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GEOFFREY CHAUCER
The Canterbury Tales and Other Poems

LIFE OF GEOFFREY CHAUCER


NOT in point of genius only, but even in point of time, Chaucer
may claim the proud designation of "first" English poet. He
wrote "The Court of Love" in 1345, and "The Romaunt of the
Rose," if not also "Troilus and Cressida," probably within the
next decade: the dates usually assigned to the poems of
Laurence Minot extend from 1335 to 1355, while "The Vision
of Piers Plowman" mentions events that occurred in 1360 and
1362 -- before which date Chaucer had certainly written "The
Assembly of Fowls" and his "Dream." But, though they were
his contemporaries, neither Minot nor Langland (if Langland
was the author of the Vision) at all approached Chaucer in the
finish, the force, or the universal interest of their works and the
poems of earlier writer; as Layamon and the author of the
"Ormulum," are less English than Anglo-Saxon or Anglo-
Norman. Those poems reflected the perplexed struggle for
supremacy between the two grand elements of our language,
which marked the twelfth and thirteenth centuries; a struggle
intimately associated with the political relations between the
conquering Normans and the subjugated Anglo-Saxons.
Chaucer found two branches of the language; that spoken by
the people, Teutonic in its genius and its forms; that spoken by
the learned and the noble, based on the French Yet each branch
had begun to borrow of the other -- just as nobles and people
had been taught to recognise that each needed the other in the
wars and the social tasks of the time; and Chaucer, a scholar, a
courtier, a man conversant with all orders of society, but
accustomed to speak, think, and write in the words of the
highest, by his comprehensive genius cast into the simmering
mould a magical amalgamant which made the two half-hostile
elements unite and interpenetrate each other. Before Chaucer
wrote, there were two tongues in England, keeping alive the
feuds and resentments of cruel centuries; when he laid down his
pen, there was practically but one speech -- there was, and ever
since has been, but one people.

Geoffrey Chaucer, according to the most trustworthy traditions-
for authentic testimonies on the subject are wanting -- was born
in 1328; and London is generally believed to have been his
birth-place. It is true that Leland, the biographer of England's
first great poet who lived nearest to his time, not merely speaks
of Chaucer as having been born many years later than the date
now assigned, but mentions Berkshire or Oxfordshire as the
scene of his birth. So great uncertainty have some felt on the
latter score, that elaborate parallels have been drawn between
Chaucer, and Homer -- for whose birthplace several cities
contended, and whose descent was traced to the demigods.
Leland may seem to have had fair opportunities of getting at the
truth about Chaucer's birth -- for Henry VIII had him, at the
suppression of the monasteries throughout England, to search
for records of public interest the archives of the religious
houses. But it may be questioned whether he was likely to find
many authentic particulars regarding the personal history of the
poet in the quarters which he explored; and Leland's testimony
seems to be set aside by Chaucer's own evidence as to his
birthplace, and by the contemporary references which make him
out an aged man for years preceding the accepted date of his
death. In one of his prose works, "The Testament of Love," the
poet speaks of himself in terms that strongly confirm the claim
of London to the honour of giving him birth; for he there
mentions "the city of London, that is to me so dear and sweet,
in which I was forth growen; and more kindly love," says he,
"have I to that place than to any other in earth; as every kindly
creature hath full appetite to that place of his kindly engendrure,
and to will rest and peace in that place to abide." This tolerably
direct evidence is supported -- so far as it can be at such an
interval of time -- by the learned Camden; in his Annals of
Queen Elizabeth, he describes Spencer, who was certainly born
in London, as being a fellow-citizen of Chaucer's -- "Edmundus
Spenserus, patria Londinensis, Musis adeo arridentibus natus, ut
omnes Anglicos superioris aevi poetas, ne Chaucero quidem
concive excepto, superaret." <1> The records of the time notice
more than one person of the name of Chaucer, who held
honourable positions about the Court; and though we cannot
distinctly trace the poet's relationship with any of these
namesakes or antecessors, we find excellent ground for belief
that his family or friends stood well at Court, in the ease with
which Chaucer made his way there, and in his subsequent
career.

Like his great successor, Spencer, it was the fortune of Chaucer
to live under a splendid, chivalrous, and high-spirited reign.
1328 was the second year of Edward III; and, what with Scotch
wars, French expeditions, and the strenuous and costly struggle
to hold England in a worthy place among the States of Europe,
there was sufficient bustle, bold achievement, and high ambition
in the period to inspire a poet who was prepared to catch the
spirit of the day. It was an age of elaborate courtesy, of high-
paced gallantry, of courageous venture, of noble disdain for
mean tranquillity; and Chaucer, on the whole a man of peaceful
avocations, was penetrated to the depth of his consciousness
with the lofty and lovely civil side of that brilliant and restless
military period. No record of his youthful years, however,
remains to us; if we believe that at the age of eighteen he was a
student of Cambridge, it is only on the strength of a reference in
his "Court of Love", where the narrator is made to say that his
name is Philogenet, "of Cambridge clerk;" while he had already
told us that when he was stirred to seek the Court of Cupid he
was "at eighteen year of age." According to Leland, however,
he was educated at Oxford, proceeding thence to France and
the Netherlands, to finish his studies; but there remains no
certain evidence of his having belonged to either University. At
the same time, it is not doubted that his family was of good
condition; and, whether or not we accept the assertion that his
father held the rank of knighthood -- rejecting the hypotheses
that make him a merchant, or a vintner "at the corner of Kirton
Lane" -- it is plain, from Chaucer's whole career, that he had
introductions to public life, and recommendations to courtly
favour, wholly independent of his genius. We have the clearest
testimony that his mental training was of wide range and
thorough excellence, altogether rare for a mere courtier in those
days: his poems attest his intimate acquaintance with the
divinity, the philosophy, and the scholarship of his time, and
show him to have had the sciences, as then developed and
taught, "at his fingers' ends." Another proof of Chaucer's good
birth and fortune would he found in the statement that, after his
University career was completed, he entered the Inner Temple -
- the expenses of which could be borne only by men of noble
and opulent families; but although there is a story that he was
once fined two shillings for thrashing a Franciscan friar in Fleet
Street, we have no direct authority for believing that the poet
devoted himself to the uncongenial study of the law. No special
display of knowledge on that subject appears in his works; yet
in the sketch of the Manciple, in the Prologue to the Canterbury
Tales, may be found indications of his familiarity with the
internal economy of the Inns of Court; while numerous legal
phrases and references hint that his comprehensive information
was not at fault on legal matters. Leland says that he quitted the
University "a ready logician, a smooth rhetorician, a pleasant
poet, a grave philosopher, an ingenious mathematician, and a
holy divine;" and by all accounts, when Geoffrey Chaucer
comes before us authentically for the first time, at the age of
thirty-one, he was possessed of knowledge and
accomplishments far beyond the common standard of his day.

