This text was taken from Godwin's Life of Chaucer by William Godwin, London: T. Davison, White-Friars; 1804.
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SEQUEL TO TROILUS AND CRESEIDE BY ROBERT HENRYSON. — TRAGEDY OF SHAKESPEAR ON THE SUBJECT.
Many marks of approbation have been conferred upon the poem of Troilus and Creseide, beside the eulogium already quoted from sir Philip Sidney. Some of them are the following. A poet of a succeeding age, who now appears to have been Mr. Robert Henryson, wrote a sequel to the poem, or sixth book, which ordinarily bears the name of the This is to be found in most of the editions of Chaucer; is printed by the earlier editors without any notice of distinction, as if it had been the work of Chaucer himself; and is so enumerated by Leland and other antiquaries. The sequel however contains in itself the most explicit declaration that it is not the production of Chaucer; and Mr. Urry as annexed to it in his edition the following description of its source "The Author of the Testament of Creseide, I have been informed by Sir James Eriskin, late Earl of Kelly, and diverse aged Scholars of the Scottish Nation was one Mr. Robert Henderson, chief School-master of Dumferlinga, near the end of the Reign of King Henry VIII." There an be no reasonable doubt that this is the same person as "Mr Rovert Henryson of Dumferling," enumerated among the Scottish poets, by William Dunbar author of the Golden Terge, who died about the year 1530; and as "Maister Rovert Henrisoun, Scolmaister of Dumferling," and compiler of "The morall Fabillis of Æsopb, a manuscript existing in the British Museum.
Henryson perceived what there was defective in the close of the story of Troilus and Creseide, as Chaucer has left it. It is true that the law of political justice examined. It is true that the law of poetical justice, as it has been technically termed by some modern critics, has been urged to a ridiculous strictness, and that the uniform observation of this law is by no means necessary to the producing the noblest and most admirable effects. The scheme of real events, and the course of nature, so far as we are able to follow it, is conducted by no rule analogous to this of poetical justice; and the works of human imagination ought to be copies of what is to be found in the great volume of the universe. Poetry has a right to deal in select nature; but its selections should not be so fastidious as ot exclude the most impressive scenes which nature has to boast. No true critic would wish Lear, Othello and the Orphan not to have existed, or scarcely to be in any respect other than as they are. Two of the three could not have been changed in their catastrophe, without the destruction of the main principles of their texture. But, though virtue may be shown unfortunate, vice should not be dismissed triumphant. It is not perhaps necessary that it should always be seen overtaken by some striking and terrible retribution; but it should not appear ultimately tranquil and self-satisfied; for such is not its fortune on the great stage of the world. It is followed in most instances by remorse; or, when it is not, remorse is only excluded by a certain hardness and brutality of temper, which is solitary in its character, and incompatible with genuine delight. Henryson therefore judged truly, when he regarded the poem of Chaucer as in this respect faulty and incomplete. The inconstant and unfeeling Creseide, as she appears in the last book of Chaucer, is the just object of aversion, and no reader can be satisfied that Troilus, the loyal and heroic lover, should suffer all the consequences of her crime, while she escapes with impunity.
The poem of Henryson has a degree of merit calculated to make us regret that it is not a performance standing by itself, instead of thus serving merely as an appendage to the work of another. The author has conceived in a very poetical manner his description of the season in which he supposes himself to have written this dolorous tragedy. The sun was in Aries; his setting was ushered in with furious storms of hail; the cold was biting and intense; and the poet sat in a solitary little building which he calls his "corature." The evening star had just risen.
dThroughout the glasse her bemés brast so faire,
That I might se on every side me by;
The northren winde hath purified the aire,
And shedde his misty cloudés fro the skie;
The frost fresed, the blastés bitterly
Fro pole Artike come whisking loud ad shill.
Creseide is then represented as deserted of Diomed, filled with discontent, and venting her rage in bitter revilings against Venus and Cupid. Her ingratitude is resented by these deities, who call a council of the seven planets. The persons of the Gods bearing the names of these planets are described with great spirit. Saturn, for example,
Whiche gave to Cupide litel reverence,
But as a boistous chorle in his manere
Came crabbedly with e austern loke and chere.
