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A biography of geoffrey chaucer the english poet and writer

The name Chaucer, a French form of the Latin calcearius, a shoemaker, is found in London and the eastern counties as early as the second half of the 13th century. Some of the London Chaucers lived in Cordwainer Street, in the shoemakers' quarter; several of them, however, were vintners, and among others the poet's father John, and probably also his grandfather Robert. Legal pleadings inform us that in December 1324 John Chaucer was not much over twelve years old, and that he was still unmarried in 1328, the year which used to be considered that of Geoffrey's birth.

The poet was probably born from eight to twelve years later, since in 1386, when giving evidence in Sir Richard le Scrope's suit against Sir Robert Grosvenor as to the right to bear certain arms, he was set down as "del age de xl ans et plus, armeez par xxvij ans. In 1357 Geoffrey is found, apparently as a lad, in the service of Elizabeth, countess of Ulster, wife of Lionel, Duke of Clarenceentries in two leaves of her household accounts, accidentally preserved, showing that she paid in April, May and December various small sums for his clothing and expenses.

In 1359, as we learn from his deposition in the Scrope suit, Chaucer went to the war in France. At some period of the campaign he was at "Retters," i. Rethel, near Reims, and subsequently had the ill luck to be taken prisoner. A pension of ten marks had been granted by the king the previous September to a Philippa Chaucer for services to the queen as one of her "domicellae" or "damoiselles," and it seems probable that at this date Chaucer was already married and this Philippa his wife, a conclusion which used to be resisted on the ground of allusions in his early poems to a hopeless love-affair, now reckoned part of his poetical outfit.

Philippa is usually said to have been one of two daughters of a Sir Payne Roet, the other being Katherine, who after the death of her first husband, Sir Hugh de Swynford, in 1372, became governess to John of Gaunt 's children, and subsequently his mistress and in 1396 his wife. It is possible that Philippa was sister to Sir Hugh and sister-in-law to Katherine. In either case the marriage helps to account for the favour subsequently shown to Chaucer by John of Gaunt.

In the grant of his pension Chaucer is called "dilectus vallectus noster," our beloved yeoman; before the a biography of geoffrey chaucer the english poet and writer of 1368 he had risen to be one of the king's esquires. In September of the following year John of Gaunt's wife, the duchess Blanche, died at the age of twenty-nine, and Chaucer wrote in her honour The Book of the Duchesse, a poem of 1334 lines in octosyllabic couplets, the first of his undoubtedly genuine works which can be connected with a definite date.

In June 1370 he went abroad on the king's service, though on what errand, or whither it took him, is not known. He was back probably some time before Michaelmas, and seems to have remained in England till the 1st of December 1372, when he started, with an advance of 100 marks in his pocket, for Italy, as one of the three commissioners to treat with the Genoese as to an English port where they might have special facilities for trade.

The accounts which he delivered on his return on the 23rd of May 1373 show that he had also visited Florence on the king's business, and he probably went also to Padua and there made the acquaintance of Petrarch. In the second quarter of 1374 Chaucer lived in a whirl of prosperity.

On the 23rd of April the king granted him a pitcher of wine daily, subsequently commuted for an annuity of 20 marks.


A month before this appointment, and probably in anticipation of it, he took May 10, 1374 a lease for life from the city of London of the dwelling-house above the gate of Aldgate, and here he lived for the next twelve years. On the accession of Richard II Chaucer was confirmed in his offices and pensions. In January 1378 he seems to have been in France in connexion with a proposed marriage between Richard and the daughter of the French king; and on the 28th of May of the same year he was sent with Sir Edward de Berkeley to the lord of Milan and Sir John Hawkwood to treat for help in the king's wars, returning on the 19th of September.

This was his last diplomatic journey, and the close of a period of his life generally considered to have been so unprolific of poetry that little beyond the Clerk's "Tale of Grisilde," one or two other of the stories afterwards included in the Canterbury Tales, and a few short poems, are attributed to it, though the poet's actual absences from England during the eight years amount to little more than eighteen months.

During the next twelve or fifteen years there is no question that Chaucer was constantly engaged in literary work, though for the first half of them he had no lack of official employment.

