soul in its
deepest cravings and aspirations? And is love, among mortals
generally, based on such a foundation? Is it flesh and blood we
love; is it the intellect; is it the character; is it the soul; is
it what is inherently interesting in woman, and which everybody can
see,--the real virtues of the heart and charms of physical beauty?
Or is it what we fancy in the object of our adoration, what exists
already in our own minds,--the archetypes of eternal ideas of
beauty and grace? And do all men worship these forms of beauty
which the imagination creates? Can any woman, or any man, seen
exactly as they are, incite a love which is kindred to worship?
And is any love worthy to be called love, if it does not inspire
emotions which prompt to self-sacrifice, labor, and lofty ends?
Can a woman's smiles incite to Herculean energies, and drive the
willing worshipper to Aonian heights, unless under these smiles are
seen the light of life and the blessedness of supernatural fervor?
Is there, and can there be, a perpetuity in mortal charms without
the recognition or the supposition of a moral beauty connected with
them, which alone is pure and imperishable, and which alone creates
the sacred ecstasy that revels in the enjoyment of what is divine,
or what is supposed to be divine, not in man, but in the
conceptions of man,--the ever-blazing glories of goodness or of
truth which the excited soul doth see in the eyes and expression of
the adored image? It is these archetypes of divinity, real or
fancied, which give to love all that is enduring. Destroy these,
take away the real or fancied glories of the soul and mind, and the
holy flame soon burns out. No mortal love can last, no mortal love
is beautiful, unless the visions which the mind creates are not
more or less realized in the object of it, or when a person, either
man or woman, is not capable of seeing ideal perfections. The
loves of savages are the loves of brutes. The more exalted the
character and the soul, the greater is the capacity of love, and
the deeper its fervor. It is not the object of love which creates
this fervor, but the mind which is capable of investing it with
glories. There could not have been such intensity in Dante's love
had he not been gifted with the power of creating so lofty and
beautiful an ideal; and it was this he worshipped,--not the real
Beatrice, but the angelic beauty he thought he saw in her. Why
could he not see the perfections he adored shining in other women,
who perhaps had a higher claim to them? Ah, that is the mystery!
And you cannot solve it any easier than you can tell why a flower
blooms or a seed germinates. And why was it that Dante, with his
great experience, could in later life see the qualities he adored
in no other woman than in the cold and unappreciative girl who
avoided him? Suppose she had become his wife, might he not have
been disenchanted, and his veneration been succeeded by a bitter
disappointment? Yet, while the delusion lasted, no other woman
could have filled her place; in no other woman could he have seen
such charms; no other love could have inspired his soul to make
such labors.

I would not be understood as declaring that married love must be
necessarily a disenchantment. I would not thus libel humanity, and
insult plain reason and experience. Many loves ARE happy, and burn
brighter and brighter to the end; but it is because there are many
who are worthy of them, both men and women,--because the ideal,
which the mind created, IS realized to a greater or less degree,
although the loftier the archetype, the less seldom is it found.
Nor is it necessary that perfection should be found. A person may
have faults which alienate and disenchant, but with these there may
be virtues so radiant that the worship, though imperfect, remains,--
a respect, on the whole, so great that the soul is lifted to
admiration. Who can love this perishable form, unless one sees in
it some traits which belong to superior and immortal natures? And
hence the sentiment, when pure, creates a sort of companionship of
beings robed in celestial light and exorcises those degrading
passions which belong to earth. But Dante saw no imperfections in
Beatrice: perhaps he had no opportunity to see them. His own soul
was so filled with love, his mind soared to such exalted regions of
adoration, that when she passed away he saw her only in the
beatified state, in company with saints and angels; and he was
wrapped in ecstasies which knew no end,--the unbroken adoration of
beauty, grace, and truth, even of those eternal ideas on which
Plato based all that is certain, and all that is worth living for;
that sublime realism without which life is a failure, and this
world is "a mockery, a delusion, and a snare."

This is the history and exposition of that love for Beatrice with
which the whole spiritual life of Dante is identified, and without
which the "Divine Comedy" might not have been written. I may have
given to it disproportionate attention; and it is true I might have
allegorized it, and for love of a woman I might have substituted
love for an art,--even the art of poetry, in which his soul
doubtless lived, even as Michael Angelo, his greatest fellow-
countryman, lived in the adoration of beauty, grace, and majesty.
Oh, happy and favored is the person who lives in the enjoyment of
an art! It may be humble; it may be grand. It may be music; it
may be painting, or sculpture, or architecture, or poetry, or
oratory, or landscape gardening, yea, even farming, or needle-work,
or house decoration,--anything which employs the higher faculties
of the mind, and brings order out of confusion, and takes one from
himself, from the drudgery of mechanical labors, even if it be no
higher than carving a mantelpiece or making a savory dish; for all
these things imply creation, alike the test and the reward of
genius itself, which almost every human being possesses, in some
form or other, to a greater or less degree,--one of the kindest
gifts of Deity to man.

The great artist, kindled by his visions of imperishable loveliness
in the person of his departed Beatrice, now resolves to dedicate to
her honor his great life-labor,--even his immortal poem, which
should be a transcript of his thoughts, a mirror of his life, a
record of his sorrows, a painting of his experiences, a description
of what he saw, a digest of his great meditations, a thesaurus of
the treasures of the Mediaeval age, an exposition of its great and
leading ideas in philosophy and in religion. Every great man
wishes to leave behind some monument of his labors, to bless or
instruct mankind. Any man without some form of this noble ambition
lives in vain, even if his monument be no more than a cultivated
farm rescued from wildness and sterility.

Now Dante's monument is "the marvellous, mystic, unfathomable
song," in which he sang his sorrows and his joys, revealed his
visions, and recorded the passions and sentiments of his age. It
never can be popular, because it is so difficult to be understood,
and because its leading ideas are not in harmony with those which
are now received. I doubt if anybody can delight in that poem,
unless he sympathizes with the ideas of the Middle Ages; or, at
least, unless he is familiar with them, and with the historical
characters who lived in those turbulent and gloomy times. There is
more talk and pretension about that book than any one that I know
of. Like the "Faerie Queene" or the "Paradise Lost," it is a study
rather than a recreation; one of those productions which an
educated person ought to read in the course of his life, and which
if he can read in the original, and has read, is apt to boast of,--
like climbing a lofty mountain, enjoyable to some with youth and
vigor and enthusiasm and love of nature, but a very toilsome thing
to most people, especially if old and short-winded and gouty.

In the year 1309 the first part of the "Divine Comedy," the
Inferno, was finished by Dante, at the age of forty-four, in the
tenth year of his pilgrimage, under the roof of the Marquis of
Lunigiana; and it was intrusted to the care of Fra Ilario, a monk
living on the beautiful Ligurian shores. As everybody knows, it is
a vivid, graphic picture of what was supposed to be the infernal
regions, where great sinners are punished with various torments
forever and ever. It is interesting for the excellence of the
poetry, the brilliant analyses of characters, the allusion to
historical events, the bitter invectives, the intense sarcasms, and
the serious, earnest spirit which underlies the descriptions. But
there is very little of gentleness or compassion, in view of the
protracted torments of the sufferers. We stand aghast in view of
the miseries and monsters, furies and gorgons, snakes and fires,
demons, filth, lakes of pitch, pools of blood, plains of scorching
sands, circles, and chimeras dire,--a physical hell of utter and
unspeakable dreariness and despair, awfully and powerfully
described, but still repulsive. In each of the dismal abodes, far
down in the bowels of the earth, which Dante is supposed to have
visited with Virgil as a guide, in which some infernal deity
presides, all sorts of physical tortures are accumulated, inflicted
on traitors, murderers, robbers,--men who have committed great
crimes, unpunished in their lifetime; such men as Cain, Judas,
Ugolino,--men consigned to an infamous immortality. On the great
culprits of history, and of Italy especially, Dante virtually sits
in judgment; and he consigns them equally to various torments which
we shudder to think of.