His face f frounsed, his g lere was like the lede,
His tethe chattred, and shiver'd with the chin,
His eien droup'd hole sonken in his hede,
With lippés blew, and chekés lene and thin.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .
h Attour his belte his i liart lockés laie,
j Feltred unfaire, o'er fret with frostes hore,
His widdred wed fro him the winde out wore.
In the council it is decreed that Creseicde shall be punished with leprosy. Cynthia is deputed in a vision to inform her of her fate. She wakes and finds that her dream is true. She then intreats her father to conduct her, unknown, to a hospital for lepers. By the governors of this hospital she is compelled to go as a beggar on the highway, with a bell and clapper, as we read was anciently practised by lepers. Among teh passers by, comes Troilus, who in spite of the dreadful disfigurement of her person, finds something in her that he thinks he had seen before, and even draws from a glance of her horrible countenance a contused recollection of the sweet visage and amorous glances of his beloved Creseide. His instinct leads him no further: he does not suspect that his mistress is actually before him. Yet
For knightly pitie and memoriell
Of faire Creseide,
he takes "girdle, a purse of golde, and many a gaie jewell, and shakes them doun in the skirte" of the miserable beggar:
Than rode awaie, and nat a worde he spake.
No sooner is he gone, than Creseide becomes aware that her benefactor is no other than Troilus himself. Affected by this unexpected occurrence, she falls into a frenzy, betrays her real name and condition, bequeaths to Troilus a ring which he had given her in dowry, and dies. Troilus laments her fate, and builds her monument.
It seemed to be the more proper that we should take thus much notice of the poem of the schoolmaster of Dumferling, that by contrasting Henryson and Chaucer, we might be the better able to judge of the vicissitudes of poetry and the progress of taste between the reigns of Edward III. and Henry VIII. The combat indeed is not exactly equal, since Chaucer possessed at least all the advantages of education which England could afford, if he were not yet a courtier, when he wrote his Troilus and Creseide, and Henryson was no more than a provincial schoolmaster. Accordingly the judicious reader will perceive that the Scottish, was incaple of rising to the refinements, or conceiving the delicacies of the English, poet: though it must be admitted tat in the single instance of the state of mind, the half-recognition, half-ignorance, attributed to Troilus in his last encounter with Creseide, there is a felicity of conception impossible to be surpassed. In some respects the younger poet has clearly the advantage over the more ancient. There is in his piece abundance of incident, of imagery and of painting, without tediousness, with scarcely one of those lagging, impertinent and unmeaning lines with which the production of Chaucer is so frequently degraded.
The principal circumstance however to be remarked respecting the poem of Henryson, is that, whatever eminence of merit may justly be ascribed to it, it does not belong to the Troilus and Creseide. Chaucer disowns the alliance of the Scottish poet. The great excellences of Chaucer's poem are its simplicity, its mild and human character, and that it does not sully the imagination of the reader with pictures of disgust and deformity. Highway-beggary, the bell and clapper, the leprosy, and the hideous loathsomeness of Henryson's Creseide, start away from and refuse to be joined to, the magic sweetness and softness of Chaucer. No reader, who has truly entered into the sentiment of kindness, sympathy and love subsisting between Chaucer's personages, will consent the Creseicde, however apostate, shall be overtaken by so savage and heart-appalling a retribution. This is not a species of chastisement that can be recognized in the court of the God whose battery is smiles, and whose hostility averted glances and lips of amorous resentment.
The poem of Troilus and Creseide was also translated into Latin rhymes by sir Francis Kinaston in the reign of Charles I, and accompanied with a commentary and notes. In one of the notes the translator has introduced an observation, that, if true, would overturn the hypothesis on which we have prodeeded respecting the age at which Chaucer wrote this poem, and would even introduce a new incident into our knowledge of the events of the poet's life. He remarks that Chaucer has called the light which burned all night in the apartment of Creseide, by the appellation "motar;" and infers that 'this word doth plainly intimate our author to have been an esquire of the body in ordinary to the king; as this is the name of the match-light which burns all night at the king's bed-side, which very few courtiers besides esquires of the body do understand what is meant by itl Every reader may judge for himself of the inference to be drawn from the paucity of persons initiated into this profound mystery; and of the "wit" of Chaucer (for such sir Francis Kinaston deems it) in calling this light by a neme which note of his readers, except " esquires of the body in ordinar to the king," could understand.
