Geoffrey Chaucer

The greatest English poet of the Middle Ages, Chaucer is best known for "The Canterbury Tales" and the contribution to English literature that he made by writing his verses in English instead of Latin which was the norm at the time.
He was born in London between 1340 and 1344, the son of John Chaucer, a vintner. In 1357 he was a page in the household of Prince Lionel, later duke of Clarence, whom he served for many years. In 135960 he was with the army of Edward III in France, where he was captured by the French but ransomed.
By 1366 he had married Philippa Roet, who was probably the sister of John of Gaunt's third wife; she was a lady-in-waiting to Edward III's queen. During the years 1370 to 1378, Chaucer was frequently employed on diplomatic missions to the Continent, visiting Italy in 137273 and in 1378. From 1374 on he held a number of official positions, among them comptroller of customs on furs, skins, and hides for the port of London (137486) and clerk of the king's works (138991). The official date of Chaucer's death is Oct. 25, 1400. He was buried in Westminster Abbey.
Chaucer's literary activity is often divided into three periods. The first period includes his early work (to 1370), which is based largely on French models, especially the Roman de la Rose and the poems of Guillaume de Machaut. Chaucer's chief works during this time are the Book of the Duchess, an allegorical lament written in 1369 on the death of Blanche, wife of John of Gaunt, and a partial translation of the Roman de la Rose.
Chaucer's second period (up to c.1387) is called his Italian period because during this time his works were modeled primarily on Dante and Boccaccio. Major works of the second period include The House of Fame, recounting the adventures of Aeneas after the fall of Troy; The Parliament of Fowls, which tells of the mating of fowls on St. Valentine's Day and is thought to celebrate the betrothal of Richard II to Anne of Bohemia; and a prose translation of Boethius' De consolatione philosophiae.
Also among the works of this period are the unfinished Legend of Good Women, a poem telling of nine classical heroines, which introduced the heroic couplet (two rhyming lines of iambic pentameter) into English verse; the prose fragment The Treatise on the Astrolabe, written for his son Lewis; and Troilus and Criseyde, based on Boccaccio's Filostrato, one of the great love poems in the English language (see Troilus and Cressida). In Troilus and Criseyde, Chaucer perfected the seven-line stanza later called rhyme royal.
To Chaucer's final period, in which he achieved his fullest artistic power, belongs his masterpiece, The Canterbury Tales (written mostly after 1387). This unfinished poem, about 17,000 lines, is one of the most brilliant works in all literature. The poem introduces a group of pilgrims journeying from London to the shrine of St. Thomas Becket at Canterbury. To help pass the time they decide to tell stories. Together, the pilgrims represent a wide cross section of 14th-century English life.
The pilgrims' tales include a variety of medieval genres from the humorous fabliau to the serious homily, and they vividly indicate medieval attitudes and customs in such areas as love, marriage, and religion. Through Chaucer's superb powers of characterization the pilgrimssuch as the earthy wife of Bath, the gentle knight, the worldly prioress, the evil summonercome intensely alive. Chaucer was a master storyteller and craftsman, but because of a change in the language after 1400, his metrical technique was not fully appreciated until the 18th cent. Only in Scotland in the 15th and 16th cent. did his imitators understand his versification.
Contrary to what you might expect, Chaucer was recognized during his lifetime and influenced other poets of the 1400s. He was not just a poet. He was a page to Elizabeth, Countess of Ulster, a hostage in France during military action in 1359-60, a diplomat, a customs official, a justice of the peace, knight of the shire in Kent, and served in Parliament for one session in 1386. Three years later, under Richard II, Chaucer was appointed Clerk of the King's Works in charge of construction and renovation. His last official post was as deputy forester of the royal forest of North Petherton, Somerset. He was born in London, married Philippa in his early twenties and had two sons, Lewis and Thomas. He is buried in Westminister Abbey.
To the intense affection, frequently expressed, of Hoccleve, we owe the first and best of Chaucer's portraits, familiar through reproduction. It appears in the margin of "The Governail of Princes", or "De Regimine Principum" (Harl. MS. 4866, in British Museum). In it we see Chaucer, limned from memory, in his familiar hood and gown, rosary in hand, plump, full-eyed, fork-bearded. (For detailed accounts see Spielman, "The Portraits of Geoffrey Chaucer", London, l900, first issued in the "Chaucer Memorial Lectures", 111-41.) Like Dryden, he was silent, and had a "down look"; this physical characteristic was partly due to a most genuine modesty, partly to the habit of constant reading. Chaucer indeed read and annexed everything, and transmuted everything into that vocabulary of his, all plasticity and all power. He is a cosmopolite, chiefly influenced by Ovid, by his own contemporary Italy, a debtor, if ever man was, to the whole spirit of his age; he has its fire, its impudence, its broad licentiousness; he has rather more than his share of its true-hearted pathos, its exquisite freshness and brightness, its sense of eternity. The so-called "Counsel of Chaucer" sums up, at a holy and serene moment, his philosophic outlook. He had unequalled powers of observation, and gave a highly ironic but most humane report. He is an artist through and through, and that artist had been a soldier and a diplomat, hence his genius, even in its extremes of mirth has balance and health, remoteness and neutrality -- it is never bitter, and never in the least "viewy". Matthew Arnold (Introduction to Ward's "English Poets" 1885, I, pp. xxxiv--v) accuses him of a lack of what Aristotle calls "high and excellent seriousness". But "high seriousness" is not quite the note of the fourteenth century. Chaucer's is the master-note (submerged all over Europe since the Reformation) of joy. This brings us to the question of his personal religion.
