The Progress of the Nation page 6
But it is to the poets of this era that we must look for the chief genius, and the evidences of the progress of literature in the nation. It is a singular fact, that while the Roman Church had continued the use of the Latin language during the Middle Ages, it had neglected, or rather discouraged, the reading of the great Roman and Greek writers, so that the Greek and Roman classical literature became, as it were, extinct. The great classical authors which were not destroyed, lay buried in the dust of abbeys and monasteries. So completely was Greek literature and the Greek forgotten, that, as we before stated, we find Bacon declaring that there were not above four men in England who understood Greek, or could pass the fifth proposition of the first book of Euclid - the familiar pons asinorum, or bridge of asses. So utterly were the clergy unacquainted with Greek that, on finding a New Testament amongst the books of the Reformers, they declared that it was some new heretical language. But, as knowledge revived, the same men who were the greatest advocates for classical studies and the restoration of the classical writers to public use, were those who began also to write in their vernacular tongues; and this was especially the case with Petrarch in Italy.
Latin was the almost universal language of the learned in art, science, and literature still at this period. The works of the chroniclers were written in Latin for the most part; Bacon wrote all his works in Latin. But for some time, in all the great countries of Europe, eminent authors - and especially the poets - had begun to use their native tongues. Dante, Boccaccio, and Petrarch in Italy had set the example; Froissart had done it in French; and now our great poets in England did the same.
This was a proof that the English language was now travelling up from the common people, and establishing itself amongst all ranks. It was no longer left to the common people to speak Anglo-Saxon, now fast melting in English. The Norman nobles and gentry found themselves speaking English, and engrafting on it many of their own terms. Metrical romances and songs had long been circulated amongst the people; they now reached the higher classes. Robert of Gloucester versified the chronicle of Robert of Monmouth; Peter Langtoft, a canon of Bridlington, found his chronicle in French verse translated into English by Robert Manning, of Brunne, already mentioned. This was the English of that day:- -
"Pers of Langtoft, a chanon,
But about the middle of the fourteenth century Robert Langlande, a secular priest of Oxford, wrote a famous satirical allegory against persons of all professions, called "The Vision of Pierce Plowman." This is usually considered the first English poem, but it is rather an Anglo-Saxon one, for the author, probably very Saxon in his feelings, has not only imitated the alliterative poetry of the Saxons without rhyme, but he has made the language as antique as possible. This is precisely what Spenser did in his "Faery Queen," in the reign of Elizabeth; he went backwards in his diction, so that now it is nearly obsolete, while the language of his contemporary Shakespeare is still sterling English, and likely to continue so. Who could imagine that these lines were written in the same age as those which we shall place beside them by a contemporary?
"Hunger in hast tho' hint Wastour by the maw,
"Ah, freedom is a noble thing!
Now this was the work, not of an English, but Scotch poet, who wrote in English. John Barbour was born in Aberdeen in 1330. He became, under David II., Archdeacon of Aberdeen in 1356, when, of course, he was only twenty-six years of age. He obtained permission of Edward III,, through his own sovereign, to study at Oxford, and became famous, not only as a divine and philosopher, but as a poet, only surpassed in that age by Chaucer, and certainly far more purely English in his language than Chaucer himself. His great poem is the story of Robert Bruce and his noble companions, Douglas and Randolph, Earl of Moray.
Of the English poets, with a reference to Laurence Minot, who celebrated the exploits of Edward III. in martial poems, and has, therefore, been styled the Tyrtaeus of his age, we shall only now mention Gower and Chaucer.
John Gower was of an ancient and opulent family - we believe the Duke of Sutherland claims him as his ancestor - and he consequently received the best education that the age could procure. He was born in 1324, and entered the Inner Temple at a suitable age. He rose high in his profession, and indulged himself in his leisure hours in poetry. Gower wrote, besides smaller pieces, three considerable poems, one in Latin, one in French, and one in English, namely: - "Speculum Meditantis," "Vox Clamantis," and "Confessio Amantis." There is no question that they possess much poetical merit, and they were greatly admired in their own time and long afterwards, but at present they would find few who would enjoy them. The "Speculum Meditantis" is a moral poem, recommending fidelity and mutual affection to married people; and hence Chaucer styled him the "Moral Gower" - a name which has continued with him. He is, to our taste, more moral than poetical, Gower was originally disposed to call for reform in the Church, which he describes in dark colours; but the rebellion of Wat Tyler frightened him, and he became strongly opposed to Wycliffe and his doctrines. Yet he was a timid courtier. He dedicated his "Confessio Amantis" to Richard II., and afterwards to his dethroner, Henry of Lancaster.
"This boke upon amendement
There can be no doubt that the successful appearance of Chaucer in his native English induced Gower to do the same.
Chaucer was a far bolder, and far more original man. It is the most striking proof that English had now taken its firm hold at court itself when two such men as Gower and Chaucer cast the chance of their fame into that vehicle. Chaucer was brother-in-law to John of Gaunt, haying married Philippa, the sister of John of Gaunt's third wife, Catherine Swineford. Chaucer was educated at both Cambridge and Oxford. He was a page to Edward III., and went as ambassador to Genoa and Flanders. On the former occasion it is probable that he met with Petrarch, for he says in the prologue to the Clerk's Tale -
"I wal you tell a tale, which that I
Chaucer's great poem, the "Canterbury Tales," is a collection of poems which, for spirit, humour, knowledge of and enjoyment of life, have nothing like them, except Shakespeare. They are full of vigour, beauty, and the most subtle sense. They sparkle, burn, and laugh on every page. We have the most vivid picture of the times, and all the varied characters amongst whom he lived. We feel what a buoyant, genial soul he was, and yet we know that he did not escape without his troubles and his deep griefs. Warton, in his "History of English Poetry," says of him, "Chaucer surpasses his predecessors in an infinite proportion. His genius was universal, and adapted to themes of unbounded variety. His merit was not less in painting familiar manners with humour and propriety, than in moving the passions, and in representing the beautiful or the grand objects of Nature with grace and sublimity."