It would be extremely unjust to quit consideration of Chaucer's poem of Troilus and Creseide, without noticing the high honour it has received in having been made the foundations of one of the plays of Shakespear. There seems to have been in this respect a sort of conspiracy in the commentators upon Shakespear, against the glory of our old English bard. In what they have written concerning this play, they make a very slight mention o Chaucer; they have not consulted his poem for the purpose of illustrating this admirable drama; and they have agreed, as far as possible, to transfer to another author the honour of having supplied materials to the tragic artist. Dr. Johnson says, "Shakespeare has in his story followed, for the greater part, the old book of Caxton, which was then very popular; but the character of Thersites, of which it makes no mention, is a proof that this play was written after Chapman had published his version of Homer." Mr. Steevens asserts that "Shakespeare received the greatest part of his materials for the structure of this play from the Troye Boke of Lydgate." And Mr. Malone repeatedly treats the "History of the Destruction of Troy, translated by Caxton," as "Shakespeare's authority" in the composition of this drama.
These assertions however are far from being accurate. It would have been strange indeed if Shakespear, with a soul so poetical, and in so many respect congenial to that of Chaucer, had not been a diligent student of the works of his great predecessor. Chaucer made a much greater figure in the eyes of a reader of poetry in the sixteenth century, than it has been his fortune to do among the scholars of the eighteenth. After the death of Chaucer, the English nation experienced a long dearth of poetry, and it seemed as if the darkness introduced by the first destroyers of the Roman empire was about once more to cover our isle. Nothing worthy the name of poetry was the produce of the following century. English poets indeed existed of great reputation and merit, beside Chaucer, whose works might recommend themselves to the attention of Chakespear: Sackville, Marlow, Drayton, Donne, and Spenser. But all these were the contemporaries of Shakespear, men whom he might have seen, and with whom he had probably conversed. Chaucer was almost the only English poet in the juvenile days of Shakespear, upon whose reputation death had placed his seal; the only one whose laurels were consecrated and rendered venerable by being seen through the mild and harmonising medium of a distant age. A further direct proof that Shakespear was familiarly conversant with the works of Chaucer may be derived from an examination of the early Poems of our great dramatic bard. His Rape of Lucredce is written precisely, and his Venus and Adonis nearly, in the versification and stanza used by Chaucer in the Troilous and Creseide and in many other of his works. Nor is it reasonable to doubt that the idea of the luscious paintings contained in these two pieces of Shakespear, was drawn from the too great fidelity and detail with which Chaucer has entered into similar situations in the poem before us. We have already seen a striking instance in which Shakespear has imitated a passage from the Troilus and Creseide, in his tragedy of Romeo and Juliet.
The fact is, that the play of Shakespear we are here considering has for its main foundation, the poem of Chaucer, and is indebted for many accessory helps to the books mentioned by the commentators. The Troilus and Creseida seems long to have been regarded by our ancestors in a manner somewhat similar to that in which the Æneid was viewed among the Romans, or the Iliad by the ancient Greeks. Every reader who advanced any pretensions to poetical taste, felt himself obliged to speak of it as the great classical regular English poem, which reflected the highest lustre upon our language. Shakespear therefore, as a man felt ist but a just compliment to the merits of the great father of our poetry, to introduce his characters in tangible form, and with all the advantages and allurements he could bestow upon them, before the eyes of his countrymen; and as a constructor of dramas, accustomed to consult their tastes and partialities, he conceived that he could not adopt a more promising plan, that to entertain them with a tale already familiar to their minds, which had been the associate and delight of their early years, which every man had himself praised, and had heard applauded by all the tasteful and the wise.
