Geoffrey Chaucer

Portret van Geoffrey Chaucer

Hieronder het artikel uit Chambers’s cyclopædia of English Literature uit 1886 over Geoffrey Chaucer.


Letter Although our mixed language had now risen into importance, and a period of literary activity had commenced, it required a genius like that of Chaucer – who was familiar with continental as well as classic literature, and with various modes of life at home and abroad, besides enjoying the special favour of the court – to give consistency and performance to the language and poetry of England. Henceforward, his native style, which Spenser terms „the pure well of English undefiled,” formed a standard of composition.

Geoffrey Chaucer could not boast of any high lineage – his father and grandfather were London vintners. The date of his birth is uncertain. He died in 1400, and there in an old tradition that he was then seventy-two years of age; consequently, born in 1328. The poet’s own testimony, however, seems at variance with this statement. In the famous controversy in 1386 between Richard, Lord Scrope, and Sir Robert Grosvenor, concerning their coat of arms, Chaucer was examined as a witness, and the deposition he is stated to be „of the age of forty years and upward, and to have born arms twenty-seven years.”. This would place his birth about 1345, instead of 1328.

The earliest notice of the poet occurs in some fragments of the Household Book of the Lady Elizabeth, wife of Prince Lionel, son of Edward III, of the date of 1357. From these it appears that payments were made for articles of dress and „necessaries” to Chaucer – a suit of clothes and shoes, 7s, with a donation of 3s. 6d. He was then probably a page to the Lady Elizabeth.

In 1359 he accompanied the royal army ro France, doubtless in the retinue of Prince Lionel. If we take the „forty years and upwards” to signify forty-three or forty-four, he was then sixteen or seventeen – an age not two early for a youth in the royal household to enter military service.

There is no evicence to the education of the poet, though he is said to have studied both at Cambridge and Oxford. Having joined Edward III’s army which invaded France in 1359, he was taken prisoner, but was soon set free, the king giving, in March 1360, £16 towards his ransom. A blank of six years occurs, but when the name of Chaucer reappears in the public records, he is found attached to the court and engaged in diplomatic service.

About 1366, he married Philippa, one of the ladies of the chamber to the queen, daughter of Sir Payne Roet, and sister of Katherine Swynford, the mistress, and ultimately the wife of John of Gaunt. In 1367 the king granted Chaucer an annuity of 20 marks by the title of valettus noster, our yeoman, so that he then stood in the intermediate rank between squire and groom. In 1369 he was on a second invasion of France. In 1372 he was appointed envoy, with two others, to Genoa, and he was then styled scutifer, or squire. It is supposed that on this occasion, he made a tour of the northern states of Italy, and visited Petrarch, who was at Arqua, near Padua, in 1373. The poet’s mission to Italy was to confer with the Duke and merchants of Genoa, for the purpose of choosing some port in England where the Genoese might form a commercial establishment; and he had discharged his duty satisfactorily, for next year, on the celebration of St.George’s day, 23d April, at Windsor, Chaucer received a grant of a pitcher of wine daily (commuted in 1378 for a yearly payment of 20 marks), and in June was appointed comptroller of the customs and subsidy of wool, skins, &c. in the port of London.

The duties of his office he had to perform personally, writing the rolls with his own hand; and in his House of Fame he refers to this period, stating that when his labour was all done, and his „reckonings” all made, he used to go home to his house, and sit at his books till he appeared dazed or lost in study. The same year (1374) Chaucer received a pension of £10 from the Duke of Lancaster, and the city authorities of London granted him for life a lease of the dwelling-house above the gate of Aldgate. Next year he was appointed guardian of a certain Edmond Staplegate of Kent, and received for wardship and marriage fee a sum of £104.

In 1377 we find him joint-envoy on a sectret mission to Flanders, and afterwards sent to France to treat of peace with Charles V, and to negotiate a secret treaty for the marriage of Richard, Prince of Wales, with Mary, daughter of the king of France.
Richard succeeded to the throne by the death of Edward III, June 21, 1377, and Chaucer was reappointed one of the king’s esquires. In 1378 he was sent with Sir Edward Berkeley to Lombardy on a mission „touching the king’s expedition of war.”

The prosperous poet was now allowed to discharge his duties as comptroller of customs by deputy, and he thus had greater leisure to devote himself to the composition of his Canterbury Tales. Shortly after his return from Italy, Chaucer appears in a questionable light. By a deed, dated 1st of May 1379, enrolled on the Close Roll of 3 Richard II, Cecilia Chaumpaigne, daughter of the then late William Chaumpaigne and Agnes, his wife, released Geoffrey Chaucer all her rights of action against him for his abduction of her, „de raptu meo.” The poet may have carried off the young lady, as Mr.Furnival suggests, to marry her to one of his friends, or the charge may have been dismissed as unfounded.