And here let me say, as a general criticism, that in the Inferno
are brought out in tremendous language the opinions of the Middle
Ages in reference to retribution. Dante does not rise above them,
with all his genius; he is not emancipated from them. It is the
rarest thing in this world for any man, however profound his
intellect and bold his spirit, to be emancipated from the great and
leading ideas of his age. Abraham was, and Moses, and the founder
of Buddhism, and Socrates, and Mohammed, and Luther; but they were
reformers, more or less divinely commissioned, with supernatural
aid in many instances to give them wisdom. But Homer was not, nor
Euripides, nor the great scholastics of the Middle Ages, nor even
popes. The venerated doctors and philosophers, prelates, scholars,
nobles, kings, to say nothing of the people, thought as Dante did
in reference to future punishment,--that it was physical, awful,
accumulative, infinite, endless; the wrath of avenging deity
displayed in pains and agonies inflicted on the body, like the
tortures of inquisitors, thus appealing to the fears of men, on
which chiefly the power of the clergy was based. Nor in these
views of endless physical sufferings, as if the body itself were
eternal and indestructible, is there the refinement of Milton, who
placed misery in the upbraidings of conscience, in mental torture
rather than bodily, in the everlasting pride and rebellion of the
followers of Satan and his fallen angels. It was these awful views
of protracted and eternal physical torments,--not the hell of the
Bible, but the hell of ingenious human invention,--which gives to
the Middle Ages a sorrowful and repulsive light, thus nursing
superstition and working on the fears of mankind, rather than on
the conscience and the sense of moral accountability. But how
could Dante have represented the ideas of the Middle Ages, if he
had not painted his Inferno in the darkest colors that the
imagination could conceive, unless he had soared beyond what is
revealed into the unfathomable and mysterious and unrevealed
regions of the second death?

After various wanderings in France and Italy, and after an interval
of three years, Dante produced the second part of the poem,--the
Purgatorio,--in which he assumes another style, and sings another
song. In this we are introduced to an illustrious company,--many
beloved friends, poets, musicians, philosophers, generals, even
prelates and popes, whose deeds and thoughts were on the whole
beneficent. These illustrious men temporarily expiate the sins of
anger, of envy, avarice, gluttony, pride, ambition,--the great
defects which were blended with virtues, and which are to be purged
out of them by suffering. Their torments are milder, and amid them
they discourse on the principles of moral wisdom. They utter noble
sentiments; they discuss great themes; they show how vain is wealth
and power and fame; they preach sermons. In these discourses,
Dante shows his familiarity with history and philosophy; he unfolds
that moral wisdom for which he is most distinguished. His scorn is
now tempered with tenderness. He shows a true humanity; he is more
forgiving, more generous, more sympathetic. He is more lofty, if
he is not more intense. He sees the end of expiations: the
sufferers will be restored to peace and joy.

But even in his purgatory, as in his hell, he paints the ideas of
his age. He makes no new or extraordinary revelations. He arrives
at no new philosophy. He is the Christian poet, after the pattern
of his age.

It is plain that the Middle Ages must have accepted or invented
some relief from punishment, or every Christian country would have
been overwhelmed with the blackness of despair. Men could not
live, if they felt they could not expiate their sins. Who could
smile or joke or eat or sleep or have any pleasure, if he thought
seriously there would be no cessation or release from endless
pains? Who could discharge his ordinary duties or perform his
daily occupations, if his father or his mother or his sister or his
brother or his wife or his son or his daughter might not be finally
forgiven for the frailties of an imperfect nature which he had
inherited? The Catholic Church, in its benignity,--at what time I
do not know,--opened the future of hope amid the speculations of
despair. She saved the Middle Ages from universal gloom. If
speculation or logic or tradition or scripture pointed to a hell of
reprobation, there must be also a purgatory as the field of
expiation, for expiation there must be for sin, somewhere, somehow,
according to immutable laws, unless a mantle of universal
forgiveness were spread over sinners who in this life had given no
sufficient proofs of repentance and faith. Expiation was the great
element of Mediaeval theology. It may have been borrowed from
India, but it was engrafted on the Christian system. Sometimes it
was made to take place in this life; when the sinner, having
pleased God, entered at once upon heavenly beatitudes. Hence
fastings, scourgings, self-laceration, ascetic rigors in dress and
food, pilgrimages,--all to purchase forgiveness; which idea of
forgiveness was scattered to the winds by Luther, and replaced by
grace,--faith in Christ attested by a righteous life. I allude to
this notion of purgatory, which early entered into the creeds of
theologians, and which was adopted by the Catholic Church, to show
how powerful it was when human consciousness sought a relief from
the pains of endless physical torments.

After Dante had written his Purgatorio, he retired to the
picturesque mountains which separate Tuscany from Modena and
Bologna; and in the hospitium of an ancient monastery, "on the
woody summit of a rock from which he might gaze on his ungrateful
country, he renewed his studies in philosophy and theology."
There, too, in that calm retreat, he commenced his Paradiso, the
subject of profound meditations on what was held in highest value
in the Middle Ages. The themes are theological and metaphysical.
They are such as interested Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventura, Anselm
and Bernard. They are such as do not interest this age,--even the
most gifted minds,--for our times are comparatively indifferent to
metaphysical subtleties and speculations. Beatrice and Peter and
Benedict alike discourse on the recondite subjects of the Bible in
the style of Mediaeval doctors. The themes are great,--the
incarnation, the immortality of the soul, the resurrection of the
body, salvation by faith, the triumph of Christ, the glory of
Paradise, the mysteries of the divine and human natures; and with
these disquisitions are reproofs of bad popes, and even of some of
the bad customs of the Church, like indulgences, and the
corruptions of the monastic system. The Paradiso is a thesaurus of
Mediaeval theology,--obscure, but lofty, mixed up with all the
learning of the age, even of the lives of saints and heroes and
kings and prophets. Saint Peter examines Dante upon faith, James
upon hope, and John upon charity. Virgil here has ceased to be his
guide; but Beatrice, robed in celestial loveliness, conducts him
from circle to circle, and explains the sublimest doctrines and
resolves his mortal doubts,--the object still of his adoration, and
inferior only to the mother of our Lord, regina angelorum, mater
carissima, whom the Church even then devoutly worshipped, and to
whom the greatest sages prayed.

"Thou virgin mother, daughter of thy Son,
Humble and high beyond all other creatures,
The limit fixed of the eternal counsel,--
Thou art the one who such nobility
To human nature gave, that its Creator
Did not disdain to make himself its creature.
Not only thy benignity gives succor
To him who asketh it, but oftentimes
Forerunneth of its own accord the asking.
In thee compassion is; in thee is pity
In thee magnificence; in thee unites
Whate'er of goodness is in any creature."

