1902 Encyclopedia > Geoffrey Chaucer

Geoffrey Chaucer
English poet
(c. 1340-1400)




GEOFFREY CHAUCER, (c. 1340-1400). There are few fields of research in which antiquarians, from Speght to Furnivall, have laboured so zealously and successfully as the life of Chaucer. The secret of their success has been that Chaucer was more actively engaged in public affairs than any poet of celebrity since his time, and has consequently left many traces in official records. The chief biographical fact known to Speght was that Chaucer gave evidence in a case tried at Westminster in 1836 touching the right of Lord Scrope to bear certain arms, and then deposed that he was "forty years old and upward," and has borne arms for twenty-seven years. A casual fact of this sort offered no clue to further investigation; but the fact that Chaucer received from Edward III. a pension of twenty marks was more suggestive. This clue was first energetically followed up by Godwin, the author of Caleb Williams and Political Justice, who searched diligently through several records, chiefly the Patent, Close, and French Rolls fro other notices of Chaucer’s name, and succeeded in enriching his biography of Chaucer, published in 1804, with various important particulars. He was followed by Sir Harris Nicolas, who made an exclusive examination of the Issue Rolls of the Exchequer, and published the results in 1843. Another determined search through records which Godwin and Nicolas had shrunk from was made in 1873 by Mr Furnivall, and this also resulted in several important finds.

Geoffrey Chaucer image

Geoffrey Chaucer


It is to Mr Furnivall that we are indebted for finally settling the parentage of Chaucer. Speght in the course of his researches had hit upon the name of one Richard Chaucer, a vintner, who died in 1348, and made a bequest to the church of St Mary Aldermary. Merely on the ground of the name, Speght supposed this to be the father of Chaucer; but Urry and Tyrwhitt, in the 18th century, disputed this, and wished to give the poet a higher lineage, because in the grant of a pension made to him in 41 Edward III. he was described as "valettus noster." Mr Furnivall settled the question by bringing to light a deed dated 1380, in which Chaucer, relinquishing his right in a house belonging to his father, described himself as "the son of John Chaucer, vintner." By other documents this John Chaucer is shown to be the son of Speght’s Richard. In is thus established that both the poet’s father and his grandfather were London vintners. The precise date of his birth has not been ascertained. The accepted date till lately was 1328. The difficulty with this date was his being described as "forty years and upward" in 1386, and of late opinion has inclined to 1340 as a more probable year. This is favoured by the discovery that the poet was Richard Chaucer’s grandson and not his son, and fits in better with the facts than 1328.

