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CHAUCER TO SHAKESPEARE.
English humour before the Conquest-After the ConquestThe Land of Cockaygne'-William Langland-Langland compared with Chaucer-Their difference of purpose Of style Of character-The Canterbury Tales' -Chaucer To his Empty Purse'-Lydgate-' London Lickpenny'-Skelton-His attack on Wolsey-Sir Thomas More-The first English epigram-A Merry Jest'-Sir Thomas Wyatt-His satires-Henry, Earl of Surrey-Andrew Borde-Nicholas Udall-'I mun be married a Sunday'-John Heywood-His epigrams— George Gascoigne The Steel Glass'-Thomas Tusser -Thrift and Unthrift'-Jolly Good Ale and OldDunbar-Tidings fra the Session'-Alexander Barclay -The Ship of Fools'-Sir David Lyndsay-'The Three Estates'-'Side Tails'-Sir Richard Maitland'Town Ladies.'
CHAUCER TO SHAKESPEARE.
WE begin with Chaucer, not because there was no humour in English verse before his time, but because it is in the pages of our first great poet that English humour first becomes intelligible, without the aid of elaborate glossaries and notes.
It may be taken for granted that the vigorous, coarse humour of our countrymen early began to make itself noticeable in their popular satires. We know that this was so after the Conquest, and we may be sure it was so in the days previous to that event. At least, we may well conceive that those favourite subjects of ridicule the clergy and things clerical-did not escape observation in the days of Dunstan any more than they escaped it in the days of Wolsey.
It is certainly suggestive of the general tone and character of English popular satire that the earliest extant specimen of English humour should be in the form of a diatribe, not, indeed, against the clergy, but against the Consistory Courts, which at one time pressed heavily upon the peasantry. It shows that if it be true that the poets as a body learn in suffering what they teach in song,' the saying is specially true of the genuine poets of the people, who were first roused to utterance in rhyme and rhythm by their sense of the wrongs that weighed upon the lower classes.
It is curious, also, that the second extant specimen of English humour should be in the form of a satirical ballad on the battle of Lewes, written in the interests of De Montfort, and making merry over the King of the Romans, who is represented as mistaking the windmill to which he retreated for a fortification, and the sails of it for military
engines. Here, again, the wit and humour are on the side of the liberties of the people.
The earliest extant satire on the monks seems to date from the last years of the thirteenth century. It is in description of a certain land called Cockaygne,' which is pictured as a place of indolence and luxury. The clergy there are said to live in a monastery constructed of all sorts of luscious viands. The writer tells us that
There is a well fair abbey
Rich meat to princes and to kings.
The riches of the monks are allegorised in the surroundings of the abbey, as in wells from which there flow all kinds of precious gems. The satire is never very pungent, but it is interesting as the beginnings of a literature in which the vices of the clergy and of clericalism in the Middle Ages were more scathingly stated and attacked.
The first important item of that literature is the Vision of William concerning Piers the Plowman, written, it would seem, by one William Langland, between the years 1362 and 1390. That is to say, there are in existence three texts of the poem, which would appear to have been composed respectively in or about 1362, 1377, and 1380-90. So far, Langland may be regarded as the predecessor of Chaucer, whose Canterbury Tales were not written till about 1387; but, otherwise, it should be noted that the poets were contemporaries, Chaucer being born in 1328, and Langland about 1332; Chaucer dying in 1400, and Langland a little while before or after.
There is but little in common between the two. Langland's great poem is didactic from beginning to end; it has
an earnest purpose, and is forcible in its tone. It is not revolutionary in the sense of being a direct onslaught upon authority. On the contrary, the writer was evidently a devout adherent of the Church and loyal vassal of the King; he belongs to the school of moderate reform, and of reform, if possible, from within. He reveres the clergy as a body, but he laments the scandals that have gathered round that body; he inveighs against the hardships of the law, but he is careful not to agitate for its overthrowal. He beseeches and implores, is sarcastic and ironical, but his prayers and sarcasms are alike those of a man who wishes to modify, not to uproot. When he desires to satirise the tendency of the bishops of his time to be great lords, temporal as well as spiritual, he does it in this way:
And now is religion a rider, a roamer by streets,
A pricker on palfrey from manor to manor,
A heap of hounds at his heels as he a lord were;
The above passage happens to be one which can be easily understood in the original. As a rule, however, Langland's English is much more difficult of comprehension than that of Chaucer. It is not that the former writer does not use the same vocabulary as the latter; he does, but he was a Midland county man, and his provincial origin breaks out occasionally in provincial words and turns of style. Chaucer, on the other hand, was emphatically a poet of the court, and wrote that the cultivated class might read. He wrote, too, in a very different strain from Langland. It is easy to see that life for Langland was very different from what it was for Chaucer. The one was poor and obscure; the other, if not rich, had at least wealthy patrons, and moved in the same atmosphere as the great. More than this, the poets were essentially distinct in character: Chaucer was at heart, no doubt, as sincere a reformer as his contemporary, but he looked on human nature with a