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lines of four feet, or the French numbers of Fontaine. * Fontaine is, in truth, the capital and unrivalled writer of comic tales. rally took his subjects from Boccace, Poggius, t and Ariosto ; but adorned them with so many natural strokes, with such quaintness in his reflections, and such a dryness and archness of humour; as cannot fail to excite laughter.
Our Prior has happily caught his manner, in many of his lighter tales ; particularly in Hans Carvel, the invention of which, if its genealogy be worth tracing, is first due to Poggius. It is found in the hundred and thirty-third of his Facetiæ, where it is entitled Visio Francisci Phi
* It is to be lamented that Fontaine has so frequently transgressed the bounds of modesty. Boileau did not look upon Fontaine as an original writer, and used to say, he had borrowed both his stile and matter from Marot and Rabelais.
+ " Poggius Florentinus in hoc numero eloquentium virorum singulare nomen obtinet. Scripsit de nobilitate, de avaritia, de principum in felicitate, de moribus Indorum, FACETIARUM quoque librum unum. Ab adversariis exagitatus orationes plerasque invectivas edidit. In epistolis etiam laudatur. Cyropædiam, quam Xenophon ille scripsit, latinam reddidit, atque Alphonso regi dedicavit, pro qua a rege magnam mercedem accepit.” Facius de viris illustribus, Florentiæ, 1745.
lelphi: from hence Rabelais inserted it, under another title, in his third book and twenty-eighth chapter. It was afterwards related in a book called the HUNDRED Novels.* Ariosto finishes the fifth of his incomparable satires with it. Malespini also made use of it. Fontaine, who imagined Rabelais to be the inventor of it, was the sixth author who delivered it; as out Prior was the last; and perhaps not the least spirited.
RABELAIS was not the inventor of many of the burlesque tales he introduced into his principal story ; the finest touches of which, it is to be feared, have undergone the usual and unavoidable fate of satirical writings; that is, not to be tasted or understood, when the characters, the facts, and the follies, they stigmatize, are perished and unknown. Gulliver in the next century, will be as obscure as Garagantua : and Hudibras, and the satire Menippee, cannot be read without voluminous commentaries.
The WIFE OF Bath is the other piece of Chaucer which POPE selected to imitate. One cannot
* See Menagiana, Vol. I. p. 368.
but wonder at his choice, which, perpaps, nothing but his youth could excuse. Dryden, who is known not to be nicely scrupulous, informs us, that he would not versify it on account of its indecency. Pope, however, has omitted or softened the grosser and more offensive passages. Chaucer afforded him many subjects of a more serious and sublime species ; and it were to be wished, POPE had exercised his pencil on the pathetic story of the Patience of Grisilda, or Troilus and Cressida, or the Complaint of the Black Knight; or, above all, on Cambuscan and Canacé. From the accidental circumstance of Dryden and Pope's having copied the gay and ludicrous parts of Chaucer, the common notion seems to have arisen, that Chaucer's vein of poetry was chiefly turned to the light and the ridiculous. * But they who look into Chaucer, will soon be convinced of this prevailing prejudice; and will find his comic vein, like that of
* Cowley is said to have despised Chaucer. I am not surprised at this strange judgment. Cowley was indisputably a genius, but his taste was perverted and narrowed by a love of witticisms.
Shakespeare, to be only like one of mercury, imperceptibly mingled with a mine of gold.
CHAUCER is highly extolled by Dryden, in the spirited and pleasing preface to his fables ; for his prefaces, after all, are very pleasing, notwithstanding the opposite opinions they contain, because his prose is the most numerous and sweet, the most mellow and generous, of any our language has yet produced. His digressions and ramblings, which he himself says he learned of honest Montaigne, are interesting and amusing. In this preface is a passage worth particular notice, not only for the justness of the criticism, but because it contains a censure of Cowley. “ Chaucer is a perpetual fountain of good sense; learned in all sciences; and therefore speaks properly on all subjects. As he knew what to say, so he also knows where to leave off; a continence, which is practised by few writers, and scarcely by any of the ancients, excepting Virgil and Horace. One of our late great poets is sunk in his reputation, because he could never forgive any conceit that came in his way ; but swept, like
All this pro
a drag-net, great and small. There was plenty enough, but the dishes were ill-sorted; whole pyramids of sweet-meats for bays and women; but little of solid meat for men. ceeded not from any want of knowledge, but of judgment : neither did he want that, in discerning the beauties and faults of other poets; but only indulged himself in the luxury of writing; and, perhaps, knew it was a fault, but hoped the reader would not find it. For this reason, though he must always be thought a great poet, he is no longer esteemed a good writer; and for ten impressions which his works have had in so many successive years, yet at present a hundred books are scarcely purchased once a twelvemonth.” It is a circumstance of literary history worth mentioning, that Chaucer was more than 60 years old when he wrote Palamon and Arcite, as we know Dryden was 70 when he versified it. The lines of Pope, in the piece before us, are spirited and easy, and have properly enough, a free colloquial air.
One passage I cannot forbear quoting, as it acquaints us with the writers who were popular in the time of Chaucer. The jocose old