Known as the Father of English literature, Geoffrey Chaucer was born in 1343 and is widely considered to be the greatest English poet of the Middle Ages. Adcock senses a direct connection stretching from Chaucer to the poets of WW1.
INTRODUCTION (part 1)
Compare this England of to-day
With England as she once has been.
Capt. C. H. Sorley, A Call to Action.
Here and there, in or near towns and villages all about these Islands, in the summer of 1918, when I am writing this, you will come upon public gardens and recreation grounds that, nowadays, are looking strangely desolate. One such garden, an old pleasaunce from which the noise of the City is walled out, lies near the centre of London, and I cannot pass it now without an impulse to bare my head.
There is no grass on the wide lawn that in other years was trim and green. It has been worn away by the feet of the young recruits I have seen training there in successive companies, some in khaki, some still in civilian dress, since the first days of the war; and the quiet, flower-bordered space is as black and bare to-day as if no grass had ever grown over it.
The feet that have trodden it so have toiled since through the mud of France and Flanders, through the sands of Palestine or Mesopotamia, or up the rugged steeps of Gallipoli, and too many of them shall never take the way homeward any more. Our hearts know what these barren patches mean, for the shadow of their barrenness falls far across the lives we live. Some day the grass will grow again and happiness return to some of us, but too much is gone that can never return.
Yet in our hearts, too, we know on an afterthought, that
Nothing is here for tears, nothing to wail
Or knock the breast—nothing but well and fair,
And what may quiet us in a death so noble.
These men, these boys, who died that Freedom might live and that the higher hopes of mankind should not be trampled under by the lower, knew why they made the great sacrifice, and made it willingly in such a cause. And it is part of our pride in them that in this they have done nothing new, have taken no new way, but have trodden instinctively and worthily in a beaten track; their courage, chivalry, love of justice, are theirs by inheritance, the ideals that led them are the common ideals that have led the best of our race through the past.
So much you may learn by reading in the books that have been written by many soldier authors who have fought in this war and revealed in their verse or prose the faith and spirit that prompted them and their comrades-in-arms ; and, since it is still true that the soul of a nation lives in its literature, we shall understand them better, perhaps, and see how indissolubly they are linked up with the old traditions of our people, if we look back a little before we go farther.
It is curious to note that some contemporary enthusiasts speak and write of the democratic feeling which has broadened and deepened among us in these days as if it were a quite modern, rather sudden growth – a brand new spirit of common brotherhood that had been called into existence by the exigencies of the war.
For most of us know it is merely the coming to full tide of the mighty undercurrent that has been slowly gathering force in our life, as in our literature, all down the centuries. You may catch sounds of it in Chaucer, a fuller music of it in Langland; and thenceforward, to Morris, Browning, Tennyson, Swinburne, and our soldier authors of to-day, there is scarcely a poet of any significance who does not more or less preach that simple gospel of humanity.
Nor are these apostles of democracy to be set aside as discontented plebeians. The courtly Gascoigne, passionately denouncing social wrongs and inequalities and urging the duty of man to his fellows—
O Knights, O Squires, O Gentle bloods yborn,
You were not born all only for yourselves -
was as fine a democrat in the sixteenth century as Shelley was in the nineteenth.
There are as true and trenchant things said for democracy in Sir Thomas More’s Utopia as in the books of such moderns as Ruskin, Dickens, Carlyle, Wells, Shaw ; and it is no stranger that our people should have risen spontaneously now for the democratic ideal of freedom that is so literally in their blood, than that they should have put off the mild habits of civilian life and become instantly as hardy, fearless, and chivalrous soldiers as any in the world’s history, for these qualities also are in their birthright.
We are accustomed to being patronised as an unimaginative race, in spite of the fact that no country has produced a greater imaginative literature. We are accustomed to being classed as a nation of shopkeepers, and have accepted the description indifferently, for it is not as if we had been accused of limiting our business activities to a single trade and (emulating the peculiar Prussian aspiration) of transforming ourselves into a nation of butchers.
When you think of it, we actually are shopkeepers, in the large, sane meaning of the term, nor is it any way to our discredit, so long as we make it clear, as we are doing again, that our honour is not of the things we sell. Even Shakespeare was a shopkeeper, an unusually capable one; and his partnership in a successful theatrical business did not prevent him from being a greater poet than any who never soiled his hands in a shop.
A peaceful, useful occupation, shop-keeping in general is easily compatible with the pursuit of culture, with the living of that finer life of the spirit which differentiates the civilised man from the crude savage whose staple industry is war. It is a barbaric folk who, though there is no battle toward, delight in being soldiers all the time and accentuating the symbols of their profession.
Those who have emerged from barbarism do not cease to be fighting men because they have ceased to be fighting men only. America and France are demonstrating that, and for ourselves—there is not more than an infinitesimal part of our army that knew how to handle a gun before this war was declared, and it was significant of our small professional army that, so far from loving to clothe itself in extravagant terrors, its officers made it almost a point of etiquette to get out of uniform into mufti whenever they were off duty.
I think the native common sense of the shopkeeping Britisher brought him long since to see the absurdity of the cult of militarism, the childishness of cultivating feiocious moustaches and wearing spiked helmets in order to look dangerous.
