Geoffrey Chaucer

November 6, 2012 2:25 pm
Geoffrey Chaucer (1343?-1400), one of the greatest English poets, whose masterpiece, The Canterbury Tales, was one of the most important influences on the development of English literature. His life is known primarily through records pertaining to his career as a courtier and civil servant under the English kings Edward III and Richard II.

The son of a prosperous London wine merchant, Chaucer may have attended the Latin grammar school of Saint Paul’s Cathedral and may have studied law at the Inns of Court. In 1357 he was page to the countess of Ulster, Elizabeth, the wife of Prince Lionel, third son of Edward III; there, he would have learned the ways of the court and the use of arms. By 1367 Chaucer was an esquire to Edward. About 1366 he married Philippa Roet, a lady-in-waiting to the queen and afterward in the service of John of Gaunt, who was duke of Lancaster and Edward’s fourth son. Chaucer served as controller of customs for London from 1374 to 1386 and clerk of the king’s works from 1389 to 1391, in which post he was responsible for maintenance of royal buildings and parks. About 1386 Chaucer moved from London to a country residence (probably Greenwich), where in 1386 he was justice of the peace and representative to Parliament. He traveled on several diplomatic missions to France, one to Spain in 1366, and two to Italy from 1372 to 1373 and in 1378. In the last year of his life, Chaucer leased a house within the precincts of Westminster Abbey. After his death, he was buried in the Abbey (an honor for a commoner), in what has since become the Poets’ Corner.
Chaucer wrote for and may have read his works aloud to a select audience of fellow courtiers and officials, which doubtless sometimes included members of the royal family. The culture of the English upper class was still predominantly French, and Chaucer’s earliest works were influenced by the fashionable French poets Guillaume de Machaut and Jean Froissart and by the great 13th-century dream allegory Le Roman de la Rose,by the French poets Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun. The common theme of these works is courtly love.
Chaucer claimed to have translated Le Roman de la Rose, but if he did, all that survives is a fragment. His first important original work, The Book of the Duchess, is an elegy for John of Gaunt’s first wife, Blanche, who died in 1369. In a dream the poet encounters a grieving knight in black (Gaunt) who movingly recounts his love and loss of “good fair White” (Blanche). The House of Fame and The Parlement of Foules, also dream poems, show the influence of Dante and of Giovanni Boccaccio, whose works Chaucer probably encountered on his first journey to Italy. The unfinished House of Fame gives a humorous account of the poet’s frustrating journey in the claws of a giant golden eagle (the idea is from Dante) to the palace of the goddess Fame. In The Parlementhe witnesses an inconclusive debate about love among the different classes of birds. All three dream visions, written from about 1373 to about 1385, contain a mixture of comedy and serious speculation about the puzzling nature of love.
In this period, Chaucer also translated and adapted religious, historical, and philosophical works: a life of Saint Cecilia; a series of medieval “tragedies,” brief lives of famous men cast down by adverse fortune; a translation of De Consolatione Philosophiae (The Consolation of Philosophy), written by the Roman philosopher Anicius Boethius to proclaim his faith in divine justice and providence. The latter work profoundly influenced Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde (1385?) and The Knight’s Tale, both adapted from romances by Boccaccio.
Troilus, a poem of more than 8000 lines, is Chaucer’s major work besides The Canterbury Tales. It is the tragic love story of the Trojan prince Troilus, who wins Criseyde (Cressida), aided by the machinations of his close friend, her uncle Pandarus, and then loses her to the Greek warrior Diomede. The love story turns into a deeply felt medieval tragedy, the human pursuit of transitory earthly ideals that pale into insignificance beside the eternal love of God. The poem ends with the narrator’s solemn advice to young people to flee vain loves and turn their hearts to Christ. Chaucer’s characters are psychologically so complex that the work has also been called the first modern novel.
In the Prologue to The Legend of Good Women(1386?), another dream vision, the god of love accuses Chaucer of heresy for writing of Criseyde’s unfaithfulness and assigns him the penance of writing the lives of Cupid’s martyrs—faithful women who died for love. After completing eight of these legends, Chaucer probably abandoned the work and by 1387 was engaged on his masterpiece.
The Tales is a collection of stories set within a framing story of a pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral, the shrine of Saint Thomas à Becket. The poet joins a band of pilgrims, vividly described in the General Prologue, who assemble at the Tabard Inn outside London for the journey to Canterbury. Ranging in status from a Knight to a humble Plowman, they are a microcosm of 14th-century English society.
The Host proposes a storytelling contest to pass the time; each of the 30 or so pilgrims (the exact number is unclear) is to tell four tales on the round trip. Chaucer completed less than a quarter of this plan. The work contains 22 verse tales (two unfinished) and two long prose tales; a few are thought to be pieces written earlier by Chaucer. The Canterbury Tales, composed of more than 18,000 lines of poetry, is made up of separate blocks of one or more tales with links introducing and joining stories within a block.
The tales represent nearly every variety of medieval story at its best. The special genius of Chaucer’s work, however, lies in the dramatic interaction between the tales and the framing story. After the Knight’s courtly and philosophical romance about noble love, the Miller interrupts with a deliciously bawdy story of seduction aimed at the Reeve (an officer or steward of a manor); the Reeve takes revenge with a tale about the seduction of a miller’s wife and daughter. Thus, the tales develop the personalities, quarrels, and diverse opinions of their tellers. The prologues and tales of the Wife of Bath and the Pardoner are high points of Chaucer’s art. The Wife, an outspoken champion of her gender against the traditional antifeminism of the church, initiates a series of tales about sex, marriage, and nobility (“gentilesse”). The Pardoner gives a chilling demonstration of how his eloquence in the pulpit turns the hope of salvation into a vicious confidence game. Although Chaucer in this way satirizes the abuses of the church, he also includes a number of didactic and religious tales, concluding with the good Parson’s sermon on penitence; this is followed by a personal confession in which Chaucer “retracts” all his secular writings, including Troilus,and those Canterbury tales that “incline toward sin.” Like the ending of Troilus,the retraction is a reminder that Chaucer’s genius was always subject to orthodox piety.
Chaucer greatly increased the prestige of English as a literary language and extended the range of its poetic vocabulary and meters. He was the first English poet to use the seven-line stanza in iambic pentameter known as rhyme royal and the couplet later called heroic. His system of versification, which depends on sounding many e‘s in final syllables that are silent (or absent) in modern English, ceased to be understood by the 15th century. Nevertheless, Chaucer dominated the works of his 15th-century English followers and the so-called Scottish Chaucerians. For the Renaissance, he was the English Homer. Edmund Spenser paid tribute to him as his master; many of the plays of William Shakespeare show thorough assimilation of Chaucer’s comic spirit. John Dryden, who modernized several of the Canterbury tales, called Chaucer the father of English poetry. Since the founding of the Chaucer Society in England in 1868, which led to the first reliable editions of his works, Chaucer’s reputation has been securely established as the English poet best loved after Shakespeare for his wisdom, humor, and humanity.
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