Abundant favour was shown him by the new king. In October 1385 Chaucer was made a justice of the peace for Kent. In February 1386 we catch a glimpse of his wife Philippa being admitted to the fraternity of Lincoln cathedral in the company of Henry, Earl of Derby afterwards Henry IVSir Thomas de Swynford and other distinguished persons. In August 1386 he was elected one of the two knights of the shire for Kent, and with this dignity, though it was one not much appreciated in those days, his good fortune reached its climax.

In December of the same year he was superseded in both his comptrollerships, almost certainly as a result of the absence of his patron, John of Gauntin Spain, and the supremacy of the Duke of Gloucester.

In the following year the cessation of Philippa's pension suggests that she died between Midsummer and Michaelmas. In May 1388 Chaucer surrendered to the king his two pensions of 20 marks each, and they were re-granted at his request to one John Scalby. He was also made a commissioner to maintain the banks of the Thames between Woolwich and Greenwich, and was given by the Earl of March grandson of Lionel, Duke of Clarencehis old patron a sub-forestership at North Petherton, Devon, obviously a sinecure.

In 1397 he received from King Richard a grant of a butt of wine yearly. For this he appears to have asked in terms that suggest poverty, and in May 1398 he obtained letters of protection against his creditors, a step perhaps rendered necessary by an action for debt taken against him earlier in the year.

Henry himself, however, was probably straitened for ready money, and no instalment of the new pension was paid during the few months of his reign that the poet lived. Nevertheless, on the strength of his expectations, on the 24th of December 1399 he leased a tenement in the garden of St Mary's Chapel, Westminster, and it was probably here that he died, on the 25th of the following October.

He was buried in Westminster Abbey, and his tomb became the nucleus of what is now known as Poets' Corner. The portrait of Chaucer, which the affection of his disciple, Thomas Hocclevecaused to be painted in a copy of the latter's Regement of Princes now Harleian MS.

His dress and hood are black, and he carries in his hands a string of beads. We may imagine that it was thus that during the last months of his life he used to walk about the precincts of the Abbey. Henry IV's promise of an additional pension was doubtless elicited by the Compleynt to his Purs, in the envoy to which Chaucer addresses him as the "conquerour of Brutes Albioun. Nevertheless, as early as 1393-1394, in lines to his friend Scogan, he had written as if his day for poetry were past, and it seems probable that his longer poems were all composed before this date.

In the preceding fifteen — or, if another view be taken, twenty — years, his literary activity was very great, and with the aid of the lists of his works which he gives in the Legende of Good Women lines 414-431and the talk on the road which precedes the "Man of Law's Tale" Canterbury Tales, B.

The development of his genius has been attractively summed up as comprised in three stages, French, Italian and English, and there is a rough approximation to the truth in this formula, since his earliest poems are translated from the French or based on French models, and the two great works of his middle period are borrowed from the Italian, while his latest stories have no such obvious and direct originals and in their humour and freedom anticipate the typically English temper of Henry Fielding.

But Chaucer's indebtedness to French poetry was no passing phase. For various reasons — a not very remote French origin of his own family may be one of them — he was in no way interested in older English literature or in the work of his English contemporaries, save possibly that of "the moral Gower. To be in touch throughout his life with the best French poets of the day was much for Chaucer.

Even with their stimulus alone he might have developed no small part of his genius. But it was his great good fortune to add to this continuing French influence, lessons in plot and construction derived from Boccaccio's Filostrato and Teseide, as well as some glimpses of the higher art of the Divina Commedia.

He shows acquaintance also with one of A biography of geoffrey chaucer the english poet and writer sonnets, and though, when all is said, the Italian books with which he can be proved to have been intimate are but few, they sufficed. His study of them was but an episode in his literary life, but it was an episode of unique importance.

Before it began he had already been making his own artistic experiments, and it is noteworthy that while he learnt so much from Boccaccio he improved on his originals as he translated them. Doubtless his busy life in the service of the crown had taught him self-confidence, and he uses his Italian models in his own way and with the most triumphant and assured success.

When he had no more Italian poems to adapt he had learnt his lesson. The art of weaving a plot out of his own imagination was never his, but he could take what might be little more than an anecdote and lend it body and life and colour with a skill which has never been surpassed.

