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variety of apposite stories, extracted from classics and chronicles *.”
In this elaborate compilation, which consists of monkish legends, gothic romances, and oriental tales, Gower seems to have crowded all the literature of his times; besides an abundant stock of eastern fiction, it copiously discusses the Arabian chemistry, astronomy, philosophy, and magic; and had it been less operose, and richer in its display of characters and manners, might have long retained its popularity.
Very shortly after the appearance of the Confessio Amantis, probably in the year 1390, Chaucer produced his Canterbury Tales, the noblest of his compositions, and one whose existence will probably be coequal with the language in which it is written.
Nothing will more adequately shew the superior genius of Chaucer than the plan that he has adopted in this admirable work. A number of pilgrims arrive at the Tabarde Inn, in Southwark, on their way to the shrine of Thomas à Beckett at Canterbury. They meet together at supper, in a large room set apart for travellers; and being greatly pleased with each other, agree, at the suggestion of their host, not only to pursue their journey together the next morning, but,
* History of English Poetry, vol, ii,
in order to render the road more interesting, that each individual should tell a story on his passage to, and another on his return from, the tomb of the Saint.
The result of this well-imagined meeting has been singularly happy. In the connecting incidents of Boccacio and Gower, there is little or no room for the display of character; here all is life, animation, and variety. The thirty pilgrims of Chaucer are drawn from every class of mankind, and are, consequently, in their rank, appearance, manners, and habits, very widely opposed. But what renders our admiration of the poet, however great, truly justifiable, is the astonishing skill with which he has undeviatingly supported his characters, and the exquisite address that he has shewn in adapting his stories to the different humours, sentiments, and talents of the reciters; so that the very soul of each personage is, as it were, developed through the medium of the circumstances which he records.
Dropping, however, any further consideration of the plan of this mighty undertaking, let us observe, that in conducting it Chaucer has exhibited a very intimate acquaintance with Arabian literature and fable. The sQUIER'S TALE, a narrative so singularly wild and interesting, that Milton has chosen to characterize its author by
an allusion to it, exclaiming, as impatient of its unfinished state,
call up him that left half told The story of Cambuscan bold,
is entirely built on Arabian fiction, and discovers an accurate knowledge likewise of Arabian learning and science. Cambuscan, king of Tartary, whilst celebrating with great splendour his birth-day in the palace of Sarra, is suddenly interrupted by a very marvellous incident; the minstrels cease to play, and the guests, awe-struck and alarmed, gaze with silent astonishment on the strange spectacle before them.
While that the king sate thus in his noblay,
* A similar story is told, says Warton, of a Count de Macon, who, while revelling in his hall with many knights, is suddenly alarmed by the entrance of a gigantic figure of a black man, mounted on a black steed. This terrible stranger, without receiving any obstruction from guards or gates, rides directly forward to the high table, and with an imperious tone orders the count to follow him,
The stede of brass, the mirrour, the ring and the sword, were presents to Cambuscan and his children from the king of Araby and Inde, and were possessed of all the properties which magic, chemistry, optics, and astrology, could confer upon them. The stede, the wondrous work of necromantic art, for
He that it wrought couth many a gin,
Ere he had don this operation, transported his rider in twenty-four hours, upon touching certain springs,, to the most distant parts of the globe. At the command of his master he flew with the swiftness of an eagle, or instantly stood still, firm as the adamantine rock; vanished in a moment at his bidding, or as suddenly reappeared. The mirrour had the property of faithfully reflecting all the future misfortunes which might possibly occur to Cambuscan or his kingdom; and no treason or conspiracy, however secret and subtile, could be agitated, but what was immediately exhibited to the king through the medium of this invaluable glass. The ring, which was presented to Canace, the fair daughter of Cambuscan, enabled her, whilst she retained it in her purse or wore it on her thumb, to comprehend the language of every bird and the virtues of every plant; whilst the naked
sword was so tempered, that no armour, whatever might be its strength and thickness, could resist its stroke, and no wound inflicted by it could be healed, unless it were permitted to touch the injured part with the edge of the same weapon.
These wonderful gifts, and the purposes which they are intended to accomplish, are altogether of oriental invention, and are of frequent recurrence in the Arabian and Persian romances and tales. Nor did Chaucer, who excels in the higher and romantic strain of poetry, as much as in the comic department of the Muse, confine himself to the Squier's Tale, in adopting the machinery and fables of the East; various other parts of his Canterbury Tales, especially the FRANKELEIN's tale, and several of his earlier productions, exhibit much of this wild but splendid imagery.
Though our venerable bard was confessedly the poet of Nature in a much higher degree than the authors of the Fabliaux, or than the chivalrie poets of Italy, who figured during the two succeeding centuries, he was yet partial to the gorgeous wonders and mysterious science of the orientals; and his story of Cambuscan, as the offspring of acknowledged genius, must have rendered them still more popular and attractive.
It is, however, to the Italian poets of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries that we owe the