How Chaucer was educated, whether like "Philogenet," the name which he assumes in the Court of Love, he was "of Cambridge clerk," and how he was introduced to the notice of the court, is left to conjecture. His name occurs in the household book of the wife of Prince Lionel, second son of Edward III., in 1357, probably, Mr Furnivall conjectures, as a page. He bore arms in Edward III.’s invasion of France in 1359, John Chaucer being also in the expedition, probably in connection with the commissariat. There was little fighting in that expedition, the ravages of the English for several years before having left little to fight for; but in the course of a disastrous retreat , compelled rather by hunger than by martial force, Chaucer was taken prisoner. In 1360 the king paid £16 for his ransom. From 1360 to 1366 there is a gap in the record of his life; but in the latter year his name occurs in a list of the members of the royal household as one of thirty-seven "esquires" of the king, who were to receive a gift of clothes at Christmas. By this time also he would seem to have been married, if the Philippa Chaucer, one of the demoiselles of Queen Philippa, who in 1366 was granted a yearly pension of ten marks, was, as is most probable, his wife (see the discussion of the question in Sir H. Nicolas’s memoir). In 1367 Chaucer himself received a pension of twenty marks from the king, being described as "dilectus valettus noster." To show that in being courtier and scholar he had not ceased to be soldier, he took part in another inglorious expedition against France in 1369, in which from the Fabian tactics pursued by the French king there was little opportunity for distinction. He was back in London towards the end of 1370, and henceforward devoted himself to more peaceful pursuits. His talents for diplomacy and his acquaintance with commerce were recognized by the crown. In 1372 he was dispatched to Genoa as a commissioner to arrange a commercial treaty with the Genoese. About this embassy much has been written, on the supposition that he may have made the acquaintance of Petrarch in the course of his visit to Italy. Whether in recognition of his services or on other grounds, he received on his return, in 1374, the grant of a pitcher of wine daily; and soon after, in further evidence of the royal favour, he was appointed comptroller of the customs and subsidy of wools, skins, and tanned hides in the port of London. IN 1376 he was associated with Sir John Burley on some secret service, the nature and place of which are not known, and in 1377 he was sent on the secret mission to Flanders. And it was not merely in commercial matters that the poet was considered serviceable; in 1378, after the accession of Richard II., he was attached to a mission sent into France to negotiate a marriage for the young king. His fortunes continued steadily to improve; with his pension of twenty marks from the king, £10 from the duke of Lancaster, his allowance for robes as one of the king’s esquires, his salary as comptroller, his payments for occasional services, his pitcher of wine (commuted in 1378 into an annuity of twenty marks) and his wife’s pension , he had no reason to complain that his genius was neglected. The wonder was that his genius was not a sinecure; he was bound to write the rolls of his office with his own hand, and he had to be continually present at his office, not having the opinion of appointing a deputy. Apparently as he rose in the world he was allowed to make an easier arrangement; in 1382 he was appointed comptroller of the petty customs of the port of London, with the privilege of appointing a deputy and in 1385 he was allowed to appoint a deputy for the other comptrollership. In 1386 he touched the summit of his fortune, being returned to Parliament as a knight of the shire of Kent. But that was an unfortunate year for him; his patron, John of Gaunt, lost his ascendancy at court, and a commission which sat to inquire into the abuses of the preceding administration superseded Chaucer in his two comptrollerships. In the course of two years he was obliged to transfer his annuities to another man, probably selling them for a sum of ready money. The return of Lancaster to power in 1389 again brightened his prospects; he was appointed clerk of the king’s works, and four years afterwards obtained a grant of an annuity of £20. How much he wanted this assistance appears from the fact that he was several times obliged to apply for small portions of it in advance. When Bolingbroke came to the throne in 1399 he gave the old poet an additional annuity of forty marks, which came in time to comfort the last year of his life. The minutes of his pension cease in 1400, and, according to the inscription on his tomb, he died on the 25th of October of that year.

These are the main facts of Chaucer’s life as brought to light by successive investigators, and they form a tolerably complete outline biography, more complete than Spenser’s of Shakespeare’s. They are significant facts, throwing light on the singularity varied circumstances, aptitudes, and occupations of the man, supplementing in a really substantial way what may be gathered from his works. They show that Chaucer was not merely a poet and a scholar, deeply read in what the passed for science and philosophy, as well as in the rich literature of his poetical predecessors, but a soldier, a courtier, a man of business, familiar from the circumstances of his birth and subsequent rise in position with all sides of the life of his time, ready to undertake any kind of employment that his powerful patrons chose to obtain for him -- comptrollership of customs, secretaryship of an embassy, diplomatic commissionership, guardianship of a minor. Mr Furnivall has also discovered that, rather late in life, he was charged with being concerned in the "raptus" (Abduction, probably) of a girl, which would show that he was willing to undertake more questionable services, unless the "raptus" was for his own benefit. Great caution must be observed in trying to fill up from hints in his poems the gaps in the documentary facts of his biography, great caution, that is, if we wish to get at the truth and not merely to speculate for the sake of speculating. Antiquarian speculators are usually more distinguished for fancy than imagination. They catch at hints and push them to conclusions without having imagination enough to take account of qualifying considerations. Thsu it has often been taken for granted that in the description of the poet of the Canterbury Tales, we have an authentic portrait of Chaucer himself. The poet is a very quiet unobtrusive man, and the Host, master of the ceremonies, suddenly casts his eye on him, and addresses him in his bullying way: --

What man art thou? Quod he.
Thou lookest as thou wouldst find an hare,
For ever upon the ground I see thee stare.
Approaché near, and looké merrily.
Now ware you, sirs, and let this man have space.
He is the waist is shapen as well as I;
This were a puppet in an arm to embrace
For any woman, small, and fair of face.
He seemeth elvish by his countenance,
For unto no wight doth he dalliance.