The most direct example of Chaucer's French studies is his translation of Le Roman de la rose, a poem written in some 4000 lines by Guillaume Lorris about 1237 and extended to over 22,000 by Jean Clopinel, better known as Jean de Meun, forty years later.

We know from Chaucer himself that he translated this poem, and the extant English fragment of 7698 lines was generally assigned to him from 1532, when it was first printed, till its authorship was challenged in the early years of the Chaucer Society. The ground of this challenge was its wide divergence from Chaucer's practice in his undoubtedly genuine works as to certain niceties of rhyme, notable as to not rhyming words ending in -y with others ending -ye.

It was subsequently discovered, however, that the whole fragment was divisible linguistically into three portions, of which the first and second end respectively at lines 1705 and 5810, and that in the first of these three sections the variations from Chaucer's accepted practice are insignificant. Lines 1-1705 have therefore been provisionally accepted as Chaucer's, and the other two fragments as the work of unknown translators James I of Scotland has been suggested as one of themwhich somehow came to be pieced together.

If, however, the difficulties in the way of this theory are less than those which confront any other, they are still considerable, and the question can hardly be treated as closed. While our knowledge of Chaucer's Romaunt of the Rose is in this unsatisfactory state, another translation of his from the French, the Book of the Lyon alluded to in the "Retraction" found, in some manuscripts, at the end of the Canterbury Talesa biography of geoffrey chaucer the english poet and writer must certainly have been taken from Guillaume Machault's Le Dit du lion, has perished altogether.

The strength of French influence on Chaucer's early work may, however, be amply illustrated from the first of his poems with which we are on sure ground, the Book of the Duchesse, or, as it is alternatively called, the Deth of Blaunche. Here not only are individual passages closely imitated from Machault and Froissart, but the dream, the May morning, and the whole machinery of the poem are taken over from contemporary French conventions. But even at this stage Chaucer could prove his right to borrow by the a biography of geoffrey chaucer the english poet and writer with which he makes his materials serve his own purpose, and some of the lines in the Deth of Blaunche are among the most tender and charming he ever wrote.

It is taken from the Pelerinage de la vie humaine, written by Guillaume de Deguilleville about 1330. The occurrence of some magnificent lines in Chaucer's version, combined with evidence that he did not yet possess the skill to translate at all literally as soon as rhymes had to be considered, accounts for this poem having been dated sometimes earlier than the Book of the Duchesse, and sometimes several years later.

With it is usually moved up and down, though it should surely be placed in the 'seventies, the Compleynt to Pity, a fine poem which yet, from its slight obscurity and absence of Chaucer's usual ease, may very well some day prove to be a translation from the French. While Chaucer thus sought to reproduce both the matter and the style of French poetry in England, he found other materials in popular Latin books.

He must have begun his attempts at straightforward narrative with the Lyf of Seynt Cecyle the weakest of all his works, the second Nun's Tale in the Canterbury series from the Legenda Aurea of Jacobus de Voragine, and the story of the patience of Grisilde, taken from Petrarch's Latin version of a tale by Boccaccio. In both of these he condenses a little, but ventures on very few changes, though he lets his readers see his impatience with his originals.

In his story of Constance afterwards ascribed to the Man of Lawtaken from the Anglo-Norman chronicle of Nicholas Trivet, written about 1334, we find him struggling to put some substance into another weak tale, but still without the courage to remedy its radical faults, though here, as with Grisilde, he does as much for his heroine as the conventional exaltation of one virtue at a time permitted.

It is possible that other tales which now stand in the Canterbury series were written originally at this period. What is certain is that at some time in the 'seventies three or four Italian poems passed into Chaucer's possession, and that he set to work busily to make use of them.

One of the most interesting of the poems reclaimed for him by Professor Skeat is a fragmentary "Compleynt," part of which is written in terza rima.

While he thus experimented with the metre of the Divina Commedia, he made his first attempt to use the material provided by Boccaccio's Teseide in another fragment of great interest, that of Quene Anelida and Fals Arcyte. More than a third of this is taken up with another, and quite successful, metrical experiment in Anelida's "compleynt," but in the introduction of Anelida herself Chaucer made the first of his three unsuccessful efforts to construct a plot for an important poem out of his own head, and the fragment which begins so well breaks off abruptly at line 357.

