1804 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Godwin

Walter Scott, in Review of Godwin, Life of Chaucer; Edinburgh Review 3 (January 1804) 450-52.



The style of Mr Godwin's life of Chaucer is, in our apprehension, uncommonly depraved, exhibiting the opposite defects of meanness and of bombast. This is especially evident in those sentimental flourishes with which he has garnished his narrative, and which appear to us to be executed in a most extraordinary taste. In the following simile, for example, we hardly know whether most to admire the elegance and power of conception, or the happy ease and dignity of expression.

"Its slender pillars [the author is treating of the later Gothic architecture] may possess various excellences, but they are certainly not magnificent; and the shafts by which the pillars are frequently surrounded have an insignificant air, suggesting to us an idea of fragility, and almost reminding us of 'the humble vehicle through which an English or German rustic inhales the fumes of the Indian weed.'" Vol. I. p. 514.

In p. 181, we hear of "a tune, in which the luxuriance and multiplicity of musical sounds 'obscures and tramples with disdain upon the majestic simplicity of words.'" In other places we find "the 'technicalities' of justice" — "the 'religious nerve' of the soul of man" — young knights who looked upon the field of Roncesvalles with "augmented circulation" — "unforshortened figures" — an "ancient baron 'neighboured' to a throne," and sundry other extremely new and whimsical expressions. But even these conceited barbarisms offend us less than the execrable taste displayed in the following account of Chaucer's early studies.

"He gave himself up to the impressions of nature, and to the sensations he experienced. He studied the writings of his contemporaries, and of certain of the ancients. He was learned according to the learning of his age. He wrote, because he felt himself impelled to write. He analyzed the models which were before him. He sought to please his friends and fellow scholars in the two Universities. He aspired to an extensive and lasting reputation." Vol. I. p. 436.

We have no doubt that Mr. Godwin considers these short sentences as the true model of a nervous and concise style. For our part, we find the sense so poor and trite, when compared with the pithy and sententious mode of delivery, that we feel in our closet the same shame we have sometimes experienced in the theatre, when a fourth-rate actor has exposed himself by mouthing, flapping his pockets, and, according to stage phrase, making the most of a trifling part. We will not pursue this subject any further, although we could produce from these ponderous tones some notable instances of the mock heroic, and of the tone of false and affected sentiment. Such passages have tempted us to exclaim with Pandarus (dropping only one letter of his ejaculation).

Alas! Alas! so noble a creature
As is a man should "reden" such ordure!
[Author's note: for "dreden."]

Upon the whole, Mr. Godwin's friends have, in one respect, great reason to be satisfied with the progress of his convalescence. We hope and trust, that the favourable symptoms of his case may continue. He is indeed now and then very low; or, in other words, uncommonly dull; but there is no apparent return of that fever of the spirits which alarmed us so much in his original publications. The insurrection of Jack Straw (a very dangerous topic) produces only a faint and moderate aspiration breathed towards the "sacred doctrines of equality," which it is admitted are too apt to be "rashly, superficially, and irreverently acted upon, involving their disciples in the most fearful calamity." The disgrace of Alice Pierce, or Perrers, the "chere amie" of Edward III, or, as Mr. Godwin delicately terms her, "the chosen companion of his hours of retirement and leisure," calls down his resentment against the turbulence and rudeness of the Good Parliament. But less could hardly have been expected from the author of the Memoirs of a late memorable female.

We cannot help remarking, that the principles of a modern philosopher continue to alarm the public, after the good man himself has abandoned them, just as the very truest tale will sometimes be distrusted from the habitual falsehood of the narrator. We fear this may have incommoded Mr. Godwin in his antiquarian researches, more than he seems to be aware of. When he complains that private collectors declined "to part with their treasures for a short time out of their own hands," did it never occur to Mr. Godwin that the maxims concerning property, contained in his "Political Justice," were not altogether calculated to conciliate confidence in the author?

But, upon the whole, the Life of Chaucer, if an uninteresting, is an innocent, performance; and were its prolixities and superfluities unsparingly pruned (which would reduce the work to about one fourth of its present size), we would consider it as an accession of some value to English literature.