There is no reason to suppose that this quaint, shy little figure was any more like Chaucer than the Spectator was like Addison or Steele. The allusion to his waist, coming from the burly host, is evidently jocular, and the whole picture is in all likelihood a humorous description of the opposite of Chaucer’s own appearance. We must be particularly careful in accepting literally the statements of a writer one of whose favourite veins of humour, appearing in every one of his works, is self-depreciation. We should remember that Chaucer wrote for a limited audience, all of whim knew him personally, and for whose amusement he was in the habit of making comical allusions to himself. His jokes were more of the nature of family jokes than we are now accustomed to in writings intended for wide and promiscuous circulation. When he made the eagle in the House of Fame complain of his being heavy to carry, or promise to make him the butler of the gods, or append to the statement that he lived like a hermit, the qualification -- "although thine abstinence is little," or remind him that he had had no personal experience of love, he knew that these little jets at his own expense would be fully appreciated by his few readers. The extreme of frivolous conjecture is reached when it is supposed that his wife was a termagant because he "chaffs" women frequently. His grateful and chivalrous compliments to women are quite as frequent as his chaff. There is, indeed, one passage in the House of Fame which is pretty clearly, intended for his wife, that where the eagle cries "awake" to him --

Right in the same voice and steven (sound)
That useth one I couldè never (name).

But if it had been anything more serious than commonplace conjugal banter, he would hardly have dared to circulate it. A conjecture of an equally frivolous kind is that he was unmarried in 1369, because in that year he spoke of having suffered for eight years pangs which none but one could heal. The pangs may have been matrimonial pangs, or pangs of poverty, or purely imaginary pangs, officially becoming in the poet-narrator; but Mr Furnivall is so convinced that the poet’s sickness was a real lovesickness, and that he was not then married to the queen’s demoiselle Philippa Chaucer, that he accounts for this lady’s name by supposing her to have been Chaucer’s cousin.

A similar inelasticity of conjecture appears in the grounds on which certain of the works commonly attributed to Chaucer are rejected as spurious. The Testament of Love, the Assembly of ladies, and the Lamentation of Mary Magdalene bear no internal marks of being Chaucer’s and are now universally rejected; but of late some commentators have adopted a test of genuineness which would deprive us of several works which are in no respect unworthy of Chaucer’s genius. It is known from Chaucer’s won statement in the undisputed Legend of Good Women that he translated the Roman de la Rose, but Mr Bradshaw refused to believe that the extant translation, of which we have only one 15th century manuscript, can be his, because its rhymes do not conform to a rhyme-test which Chaucer observed in works which are undoubtedly his. The extant Romance of the Rose admits the adverbial ly to rhyme with the adjectival or infinitival ye, and it cannot be Chaucer’s because y is never allowed to rhyme with ye in the House of Fame and the Canterbury Tales. For the same reason -- no other of any shadow of validity has yet been adduced -- the Court of Love, which Mr Swinburne calls "that most beautiful of young poems," and the Flower and the Leaf, which Dryden and Hazlitt have praised and quoted as a choice example of the poet’s genius, have also been pronounced to be spurious. We cannot give up such poems unless more urgent reasons are advanced for their confiscation. They cannot be set aside as spurious so long as their variation from the rhyming rule, which the commentators have shown much ingenuity in detecting, can be explained in any reasonable way. There is no getting over the plain question which every one asks when first told that they are not Chaucer’s. If they are not his, who else could have written them? It is conceivable that the name of the writer of such works could have been utterly unknown in his own generation, or if known could have been by accident or design so completely suppressed? If he deliberately tried to palm them off as Chaucer’s upon the transcribers, would not this rule of rhyme have been precisely the sort of mechanical likeness which eh would have tried to preserved? The Court of Lowe we have special reasons for declining to give up. It might be argued that, though the Flower and the Leaf bears internal marks of being Chaucer’s although its picturesque richness, its tender atmosphere, and the soft fall of its words are like his, yet it is easy to grow the plant once you have the seed, and it may be the work of an imitator. The Flower and the Leaf professes to be written by a lady, and there may have been at the court some wonderful lady capable of it, although it passed in the monkish scriptorium as Chaucer’s. But there is some external evidence for the authenticity of the Court of Love, which also contains traces of Chaucer’s most inimitable quality, his humour. Mr Minto has put forward some minor considerations for believing this to be Chaucer’s (Characteristics of English Poets, p. 22), but the strongest fact in its favour is that the Court of Love was imitated by James I. of Scotland in the King’s Quhair, and that in paying the customary compliment to his poetical masters, he mentions no names but Lydgate and Gower, who were clearly incapable of writing the poem, and Chaucer. James’s captivity in England began five years after Chaucer’s death, and it is simply inconceivable that he could have attributed the Court of Love to Chaucer in ignorance, and without having heard a whisper of its real authorship. If, indeed, this rhyme-test were absolute, we should have to treat these other considerations as inexplicable difficulties and submit. But when we remarks that all the poems in which y ye rhymes occur are earlier works of Chaucer’s, if they are his at all, bearing the touch of his hand but wanting the sustained strength of his mature workmanship, and when we remember that the y ye rhyme was the common practice of his predecessors a very simple explanation of the rhyme difficulty becomes apparent. Chaucer adhered to the practice of his predecessors till he felt strong enough to impose upon himself a restriction of his own devising.