Chaucer at this period possessed also other qualities fitted to
recommend him to favour in a Court like that of Edward III.
Urry describes him, on the authority of a portrait, as being then
"of a fair beautiful complexion, his lips red and full, his size of a
just medium, and his port and air graceful and majestic. So,"
continues the ardent biographer, -- "so that every ornament that
could claim the approbation of the great and fair, his abilities to
record the valour of the one, and celebrate the beauty of the
other, and his wit and gentle behaviour to converse with both,
conspired to make him a complete courtier." If we believe that
his "Court of Love" had received such publicity as the literary
media of the time allowed in the somewhat narrow and select
literary world -- not to speak of "Troilus and Cressida," which,
as Lydgate mentions it first among Chaucer's works, some have
supposed to be a youthful production -- we find a third and not
less powerful recommendation to the favour of the great co-
operating with his learning and his gallant bearing. Elsewhere
<2> reasons have been shown for doubt whether "Troilus and
Cressida" should not be assigned to a later period of Chaucer's
life; but very little is positively known about the dates and
sequence of his various works. In the year 1386, being called as
witness with regard to a contest on a point of heraldry between
Lord Scrope and Sir Robert Grosvenor, Chaucer deposed that
he entered on his military career in 1359. In that year Edward
III invaded France, for the third time, in pursuit of his claim to
the French crown; and we may fancy that, in describing the
embarkation of the knights in "Chaucer's Dream", the poet
gained some of the vividness and stir of his picture from his
recollections of the embarkation of the splendid and well-
appointed royal host at Sandwich, on board the eleven hundred
transports provided for the enterprise. In this expedition the
laurels of Poitiers were flung on the ground; after vainly
attempting Rheims and Paris, Edward was constrained, by cruel
weather and lack of provisions, to retreat toward his ships; the
fury of the elements made the retreat more disastrous than an
overthrow in pitched battle; horses and men perished by
thousands, or fell into the hands of the pursuing French.
Chaucer, who had been made prisoner at the siege of Retters,
was among the captives in the possession of France when the
treaty of Bretigny -- the "great peace" -- was concluded, in
May, 1360. Returning to England, as we may suppose, at the
peace, the poet, ere long, fell into another and a pleasanter
captivity; for his marriage is generally believed to have taken
place shortly after his release from foreign durance. He had
already gained the personal friendship and favour of John of
Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, the King's son; the Duke, while Earl
of Richmond, had courted, and won to wife after a certain
delay, Blanche, daughter and co-heiress of Henry Duke of
Lancaster; and Chaucer is by some believed to have written
"The Assembly of Fowls" to celebrate the wooing, as he wrote
"Chaucer's Dream" to celebrate the wedding, of his patron. The
marriage took place in 1359, the year of Chaucer's expedition to
France; and as, in "The Assembly of Fowls," the formel or
female eagle, who is supposed to represent the Lady Blanche,
begs that her choice of a mate may be deferred for a year, 1358
and 1359 have been assigned as the respective dates of the two
poems already mentioned. In the "Dream," Chaucer
prominently introduces his own lady-love, to whom, after the
happy union of his patron with the Lady Blanche, he is wedded
amid great rejoicing; and various expressions in the same poem
show that not only was the poet high in favour with the
illustrious pair, but that his future wife had also peculiar claims
on their regard. She was the younger daughter of Sir Payne
Roet, a native of Hainault, who had, like many of his
countrymen, been attracted to England by the example and
patronage of Queen Philippa. The favourite attendant on the
Lady Blanche was her elder sister Katherine: subsequently
married to Sir Hugh Swynford, a gentleman of Lincolnshire;
and destined, after the death of Blanche, to be in succession
governess of her children, mistress of John of Gaunt, and
lawfully-wedded Duchess of Lancaster. It is quite sufficient
proof that Chaucer's position at Court was of no mean
consequence, to find that his wife, the sister of the future
Duchess of Lancaster, was one of the royal maids of honour,
and even, as Sir Harris Nicolas conjectures, a god-daughter of
the Queen -- for her name also was Philippa.

