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Geoffrey Chaucer

(ca.1343-1400)

English poet, born in London between 1340 and 1345; died there, 25
October, 1400.

John Chaucer, a vintner and citizen of London, married Agnes, heiress of
one Hamo de Copton, the city moneyer, and owned the house in Upper
Thames Street, Dowgate Hill (a site covered now by the arrival platform
of Cannon Street Station), where his son Geoffrey was born. That his
birth was not in 1328, hitherto the accepted date, is fully proved
(Furnivall in The Academy, 8 Dec., 1888, 12 Dec., 1887).

John Chaucer was connected with the Court, and once saw Flanders in the
royal train. Geoffrey was educated well, but whether he was entered at
either university remains unknown. He figures by name from the year
1357, presumably in the capacity of a page, in the household books of
the Lady Elizabeth de Burgh, wife of Prince Lionel, third son of King
Edward III (Bond in Fornightly Review, VI, 28 Aug., 1873). The lad
followed this prince to France, serving through the final and futile
Edwardian invasion, which ended in the Peace of Bretigny (1360), and was
taken prisoner at «Retters», identified by unwary biographers as Retiers
near Rennes, but by Skeat as Rethel near Reims, a place mentioned by
Froissart in his account of this very campaign. Thence Chaucer was
ransomed by the king, who, when the Lady Elizabeth died, took over her
page and later (1367) pensioned him for life. Chaucer was married before
1374; probably the Philippa Chaucer named in the queen’s grant of 1366
was then Geoffrey Chaucer’s wife (Lounsbury, Studies in Chaucer, I,
95-7). It seems clear that he could not have been happy in his marriage
(Hales in Dict. Nat. Biog., X, 157). He had two sons and a daughter, if
not other children. Gascoigne tells us that his contemporary, Thomas
Chaucer was the poet’s son. This statement, long discredited, is now
fully endorsed by the best authorities (Hales in Athenaeum, 31 March,
1888; Skeat, ibid., 27 Jan.1900). Thomas Chaucer’s mother was Philippa
Roet, daughter of Sir Paon or Payne de Roet Guienne king at arms. Roet
had another daughter, Catherine, widow of Sir Hugh Swynford, who was for
Gaunt’s mistress and eventually his third wife. Thus Chaucer became the
brother-in-law of the great duke, who from 1368 onwards had been his
most powerful patron. Thomas Chaucer (b. about 1367; d. 1434), later of
Woodstock and Ewelme, became chief butler to four sovereign, as well as
Speaker of the House of Commons (in 1414). His sister Elizabeth (b.1365)
at sixteen entered Barking Abbey as a novice, John of Gaunt providing
fifty pounds as her religious dowry. Lewis Chaucer, the «litel sonne
Lowys», for whom the «Astrolale» was written, is supposed to have died
in childhood. From about his twenty-sixth year Chaucer was frequently
employed on important diplomatic missions; the year 1372-3 marks the
turning point of his literary life, for then he was sent to Italy;
circumstances make it extremely probable that either in Florence or at
Padua he made Petrarch’s acquaintance (Lounsbury, Studies, I, 67-68).
The young King Richard II granted Chaucer a second life pension. It is
startling to find him, in 1380, concerned in a discreditable abduction
(Athenaeum, 29 Nov., 1873; from the Close Roll of 3 of Richard II). He
was made comptroller of the petty customs of the port of London and
complains of the burden of official life in «The House of Fame» (lines
652-60); and it would appear from the prologue the «Legend of Good
Women», and through the influence of the new queen, Anne of Bohemia, he
was enabled by1385 to sucure a permanent deputy. At this time he gave up
housekeeping in Aldgate, and settled in the country, presumably at
Greenwich, where he had a garden and arbour. The intrigues of the
partisans of the king’s uncle, Thomas, Duke of Gloucester, involved
Chaucer’s fortunes in partial ruin. The grants made to Philippa, his
wife ceased in 1387, so that we may suppose she was then dead; during
the springs of 1388 Chaucer was obliged to sell two of his pensions; in
1390 he was twice in one day robbed of the king’s money, but was excused
from repaying it. Until King Richard recovered power Chaucer had lean
years to undergo. For a while he was Clerk of the Works at Windsor,
Westminster and the Tower, but proved thriftless and unsuccessful in
business affairs, and gave little satisfaction. Unrivalled opportunities
and the fostering care of successive sovereigns could not keep hirn
frorn anxiety, if not penury, towards the end. It is noticeable that his
latest and most troubled period produced the «Canterbury Tales». Within
four days after his accession King Henry IV, the son of Chaucer’s first
benefactor, increased Chaucer’s remaining income by forty marks per
annum. The poet then leased a pleasant house in the monastery garden at
Westminster, and there, hard by the Lady Chapel of the Abbey (now
replaced by the loftier erection of Henry VII ), he died. For a century
and a half his only memorial in Westminster Abbey was a Latin epitaph
written by Surigonius of Milan, engraved upon a leaden plate, and hung
up, probably at Caxton’s instigation, on a pillar near the grave. The
present canopied grey marble altar-tomb, on the south side, was set up
by Nicholas Brigham, in 1556, all trace of its votive portrait of the
venerated master disappeared long ago. The «Canterbury Tales» were first
printed by Caxton, from a faulty manuscript, in or about 1476-7; later
by Pynson, and by Wynkyn de Worde. Other pieces were collected, and,
between 1526-1602, often published with the «Tales». Many of these,
attributed to Chaucer even by his earliest great modern editor,
Tyrwhitt, are now known not to be his. (Skeat, «Chaucer’s Minor Poems»,
Oxford, 1896; or, Idem «Chaucerian Pieces» in the «Complete Works»,
Oxford, 1897, suppl. vol.) Chaucer’s genuine major poems are assigned to
this chronological order: The «Romaunt of the Rose», that is, the first
1705 lines the remainder being rejected as not Chaucer’s (see Chaucer
Society Publications, 2nd Series, No 19, 1884), dates from about 1366,
and «The A.B.C.», from the same period; the «Book of the Duchess» from
1369, the «Complaint of Pity» from 1372; «Anelida and False Arcite» from
1372-4; «Troilus and Cressid» from 1379-83, the «Parliament of Fowls»
from 1382; the «House of Fame» from 1383-4; the «Legend of Good Women»
from about 1385-6; and the «Canterbury Tales» as a whole, from 1386
onwards until after 1390.

It is curious that the first draft of the lovely Tales by the Second
Nun, the Man of Law, the Clerk, the Knight, and part of the Monk, should
have been produced early; and that the Tales by the Miller, the Reeve,
the Shipman, and the Merchant, as well as the Wife of Bath’s Prologue,
should have been produced after 1387. Chaucer’s objectionable work is,
therefore, not the work of his youth.

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.

The standard recent editions of Chaucer are: (1) «Chaucer’s Canterbury
Tales Annotated and Accented, with Illustrations of English Life in
Chaucer’s Time. New and revised edition, with illustrations from the
Ellesmere MS.» (Saunder’s ed., London, 1894); (2) «The Student’s
Chaucer; being a Complete Edition of his Works» (Skeat ed., Oxford,
1895); (3) «The Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, edited from numerous
Manuscripts» (Skeat ed. 7 vols., Oxford, 1894-7); (4) «The Canterbury
Tales done into Modern English, by the Rev. Walter W. Skeat» (The King’s
Classics Series, Gollancz ed., 1904).

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