This text was taken from Godwin's Life of Chaucer by William Godwin, London: T. Davison, White-Friars; 1804.
and delight, with which they had hitherto had acquaintance. I have led my readers, with however unconfirmed a speech and inadequate powers, to the different sources of information; and, if I have been unable to present what should satisfy a vigorous and earnest curiosity, I have wished to say enough to awaken their enquiries, and communinicate to them some image of men from times which have long since been no more.
It was my purpose is to produce a work of a new species. Antiquities have too generally been regarded as the province of cold tempers and sterile imaginations, writers who, by their phlegmatic and desultory industry, have brought discredit upon a science; which is perhaps beyond all others fraught with wisdom, moral instruction and intellectual improvement. Their books may indeed be con-
siderably useful to the patient enquierer who would delineate the picture of past times for himself; but they can scarecely incite enquiry; and their contents are put together with such narrow views, so total an absence of discrimination, and such an unsuspecting ignorance of the materials of which man is made, that the potential of them tends for the most part to stupify the sense, and to imbue the soul with moping and lifeless dejection.
It was my wish, had my power held equal pace with my strong inclination to carry the workings of fancy and the spirit of philosophy into the investigation of ages past. I was anxious to rescue for a moment the illustrious dead from the jaws of the grave, to make them pass in view before me, to question their spirits and record their answers. I wished to make myself their master of the ceremonies, to
introduce my reader to their familiar speech, and to enable him to feel for the instant as if he had lived with Chaucer,
I have acknowledged the slightness of the present work, in comparison of the magnitude of its subject. It has been my good fortune however, in the course of my undertaking, to encounter many discoveries. Mr. Tyrwhit, to whom we are indebted for the latest and best edition of the Canterbury Tales, informs us, that he "had once the intention of writing a formal life of Chaucer; but that, after a reasonable waste of time and pains in searching for materials, he found that he could do nothing better, than add to his Preface a short Abstract of the Historical
Passages of that Lifeb which, together with the comments of its compiler, fills only about eight quarto pages. A late antiquarian has given his approbation to what Mr. Tyrwhit has done in this respectc.
The fact is however, that this editor made no exertions as to the history of the poet, but contented himself with examining what other biographers had related, and adding a few memorandums taken from Rymer's manuscript collections, now in the British Museum. He has not in a single instance resorted to the national repositories in which our records are preserved. In this sort of labour
b Edition of the Canterbury Tales, Preface.
c Ellis, Specimens of the Early English Poets, Vol. I, Chap. VIII.
I had been indefatigable; and I have many obligations to acknowledge to the politeness and liberality of the persons to whose custody these monuments are confided. I encountered indeed no obstacle, wherever I had occasion to direct my enquiries among the different offices of government. After all my diligence however, I am by no means confident that I may not have left some particulars to be gleaned by the compilers who shall come after me.
The attentive reader will perceive that I have been less copious upon the last fifteen, than upon the preceding years of the life of Chaucer. I had advanced as far as the middle of the second volume, when I saw my materials growing under my hand, and became sensible that, if they were fully treated, the work would extend beyond the dimensions originally pre-
scribed to it. But, if I, enamoured of my subject, might have thought no number of pages or of volumes too much for its developement, it was by no means impossible that purchasers and readers would think otherwise. My bookseller, who is professionally conversant with matters of this sort, assured me, that two volumes in quarto were as much as the public would allow the title of my book to authorise. It would be in vain to produce a work, whatever information it might comprise, which no one will purchase or will read; and I have therefore submitted to his decision. In fact, less is perhaps lost by this compression, than at first I was apt to imagine. It had been my object to collect generally those particulars of contemporary manners, literature and story, which contributed to make Chaucer what he was: But the
ample survey of what occurred before he was fifty-seven years of age, may seem sufficient for this purpose; nor is it likely that his mind underwent any essential revolution after that period. I found John of Gaunt intimately connected with the history of Chaucer, and I was desirous of showing what sort of man Chaucer had for his patron and his friend: But, if I have not adequately rescued this prince from the misrepresentations of the crowd of historians in what the reader will find in these volumes, I am afraid it would be to little purpose to have laboured upon the concluding period of his life. I have been constrained to omit the analysis of Chaucer's last productions, his Canterbury Tales, and the endeavour to trace the descent of these tales through preceding and contemporary authors: But this part of his works has already been most studied
and illustrated; and the edition of Mr. Tyrwhit, though the production of such an antiquary as has above been described, has enough of judgment and knowledge to form some excuse for the writer who declines to recomment on the same work.
