Geoffrey Chaucer.

The poems of Geoffrey Chaucer modernized online

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powers of Chaucer, his pathos is his greatest character-
istic. In this respect he has no equal except Shaks-
peare; while for the frequency of his recurrence to
such emotions, and their long sustained and unmiti-
gated anguish — the woes of years eating into the
heart — several of Chaucer's stories are without any
parallel, — even in the great Boccaccio, who furnished
the deep ground- work of several of them. Few, if any,
of Chaucer's stories are his own invention ; many of


his poems are free translations. In comparing them
with the sources of their origin — as in the case also
of Shakspeare — one of the greatest proofs of his genius
is made apparent by what he has not borrowed. As an
historian of the characters, manners, and habits of his
countrymen during his age, he stands alone for com-
prehensiveness and fidelity*.

In Chaucer's descriptions — whether of men or things
— he is so graphic, so sure of eye and hand, so rich
in the power of conveying objects of sense to the
imaginations of others, that his words have almost the
effect of substances and colours, so that you seem to feel
and see the things rather than have the idea of them,
which is all you get from most other writers. Certainly,
the green leaves of Chaucer are among the very greenest
we ever saw, the coolest and freshest ; his white and
red, the utmost realities the mind, apart from sensuous
contact, can possibly apprehend of those colours.

Froissart, throughout his whole life, wrote only for princes."



" Mars, the red," and the face of the Sompnour, are
indelible impressions. His highly-finished portraits of
men and women are, at times, " too much for you ;"
you expect to meet one or the other of them as
you turn the next corner : their different voices
haunt you; the horses they rode you would recog-
nize any where. His garlands of daisies are so
white and full of fresh fragrance in the loveliest
mornings in May, that we can scarcely leave them
to look at the troop of knights and ladies in various
attire, who ride forth into the green meadows ; nor
can any of their melodious ditties excite a greater
pleasure than the duet sung " in swete accord" by
Chaunteclare with Dame Partlet, the hen, standing
close at his side. The sun and the moon of Chaucer
have in them all the wonder of our childhood; his
daisies and his stars are those we first knew. His
mirth is ever youthful, his grief wholly mature. His
laughter is that of the very happiest heart; his
" bitter salt tears" are identified with those few we



remember as the bitterest in our lives, and which are
remembered for ever, because through them the sweetest
hopes melted away and fell into the dust.

If these impressions, however incompletely ex-
pressed, and so little satisfactory to my own feedings
about Chaucer, be found nevertheless to correspond,
not only with the impressions of men whose judgments
and opinions may be regarded as corroborative autho-
rity, both for me and others, but also with the feelings
generally excited in the readers of his poetry, it can-
not be at all requisite to dwell upon the noble and
manly moral tendency of such writings. " If Chaucer
is sometimes a coarse moralist," as Mr. Wordsworth
has observed, "he is still a great one." His social
moralities are evidently not idealized, but faithful to the
condition of his time. They are honestly out-spoken ;
we know the worst of them ; there is no disguise,
no " nattering unction," no hypocrisy, and evidently
no sense of wrong, or even impropriety. He was not
well skilled in those " fashions of phraseology which


are sometimes taken for moral distinctions." As the
social morals were without any regular bridles and pa-
tent bits, or with scarcely anything beyond a field-halter,
and the rough manners and colloquial coarsenesses
under no better restraint, these laxities and horse-
gambols were not only the characteristics of a whole
people, but probably even of the Court to which the
poet was for so many years attached by an office. The
Prioress, in the Prologue, was evidently one of the
most high-bred and refined ladies of her time ; yet she
listens, together with the Nuns at her side, without
any surprise or token of offence, to all the jovialities
and unminced matters of mine Host, and certain of
the Pilgrims, as they amble along on their very devout
mission to Canterbury. No offence was meant ; no
offence was imagined. So much for the social ; but
Chaucer's abstract morality, and the moral tendency of
all his serious writings, are always deep and universal.
If the head be sometimes under an undue influence of
time and place, the heart of his morality never errs,
f 2


It must therefore be as permanent in its beneficent
effect as the noblest impulses of humanity, and must
continue in advance of our times and of all periods of
the world, until such emotions and impulses govern
the general practice of mankind.

