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THE story of January and May now before us is of the comic kind; and the character of a fond old dotard betrayed into disgrace by an unsuitable match is supported in a lively manner. Pope has endeavoured suitably to familiarize the stateliness of our heroic measure in this ludicrous narrative; but, after all his pains, this measure is not adapted to such subjects, so well as the lines of four feet, or the French numbers of Fontaine. Fontaine is, in truth, the capital and unrivalled writer of comic tales. He generally took his subjects from Boccace, Poggius, and Ariosto; but adorned them with so many natural strokes, with such quaintness in his reflections, and such a dryness and archness of humour, as cannot fail to excite laughter.
Our Prior has happily caught his manner in many of his lighter tales, particularly in Hans Carvel; the invention of which, if its genealogy be worth tracing, is first due to Poggius. It is found in the hundred and thirty-third of his Facetiæ, where it is entitled, Visio Francisci Philelphi; from hence Rabelais inserted it under another title, in his third book and twenty-eighth chapter. It was afterward related in a book called the Hundred Novels. Ariosto finishes the fifth of his incomparable satires with it. Malespini also made use of it. Fontaine, who imagined Rabbelais to be the inventor of it, was the sixth author who delivered it, as our Prior was the last, and perhaps not the least spirited. Mr. Tyrwhitt gives the following account of this tale: "The scene of the Merchant's Tale is laid in Italy; but none of the names, except Damia and Justin, seem to be Italian, but rather made at pleasure; so that I doubt whether the story be really of Italian growth. The adventure of the pear-tree I find in a small collection of Latin fables, written by one Adolphus, in elegiac verses of his fashion, in the year 1315. This fable has never been printed but once, and in a book not commonly to be met with.
"Whatever was the real original of this tale, the machinery of the Fairies, which Chaucer has used so happily, was probably added by himself; and indeed I cannot help thinking that his Pluto and Proserpine were the true progenitors of Oberon and Titania, or rather that they themselves have, once at least, designed to revisit our poetical system under the latter names. 'In the History of English Poetry, vol. i. p. 421, this is said to be an old Lombard story.' But many passages in it are evidently taken from the Polycraticon of John of Salisbury. De molestiis et oneribus conjugiorum secundum Hieronymum et
alios philosophos. Et de pernicie libidinis. Et de mulieris Ephesinæ et similium fide. And by the way, about forty verses belonging to this argument are translated from the same chapter of the Polycraticon, in the Wife of Bath's prologue. In the mean time it is not improbable that this tale, might have originally been Oriental. A Persian tale is just published which it extremely resembles; and it has much of the allegory of an Eastern apologue.”
The author adds, that the Miller's Tale, in Chaucer, excels all his other tales in true and exquisite humour.
JANUARY AND MAY.
THERE liv'd in Lombardy, as authors write, In days of old, a wise and worthy knight; Of gentle manners, as of gen'rous race, Blest with much sense, more riches, and some grace. Yet led astray by Venus' soft delights,
He scarce could rule some idle appetites :
But in due time, when sixty years were o'er,
JANUARY AND MAY.] This translation was done at sixteen or seventeen years of age. P.
In conformity to our author's own practice, it has been thought proper to insert a portion of the original of Chaucer, that the reader may form a judgment of Pope's many improvements and alterations:
"Whilom ther was dwelling in Lumbardie
As don thise fooles that been seculere.