Between 1359, when the poet himself testifies that he was made
prisoner while bearing arms in France, and September 1366,
when Queen Philippa granted to her former maid of honour, by
the name of Philippa Chaucer, a yearly pension of ten marks, or
L6, 13s. 4d., we have no authentic mention of Chaucer, express
or indirect. It is plain from this grant that the poet's marriage
with Sir Payne Roet's daughter was not celebrated later than
1366; the probability is, that it closely followed his return from
the wars. In 1367, Edward III. settled upon Chaucer a life-
pension of twenty marks, "for the good service which our
beloved Valet -- 'dilectus Valettus noster' -- Geoffrey Chaucer
has rendered, and will render in time to come." Camden
explains 'Valettus hospitii' to signify a Gentleman of the Privy
Chamber; Selden says that the designation was bestowed "upon
young heirs designed to he knighted, or young gentlemen of
great descent and quality." Whatever the strict meaning of the
word, it is plain that the poet's position was honourable and
near to the King's person, and also that his worldly
circumstances were easy, if not affluent -- for it need not be said
that twenty marks in those days represented twelve or twenty
times the sum in these. It is believed that he found powerful
patronage, not merely from the Duke of Lancaster and his wife,
but from Margaret Countess of Pembroke, the King's daughter.
To her Chaucer is supposed to have addressed the "Goodly
Ballad", in which the lady is celebrated under the image of the
daisy; her he is by some understood to have represented under
the title of Queen Alcestis, in the "Court of Love" and the
Prologue to "The Legend of Good Women;" and in her praise
we may read his charming descriptions and eulogies of the daisy
-- French, "Marguerite," the name of his Royal patroness. To
this period of Chaucer's career we may probably attribute the
elegant and courtly, if somewhat conventional, poems of "The
Flower and the Leaf," "The Cuckoo and the Nightingale," &c.
"The Lady Margaret," says Urry, ". . . would frequently
compliment him upon his poems. But this is not to be meant of
his Canterbury Tales, they being written in the latter part of his
life, when the courtier and the fine gentleman gave way to solid
sense and plain descriptions. In his love-pieces he was obliged
to have the strictest regard to modesty and decency; the ladies
at that time insisting so much upon the nicest punctilios of
honour, that it was highly criminal to depreciate their sex, or do
anything that might offend virtue." Chaucer, in their estimation,
had sinned against the dignity and honour of womankind by his
translation of the French "Roman de la Rose," and by his
"Troilus and Cressida" -- assuming it to have been among his
less mature works; and to atone for those offences the Lady
Margaret (though other and older accounts say that it was the
first Queen of Richard II., Anne of Bohemia), prescribed to him
the task of writing "The Legend of Good Women" (see
introductory note to that poem). About this period, too, we
may place the composition of Chaucer's A. B. C., or The Prayer
of Our Lady, made at the request of the Duchess Blanche, a
lady of great devoutness in her private life. She died in 1369;
and Chaucer, as he had allegorised her wooing, celebrated her
marriage, and aided her devotions, now lamented her death, in a
poem entitled "The Book of the Duchess; or, the Death of
Blanche.<3>

In 1370, Chaucer was employed on the King's service abroad;
and in November 1372, by the title of "Scutifer noster" -- our
Esquire or Shield-bearer -- he was associated with "Jacobus
Pronan," and "Johannes de Mari civis Januensis," in a royal
commission, bestowing full powers to treat with the Duke of
Genoa, his Council, and State. The object of the embassy was
to negotiate upon the choice of an English port at which the
Genoese might form a commercial establishment; and Chaucer,
having quitted England in December, visited Genoa and
Florence, and returned to England before the end of November
1373 -- for on that day he drew his pension from the Exchequer
in person. The most interesting point connected with this Italian
mission is the question, whether Chaucer visited Petrarch at
Padua. That he did, is unhesitatingly affirmed by the old
biographers; but the authentic notices of Chaucer during the
years 1372-1373, as shown by the researches of Sir Harris
Nicolas, are confined to the facts already stated; and we are left
to answer the question by the probabilities of the case, and by
the aid of what faint light the poet himself affords. We can
scarcely fancy that Chaucer, visiting Italy for the first time, in a
capacity which opened for him easy access to the great and the
famous, did not embrace the chance of meeting a poet whose
works he evidently knew in their native tongue, and highly
esteemed. With Mr Wright, we are strongly disinclined to
believe "that Chaucer did not profit by the opportunity . . . of
improving his acquaintance with the poetry, if not the poets, of
the country he thus visited, whose influence was now being felt
on the literature of most countries of Western Europe." That
Chaucer was familiar with the Italian language appears not
merely from his repeated selection as Envoy to Italian States,
but by many passages in his poetry, from "The Assembly of
Fowls" to "The Canterbury Tales." In the opening of the first
poem there is a striking parallel to Dante's inscription on the
gate of Hell. The first Song of Troilus, in "Troilus and
Cressida", is a nearly literal translation of Petrarch's 88th
Sonnet. In the Prologue to "The Legend of Good Women",
there is a reference to Dante which can hardly have reached the
poet at second- hand. And in Chaucer's great work -- as in The
Wife of Bath's Tale, and The Monk's Tale -- direct reference by
name is made to Dante, "the wise poet of Florence," "the great
poet of Italy," as the source whence the author has quoted.
When we consider the poet's high place in literature and at
Court, which could not fail to make him free of the hospitalities
of the brilliant little Lombard States; his familiarity with the
tongue and the works of Italy's greatest bards, dead and living;
the reverential regard which he paid to the memory of great
poets, of which we have examples in "The House of Fame," and
at the close of "Troilus and Cressida" <4>; along with his own
testimony in the Prologue to The Clerk's Tale, we cannot fail to
construe that testimony as a declaration that the Tale was
actually told to Chaucer by the lips of Petrarch, in 1373, the
very year in which Petrarch translated it into Latin, from
Boccaccio's "Decameron."<5> Mr Bell notes the objection to
this interpretation, that the words are put into the mouth, not of
the poet, but of the Clerk; and meets it by the counter-
objection, that the Clerk, being a purely imaginary personage,
could not have learned the story at Padua from Petrarch -- and
therefore that Chaucer must have departed from the dramatic
assumption maintained in the rest of the dialogue. Instances
could be adduced from Chaucer's writings to show that such a
sudden "departure from the dramatic assumption" would not be
unexampled: witness the "aside" in The Wife of Bath's
Prologue, where, after the jolly Dame has asserted that "half so
boldly there can no man swear and lie as a woman can", the
poet hastens to interpose, in his own person, these two lines:

"I say not this by wives that be wise,
But if it be when they them misadvise."

And again, in the Prologue to the "Legend of Good Women,"
from a description of the daisy --

"She is the clearness and the very light,
That in this darke world me guides and leads,"

the poet, in the very next lines, slides into an address to his lady:

"The heart within my sorrowful heart you dreads
And loves so sore, that ye be, verily,
The mistress of my wit, and nothing I," &c.

