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The other writings of Wycliffe differ much in style from his translation. In those his object was to impress his own ideas on the popular mind, and he expressed himself rather more carelessly and coarsely than in a work where the language could not be too carefully considered.
The greatest writer who adorned the field of English literature before the time of Shakespeare was Chaucer,-that "well of English undefiled," as Spenser styles him, and as he undoubtedly was. Nearly all the writers that we have previously mentioned were monks. Chaucer was a liberally educated gentleman, and not only that, but a diplomatist skilled in the world at large, and acquainted with the various phases of human nature. He had studied in the University, roamed the town, had married into the royal family, and been a courtier and embassador, had been a Wycliffite and an exile, and had finally returned to a country home, where he sat under his oak and wrote his immortal Canterbury Tales.
Two languages had existed in England up to this time, each corrupted by the influence of the other, yet each distinct. The French was the language of the nobility and of the Court. The laws were made in French; they were expounded in French; and the whole instruction in the schools was in French. The lower classes, composing the great body of the people, spoke something which we must regard as English, though very different from that which we use. It was in fact Anglo-Saxon greatly modified and changed, both in grammar and vocabulary, by the French. About the end of the reign of Edward III., owing in great measure to the disasters of the French wars, the two languages began to coalesce. French was dropped, as the English, having given up the hope of conquest, no longer liked to speak the tongue of their enemies, and the new English took its place. This was just the time when a great writer could produce the greatest effect on the nation's speech; and here we find Chaucer. He was situated advantageously, for, as Mr. Marsh well remarks, he "had two vocabularies to choose from," since to the educated classes, for whom he wrote, French was as familiar as English.
Chaucer was a great master of language. What he took up
as a confused, disorderly mixture of two tongues, he left a perfect, complete, and polished speech. It is hardly too much to say that the English language owes more to him than to all her other writers.
The English was especially wanting in words of refinement, and those expressing the more delicate emotions and feelings, as well as words pertaining to religion, for the Saxon religious vocabulary became extinct on the advent of the Norman priests. Such words of course must be taken from the French. The English, too, from the nature of its accent, thrown back upon the word, and from the loss of its termination, was unsuitable for rhyming. This was the most obvious want to one endeavoring to translate, and to adhere to the romance forms of metre. In this way poets also transferred words from the French, using in many cases the same rhymes as in the original. Although Chaucer was forced to this by the necessities of the verse, he yet culled with sparing hand. This Mr. Marsh shows us by figures. In the first part of the Roman de la Rose there are about 2,200 pairs of rhymes. Of these about 120, or less than six per cent., are directly transferred. Yet these words were by no means all new. Most of them had been used before, and the proportion of new words used in this way is less than one per cent.
“The soundness of Chaucer's judgment, the nicety of his philological appreciation, and the delicacy of his sense of adaptation to the actual wants of the English people, are sufficiently proved by the fact that, of the Romance words found in his writings, not much above one hundred have been suffered to become obsolete, while a much larger number of Anglo-Saxon words employed by him have passed altogether out of use.
"It is an error to suppose that those writers who do most for the improvement of their own language, effect this by coining and importing new words, or by introducing new syntactical forms. The great improvers of language in all literatures have been eclectic. They do not invent new inflections, forge new terms, or establish new syntactical relations; but from existing words, discordant accidences, conflicting modes of grammatical aggregation, they cull the vocabulary, the mode of conjugation and declension, and the general syntax, best calculated to harmonize the diversities of dialects, and to give a unity and consistence to the general speech."
There has been quite a controversy regarding the versification of Chaucer, one party claiming that it was regular and
syllabic, as English poetry has been ever since, while others hold that it was merely accentual, or a "verse of cadence," as they have styled it. What rendered the question difficult was that there was a point of pronunciation involved. This was the sounding of the final e in words where it is now mute. It seems now to be well established, not only by the testimony extracted from contemporaries, but even from some of the rhymes of Chaucer himself, that the e final was in reality often pronounced. That being granted, the verses of Chaucer, with some exceptions, where allowance is to be made for the mistakes of copyists, run along with as much fluency as any modern poetry.