In 1386 Chaucer sat in parliament as one of the knights of the shire for Kent. But the Duke of Gloucester succeeding to the government in place of the Duke of Lancaster, then abroad, and with whom he was at enmity, the poet, as friend and protégé of the latter, may have shared in the illwill of the duke. It is certain that, on the 4th of December 1386, Chaucer was superseded in his office of comptroller of customs, and is found raising money on his two pensions of twenty marks each.

His wife died in 1387 (after June of this year there is no mention of the pension of ten marks given yearly to Philippa Chaucer), but King Richard having dismissed his council, and restored the Lancastrian party to power, the old poet regained, for a brief space, a share of the royal favour. In July 1389 he was appointed clerk og the king’s works at Westminster, the Tower of London, and Windsor, His salary was two shillings a day, with power to appoint a deputy. He held these appointments for little more than a year, and is believed to have been afterwards in straitened circumstances. He still, however, enjoyed his pension of £10, with his allowance of forty shillings yearly for robes as one of the king’s esquires. In 1394 he obtained from the king a grant of £20 a year for life, on which, being apparently in want, he received advances from the exchequer.

In his Complaint to his Purse, Chaucer refers to this period:

To you, my purse, and to none other wight,
Complain I, for ye be my lady dear,
I am so sorry now that ye be light;
For certes, but if ye make me heavy cheer,
Me were as lief be laid upon my bier,
For which unto your mercy thus I cry,
Be heavy again, or else might I die!

In May 1398 Chaucer got letters of protection to secure him from arrest „on any plea except it were connected with land,” for a term of two years. In October King Richard granted him a tun of wine yearly for life. The son of his friend John of Gaunt, the triumphant Henry Bolingbroke, now supplanted Richard on the throne; and, October 3, 1399, we find Henry IV granting Chaucer 40 marks yearly in addition to his former £20 from Richard II. On 24th December the poet covenanted for the lease of a tenement in the garden of St.Mary’s Chapel, Westminster (the site of Henry VII’s chapel), for the long term of 53 years, but he lived only till the following autumn, dying October 25, 1400. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, the first of the illustrious file of poets whose ashes rest in that great national sanctuary.

Chaucer is said to have left two sons – Lewis, who died early, and Thomas, who rose to great wealth and position, was speaker of the House of Commons, and father of an only daughter, Alice Chaucer, who married John De la Pole, Earl of Lincoln, declared by Richard III heir apparent to the throne. These are doubts, however, in spite of the attestations of heralds, whether this rich and great Sit Thomas Chaucer was really the son of the author of the Canterbury Tales.

The personal appearance of the poet is partly described by himself in the Prologue to Sir Thopas. He was stout, but „small and fair of face:”

Thou lookest as thou wouldst find an hare,
For ever upon the ground I see thee stare…
He seemeth elvish by his contenance,
For unto no wight doth the dalliance.

His character may be seen in his works. He was the counterpart of Shakespeare in cheerfulness and benignity of disposition -no enemy to mirth and joviality, yet delighting in his books, and studious in the midst of an active life. He was opposed to all superstition and priestly abuse, but playful in his satire, with a keen sense of the ludicrous, and the richest vein of comic narrative and delineation of character. He retained through life a strong love of the country, and of its inspiring and invigorating influences. No poet has dwelt more fondly on the charms of a spring or summer morning:

The busy lark, the messenger of day
saluteth in her song the morrow gray,
And fiery Phoebus riseth up so bright
That all the orient laughet of the sight!
And with his streams dryeth in the greves
The silver drops, hanging on the leaves.
And Arcite that is in the Court Royal,
With Theseus his squire principal,
Is risen, and looketh on the merry day,
And for to don his observance to May.

May-day, the great English rural festival and Robin Hood anniversery, seems always to have been a carnival in the poet’s heart. It enticed him from his studies – „farewell, my book!” – and he is profuse in desctiptions of the „new green” of spring, the „soft sweet grass,” and „flowers white and red.” In his youth he paid homage to the luxuriant beauty of the rose, but at a later period joined the French poets in adopting the mythology of the daisy.

The daisy, or else the eye of day,
The Empress and flower of flowers all.

Perhaps alluding metaphorically, as Nicolas suggests, that some fair lady named Marguerite, as the word means either a daisy, a pearl, or a woman.

