History of English Literature: Part-4

about the middle of the 14th century there was a revival of the Old English alliterative verse in romances like William in the werewolf and Sir Gawain and in religious pieces such as colonist purity patience and the Pearl the last-named a mystical poem of much beauty in which a bereaved father sees a vision of his daughter among the glorified some of these employed rhyme as well as the literation they are in the West Midland I elect although Chaucer implies that alliteration was most common in the north I am a southern man says the parson in the Canterbury Tales I cannot just roam ram roof by my letter but the most important of the alliterative poems was the vision of william conquering pierce the flowers in the second half of the 14th century French had ceased to be the mother tongue of any considerable part of the population of England by a statute of Edward the third in 1362 it was displaced from the law courts by 1386 English had taken its place in the schools the anglo-norman dialect had grown corrupt and Chaucer contrasts the French of Paris with the provincial French spoken by his prior arrests after the skull of Stratford at Bow the native English genius was also beginning to assert itself rouse in part perhaps by the English victories and the Wars of Edward the third against the French it was the bows of the English yeoman ray that won the fight at Chrissie fully as much as the prowess of the Norman baronage but at home the times were bad heavy taxes and the repeated visitations of the pestilence or black death pressed upon the poor and wasted the land the church was corrupt the mendicant orders had grown enormously wealthy and the country was eaten up by a swarm of begging friars partners and a parrot or the social discontent was fermenting among the lower classes which finally issued in the communistic uprising of the peasantry under wat Tyler and Jack Straw this state of things is reflected in the vision of Piers Plowman written as early as 13 62 by William Langland a tonsured clerk of the West Country it is in form of an allegory and bears some resemblance to the later and more famous allegory of the pilgrims progress the poet falls asleep on the Malvern Hills in Worcestershire and has a vision of a fair field full of folk representing the world with its various conditions of men there were pilgrims and Palmer’s Hermits with hooked staves who went to Walsingham and their wenches after them great lovers and long that were loft to work friars glossing the gospel for their own profit partners cheating the people with relics and indulgences parish priests who forsook their parishes that had been poor since the pestilence on and went to London to sing therefore cemani bishops Archbishop’s and deacons who got themselves fat clerkships in the Exchequer or King’s Bench in short all manner of lazy and corrupt ecclesiastics a lady who represents Holy Church then appears to the dreamer explaining to him the meaning of his vision and reads to him a sermon the text of which is when all treasure is tried truth is the best a number of other allegorical figures are next introduced conscience reason me cemani falsehood etc and after a series of speeches and adventures a second vision begins in which the seven deadly sins passed before the poet in a succession of graphic impersonations and finally all the characters set out on the pilgrimage in search of saint truth finding no guide to direct them save piers the ploughman who stands for the simple pious laboring man the sound heart of the english common folk the poem was originally in eight divisions or passes to which was added a continuation in three parts beaded oval dough bets and do best about 1377 the hole was greatly enlarged by the author piers plowman was the first an extended literary work after the conquest which was purely English in character it owed nothing to France but the allegorical cast which the whole mandala woes had made fashionable in both countries but even here such personified abstractions as Langlands fair speech and work when time is remind us less of the pole she’s Bella more and fell symbol of the French courtly allegories than of bunions mr. worldly Wiseman and even of such Puritan names as praise God bare bones and zeal of the land busy the poem is full of English moral seriousness of shrewd humour the hatred of a lie the homely English love for reality it has little unity of plan but it’s rather a series of episodes discourses parables and scenes it is all astir with the actual life of the time we see the gossips gathered in the Ale House of bet in the Brewster and the pastry cooks in the London streets crying hot pies hot good geese and grease go we dine go we head Langley not linked his literary fortunes with an uncouth and obsolescent verse and had he possessed a finer artistic sense and a higher poetic imagination his book might have been like Chaucer’s among the last and glories of our tongue as it is it is forgotten by all but professional students of literature and history its popularity in its own day is shown by the number number of manuscripts which are extant and imitation such as pierced ploughman’s Creed 1394 and the plowman’s tale for a long time wrongly inserted in the Canterbury Tales Pierce became a kind of typical