When, therefore, the Clerk of Oxford is made to say that he will
tell a tale --

"The which that I
Learn'd at Padova of a worthy clerk,
As proved by his wordes and his werk.
He is now dead, and nailed in his chest,
I pray to God to give his soul good rest.
Francis Petrarc', the laureate poete,
Highte this clerk, whose rhetoric so sweet
Illumin'd all Itaile of poetry. . . .
But forth to tellen of this worthy man,
That taughte me this tale, as I began." . . .

we may without violent effort believe that Chaucer speaks in his
own person, though dramatically the words are on the Clerk's
lips. And the belief is not impaired by the sorrowful way in
which the Clerk lingers on Petrarch's death -- which would be
less intelligible if the fictitious narrator had only read the story
in the Latin translation, than if we suppose the news of
Petrarch's death at Arqua in July 1374 to have closely followed
Chaucer to England, and to have cruelly and irresistibly mingled
itself with our poet's personal recollections of his great Italian
contemporary. Nor must we regard as without significance the
manner in which the Clerk is made to distinguish between the
"body" of Petrarch's tale, and the fashion in which it was set
forth in writing, with a proem that seemed "a thing
impertinent", save that the poet had chosen in that way to
"convey his matter" -- told, or "taught," so much more directly
and simply by word of mouth. It is impossible to pronounce
positively on the subject; the question whether Chaucer saw
Petrarch in 1373 must remain a moot-point, so long as we have
only our present information; but fancy loves to dwell on the
thought of the two poets conversing under the vines at Arqua;
and we find in the history and the writings of Chaucer nothing
to contradict, a good deal to countenance, the belief that such a
meeting occurred.

Though we have no express record, we have indirect testimony,
that Chaucer's Genoese mission was discharged satisfactorily;
for on the 23d of April 1374, Edward III grants at Windsor to
the poet, by the title of "our beloved squire" -- dilecto Armigero
nostro -- unum pycher. vini, "one pitcher of wine" daily, to be
"perceived" in the port of London; a grant which, on the
analogy of more modern usage, might he held equivalent to
Chaucer's appointment as Poet Laureate. When we find that
soon afterwards the grant was commuted for a money payment
of twenty marks per annum, we need not conclude that
Chaucer's circumstances were poor; for it may be easily
supposed that the daily "perception" of such an article of
income was attended with considerable prosaic inconvenience.
A permanent provision for Chaucer was made on the 8th of
June 1374, when he was appointed Controller of the Customs in
the Port of London, for the lucrative imports of wools, skins or
"wool-fells," and tanned hides -- on condition that he should
fulfil the duties of that office in person and not by deputy, and
should write out the accounts with his own hand. We have
what seems evidence of Chaucer's compliance with these terms
in "The House of Fame", where, in the mouth of the eagle, the
poet describes himself, when he has finished his labour and
made his reckonings, as not seeking rest and news in social
intercourse, but going home to his own house, and there, "all so
dumb as any stone," sitting "at another book," until his look is
dazed; and again, in the record that in 1376 he received a grant
of L731, 4s. 6d., the amount of a fine levied on one John Kent,
whom Chaucer's vigilance had frustrated in the attempt to ship a
quantity of wool for Dordrecht without paying the duty. The
seemingly derogatory condition, that the Controller should
write out the accounts or rolls ("rotulos") of his office with his
own hand, appears to have been designed, or treated, as merely
formal; no records in Chaucer's handwriting are known to exist
-- which could hardly be the case if, for the twelve years of his
Controllership (1374-1386), he had duly complied with the
condition; and during that period he was more than once
employed abroad, so that the condition was evidently regarded
as a formality even by those who had imposed it. Also in 1374,
the Duke of Lancaster, whose ambitious views may well have
made him anxious to retain the adhesion of a man so capable
and accomplished as Chaucer, changed into a joint life-annuity
remaining to the survivor, and charged on the revenues of the
Savoy, a pension of L10 which two years before he settled on
the poet's wife -- whose sister was then the governess of the
Duke's two daughters, Philippa and Elizabeth, and the Duke's
own mistress. Another proof of Chaucer's personal reputation
and high Court favour at this time, is his selection (1375) as
ward to the son of Sir Edmond Staplegate of Bilsynton, in Kent;
a charge on the surrender of which the guardian received no
less a sum than L104.

We find Chaucer in 1376 again employed on a foreign mission.
In 1377, the last year of Edward III., he was sent to Flanders
with Sir Thomas Percy, afterwards Earl of Worcester, for the
purpose of obtaining a prolongation of the truce; and in January
13738, he was associated with Sir Guichard d'Angle and other
Commissioners, to pursue certain negotiations for a marriage
between Princess Mary of France and the young King Richard
II., which had been set on foot before the death of Edward III.
The negotiation, however, proved fruitless; and in May 1378,
Chaucer was selected to accompany Sir John Berkeley on a
mission to the Court of Bernardo Visconti, Duke of Milan, with
the view, it is supposed, of concerting military plans against the
outbreak of war with France. The new King, meantime, had
shown that he was not insensible to Chaucer's merit -- or to the
influence of his tutor and the poet's patron, the Duke of
Lancaster; for Richard II. confirmed to Chaucer his pension of
twenty marks, along with an equal annual sum, for which the
daily pitcher of wine granted in 1374 had been commuted.
Before his departure for Lombardy, Chaucer -- still holding his
post in the Customs -- selected two representatives or trustees,
to protect his estate against legal proceedings in his absence, or
to sue in his name defaulters and offenders against the imposts
which he was charged to enforce. One of these trustees was
called Richard Forrester; the other was John Gower, the poet,
the most famous English contemporary of Chaucer, with whom
he had for many years been on terms of admiring friendship --
although, from the strictures passed on certain productions of
Gower's in the Prologue to The Man of Law's Tale,<6> it has
been supposed that in the later years of Chaucer's life the
friendship suffered some diminution. To the "moral Gower" and
"the philosophical Strode," Chaucer "directed" or dedicated his
"Troilus and Cressida;" <7> while, in the "Confessio Amantis,"
Gower introduces a handsome compliment to his greater
contemporary, as the "disciple and the poet" of Venus, with
whose glad songs and ditties, made in her praise during the
flowers of his youth, the land was filled everywhere. Gower,
however -- a monk and a Conservative -- held to the party of
the Duke of Gloucester, the rival of the Wycliffite and
innovating Duke of Lancaster, who was Chaucer's patron, and
whose cause was not a little aided by Chaucer's strictures on the
clergy; and thus it is not impossible that political differences
may have weakened the old bonds of personal friendship and
poetic esteem. Returning from Lombardy early in 1379,
Chaucer seems to have been again sent abroad; for the records
exhibit no trace of him between May and December of that
year. Whether by proxy or in person, however, he received his
pensions regularly until 1382, when his income was increased
by his appointment to the post of Controller of Petty Customs
in the port of London. In November 1384, he obtained a
month's leave of absence on account of his private affairs, and a
deputy was appointed to fill his place; and in February of the
next year he was permitted to appoint a permanent deputy --
thus at length gaining relief from that close attention to business
which probably curtailed the poetic fruits of the poet's most
powerful years. <8>