That sort of thing, which passes in Germany as impressive and up-to-date, is ridiculously behind the times. They know better even in China than to cling any longer to a hope of being able to terrify their opponents by wearing ugly masks.
Another point in our favour, as a civilised race, is that we do not and never did devote our energies to acquiring the goose-step. Like sensible people we are contented to leave that style of locomotion to the bird that is naturally afflicted with it.
Anyhow, those manifestations of raw barbarism are obsolete; they are signs, in a modern community, of moral and mental degeneracy. German professors have confidently written us down as degenerates because the passion for militarism, the lust for conquest, has departed from us, and we are no longer moved to spend our lives in swaggering about in battle array, rattling sharp swords and truculently menacing the goods and lives of our neighbours.
But I prefer to believe that since we became a lettered, cultured community we have lost the taste for blood, and that the arrogant exhibition of courage has never entered into our conception of the competent, heroic warrior.
In the last seven centuries, which of our poets who have themselves been soldiers have blustered of their brute strength or eulogised the glory of war? Though Chaucer fought against France under Edward III and tells in gallant fashion of tilt and tourney and the high doings of chivalry, there is little that is martial in his poetry. You remember the Knight in his Canterbury Tales — how he had proved himself ‘ full worthy’ in war; had for his puissance been placed at table above the knights of every other country; yet as his crowning praise Chaucer chronicles it that, though brave, he was wise,
And of his port as meek as is a maid.
He never yet no villainy ne said
In all his life unto no manner wight:
He was a very perfect gentle knight.
Moreover, into his conception of the Temple of Mars the father of English poetry puts nothing of that pride and splendour of war which might be supposed to appeal to a soldier poet of his earlier day: it is a ‘sory place,’ he says, and the paintings on its walls are all of murder, assassinations,’ open warres,’ with bleeding wretches in agony, and in the midst sits Mischance,
With sory comfort and evil countenance.
True, there is a figure of Conquest painted up in a tower, but as he sits with a sword suspended above him by a single thread, it is not to be presumed that his position is worth occupying.
There is nothing whatever in the verse of the Earl of Surrey to remind you that he went fighting in France. Sir Walter Raleigh, that daring, dashing hero, never fought with his pen: all his poems are of an amatory, philosophical, or pleasantly pastoral order. And Sir Philip Sidney, our ideal soldier, made no song that boasts of his prowess or triumphs over his enemies, but wrote the loveliest sonnets to the moon, to sleep, to love, and verses that sigh over the vanity of human things.
These, and other of our soldier poets like them, dead and living, seem to be a vastly different type of fighting man from the ‘blonde beast,’ the professional slaughterer adored of the German intellectuals, and this war is showing and will show which of the two types is fittest to survive in a reasonable world, and which belongs to the jungle and is doomed to extinction.
Two hundred years after Chaucer was dead, you find his ideal of the British soldier persisting (for it was the national ideal) in Ben Jonson’s epistle ‘to a friend, Master Colby, to persuade him to the wars’ — an appeal that might well have been written yesterday, so applicable is it to what has happened in our generation:—
Wake, friend, from forth thy lethargy: the drum
Beats brave and loud in Europe, and bids come
All that dare rouse, or are not loath to quit
Their vicious ease and be o’erwhelmed with it.
It is a call to keep the spirits alive
That gasp for action and would yet revive
Man’s buried honour in his sleepy life,
Quickening dead nature to her noblest strife…
Go, quit them all, and take along with thee
Thy true friend’s wishes, Colby, which shall be
That thine be just and honest, that thy deeds
Not wound thy conscience when thy body bleeds;
That thou dost all things more for truth than glory,
And never but for doing wrong be sorry;
That by commanding first thyself thou mak’st
Thy person fit for any charge thou tak’st;
That fortune never make thee to complain,
But what she gives thou dare give her again;
That whatsoever face thy fate puts on
Thou shrink nor start not, but be always one;
That thou think nothing great but what is good,
And from that thought strive to be understood.
So, ‘live or dead, thou wilt preserve a fame
Still precious with the odour of thy name;
And last, blaspheme not; we did never hear
Man thought the valianter ’cause he durst swear.
These take, and now go seek thy peace in war:
Who falls for love of God shall rise a star.
Ben was no milk-and-water poet either. In his youth he fought with our armies in Flanders; he was not without experience of war, and you may take it he was addressing, in Master Colby, the type of Englishman who shattered the pride of the Spanish Armada, who wrought on the same field as Sidney—men who went into battle not as ravening brutes lusting to befoul any victory they won by a savage slaughterof children and women and defenceless civilians, but as free, clean human creatures, prepared to take arms and slay or be slain, in fair fight with armed men, for a cause they felt to be just, and yet in the hour of triumph
By objects which might force the soul to abate
Her feeling, rendered more compassionate.
Pass over another two centuries, and the same national ideal of the British soldier survives still inviolate in Tennyson’s ‘ Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington’ :—
Yet remember all He spoke among you, and the Man who spoke;
Who never sold the truth to serve the hour,
Nor paltered with eternal God for power;
Who never spoke against a foe;
Whose eighty winters freeze with one rebuke
All great self-seekers trampling on the right;
Truth-teller was our English Alfred named;
Truth-lover was our English Duke;
Whatever record leap to light, He never shall be shamed.
Next page: INTRODUCTION (part 2)