In the glorious meditation of those grand subjects which had such a
charm for Benedict and Bernard, and which almost offset the
barbarism and misery of the Middle Ages,--to many still regarded as
"ages of faith,"--Dante seemingly forgets his wrongs; and in the
company of her whom he adores he seems to revel in the solemn
ecstasy of a soul transported to the realms of eternal light. He
lives now with the angels and the mysteries,--

"Like to the fire
That in a cloud imprisoned doth break out expansive.
. . . . . . . . . . . . .
"Thus, in that heavenly banqueting his soul
Outgrew himself, and, in the transport lost,
Holds no remembrance now of what she was."

The Paradise of Dante is not gloomy, although it be obscure and
indefinite. It is the unexplored world of thought and knowledge,
the explanation of dogmas which his age accepted. It is a
revelation of glories such as only a lofty soul could conceive, but
could not paint,--a supernal happiness given only to favored
mortals, to saints and martyrs who have triumphed over the
seductions of sense and the temptations of life,--a beatified state
of blended ecstasy and love.

"Had I a tongue in eloquence as rich as is the coloring in fancy's loom,
'Twere all too poor to utter the least part of that enchantment."

Such is this great poem; in all its parts and exposition of the
ideas of the age,--sometimes fierce and sometimes tender, profound
and infantine, lofty and degraded, like the Church itself, which
conserved these sentiments. It is an intensely religious poem, and
yet more theological than Christian, and full of classical
allusions to pagan heroes and sages,--a most remarkable production
considering the age, and, when we remember that it is without a
prototype in any language, a glorious monument of reviving
literature, both original and powerful.

Its appearance was of course an epoch, calling out the admiration
of Italians, and of all who could understand it,--of all who
appreciated its moral wisdom in every other country of Europe. And
its fame has been steadily increasing, although I fear much of the
popular enthusiasm is exaggerated and unfelt. One who can read
Italian well may see its "fiery emphasis and depth," its condensed
thought and language, its supernal scorn and supernal love, its
bitterness and its forgiveness; but few modern readers accept its
theology or its philosophy, or care at all for the men whose crimes
he punishes, and whose virtues he rewards.

But there is great interest in the man, as well as in the poem
which he made the mirror of his life, and the register of his
sorrows and of those speculations in which he sought to banish the
remembrance of his misfortunes. His life, like his poem, is an
epic. We sympathize with his resentments, "which exile and poverty
made perpetually fresh." "The sincerity of his early passion for
Beatrice," says Hallam, "pierces through the veil of allegory which
surrounds her, while the memory of his injuries pursues him into
the immensity of eternal light; and even in the company of saints
and angels his unforgiving spirit darkens at the name of Florence. . . .
He combines the profoundest feelings of religion with those
patriotic recollections which were suggested by the reappearance of
the illustrious dead."

Next to Michael Angelo he was the best of all famous Italians,
stained by no marked defects but bitterness, pride, and scorn;
while his piety, his patriotism, and elevation of soul stand out in
marked contrast with the selfishness and venality and hypocrisy and
cruelty of the leading men in the history of his times. "He wrote
with his heart's blood;" he wrote in poverty, exile, grief, and
neglect; he wrote like an inspired prophet of old. He seems to
have been specially raised up to exalt virtue, and vindicate the
ways of God to man, and prepare the way for a new civilization. He
breathes angry defiance to all tyrants; he consigns even popes to
the torments he created. He ridicules fools; he exposes knaves.
He detests oppression; he is a prophet of liberty. He sees into
all shams and all hypocrisies, and denounces lies. He is temperate
in eating and drinking; he has no vices. He believes in
friendship, in love, in truth. He labors for the good of his
countrymen. He is affectionate to those who comprehend him. He
accepts hospitalities, but will not stoop to meanness or injustice.
He will not return to his native city, which he loves so well, even
when permitted, if obliged to submit to humiliating ceremonies. He
even refuses a laurel crown from any city but from the one in which
he was born. No honors could tempt him to be untrue unto himself;
no tasks are too humble to perform, if he can make himself useful.
At Ravenna he gives lectures to the people in their own language,
regarding the restoration of the Latin impossible, and wishing to
bring into estimation the richness of the vernacular tongue. And
when his work is done he dies, before he becomes old (1321), having
fulfilled his vow. His last retreat was at Ravenna, and his last
days were soothed with gentle attentions from Guido da Polenta,
that kind duke who revived his fainting hopes. It was in his
service, as ambassador to Venice, that Dante sickened and died. A
funeral sermon was pronounced upon him by his friend the duke, and
beautiful monuments were erected to his memory. Too late the
Florentines begged for his remains, and did justice to the man and
the poet; as well they might, since his is the proudest name
connected with their annals. He is indeed one of the great
benefactors of the world itself, for the richness of his immortal

Could the proscribed and exiled poet, as he wandered, isolated and
alone, over the vine-clad hills of Italy, and as he stopped here
and there at some friendly monastery, wearied and hungry, have cast
his prophetic eye down the vistas of the ages; could he have seen
what honors would be bestowed upon his name, and how his poem,
written in sorrow, would be scattered in joy among all nations,
giving a new direction to human thought, shining as a fixed star in
the realms of genius, and kindling into shining brightness what is
only a reflection of its rays; yea, how it would be committed to
memory in the rising universities, and be commented on by the most
learned expositors in all the schools of Europe, lauded to the
skies by his countrymen, received by the whole world as a unique,
original, unapproachable production, suggesting grand thoughts to
Milton, reappearing even in the creations of Michael Angelo,
coloring art itself whenever art seeks the sublime and beautiful,
inspiring all subsequent literature, dignifying the life of
letters, and gilding philosophy as well as poetry with new
glories,--could he have seen all this, how his exultant soul would
have rejoiced, even as did Abraham, when, amid the ashes of the
funeral pyre he had prepared for Isaac, he saw the future glories
of his descendants; or as Bacon, when, amid calumnies, he foresaw
that his name and memory would be held in honor by posterity, and
that his method would be received by all future philosophers as one
of the priceless boons of genius to mankind!


Vita Nuova; Divina Commedia,--Translations by Carey and Longfellow;
Boccaccio's Life of Dante; Wright's St. Patrick's Purgatory; Dante
et la Philosophie Catholique du Treizieme Siecle, par Ozinan;
Labitte, La Divine Comedie avant Dante; Balbo's Life and Times of
Dante; Hallam's Middle Ages; Napier's Florentine History; Villani;
Leigh Hunt's Stories from the Italian Poets; Botta's Life of Dante;
J. R. Lowell's article on Dante in American Cyclopaedia; Milman's
Latin Christianity; Carlyle's Heroes and Hero-worship; Macaulay's
Essays; The Divina Commedia from the German of Schelling;
Voltaire's Dictionnaire Philosophique; La Divine Comedie, by
Lamennais; Dante, by Labitte.


A.D. 1340-1400.


The age which produced Chaucer was a transition period from the
Middle Ages to modern times, midway between Dante and Michael
Angelo. Chaucer was the contemporary of Wyclif, with whom the
Middle Ages may appropriately be said to close, or modern history
to begin.

The fourteenth century is interesting for the awakening, especially
in Italy, of literature and art; for the wars between the French
and English, and the English and the Scots; for the rivalry between
the Italian republics; for the efforts of Rienzi to establish
popular freedom at Rome; for the insurrection of the Flemish
weavers, under the Van Arteveldes, against their feudal oppressors;
for the terrible "Jacquerie" in Paris; for the insurrection of Wat
Tyler in England; for the Swiss confederation; for a schism in the
Church when the popes retired to Avignon; for the aggrandizement of
the Visconti at Milan and the Medici at Florence; for incipient
religious reforms under Wyclif in England and John Huss in Bohemia;
for the foundation of new colleges at Oxford and Cambridge; for the
establishment of guilds in London; for the exploration of distant
countries; for the dreadful pestilence which swept over Europe,
known in England as the Black Death; for the development of modern
languages by the poets; and for the rise of the English House of
Commons as a great constitutional power.