Nor was the innate refinement of the poet without a
sufficient consciousness that certain portions of his
stories might be offensive to some of his readers. He
therefore gives due warning : —

For Goddess love as deem not that I say
Of evil intent, but that I must rehearse
Their Tales all — allbe they better or worse,
Or eiles falsen some of my mate're :
And therefore whoso list it not to hear
Turn over the leaf and choose another tale,
For he shall find enough both great and small
Of storied thing that toucheth gentilesse,
And eke morality, and holiness.

Ghana r.

But if the manners of the age were of a kinct to
regard with indifference, or only as food for merri-
ment, several things which modern refinement will not


tolerate as subjects of discourse, nor recognise as the
general practice, this circumstance involves the corre-
sponding difficulty, not merely of making certain care-
ful omissions or variations of the details of his matters-
of-fact, but also of dealing with all manner of ejacu-
latory expressions incessantly occurring in his more free
and humorous dialogue. A list of the oaths in common
use at the time would appear a curious and very start-
ling catalogue to those not prepared for the ultra-
catholic exhibition. Folks of both sexes, in all ranks,
swore without reserve, and enjoyed it very much. The
marked exception made in the person of the lady Prior-
ess, is one great proof of this fact. They seem to
have uttered oaths of all sorts so habitually that they
often swore without knowing it, "as a gentleman
switches his cane." Compound oaths, in the highest
name, did not weigh the weight they do now. It is
the converse of the comparative value of money in their
time and ours — a few shillings with them being as
much as a sovereign at present. It is plain, however.


that they did not swear with any definite intention or
irreverence prepense, but " roundly." They meant no
harm : they only swore as a garnish — for lack of elo-
quence — to save more words — and from the exuberance
of animal spirits "full of vent." Now, to give to each
of the Pilgrims his fair share of those ornamental studs,
clasps, and clenches of discourse, is impossible in a
modern version ; for this would not be truly modern-
izing Chaucer, inasmuch as it would attach to some of
his words a revolting effect which he did not for an
instant intend. Yet to omit them all is equally im-
possible in any version pretending to restore the ori-
ginal and its highly coloured historical portraitures.
It is hoped, however, that while devout earnestness
and impassioned feelings may fairly retain all their
sacred appeals, such a modification or curtailment of these
expressions in ordinary dialogue and merry moods has
been adopted as shall strike a fair balance between a
hazard of extreme offence and an uncongenial timidity.
A student of theology, Chaucer did not confine his


inquiries to school divinity ; nor did he endeavour to
reconcile all the abuses of the Church with the new
readings and " improved" Christianity of some of its
ministers. It is not to be inferred that he was a prac-
tical reformer in religion, any more than in politics, or
that he made any systematic attacks upon abuses of
any kind in church or state : he merely took them un-
awares by a side thrust, or a passing skirmish on his
way. At the lax discipline and worldliness of so many
members of the holy orders of his time, he generally
contents himself with having a sly humorous hit, or
giving an open rebuke. He is also fond of pursuing
abstract inquiries into some of the abstruse questions
of theology, and having pushed them to the verge of
the dark precipice to which they are apt to lead, he
stops abruptly — tells you that he leaves all these mat-
ters to " the clerks" — and quietly resumes his story with
a gentle pace, " meek as is a maid," and as though no dis-
cussion of any kind had intervened, or was ever likely to
disturb the sweet (humorous) equanimity of his thoughts.


As every true poet " has a song in his mind," yet
more certainly has every great poet a religious passion
in his soul. The emotion he derives from the thing
created, is often too strong to dwell upon its imper-
fections, or rest satisfied in its beauty, and impels his
imagination at once to ascend to the creative Principle,
wherein alone it can find relief and repose. With this
feeling doth the profoundly simple-hearted old poet call
upon God, and upon Christ, through the voices of earth's
many happy and many suffering children ; with this
thought doth he seek with aching eye to look through
the darkness of forbidden knowledge, at the Tree that
burns impalpably beyond ; with this yearning doth his
soul spring upward in divine rhythmic harmony with
those spheres which are ever working while they sing.