We are not however left to provability and conjecture as to the use made by Shakespear of the poem of Chaucer. His other sources were Chapman's translation of Homer, the Troy Book of Lydgate, and Caxton's History of the Destruction of Troy. It is well known that there is no trace of the particular story of Troilous and Creseide among the ancients. It occurs indeed in Lydgate and Caxton; but the name and actions of Pandarus, a very essential personage in the tale as related by Shakespear and Chaucer, are entirely wanting, except a single mention of him by Lydgatem, and that with an express reference to Chaucer as his authority. Shakespear has taken the story of Chaucer with all its imperfections and defects, and has coped the series of its incidents with his customary fidelity; an exactness seldom to be found in any other dramatic writer.
Since then two of the greatest writers this island has produced have treated the same story, each in his own peculiar manner, it may neither unentertaining nor uninstuctive to consider the merit of the respective modes of composition all illustrated in the present example. It has already been sufficiently seen that Chaucer's poem includes many beauties, many genuine touches of nature, and many strokes of an exquisite pathos. It is on the whole however written in that style which has unfortunately been so long imposed upon the world as dignified, classical and chaste. It is naked of incidents, of ornament, of whatever should most awaken the imagination, astound the fancy, or hurry away the soul. It has the stately march of a Dutch burgomaster as he appears in a procession, or a French poet as he shows himself in his works. It reminds one too forcibly of a tragedy of Racine. Every thing partakes of the author, as if he thought he should be everlastingly disgraced by becoming natural, in artificial and alive. We travel through a work of this sort as we travel over some of the immense downs with which our island is interspersed. All is smooth, or undulated wit so gentle and slow a variation as scarcely to be adverted to by the sense. But all is homogeneous and tiresome; the mind sinks into a state of aching torpidity; and we feel as if we should never get to the end of our eternal journeyn. What a contrast to a journey among mountains and vallies, spotted with herds of various kinds of cattle, interspersed with villages, opening ever and anon to a view of the distant ocean, and refreshed with rivulets and stream; where if the eye is ever fatigued, it is only with the boundless flood of beauty which is incessantly pouring upon it! Such is the tragedy of Shakespear.
The historical play of Troilus and Creseida exhibits as full a specimen of the different styles in which this wonderful writer was qualified to excelm as is to be found in any of his works. A more poetical passage, if poetry consists in sublime picturesque and beautiful imagery, neither ancient nor modern times have produced, than the exhortation addressed by Patroclus to Achilles, to persuade him to shake off his passion for Polyxena, the daughter of Priam, and reassume the terrors of his military greatness.
Sweet, rouse yourself; and the weak wanton Cupid
Shall from your neck unloose his amorous fold,
And like a dew-drop from the lion's mane,
Be shook to air.
Act III, Scene 3.
Never did morality hold a language more profound, persuasive and irresistible, than in Shakespear's Ulysses, who in the same scene, and engaged in the same cause with Patroclus, thus expostulates with the chapion of the Grecian forces.
For emulation hath a thousand sons,
That one by one pursue. If you give way,
Or hedge aside from the direct forthright,
Like to an enter'd tide, they all rush by,
And leave you hindmost: there you lie,
Like to a gallant horse fallen in first rank,
For pavement to the abject rear, o'er-run
And trampled on.
―O let not virtue seek
Remuneration for the thing it was!
For beauty, wit, high birth, desert in service,
Love, friendship, charity, are subjects all
To envious and calumniation time.
One touch of nature makes the whole world kin, . . .
That all with one consent praise new-born gauds,
And give to dust, that is a little gilt,
More praise than they will give to gold o'er-dusted.
The marvel not, thou great and complete man!
That all the Greeks begin to worship Ajax.
―The cry went once on thee,
And still it might, and yet it may again,
If thou wouldst not entomb thyself alive,
And case thy reputation in thy tent.