In most of these movements we see especially a simultaneous rising
among the people, in the more civilized countries of Europe, to
obtain charters of freedom and municipal and political privileges,
extorted from monarchs in their necessities. The fourteenth
century was marked by protests and warfare equally against feudal
institutions and royal tyranny. The way was prepared by the wars
of kings, which crippled their resources, as the Crusades had done
a century before. The supreme miseries of the people led them to
political revolts and insurrections,--blind but fierce movements,
not inspired by ideas of liberty, but by a sense of oppression and
degradation. Accompanying these popular insurrections were
religions protests against the corrupted institutions of the

In the midst of these popular agitations, aggressive and needless
wars, public miseries and calamities, baronial aggrandizement,
religious inquiries, parliamentary encroachment, and reviving taste
for literature and art, Chaucer arose.

His remarkable career extended over the last half of the fourteenth
century, when public events were of considerable historical
importance. It was then that parliamentary history became
interesting. Until then the barons, clergy, knights of the shire,
and burgesses of the town, summoned to assist the royal councils,
deliberated in separate chambers or halls; but in the reign of
Edward III. the representatives of the knights of the shires and
the burgesses united their interests and formed a body strong
enough to check royal encroachments, and became known henceforth as
the House of Commons. In thirty years this body had wrested from
the Crown the power of arbitrary taxation, had forced upon it new
ministers, and had established the principle that the redress of
grievances preceded grants of supply. Edward III. was compelled to
grant twenty parliamentary confirmations of Magna Charta. At the
close of his reign, it was conceded that taxes could be raised only
by consent of the Commons; and they had sufficient power, also, to
prevent the collection of the tax which the Pope had levied on the
country since the time of John, called Peter's Pence. The latter
part of the fourteenth century must not be regarded as an era of
the triumph of popular rights, but as the period when these rights
began to be asserted. Long and dreary was the march of the people
to complete political enfranchisement from the rebellion under Wat
Tyler to the passage of the Reform Bill in our times. But the
Commons made a memorable stand against Edward III. when he was the
most powerful sovereign of western Europe, one which would have
been impossible had not this able and ambitious sovereign been
embroiled in desperate war both with the Scotch and French.

With the assertion of political rights we notice the beginning of
commercial enterprise and manufacturing industry. A colony of
Flemish weavers was established in England by the enlightened king,
although wool continued to be exported. It was not until the time
of Elizabeth that the raw material was consumed at home.

Still, the condition of the common people was dreary enough at this
time, when compared with what it is in our age. They perhaps were
better fed on the necessities of life than they are now. All meats
were comparatively cheaper; but they had no luxuries, not even
wheaten bread. Their houses were small and dingy, and a single
chamber sufficed for a whole family, both male and female. Neither
glass windows nor chimneys were then in use, nor knives nor forks,
nor tea nor coffee; not even potatoes, still less tropical fruits.
The people had neither bed-clothes, nor carpets, nor glass nor
crockery ware, nor cotton dresses, nor books, nor schools. They
were robbed by feudal masters, and cheated and imposed upon by
friars and pedlers; but a grim cheerfulness shone above their
discomforts and miseries, and crime was uncommon and severely
punished. They amused themselves with rough sports, and cherished
religious sentiments. They were brave and patriotic.

It was to describe the habits and customs of these people, as well
as those of the classes above them, to give dignity to consecrated
sentiments and to shape the English language, that Chaucer was
raised up.

He was born, it is generally supposed, in the year 1340; but
nothing is definitely known of him till 1357, when Edward III. had
been reigning about thirty years. It is surmised that his father
was a respectable citizen of London; that he was educated at
Cambridge and Oxford; that he went to Paris to complete his
education in the most famous university in the world; that he then
extensively travelled in France, Holland, and Flanders, after which
he became a student of law in the Inner Temple. Even then he was
known as a poet, and his learning and accomplishments attracted the
attention of Edward III., who was a patron of genius, and who gave
him a house in Woodstock, near the royal palace. At this time
Chaucer was a handsome, witty, modest, dignified man of letters, in
easy circumstances, moving in the higher ranks of society, and
already known for his "Troilus and Cresseide," which was then
doubtless the best poem in the language.

It was then that the intimacy began between him and John of Gaunt,
a youth of eighteen, then Earl of Richmond, fourth son of Edward
III., afterwards known as the great Duke of Lancaster,--the most
powerful nobleman that ever lived in England, also the richest,
possessing large estates in eighteen counties, as well as six
earldoms. This friendship between the poet and the first prince of
the blood, after the Prince of Wales, seems to have arisen from the
admiration of John of Gaunt for the genius and accomplishments of
Chaucer, who was about ten years the elder. It was not until the
prince became the Duke of Lancaster that he was the friend and
protector of Wyclif,--and from different reasons, seeing that the
Oxford scholar and theologian could be of use to him in his warfare
against the clergy, who were hostile to his ambitious designs.
Chaucer he loved as a bright and witty companion; Wyclif he honored
as the most learned churchman of the age.

The next authentic event in Chaucer's life occurred in 1359, when
he accompanied the king to France in that fruitless expedition
which was soon followed by the peace of Bretigny. In this
unfortunate campaign Chaucer was taken prisoner, but was ransomed
by his sovereign for 16 pounds,--about equal to 300 pounds in these
times. He had probably before this been installed at court as a
gentleman of the bedchamber, on a stipend which would now be equal
to 250 pounds a year. He seems to have been a favorite with the
court, after he had written his first great poem. It is singular
that in a rude and ignorant age poets should have received much
greater honor than in our enlightened times. Gower was patronized
by the Duke of Gloucester, as Chaucer was by the Duke of Lancaster,
and Petrarch and Boccaccio were in Italy by princes and nobles.
Even learning was held in more reverence in the fourteenth century
than it is in the nineteenth. The scholastic doctor was one of the
great dignitaries of the age, as well as of the schools, and ranked
with bishops and abbots. Wyclif at one time was the most
influential man in the English Church, sitting in Parliament, and
sent by the king on important diplomatic missions. So Chaucer,
with less claim, received valuable offices and land-grants, which
made him a wealthy man; and he was also sent on important missions
in the company of nobles. He lived at the court. His son Thomas
married one of the richest heiresses in the kingdom, and became
speaker of the House of Commons; while his daughter Alice married
the Duke of Suffolk, whose grandson was declared by Richard III. to
be his heir, and came near becoming King of England. Chaucer's
wife's sister married the Duke of Lancaster himself; so he was
allied with the royal family, if not by blood, at least by
ambitious marriage connections.

