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The legacy which Chaucer left to our literature was to fructify in the hands of a long succession of heirs; and it may be said, with little fear of contradiction, that at no time has his fame been fresher and his influence upon our poets—and upon our painters as well as our poets-more perceptible than at the present day. When Gower first put forth his Confessio Amantis, we may assume that Chaucer's poetical labours, of the fame of which his brother-poet declared the land to be full, had not yet been crowned by his last and greatest work. As a poet, therefore, Gower in one sense owes less to Chaucer than did many of their successors; though, on the other hand it may be said with truth that to Chaucer is due the fact, that Gower (whose earlier productions were in French and in Latin) ever became a poet at all. The Confessio Amantis is no book for all times like the Canterbury Tales ; but the conjoined names of Chaucer and Gower added strength to one another in the eyes of the generations ensuing, little anxious as these generations were to distinguish which of the pair was really the first to "garnish our English rude” with the flowers of a new poetic diction and art of verse.
The Lancaster period of our history had its days of national glory as well as of national humiliation, and indisputably, as a whole, advanced the growth of the nation towards political manhood. But it brought with it no golden summer to fulfil the promises of the springtide of our modern poetical literature. The two poets whose names stand forth from the barren after-season of the earlier half of the fifteenth century, were, both of them, according to their own profession, disciples of Chaucer. In truth, however, Occleve, the only nameworthy poetical writer of the reign of Henry IV., seems to have been less akin as an author to Chaucer than to Gower, while his principal poem manifestly was, in an even greater degree than the Confessio Amantis, a severely learned or, as its author terms it, unbuxom book. Lydgate, on the other hand, the famous monk of Bury, has in him something of the spirit as well as of the manner of Chaucer, under whose advice he is said to have composed one of his principal poems. Though a monk, he was no stay-at-home or do-nothing; like him of the Canterbury Tales, we may suppose Lydgate to have scorned the maxim that a monk out of his cloister is like a fish out of water; and doubtless many days which he could spare from the instruction of youth at St. Edmund's Bury were spent about the London streets, of the sights and sounds of which he has left us so vivacious a record-a kind of farcical supplement to the Prologue of the Canterbury Tales. His literary career, part of which certainly belongs to the reign of Henry V., has some resemblance to Chaucer's, though it is less regular and less consistent with itself; and several of his poems bear more or less distinct traces of Chaucer's influence. The Troy-book is not founded on Troilus and Cressid, though it is derived from the sources which had fed the original of Chaucer's poem; but the Temple of Glass seems to have been an imitation of the House of Fame, and the Story of Thebes is actually introduced by its author as an additional Canterbury Tale, and challenges comparison with the rest of the series into which it asks admittance. Both Occleve and Lydgate enjoyed the patronage of a prince of genius descended from the House, with whose founder Chaucer was so closely connected Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. Meanwhile, the sovereign of a neighbouring kingdom was in all probability himself the agent who established the influence of Chaucer as predominant in the literature of his native land. The long though honourable captivity in England of King James I. of Scotland the best poet among kings and the best king among poets, as he has been antithetically called—was consoled by the study of the "hymns” of his " dear masters, Chaucer and Gower," for the happiness of whose souls he prays at the close of his poem, The King's Quair. That most charming of love-allegories, in which the Scottish king sings the story of his captivity and of his deliverance by the sweet messenger of love, not only closely imitates Chaucer in detail, more especially at its opening, but is pervaded by his spirit. Many subsequent Scottish poets imitated Chaucer, and some of them loyally acknowledged their debts to him. Gawin Douglas in his Palace of Honour, and Henryson in his Testament of Cressid and else where, are followers of the southern master. The wise and brave Sir David Lyndsay was familiar with his writings; and he was not only occasionally imitated, but praised with enthusiastic eloquence by William Dunbar, that "darling of the Scottish Muses,” whose poetical merits Sir Walter Scott, from some points of view, can hardly be said to have exaggerated, when declaring him to have been "justly raised to a level with Chaucer by every judge of poetry, to whom his obsolete language has not rendered him unintelligible.” Dunbar knew that this Scottish language was but a form of that which, as he declared, Chaucer had made to “surmount every terrestrial tongue, as far as midnight is surmounted by a May morning.”
Meanwhile, in England, the influence of Chaucer continued to live even during the dreary interval which separates from one another two important epochs of our literary history. Now, as in the days of the Norman kings, ballads orally transmittted were the people's poetry; and one of these popular ballads carried the story of Patient Grissel into regions where Chaucer's name was probably unknown. When, after the close of the troubled season of the Roses, our poetic literature showed the first signs of a revival, they consisted in a return to the old masters of the fourteenth century. The poetry of Hawes, the learned author of the crabbed Pastime of Pleasure, exhibits an undeniable continuity with that of Chaucer, Gower, and Lydgate, to which triad he devotes a chapter of panegyric. Hawes, however, presses into the service of his allegory not only all the Virtues and all the Vices, whom from habit we can tolerate in such productions, but also Astronomy, Geometry, Arithmetic, and the rest of the seven Daughters of Doctrine, whom we cannot ; and is altogether inferior to the least of his models. It is at the same time to his credit that he seems painfully aware of his inability to cope with either Chaucer or Lydgate as to vigour of invention. There is, in truth, more of the dramatic spirit of Chaucer in Barklay's Ship of Fools, which, though essentially a translation, achieved in Eng. land the popularity of an original work. For this poem, like the Canterbury Tales, introduces into its admirable
framework a variety of lifelike sketches of character and manners; it has in it that dramatic element which is so Chaucerian a characteristic. But the aim of its author was didactic, which Chaucer's had never been.
When with the poems of Surrey and Wyatt, and with the first attempts in the direction of the regular drama, the opening of the second great age in our literature approached, and when, about half a century afterwards, that age actually opened with an unequalled burst of varied productivity, it would seem as if Chaucer's influence might naturally enough have passed away, or at least become obscured. Such was not, however, the case, and Chaucer survived into the age of the English Renascence as an established English classic, in which capacity Caxton had honoured him by twice issuing an edition of his works from the Westminster printing-press.
Henry VIII's favourite, the reckless but pithy satirist, Skelton, was alive to the merits of his great predecessor, and Skelton's patron, William Thynne, a royal official, busied himself with editing Chaucer's works. The loyal servant of Queen Mary, the wise and witty John Heywood, from whose Interludes the step is so short to the first regular English comedy, in one of these pieces freely plagiarised a passage in the Canterbury Tales. Tottel, the printer of the favourite poetic Miscellany published shortly before Queen Elizabeth's accession, included in his collection the beautiful lines, cited above, called Good Counsel of Chaucer. And when, at last, the Elizabethan era properly so-called began, the proof was speedily given that geniuses worthy of holding fellowship with Chaucer had assimilated into their own literary growth what was congruous to it in his, just as he had assimilated to himselfnot always improving, but hardly ever merely borrowing