Foxe (Acts and Monuments of the Church, 1583, II, 839) started the absurd theory that Chaucer was a follower of Wyclif. The poet's own abstract habit; his association with the prince who (probably actuated by no very high motives) withdrew his favour from the contemporary reformer when solicitude for a purer practice ran into heresy and threatened revolt; his close friendship with Strode, a Dominican of Oxford and a strong anti-Lollard--these things tend of themselves to denote Chaucer's views in the matter. The opposite inference is "due to a misconception of his language, based on a misconception of his character" (Lounsbury Studies, II, 469). Like Wyclif, Chaucer loved the priestly ideal; and he draws it incomparably in his "Poor Parson of Town". Yet, as has been said, that very "Parson's Tale", in its extant form, goes far to prove that its author, even by sympathy, was no Wyclifite (A.W. Ward, "Chaucer", London, 1879, p. 134, in "English Men of Letters Series"). Passionless justice was the bed-rock of Chaucer's mind. He paints that parti-coloured Plantagenet world as it was, not interfering to make it better, nor to wish it better. Where the churchman type was gross, he represents it grossly. It is well, however, to recall that the famous episode of his "beating a Friar in Fleet street" is the invention of Speght, further embroidered by Chatterton; and that the prose tractate, "Jack Upland", full of invective against the religious orders, is proved not to be Chaucer's. His attitude towards women is just as two-sided. He shows in many a theme a reverence toward them which must have been fed by that "hy devocioun" to Our Lady which is beautifully apparent in his pages, and which Hoccleve mentions in recalling his memory; but dramatic exigencies, Boccaccio's example, presumable hard domestic experience, a laughingly merciless psychology, and a paralyzing outspokenness, contrive too often, as readers regret, to fight it down. He has been held up as a rationalist, on the strength of a few passages, and against the enormous mass of testimony which he furnishes on the soundness of his Catholic ethos. Of that, after all, as of its absence, Catholics are the best judges. The "Nuns' Priest's Tale" (Skeat's ed., lines 4424-40) raises the question of predestination, only to drop it. The context shows that the poet thinks his sudden side-issue not trivial or tedious, but quite the contrary, he quits it only because he cannot "boult it to the bren", i.e., sift it down, analyze it satisfactorily. Again, the "Knight's Tale" (Skeat's ed., lines 2890--14) implies that the author has no mind to dogmatize upon the final destiny of poor Arcite, newly slain. Both these instances have been cited in the masterly chapter on "Chaucer as a Literary Artist" (Lounsbury, Studies, II, 512-15, 520), to prove, in the one ease, an easy dismissal of a mere scholastic dilemma; in the other, Chaucer's disbelief, or half-belief, in immortality. They prove, rather, a restraint in dogmatizing about the destiny of the individual, a restraint practiced by the church itself. "The Legend of Good Women" opens with some fifteen lines, the purport of which need never have been questioned. They mean nothing if they do not mean that knowledge by evidence is one thing, assurance by faith another thing; and that lack of sensible proof can never discredit revelation. A somewhat playful confession of belief has here been turned into a serious profession of agnosticism, through sheer lack of spiritual understanding. His "hostility to the Church", as Professor Lounsbury calls it, is certainly not borne out by Chaucer's going out of his way, as he does, to defend her from age-long calumnies; for instance, in the "Franklin's Tale", and in the section "De Ira" of the "Parson's Tale", he witnesses to her horror of superstitions and false sciences. Chaucer, in short, though none too supernatural a person, had a most orthodox grip on his catechism.
The "Preces", or prose "retracciouns", which are usually painted at either end of the "Canterbury Tales" date from the evening of Chaucer's life. To Tyrwhitt, Hales, Ward, and Lounsbury, who suspect undue priestly influence, the "Preces" are, in their own words, "morbid", "reaction and weakness", "a betrayal of his poetic genius", "unbearable to have to accept as genuine". In the course of them, Chaucer disclaims of his books "thilke that sounen in-to sinne" i.e., those which are consonant with, or sympathetic with sin. Skeat is the only editor who understands Chaucer in his contrition (Notes to the "Canterbury Tales", in the Oxford Press complete edition, 475). Gascoigne (Theological Dictionary, Pt. II, 377, the manuscript of which is in the library of Lincoln College, Oxford) unwittingly parodies the situation, and represents the old sinner "Chawserus" as dying while lamenting over pages, quae male scripsi de malo et turpissimo amore. To the secular point of view it has all seemed, and may well seem, mistaken and deplorable. But nothing is manlier, or more touching and endearing, than this humble self-subordination to conscience and the moral law. "Except ye become as little children" is the hardest saying ever given to the intellectual world. These are great geniuses, Geoffrey Chaucer not least among them, to whom it was not given in vain.