I know of no poet in the history of England who occupied so high a
social position as did Chaucer, or who received so many honors.
The poet of the people was the companion of kings and princes. At
one time he had a reverse of fortune, when his friend and patron,
the Duke of Lancaster, was in disgrace and in voluntary banishment
during the minority of Richard II., against whom he had intrigued,
and who afterwards was dethroned by Henry IV., a son of the Duke of
Lancaster. While the Duke of Gloucester was in power, Chaucer was
deprived of his offices and revenues for two or three years, and
was even imprisoned in the Tower; but when Lancaster returned from
the Continent, his offices and revenues were restored. His latter
days were luxurious and honored. At fifty-one he gave up his
public duties as a collector of customs, chiefly on wool, and
retired to Woodstock and spent the remainder of his fortunate life
in dignified leisure and literary labors. In addition to his
revenues, the Duke of Lancaster, who was virtually the ruler of the
land during the reign of Richard II., gave him the castle of
Donnington, with its park and gardens; so that he became a man of
territorial influence. At the age of fifty-eight he removed to
London, and took a house in the precincts of Westminster Abbey,
where the chapel of Henry VII. now stands. He died the following
year, and was buried in the Abbey church,--that sepulchre of
princes and bishops and abbots. His body was deposited in the
place now known as the Poets' Corner, and a fitting monument to his
genius was erected over his remains, as the first great poet that
had appeared in England, probably only surpassed in genius by
Shakspeare, until the language assumed its present form. He was
regarded as a moral phenomenon, whom kings and princes delighted to
honor. As Leonardo da Vinci died in the arms of Francis I., so
Chaucer rested in his grave near the bodies of those sovereigns and
princes with whom he lived in intimacy and friendship. It was the
rarity of his gifts, his great attainments, elegant manners, and
refined tastes which made him the companion of the great, since at
that time only princes and nobles and ecclesiastical dignitaries
could appreciate his genius or enjoy his writings.

Although Chaucer had written several poems which were admired in
his day, and made translations from the French, among which was the
"Roman de la Rose," the most popular poem of the Middle Ages,--a
poem which represented the difficulties attendant on the passion of
love, under the emblem of a rose which had to be plucked amid
thorns,--yet his best works were written in the leisure of
declining years.

The occupation of the poet during the last twelve years of his life
was in writing his "Canterbury Tales," on which his fame chiefly
rests; written not for money, but because he was impelled to write
it, as all true poets write and all great artists paint,--ex
animo,--because they cannot help writing and painting, as the
solace and enjoyment of life. For his day these tales were a great
work of art, evidently written with great care. They are also
stamped with the inspiration of genius, although the stories
themselves were copied in the main from the French and Italian,
even as the French and Italians copied from Oriental writers, whose
works were translated into the languages of Europe so that the
romances of the Middle Ages were originally produced in India,
Persia, and Arabia. Absolute creation is very rare. Even
Shakspeare, the most original of poets, was indebted to French and
Italian writers for the plots of many of his best dramas. Who can
tell the remote sources of human invention; who knows the then
popular songs which Homer probably incorporated in his epics; who
can trace the fountains of those streams which have fertilized the
literary world?--and hence, how shallow the criticism which would
detract from literary genius because it is indebted, more or less,
to the men who have lived ages ago. It is the way of putting
things which constitutes the merit of men of genius. What has
Voltaire or Hume or Froude told the world, essentially, that it did
not know before? Read, for instance, half-a-dozen historians on
Joan of Arc: they all relate substantially the same facts. Genius
and originality are seen in the reflections and deductions and
grand sentiments prompted by the narrative. Let half-a-dozen
distinguished and learned theologians write sermons on Abraham or
Moses or David: they will all be different, yet the main facts will
be common to all.

The "Canterbury Tales" are great creations, from the humor, the
wit, the naturalness, the vividness of description, and the beauty
of the sentiments displayed in them, although sullied by occasional
vulgarities and impurities, which, however, in all their coarseness
do not corrupt the mind. Byron complained of their coarseness, but
Byron's poetry is far more demoralizing. The age was coarse, not
the mind of the author. And after five hundred years, with all the
obscurity of language and obsolete modes of spelling, they still
give pleasure to the true lovers of poetry when they have once
mastered the language, which is not, after all, very difficult. It
is true that most people prefer to read the great masters of
poetry, in later times; but the "Canterbury Tales" are interesting
and instructive to those who study the history of language and
literature. They are links in the civilization of England. They
paint the age more vividly and accurately than any known history.
The men and women of the fourteenth century, of all ranks, stand
out to us in fresh and living colors. We see them in their dress,
their feasts, their dwellings, their language, their habits, and
their manners. Amid all the changes in human thought and in social
institutions the characters appeal to our common humanity,
essentially the same under all human conditions. The men and women
of the fourteenth century love and hate, eat and drink, laugh and
talk, as they do in the nineteenth. They delight, as we do, in the
varieties of dress, of parade, and luxurious feasts. Although the
form of these has changed, they are alive to the same sentiments
which move us. They like fun and jokes and amusement as much as
we. They abhor the same class of defects which disgust us,--
hypocrisies, shams, lies. The inner circle of their friendship is
the same as ours to-day, based on sincerity and admiration. There
is the same infinite variety in character, and yet the same
uniformity. The human heart beats to the same sentiments that it
does under all civilizations and conditions of life. No people can
live without friendship and sympathy and love; and these are
ultimate sentiments of the soul, which are as eternal as the ideas
of Plato. Why do the Psalms of David. written for an Oriental
people four thousand years ago, excite the same emotions in the
minds of the people of England or France or America that they did
among the Jews? It is because they appeal to our common humanity,
which never changes,--the same to-day as it was in the beginning,
and will be to the end. It is only form and fashion which change;
men remain the same. The men and women of the Bible talked nearly
the same as we do, and seem to have had as great light on the
primal principles of wisdom and truth and virtue. Who can improve
on the sagacity and worldly wisdom of the Proverbs of Solomon?
They have a perennial freshness, and appeal to universal
experience. It is this fidelity to nature which is one of the
great charms of Shakspeare. We quote his brief sayings as
expressive of what we feel and know of the certitudes of our moral
and intellectual life. They will last forever, under every variety
of government, of social institutions, of races, and of languages.
And they will last because these every-day sentiments are put in
such pithy, compressed, unique, and novel form, like the Proverbs
of Solomon or the sayings of Epictetus. All nations and ages alike
recognize the moral wisdom in the sayings of those immortal sages
whose writings have delighted and enlightened the world, because
they appeal to consciousness or experience.

Now it must be confessed that the Poetry of Chaucer does not abound
in the moral wisdom and spiritual insight and profound reflections
on the great mysteries of human life which stand out so
conspicuously in the writings of Dante, Shakspeare, Milton, Goethe,
and other first-class poets. He does not describe the inner life,
but the outward habits and condition of the people of his times.
He is not serious enough, nor learned enough, to enter upon the
discussion of those high themes which agitated the schools and
universities, as Dante did one hundred years before. He tells us
how monks and friars lived, not how they dreamed and speculated.
Nor are his sarcasms scorching and bitter, but rather humorous and
laughable. He shows himself to be a genial and loving companion,
not an austere teacher of disagreeable truths. He is not solemn
and intense, like Dante; he does not give wings to his fancy, like
Spenser; he has not the divine insight of Shakspeare; he is not
learned, like Milton; he is not sarcastic, like Pope; he does not
rouse the passions, like Byron; he is not meditative, like
Wordsworth,--but he paints nature with great accuracy and delicacy,
as also the men and women of his age, as they appeared in their
outward life. He describes the passion of love with great
tenderness and simplicity. In all his poems, love is his greatest
theme,--which he bases, not on physical charms, but the moral
beauty of the soul. In his earlier life he does not seem to have
done full justice to women, whom he ridicules, but does not
despise; in whom he indeed sees the graces of chivalry, but not the
intellectual attraction of cultivated life. But later in life,
when his experiences are broader and more profound, he makes amends
for his former mistakes. In his "Legend of Good Women," which he
wrote at the command of Anne of Bohemia, wife of Richard II., he
eulogizes the sex and paints the most exalted sentiments of the
heart. He not only had great vividness in the description of his
characters, but doubtless great dramatic talent, which his age did
not call out. His descriptions of nature are very fresh and
beautiful, indicating a great love of nature,--flowers, trees,
birds, lawns, gardens, waterfalls, falcons, dogs, horses, with whom
he almost talked. He had a great sense of the ridiculous; hence
his humor and fun and droll descriptions, which will ever interest
because they are so fresh and vivid. And as a poet he continually
improved as he advanced in life. His last works are his best,
showing the care and labor he bestowed, as well as his fidelity to
nature. I am amazed, considering his time, that he was so great an
artist without having a knowledge of the principles of art as
taught by the great masters of composition.