Scattered, neglected, overgrown with weeds, and
the dust of ignorance and olden time; thy page oft
illegible as the pale cobweb, or the tattered banner
whereon the name of the victor is confused with that
of the vanquished, and the rest all faded, — Father of


English Poetry, thy hand- writing and the writing of
the hands guided by thee, have found but a careless
preservation among after generations. Somewhat of
these primitive inspirations have been mutilated ; many
damaged by errors of omission and intrusion ; many
lost. Yet from the fulness and vitality of that genius
once breathed over the lost prototypes, — the worm, the
moth, and the mouldering years, have lived their lives
and done their work upon them, without conveying the
records into the all- compounding earth ; nor hath the
silence of progressive ages been unbroken by a strange
cry, at intervals, which told that Chaucer was not gone
into ultimate oblivion, but only sleeping till the modern
world awoke. Sleeping, indeed, the deep sleep which
follows great labours and long neglect, but, by those
who were gazing with reverent love, still seen as of
yore ; — by those who were listening, still heard, —

" Singing with voice memorial — in the shade."




Jeffery or Geoffrey Chaucer, the Homer of English
literature, was born in the second year of the reign
of Edward III., 1328. His birth-place has been the
subject of much dispute among his biographers, but
one passage in his own works renders it incontro-
vertible that he was born in London. In his 'Testa-
ment of Love,' he says, "The city of London, that
is to me so dear and sweet, in which I was forth-grown,
and more kindly love have I to that place than to
any other in earth, (as every kindly creature hath full
appetite to that place of his kindly ingendure)" Ano-


ther much disputed point is, whether Chaucer was of
noble or plebeian origin. This question is, of course,
of very small importance to us, who are not inclined
to judge in any w T ay of a man like Chaucer by his
father or grandfather, but by his own w 7 orth as a man
and a poet. Considering all circumstances, however,
we think it almost unquestionable, that his parents,
though not belonging to the nobility, were people of
good condition ; as we must infer from the manner
in which they educated their son. The only circum-
stance which might seem to prove his noble descent,
is his intimate connexion with the court ; but this is
no proof at all, for we must remember that, in those
days of gallant chivalry, men of talent or genius were
much more likely to meet with the support and
encouragement of the great than in our own time,
in which Mammon rules supreme.

Respecting the early life of our poet nothing is
known ; and the first account we have of him is,
that, at the age of eighteen, he was entered a student
of the university of Cambridge. This information we
derive from a passage in the ' Court of Love,' a poem


which he wrote during his residence at Cambridge.
To which college he belonged has never been clearly
ascertained, though Speght, one of his early editors,
from the detailed description which the poet, in his
humorous story of the ' Miller of Trompington'
(The Reve's Tale), gives of the localities, infers that
it was Soler, or Scholar, or Clare Hall. How long
he stayed at Cambridge is uncertain, and, in accord-
ance with a custom not unfrequent at that time, he
went from Cambridge to Oxford, where he is supposed
to have translated the poem of 'Troilus and Cresida,'
which he dedicated to his literary friends Gower and
Strode, who were then students at Oxford. How long
he remained at Oxford, and of which college he was
entered, is again uncertain, though Wood, in his
Annals, has recorded a tradition, that " when Wickliffe
was guardian or warden of Canterbury College, he had
for his pupil the famous poet called Jeffery Chaucer
(father of Thomas Chaucer, Esq., of Ewhelme, in Ox-
fordshire), who, following the steps of his master,
reflected much upon the corruption of the clergy."
One of his biographers says that, when he left Oxford,


he was " an acute dialectician, an agreeable orator,
an elegant poet, a grave philosopher, an able mathe-
matician, and a devout theologist."

Chaucer, after leaving Oxford, went to Paris. The
university of that capital was in those times considered
the central seat of learning and refinement for all
Europe, and thousands of young men of all nations
resorted thither to finish their education, and to acquire
those accomplishments which, down to the close of
the last century, were almost throughout Europe
thought indispensable to a gentleman. During his
stay on the continent, he visited several parts of France
and the Netherlands ; and, on his return to England,
he is said to have entered himself of the Inner Temple
to study the municipal law. But this last statement rests
on the very feeble authority of an anecdote related by
Speght, that Chaucer, during his residence in the
Temple, " was fined two shillings for beating a Fran-
ciscan friar in Fleet Street."

During this period, Chaucer translated Boethius
■ De Consolatione Philosophise,' during the middle ages
the most popular work of any Roman writer next to


Valerius Maximus. The attention of Edward III.,
who was anxious to put a stop to the exclusive use
of the French language, especially in public transactions,
and who wished to be looked upon not only as a gallant
warrior, but as the patron of science and literature,
was necessarily attracted by the uncommon talents
which the young poet had already evinced. It must
have been about the year 1358 that the King made
Chaucer his valettus, for thus he is styled in a document
dated the 20th of June, in the 41st of Edward III.
The meaning however of this title is not clearly ascer-
tained, some think it equivalent to page, some to yeoman,
or groom, or gentleman of the king's privy chamber. In
this capacity he received a yearly salary of twenty
marks, about 240/. of our money. It seems to have
been at this time, and perhaps even previous to it,
that he not only gained the esteem, but the most
intimate friendship and confidence of John of Gaunt,
then Earl of Richmond, afterwards Duke of Lancaster,
the third son of the King. This we must conclude
from the contents of three poems written during this
period, 'The Book of the Duchess,' 'The Complaint


of the Black Knight,' and ' The Dream of Chaucer.'
The Lady Blanche, consort of John of Gaunt, seems
likewise to have favoured him with her especial patron-
age, and it was at her request that he wrote ' La Priere
de Notre Dame,' and some other poems. His genius
and amiable qualities won for him the affections of
all those with whom his situation brought him in
contact. The strongest proofs of his intimacy with
John of Gaunt, are contained in the poem called
' Chaucer's Dream,' an Epithalamium on the marriage
of his friend, in which he gives an allegorical account
of the courtship of the Prince with the Lady Blanche,
daughter of Henry, duke of Lancaster. From this
poem, it would seem to have been partlv owing to the
exertions of the poet that the lovers were married ; an
event by which the poet's power and influence was
not a little increased. During the time of his appoint-
ment as valettus he lived near the palace, at Woodstock,
in a small house near the park gate ; and many local
descriptions in his poems, belonging to this period of
his life, may be traced to the beautiful scenery around
that castle. In the autumn of the year 1359, in which


the marriage of John of Gaunt with the Lady Blanche
was celebrated, Edward III. sent out his formidable
armada against France, and Chaucer accompanied his
friend, the Earl of Richmond, on this expedition.
This fact is established by the poet's own evidence,
given by him in the year 1386, in the celebrated cause
between Sir Richard le Scrope and Sir Robert Grosve-
nor. But whether he took an active part in that war
is very doubtful ; for the words which occur in his
evidence, " I have borne arms for twenty-seven years,"
cannot possibly mean that he had been a soldier for that
space of time, nor even prove that he had ever been a
soldier. For in those times almost all officers, civil as
well as military, bore arms as a distinction ; and
Chaucer, by saying that he had borne arms for twenty-
seven years, only meant that he had been in the king's
service for that number of years, and was fully quali-
fied to be a witness in such a cause.

The assistance which Chaucer had given the noble
lovers was not forgotten. In the retinue of the Lady
Blanche was Catherine Rouet, daughter of Sir Payne
Pycard de Rouet, a native of Hainault, and king



at arms for that province. This lady, who, from a
governess in the Duke of Lancaster's family, after the
death of the Duchess in 1369, first became the Duke's
mistress, and in the end his legitimate wife, had a
sister called Philippa, who won the affections of our
poet. The Duchess Blanche, during her lifetime,
always advanced the poet's interest with the object
of his love ; but the marriage of Chaucer with Philippa,
by which he subsequently became allied to the royal
family, did not take place till a few months after the
death of the Lady Blanche, in 1369, when the poet
was forty- one years of age. The cause of this long delay
is uncertain, and only matter of conjecture ; but as
the marriage took place a few months after the death
of the Queen, to whom Philippa was maid of honour,
it is not improbable, that her attachment to her royal
mistress was greater than the desire to be united with
her lover.

After his return from France, and during his court-
ship, Chaucer translated into English the celebrated
French epic, called ' Romaunt of the Rose,' the work
of two poets, William de Lorris and John de Meun,


consisting of upwards of 22,000 verses. Chaucer's
translation, however, occupies only 7699 verses, con-
taining the part written by de Lorris, by far the
greater of the two poets ; but even this is a conden-
sation of more than 13,000 verses of the original. In
the year in which the Lady Blanche died, Chaucer
wrote 'The Book of the Duchess,' which is a eulogy
on the virtues and charms of his late patroness.

About the close of the period of which we have
been here speaking, the history of Chaucer becomes
somewhat more authentic; for, besides the document
mentioned above, by virtue of which he received an
annual pension of twenty marks, we have another,
dated the 20th of June, 1370, from which we learn
that he received letters of protection from the king,
and was commissioned, in the service of his sovereign,
to visit the continent. The object of this mission
is unknown, but we have reason to conclude that
Chaucer fulfilled it to the satisfaction of his master ;
for, after the lapse of about two years and a half,
in November, 1372, he was again dispatched by the
King, with two other envoys, on a commission to


treat with the republic of Genoa, respecting some place
on the coast of England, where the Genoese might
establish a regularly constituted factory ; or, as others
think, for the purpose of borrowing ships from the
Italian republic.

In the document to which we are indebted for our
knowledge of this event, Chaucer is called scutifer,
or esquire. This embassy to Italy is one of the most
memorable events in the life of our poet, inasmuch as
it brought him into direct communication with one of
the noblest minds that Italy has ever produced. We
allude to Petrarch. The fact is, indeed, not stated
in any historical record, and has been doubted by
many who had occasion to mention it, but one of
Chaucer's own poems seems to bear evidence in support
of it ; and the idea of these two great poets meeting
face to face suggests so pleasing a picture, and is so
pregnant with beautiful associations, that we should
very unwillingly refuse our belief in it, even were
it founded on still weaker evidence. In the ' Can-
terbury Tales' we meet with a character called "the
Clerk of Oxenford," in whom the poet has been said,


though with only a partial foundation, to pourtrav
himself; and this personage, in relating the beautiful
story of the ' Patient Griselda,' says, that he had

Lerned (it) at Padowe of a worthy clerk,
Francis Petrark.

Petrarch, at that time seventy years old, actually
resided in the neighbourhood of Padua, and trans-
lated the story of Patient Griselda from the Italian
into Latin, in the year 1373, so that Chaucer must
have had his interview with the veteran poet, either
while he was engaged in translating the story, or
shortly after its completion. If we may indulge our-
selves in imagining the venerable bard reading his ver-
sion of the pathetic story to his British guest, who
was destined to be the Father of English Poetry, we
have a subject worthy of the pencil of the greatest artist.

On the 23rd of April, 1374, soon after his return
from Italy, Chaucer, as a reward for his services during
his mission, received a grant of a pitcher of wine,
to be given to him daily by the King's chief butler.
But this was not all; for in June of the same year
he was appointed comptroller of the customs of wool

in the port of London. A clause was added in the
patent, enjoining Chaucer to perform the duties of his
office in person, and to write all accounts with his
own hand. This clause, looking at Chaucer as we
now do, seems little-minded indeed, and almost mali-
cious ; but it was probably not ill meant, and, at all
events, was cheerfully complied with by the poet.

Although the duties of this office were very foreign
to his favourite pursuits, still he did not, in the dis-
charge of the one, neglect the other, and on this,
as on all former occasions, showed, that the common
duties of ordinary life are by no means incompatible
with the lofty occupations in which the poet finds
his heaven on earth ; for he is said to have fulfilled
his official duties with the strictest integrity and punc-
tuality ; while, on the other hand, some of his most
charming productions — such as ' The Floure and the
Lefe,' ' The House of Fame,' and several minor poems,
all of which were written before 1382, show that his
intellectual powers, as well as his will, retained their
full vigour and freshness. In November, 1375, the

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Online LibraryGeoffrey ChaucerThe poems of Geoffrey Chaucer modernized → online text (page 5 of 18)