Chaucer HTML version

Characteristics Of Chaucer And Of His Poetry
Thus, then, Chaucer had passed away;--whether in good or in evil odour with the
powerful interest with which John of Gaunt's son had entered into his unwritten
concordate, after all matters but little now. He is no dim shadow to us, even in his
outward presence; for we possess sufficient materials from which to picture to ourselves
with good assurance what manner of man he was. Occleve painted from memory, on the
margin of one of his own works, a portrait of his "worthy master," over against a passage
in which, after praying the Blessed Virgin to intercede for the eternal happiness of one
who had written so much in her honour, he proceeds as follows:--
Although his life be quenched, the resemblance
Of him hath in me so fresh liveliness,
That to put other men in remembrance
Of his person I have here his likeness
Made, to this end in very soothfastness,
That they that have of him lost thought and mind
May by the painting here again him find.
In this portrait, in which the experienced eye of Sir Harris Nicolas sees "incomparably the
best portrait of Chaucer yet discovered," he appears as an elderly rather than aged man,
clad in dark gown and hood--the latter of the fashion so familiar to us from this very
picture, and from the well known one of Chaucer's last patron, King Henry IV. His
attitude in this likeness is that of a quiet talker, with downcast eyes, but sufficiently erect
bearing of body. One arm is extended, and seems to be gently pointing some observation
which has just issued from the poet's lips. The other holds a rosary, which may be
significant of the piety attributed to Chaucer by Occleve, or may be a mere ordinary
accompaniment of conversation, as it is in parts of Greece to the present day. The
features are mild but expressive, with just a suspicion--certainly no more--of saturnine or
sarcastic humour. The lips are full, and the nose is what is called good by the learned in
such matters. Several other early portraits of Chaucer exist, all of which are stated to bear
much resemblance to one another. Among them is one in an early if not contemporary
copy of Occleve's poems, full-length, and superscribed by the hand which wrote the
manuscript. In another, which is extremely quaint, he appears on horseback, in
commemoration of his ride to Canterbury, and is represented as short of stature, in
accordance with the description of himself in the "Canterbury Tales."
For, as it fortunately happens, he has drawn his likeness for us with his own hand, as he
appeared on the occasion to that most free-spoken of observers and most personal of
critics, the host of the Tabard, the "cock" and marshal of the company of pilgrims. The
fellow-travellers had just been wonderfully sobered (as well they might be) by the piteous
tale of the Prioress concerning the little clergy-boy,--how, after the wicked Jews had cut
his throat because he ever sang "O Alma Redemptoris," and had cast him into a pit, he
was found there by his mother loudly giving forth the hymn in honour of the Blessed