Geoffrey Chaucer.

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FOR about two centuries after the Norman conquest, Atglo-
Normau was almost exclusively the language of literature in
this country. The few exceptions belong to the last expiring
remains of an older and totally different Anglo-Saxon style, or
to the first attempts of a new English one, formed upon a Nor
man model. Of the two grand monuments of the poetry of
this period, Layamon belongs to the former of these classes, and
the singular poem entitled the Onnuluin to the latter. After
the middle of the thirteenth century, the attempts at poetical
composition in English became more frequent and more success-
ful, and previous to the age of Chaucer we have several poems
of a very remarkable character, and some good imitations of
the harmony and spirit of the French versification of the time.

During this latter perioJ there had been a great movement in
intelligence and art throughout Europe, which was showing itself
sometimes in one place and sometimes in another, and which
was giving great promises of a splendid future. By the end of
the thirteenth century it broke out in Italy in Dante, and a
little later in Petrarch. In France it showed itself in a multi-
tude of poetical compositions, remarkable for their spirit and
harmony of versification. In England it became magnificently
embodied in Chaucer, almost to rise and die with him ; for two
centuries passed away before another poet was produced who
could lay any claim to rivalry with his great predecessor.

According to the best information that can be collected,
Geoff ley Chaucer was born somewhere near the year 1328,* hit
family being apparently citizens of London. The accounts of
his earlier years and of his education are vague and unsatisfac-
tory; but he was certainly a man of extensive learning, and he
had the education of a gentleman : he is generally believed to
have been bred to the law. \Ve learn from Chaucer's own
testimony, given at a later period, in the case of the Grosvenor

* The following notice of the personal history of the poet is chiefly ar.
abridgment of the Life of C/i'iurtr by Sir Harris Nicolas, who gathered
aether a mass of curious facts from the public records, many of them not
known before.


peerage, that in the autumn of 1359 he was in the army with
which Edward III. invaded France, which was his first military
service, and that he was made prisoner by the French during
the expedition which terminated with the peace of Chartres in
May, 1360.

We know nothing further of Chaucer's history until 13G7,
when a pension of twenty marks yearly for life was granted by
the king to the poet, as one of the valets of the king's chaml>er,
in consideration of his services. About the same time he mar-
ried Philippa, one of the ladies in attendance on the queen,
who is said to have been the eldest daughter of Sir Payne
Roet, king-of-arms of Guienne, and sister of Katherine, widow
of Sir Hugh Swynford, and subsequently wife of John of
G?unt, duke of Lancaster. In 1370, as we find from the rec-
ords, Chaucer was employed in the king's service abroad.
Two years after this, on the 12th of November, 1372, the poet
was sent on a mission to Genoa, to treat on the choice of a port
in England where the Genoese might form a commercial estab-
lishment ; he appears to have remained in Italy nearly a year,
as we do not trace him in England until the latter part of No-
vember, 1373, and we then find, by the allowance of his ex-
penses, that he had been on the king's service to Florence as
well as to Genoa. We are, unfortunately, in perfect ignorance
of Chaucer's movements in Italy ; and the statement of the old
biographers that he visited Petrarch at Padua, is founded on
mere suppositions totally unsupported by any known evidence.
It can hardly be believed, however, that Chaucer did not profit
by the opportunity thus afforded him of improving his acquaint-
ance with the poetrv. if not with the poets, of the country he
thus visited, whose influence was now being felt on the litera-
ture of most countries of Western Europe. He was evidently
well acquainted with the writings of Dante, ^and probably with
those of Petrarch, if not with those of Beccaccio. He dis-
tinctly quotes the former poet more than once ; thus, in the
Wife of Bath's Tale:

" Wel can the wyse poet of Florence,
That hatte Daunt, speke of this sentence."

The " sentence," as Chaucer gives it, is almost a literal trans-
lation from the Purgatorio. It may be observed aL-o, that the in-
ference from this and other circumstances is strongly in favor
of the belief that Chaucer was well acquainted with the Italian
language, which Sir Harris Nicolas doubt*, I think without
sufficient reason.

That Chaucer acquitted himself well as an ambassador, and
that the king was satisfied with his services, we can have no
doubt; for on the 23d of April following the monarch made


him a grant for life of a pitcher of wine daily, an appropriate
gift for a poet, but \\liich nevertheless seems to have been soon
commuted for the payment of its value in money. About six
weeks after this, on the 8th of June, 1374, Chaucer was ap-
pointed comptroller of the customs and subsidy of wools, skins,
and tanned hides in the port of London ; and it was stipulated
that, he should write the rolls of his office with his own hand,
and peiiorm his duties personally and not by deputy. This
might be supposed to show that Chaucer's poetical talents were
not very generously appreciated ; but it appears in reality that
it was a mere formula of the grant of the office. From this
time to the end of the reign of Edward III., the poet continued
to enjoy the royal favor ; and he not only received several
marks of his sovereign's generosity, but he was employed fre-
quently in public service of importance. During the la-st year
of Edward's reign, A. D. 1377, he was sent successively to Flan-
ders and to France, being in the first mission associated with
Sir Thomas Percy (afterwards Earl of Worcester), and in the
second attached to an embassy to treat of peace with Charles V.
It is probable that Chaucer was re-appointed one of the
king's esquires on the accession of Richard II., and he certain-
ly did not decline in court favor. In the middle of January,
1378, he was again sent to France, attached to an embassy, the
bject of which was to negotiate King Richard's marriage with
a daughter of the French monarch, llis stay in France was
not long, for in the May of the same year he was employed on
a IR-W mission, being sent with Sir Edward Berkely to Loiu-
banly, to treat with Bernardo Visconti, Lord of Milan, arid the
celebrated Sir John Hawkwood, apparently to persuade them
to assist in some warlike expedition contemplated by the Eng-
lish government ; and from this mission Chaucer appears not
to have returned until the end of the year. It was on this oc-
casion that Chaucer nominated as one of his representatives, in
case of any legal proceedings during his absence (to which peo-
ple in those days were liable), John Gower, a circumstance
which establishes the fact of the intimate friendship between
the two poets. We know that Chaucer dedicated his Troilus
and Crcteide, written in the sixteenth year of the reigti of
Richard II. (1392-3), to Gower; and the latter poet, in tin
ConJ'esstii. Amantis, makes Venus say of Chaucer :

" And grete wel Chaucer, when ye mete,
As my disciple ami my poeLe ;
For in the tloures of hi.* youthe,
In sundry wyse. as he wel i-ouUie,
Of Uytees- anil ot KongeS ^lade,
The whicho he for my Bake made,
The lande fulfylled is over alle ;
Whereof to him in speoyalle,
Above all other, 1 am um.-t hnlde.


Forthy nowe In his dayes olde
Thou Bhalle him telle this message.
That he uppon his latter age.
To sette an end of al hi8 werke,
Aa he whiohe is myn owne olerke,
Do make his Testament of Ix>ve,
As thou hast done thy shrift above,
So that my courte yt may recorde."

It kas been supposed, on very slight grounds, that Chance r'g
friendship for (Jower met with some interruption towards th<
end of his life.*

Soon after his return from Italy, Chaucer appears to have
been again employed on foreign service, for the records shcuv
that he was absent from May to December, 1370. In 138:2 he
received the appointment of comptroller of the petty customs of
the port of London, in addition to his previous office of comp-
troller of the customs and subsidies; and in February, 1385, he
obtained the still greater favor of being allowed to nominate a
permanent deputy, by which the poet must have been partially
released from duties which can never have been agreeable to
his tastes.

Several circumstances show that Chaucer had some intimate
connection with the county of Kent, where he probably held
property ; and he was elected a knight of the shire for that
county in the parliament which met at Westminster on the 1st
of October, 1386, and which closed its session on the 1st of No-
vember following ; shortly after which (before the 4th of
December, 138Gj Chaucer was dismissed from his employments,
but for what reason we have not the slightest intimation,
though it was doubtless connected with some of the petty in-
trigues of this intriguing reign. Probably, as Sir Harris Nic-
olas supposes, he had become obnoxious to the Duke of
Gloucester and the other ministers who had succeeded his pa-
tron, the Duke of Lancaster, in the government ; and it is well
known that the proceedings of the parliament alluded to
were directed against the Duke of Lancaster's party.

We know nothing further of Chaucer's history until the
year 13S8, except that he continued regularly to receive his two
pensions of twenty marks each ; but on the 1st of May in the
latter year, the grants of these pensions were at his request
cancelled, and the annuities assigned to John Scalby, which lias
been considered as a proof that the poet was at that time in
distress, and obliged to sell his pensions. Exactly a year after
this, in May, 1380, on the young king's assumption of the reins
of government, the Duke of Lancaster's party were restored to
power, and Chaucer again appeared at court. On the 12th of
July, the poet was appointed to the valuable office of clerk of

* See a note on the Man of Law's Tale, 1. 4408, and Sir H. Nicola*'* Lift
if Chaucer, p. 39.


the king's works at the palace of Westminster, the Tower of
London, the castle of Berkhamstead, and the royal manors of
Kenningtbn, Eltliam. Chvendon, Sheen, I>y fleet, Childern
Langley, and Feckenham, at the royal lodge of Ilathenburgh in
the New Forest, at the lodges in the parks of Clarendon, Chil-
dern Langley, and Feckenham, and at the mews for the king's
falcons at Charing Cross. He was expressly permitted to per-
form his duties by deputy, and his salary was fixed at two
shillings a day. Chaucer held this office, however, only twc
years, having been dismissed from it before the 16th of Sep-
tember, 1391, but the cause of his removal is unknown.

During the latter years of Richard's reign Chaucer was evi-
dently suffering from poverty; for instead of receiving, as for-
merly, his pension in half-yearly payments when due, we find
him constantly taking sums in advance ; and as those were not
always paid into his own hands we are led to suppose that he
was laboring under sickness as well as want. He was now aged
as well as poor and needy ; but the accession of Henry IV.
came suddenly to cast a gleam of brightness on his declining
days. Within four days aftei he :ame to the throne, Henry
granted him, on the 3d of October, 1399, a yearly pension of
forty marks, in addition to the annuity of twenty pounds
which had been given him by King Richard. On Christmas
eve, 1399, the poet obtained the lease of a house near West-
minster Abbey, where it is probable that he closed his days.
His name appears in the issue rolls, as continuing to receive
his pension, until the 1st of March, 1400, when it was received
for him by Henry Somere, the clerk of the receipt of the ex-
chequer, who is supposed to have been a relation of the "frere
John Somere," whose calendar is mentioned in Chaucer's
treatise on the Astrolabe. Chaucer is stated, and with prob-
able correctness, in an epitaph placed in 1550 near his grave in
Westminster Abbey by Nicholas Hrigham (a poet of that time),
to have died on the 25th of October, 1400, at which time, ac-
cording to the supposed date of his birth, he would have
reached the age of seventy -two.

The above are all the circumstances of importance connected
with the life of Chaucer that are known to be true. Although,
in the documents in which they are found, he is looked upon
only as an actor in the eventful politics of the day, we have
other evidence that his poetical talents were highly appreciated
by his contemporaries, as well as in the age which followed his
death. P>y the English poets of his time, Gower and Occleve,
he is spoken of in the warmest terms of praise ; and that his
reputation was high on the continent, we have a remarkable
proof in a ballad addressed to him by the French poet Eustace
Deschamps, which has been printed in Sir Harris Nicolas'0


Life and in my Anecdota Literana. This latter document shows
us aloo that Chaucer was on terms of friendship at least with
the Fmich poets of his day. Occleve not only paid a tribute
of affection to his " maister" in his poetry, but he painted his
portrait in the margin of the manuscript ; and this portrait,
evidently a good one, was copied at different times and in dif-
ferent forms, and was no doubt the original of all the portraits
of Chaucer we now have. The best copy appears to be that ill
the Harleian Ms. No. 4866.


Chaucer's capital work is undoubtedly the Canterbury Tales.
The idea of thus joining together a number of stories by means
of a connecting narrative, or frame, appears to have originated
in the East ; but long before the time of Chaucer it had been
made popular in Europe by the Diaclplina Clcricalis of Peter
Alfonsi and its translations, and by the still more widely-spread
romance of the Sei-en Sayes. It is probable that the latter, of
which an edition has been published by the Percy Society, gave
Chaucer the hint of his plot, rather than the Decameron, with
which I think it doubtful if Chaucer were acquainted. But
Chaucer's plan \vas far superior to that of any of the similar
collections which had preceded it, not only for the opportuni-
ty it afforded for diversity of style in the stories, but for the
variety of character it admitted in the personages to be intro-
duced. The general introduction to the Canterbury Tales is
one of the most perfect compositions in the English language.

The Cantt-rlury Tale* appear to have been the compilation of
Chaucer's latter years ; for they con tain allusions to events so late
as the year 1386, and if (as there appears little room for doubt)
there are allusions in the Man of Laices Talc to the Confessio
Arnaults of Gower, this part of the work must have been com-
posed at a still later period, as that poem is stated l>y its author
to have been written in the sixteenth year of the reign of Rich-
ard II., f. e., 1392-3. I have used the word compilation, because
it appears to me not only evident that Chaucer composed the
Canterbury Talcs not continuously, but in different portion*
which were afterwards to be joined together ; but it is more
than probable that he worked up into it tales which had
originally been written, and perhaps published, as separate
poems. Chaucer tells us, in the Legend of Good Women, that
he had thus published the Kniyhtes Tale,

" Al the love of Palatnon and Arcite,
Of Thebes, though the storie is knowen lite; "

as well as the life of St. Cecilia, or the Second Nonnct Tale,
" And made the life also of Saint Cecile."


It is quite clear that we possess the Canterbury Tale* in ac
unfinished form. Tyvwhitt makes the following general ob-
servations on this subject :

" The general plan of the Canterbury Tales may be learned
in a groat measure from the prologue which Chaucer himself
has prefixed to thorn. lie supposes there that a company of
pilgrims going to Canterbury assemble at an inn in Southwark,
and agree that, for their common amusement on the road, each
of them shall tell at least one tale in going to Canterbury, and
another in coming back from thence ; and that he who shall tell
the best tales shall be treated by the rest with a supper upon their
return to the same inn. This is, shortly, the fable. The char-
acters of the pilgrims are as various as, at that time, could be
found in the various departments of middle life ; that is, in
fact, as various as could, with any probability, be brought to-
gether, so as to form one company ; the highest and the lowest
ranks of society being necessarily excluded. It appears, fur-
ther, that the design ot' Chaucer was not barely to recite the tales
told by the pilgrims, but also to describe their journey, And
all the remnant of their pilgrimage [ver. 720] ; including, prob-
ably, their adventures at Canterbury as well as upon the road.
If we add, that the tales, besides being nicely adapted to the
characters of their respective rel&tors, were intended to be con-
nected together by suitable introductions, and interspersed with
diverting episodes, and that the greatest part of them was to
have been executed in verse, we shnll have a tolerable idea of
the extent and difficulty of the whole undertaking ; and admir-
ing, as we must, the vigor of that genius which in an advanced
age could begin so vast a work, we shall rather lament than be
surprised that it has been left imperfect. In truth, if we com-
pare those parts of the Canterbury Tales of which we are in posses-
sion, with the sketch which has been just given of the intended
whole, it will be found that more than one-half is wanting.
The prologue we have, periiaps, nearly complete, and the great-
est pai t of the journey to Canterbury; but not a word of the
transactions at Canterbury, or of the journey homeward, or of
the epilogue, which, we may suppose, was to have concluded
the work, with an account of' the pri/.e supper and the separa-
tion of the company. Even in that part which we have of the
journey to Canterbury, it will be necessary to take notice of
certain defects and inconsistencies, which can only be accounted
for upon the supposition that the work was never finished by
the author."

After a careful consideration of this question, I am inclined
to believe that Chaucer not only left his grand poem iu an un-
finished state, but that he left it in detached portions only par-
tially arranged, and that it was reduced to its present foruc

after his death. This would explain satisfactorily the groat
variations of the manuscripts in the order of the tales, and the
evident want of the connecting prologue in more than one in
stance. All the manuscripts agree in the order of the tales of
the. knight, miller, reve, and cook, and in placing them imme-
diately after the general prologue, and it is therefore probable
that they were left in that state by Chaucer. The Cookes Tale
was evidently left unfinished by the author, and it was prob-
ably the -person who reduced the whole to its present form that
first introduced the tale of Gamelyn, to fill up what he sup-
posed a lacuna, but whence he obtained this tale it is difficult
to conjecture. Tyrwhitt is so entirely wrong in saying that this
tale is not found in any manuscript of the first authority, that
it occurs in the Harleian Ms. from which the present text is
taken, and which I have no hesitation in stating to be the best
and oldest manuscript of Chaucer T have yet met with. The
style of Gamelyn would lead us to judge that it is not Chaucer's,
but we can only reconcile this judgment with its being found
so universally in the manuscripts, by means of the supposition
of the posthumous arrangement of the Canterbury Tales, and
its insertion by the arranger. I have printed the tale of Game-
lyn from the same Harleian Ms. which has been the base of
my text of the remainder of the poem ; but I have distinguished
it from the rest by printing it in smaller type, both on account
of the apparently well-founded doubts of its being a genuine
work of Chaucer, and in order not to interfere with the num-
bering of the lines in Tyrwhitt's edition, which I have thought
it advisable to preserve.

After the Cookes Tale, the order of the tales differs very
much in different manuscripts, until we arrive at the tale of the
Manciple, with which, and the Parson's Tale, they all conclude.
In the present text, I have strictly followed the Harleian manu-
script, which agrees nearly with the order adopted by Tyrwhitt.
The Man of Lawex Tale is not connected by its prologue with
the tale which precedes it ; and the Wyf of Bathes Tale evi-
dently wants a few introductory lines, which Chaucer would
have added had he lived to complete the poem. It is not im-
probable that in the state in which he left it. the Wife of Bath'?
prologue was the beginning of a portion of manuscript which
contained the tales of the Wife of Bath, the Friar, and the
Sompnour ; and perhaps those of the Clerk, the Merchant, and
the Squier. formed another portion. This latter portion ap-
pears; to have been left unfinished, for the Squi/'res Talc breaks
off abruptly in the middle, which is the more to be regretted,
as it is one of Chaucer's best stories, and it is a story not found
elsewhere. It a [.pears by its prologue, that the Frankeleynet
Tale waa intended to follow the Squieres Tale. The Second


Nonncs Talc, or the life of St. Cecilia, has no prologue, and ap-
pears to be in the same form in which it was originally written
for separate publication. The prologue to the Chanoncs Ye-
mannes Tale shows that this latter was intended to follow the
Life of St. Cec.'lia. These two tales are placed, in Tyrwhitt's
edition, after the tale of the Nun's Priest. Of the tales of the
Doctour and the Pardoner we can only say that they were clear-
ly intended to come together, though they are differently placed
in manuscripts with respect to those which precede and follow.
The tales of the Shipman, the Prioress, Chaucer's two tales of
Sir Thopas and Melibeus, the Monk's tale, and the tale of the
Nun's Priest, are all connected together by their prologues, and
appear to have occupied another portion of Chaucer's manu-
script, which also was apparently defective at the end, the pro-
logue which was to have connected it with the next tale being
unfinished. The prologue to the tale of the Manciple contains
no reference to a preceding tale ; but from the way in which
the Cook is introduced in it, it would seem to have been com-
posed at a time when Chaucer did not intend to introduce the
Cook's tale after that of the Keve. The Parson's tale is con-
nected by its prologue with that of the Manciple, and follows
it in all the manuscripts. The old printed editions after 1542,
inserted between these a poem, which was evidently misplaced,
under the title of the I'/oimmn's Tale, but on what authority it
was placed there we are totally ignorant. The " retractation "
at the end of the I^arsmies Tale was perhaps introduced by the
person who arranged the text after Chaucer's death.

With the tale, or rather discourse, of the Parson, Chaucer
brings his pilgrims to Canterbury ; but his original plan evi-
dently included the journey back to London. Some writer,
within a few years after Chaucer's death, undertook to continue
the work, and produced a ludicrous account of the proceedings
of the pilgrims at Canterbury, and the story of Beryn, which
was to be the first of the stories told on their return. These
are printed by Urry from a manuscript of which 1 have not been
able to trace the subsequent history, and, if it should not pre-
viously be found. I shall reprint them from Urry's edition,
correcting the more apparent errors, for Urry's faithlessness to
fa5a manuscript is quite extraordinary.

The immense popularity of Chaucer's Canterbury Talcs is

Online LibraryGeoffrey ChaucerThe poetical works of Geoffrey Chaucer → online text (page 1 of 60)