Truly is he called the father of our English poetry, and he had no real successor till the appearance of Spenser and Shakespeare.
In the last chapter on this subject we traced the progress of the Early English style from its rise and through the best period of its duration. It was there shown how, by the combining into one window two or more lancets, and the circle above them, tracery was formed. This at first was left solid and was not moulded, and the form of the tracery was simple - generally a circle, or circles, in the head or intersecting lines. The introduction of tracery gave great facilities for enlarging the width of the windows; and we accordingly find those of two or more lights gradually superseding the lancet.
After this change, it is difficult to distinguish the late examples of one style from the early ones of the other; indeed, tracery may be regarded as the commencement oi the transition. But in the beginning of the reign of Edward I. a more decided change took place - tracery proper became fully developed. But the architects had not yet ventured on the graceful flowing lines which mark the true Decorated style; they clung to their geometrical forms, and therefore we find, in windows of this time, circles, triangles, both plain and spherical squares, quatrefoils, trefoils, &c.; and, for this reason, this style of Edward I. has been called Geometrical, or Early Decorated, which well distinguishes it from the fully developed, or flowing Decorated. This is, perhaps, the best period of English architecture; for, though the geometrical forms give a certain stiffness to the tracery, it is more than compensated by the extreme beauty and finish of the workmanship. The imitation of natural foliage was perfect, and the drawing of the human figure more chaste and finished than at any other period. The style continued through the reign of Edward I., after which it gradually changed into that of the more perfect Decorated.
The Decorated style differs from the Early English in its windows, which, instead of being lancets, or having tracery of the simplest forms, had the head entirely filled with tracery, either of geometrical forms, or ramifying from the mullions in the most easy and graceful manner, and in every variety of design; and the same character will distinguish them from the next, or Perpendicular style, in which the mullions are carried through in perpendicular lines to the head of the window.
In the Decorated style, Gothic architecture seems to have attained its greatest excellency; this was its culminating point. Up to this period it had gone on improving from change to change; its principles had been fully carried out, and the fancy seems to have run wild in imagining new forms of beauty. The more we contemplate the buildings of this period the more we are struck with admiration at the wonderful powers of invention possessed by the architects and workmen of the time. Wherever ornament was wanted, there it was ready, and always beautiful and appropriate. They possessed a keen perception of the beauties of Nature, and hands capable of giving form to those perceptions. But when so much perfection had been attained, it is not unnatural, however it may be regretted, that the next change should be in a downward direction. This was the case here; and the introduction of the straight line led to the entire destruction of all that grace and freedom so much admired in Decorated Gothic architecture.
Many of our finest ecclesiastical buildings are in this style. The beautiful crosses of Northampton, Waltham, and Geddington, erected by Edward I. to the memory of his Queen Eleanor, are of the early or Geometrical period, and afford many valuable details.
Exeter Cathedral, the nave of York, the chapel of Merton College, Oxford, and the Chapter House, Wells, offer excellent examples of the Geometrical period.
The west front of York is the finest specimen of a Decorated front we possess, and the details are of the most exquisite description, both in design and execution.
The Chapter House, York, is of Early Decorated character. It is octagonal and groined, and is said by Rickman to be "by far the finest polygonal room without a central pillar in the kingdom, and the delicacy and variety of its ornaments are nearly unequalled." That it must, even at the time of its erection, have been considered " unequalled" is shown by the inscription at the entrance -
"UT ROSA FLOS FLORUM,
The Chapter House, Wells, is another extremely beautiful building of the same period; but this is supported by a central pillar.
Many fine churches of this style are to be found in various parts of the kingdom, of which one of tho finest is Howden, Yorkshire; but many of them, though belonging to this period, are very plain in their details.
The monuments of this century are, both in composition and execution, the finest which exist. We have many fine bold compositions in Early English, and many very elaborate ones in the Perpendicular style, but none of them equal the Decorated in chasteness of design and delicacy of execution. The monument of Aymer de Valence in Westminster Abbey is a fine specimen of Early Decorated; the Percy shrine at Beverley Minster is another splendid example; and the effigy of Queen Eleanor in Westminster Abbey is one of the most elegant figures in this or any other country.
towers. - Many church towers in this style are finished with spires, which are frequently crocketed and have spire lights, and sometimes they are banded with quatrefoils.
Windows. - These are the most important features of the Decorated style, and will require the greatest attention. In its early period, or what is called Geometrical, the lancet window is still sometimes used; but it is foliated and not plain, as in Early English. The heads of two-lights windows are divided by arches springing from the mullions. The spaces are filled with triangles, trefoils, quatrefoils, circles, &c., all the forms being such as could easily be drawn with the compasses; but the ogee, or flowing curve, is never used. In larger windows the same filling up of the head with geometrical forms is used, and plain intersecting tracery is not uncommon. These forms are combined in many different manners, and great variety is produced. The window given from Meopham is an example of early tracery.
By an easy and natural process this stiff tracery gave way to the flowing line which succeeded it. One of the earliest modifications was to fill the head of the window with flowing quatrefoils. This was much used in the time of Edward II. The use of the flowing line gave such great facilities for design, that the varieties of tracery are almost innumerable; so much so, that they are difficult to describe, or even to classify, and in our small space it is impossible. They, however, all agree in one principle - that is, the mullions branching into tracery, and not being carried through to the head of the window, as in the next style. The one given from St. Mary's, Beverley, is a good example for showing the manner in which the lines of the mullions were earned up. There are many windows in this style which have ogee heads and canopies.
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