At what period of his life Chaucer wrote his poetry, we have no means of ascertaining. There are no manuscripts of any of his works that can be referred to his own time; the earliest of them in existence are not supposed to have been written till several years after his death. The only one of his works of which the date is fixed by an external circumstance is the Book of the Duchess; if as is taken for granted, this was written to commemorate the death of the wife of his patron John of Gaunt, its date is 1369. Chaucer, if born in 1340,m would then have been twenty-nine, and there is none of his extant works, except the translation of the Romance of the Rose, and the Dream (which we hold to the Chaucer’s, though its authenticity is not worth contending for), which can be confidently assigned to an earlier period. Philogenet, in the Court of Love, professed to be eighteen, but this is not the slightest reason for concluding that Chaucer was that age when he wrote it. The Book of the Duchess is certainly not very mature work for a poet of twenty-nine, and it is probable that Chaucer did not cultivate the art, as he certainly did not develop the faculty, till comparatively late in life. The translation of the Romance of the Rose is to all appearance the earliest of his surviving composition. If we may judge from his evident acquaintance with dry studies, and his capacity for hard business work, the vintner’s son received a scholastic training in the trivium and quadrivium which then formed the higher education. If he had been nurtured on troubadour love from his youth up, it is exceedingly unlikely that he would afterwards have been able to apply himself to less fascinating labours. His study of mathematics and astronomy in his old age for the benefit of "little Lewis, his son," looks like a return such as we often see in age to the studies of youth. But, indeed he can hardly be said ever to have lost his interest in such studies, for in his theory of sound in the House of Fame and his description of alchemical processes in the Canon’s Yeoman’s Prologue he shows genuine scholar’s interest in the dry details of learning. His knowledge of the Trouvère and Troubadour poetry, form which his genius received its impulse, probably began with his introduction, however that was brought about, to court society. He was about seventeen at the date of the first mention of his name as attached to the household of Prince Lionel. It is permissible to conjecture that he had French poets to beguile his captivity in France a few years afterwards.

Professor Ten Brink divided Chaucer’s work into three periods: -- a period of French influence, lasting up to 1372-3, the date of his visit to Italy; after that a period of Italian influence, lasting up to 1387, the supposed date of his House of Fame; finally, a period of mature strength and originality, in which he pursued the bent of his own genius. Not much is gained by this division into strict periods. It is obvious enough that, in the House of Fame, the Legend of Good Women, and the general plan of the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer strikes out more unmistakably a path for himself, and exhibits a maturer power, a more masterly freedom of movement than in his earlier works, but there profitable division ends. To erect a period of Italian influence, implying that at any time the stimulus that Chaucer received from Italian sources was at all comparable to the stimulus he received from French sources, is most misleading. The difference between the Book of the Duchess and the House of Fame, or between the Court of Love and Troilus and Cresside is not to be explained by an influx of Italian influence; it is part of the self-governed development, the spontaneous expansion of his own mind. A she went o on writing, his powers continued to expand, and to take in materials and suggestions form all quarters open to him, French, Italian, or Latin. Comparing the Troilus, the raw material of which is taken form Boccaccio’s Filostrato, with his Romance of the Rose, we can trace no change in method or in spirit fairly attributable to Italian influence. In both translations he shows a bold independence of his originals; they are not imbibe the spirit of Guillaum e de Lorris or Jean de Meun in the one and the spirit of Boccaccio in the other; he boldly modifies all three to bring them into harmony with his own conceptions of love’s laws, and in both his so-called translations there is the same high spirit of chivalry and the same tender worship and kindly mockery of woman. Where he chiefly shows advance to strength, apart from the mere technical workmanship, is in his grasp of character; and that is a clear development of the lines of his earlier conceptions and not a new acquisition. His Cresside and his Pandarus were not the Cresside and Pandarus of Boccaccio; they are regenerated by him and developed till they become figures that might have moved in his own Court of Love. He held the knightly and "gentle" character too high to adopt Boccaccio’s conception. In the method also, Troilus has a close affinity with Chaucer’s earlier work and his first models. Troilus pursuit of Cresside is the pursuit of the Rose over again in the concrete. Te greater subtilty of the stages is due to the increased strength of the narrator’s faculty.