Chaucer is next found occupying a post which has not often
been held by men gifted with his peculiar genius -- that of a
county member. The contest between the Dukes of Gloucester
and Lancaster, and their adherents, for the control of the
Government, was coming to a crisis; and when the recluse and
studious Chaucer was induced to offer himself to the electors of
Kent as one of the knights of their shire -- where presumably he
held property -- we may suppose that it was with the view of
supporting his patron's cause in the impending conflict. The
Parliament in which the poet sat assembled at Westminster on
the 1st of October, and was dissolved on the 1st of November,
1386. Lancaster was fighting and intriguing abroad, absorbed in
the affairs of his Castilian succession; Gloucester and his friends
at home had everything their own way; the Earl of Suffolk was
dismissed from the woolsack, and impeached by the Commons;
and although Richard at first stood out courageously for the
friends of his uncle Lancaster, he was constrained, by the refusal
of supplies, to consent to the proceedings of Gloucester. A
commission was wrung from him, under protest, appointing
Gloucester, Arundel, and twelve other Peers and prelates, a
permanent council to inquire into the condition of all the public
departments, the courts of law, and the royal household, with
absolute powers of redress and dismissal. We need not ascribe
to Chaucer's Parliamentary exertions in his patron's behalf, nor
to any malpractices in his official conduct, the fact that he was
among the earliest victims of the commission.<9> In December
1386, he was dismissed from both his offices in the port of
London; but he retained his pensions, and drew them regularly
twice a year at the Exchequer until 1388. In 1387, Chaucer's
political reverses were aggravated by a severe domestic
calamity: his wife died, and with her died the pension which had
been settled on her by Queen Philippa in 1366, and confirmed to
her at Richard's accession in 1377. The change made in
Chaucer's pecuniary position, by the loss of his offices and his
wife's pension, must have been very great. It would appear that
during his prosperous times he had lived in a style quite equal to
his income, and had no ample resources against a season of
reverse; for, on the 1st of May 1388, less than a year and a half
after being dismissed from the Customs, he was constrained to
assign his pensions, by surrender in Chancery, to one John
Scalby. In May 1389, Richard II., now of age, abruptly
resumed the reins of government, which, for more than two
years, had been ably but cruelly managed by Gloucester. The
friends of Lancaster were once more supreme in the royal
councils, and Chaucer speedily profited by the change. On the
12th of July he was appointed Clerk of the King's Works at the
Palace of Westminster, the Tower, the royal manors of
Kennington, Eltham, Clarendon, Sheen, Byfleet, Childern
Langley, and Feckenham, the castle of Berkhamstead, the royal
lodge of Hathenburgh in the New Forest, the lodges in the
parks of Clarendon, Childern Langley, and Feckenham, and the
mews for the King's falcons at Charing Cross; he received a
salary of two shillings per day, and was allowed to perform the
duties by deputy. For some reason unknown, Chaucer held this
lucrative office <10> little more than two years, quitting it
before the 16th of September 1391, at which date it had passed
into the hands of one John Gedney. The next two years and a
half are a blank, so far as authentic records are concerned;
Chaucer is supposed to have passed them in retirement,
probably devoting them principally to the composition of The
Canterbury Tales. In February 1394, the King conferred upon
him a grant of L20 a year for life; but he seems to have had no
other source of income, and to have become embarrassed by
debt, for frequent memoranda of small advances on his pension
show that his circumstances were, in comparison, greatly
reduced. Things appear to have grown worse and worse with
the poet; for in May 1398 he was compelled to obtain from the
King letters of protection against arrest, extending over a term
of two years. Not for the first time, it is true -- for similar
documents had been issued at the beginning of Richard's reign;
but at that time Chaucer's missions abroad, and his responsible
duties in the port of London, may have furnished reasons for
securing him against annoyance or frivolous prosecution, which
were wholly wanting at the later date. In 1398, fortune began
again to smile upon him; he received a royal grant of a tun of
wine annually, the value being about L4. Next year, Richard II
having been deposed by the son of John of Gaunt <11> --
Henry of Bolingbroke, Duke of Lancaster -- the new King, four
days after hits accession, bestowed on Chaucer a grant of forty
marks (L26, 13s. 4d.) per annum, in addition to the pension of
L20 conferred by Richard II. in 1394. But the poet, now
seventy-one years of age, and probably broken down by the
reverses of the past few years, was not destined long to enjoy
his renewed prosperity. On Christmas Eve of 1399, he entered
on the possession of a house in the garden of the Chapel of the
Blessed Mary of Westminster -- near to the present site of
Henry VII.'s Chapel -- having obtained a lease from Robert
Hermodesworth, a monk of the adjacent convent, for fifty-three
years, at the annual rent of four marks (L2, 13s. 4d.) Until the
1st of March 1400, Chaucer drew his pensions in person; then
they were received for him by another hand; and on the 25th of
October, in the same year, he died, at the age of seventy-two.
The only lights thrown by his poems on his closing days are
furnished in the little ballad called "Good Counsel of Chaucer,"
-- which, though said to have been written when "upon his
death-bed lying in his great anguish, "breathes the very spirit of
courage, resignation, and philosophic calm; and by the
"Retractation" at the end of The Canterbury Tales, which, if it
was not foisted in by monkish transcribers, may be supposed the
effect of Chaucer's regrets and self-reproaches on that solemn
review of his life-work which the close approach of death
compelled. The poet was buried in Westminster Abbey; <12>
and not many years after his death a slab was placed on a pillar
near his grave, bearing the lines, taken from an epitaph or
eulogy made by Stephanus Surigonus of Milan, at the request of
Caxton:

"Galfridus Chaucer, vates, et fama poesis
Maternae, hoc sacra sum tumulatus humo." <13>

About 1555, Mr Nicholas Brigham, a gentleman of Oxford who
greatly admired the genius of Chaucer, erected the present
tomb, as near to the spot where the poet lay, "before the chapel
of St Benet," as was then possible by reason of the "cancelli,"
<14> which the Duke of Buckingham subsequently obtained
leave to remove, that room might be made for the tomb of
Dryden. On the structure of Mr Brigham, besides a full-length
representation of Chaucer, taken from a portrait drawn by his
"scholar" Thomas Occleve, was -- or is, though now almost
illegible -- the following inscription:--

M. S.
QUI FUIT ANGLORUM VATES TER MAXIMUS OLIM,
GALFRIDUS CHAUCER CONDITUR HOC TUMULO;
ANNUM SI QUAERAS DOMINI, SI TEMPORA VITAE,
ECCE NOTAE SUBSUNT, QUE TIBI CUNCTA NOTANT.
25 OCTOBRIS 1400.
AERUMNARUM REQUIES MORS.
N. BRIGHAM HOS FECIT MUSARUM NOMINE SUMPTUS
1556. <15>

Concerning his personal appearance and habits, Chaucer has not
been reticent in his poetry. Urry sums up the traits of his aspect
and character fairly thus: "He was of a middle stature, the latter
part of his life inclinable to be fat and corpulent, as appears by
the Host's bantering him in the journey to Canterbury, and
comparing shapes with him.<16> His face was fleshy, his
features just and regular, his complexion fair, and somewhat
pale, his hair of a dusky yellow, short and thin; the hair of his
beard in two forked tufts, of a wheat colour; his forehead broad
and smooth; his eyes inclining usually to the ground, which is
intimated by the Host's words; his whole face full of liveliness, a
calm, easy sweetness, and a studious Venerable aspect. . . . As
to his temper, he had a mixture of the gay, the modest, and the
grave. The sprightliness of his humour was more distinguished
by his writings than by his appearance; which gave occasion to
Margaret Countess of Pembroke often to rally him upon his
silent modesty in company, telling him, that his absence was
more agreeable to her than his conversation, since the first was
productive of agreeable pieces of wit in his writings, <17> but
the latter was filled with a modest deference, and a too distant
respect. We see nothing merry or jocose in his behaviour with
his pilgrims, but a silent attention to their mirth, rather than any
mixture of his own. . . When disengaged from public affairs, his
time was entirely spent in study and reading; so agreeable to
him was this exercise, that he says he preferred it to all other
sports and diversions.<18> He lived within himself, neither
desirous to hear nor busy to concern himself with the affairs of
his neighbours. His course of living was temperate and regular;
he went to rest with the sun, and rose before it; and by that
means enjoyed the pleasures of the better part of the day, his
morning walk and fresh contemplations. This gave him the
advantage of describing the morning in so lively a manner as he
does everywhere in his works. The springing sun glows warm in
his lines, and the fragrant air blows cool in his descriptions; we
smell the sweets of the bloomy haws, and hear the music of the
feathered choir, whenever we take a forest walk with him. The
hour of the day is not easier to be discovered from the reflection
of the sun in Titian's paintings, than in Chaucer's morning
landscapes. . . . His reading was deep and extensive, his
judgement sound and discerning. . . In one word, he was a great
scholar, a pleasant wit, a candid critic, a sociable companion, a
steadfast friend, a grave philosopher, a temperate economist,
and a pious Christian."

Chaucer's most important poems are "Troilus and Cressida,"
"The Romaunt of the Rose," and "The Canterbury Tales." Of
the first, containing 8246 lines, an abridgement, with a prose
connecting outline of the story, is given in this volume. With the
second, consisting of 7699 octosyllabic verses, like those in
which "The House of Fame" is written, it was found impossible
to deal in the present edition. The poem is a curtailed translation
from the French "Roman de la Rose" -- commenced by
Guillaume de Lorris, who died in 1260, after contributing 4070
verses, and completed, in the last quarter of the thirteenth
century, by Jean de Meun, who added some 18,000 verses. It is
a satirical allegory, in which the vices of courts, the corruptions
of the clergy, the disorders and inequalities of society in general,
are unsparingly attacked, and the most revolutionary doctrines
are advanced; and though, in making his translation, Chaucer
softened or eliminated much of the satire of the poem, still it
remained, in his verse, a caustic exposure of the abuses of the
time, especially those which discredited the Church.

The Canterbury Tales are presented in this edition with as near
an approach to completeness as regard for the popular character
of the volume permitted. The 17,385 verses, of which the
poetical Tales consist, have been given without abridgement or
purgation -- save in a single couplet; but, the main purpose of
the volume being to make the general reader acquainted with
the "poems" of Chaucer and Spenser, the Editor has ventured to
contract the two prose Tales -- Chaucer's Tale of Meliboeus,
and the Parson's Sermon or Treatise on Penitence -- so as to
save about thirty pages for the introduction of Chaucer's minor
pieces. At the same time, by giving prose outlines of the omitted
parts, it has been sought to guard the reader against the fear
that he was losing anything essential, or even valuable. It is
almost needless to describe the plot, or point out the literary
place, of the Canterbury Tales. Perhaps in the entire range of
ancient and modern literature there is no work that so clearly
and freshly paints for future times the picture of the past;
certainly no Englishman has ever approached Chaucer in the
power of fixing for ever the fleeting traits of his own time. The
plan of the poem had been adopted before Chaucer chose it;
notably in the "Decameron" of Boccaccio -- although, there, the
circumstances under which the tales were told, with the terror
of the plague hanging over the merry company, lend a grim
grotesqueness to the narrative, unless we can look at it
abstracted from its setting. Chaucer, on the other hand, strikes
a perpetual key-note of gaiety whenever he mentions the word
"pilgrimage;" and at every stage of the connecting story we
bless the happy thought which gives us incessant incident,
movement, variety, and unclouded but never monotonous
joyousness.

