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These facts would seem to prove that the taste for medieval literature has extended widely and penetrated deeply. But we doubt this apparently reasonable conclusion. In addition to professed antiquarians, there has always been a small public in this country-chiefly found among the leisurely and professional classes—with a strong turn for inquiring into the arts and manners, and realising the life, of the past. That this class has largely increased of late, and that it pursues its studies on a better system, and may turn them to a better account than formerly, we believe to be true. Except in the cheap reprints of old authors, this would of itself account for the publication of a class of books, the extent of whose impression is always limited. But the number of persons who buy books without any intention of reading them is much greater now than formerly. The practice of making books a species of furniture has descended from magnates to millionaires. The mansions of great manufacturers in the northern counties, or of lucky speculators at the West End of London, are now furnished with splendid libraries, many books in which the owners could not read, and many whose subjects they could not enter into, however disposed they might be. The books are like the pictures, statues, and articles of vertu, which are found in their company, and stand in the owner's real estimation no higher than the furniture, if so high. Like Pope's pretender to taste,
“Not for himself he sees, or hears, or eats ;
Artists must choose his pictures, music, meats.
And books for Mead, and butterflies for Sloane." Undoubtedly these remarks do not apply to many purchasers, especially of the cheaper editions; and there are probably conscientious students of the Father of English poetry among those who cannot afford to buy any book which they do not intend to read. But we suspect that many purchase the Canterbury Tales without exactly knowing the impediments they will meet with, and that the real readers, or more properly students, of that great storehouse of medieval characters, manners, and opinions, are few.
Persons who agree with this opinion will ascribe the cause to Chaucer's language, for this is "every one's thought." Upwards of a century and a half ago Dryden reproduced several of Chaucer's tales, giving as a reason that his " language is so obsolete, that his sense is scarcely to be understood.” Not many years after, Pope, in like manner, modernised two of the tales, and made the House of Fame a basis for his own Temple. The
reason he assigned was similar to Dryden's Pope, indeed, in the Essay on Criticism, appears to consider the existence of modern authors threatened, through the alleged instability of modern languages :
“No longer now that golden age appears,
And such as Chaucer is, shall Dryden be.” This we all see is hyperbole; yet some such notion is vaguely held to the present day. But the difficulty of the mere language is exaggerated. There are doubtless many obsolete words that must be “ looked out,” while many are used in a different sense to that which now obtains, and the true sense must be inferred. Such words, however, are seldom met with in clusters, so as to obscure the broad meaning of a passage, and would little impede a reader's first perusal were not other causes at work. The difficulty of the medieval writers is as much with their diction as their language, if by language we mean words, and by diction the order or mode of their combination. Many of the Anglo-Saxon inflexions were discontinued in the fourteenth century, and those which were retained seldom offer any difficulty as to meaning ; but the ellipsis and inversion which inflected languages admit were still in use. Hence sentences, whose words are plain English, require attention to apprehend, on account of the collocation of words, or their omission, when modern practice requires their insertion. Then there are forms of speech or peculiarities of style which are rather strange than obscure. The style moreover, like the age itself, was primitive, almost childlike. In short, a “general reader,” when first introduced to a medieval writer, is much in the condition of a pure cockney forced into conversation with a pure countryman. If the words were presented singly, he would understand most of them; but the arrangement, the subject-matter, the mode of thought and of speech, are so alien to the Londoner's previous experience, that he cannot “ make the fellow out,” except by what may be called a critical attention, which he has not been trained to give.
The obstacles connected with language must of course be conquered by the student himself. Almost as great an impediment is created by the spelling as by the language, and perhaps gratuitously. No doubt an archaic character is given to the poet's page by the old orthography; and reasons may be alleged for retaining the spelling of the manuscripts. An obsolete word may as well be spelled one way as another; to change the
Every cor giving th audience,uld make cocina pould be a pould recognizeaning in rely changi
Anglo-Saxon forms might affect the grammar as well as the de. licacy of the writer's meaning; to leave old words and old grammatical forms, and modernise the rest, might appear incongruous. All this may be true; but it does not alter the fact that the spelling is nearly as great an obstacle as the language. Moreover, it may be observed that no settled rules of orthography are observed by the writers or the copyists, differences being found even in juxtaposition. In the Creed of Piers Ploughman, the word “ little” stands in one line as we now spell it, in the next it is "lytel.” Chaucer in one place spells mine host of the Tabard" oste;" a few lines further on he uses the modern orthography "host;" it is also found as “ hoste," at other times as “ ost." The orthographical variations running through the entire works of a writer are still more numerous. Chaucer spells the word “much” in seven different ways, says Mr. Bell; while “the past tense of the verb 'to see' is rendered into at least ten different forms." So much, indeed, is the trouble of perusal enhanced to a beginner by the accident of spelling, that we believe a skilful reader could make Chaucer perfectly intelligible to a mixed audience, by merely changing the obsolete words (or giving their meaning in a sort of vocal parenthesis). Every one would recognise the words when heard, though they would be a puzzle if seen. Neither would such a reader have to pronounce so many halting lines as is commonly asserted, if, instead of trying to count syllables on his fingers, he accommodated his voice to the poet's language, moving as it ever does with his conceptions. This last opinion can of course only be tested by the living voice. A short example will indicate the obstacles which spelling interposes. The lines are from the Vision of Piers Ploughman :
“Impe on an ellere,
And if thyn appul be swete,
Selde sestow oother.” In all this only one word is obsolete (" ellere"), though “impe" is obsolete in the sense of “ to graft.” Modernise the spelling, and the meaning is clear of the rest, though the use of “but it* may be odd:
“Impe (graft) on an ellere (elder-tree),
And if thine apple be sweet,
And have a savour after the sire;
11. 5471-5478. In fact the spelling produces the same effect as a bad handwriting; we do not read it, we have to decipher it.