M. Sandras is in the main right as to the extent of Chaucer’s obligation to French sources, although he fails to recognize the forceful individuality of the man. Chaucer was really an English trouvère, thoroughly national, English in the whole texture of his being, but a trouvère. We must not all allow our conviction of his loyalty to his own English nature to blind us to the fact that he was a poet in the school of Guillaume de Lorris; nor on the other hand must we allow the peculiar extent of his obligations to his predecessors in the school to obscure the fact that he was an original poet. M. Sandras is a special pleader for one side of the case, and naturally presses unfairly against the other. Chaucer writing in a different language from his masters, was at liberty to borrow from them more literally than he could have done if he had written in their language; but though M. Sandras proves with superfluous completeness that he freely appropriated from them not merely stories and hints of stories, but narrative methods, phrases, images, maxims, reflections, -- not only treated their works as quarries of raw material, but adopted their architectural plans, and even made no scruple of seizing for his own purposes the stones which they had polished, still he so transmuted the borrowed plans and materials that his works are original wholes unmistakable stamped with his own individuality. Whatever he appropriated, whether ore or wrought metal, all passed through his own alembic, and his moulds were his own, though shaped according to the fashion of the school. The very affluence of Chaucer’s pages, their wealth of colour, of tender and humorous incident, of worldly wisdom, is due to his peculiar relations to his predecessors, to the circumstance which enabled him to lay them so royally under tribute. He was not the architect of his own fortune, but the son and heir of a family which for generations had been accumulating wealth. Edward III.’s spoliation of the French was nothing to Chaucer’s, and the poet had this advantage, that his appropriations neither left the spoiled country desolate not corrupted the spoiler.

"The ground-work of literary genius," Mr Matthew Arnold says, "is a work of synthesis and exposition, not of analysis and discovery; its gift lies in the faculty of being happily inspired by a certain intellectual and spiritual atmosphere, by a certain order of ideas, when it finds itself in them, of dealing divinely with these ideas, presenting them in the most effective and attractive combinations -- making beautiful works with them, in short." The poet’s constructive power must have materials, and ideas round which material accumulate. The secret of the richness and enduring character of Chaucer’s work is that he had a fruitful idea ready to his hand, an idea which had been flowering and bearing fruit in the minds of two centuries, which had inspired some later songs and tales, which had been illustrated, expounded, formulated by every variety of native invention and critical ingenuity. Chivalrous love had been the presiding genius, the inspiring spirit of several generations of poets and critics when Chaucer began to write. Open any of his works, from the Court of Love down to the Canterbury Tales, and you find that the central idea of it is to expound this chivalrous sentiment, either directly by tracing its operation or formulating its laws, or indirectly by setting it off dramatically against its counterpart, the sentiment of the villain or churl. Gradually as years grew upon him, and his mind assumed more and more its natural attitude of descriptive impartiality, he became less a partisan of the sentiment, more inclined to view it as one among the varieties of human manifestation , but never to the last does he become wholly impartial. Not even in the Canterbury Tales he set the churl on a level with "the gentles." Thoroughly as he enjoyed the humour of the churl, freely as his mind upbent itself to sympathize with his unrestrained animal delights, he always remembers, when he comes forward in his own person, to apologize for this departure from the restraints of chivalry.