The poet, the evening before he starts on a pilgrimage to the
shrine of St Thomas at Canterbury, lies at the Tabard Inn, in
Southwark, curious to know in what companionship he is
destined to fare forward on the morrow. Chance sends him
"nine and twenty in a company," representing all orders of
English society, lay and clerical, from the Knight and the Abbot
down to the Ploughman and the Sompnour. The jolly Host of
the Tabard, after supper, when tongues are loosened and hearts
are opened, declares that "not this year" has he seen such a
company at once under his roof-tree, and proposes that, when
they set out next morning, he should ride with them and make
them sport. All agree, and Harry Bailly unfolds his scheme: each
pilgrim, including the poet, shall tell two tales on the road to
Canterbury, and two on the way back to London; and he whom
the general voice pronounces to have told the best tale, shall be
treated to a supper at the common cost -- and, of course, to
mine Host's profit -- when the cavalcade returns from the saint's
shrine to the Southwark hostelry. All joyously assent; and early
on the morrow, in the gay spring sunshine, they ride forth,
listening to the heroic tale of the brave and gentle Knight, who
has been gracefully chosen by the Host to lead the spirited
competition of story-telling.

To describe thus the nature of the plan, and to say that when
Chaucer conceived, or at least began to execute it, he was
between sixty and seventy years of age, is to proclaim that The
Canterbury Tales could never be more than a fragment. Thirty
pilgrims, each telling two tales on the way out, and two more
on the way back -- that makes 120 tales; to say nothing of the
prologue, the description of the journey, the occurrences at
Canterbury, "and all the remnant of their pilgrimage," which
Chaucer also undertook. No more than twenty-three of the 120
stories are told in the work as it comes down to us; that is, only
twenty-three of the thirty pilgrims tell the first of the two stories
on the road to Canterbury; while of the stories on the return
journey we have not one, and nothing is said about the doings
of the pilgrims at Canterbury -- which would, if treated like the
scene at the Tabard, have given us a still livelier "picture of the
period." But the plan was too large; and although the poet had
some reserves, in stories which he had already composed in an
independent form, death cut short his labour ere he could even
complete the arrangement and connection of more than a very
few of the Tales. Incomplete as it is, however, the magnum
opus of Chaucer was in his own time received with immense
favour; manuscript copies are numerous even now -- no slight
proof of its popularity; and when the invention of printing was
introduced into England by William Caxton, The Canterbury
Tales issued from his press in the year after the first English-
printed book, "The Game of the Chesse," had been struck off.
Innumerable editions have since been published; and it may
fairly be affirmed, that few books have been so much in favour
with the reading public of every generation as this book, which
the lapse of every generation has been rendering more
unreadable.

Apart from "The Romaunt of the Rose," no really important
poetical work of Chaucer's is omitted from or unrepresented in
the present edition. Of "The Legend of Good Women," the
Prologue only is given -- but it is the most genuinely Chaucerian
part of the poem. Of "The Court of Love," three-fourths are
here presented; of "The Assembly of Fowls," "The Cuckoo and
the Nightingale," "The Flower and the Leaf," all; of "Chaucer's
Dream," one-fourth; of "The House of Fame," two-thirds; and
of the minor poems such a selection as may give an idea of
Chaucer's power in the "occasional" department of verse.
Necessarily, no space whatever could be given to Chaucer's
prose works -- his translation of Boethius' Treatise on the
Consolation of Philosophy; his Treatise on the Astrolabe,
written for the use of his son Lewis; and his "Testament of
Love," composed in his later years, and reflecting the troubles
that then beset the poet. If, after studying in a simplified form
the salient works of England's first great bard, the reader is
tempted to regret that he was not introduced to a wider
acquaintance with the author, the purpose of the Editor will
have been more than attained.

The plan of the volume does not demand an elaborate
examination into the state of our language when Chaucer wrote,
or the nice questions of grammatical and metrical structure
which conspire with the obsolete orthography to make his
poems a sealed book for the masses. The most important
element in the proper reading of Chaucer's verses -- whether
written in the decasyllabic or heroic metre, which he introduced
into our literature, or in the octosyllabic measure used with such
animated effect in "The House of Fame," "Chaucer's Dream,"
&c. -- is the sounding of the terminal "e" where it is now silent.
That letter is still valid in French poetry; and Chaucer's lines can
be scanned only by reading them as we would read Racine's or
Moliere's. The terminal "e" played an important part in
grammar; in many cases it was the sign of the infinitive -- the
"n" being dropped from the end; at other times it pointed the
distinction between singular and plural, between adjective and
adverb. The pages that follow, however, being prepared from
the modern English point of view, necessarily no account is
taken of those distinctions; and the now silent "e" has been
retained in the text of Chaucer only when required by the
modern spelling, or by the exigencies of metre.

Before a word beginning with a vowel, or with the letter "h,"
the final "e" was almost without exception mute; and in such
cases, in the plural forms and infinitives of verbs, the terminal
"n" is generally retained for the sake of euphony. No reader
who is acquainted with the French language will find it hard to
fall into Chaucer's accentuation; while, for such as are not, a
simple perusal of the text according to the rules of modern
verse, should remove every difficulty.


Notes to Life of Geoffrey Chaucer


1. "Edmund Spenser, a native of London, was born with a Muse
of such power, that he was superior to all English poets of
preceding ages, not excepting his fellow-citizen Chaucer."