But steady application will soon conquer difficulties arising from mere language, though only practice will give the familiarity with old modes of thought and diction which is requisite to produce facility of perusal and thoroughness of apprehension. The real obstacles to the popularity of even the greatest medieval writers lie deeper than language, often extending to the form and substance. A student looks for dryness in technical or scientific books. But he makes up his mind to persevere, finding his reward, not only in the acquisition of knowledge, but in the growing interest he feels in the subject as his knowledge increases. A work of imagination is expected to supply that interest of itself by exciting our sympathies; if it does not, the reader is disappointed. But the greatest genius must have something congenial to appeal to in the mind he addresses ; and that something we believe is essentially knowledge, with its associations. What is the interest of a “general reader" in a book on mathematics, or on any other scientific or professional subject, compared with the interest of a practitioner or professor? The apathy with which the public mind regards Indian topics and Hindoo literature is mainly owing to ignorance, for the Hindoo mythology is not more absurd than the Scandinavian or Egyptian : Hindoo men and women display the passions and feelings of a common humanity, though coloured and modified by Oriental habits: the worldly and moral maxims of their works often exhibit the conclusions of a just observation: but the English public knows little or nothing of India, and will not be at the trouble of learning, so that to readers in general the Hindoos are an abomination. An indifference, though much less in degree, is exhibited even towards English writers of a past age, and the indifference is greater the more the age differs from our own in manners and opinions, habits of thinking, and of expressing its thoughts. Except Shakespeare, the great Elizabethan dramatists cannot be called popular. Their successors of the Restoration, and the play-writers to the close of the last century, are pretty much in the same predicament. So, perhaps, are the poets, with the exception of Milton, Pope, and Goldsmith. We still talk of Addison and Steele; but few, we fancy, read them, save students of history or manners. The collected essays of the last century, called the British classics, are quite gone out. Except his dictionary, the world reads Johnson in Boswell; for the gloomy philosophy of Rasselas, or the weight of thought and strength of expression in his poetry, are only perused by the few, though many may quote his lines without knowing the author. When writers removed from us by only two centuries and a half at the most, and the latest of whom were contemporaries of our grandfathers, have thus fallen out of mind, we can scarcely wonder that those who flourished nearly five hundred years ago should not have much attraction for persons who read without a regular object, or indeed without any object except to amuse themselves at the least expense of mental exertion.
Moreover, there are reasons, or at least excuses, for the popular reader. The medieval writers, as Dryden speaking of Chaucer expresses it, “ lived in the infancy of our poetry, and nothing is brought to perfection at once." Although we think the halting character of medieval verse is exaggerated, there are undoubtedly many prosaic lines to be found, and many that will not scan, though they may not be lame if judiciously read. In short, the writers of the middle ages had made little advances in literary mechanics, and though mere mechanical finish cannot long furnish a substitute for weight of thought or felicity of expression, it will support attention for a while, or at least not fatigue it. The medieval writers, if not strictly prolix, are sometimes minute to tediousness. The form of their works is frequently that of allegory or vision, or both in combination. Their story and narrative is consequently often artificial or lifeless, sometimes confused. The critic has prepared himself to expect this, and the faults themselves furnish him with noteworthy matter. But the popular reader, scarcely acquainted with any literature, or indeed with any thing beyond that of his own time, and rendered intolerant by the very narrowness of his range, is cut off from such sources of interest. It is only persons of a peculiar taste who will find even in the Canterbury Tales the perpetual beauties and sustained interest a certain school ascribes to them. Passages equal to those of later poets in power and harmony, and sometimes superior in natural touches, will be found in the three great poets of the fourteenth century, namely, the author of Piers Ploughman, Chaucer, and Gower. A humour quaint, dry, rich, or delicate, and racy of the English soil, will frequently be met with. A worldly wisdom, as keen as that of Bacon's in Tudor times, seems to have been an equal necessity under the Plantagenets, and the reader will often come upon maxims in the pithy lines of these writers which are still in use as proverbs. Moral philosophy, religious toleration, nay, strange as it may seem to an age that is somewhat prone to consider all times preceding it as ignorant and semi-barbarous, “ advanced liberal opinions," are occasionally put forth, which, we flatter ourselves, are our own discoveries. All these