figure like the French peasant jock poem and was appealed to as such by the Protestant reformers of the 16th century the attack upon the growing corruptions of the church was made more systematically and from the standpoint of a theologian rather than a popular more elusive satirist by John Wycliffe the rector of letter Worth and professor of divinity and Balliol College Oxford in a series of Latin and English tracts he made war against indulgences pilgrimages images ablations the Friars the Pope and the doctrine of transubstantiation but his greatest service to England was his translation of the Bible the first complete version in the mother tongue this he made about 1380 with the help of nicholas Hereford and a revision of it was made by another disciple Purvi some 10 years later there was no knowledge of Hebrew or Greek in England at that time and the Wycliffe eight versions were made not from the original times but from the Latin Vulgate in his anxiety to make it as rendering close and mindful perhaps of the warning in the apocalypse If any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy God shall take away his part out of the book of life Wycliffe followed the Latin order of construction so literally as to make rather awkward English translating for example quids if evil talks omnium by what to itself will display them pervaiz version was somewhat freer and more idiomatic in the reigns of Henry the fourth and fifth it was forbidden to read or to have any of Wycliffe’s writings such of them as could be sees were publicly burned in spite of this copies of his Bible circulated secretly in great numbers for shell and Madden in their great edition 1850 and numerate 150 manuscripts which had been consulted by them later translators like Tyne Dale and the makers of the authorized version or King James Bible 1611 followed White Cliffs language in many instances so that he was in truth the first author of our biblical dialogue and the founder of that great monument of noble English which has been the main conservative influence in the mother tongue holding it fast to many strong pithy words and idioms that would else have been lost in 1415 some 30 years after Wycliffe death by decree of the Council of Constance his bones were dug up from the soil of letter with chancel and burned and the ashes cast into the Swift the brook says Thomas fuller in his church history did convey his ashes into avon avon into Severn Severn into the narrow seeds they into the main ocean and thus the ashes of Wycliffe are the emblem of his doctrine which now is dispersed all the world over although the writings thus far mentioned are a very high interest to the student of the English language and the historian of English manners and culture they cannot be said to have much importance of mere literature but in Geoffrey Chaucer died fourteen hundred we meet with a poet of the first rank whose works are increasingly read and will always continue to be a source of delight and refreshment to the general reader as well as a well of English undefiled to the professional man of letters with the exception of Dante Chaucer was the greatest of the poets of medieval Europe and he remains one of the greatest of English poets and certainly the foremost of English storytellers in verse he was the son of a London vintner and was in his youth in the service of Lionel Duke of Clarence one of the sons of Edward the third he made a campaign in France 13 59 to 60 when he was taken prisoner afterward he was attached to the court and received numerous favors and appointments he was sent on several diplomatic missions by the king three of them to Italy where in all probability he made the acquaintance of the new Italian literature the writings of Dante Petrarch and Boccaccio he was appointed at different times comptroller of the wool customs Comptroller of petty customs and clerk of the works he sat for Kent in Parliament and he received pensions from three successive Kings he was a man of business as well as books and he loved men and nature no less than study he knew his world he saw life steadily and saw it whole living at the center of English social and political life and resorting to the court of Edward the third then the most brilliant in Europe Chaucer was an eyewitness of those feudal clumps which filled the high colored pages of his contemporary the French chronicler wasa his description of a tournament in the Knight’s Tale is unexcelled for spirit and detail he was familiar with dances feasts and state ceremonies and all the life of the baronial castle in Bower and Hall the Trump’s with the loud Minister Elsie the Herald’s the ladies and the Squires what Hawks sitting on the perch above what hounds Ligon on the floor a down but his sympathy reached no less the life the lowly the poor Widow in her narrow cottage and the truce finger and a good the plough man whom language and made the hero of his vision he is more than all English poets the poet of the lusty spring of April with her showers sweet and of the fowl a song of May with all her flowers under green of the new leaves in the wood and the meadows new powdered with the Daisy of the mystic Marguerite of his legend of good women a fresh vernal air blows through all his pages

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