But, as has been already said, his distinguishing excellence is
vivid and natural description of the life and habits, not the
opinions, of the people of the fourteenth century, described
without exaggeration or effort for effect. He paints his age as
Moliere paints the times of Louis XIV., and Homer the heroic
periods of Grecian history. This fidelity to nature and
inexhaustible humor and living freshness and perpetual variety are
the eternal charms of the "Canterbury Tales." They bring before
the eye the varied professions and trades and habits and customs of
the fourteenth century. We see how our ancestors dressed and
talked and ate; what pleasures delighted them, what animosities
moved them, what sentiments elevated them, and what follies made
them ridiculous. The same naturalness and humor which marked "Don
Quixote" and the "Decameron" also are seen in the "Canterbury
Tales." Chaucer freed himself from all the affectations and
extravagances and artificiality which characterized the poetry of
the Middle Ages. With him began a new style in writing. He and
Wyclif are the creators of English literature. They did not create
a language, but they formed and polished it.

The various persons who figure in the "Canterbury Tales" are too
well known for me to enlarge upon. Who can add anything to the
Prologue in which Chaucer himself describes the varied characters
and habits and appearance of the pilgrims to the shrine of Thomas
Becket at Canterbury? There are thirty of these pilgrims including
the poet himself, embracing nearly all the professions and trades
then known, except the higher dignitaries of Church and State, who
are not supposed to mix freely in ordinary intercourse, and whom it
would be unwise to paint in their marked peculiarities. The most
prominent person, as to social standing, is probably the knight.
He is not a nobleman, but he has fought in many battles, and has
travelled extensively. His cassock is soiled, and his horse is
strong but not gay,--a very respectable man, courteous and gallant,
a soldier corresponding to a modern colonel or captain. His son,
the esquire, is a youth of twenty, with curled locks and
embroidered dress, shining in various colors like the flowers of
May, gay as a bird, active as a deer, and gentle as a maiden. The
yeoman who attends them both is clad in green like a forester, with
arrows and feathers, bearing the heavy sword and buckler of his
master. The prioress is another respectable person, coy and
simple, with dainty fingers, small mouth, and clean attire,--a
refined sort of a woman for that age, ornamented with corals and
brooch, so stately as to be held in reverence, yet so sentimental
as to weep for a mouse caught in a trap: all characteristic of a
respectable, kind-hearted lady who has lived in seclusion. A monk,
of course, in the fourteenth century was everywhere to be seen; and
a monk we have among the pilgrims, riding a "dainty" horse,
accompanied with greyhounds, loving fur trimmings on his
Benedictine habit and a fat swan to roast. The friar, too, we
see,--a mendicant, yet merry and full of dalliances, beloved by the
common women, to whom he gave easy absolution; a jolly vagabond,
who knew all the taverns, and who carried on his portly person pins
and songs and relics to sell or to give away. And there was the
merchant, with forked beard and Flemish beaver hat and neatly
clasped boots, bragging of his gains and selling French crowns, but
on the whole a worthy man. The Oxford clerk or scholar is one of
the company, silent and sententious, as lean as the horse on which
he rode, with threadbare coat, and books of Aristotle and his
philosophy which he valued more than gold, of which indeed he could
boast but little,--a man anxious to learn, and still more to teach.
The sergeant of the law is another prominent figure, wary and wise,
discreet and dignified, bustling and busy, yet not so busy as he
seemed to be, wearing a coat of divers colors, and riding very
badly. A franklin, or country gentleman, mixes with the company,
with a white beard and red complexion; one of Epicurus's own sons,
who held that ale and wheaten bread and fish and dainty flesh,
partridge fat, were pure felicity; evidently a man given to

"His table dormant in his hall alway
Stood ready covered all the longe day."

He was a sheriff, also, to enforce the law, and to be present at
all the county sessions. The doctor, of course, could not be left
out of the company,--a man who knew the cause of every malady,
versed in magic as well as physic, and grounded also in astronomy;
who held that gold is the best of cordials, and knew how to keep
what he gained; not luxurious in his diet, but careful what he ate
and drank. The village miller is not forgotten in this motley
crowd,--rough, brutal, drunken, big and brawn, with a red beard and
a wart on his nose, and a mouth as wide as a furnace, a reveller
and a jangler, accustomed to take toll thrice, and given to all the
sins that then abounded. He is the most repulsive figure in the
crowd, both vulgar and wicked. In contrast with him is the reve,
or steward, of a lordly house,--a slender, choleric man, feared by
servants and gamekeepers, yet in favor with his lord, since he
always had money to lend, although it belonged to his master; an
adroit agent and manager, who so complicated his accounts that no
auditor could unravel them or any person bring him in arrears. He
rode a fine dappled-gray stallion, wore a long blue overcoat, and
carried a rusty sword,--evidently a proud and prosperous man. With
a monk and friar, the picture would be incomplete without a
pardoner, or seller of indulgences, with yellow hair and smooth
face, loaded with a pillow-case of relics and pieces of the true
cross, of which there were probably cartloads in every country in
Europe, and of which there was an inexhaustible supply. This sleek
and gentle pedler of indulgences rode side by side with a repulsive
officer of the Church, with a fiery red face, of whom children were
afraid, fond of garlic and onions and strong wine, and speaking
only Latin law-terms when he was drunk, but withal a good fellow,
abating his lewdness and drunkenness. In contrast with the
pardoner and "sompnour" we see the poor parson, full of goodness,
charity, and love,--a true shepherd and no mercenary, who waited
upon no pomp and sought no worldly gains, happy only in the virtues
which he both taught and lived. Some think that Chaucer had in
view the learned Wyclif when he described the most interesting
character of the whole group. With him was a ploughman, his
brother, as good and pious as he, living in peace with all the
world, paying tithes cheerfully, laborious and conscientious, the
forerunner of the Puritan yeoman.

Of this motley company of pilgrims, I have already spoken of the
prioress,--a woman of high position. In contrast with her is the
wife of Bath, who has travelled extensively, even to Jerusalem and
Rome; charitable, kind-hearted, jolly, and talkative, but bold and
masculine and coarse, with a red face and red stockings, and a hat
as big as a shield, and sharp spurs on her feet, indicating that
she sat on her ambler like a man.