With respect to Chaucer's literary merits enough cannot be said, and we merely quote a sentence or two from Prof. Craik's valuable "History of the English Language and Literature."
"The poetry of Chaucer is really, in all essential respects, about the freshest and greenest in our language. We have some higher poetry than Chaucer'spoetry that has more the character of a revelation, or a voice from another world: we have none in which there is either a more abounding or a more bounding spirit of life, a truer or fuller natural inspiration. He may be said to verify, in another sense, the remark of Bacon, that what we commonly call antiquity was really the youth of the world: his poetry seems to breathe of a time when humanity was younger and more joyous-hearted than it now is. . . . . From mere narrative and playful humor up to the heights of imaginative and impassioned song, his genius has exercised itself in all styles of poetry, and won imperishable laurels in all.”
We can only allude here to "Moral" John Gower, a poet of some fame, with but little reason for it, and whose works are of slight interest either from their literary or philological merits.
In the next century the works of Bishop Pecock claim our attention, and the pure Saxon style of Sir Thomas Malorye's "Morte d' Arthur." Bishop Pecock's writings are admirable specimens of close reasoning, and of both a lively and a stately style. They are remarkable, too, for their sentiments, which are far in advance of their age; and though aimed at the heresy of the Lollards, they produced the writer's own disgrace and persecution. The "Morte d' Arthur" is a book that is still read and admired. It is the best and most fascinating of our early romances. It is almost impossible to open it without finishing 13
it. Especially since the appearance of "The Idyls of the King" is it interesting to read this old and beautiful version of those legends.
In closing this slight sketch of the book before us we have to heartily thank Mr. Marsh for the treat which he has given us, although at the same time we cannot help wishing for more. We are confident that it will do much to keep alive the recently awakened spirit of study and research into the mines of English,-so many of them unworked and unexplored. We hope that it will arouse some of our colleges to a sense of the duty which they owe to the language of their country, and induce them to admit its study as a part of their curriculum. We are sensible that all things cannot be studied in the short duration of a college course; but a familiarity with one's own tongue, or at least an initiation into the proper method of its study, is of more importance than many other branches which are there only superficially treated. The difficulties are slight, and much progress can be made in a short time. At all events, let every person be persuaded to study it for himself, for nothing will so richly repay him.
ARTICLE III.-REPLY TO PROFESSOR PARKER.
Boston Post, Nov. 29, Dec. 8, 12, 20, 27, 1862-Jan. 3, and Feb. 18, 1863. [Letters to the Rev. LEONARD BACON, D. D., New Haven, Conn.]
TO THE HON. JOEL PARKER, LL. D.,
Royal Professor of Law in Harvard College, Cambridge, Mass.
SIR,-If the seven letters which you have addressed to me in the columns of a Boston newspaper, had been digested into a pamphlet addressed directly to the public, I might have criticized it in the humble capacity of a reviewer without regarding the debate as in any sense a personal one between you and me; or I might have been silent without seeming to confess that your strictures on a newspaper article from my pen are unanswerable, or to deem them unworthy of notice. But your letters, as they lie before me, are in the nature of a challenge to a personal debate. Either I must reply to them in my own name, or I must be entirely 'silent; and if I am silent after such a challenge, that will of course be construed as meaning either that I have no respectful opinion of your letters, or that I dare not attempt a reply. The conductors of the New Englander have therefore conceded to me the privilege of answering your letters by a review in the form of a letter to their author.
When I speak of a personal debate, I do not use that word. "personal" as implying any departure from the rules of controversial courtesy. I do not complain of your letters in that respect; nor do I intend that you shall have any reason to complain of my answer. Yet I may be allowed to say, at the outset, that you are, and I am not, a professional lawyer; that having held a high judicial office, and being now a Professor in the Law School of Harvard College, you have attained an enviable eminence in your profession; and that therefore your opinions on the main question which you have chal