Chaucer As A Poet
by John Dryden
Preface to 'Fables Ancient And Modern' (1700)

YET even there too the Figures of Chaucer are much more lively, and set in a better Light: Which though I have not time to prove; yet I appeal to the Reader, and am sure he will clear me from Partiality. The Thoughts and Words remain to be considered, in the Comparison of the two Poets; and I have saved my self one half of that Labour, by owning that Ovid lived when the Roman Tongue was in its Meridian; Chaucer, in the Dawning of our Language: Therefore that Part of the Comparison stands not on an equal Foot, any more than the Diction of Ennius and Ovid; or of Chaucer, and our present English. The Words are given up as a Post not to be defended in our Poet, because he wanted the Modern Art of Fortifying. The Thoughts remain to be considered: And they are to be measured only by their Propriety; that is, as they flow more or less naturally from the Persons described, on such and such Occasions. The Vulgar Judges, which are Nine Parts in Ten of all Nations, who call Conceits and Jingles Wit, who see Ovid full of them, and Chaucer altogether without them, will think me little less than mad, for preferring the Englishman to the Roman: Yet, with their leave, I must presume to say, that the Things they admire are only glittering Trifles, and so far from being Witty, that in a serious Poem they are nauseous, because they are unnatural. Would any Man who is ready to die for Love, describe his Passion like Narcissus? Would he think of inopem me copia fecit, and a Dozen more of such Expressions, poured on the Neck of one another, and signifying all the same Thing? If this were Wit, was this a Time to be witty, when the poor Wretch was in the Agony of Death? This is just John Littlewit in Bartholomew Fair, who had a Conceit (as he tells you) left him in his Misery; a miserable Conceit. On these Occasions the Poet should endeavour to raise Pity. Chaucer makes Arcite violent in his Love, and unjust in the Pursuit of it: Yet when he came to die, he made him think more reasonably: He repents not of his Love, for that had altered his Character; but acknowledges the Injustice of his Proceedings, and resigns Emilia to Palamon. What would Ovid have done on this Occasion? He would certainly have made Arcite witty on his Death-bed. He had complained he was farther off from Possession, by being so near, and a thousand such Boyisms, which Chaucer rejected as below the Dignity of the Subject. They who think otherwise, would by the same Reason prefer Lucan and Ovid to Homer and Virgil, and Martial to all Four of them. As for the Turn of Words, in which Ovid particularly excels all Poets; they are sometimes a Fault, and sometimes a Beauty, as they are used properly or improperly; but in strong Passions always to be shunned, because Passions are serious, and will admit no Playing. The French have a high Value for them; and I confess, they are often what they call Delicate, when they are introduced with Judgment; but Chaucer writ with more Simplicity, and followed Nature more closely, than to use them. I have thus far, to the best of my Knowledge, been an upright Judge betwixt the Parties in Competition, not meddling with the Design nor the Disposition of it; because the Design was not their own; and in the disposing of it they were equal. It remains that I say somewhat of Chaucer in particular.

In the first place, As he is the Father of English Poetry, so I hold him in the same Degree of Veneration as the Grecians held Homer, or the Romans Virgil: He 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 knows also when 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 which came in his way; but swept like a Drag-net, great and small. There was plenty enough, but the Dishes were ill sorted; while Pyramids of Sweet-meats, for Boys and Women; but little of solid Meat, for Men: All this proceeded 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: For, as my last Lord Rochester said, though somewhat profanely, Not being of God, he could not stand.

Chaucer followed Nature every where; but was never so bold to go beyond her: And there is a great Difference of being Poeta and nimis Poeta, if we may believe Catullus, as much as betwixt a modest Behaviour and Affectation. The Verse of Chaucer, I confess, is not Harmonious to us; but 'tis like the Eloquence of one whom Tacitus commends, it was auribus istius temporis accommodata: They who lived with him, and some time after him, thought it Musical; and it continues so even in our Judgment, if compared with the Numbers of Lidgate and Gower his Contemporaries: There is the rude Sweetness of a Scotch Tune in it, which is natural and pleasing, though not perfect. 'Tis true, I cannot go so far as he who published the last Edition of him; for he would make us believe the Fault is in our Ears, and that there were really Ten Syllables in a Verse where we find but Nine: But this Opinion is not worth confuting; 'tis so gross and obvious an Error, that common Sense (which is a Rule in every thing but Matters of Faith and Revelation) must convince the Reader, that Equality of Numbers in every Verse which we call Heroic, was either not known, or not always practised in Chaucer's Age. It were an easy Matter to produce some thousands of his Verses, which are lame for want of half a Foot, and sometimes a whole one, and which no Pronunciation can make otherwise. We can only say, that he lived in the Infancy of our Poetry, and that nothing is brought to Perfection at the first. We must be Children before we grow Men.

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