There are other characters which I cannot stop to mention,--the
sailor, browned by the seas and sun, and full of stolen Bordeaux
wine; the haberdasher; the carpenter; the weaver; the dyer; the
tapestry-worker; the cook, to boil the chickens and the marrow-
bones, and bake the pies and tarts,--mostly people from the middle
and lower ranks of society, whose clothes are gaudy, manners rough,
and language coarse. But all classes and trades and professions
seem to be represented, except nobles, bishops, and abbots,--
dignitaries whom, perhaps, Chaucer is reluctant to describe and

To beguile the time on the journey to Canterbury, all these various
pilgrims are required to tell some story peculiar to their separate
walks of life; and it is these stories which afford the best
description we have of the manners and customs of the fourteenth
century, as well as of its leading sentiments and ideas.

The knight was required to tell his story first, and it naturally
was one of love and adventure. Although the scene of it was laid
in ancient Greece, it delineates the institution of chivalry and
the manners and sentiments it produced. No writer of that age,
except perhaps Froissart, paints the connection of chivalry with
the graces of the soul and the moral beauty which poetry associates
with the female sex as Chaucer does. The aristocratic woman of
chivalry, while delighting in martial sports, and hence masculine
and haughty, is also condescending, tender, and gracious. The
heroic and dignified self-respect with which chivalry invested
woman exalted the passion of love. Allied with reverence for woman
was loyalty to the prince. The rough warrior again becomes a
gentleman, and has access to the best society. Whatever may have
been the degrees of rank, the haughtiest nobleman associated with
the penniless knight, if only he were a gentleman and well born, on
terms of social equality, since chivalry, while it created
distinctions, also levelled those which wealth and power naturally
created among the higher class. Yet chivalry did not exalt woman
outside of noble ranks. The plebeian woman neither has the graces
of the high-born lady, nor does she excite that reverence for the
sex which marked her condition in the feudal castle. "Tournaments
and courts of love were not framed for village churls, but for
high-born dames and mighty earls."

Chaucer in his description of women in ordinary life does not seem
to have a very high regard for them. They are weak or coarse or
sensual, though attentive to their domestic duties, and generally
virtuous. An exception is made of Virginia, in the doctor's tale,
who is represented as beautiful and modest, radiant in simplicity,
discreet and true. But the wife of Bath is disgusting from her
coarse talk and coarser manners. Her tale is to show what a woman
likes best, which, according to her, is to bear rule over her
husband and household. The prioress is conventional and weak,
aping courtly manners. The wife of the host of the Tabard inn is a
vixen and shrew, who calls her husband a milk-sop, and is so
formidable with both her tongue and her hands that he is glad to
make his escape from her whenever he can. The pretty wife of the
carpenter, gentle and slender, with her white apron and open dress,
is anything but intellectual,--a mere sensual beauty. Most of
these women are innocent of toothbrushes, and give and receive
thrashings, and sing songs without a fastidious taste, and beat
their servants and nag their husbands. But they are good cooks,
and understand the arts of brewing and baking and roasting and
preserving and pickling, as well as of spinning and knitting and
embroidering. They are supreme in their households; they keep the
keys and lock up the wine. They are gossiping, and love to receive
their female visitors. They do not do much shopping, for shops
were very primitive, with but few things to sell. Their knowledge
is very limited, and confined to domestic matters. They are on the
whole modest, but are the victims of friars and pedlers. They have
more liberty than we should naturally suppose, but have not yet
learned to discriminate between duties and rights. There are few
disputed questions between them and their husbands, but the duty of
obedience seems to have been recognized. But if oppressed, they
always are free with their tongues; they give good advice, and do
not spare reproaches in language which in our times we should not
call particularly choice. They are all fond of dress, and wear gay
colors, without much regard to artistic effect.

In regard to the sports and amusements of the people, we learn much
from Chaucer. In one sense the England of his day was merry; that
is, the people were noisy and rough in their enjoyments. There was
frequent ringing of the bells; there were the horn of the huntsman
and the excitements of the chase; there was boisterous mirth in the
village ale-house; there were frequent holidays, and dances around
May-poles covered with ribbons and flowers and flags; there were
wandering minstrels and jesters and jugglers, and cock-fightings
and foot-ball and games at archery; there were wrestling matches
and morris-dancing and bear-baiting. But the exhilaration of the
people was abnormal, like the merriment of negroes on a Southern
plantation,--a sort of rebound from misery and burdens, which found
a vent in noise and practical jokes when the ordinary restraint was
removed. The uproarious joy was a sort of defiance of the semi-
slavery to which workmen were doomed; for when they could be
impressed by the king's architect and paid whatever he chose to
give them, there could not have been much real contentment, which
is generally placid and calm. There is one thing in which all
classes delighted in the fourteenth century, and that was a garden,
in which flowers bloomed,--things of beauty which were as highly
valued as the useful. Moreover, there was a zest in rural sports
now seldom seen, especially among the upper classes who could
afford to hunt and fish. There was no excitement more delightful
to gentlemen and ladies than that of hawking, and it infinitely
surpassed in interest any rural sport whatever in our day, under
any circumstances. Hawks trained to do the work of fowling-pieces
were therefore greater pets than any dogs that now are the company
of sportsmen. A lady without a falcon on her wrist, when mounted
on her richly caparisoned steed for a morning's sport, was very
rare indeed.

An instructive feature of the "Canterbury Tales" is the view which
Chaucer gives us of the food and houses and dresses of the people.
"In the Nonne's Prestes' Tale we see the cottage and manner of life
of a poor widow." She has three daughters, three pigs, three oxen,
and a sheep. Her house had only two rooms,--an eating-room, which
also served for a kitchen and sitting-room, and a bower or
bedchamber,--both without a chimney, with holes pierced to let in
the light. The table was a board put upon trestles, to be removed
when the meal of black bread and milk, and perchance an egg with
bacon, was over. The three slept without sheets or blankets on a
rude bed, covered only with their ordinary day-clothes. Their
kitchen utensils were a brass pot or two for boiling, a few wooden
platters, an iron candlestick, and a knife or two; while the
furniture was composed of two or three chairs and stools, with a
frame in the wall, with shelves, for clothes and utensils. The
manciple and the cook of the company seem to indicate that living
among the well-to-do classes was a very generous and a very serious
part of life, on which a high estimate was placed, since food in
any variety, though plentiful at times, was not always to be had,
and therefore precarious. "Guests at table were paired, and ate,
every pair, out of the same plate or off the same trencher." But
the bill of fare at a franklin's feast would be deemed anything but
poor, even in our times,--"bacon and pea-soup, oysters, fish,
stewed beef, chickens, capons, roast goose, pig, veal, lamb, kid,
pigeon, with custard, apples and pears, cheese and spiced cakes."
All these with abundance of wine and ale.

The "Canterbury Tales" remind us of the vast preponderance of the
country over town and city life. Chaucer, like Shakspeare, revels
in the simple glories of nature, which he describes like a man
feeling it to be a joy to be near to "Mother Earth," with her rich
bounties. The birds that usher in the day, the flowers which
beautify the lawn, the green hills and vales, with ever-changing
hues like the clouds and the skies, yet fruitful in wheat and
grass; the domestic animals, so mute and patient, the bracing air
of approaching winter, the genial breezes of the spring,--of all
these does the poet sing with charming simplicity and grace, yea,
in melodious numbers; for nothing is more marvellous than the music
and rhythm of his lines, although they are not enriched with
learned allusions or much moral wisdom, and do not march in the
stately and majestic measure of Shakspeare or of Milton.