Chaucer’s minor poems are numerous. A recent critic – Professor Bernard Ten Brink – divides them into three periods, though no such classification can be considered certain.
(1) The A.B.C., the Romance of the Rose, and Book of the Duchess, all written before the poet set out on his Italian missions in 1372.
(2) The House of Fame, the Life of St.Cecil (Second Nun’s Tale), the Parliament of Birds, Troilus and Cressida, and The Knight’s Tale – this period ending in 1384.
(3) The legend of Good Women, the Canterbury Tales, and other lesser poems.

Some of the most admired poens are rejected by Ten Brink, Mr.Bradshaw, and Mr.Furnivall. The Court of Love, the Flower and the Leaf, Chaucer’s Dream, and the Romance of the Rose, are considered spurious, as contravening the laws of rhyme observed by the poet in his genuine workd. „For instance if in Chaucer’s undoubted works you find that mal-a-dy-e, or cur-tei-si-e, is four syllables, and rhymes only with other nouns in y-e or i-e, proved by derivation to be a two-syllable termination, and with infinitives in y-e, then if you find in the Romaunt,

Sich joie anon thereof hadde I
That I gorgot my maladie,

you get a rhyme that is not Chaucer’s.” We cannot think this test infallible. The poet may not have been always consistent in his rhymes, or copyists may have made alterations; and we know of no other poet of that day who was capable (non has claimed or been mentioned) of writing the rejected poems. Poetical readers will not readily surrender Chaucer’s right to the Romaunt of the Rose, the Court of Love, or the Flower and the Leaf – all fresh with the dew of youth and brilliant fancy.

The versification of Chaucer is various. He probably began with the octo-syllabic measure common woth the French poets, as he translated the Roman de la Rose, or rather adapted it, from the work of William de Loris and John de Meun: of the 22,000 verses Chaucer translated 7700. The House of Fame, an allegorical version, is in the same measure, and contains some bold imagery and the romantic machinery of Gothic fable. A more important work, Troilus and Cressida, is in seven-line stanzas. This poem, taken from the Filostrato of Boccaccio, has, from its pathos and beauty, always been popular. Sir Philip Sidney admired it. Warton and every subsequent critic have quoted, with just admiration, the passage in which Cressida makes a avowal of her love:

And as the new abashed nightingale,
That stinteth first, wheh she beginneth sing,
When that she heareth any herdis tale,
Or in the hedges any wight stirring;
And, after, siker (sure) doth her voice outring:
Right so Cresside, when her dread stent,
Opened het heart, and told him her intent.

The Canterbury Tales are chiefly in the heroic couplet, containing five accents, and generally ten syllables, but in this respect Chaucer adopted the poetic license of lengthening or shortening the lines. The opening of the poem, with the accents marked, is as follows:

Whan that Aprille, with his schowres swoote,
The drought of Marche hath perced to the roote,
Are bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertue engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek, with his swete breeth
Enspired hath in every holte and heeth
The tender croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours i-ronne,
And smale fowles maken melodie,
That slepen al the night with open yhe,
So priketh hem nature in here corages;
Thanne longen folk to gon on pilgrimages,
And palmers for to seeken straunge strondes
To ferne halwes kouthe in sondry londes;
And specially, from every schires ende
Of Engelond, to Canterbury they wende,
The holy blisful martir for to seeke,
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.

The Canterbury Tales form the best and most durable monument of Chaucer’s genius. Boccaccio in his Decameron, supposes ten persons to have retired from Dlorence during the plague of 1348, and there, is a sequestered villa, amused themselves by relating tales after dinner. Ten days formed the period of their sojours; and we have thus a hundred stories, lively, humorous, or tender, and full of characteristic painting in choice Italian. Chaucer seems to have copied this design, as well as part of the Florentine’s freedom and licentiousness of detail; but he greatly improved upon the plan.There is something repulsive and unnatural in a party of ladies and gentlemen meeting to teel tales, many of them of a loose kind, while the plague is desolating the country around them. The tales of Chaucer have a more pleasing origin. A company of pilgrims, consisting of twenty-nine „sundry folk,” meet together in fellowship at the Tabard Inn, Southwark, all being bent on a pilgrimage to the shrine of Thomas à Beckett at Canterbury.

These pilgrimages were scenes of much enjoyment, and even mirth; for, satisfied with thwarting the Evil One by the object of their mission, the devotees did not consider it necessary to preserve any religious strictness or restraint by the way. The poet himself is one of the party at the Tabard. They all sup together in the large room of the hostelry; and after great cheer, the landlord proposes that they shall travel together to Canterbury; and, to shorten their way, that each shall tell two tales, both in going and returning, and whoever told the best, should have a supper at the expense of the rest. The characters composing this social party are intimitably drawn and discriminated.