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more tolerant and kindly eye. Langland is a satirist rather than a humorist; Chaucer a humorist rather than a satirist. His humour is satirical, but it is genial. You can see that in his descriptions of the Canterbury Pilgrims. They are all touched to the life, but it is with the hand of sympathy, not of reproach. The poet laughs as he puts his fingers on the various weak places of his fellow-creatures. He extenuates nothing, but he puts nothing down in malice, or, if in malice, it is still with a twinkle of the eye. The fun he pokes at the young Squire, for example, is essentially good-tempered: there is no indignation in his reference to the
Lockës crull as they were laid in press;
nor in the lines where he describes him as
Embroidered, as it were a mead
All full of freshë flowers, white and rede.
The Prioress is treated with the same careful tenderness :
And French she spake full fair and fetisly,
For French of Paris was to her unknowe.
If it were necessary to characterise Chaucer's humour in one word, it might be described as sly. Slyness is essentially the air with which, when describing the Sergeant of the Law,' Chaucer says:
No where so busy a man as he there n'as,
In reading the Canterbury Tales you call up the picture of a shrewd but hearty man, who sees clearly through the foibles of his fellows, but has not the energy or the desire to chastise them. He would wish them otherwise, but in the mean time he contents himself with laughing at them.
Unfortunately, it would be impossible thoroughly to illustrate the humour of the Tales without quoting one of them in extenso, for it is only by taking them as wholes
that you can gain a fair notion of their interest and value. Like all humorists, Chaucer required room to work in, and no mere extract can give an adequate conception of his
Perhaps the best specimen that can be given in this place is his address 'To his Empty Purse :'
To you, my purse, and to none other wight
I am sorry now that you be light,
For certes you now make me heavy cheer.
For which unto your mercy thus I cry:
Now vouchsafe this day, or it be night,
That I of you the blissful sound may hear,
Now, purse, that art to me as my life's light
But I pray unto your courtesie,
Be heavy again, or else must I die.
This has been happily modernised by several writers, but only requires a very slight literal (not even verbal) alteration to be quite intelligible as the poet wrote it.
Lydgate's contributions to the sum of English wit and humour were not numerous, nor were they very remarkable.* His chief poem was intended for an additional
John Lydgate was born in 1375, and died in 1460. His Falls of Princes was printed in 1494, his History of Troy in 1513, and his. Story of Thebes in 1561.
Canterbury Tale,' but has no claim to rank so high. Lydgate is, indeed, best in his least ambitious productions, among the most successful of which is the poem called London Lickpenny.' This recounts the adventures in London of a man whose purse, like Chaucer's, was an empty one, and is a series of satirical comments on the inconvenience of being poor. The meaning of the title is disputed, some thinking that it ought to be read London Lackpenny,' and that it is the hero of the poem to whom the latter word applies—that it is he who, being poor, lacks pence. A better explanation, surely, is that which preserves the title 'London Lickpenny,' and applies the latter word to the metropolis, which, in its greed, licks up the pence of rich and poor alike. Here, at any rate, are a few of Lydgate's verses :
To London once my steps I bent,
Where truth in no wise should be faint;
I said, 'For Mary's love, that holy saint!
But for lack of money I could not speed [thrive].
And as I thrust the press among,
By froward chance my hood was gone,
Yet for all that I stayed not long,
Till to the King's Bench I was come.
And prayed him for God's sake to take heed,
Which fast did write with one assent;
There stood up one and cried about,
Richard, Robert, and John of Kent."
I wist not well what this man meant,
He cried so thickè there indeed;
I did him reverence, for I ought to do so,
How my goods were defrauded me by falsehood.
I got not a mum of his mouth for my meed,
Unto the Rolls I gat me from thence,
Before the clerks of the Chancery, Where many I found earning of pence, But none at all once regarded me.
I gave them my plaint upon my knee;
Then to Westminster-gate I presently went,
And proferred me bread, with ale and wine,
A fair cloth they gan for to sprede;
Then into Cornhill anon I yode,
Where was much stolen gear among;
I knew it well as I did my creed,
The taverner took me by the sleeve,
'Sir,' saith he, will you our wine assay?' I answered, That can not much me grieve:
A penny can do no more than may;'
I drank a pint and for it did pay; Yet sore a-hungered from thence I yede, And, wanting money, I could not speed.
Then I conveyed me into Kent,
For of the law would I meddle no more; Because no man to me took intent,
I dight [prepared] me to do as I did before.
Save London, and send true lawyers their meed !
Lydgate lived in the generation after Chaucer; Skelton in the generation after Lydgate. Skelton was a cleric by profession, and might perhaps have risen in the Church but for the virulence as well as volubility of his satires, some of which he dared to point against no less puissant a personage than Cardinal Wolsey. He was a very voluminous writer, and is remarkable for the ease of his rhymes, and the rapid uninterrupted flow of his vigorous, if not elegant, verse. His most effective poem is perhaps Why come ye not to Court? from which the following lines on Wolsey are extracted:
Once yet again
Of you I would frayne [ask]
Why come ye not to court?
To which court?
To the king's court,
Or to Hampton Court?
The king's court
Should have the excellence,
But Hampton Court
Hath the preeminence,
And York's Place,‡
Or for the law common,
Or for law civil!
* Died in 1529; author of Magnificence, The Bouge of Court, Philip
Sparrow, Speak Parrot, &c.
† Wolsey's residence.
Another of Wolsey's residences.