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ENGLAND in the fourteenth century presented the spectacle of a people not amalgamated, not unified in language, customs, or feeling. The descendants of the Norman conquerors held themselves aloof from the natives, treating the latter as of inferior clay. By social distinctions, by laws, by exactions of enforced and unrewarded labor, and by grinding taxes the court and the nobility kept down the English and exalted the French element in the nation. Thus the ordinary contrasts between the classes in human society were accentuated by the difference in blood. It was a time of profuse extravagance among the rich and of pinching necessity among the poor. In full knowledge of the poverty through the realm, kings poured forth the public monies on profitless foreign wars, or strutted in the pageantry of outworn chivalry and wasted huge sums in reviving the pomp of tournaments and of the fabled Round Table. Richard II could set an example of carelessness and extravagance by paying thirty thousand marks for a new cloak while his unhappy people were starving in a succession of harvest failures or were being decimated by the ravages of the plague. Upon a few occasions the general discontent found expression. William Langland embodied in his Complaint of Piers Plowman his realization of the social injustice and the widespread misery of the time. John Ball, the “mad priest of Kent,” stung the peasants to revolt by his violent attacks on the social order and by his rude couplet: –
“When Adam delved and Eve span
Who was then the gentleman ?". In this fourteenth century England of such sharp contrasts, such extravagance on the one hand and such misery on the other, was born, about 1340, Geoffrey Chaucer. Of the details of his life we know little. His father, it seems, was a vintner of Thames Street, London, and a man of wealth and importance. He succeeded in having Geoffrey installed as a page in the household of Elizabeth, wife of Lionel, Duke of Clarence. Thus Chaucer from a very early age became a part of the courtly class. The importance of this fact upon his literary work was immeasurable. In all his poetry we find little reference to the political or social wrongs of the time. He saw life from the point of view of men of his class.
A few years later he seems to have accompanied Edward III on the French campaign, for in March of 1360 we have a record of the king paying sixteen pounds for Chaucer's ransom. In modern value, sixteen pounds would be worth all of one thousand dollars, so we can judge that Chaucer, or the Chaucer family, must have been of some importance in the world.
Again consulting the royal records, we find in 1366 a pension granted to Philippa Chaucer · and, in 1381, the payment of this pension “to Geoffrey Chaucer, her husband." Putting the
two notes together, Chaucerian scholars have deduced that about 1366 Chaucer married Philippa, a lady in waiting to the Queen. Further precise knowledge of the character or family of Pbilippa, or of the married felicity of Chaucer, is not obtainable.
Geoffrey Chaucer seems to have been successful in his attendance upon the royal wishes, for in 1367 we have a record of the grant of a pension to him of twenty marks a year for life, equivalent in purchasing power to-day to about eight hundred dollars. A year later his services were further recognized by his promotion to be an Esquire of the Royal Household.
His rise in importance continued. In 1369 he again accompanied the king with the army in France. In 1370 he was entrusted with a secret mission abroad, the exact nature of which has remained unknown to this day. In 1372 he was sent to Genoa to conclude certain commercial arrangements. From Genoa he went to Florence, where he may have met Petrarch and Boccaccio, and where he certainly became acquainted with the works of Dante, who had died more than a half-century before. In 1374 he was granted a further mark of royal favor in a daily pitcher of wine from the royal stock. In 1375 he was appointed controlier of customs for wool, etc. in London, was allowed from John of Gaunt and his wife an additional pension of ten pounds a year (worth at present values about six hundred and twenty-five dollars, and was appointed ward of a certain Edmund Steplegate of Kent. In 1376 and 1377 he was employed, apparently by the influence of John of Gaunt, on various secret missions abroad. In 1382, he was appointed controller of petty customs in London. In 1386 he entered Parliament as one of the Knights of the Shire for the County of Kent.
Chaucer's income at this time must have been large, yet the records show that he must have lived up to the last penny of it. On a temporary loss of royal favor due to the ascendancy of the Duke of Gloucester over the king, Chaucer was removed from both controllerships and was soon driven to the money-lenders. Although he was later again in the royal good graces after the fall of Gloucester, he seems never to have been prosperous. Apparently the long practice of extravagant habits rendered it impossible for him to retrench. We find him occupying various offices from 1390 on. We find a record in 1394 of a royal pension of twenty pounds a year for life (equivalent to about one thousand five hundred dollars); we know that in 1398 he received an additional allowance of a tun of wine a year for life, and yet in the same year he did not dare to leave his house for fear of arrest for debt, and in 1399 Chaucer addressed an appeal to the new king for financial assistance. Henry IV granted him an additional forty marks a year pension, bringing Chaucer's total pension annual income up to more than three thousand dollars of our money. Encouraged by this prospect, he rented, December 24, 1399, a new house in London for a term of fifty-four years.
In this new house which he had entered apparently with such pleasant anticipations, he died October 25, 1400.
The actual list of official positions and the accuracy with which we can establish Chaucer in these positions lend a fictitious appearance of completeness to any sketch of his life. Of the man himself, of the intimate details of his person and character, of the formative influences that surrounded him in his youth and moulded him in his manhood, we know practically nothing. He moved in the upper stratum of the luxurious society of the period, he was a courtier all his life, he was accustomed to disregard expense and to look for royal favor to pay his debts, and yet he was evidently a man of recognized judgment and ability, obviously a polished gentleman and a witty companion. These general deductions from the statistics of the court records are all that we can positively assert with regard to him.