2. See introduction to "The Legend of Good Women".

3. Called in the editions before 1597 "The Dream of Chaucer".
The poem, which is not included in the present edition, does
indeed, like many of Chaucer's smaller works, tell the story of a
dream, in which a knight, representing John of Gaunt, is found
by the poet mourning the loss of his lady; but the true "Dream
of Chaucer," in which he celebrates the marriage of his patron,
was published for the first time by Speght in 1597. John of
Gaunt, in the end of 1371, married his second wife, Constance,
daughter to Pedro the Cruel of Spain; so that "The Book of the
Duchess" must have been written between 1369 and 1371.

4. Where he bids his "little book"
"Subject be unto all poesy,
And kiss the steps, where as thou seest space,
Of Virgil, Ovid, Homer, Lucan, Stace."

5. See note 1 to The Tale in The Clerk's Tale.

6. See note 1 to The Man of Law's Tale.

7. "Written," says Mr Wright, "in the sixteenth year of the reign
of Richard II. (1392-1393);" a powerful confirmation of the
opinion that this poem was really produced in Chaucer's mature
age. See the introductory notes to it and to the Legend of Good
Women.

8. The old biographers of Chaucer, founding on what they took
to be autobiographic allusions in "The Testament of Love,"
assign to him between 1354 and 1389 a very different history
from that here given on the strength of authentic records
explored and quoted by Sir H. Nicolas. Chaucer is made to
espouse the cause of John of Northampton, the Wycliffite Lord
Mayor of London, whose re-election in 1384 was so
vehemently opposed by the clergy, and who was imprisoned in
the sequel of the grave disorders that arose. The poet, it is said,
fled to the Continent, taking with him a large sum of money,
which he spent in supporting companions in exile; then,
returning by stealth to England in quest of funds, he was
detected and sent to the Tower, where he languished for three
years, being released only on the humiliating condition of
informing against his associates in the plot. The public records
show, however, that, all the time of his alleged exile and
captivity, he was quietly living in London, regularly drawing his
pensions in person, sitting in Parliament, and discharging his
duties in the Customs until his dismissal in 1386. It need not be
said, further, that although Chaucer freely handled the errors,
the ignorance, and vices of the clergy, he did so rather as a man
of sense and of conscience, than as a Wycliffite -- and there is
no evidence that he espoused the opinions of the zealous
Reformer, far less played the part of an extreme and self-
regardless partisan of his old friend and college-companion.

9. "The Commissioners appear to have commenced their
labours with examining the accounts of the officers employed in
the collection of the revenue; and the sequel affords a strong
presumption that the royal administration [under Lancaster and
his friends] had been foully calumniated. We hear not of any
frauds discovered, or of defaulters punished, or of grievances
redressed." Such is the testimony of Lingard (chap. iv., 1386),
all the more valuable for his aversion from the Wycliffite
leanings of John of Gaunt. Chaucer's department in the London
Customs was in those days one of the most important and
lucrative in the kingdom; and if mercenary abuse of his post
could have been proved, we may be sure that his and his
patron's enemies would not have been content with simple
dismissal, but would have heavily amerced or imprisoned him.

10. The salary was L36, 10s. per annum; the salary of the Chief
Judges was L40, of the Puisne Judges about L27. Probably the
Judges -- certainly the Clerk of the Works -- had fees or
perquisites besides the stated payment.

11. Chaucer's patron had died earlier in 1399, during the exile
of his son (then Duke of Hereford) in France. The Duchess
Constance had died in 1394; and the Duke had made reparation
to Katherine Swynford -- who had already borne him four
children -- by marrying her in 1396, with the approval of
Richard II., who legitimated the children, and made the eldest
son of the poet's sister-in-law Earl of Somerset. From this long-
illicit union sprang the house of Beaufort -- that being the
surname of the Duke's children by Katherine, after the name of
the castle in Anjou (Belfort, or Beaufort) where they were born.

12. Of Chaucer's two sons by Philippa Roet, his only wife, the
younger, Lewis, for whom he wrote the Treatise on the
Astrolabe, died young. The elder, Thomas, married Maud, the
second daughter and co-heiress of Sir John Burghersh, brother
of the Bishop of Lincoln, the Chancellor and Treasurer of
England. By this marriage Thomas Chaucer acquired great
estates in Oxfordshire and elsewhere; and he figured
prominently in the second rank of courtiers for many years. He
was Chief Butler to Richard II.; under Henry IV. he was
Constable of Wallingford Castle, Steward of the Honours of
Wallingford and St Valery, and of the Chiltern Hundreds; and
the queen of Henry IV. granted him the farm of several of her
manors, a grant subsequently confirmed to him for life by the
King, after the Queen's death. He sat in Parliament repeatedly
for Oxfordshire, was Speaker in 1414, and in the same year
went to France as commissioner to negotiate the marriage of
Henry V. with the Princess Katherine. He held, before he died
in 1434, various other posts of trust and distinction; but he left
no heirs-male. His only child, Alice Chaucer, married twice;
first Sir John Philip; and afterwards the Duke of Suffolk --
attainted and beheaded in 1450. She had three children by the
Duke; and her eldest son married the Princess Elizabeth, sister
of Edward IV. The eldest son of this marriage, created Earl of
Lincoln, was declared by Richard III heir-apparent to the
throne, in case the Prince of Wales should die without issue; but
the death of Lincoln himself, at the battle of Stoke in 1487,
destroyed all prospect that the poet's descendants might
succeed to the crown of England; and his family is now believed
to be extinct.

13. "Geoffrey Chaucer, bard, and famous mother of poetry, is
buried in this sacred ground."

14. Railings.

15 Translation of the epitaph: This tomb was built for Geoffrey
Chaucer, who in his time was the greatest poet of the English. If
you ask the year of his death, behold the words beneath, which
tell you all. Death gave him rest from his toil, 25th of October
1400. N Brigham bore the cost of these words in the name of
the Muses. 1556.

16. See the Prologue to Chaucer's Tale of Sir Thopas.

17. See the "Goodly Ballad of Chaucer," seventh stanza.

18. See the opening of the Prologue to "The Legend of Good
Women," and the poet's account of his habits in "The House of
Fame".