15 Pages

Town and Country

THAT which in Chaucer's day passed for rank "sluggardy a-night" might yet be very early rising by the modern standard; and our poet, sorely as he needed Philippa's shrill alarum, might still have deserved the character given to Turner by one who knew his ways well, /I that he had seen the sun rise oftener than all the rest of the Academy put together." It is indeed startling to note how sunrise and sunset have changed places in these five hundred years. When a modern artist waxes poetical about the sunrise, a lady will frankly assure him that it is the saddest sight she has ever seen; to her it spells lassitude and reaction after a long night's dancing. Chaucer and his contemporaries lived more in Turner's mood: "the sun, my dear, that's God!" In the days when a tallow candle cost four times its weight in beefsteak, when wax was mainly reserved for God and His saints, and when you could only warm your hands at the risk of burning your boots and blearing your eyes, then no man could forget his strict dependence on the King of the East. The poets of the Middle Ages seem to have been, in general, as insensible to the melancholy beauties

of sunset as to those of autumn. Leslie Stephen, in the first chapters of his 1/ Playground of Europe," has brought a wealth of illustration and penetrating comment to show how strictly men's ideas of the picturesque are limited by their feelings of comfort; and the medieval mind was even more narrowly confined within its theological limitations. Popular religion was then too often frankly dualistic; to many men, the Devil was a more insistent reality than God; and none doubted that the former had special power over the wilder side of nature. The night, the mountain, and the forest were notoriously haunted; and, though many of the finest monasteries were built in the wildest scenery, this was prompted not by love of nature but by the spirit of mortification. At Suite, for instance, in the forest of Hildesheim, the blessed Godehard built his monastery beside a well of brackish water, haunted by a demon, "who oft-times affrighted men, women and maidens, by catching them up with him into the air." The sainted Bishop exorcised not only the demon but the salts, so that 1/ many brewers brew therefrom most excellent beer ... wherefore the Burgermeister and Councillors grant yearly to our convent a hundred measures of Michaelmas malt, three of which measures are equal in quantity to a herring-barrel." What appealed to the founders of the Chartreuse or Tintern was not the beauty of "these steep woods and lofty cliffs," but their ascetic solitude. When, by the monks' own labours and those of their servants, the fields had become fertile, so that they now found leisure to listen how "the shady valley re-echoes in Spring with the sweet songs of birds," then they felt their forefathers to have been right in 1/ noting fertile and pleasant places as a hindrance to stronger minds." * After all, the earth was cursed for Adam's sake, and even its apparent beauty was that of an apple of Sod om. That which Walther won der Vogelweide sang in his

repentant old age had long been a commonplace with moralists-

Ruskin's famous passage on this subject C' M. P.," iii., I 4, I 5) is, on the whole, even too favourable to the Middle Ages; but he fails to note two remarkable exceptions. The poet of II Pearl," who probably knew Wales well, describes the mountains with real pleasure; and Gawin Douglas anticipated Burns by venturing to describe winter not only at some length but also with apparent sympathy. * Moreover, Douglas describes a sunset in its different stages with great minuteness of detail and the most evident delight. Dante does indeed once trace in far briefer words the fading of daylight from the sky; but in his two unapproachable sunsets he turns our eyes eastwards rather than westwards, as we listen to the vesper bell, or think of the last quiet rays lingering on Virgil's tomb. t The scenic splendour of a wild twilight seems hardly to have touched him; his soul turns to rest here, while the hardy Scot is still abroad to watch the broken storm-clouds and the afterglow. And if Douglas thus outranges even Dante, he leaves Chaucer and Boccaccio far behind. The freshness and variety of the sunrises in the it Decameron " is equalled only by the bald brevity with which the author despatches eventide, which he connects mainly with supper, a little dancing or music, and bed. It would be equally impossible, I believe, to find a real sunset in Chaucer; Criseyde's II Ywis, it will be night as fast," is quite a characteristic epitaph for the dying day.