For a time the Teseide seems to have been laid aside, and it was perhaps at this moment, in despondency at his failure, that Chaucer wrote his most important prose work, the translation of the De Consolatione Philosophiae of Boethius. Reminiscences of this helped to enrich many of his subsequent poems, and inspired five of his shorter pieces The Former Age, Fortune, Truth, Gentilesse and Lak of Stedfastnessebut the translation itself was only a partial success.

To borrow his own phrase, his "Englysh was insufficient" to reproduce such difficult Latin. The translation is often barely intelligible without the original, and it is only here and there that it flows with any ease or rhythm. If Chaucer felt this himself he must have been speedily consoled by achieving in Troilus and Criseyde his greatest artistic triumph.

Warned by his failure in Anelida and Arcyte, he was content this time to take his plot unaltered from the Filostrato, and to follow Boccaccio step by step through the poem. But he did not follow him as a mere translator. He had done his duty manfully for the saints "of other holinesse" in Cecyle, Grisilde and Constance, whom he was forbidden by the rules of the game to clothe with complete flesh and blood. In this great love-story there were no such restrictions, and the characters which Boccaccio's treatment left thin and conventional became in Chaucer's hands convincingly human.

  • While Chaucer thus sought to reproduce both the matter and the style of French poetry in England, he found other materials in popular Latin books;
  • His early lyrics and translations, such as The Romaunt of the Rose and the ABC, were grounded in the culture of the court.

No other English poem is so instinct with the glory and tragedy of youth, and in the details of the story Chaucer's gifts of vivid colouring, of humour and pity, are all at their highest. An unfortunate theory that the reference in the Legende of Good Women to "al the love of Palamon and Arcyte" is to a hypothetical poem in seven-line stanzas on this theme, which Chaucer is imagined, when he came to plan the Canterbury Tales, to have suppressed in favour of a new version in heroic couplets, has obscured the close connexion in temper and power between what we know as the "Knight's Tale" and the Troilus.

The poem may have been more or less extensively revised before, with admirable fitness, it was assigned to the Knight, but that its main composition can be separated by several years from that of Troilus is aesthetically incredible.

Chaucer's art here again is at its highest. He takes the plot of Boccaccio's Teseide, but only as much of it as he wants, and what he takes he heightens and humanizes with the same skill which he had shown in transforming the Filostrato.

Of the individual characters Theseus himself, the arbiter of the plot, is most notably developed; Emilie and her two lovers receive just as much individuality as they will bear without disturbing the atmosphere of romance.

The whole story is pulled together and made more rapid and effective. A comparison of almost any scene as told by the two poets suffices to show Chaucer's immense superiority. At some subsequent period the "Squire's Tale" of Cambuscan, the fair Canacee and the Horse of Brass, was gallantly begun in something of the same key, but Chaucer took for it more materials than he could use, and for lack of the help of a leader like Boccaccio he was obliged to leave the story, in Milton 's phrase, "half-told," though the fragment written certainly takes us very much less than half-way.

Meanwhile, in connexion as is reasonably believed with the betrothal or marriage of Anne of Bohemia to Richard II i. His success here, as in the case of the Deth of Blaunche the Duchesse, was due to the absence of any need for a climax; and though the materials which he borrowed were mainly Latin with some help from passages of the Teseide not fully needed for Palamon and Arcyte his method of handling them would have been quite approved by his friends among the French poets.

A more ambitious venture, the Hous of Fame, in which Chaucer imagines himself borne aloft by an eagle to Fame's temple, describes what he sees and hears there, and then breaks off in apparent inability to get home, shows a curious mixture of the poetic ideals of the Roman de la rose and reminiscences of the Divina Commedia.

As the Hous a biography of geoffrey chaucer the english poet and writer Fame is most often remembered and quoted for the personal touches and humour of Chaucer's conversation with the eagle, so the most-quoted passages in the Prologue to the Legende of Good Women are those in which Chaucer professes his affection for the daisy, and the attack on his loyalty by Cupid and its defence by Alceste.