But the great beauty of this play, as it is of all the genuine writings of Shakespear, beyond all didaetic morality, beyond all mere flights of fancy, and beyond all sublime, a beauty entirely his own, and in which no writer ancient or modern can enter into competition with him, is that his men are men; his sentiments are living, and his characters marked with those delicate, evanescent, undefinable touches, which identify them with the great delineations of nature. The speech of Ulysses just quoted, when taken by itself, is purely an exquisite specimen of didactic morality; but when combined with the explanation given by Ulysses, before the entrance of Achilles, of the nature of his design, it becomes the attribute of a real man, and starts into life. ―Achilles (says he)
―stands in the entrance of his tent.
Please it our general to pass strangely by him,
As if he were forgot; and princes all,
Lay negligent and loose regard upon him:
I will come last: 'tis like, he'll question me,
Why such unplausive eyes are bent, why turn'd on him;
If so, I have derision med'cinable,
To use between your strangeness and his pride,
Which his own will shall have desire to drink.
When we compare the plausible and seemingly affectionate manner in which Ulysses addresses himself to Achilles, with the key which he here furnishes to his meaning, and especially with the epithet "derision," we have a perfect elucidation of his character, and must allow that it is impossible to exhibit the crafty and smooth-tongued politician in a more exact or animated style. The advice given by Ulysses is in its nature sound and excellent, and in its form inoffensive and kind; the name therefore of "derision" which he gives to it, marks to a wonderful degree the cold and self-centered subtlety of his character.
The following is a most beautiful example of the genuine Shakespearian manner, such as I have been attempting to describe; where Cressida first proceeds so far as to confess to Troilus that she loves him.
Boldness comes to me now, and brings me heart: ―
Prince Troilus, I have lov'd you night and day,
For many weary months.
Why was my Cressid then so hard to win?
Hard to seem won; but I was won, my lord,
With the first flance that ever―Pardon me―
If I confess much, you will play the tyrant.
I love you now. but not, till now, so much
But I might master it:―in faith, I lie;
My thoughts were like unbridled children, grown
Too headstrong for their mother;―See, we fools
Why have I blabb'd? Who shall be true to us,
When we are so unsecret to ourselves?―
But, though I lov'd you well, I woo'd you not;―
And yet, good faith, I wish'd myself a man;
Or that we women had men;s privilege
Of speaking first. ―Sweet, bid me hold my tongue;
For, in this rapture, I shall surely speak
The thing I shall repent, ―See, see, your silence,
Cunning in dumbness, from my weakness draws
My very soul of counsel. ―Stop my mouth.
Act III, Scene 2.
What charming ingenuousness, what exquisite naiveté, what ravishing confusion of soul, are expressed in these words! We seem to perceive in them every fleeting thought as it rises in the mind of Cressida, at the same time that they delineate with equal skill all the beautiful timidity and innocent artifice which grace and consummate the feminine character. other writers endeavor to conjure up before them their imaginary personages, and seek with violent effort to arrest and describe what their fancy presents to them; Shakespear alone(though not without many exceptions to this happiness) appears to have the whole train of his characters in voluntary attendance upon him, so listen to their effusions, and to commit to writing all the words, and the very words, they utter.
The whole catalogue of the dramtis personæ in the play of Troilus and Cressida, so far as they depend upon a rich and original vein of humour in the author, are drawn with a felicity which never was surpassed. The genius of Homer has been a topic of admiration to almost every generation of men since the period in which he wrote. But his characters will not bear the slightest comparison with the delineation of the same characters as they stand in Shakespear. This is a species of honour which ought by no means to be forgotten when we are making the enlogium of our immortal bard, a sort of illustration of his greaness which cannot fail to place it in a very conspicuous light, The dispositions of men perhaps had not been sufficiently unfolded in the very early period of intellectual refinement when Homer wrote; the rays of humour had not been dissected by the glass, or tendered perdurable by the pencil, of the poet. Homer's characters are drawn with a laudable portion of variety and consistency; but his Achilles, his Ajax, and his Nestor are, each of them, rather a species that an individual, and can boast more of the propriety of abstraction, than of the vivacity of a moving scene of absolute life. The Achilles, the Ajax, and the various Grecian heroes of Shakespear on the other hand, are absolute men, deficient in nothing which can tend to individualise them, and already touched with the Promethean fire that might infuse a soul into what, without it, were lifeless form. From the rest perhaps the character of Thersites deserves to be selected (how cold and school-boy a sketch in Homer!) as exhibiting an appropriate vein of sarcastic humour amidst his cowardice, and a profoundness and truth in his mode of laying open the foibles of those about him, impossible to be excelled.
Before we quit this branch of Shakespear's praise, it may not be unworthy of our attention to advert to one of the methods by which he has attained this uncommon superiority. It has already been observed that one of the most formidable adversaries of true poetry, is an attribute which is generally miscalled dignity. Shakespear possessed, no man in higher perfection, the true dignity and loftiness of the poetical afflatus, which he has displayed in many of the finest passages of his works with miraculous success. But he knew that no man ever was, or ever can be, always dignified. He knwo that those suvtler traits of character which identify a man, are familiar and relaxed, pervaded with passion, and not played off with an eternal eye to decorum. In this respect the peculiarities of Shakespear's genius are no where more forcibly illustrated than in the play we are here considering. The shamions of Greece and Troy, from the hour in which their names were first recorded, has always worn a certain formality of attire, and marched with a slow and measured step. No poet till this time, had ever ventured to force them out of the manner which their epic creator had given them. Shakespear first suppled their limbs, took from them the classic stiffness of their gait, and enriched them with an entire set of those attributes, which might render them completely beings of the same species with ourselves.
Yet, after every degree of homage has been paid to the glorious and awful superiorities of Shakespear, it would be unpardonable in us, on the present occasion, to forget one particular in which the play of Troilus and Cressida does not eclipse, but on the contrary falls far short of its great archetype, the poem of Chaucer. This too is a particular, in which, as the times of Shakepear ere much mor enlightened and refined than those of Chaucer, the preponderance of excellence migh well be expected to be foun int he opposite scale. The fact however is unquestionable, that the characters of Chaucer are much more respectable and loveworthy than the correspondent personages in Shakespear. In Chaucer Troilus is the pattern of an honorable lover, choosing rather every extremity and the loss of life, than to divulge, whether in a direct or an indirect manner, anything which might compromise the reputation of his mistress, or lay open her name as a topic for the comments of the vulgar. Creseide, however (as Mr. Urry has observed) at last a "false unconstant whore," yet in the commencement, and for a considerable time, preserves those ingenuous manners and that propriety of conduct, which are the brightest ornaments of the female character. Even Pandarus how and dishonourable as is the part he has to play, is in Chaucer merely a friendly and kind-hearted man, so easy in his temper that rather than not contribute to the happiness of the man he loves, he is content to overlook the odious ames and construction to which his proceedings are entitled. Not so in Shakespear: his Troilus shows no reluctence to render his amour a subject of notoriety to the whole city; his Cressida (for example in the scene with the Grecian chiefso, to all of whom she is a total stranger) assumes the manners of the most abandoned prostitute, and his Pandarus enters upon his vile occupation, not from any venial partiality to the desires of his friend, but from the direct and simple love of what is gross, impudent and profligate. For these reasons Shakepear's play, however enriched with a thousand various beauties, can scarcely boast of any strong claim upon our interest or affections. It may be alleged indeed that Shakespear, having exhibited pretty much at large the whole catalogue of Greek and Trojan heroes, had by no means equal scope to interest us in the story from which they play receives its name; but this would scarcely be admitted as an adequate apology before an impartial tribunal.
a lament for the Loss of the Poets, in Ramsay's Evergreen, Vol. I, p.129.
b Percy, Vol. Book i, No. 13
g colour was like lead.
h Down to.
l Uny's Chaucer, Life, sig.f. Preface, sig. m. and Glossary, in voce Morter. The copy of Kinaston in the British Museum contains the text only, without notes. The notes, it should seem, were never printed.
m Troy Boke, Book III, cap. xxv.
n These remarks apply to nine-tenths of the poem, though by no means to those happier passages in which the author unfolds the sentiments of his personages.
o Act iv. Scene 5.
END OF THE FIRST VOLUME