It is marvelous that in such a busy official life as Chaucer undoubtedly led he should have had the time to make such a notable contribution to English poetry. And more wonderful still is the evidence that in the midst of this busy life he should project such ambitious poetical schemes. It is a peculiarly human trait in Chaucer that he planned so much more than he could possibly accomplish. To a sympathetic and understanding reader, Chaucer's many unfinished works possess a unique interest in the mute testimony they offer to his nature.
So much for the bare skeleton of Chaucer's life — would that we might clothe it with flesh and blood and present the very man. We turn now to the imperishable poems he has left behind him.
At the time when Chaucer began to write, poetry did not exist in English. The poetic literature from the time of the Norman Conquest reflected the continual conflict between the old Anglo-Saxon forms and the newer Anglo-Norman forms. Piers Plowman in the old alliterative meter was the last brilliant flash of the Anglo-Saxon verse, coming just at the time when Chaucer was beginning his career. The Anglo-Norman writers had done scarcely more than direct the attention of the reader across the Channel to the home of a more advanced literature: their work in English was contemptible.
Under these circumstances, with no models in English, Chaucer took the most natural course. He turned to the French and Italian literature for his models, translating, imitating, and para
phrasing during a long apprenticeship, trying in English the different verse forms, tuning his harp for an original composition. Indeed one of our earliest of contemporary references to Chaucer is to a translation: “Thou art in Albion the God of worldly love," wrote the French poet Eustace Deschamps, "and into good English thou didst translate the book of the Rose." The Romaunt of the Rose referred to by Deschamps is the most prominent work of Chaucer's early period, but in a number of adaptations and imitations he showed how he was trying his hand. He accepted the continental models, the courts of love, the dream, the machinery of romance and chivalric love, and experimented with them in English form. His Book of the Duchess, Parlement of Foules, House of Fame, and Legend of Good Women are examples of this period.
A more noteworthy work of his apprenticeship was his Troilus and Criseyde. Although this, like the poems mentioned above, was after a continental model, Boccaccio's Filostrato, it was neither a direct translation nor a paraphrase. Chaucer deliberately altered elements of the story to increase its artistic finish. He followed the narrative plot of Boccaccio, but he borrowed from various other sources — Guido della Colonne and Boethius, especially —- to heighten the dramatic quality and impart a moral character to the tale. His characters are different: Troilus is more beroic, Criseyde is more interesting, Pandarus is more individual. He showed great independence in his selection from and in his treatment of his original, expanding Boccaccio's 5704 lines into a poem of 8246 lines. In short, he indicated by this poem a tendency to break away from his models and compose his own setting.
Romaunt of the Rose, Parlement of Foules, Troilus and Criseyde and the rest, however, are but introductions to his Canterbury Tales. On these his fame as one of England's greatest poets rests. The conception is not wholly original, — collections of tales, reaching a climax in Boccaccio's Decameron, were not uncommon in those times, — but it was a happy genius that imagined a company setting out on the spring pilgrimage to Canterbury, and agreeing to tell stories to while away the hours. In such a pilgrimage might be gathered representatives of all the ranks and grades of contemporary society, and the variety of setting as the cavalcade passed from place to place could enhance the interest of the whole. A more ideal framework could scarcely be imagined.
It is a pity that so little of the whole plan was completed. From the Knight through his son the Squire, and the Abbot, the Parson, the Scholar, the Clerk, the Prioress, the Doctor, the Cook, the Plowman, the Sailor, each of the twenty-nine pilgrims (including Chaucer himself) was to tell four tales, two on the outward and two on the homeward journey. The tales were to be connected by the narrative of incidents of the pilgrimage, giving an opportunity for a lively depiction of the characters, their quarrels, their remarks on the stories, etc. Only twenty-two tales were completed, and two more are left to us in a fragmentary state. Between some groups the connecting links are omitted. And yet in these fragments of a great plan Chaucer revealed himself as a true artist and poet. The pilgrims become living people, the scene along the Canterbury road is spread before our eyes: — the jovial, profane Harry Bailly, the low and churlish Miller, the quarrelsome Friar and Summoner, the Canon's Yeoman riding his sweating horse to join the pilgrimage, all become so real that we long to place the day and hour of each man's tale. Chaucer's descriptions of dress and appearance, his command of a delicate satire, his ability to fit the story to the character, mark him a creative artist.
Judging him by his greatest work, then, we shall rank Chaucer first in time and high in place among English poets. His genius was essentially narrative: he was our first gifted short-story writer. His characterization, his plot, his climaxes are of the short-story type. His manipulation of scene and incident has the dramatic quality of the short-story form. He leaves with us always the impression of a man who dearly loved living people. He is cheerful. This world, with all its faults, hypocrisies, sins, is yet a good world — at any rate, he knows no better. Though he never rises to the sublimity of Shakespeare, Milton, and Wordsworth, his scenes have the interest and freshness of early morning. He is indeed the dawn of a national English poetry.