The very opposite of this is so often asserted about the Canterbury Tales that it almost has a paradoxical air, although nothing can be more plain to any one who takes the trouble to read the tales observantly. It has been said to be the crowning merit of Chaucer that he ignores distinctions of caste, and that his pilgrims associate on equal terms. It should be noticed, however, in the first place, that in the Prologue, he finds it necessary to apologize for not "setting folk in their degree," "as that they shouldè stand;" and, in the second place, that although he does not separate the pilgrims according to their degrees in the procession, yet he draws a very clear line of separation between them in the spirit of their behavior. At the outset of the pilgrimage the gentles are distinctly so mentioned as taking a sort of corporate action, though in vain, to give a more decorous aspect to the pilgrimage. When the Knight tells his tale, it is loudly applauded by the whole company, butt he poet does not record their verdict indiscriminately; he is careful to add, particularly by "the gentles every one." And though all applauded the tale the more vulgar and uproarious spirits were somewhat restive under its gravity, the host called for a merry tale, and the Pardoner eagerly stepped forward to comply with his request. But "the gentles" interposed, and began to cry that they mist have no ribaldry; "tell us," they said, "some moral tale that we may learn." And the gentles would have carried their point if the Miller, as the poet is most careful to make clear, had not been so drunk that he insisted upon telling a noble tale that he knew, and would forbear for no man. Chaucer is profuse in his apologies for introducing such a tale; it was a churlish tale, he admits, told in a churlish manner, and he does not wish to be responsible for it.

"Every gentle wight I pray
For Goddès love, deemeth not that I say
Of evil intent; but for I must rehearse
Their tales all, be they better or worse,
Or ellès falsen some of my matter"

If gentle readers do not like it, they may turn over the leaf, and choose another tale; there is plenty "of storial thing that toucheth gentillesse. They must not blame him for repeating this churlish tale; "the Miller is a churl, ye know well this," and such tales are in his way. Gentle readers must not take it too seriously.; "men should not make earnest of game;" it is, after all, only for their amusement that he thus exhibits to them the humours of the lower orders.

Such is the elaborate apology that Chaucer makes for introducing into his verse anything inconsistent with the sentiments of chivalry. It may be said that it is all a humorous pretence; and so no doubt it is, still it is characteristic that the pretence should be of so courtly a tone. All through the Canterbury Tales Chaucer is very careful to remember that he was writing for a courtly audience, studious to guard against giving offence to the chivalrous mind. He contrives that he gentles shall mix with the churls without sustaining any loss of dignity; they give the churls their company, and with polite compliance let them have their own gross will, but they never lay aside the restraints of their own order. Every here and there is some trace of deference to them, to show that their ribald companions have not wholly forgotten themselves, and are only receiving a saturnalian licence for the time. Nothing is done to throw any disrespect on the gentle order; its members -- the Knight, the Squire, the Monk, the Prioress, the Second Nun; and the professional men -- the Lawyer, the Doctor, the Clerk -- admit no ribaldry into their tales, and no ribald tales are told about them. The ribaldry is confined to the meaner members of the company, -- the Reeve, the Miller, the Friar, the Summoner, the Wife of Bath; the narrators as well as the subjects of the ribald tales are of churlish and not of gentle position.

The Canterbury Tales are really in their underlying design an exposition of chivalrous sentiment, thrown into relief by contrast with its opposite. The spirit of chivalry is the vital air of all Chaucer’s creations, the rain, the wind, and the sun which have quickened their germ and fostered their growth. We to whom the chivalrous spirit, at least in the fantastic developments of its vigorous mediaeval youth, is an historical thing are apt to overlook this. There is so much on the surface of Chaucer’s poems, such vivacity of movement, such tender play of feeling, such humour , such delight in nature, in green leaves and sweet air, sunshine and bird singing, that few of us care to look beneath. The open air, on the breezy hillside or by the murmuring brook, seems the only proper atmosphere for such a poet. There, no doubt, with sun and wind contending playfully to divert us from the printed pages, there perhaps more than anywhere else. Chaucer is a delightful companion; but it is the duty of the dry-as-dust critic to remind us the Chaucer’s sweet verses were first read under wholly different conditions, in tapetried chambers, to the gracious ear of embroidered lords and ladies. It was from such an audience that Chaucer received in a vapour what he poured back in a flood. This is the secret of his exquisite courtliness of phrase, his unfailing tone of graceful deference, his protestations of ignorance and lack of cunning, his tender handling of woeful love-cases, the gentle playfulness of his satire, the apologetic skill with which he introduces a broader and more robust humanity into his verse. If you place yourself within the circle for which the poet wrote, you see the smile play on sweet lips as he proceeds; you see the tear gather in the eye; you see the needle laid aside, as the mind of the fair listener is transported to the poet’s flowery mead, or plied more briskly as she bends over her work to conceal her laughter at his more vulgar adventures. It was because Chaucer wrote for such an audience that his picture of the life of the time, various and moving as it is, is so incomplete on one side.

