This text was taken from Godwin's Life of Chaucer by William Godwin, London: T. Davison, White-Friars; 1804.
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CHAUCER AT OXFORD - ORIGINAL OF THE POEM OF TROILUS AND CRESEIDE - SKETCH OF THE LIFE OF BOCCACCIO - ERA OF LOLLIUS
From Cambridge it is not improbable that Chaucer removed to Oxford. It is affirmed by Leland,a the great English antiquary of the sixteenth century, that Chaucer was educated at their latter place; and, though Mr. Tyrwhit has rejected his authority in the point, it will perhaps be found that he did so without sufficient consideration. There are several reasons which may induce us to admit Leland's assertion.
In the first place it is not true, as stated by Mr. Tyrwhit,b that Leland had rested "his supposition that Chaucer was educated at Oxford, upon supposition that he was born in Oxfordshire or Berkshire." On the contrary, Leland sets out with an unqualified averment of the place of his education, "Isiacas scholas - diligent - celebravit." He then proceeds to state with some degree of modesty his conjecture (in which he is unquestionably mistaken) as to the place of Chaucer's birth; strengthening his idea, among various arguments, by its vicinity to the university in which he studied. "Isiacas scholas - celebravit : id quod ut facet, academia vicinitas quodammodo invitavit. Nam quibusdam argumentis adducor ut credam, Isiacam del Berocbensem provinciam illius natale solum fuisse." Nor does Leland stop at the mere unqualified assertion that Chaucer was educated at Oxford, but proceeds to mention two eminent mathematicians, John Somme and friar Nicholas Lynne (whose names occur in Chaucer's treatise of the Astrolabe),c under whom he affirms that our poet studied. When Mr. Tyrwhit adds that "Leland has supposed Chaucer's education at Oxford, without the shadow of a proof," he certainly assumes too high a style; and does not sufficiently observe the decorum due from an antiquary of the eighteenth century to an antiquary of the sixteenth, who lived as near again to the times and the persons of whom he professes to treat. Leland may have made many hasty and erroneous assertions; but it is impossible for us at this distance of time to pronounce, upon what proofs (known to him, but lost to us) any one of his unrefuted assertions may have been built.
But a principal reason inducing me to believe that Chaucer studied at Oxford is the following. His poem of Troilus and Creseide is on all hands admitted to be a juvenile work. It was written, as has been already remarked, previously to its author's connection with the court, or to his acquisition of great and elevated patronage. This poem is dedicated to Gower and Strode,d two scholars, both, as we have reason to believe, educated at Oxford.e How could Chaucer more naturally, at an early period of life, have become familiarly acquainted with these eminent litterery characters, than by studying in the place of education of which they were members? - if these arguments drawn from the authority of Leland and of Chaucer have any force, there is an end of Mr. Tyrwhit's triumphant sneer at the biographies immediately preceding his own, the writers of which, he says "instead of weighing the opposite accounts of Chaucer's place of education against each other, have adopted both; and tell us very gravely, that he was first at Cambridge, and afterwards removed to complete his studies at Oxford."
In addition to what has already been offered on this subject, it deserves to be remarked that these removals from one university, to another which was regarded as superior, appear to have been extremely common about the time of Chaucer. Bishop Grossteste is said to have studied first at Cambridge, thence to have gone to Oxford, and finally to Paris.f Roger Bacon is related to have studied at Oxford, and afterward at Paris:g and the same fact is affirmed of Michael Scot the mathematician,h and William Oceam then celebrated schoolman,i as well as of the innumerable others.
It was probably during the period of Chaucer's residence at Oxford, or shortly after quitting that university, that he produced one of his most considerable works, The Boke of Troilus and Creseide. Lydgate, in enumerating the principal productions of our author, places this first, and expressly asserts it to have been the performance of Chaucer's "youth."k Nor is it a contemptible argument in support of Lydgate's assertion, that there occurs in the work no reference to the connections in which Chaucer afterward lived at court, and that the patrons to whom it is inscribed are Gower and Strode, who were members of this university.
The poem of Troilus and Creseide is avowedly a translation, and there has arisen some enquiry and discussion as to its author, and the language in which it was composed. Chaucer in the course of the poem calls the author Lollius,l and the language of his original Latin;m and in this account his admirers and critic were till lately contented to acquiesce. Mr. Tyrwhit however has asserted and attempted to shown that the author of his original was Boccaccio, and the language in which Chaucer studied it Italian. —Though Boccaccio was the contemporary of Petrarca, and lived near the times of Dante, and though these three authors have commonly and justly been classed together, as a triumvirate reflecting unprecedented honor upon the infant literature of Italy, I purposely deferred naming Boccaccio, when I was recapitulating the merits of his illustrious countrymen, that the whole consideration of Chaucer's early obligations to the Florentine novelist and poet might be brought into one view.
The name of Boccaccio well deserves to be regarded as one of the most honorable in the records of literature. His prose style in particular is distinguished for purity, precision, animation and elegance; and it is to him principally that we are to ascribe the wonderful achievement of giving to his native tongue that character and form, which have remained, except in a few unessential particulars, unchanged for more than four hundred years. The languages of England and France have been in a constant state of fluctuation; and even the phraseology of Shakespear, who lived two hundred and fifty years later than Boccaccio, wears in many respects the rust of antiquity. But Boccaccio is still a standard to the writers of Italian prose. Much as his country has been indebted to him, it is to be regretted that no ample and critical account of his life has yet been given to the world. The following are some of the principal particulars which are known concerning it.
Boccaccio was the natural son of an Italian merchant, and was born in the year 1313. He was consequently nine years younger than Petrarca, and fifteen years older than Chaucer. He was first initiated in learning in his father's native country of Tuscany. At an early age he displayed a singular aptness for literary pursuits; but his father had other views respecting him, and therefore, speedily withdrawing him from the haunts of the muses, placed him under the direction of an individual of his own class, who took young Boccaccio with him to Paris; where he was retained six years, with great violence, as he informs us, to the bias of his own inclinations, in the drudgery of commerce.o This perhaps was judged by the father as an experiment of sufficient extent; and accordingly, after a short subsequent trial of the young man in the same pursuits immediately under his eye, he resolved to consign him to the tuition of a celebrated lawyer and professor of Florence, that he might be bred to the practice of the canon law. This however succeeded no better than the former project; the destination of the youth to literature was unconquerable; and his father seems at length to have yielded to a necessity, which he found it vain to resist.
The catalogue of Boccaccio's principal works is as follows: four historical poems, La Teseide; Il Filiostrato; L'Amorosa Visione; and Il Ninfale Fiesolano: four prose romances, Il Filocopo; La Fiammetta; L'Ameto; and Il Laberinto d'Amore, otherwise called Il Corbaccio: four works in Latin prose, De Genealogia Deorum, Libri XV; De Montium, Sylvarum, Lacuum, Fluviorum, Stagnorum & Marium Nominibus, Liber Unus; De Casibus Virorum & Fæminarum Illustrium, Libri IX; and De Claris Mulieribus Liber Unus: and sixteen eclogues in Latin verse. The production upon which the present reputation of Boccaccio almost singly rests is Il Decamerone, a collection of one hundred tales in Italian prose. The style of this performance has, ever since it was written, been regarded as nearly a perfect model of the familiar and elegant in Italian composition, and the tales are related with great simplicity, spirit and humour. The poetry of Boccaccio is pronounced by his countrymen to be as feeble and languid in its character, as his prose is exquisite and admirable.
We cannot trace the publication of any of the works of Boccaccio further back than to the twenty-eighth year of his age. This date is ascertained by a letter of dedication to a lady, whom he calls La Fiammetta, sent with a copy of La Teseide, which appears to have been written at Naples, 15 April 1341. Boccaccio is usually stated by his biographers to have been dispatched by his father to Naples in that year on some commercial concerns, where, being introduced to Robert king of Naples, the most learned prince of his time, he experienced great encouragement from that monarch, and conceived a passion for Mary of Arragon, the natural daughter of the king, to whom he is supposed in several of his works to refer under the feigned appellation of La Fiammetta.
The Decamerone also admits of a date being assuaged it, from this circumstance. The tales are feigned to be related through the medium of a conversation between seven gentlemen and three ladies, who retired from Florence on account of the great plague in that city in 1348. The work is represented by its author as having cost him considerable time in the composition, so that it probably was not completed till several years after the event which furnished the occasion of its production. It could not however have been written later than 1302, when Boccaccio was converted from these trivial pursuits and profane learning, by the remonstrances of a monk, a stranger, who professed to be divinely instigated to threaten him with speedy death, and the torments of hell for ever, if he did not suddenly repent of his iniquities.
Boccaccio, though the contemporary of Petrarca, does not appear to have been personally acquainted with him till the year 1350. From that time they furnish a pleasing and delightful example of the two most eminent literary men of Italy, impressed with a fervent and uninterrupted attachment for each other. Beside being both poets, and both sedulous and successful cultivators of their vernacular idiom, they also sympathised in their zeal for the restoration of ancient learning. Latin, as we have already seen, was a language much cultivated in these ages, and several of the illustrious Roman writers received a due degree of attention and homage; but the Greek tongue had almost been extinguished in the West. Petrarca procured himself an instructor in this language, by name Barlaam, in the year 1330; but Barlaam shortly after died; and, when Petrarca received from Constantinople a present of a Greek Homer in 1354, though he declared himself charmed with his acquisition, he confessed that he was unable to communicate with his illustrious favourite in the tongue in which his poems were written. In 1360 Boccaccio put himself under a master in the Greek language, named Leontius Pilatus, with whom he carefully perused the Iliad and the Odyssey.
Boccaccio has left us an entertaining portrait of the preceptor under whom he studied. "His aspect," says he, "is frightful, and his features monstrous; his beard is long and hirsute, and his hair coarse and black; he is continually immersed in profound meditation and neglectful of all the decorums of society; he is harsh, unpolished, without manners, and without civility; but he is profoundly acquainted with all the treasures of Greek literature, and is an inexhaustible storehouse of Grecian story and Grecian fable, though possessing a slight tincture only of the Latin language."p This man, such as he was, Boccaccio was contented, for love of learning, to receive and entertain for a long time under his roof. He introduced him to Petrarca; but Petrarca was more delicate in his tastes, and less patient of what offended him. Petrarca observes of Leontius, that he was "in fact a Calabrian; but that in Italy he called himself a Thessalonican, just as in Greece he gave himself out for an Italian, pleasing himself with the foolish idea, that he should be more respected in either country, in proportion as he was understood to be a native of the other."q Boccaccio left him with Petrarca at Venice in the year 1363, who for some time endeavored to detain him. But this Leo of yours," says he in a letter to Boccaccio, "who is in every point of view an untamed beast, was as deaf to all my in treaties as the rocks he was so eager to seek. Soon after your departure therefore he took shipping for Constantinople. Scarcely had he time to reach that place, before I received from him a letter as long and as rough as his beard, in which he curses Constantinople just as much as before he cursed Italy, and intreats me, more piteously than Peter intreated Christ on the water, to call him back hither, and show myself his savious. But no! he shall have neither letter nor message on my part; let him stay where he is, and live miserably in the pace to which he withdrew insolently."r Leontius however, though he received no answer to letters, could not be prevented from taking his passage to Europe, when, being overtaken by a tempest, and having clung to a mast of the vessel, a stroke of lightning reached him, and reduced him and the mast to ashes in an instant.s
The question of the date of the different works of Boccaccio is by no means foreign to that of the obligations of Chaucer to his writings.
It is thus that Mr. Tyrwhit expresses himself on the subject of the Troilus and Creseide. "It is so little a while since the world has been informed, that the Palamon and Arcite of Chaucer was taken from the Theseida of Boccace, that it would not have been surprising if another century had elapsed without our knowing that our countrymen had also borrowed his Troilus from the Filostrato of the same author; as the Filostrato is more scarce and much less famous, even in Italy, than the Theseida." Mr. Tyrwhit then proceeds to give minute narrative respected the manner in which he was led to discover what he calls, Chaucer's "theft." "The first suspicion which he entertained of it was from reading the title of the Filostrato at large in Saxii His. Lit. Typog. Mediolan. ad un. 1498; and he afterward found, in Montfaucon's Bibl. Mss. t. ii. P. 793. among the king of France's Mes. one with this title, 'Philostrato, dell' a morose faticbe di Troile per Gio Baccaccio.' - He had just employed a person to procure him some account of this Ms. from Paris, when he had good fortune to meet with a printed copy in the collection of the Reverend Mr. Crofts, and had soon an opportunity of satisfying himself that Chaucer was to the full as much obliged to Boccace in his Troilus as in his Knightes Tale."t
In another part of his publication however My. Tyrwhit very reasonably remarks, that Chaucer in the course of his poem has again and again asserted that the name of the author from whom he translates is Lollius, and that Lydgate expressly mentions that the title of the original work was Trophe.u "How Boccace should have acquired the name of Lollius, and the Filostrato the title of Trophe, are points which I confess myself unable to explain."x
To any person in the least accustomed to consider the nature of evidence, and to weigh opposite proofs against each other, it can scarcely be necessary to remark upon this hypothesis of Mr. Tyrwhit, that direct evidence is of the highest class, and presumptive evidence of a class essentially inferior; and that the express statements of Chaucer and Lydgate on this point have a stronger claim upon our assent, than the conjectures of the editor of the Canterbury Tales.
Since Mr. Tyrwhit's publication, a modern edition of the Filostrato, erroneously stated in the title to be the first printed edition, has appeared at Paris, 1789, and is not difficult to be obtained; so that every one who pleases may compare the Filostrato with the Troilus and Creseide, and judge for himself of the degree of resemblance between them.
But, supposing these two poems to agree to the minutest particular, I should still believe that Chaucer did not translate Boccaccio. I should prefer his own assertion as to the name of his author, to this circuitous proof; nor can I conceive any reason why he should rather wish to be thought indebted to an imaginary Latin author, called Lollius, than to his illustrious Italian contemporary Boccaccio.
If the poem of Troilus and Creseide were written at Oxford, or soon after Chaucer quitted that university, it was probably not finished later than 1350. Boccaccio's two large Italian historical poems, the Teseide and the Filostrato, were the production of his youth. The Teseide bears date 1341, and the Filostrato, were the production of his youth. The Teseide bears date 1341, and the Filostrto is usually considered, and is affirmed by the Parisian editor,y to be a subsequent performance. From these dates we shall perceive that it is not naturally impossible that the Troilus should be a translation of the Filostrato. But, if we consider the comparative slowness and limited nature of the literary intercourse which then subsisted between England and Italy, if we recollect that Chaucer had not yet entered into the continental connections which he afterward formed, and if we add that the young Boccaccio had by no means acquired the brilliant fame which he subsequently obtained, we shall think it little probable that his juvenile essay so speedily obtained the honors of an English translation. There is indeed a translated sonnet of Petrarca inserted in the Troilus;z but, though Petrarca was but nine years older than Boccaccio, it is to be considered that he came at a much earlier period of life than his friend, into possession of the highest degree of celebrity.
Mr. Tyrwhit seems inclined to consider Lollius as the name of a man who had no other existence than in the forgery of Chaucer. But this is a strange hypothesis. What motive had Chaucer for such a forgery? The poem of Troilus and Creseide was certainly not written by Lollius Urbicus, a Roman historian of the third century, to whom it is thoughtlessly ascribed in Speght's and Urfy's editions;aa since it is interspersed with ideas of chivalry, which did not exist till long after that period: and Mr. Tyrwhit perhaps had never heard of any other Lollius. It is surely however too hasty a conclusion, because his name has not reached us from any other quarter, to say that he never existed. How many authors, with their memories, even to their very names, may we reasonably suppose to have been lost in the darkness of the middle ages! Not to travel out of present subject for an illustration, if the Filostrato, a considerable poem of so celebrated an author as Boccaccio, had so nearly perished, who will wonder that the original work, and the name of the author from whom Boccaccio translated it, have now sunk into total oblivion?
There is a further very strong evidence of the real existence of Lollius, which occurs in the writings of Chaucer. One of our poet's most considerable works is entitled the House of Fame; and in this poem, among a cluster of worthies, he introduces the writers who had recorded the story of Troy. They are as follow; Homer, Dares, Titus [or Dictys], Lollius, Guido dalla Colonna, and Geoffrey of Monmouth.bb
Boccaccio is known to have been frequently a translator. Very many of the tales in the Decamerone, that of Grisildis for example, to which we shall soon have occasion to refer, existed before his time.cc He assures us himself that he translated the Teseide from a Latin original.dd Is it not more than probable that the Filostrato came from the same source? Is it not obvious to imagine that Chaucer and Boccaccio copied from one original? Translation was peculiarly the employment of the first revivers of learning; nor did they hold it otherwise than in the highest degree honourable, to open to their unlearned countrymen, the sacred fountains of knowledge which had so long been cosigned to obscurity and neglect.
After all however the Troilus is by no means the exact counterpart of the Filostrato. To omit minuter differences, the Filostrato is divided into ten books, and the Troilus into only five. Add to which, the Troilus, which consists of about eight thousand lines, contains three thousand more than the Filostrato. Chaucer is supposed by Tyrwhit and Warton, ee to have taken his Knight's Tale from the Teseide of Boccaccio. What has he done in this case? Most materially abridged his original. The Teseide is a poem of about ten thousand lines, and Chaucer has told the same story in little more than two thousand. It is not improbable ineed, as a poem of Palamon and Arcite the heroes of the Teseide was one of Chaucer's early productions, that he first translated the Teseide, and afterward compressed it as we find in the Canterbury Tales. Abridgement is infinitely a more natural operation in such cases than paraphrase. When a man of taste, divested of the partialities of a parent, surveys critically a poem of length, one of the things most likely to strike him is that the poem contains superfluities which, with advantage to the general effect, might be lopped away. These considerations, even independently of the direct evidence of Chaucer and Lydgate, would induce an accurate impartial observer to adopt the hypothesis here maintained that Chaucer in his Troilus went to Boccaccio's original, and not to Boccaccio, for the materials upon which he worked.
Mr. Tyrwhit observes that, all things considered, "it would not have been surprising if another century had elapsed without our knowing that our countrymen borrowed his Troilus from the Filostrato of Boccace." After what has been offered, the reader may perhaps be opinion, that the world might have submitted to the want of this knowledge for a century longer, without suffering any material detriment.
Lollius, of whom it seems absurd to dispute the existence, or to confound him as an author with the great Florentine novelist, may with some degree of probability be assigned to the twelfth century, and considered as the contemporary of Wace and Thomas of Becket. This was the period of the first great struggle of the human mind, to shake off the darkness and sleep in which it had been shrouded for ages. The "tale of Troy divine,"ff was one of those which forcibly engaged the attention of the revivers of a purer Latinity; and it was about this period that individuals in different countries of Europe were seized with the mania of deducing their respective nations from a Trojan original. The Greek language was then almost unknown in the West; the fountains of wisdom and poetry in Homer were shut; and the men of that age found a substitute as the could in the books of Dares Phyrygius and Dictys Cretensis, two pretended eye witnesses of the war they undertook to describe, whose spurious narratives are supposed to have been written under the emperors Nero and Constantine. These authors, partial to the besieged as Homer is to the assailants, were at this time particularly studied and cherished; and one of the most elegant Latin writers of the twelfth century, Joseph of Exeter, produced an heroic poem in six books upon the Trojan war, founded upon the materials they furnished, which has sometimes been appended to the Delphin edition of the authors themselves. There is a propensity in human affairs to ripen minds of nearly the same class and character in different places at the same time: why may we not then with sufficient plausibility regard Lollius, in Italy, or of whatever other country he was a native, as laboring upon his Trophe, about the very period at which our Joseph of Exeter produced his De Bello Trojano; more fortunate in one respect than his British rival, that though Lollius's work has been lost and the other's preserved, the conceptions of Lollius have been repeated and immortalised by the pens of Boccaccio and Chaucer, of Shakespear and Dryden, while the De Bello Trojan slumbers secure and undisturbed in collections of the curious?
a Scriptores Britannici, cap. dv.
b Canterbury Tales, Preface, Appendix C, note b.
c Preliminary Discourse.
d Troilus, Book V, ver. 1855, 6.
e See chap. XVII.
f Ricardus Monachus Bardeniensis, cap. xvi, xix, apud Anglia Sacra. Wood Hist. Oxon. A.D. 1228.
g Leland, Script. Brit., cap. ccxxxvi. Wood, A.D. 1292.
h Leland, cap ccxxxii.
i Tanner, Bibliotheca Britannico-Hibernica, art. Occam.
k Fall of Princes, Prologue, Stanza 41.
l B. I, ver. 395 B. V. ver. 1652.
m B. II, ver. 14.
n Canterbury Tales, Essay on the Language of Chaucer, note 62.
o Boccaccio, Genealogia Deorum, Lib. XV.
p De Sade Memoires pour la Vie de Petrarque, T. III. p 625 Tiraboschi, Storia della Letteratura Italiana, Lib. Ill, c. l §. 8.
q Tiraboschi, ubi supra.
r Tiraboschi, ubi supra.
s Tiraboschi, ubi supra. The above particulars respecting Boccaccio are extracted from De Sade, Memoires pour la Vie de Petrarque; Manni, Istoria del Decamerone, P. I, and Tiraboschi, Lib. III, cap. 2, § 38-45.
t Tyrwhit's Cant. Tales, Essay, n. 62.
u Fall of Princes, ubi supra.
x Notes on the Canterbury Tales, not. 7 from the end.
z Book I, ver. 401.
aa List of authors cited by Chaucer.
bb House of Fame, B. Ill, ver. 374-382.
cc Opera Petrarchi, apud Tyrwhit, Introd. §. 20.
dd Teseide, Lettera alla Fiatnmetta .
ee Tyrwhit, Introd. Warton, Hist. Eng. Poet. Sect. XII.
ff Milton, Il Penseroso.