The Appendix to these volumes principally consists of extracts from the records preserved in the Tower of London and in other public repositories. In a work so copious as the present, it seemed proper to give these documents at length. One reader, in perusing, will often find hints and topics for conjecture and reflection, which may escape the observation of another. They are here given immediately from the originals; and, if errors shall be found in them, I have no excuse to plead, unless the hurry and distraction incident to a transcript to be made in a public office. The only document here given,
of which, for reasons not necessary to be mentioned, I was unable to obtain a sight, is the Testimony of Chaucer in the cause of Scrope and Grosvenor, printed at the end of the first volume, and which forms the subject of a Dissertation prefixed to that volume. --It is perhaps worthy of notice that, though the secretary of the Society of Antiquaries obligingly favoured me with a copy of Chaucer's Lease (Appendix, No. XXVIII) from a plate, engraved by Dr. Richard Rawlinson, and deposited in the Library of the Society, he at the same time informed me that I could not be permitted to see the engraving. The copy however was so far of use, as it led me to the original in the archives of the dean and chapter of Westminster, whence (a small number of errors excepted, which are here corrected) Dr. Rawlinson's plate was taken.
Throughout this publication, care has been taken to make no reference to any book, which has not been actually consulted, and the reference verified by inspection. One circumstance has resulted from this, which it seems candid to explain. In the early part of the work, for about one hundred pages, the books referred to are few, and many references are given at second-hand from publications comparatively accessible or modern; afterward this defect no longer occurs. The cause of this is as follows. It was impossible for me to purchase all the books I had occasion to consult; and, reasoning upon general principles, I believed it could not be difficult in such a metropolis as London to obtain the loan of them. I accordingly made many efforts for that purpose; but my efforts were for the most part unsuccessful. Few of our public
libraries suffer their books to be removed beyond the walls of their institution. And, for private collectors, I generally found that they did not see, in the illustrations of English history and English literature here proposed to be made, a sufficient motive to part with their treasures for a short time out of their own hands. After some interval therefore of fruitless experiments, it became necessary to form a peremptory resolution, and to yield to an assiduous and almost daily attendance at the British Museum. This has been productive of great loss of time and many disadvantages. No studious man can collate authorities and draw his inferences satisfactorily, except in his own chamber. No man can adequately judge what it is that may be necessary to his purpose, till after repeated essays and comparisons. Add to which, he who studies at home
chooses his seasons of study, while he who resorts to a public library has them measured out to him by others. But, when animated with the hope of adding something to the stock of general information or improvement, it is right that such obstacles should be regarded by us as unworthy of notice.
PERIOD OF THE BIRTH
THE dates assigned to the birth and death of Chaucer are among those points which, from the time perhaps of the erecting his tomb in 1550 to the present, have never been questioned or disturbed. It is undoubtedly pleasing, in a subject which in many particulars is involved in obscurity, to be able to seize some points which are free from the shadow of a doubt. It has however fallen to the lot of the writer of these volumes to discover a document, which is calculated in its consequences to bring the former of these dates into question.
The path which led to this document was as follows. In the Life of Chaucer prefixed to Urry's edition of his works, is this remark. "It may not be improper to observe, that during Chaucer's troubles, in the tenth year of Rich. II. there was a dispute in a case of chivalry depending between sir Richard Grosvenour and sir Richard le Scrope, concerning their arms; which the king directed John Staple and Walter Leycester heralds, to examine. They accordingly met at the Preaching Fryers in London, on Monday the last day of May, where appeared as witnesses most of the chief nobility in England, and other persons of distinction; among whom was our Chaucer, who gave in evidence, "that he saw Scrope armed at Rottes in France, azure with a bend d'or, and that coat was by public voice and fame taken for Scrope's coat." The author of the Life refers, as his authority for this statement, to a "roil in a cause of chivalry between Scrope and Grosvenour, 10 R. 2. communicated to Mr. Urry by John Anstis Esq; Garter Principal King at Arms."
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