But the most interesting and instructive of the "Canterbury Tales"
are those which relate to the religious life, the morals, the
superstitions, and ecclesiastical abuses of the times. In these we
see the need of the reformation of which Wyclif was the morning
light. In these we see the hypocrisies and sensualities of both
monks and friars, relieved somewhat by the virtues of the simple
parish priest or poor parson, in contrast with the wealth and
luxury of the regular clergy, as monks were called, in their
princely monasteries, where the lordly abbot vied with both baron
and bishop in the magnificence of his ordinary life. We see before
us the Mediaeval clergy in all their privileges, and yet in all
their ignorance and superstition, shielded from the punishment of
crime and the operation of all ordinary laws (a sturdy defiance of
the temporal powers), the agents and ministers of a foreign power,
armed with the terrors of hell and the grave. Besides the prioress
and the nuns' priest, we see in living light the habits and
pretensions of the lazy monk, the venal friar and pardoner, and the
noisy summoner for ecclesiastical offences: hunters and gluttons
are they, with greyhounds and furs,, greasy and fat, and full of
dalliances; at home in taverns, unprincipled but agreeable
vagabonds, who cheat and rob the people, and make a mockery of what
is most sacred on the earth. These privileged mendicants, with
their relics and indulgences, their arts and their lies, and the
scandals they create, are treated by Chaucer with blended humor and
severity, showing a mind as enlightened as that of the great
scholar at Oxford, who heads the movement against Rome and the
abuses at which she connived if she did not encourage. And there
is something intensely English in his disgust and scorn,--brave for
his day, yet shielded by the great duke who was at once his
protector and friend, as he was of Wyclif himself,--in his severer
denunciation, and advocacy of doctrines which neither Chaucer nor
Duke of Lancaster understood, and which, if they had, they would
not have sympathized with nor encouraged. In these attacks on
ecclesiastics and ecclesiastical abuses, Chaucer should be studied
with Wyclif and the early reformers, although he would not have
gone so far as they, and led, unlike them, a worldly life. Thus by
these poems he has rendered a service to his country, outside his
literary legacy, which has always been held in value. The father
of English poetry belonged to the school of progress and of
inquiry, like his great contemporaries on the Continent. But while
he paints the manners, customs, and characters of the fourteenth
century, he does not throw light on the great ideas which agitated
or enslaved the age. He is too real and practical for that. He
describes the outward, not the inner life. He was not serious
enough--I doubt if he was learned enough--to enter into the
disquisitions of schoolmen, or the mazes of the scholastic
philosophy, or the meditations of almost inspired sages. It is not
the joys of heaven or the terrors of hell on which he discourses,
but of men and women as they lived around him, in their daily
habits and occupations. We must go to Wyclif if we would know the
theological or philosophical doctrines which interested the
learned. Chaucer only tells how monks and friars lived, not how
they speculated or preached. We see enough, however, to feel that
he was emancipated from the ideas of the Middle Ages, and had cast
off their gloom, their superstition, and their despair. The only
things he liked of those dreary times were their courts of love and
their chivalric glories.

I do not propose to analyze the poetry of Chaucer, or enter upon a
critical inquiry as to his relative merits in comparison with the
other great poets. It is sufficient for me to know that critics
place him very high as an original poet, although it is admitted
that he drew much of his material from French and Italian authors.
He was, for his day, a great linguist. He had travelled
extensively, and could speak Latin, French, and Italian with
fluency. He knew Petrarch and other eminent Italians. One is
amazed that in such an age he could have written so well, for he
had no great models to help him in his own language. If
occasionally indecent, he is not corrupting. He never deliberately
disseminates moral poison; and when he speaks of love, he treats
almost solely of the simple and genuine emotions of the heart.

The best criticism that I have read of Chaucer's poetry is that of
Adolphus William Ward; although as a biography it is not so full or
so interesting as that of Godwin or even Morley. In no life that I
have read are the mental characteristics of our poet so ably
drawn,--"his practical good sense," his love of books, his still
deeper love of nature, his naivete, the readiness of his
description, the brightness of his imagery, the easy flow of his
diction, the vividness with which he describes character; his
inventiveness, his readiness of illustration, his musical rhythm,
his gaiety and cheerfulness, his vivacity and joyousness, his
pathos and tenderness, his keen sense of the ridiculous and power
of satire, without being bitter, so that his wit and fun are
harmless, and perpetually pleasing.

He doubtless had great dramatic talent, but he did not live in a
dramatic age. His especial excellence, never surpassed, was his
power of observing and drawing character, united with boundless
humor and cheerful fun. And his descriptions of nature are as true
and unstinted as his descriptions of men and women, so that he is
as fresh as the month of May. In his poetry is life; and hence his
immortal fame. He is not so great as Spenser or Shakspeare or
Milton; but he has the same vitality as they, and is as wonderful
as they considering his age and opportunities,--a poet who
constantly improved as he advanced in life, and whose greatest work
was written in his old age.

Unfortunately, we know but little of Chaucer's habits and
experiences, his trials and disappointments, his friendships or his
hatreds. What we do know of him raises our esteem. Though
convivial, he was temperate; though genial, he was a silent
observer, quiet in his manners, modest in his intercourse with the
world, walking with downcast eye, but letting nothing escape his
notice. He believed in friendship, and kept his friends to the
end, and was stained neither by envy nor by pride,--as frank as he
was affectionate, as gentle as he was witty. Living with princes
and nobles, he never descended to gross adulation, and never wrote
a line of approval of the usurpation of Henry IV., although his
bread depended on Henry's favor, and he was also the son of the
king's earliest and best friend. He was not a religious man, nor
was he an immoral man, judged by the standard of his age. He
probably was worldly, as he lived in courts. We do not see in him
the stern virtues of Dante or Milton; nothing of that moral
earnestness which marked the only other great man with whom he was
contemporary,--he who is called the "morning star" of the
Reformation. But then we know nothing about him which calls out
severe reprobation. He was patriotic, and had the confidence of
his sovereign, else he would not have been employed on important
missions. And the sweetness of his character may be inferred from
his long and tender friendship with Gower, whom some in that age
considered the greater poet. He was probably luxurious in his
habits, but intemperate use of wine he detested and avoided. He
was portly in his person, but refinement marked his features. He
was a gentleman, according to the severest code of chivalric
excellence; always a favorite with ladies, and equally admired by
the knights and barons of a brilliant court. No poet was ever more
honored in his life or lamented in his death, as his beautiful
monument in Westminster Abbey would seem to attest. That monument
is the earliest that was erected to the memory of a poet in that
Pantheon of English men of rank and genius; and it will probably be
as long preserved as any of those sculptured urns and animated
busts which seek to keep alive the memory of the illustrious dead,--
of those who, though dead, yet speak to all future generations.


Chaucer's own works, especially the Canterbury Tales; publications
of the Chaucer Society; Pauli's History of England; ordinary
Histories of England which relate to the reigns of Edward III. and
Richard II., especially Green's History of the English People; Life
of Chaucer, by William Godwin (4 volumes, London, 1804); Tyrwhitt's
edition of Canterbury Tales; Speglet's edition of Chaucer; Warton's
History of English Poetry; St. Palaye's History of Chivalry;
Chaucer's England, by Matthew Browne (London, 1869); Sir Harris
Nicholas's Life of Chaucer; The Riches of Chaucer, by Charles
Cowden Clarke; Morley's Life of Chaucer. The latest work is a Life
and Criticism of Chaucer, by Adolphus William Ward. There is also
a Guide to Chaucer, by H. G. Fleary. See also Skeat's collected
edition of Chaucer's Works, brought out under the auspices of the


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