There was more than romancing in green fields and Canterbury pilgriming in the traveled times in which Chaucer lived; there were wars, plague, insurrections, much misery and discontent. But for the disagreeable side of the 14th century we must go to the writer of Piers the Plowman; we find little trace of it in Chaucer. The outside of the walls of the Garden of Mirth is painted with horrible and squalid figures, -- Ire, Envy, Covetice, Avarice, Felony, Villany, Sorrow, Eld, and Poverty; but no such figures are admitted within the gates; the concierge is idleness; the chief inmates are Love, Sweetlooking, Beauty, Richesse, Largesse, Franchise, and Courtesy; and Mirth and Gladness are the master and mistress of the ceremonies.

All Chaucer’s works are steeped in the nectar of the court; the perfume of chivalrous sentiment breathes from them all. It is impossible, as we have said, to determine strictly the order of their composition, though it is very easy to distinguish his earlier from his later work. There is a passage in the Prologue to the Legend of Good Women which settles the position of that poem. The poet there pretends to have an interview with the king and queen of love, as he is out on a May morning to worship the daisy. The king challenges his worthiness to do homage to this his own flower, and upbraids him with having translated the Roman of the Rose, which )in its second part at least) is a heresy against love’s law, and also with having told the story of Cresside, and thrown discredit on women. But the queen of love, Alcestis, speaks up for the poet; perhaps, she refuse; and he had done good service by extending the praise of love among the unlearned folk, for --

"He made the book that hight the house of Fame,
And eke the death of Blanchè the Duchess,
And the Parliament of Fowlès as I guess,
And all the love of Palamon and Arcite,
Of Thebès, though the story is knowen lite;
And many a hymnè for your holy days
That highten Ballads, Roundels, Virelays."

The translation of the Romance of the Rose was probably the first of these works. It may have been written soon after or during his captivity in France, when he was a youth of, twenty but there is no appreciable difference of style between it and the Book of the Duchess, which if it commemorates, as there is every reason to believe, the death of the first wife of John of Gaunt, must have been written after 1369, when Chaucer was twenty-nine. The idea of writing in the vulgar tongue may have been suggested to him by the example of Dante. The House of Fame is probably later than the Book of the Duchess. The Court of Love is not mentioned by name in the above list, but it may be referred to in the following lines of the prologue: --

"Hast thou not in a book lyeth in thy chest
The greatè goodness of the Queen Alceste
That turned was into a dayèseye?"

Alcestis is, under Venus, the lady and queen of the Court of Love. It is easy to conceive why Chaucer should have kept the Court of Love in his chest. The tide of Puritanic religious sentiment which was destined to sweep into temporary oblivion the airy structures of the chivalric imagination had already in the middle of Chaucer’s life begun to rise. In the Court of Love he fully accepted the troubadour notion of Love and marriage, making the husband the natural enemy of the lover; and he may have had to accommodate himself to the taste of the Fair Maid of Kent, the widow of the Black Prince, the Alcestis of the time, and put his poem out of sight, only pleading that even in it he had paid homage to "the greatè goodness of the Queen Alceste."

There is no good edition of Chaucer, not even a good text. The only or rather collection of texts that the Chaucerian scholar would think of using is the valuable parallel six-text edition, published by the Chaucer Society. For the general reader one text is about as good as another; there is little to choose between Tyrwhitts’ Bell’s and Dr. Morri’s text in the Aldine edition. (W. M.)






The above article was written by William Minto, M.A.; edited the Examiner, 1874; formerly on the staff of the Daily News and the Pall Mall Gazette; Professor of Logic and English in the University of Aberdeen, 1880; author of Manual of English Prose Literature, Defoe in English Man of Letters Series, and Literature in the Georgian Era.




Search the Encyclopedia:



About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Sitemaps
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us



© 2005-17 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries