Social Background of His Poetry
Chaucer was born in the reign of Edward III, lived through that of Richard II, and died the year after Henry IV ascended the throne. His life thus covers a period of glaring social contrasts and rapid political changes. Edward's reign marks the highest development of medieval civilization in
. It was also the midsummer of English chivalry. The spirit of his court was that of the romantic idealism which fills Chaucer's Knight's Tale. The King and his nobility led a very gay and debonair life. England
Trade expanded and among the commercial classes wealth increased. But the masses of the people were sunk in a condition of deplorable misery. Pestilence after pestilence ravaged the land. In 1348-49 there came the awful epidemic called the Black Death. In a single year it swept away more than a third of the entire population. Moreover, it reappeared in 1362, 1367 and 1370 each time causing a considerable damage to human life. Famine followed plague as a result of which vagrants and thieves multiplied. Tyrannous laws passed by the Parliament to regulate labour only made bad matters worse. The King had won successive wars with
Political troubles grew apace under Richard's unwise and despotic rule. The constitutional conflicts between the king and his subjects resulted in endless discord and confusion. The temper of
in Chaucer's last years was therefore very different from that of the England into which he had been born. England
Besides economic and political strife, there was a lot of religious tension in Chaucer's time. There was a serious outbreak of religious unorthodoxy. Wycliffe and his followers made an organised attack upon the Church. In town and country alike, doctrines were being preached which a future age was to familiarise under the name of Protestantism. The Church was on the whole corrupt. Of spiriual zeal and energy very little was left in the country. The greater prelates heaped up wealth, and lived in a godless and worldly way. The rank and file of the clergy were ignorant and careless. The mendicant friars were notorious for their greed and profligacy. The ecclesiastical authorities themselves were stubborn. Their rigid conservatism was sadly out of tune with the new society. While the people clamoured for reform, the leaders were averse to it. In fact, the laity were at logger heads with the clergy. The former were moving with the times, the latter were standing still. The Pope who in former ages had done so much, now did less than nothing to improve the condition of the Church in
. He used his powers to foster abuses that brought wealth to the England Roman Court—simony, non-residence, plurality, the sale of indulgences, all of which offended the roused conscience of a censorious age. The Bishops were certainly hard-working, highly respectable men, but unfortunately they could do nothing for the Church because they were preoccupied with secular interests of the State.
Another cause of religious tension was that the scriptures were still in the Latin language. The peasant as he stood or knelt on the floor of the Church each Sunday, could not follow the Latin words. His ignorance of Latin was, on the other hand, the favourable tool of monks and friars to exploit him.
It was in these circumstances that Wycliffe emerged on the scene. He was an intrepid man who gave the best of his life to the great task of reviving spiritual Christianity in
. For the achievement of his mission, he wrote religious pamphlets, sent his 'poor priests' or itinerant preachers far and wide with the message of the Gospel, and with the help of his disciples produced a complete English version of the Bible...the first translation of the scriptures into any modern vernacular tongue. Wycliffe was in every respect a forerunner of the great movement of protestantism led in a later era by Luther, the German religious reformer. His poor priests were contemptuously called 'Lollers' by the conservatives of the age and it was after a long time that England saw his counterpart in John Wesley who headed the second movement of protestantism closely parallel to the first. England
On the whole
in Chaucer's time was moving from medievalism towards modernism. There was slowly coming up a new society which was more enlightened, more aggressive, more secular, more humanistic, more democrate, more scientific and more progressive. Its underlying current was to do away with rigid feudalism, rigid theological hold and rigid political authority. From despotism in every field it was shifting towards rising democracy. Following his grandfather Edward I, Edward III announced: “That which touches all, should be approved by all". The great barons—themselves steadily dwindling in feudal power—no longer sat alone in the King's councils. By their side sat country gentlemen and citizens elected to share in the responsibilities of government. The Commons claimed, and for a time obtained, the control of taxation. Ministers who suggested unconstitutional measures were now branded as traitors. The Parliament had become omnipotent. Nothing human was alien to its sphere of activity, from the sale of herring at England fair to those great constitutional questions which remained in dispute for three centuries longer, and were only settled at last by a civil war and a revolution. Yarmouth
had taken many strides towards modernism. Roman law had become outlandish. Land laws were framed on such principles as remained unqeustioned for centuries to come. English jurisprudence seemed to have been settled for ever requiring only minor adjustments to meet the demands of the changing world. The framework of the law courts was roughly that of modern England . The king's judges were no longer clerics, but laymen chosen from among the professional pleaders in the courts. England
Education in Chaucer's time displayed a new spirit. Universities rose on the ruins of monastic learning. Clerical tutelage began to diminish. Learning and art ceased to be predominantly monastic. They showed a remarkable tendency for aesthetic and secular qualities. The English universities became far more truly national than at any previous time. Their training and aims were not ecclesiastical but non-clerical or anti-clerical. The influence of the leading Italian writers Petrarch and Boccaccio gave a quickening power to the spirit of intellectual humanism. Coupled with this was the renewed study of the aesthetic and moral ideas of
and Greece which gave impetus to the growth of secularism. Rome
The greatest achievement in education and literature was, however, the acceptance of the English language as the vehicle of expression. Ever since the Norman Conquest, under a succession of French-speaking kings, French had been the language of the Court and of the upper classes. But in 1362 Edward III ordered that in the Law Courts all pleas should be pleaded, answered, debated and judged in English, although they should be entered on the rolls in Latin. This was a great achievement for the English tongue. Chaucer himself was the first poet to write in English and to become by virtue of this fact the first national poet of
The literary spirit of the time was by and large satirical. Of the four greatest English writers of the century, one (John Gower) was a religious reformer whose writings attacked nearly every institution of the medieval church, from the corrupt priesthood to the papacy itself. Another (William Langland) gave himself so completely to the exposure of the corruption of medieval institutions that the most radical agitators of the age used his Piers Plowman as symbol of their revolutionary ideals. A third (John Wycliffe), though his spirit was clearly made for the most tranquil waters of literature, was so stirred by his disgust at things which he had witnessed that he, too, wrote many pages of vituperative satire. As for Chaucer himself, his work contains satirical passages so startling in their approach to the modern point of view toward the decaying institutions of the Middle Ages that they have won him the doubtful compliment of being called 'modern'.
Literary forms and style in Chaucer's age were a legacy of the past. Allegory, alliterative verse, metrical romances, ballads, lyrics, carols, roundels, homily, legend, proverb, precept, dialogue, debate, catechism, animal fable, miracle, morality and mystery plays were common and were practised by all men of litters. The dominating spirit behind all literary compositions was moral instruction or social reformation. Consequently most of the literary work was didactic. Chaucer was both an imitator of the old forms and an innovator of the new ones. He followed the prevailing conventions of the time but also gave vent to his individual talent. His distinctive mark is his great realism which transcended all conventional traits.
The poetic style in Chaucer's time showed a tendency towards simplicity and freedom which remains the dominating characteristic of English verse even today. On the whole the English poetical style had crossed the stages of transition and experiment and had established itself. Ornate French and classical terms were still being used but mostly it was the plain and unadorned diction that tempted the poet.
The state of prose was still immature, but the everyday writings of the age showed a vigour and clarity which were a great advance on the mingled French and English writing of the beginning of the period, when English was still struggling to shake off the dominance of French. Wycliffe's prose is unpolished, though it is pointed and vigorous. Mandeville's prose style, though it is devoid of artifices, attains to a certain distinction by reason of its straightforward methods, its short and workmanlike sentences, and a brevity rare in his day. Malory's style is unadorned and has a romantic flavour that make him a prose stylist of a high order.
To conclude, Chaucer lived at a time when
passed through the first stages of her long journey out of medievalism and came to the foothills of the modern world. Kittredge says that all the problems which vex the world today sprang into existence or made themselves especially troublesome in the sixty years of Chaucer's life. G.M. Trevelyan remarks that in Chaucer's England we see for the first time the modern mingling with the medieval, and England herself beginning to emerge a distinct nation, no longer a mere oversea extention of Franco-Latin Europe. The poet's works register the greatest modern fact of all, the birth and general acceptance of English language, the Saxon and French words happily blended at last into 'English tongue' which 'all understanden', and which is therefore coming into use as the vehicle of school teaching and of legal proceedings. England
of His Time London
A town in Chaucer's time was still a rural and agricultural community, as well as centre of industry and commerce. It had its stone wall or earth mound to protect it, distinguishing it from an open village. Even
was no exception to the rule of a half rustic life. There was none of the rigid division between rural and urban which has prevailed since the Industrial Revolution. No Englishman then was ignorant of all country things, as the great majority of Englishmen are today. London
William Morris, a Victorian poet, imagined the London of Chaucer's day as a little town 'small and white clean. The Clear Thames, bordered by its border green'. Historical records, however belie this description. The town was in fact insanitary. The streets were narrow and parts of the river
Thames that ran into the city were often slopped up by diverse filth and dung thrown therein by persons who had houses along the said course, to the great nuisance and damage to all the city. The houses were small because glass windows were unknown or rarely known in those days. Heating arrangements were outmoded and in the winter the rooms were packed with smoke from the fires. In such houses privacy was out of the question.
The probable population of
in Chaucer's day was 50,000 while the other large towns in London contained less than 10, 000 apiece. There were all sorts of men......beggars, husksters, apprentices, craftsmen, priests, monks, friars, eldermen, and common councillors. England
The small hamlets centred round a manor house and an old church and many abbeys with their group of monastic buildings. The streets were given the names of the gates such as Aldgate, Bishopsgate, Moorgate Cripplegate, Aldergate, Newgate, and Ludgate. In and around the city were a dozen splendid monasteries and nunneries, for monks and friars, man and women. There were two main east-and-west streets, one from the Tower to Blackfriars, called
Thames Street, one from Aldgate to Newgate, through Leadenhall, Cornhill, and Cheapside. Each ward was partly self-governed. Every tradesman lived over his shop and many streets were devoted to sparate industries, a fact which is still indicated by the street names— Milk Street, Bread Street, Honey Lane, Iremonger Lane. Money was beginning to be well coined but its relative value was very different from modern standards. The mark was never an English coin, but the term was in common use in monetary relations and its value was computed at 13s. 4d.
All English towns of Chaucer's day despite their power and liberties were loyal members of a State whose parliament legislated, partly by their advice, on their economic concerns insofar as they were national.
was one of such towns as ceased to be merely municipal and became national. Its history was, therefore, the history of London . But a Londoner remained loyal to the town and had to play his part in the city militia to defend the walls and if possible the fields of the town against French or Scottish raiders, bands of outlaws, or the retainers of great men." England
In matters of administration,
had immense powers of self-government which included jurisdiction over wide territories up and down the river. London
built by Peter of Colechurch in John's reign was thought of by loyal Londoners to be one of the wonders of the medieval world. The river London Bridge Thames over which the bridge stood was known all over Europe, and many poets had sung its praise.
Chaucer himself was a Londoner born and bred. Although he went on several diplomatic missions to other countries and spent a great part of his life there, he remained a man of
at heart. His Canterbury Tales is a mirror of the life of 'dear busy London ' and its surroundings. His language and thoughts were, however, derived not from the updated city but from the semi-urban and semi-rural atmosphere which prevailed in several parts of London then. Trevelyan rightly observes that Chaucer was a Londoner, but, in describing a beautiful and sprightly young woman, he employs four metaphors, one taken from the Tower mint, the other three from familiar, vulgar sights, sounds and smells of the rustic farm: London
Full brighter was the shining of her hewe
Than in the Tower the noble forged newe.
But of her song, it was as loud and yerne (brisk)
As any swallow sitting on a berne (barn)
There to she could skip and make game
As any kid or calf following his dame.
Her mouth was sweet as brachet or the meeth
Than in the Tower the noble forged newe.
But of her song, it was as loud and yerne (brisk)
As any swallow sitting on a berne (barn)
There to she could skip and make game
As any kid or calf following his dame.
Her mouth was sweet as brachet or the meeth
(honeyed ale or mead)
Or hoard of apples laid in hay or heeth.
—The Miller's Tale
His Literary Career
The one event in Chaucer's life which probably produced the profoundest effect on his literary career was his first visit to
, in 1372. Italy was then at the zenith of her artistic energy, in the full splendour of that illumination which had followed the intellectual twilight of the Middle Ages, and which we know as the Renaissance, or "New Birth." Each of her little city states was a centre of marvellous activity, and everywhere were being produced those master-pieces of painting, sculpture, and architecture which still make Italy a place of pilgrimaga for all lovers of art. The literary activity was equally great, at least in Italy . Dante had been dead for half a century, but his poetry was just beginning to be widely recognised as one of the world-forces in the realm of imagination. Petrarch, the grave, accomplished scholar and elegant poet, was passing his closing years at his villa of Argua, near Tuscany . Boccaccio, poet, tale-writer, pedant, and worldling, was spending the autumn of his life among the cypress and laurel slopes of Padua , above Fiesole . The world which lay open to Chaucer's gaze when he crossed the Florence Alps was therefore, one calculated to fascinate and stimulate him in the highest degree.
From Chaucer's poems one gets only an occasional glimpse of his life. One of these reveals his eagerness for study, which, after the day's work was done, would send him home, regardless of rest and "news thinges," to sit “as domb as any stone" over his book, until his eyes were dazed. The unquenchable curiosity of the men of the Renaissance was his, more than a century before the Renaissance really began to effect
. His, too, was their thirst for expression. The great books he had come to know in England gave him no peace until he should equal or surpass them. Italy
Since Chaucer had a very busy career as a man of affairs, poetry for him was inevitably a part-time activity. Nevertheless, his occupations at court provided him with a sophisticated audience, composed for the most part of lords and ladies, who maintained lively social and literary intercourse with the Continent, especially with
and France . And judging from the number of extant manuscripts of his poems particularly The Canterbury Tales, which is found in some ninety complete or partial manuscripts—one has to assume that Chaucer's audience was by no means confined to the nobility. Italy
One of the most conspicuous features of Chaucer's poetry is its indebtedness to Continental models. His output has, in fact, been conveniently—though not altogether accurately—assigned to three periods : the French (1359-72), Italian (1372-86), and English (1386-1400). Chaucer came early under the spell of French dream allegory, especially the extremely popular Roman de la Rose, a long poem which was to exert a lasting influence upon his verse.
offered him the examples of Dante and Petrarch, whom he acknowledged; he also drew heavily, but without acknowledgment, upon Boccaccio—most notably for the plots of Troilus and Criseyde and The Knight's Tale. It should be kept in mind, however, that in the Middle Ages, as well as in the Renaissance, a writer could borrow freely from either his predecessors or his contemporaries without incurring charges of plagiarism. Greek and Latin writers had regularly adapted or retold the same traditional myths of Italy and Troy ; and Shakespeare rarely invented an "original" plot (if there is such a thing). One's poetic reputation depended upon how he treated the subject and not upon where he found it. During the English period to which much of The Canterbury Tales belong, Chaucer concentrated to a large extent upon contemporary English life and manners. But as G.L. Kittredge, a distinguished student of the poet has observed, he kept accumulating his various experiences and "took with him into the English period all the lessons he had ever learned." Thebes
The Book of the Duchesse
Composed in octosyllabics this is Chaucer's earliest datable poem, written in or soon after 1369, to lament the death of Blanche, first wife of John of Gaunt, transparently alluded to toward the end of the poem as "gode faire Whyte." The poem runs into 1334 lines and is sometimes called the Dream of Chaucer. After relating a story which he has been reading, the tragic story of Ceys and Alcyone, the poet falls asleep and dreams that he comes upon a knight dressed in black, sitting sorrowfully beneath a tree in the woods. The stranger recognises his solicitude and tells him the cause of his grief: he has played a game of chess with Fortune and the goddess has taken his queen. The poet seems not to understand quite what he means and he tells him in detail the story of his love—how he met one day a lady, whom he describes: her beauty, accomplishments, gentle ways, soft speech, goodness. Her name was White. He finally persuaded her to accept his heart and they lived in perfect bliss full many a year. All this he relates sadly and at length. The simplicity and restraint, the absence of strained sentiment in the poem show the delicate instinct of the artist. The poem is greatly indebted to Machaut, Froissart, Ovid, and other poets, in fact is a mosaic of passages borrowed or remembered, but the concept, and what is more important the tone and treatment are Chaucer's own. The poem is remarkable for another reason. In the character of Blanche the Duchesse, Chaucer portrays an ideal which differs in many ways from the conventional standard of the day. Instead of the typical heroine of romance, whose sole thought is love and whose sole desire that her knight may prove the bravest in Christendom, Chaucer draws a lively, quick-witted girl, whose consciousness of her own power and simple delight in her own beauty never degenerate into selfish coquetry. Chaucer, in fact, portrays Blanche with a spirit of vigour and freshness as also gaiety which foreshadow the heroines of Shakespeare like Rosalind, Portia and Beatrice. Blanche is a picture of unspoiled girlhood.
The Parliament of Foules (1381) celebrates the betrothal of Richarad II to Anne of Bohemia. The poet, as usual, falls asleep and has a dream. He is taken by Scipio Africanus (he had just been reading the Somnium Scripionis) to the gate of a park which he is told none but the servants to love may enter. Although he himself is but dull and has lost the taste of love, he is permitted to see what passes in order that he may describe it, and is led into a beautiful garden in which many fair ladies, such as Beautee and Jolyte, are disporting themselves under the eye of Cupid. A number of women are dancing round a temple of brass, before whose door 'Dame sat with a curteyn in hir hond'. A long description of the temple and its occupants (Venus, Bacchus, Cares, etc.) follows, and the poet then passes once more into the open air where in a meadow upon a hill of flowers he finds the noble goddess Nature who has sent for every bird to come and chose its mate in honour of St. Velentine. Upon her hand she holds 'A formel egle, of shap the gentileste/ That ever she among hir werkes fonde'. Nature calls upon the royal eagle to make first choice and he, with head inclined and with full humble cheer, at once chooses the bird upon her hand. Before the formel eagle has summoned up sufficient courage to give her answer, 'Another tercel egle spak anoon/Of lower kinde, and-seyde' 'that shall not be/I love hir bet then he do, by seynt John'. And hardly has he finished when a third eagle puts forward his clain. The various birds are called upon for their advice, and after a great deal of chattering and confusion. Nature finally decrees that the choice is to lie with the formal eagle herself. She modestly begs for a year's respite in which to make up her mind, and the parliament is adjourned. The Parliament of Foules is the first poem in which Chaucer's special genius is fully seen. It has the machinery of the popular dream-allegory; in addition to a delicious humour, pleasant satire, unaffected joy in nature, vivid descriptions and effective verse.
The House of Fame
Generally dated about 1379. This poem thought badly proprotioned and incomplete is utterly delightful. It is in three books, with all the epic machinery of invocations, apostophes, and the like. In the first book the poet dreams that he in the
, where he reads on the wall and tells at length the story of Diago and Aeneas. The episode is pleasantly related but is a digression and is artistically one of the blemishes in the poem. At the end he steps out of the doors and sees flying toward him an eagle of great size and shining so brightly that it appears to be of gold. It is obviously of the same family as Dante's eagle in the ninth book of the Purgatorio. The eagle seizes him in its claws and immediately soars aloft with him, telling him that Jove means to reward him for his long service to Venus and Cupid by taking him to the House of Fame where he will hear abundant tidings of Love's folk. The second book is wholly taken up with the eagle's flight and is one of the delightfully humorous episodes in literature, what with the eagle's friendliness and loquacity, and the poet's utter terror. The contrast between the eagle's talkativeness and familiarity—he calls him Geoffrey—and the speechless fright of the poet, who can answer only in monosyllables, "Yes" and "Well" and "Nay", is high comedy. Unfortunately, the third book which describes what the poet saw when the eagle set him down outside of Fame's house, carries us to the point where he is about to hear an announcement from "a man of great auctoritee" and leaves his readers still waiting for the expected news. For at this point the poem breaks off. Written in octosyllabic, this unfinished poem is one of the most personal of Chaucer's works. It was certainly inspired by Dante and contains plain echoes of him. It is, however, not serious like Dante's Divine Comedy or Ovid's Metamorphoses or Vergil's Anedil to which it is indebted in one way or the other. Moreover, it has a different purpose. It expresses Chaucer's view that life and reputation are nothing but vanity, yet he will make it his mission to study and paint humanity as it is. temple of Venus
This poem attributed to Chaucer by Lydgate was probably composed before 1370. It is called ABC being an alphabetical address to the Blessed Virgin. According to available evidence the poem is an adaptation of a prayer to the Blessed Virgin included in a long French poem, written by a Cistercian monk in the royal abbey of Chalis, Guillaume de Deguilleville, and entitled Le Pelerinage de L'Ame (1330 or 1331). The first part of the work in which the prayer is interpolated, is called Le Pelerinage de la Vie Humaine. The French text of the prayer is included in the Oxford Chaucer and is printed in the Chaucer Society's One-Text Print of the Minor Poems. Chaucer's adaptation of his original is decidedly free. It is an example of Chaucer's “verse of cadence". The poem is devotional and expresses Chaucer's faith in Christianity as a redeeming religion. G.K. Chesterton says that the poem indicates Chaucer's Catholicism and contradicts the charge that he was a Lollard or a Protestant.
Compleynt unto Pite
The theme of this poem (dated between 1367 and 1370) is unrequited love. Furnivall regards the poem autobiographical. Modern scholars believe that the poem is a conventional treatment of the pangs of hopeless love. It is probable that Chaucer being an imitator of French was following the erotic form and tradition of that language in this poem. In French poetry there is an elaborate code of duties owed by husband to wife and lover to mistress, and the whole artificial convention which prescribed unhappy love affairs and revelled in the minute analysis of over-strained emotion. Chaucer and some of the Elizabethan poets, especially the sonneteers, followed this convention almost blindly. There also seems to be some truth in Ten Brink's contention that in poetry and life fashion required an educated young man like Chaucer, especially one in the service of the court to fall in love at the earliest opportunity, and, if possible, hopelessly.
The Compleynt of Mars
The Compleynt of Mars is an astronomical allegory written in 1374 on April 12 when Mars and Venus, according to Chaucer's calculation, were in conjunction. It is believed that the poem celebrates the amour of John Holland Elizabeth, countess of Pembroke, the daughter of John of Gaunt and the Duchess Blanche.
Anelida and Arcite (1380)
Anelida and Arcite is based upon Boccaccio's Teseida and Statius's Thebaid. Composed in Rime-royal the poem itself is of slight importance. It is incomplete and critics regret the fact that after writing some three hundred lines, Chaucer abandoned the project. The full recognition of the worth of the poem, in case it had been completed, can be estimated only from the beautiful 'Complaint' of Anelida which with its perfect balance of strophe and anti-strophe is one of the most finished and exquisite examples of the type in medieval literature. Nevertheless the poem is significant for showing Chaucer's interest in metrical experimentation and its curious connection with his other important works. Not only does the 'fals Arcite' bear the same name as one of the heroes of the Knighte's Tale, but several stanzas of the poem are derived from the very source from which the story of Palamon and Arcite was taken.
Roman de la Rose
Roman de la Rose or the Romance of the Rose, as it is called in English, is a famous poem, of Chaucer's French period. In this celebrated poem, a lover tries to pluck the rose of love from an exquisite garden and receives advice along the way from various abstractions, such as Idleness, Mirth and Danger (Disdain). The French original which Chaucer translated into English was begun, about 1225, by Guillaume de Lorris and finished, about 1275, by Jean de Meun. The contrasting temperaments of these two men furnish an interesting clue to the enigma of Chaucer, who was sympathetic to both. Guillaume de Lorris wished to create a virtual encyclopedia of courtly love—serious, lush, extravagantly romantic. But sean de Meun, perhaps with tongue in cheek, took a. cynical tone towards love and women. The two strains run throughout Chaucer's works, and frequently Chaucer achieves comedy by presenting the romantic and the cynical attitudes side by side. Sometimes, as in the portrait of the Prioress in The Canterbury Tales or in The Miller's Tale, romantic material is lifted out of its usual context and used with satiric effect.
The Roman de la Rose is the best known, though not the best poem of the first period of Chaucer's literary career. While translating this universial favourite, Chaucer put in some original English touches making it worthy of himself. George Sampson says that the first author and his continuator were writers of different spirit, but their English translator has shown himself equal to every requirement, with a mastery that only a consummate man of letters could display. The metre is that of the original—the octosyllabic couplet—and it is admirably handed. There is nothing among the numerous verse translations of the time which approaches this in poetry, wit, charm and courtly grace.
Troilus and Criseyde
The poem which most offended the god of love was Chaucer's treatment of an episode belonging to the medieval version of the story of
. This famous tale was known to the Middle Ages, not through Homer, but through various Latin and French accounts that tended to favour the Trojans rather than the Greeks. According to Kemp Malone this longest complete poem is Chaucer's greatest achievement. In some 8000 lines, in stanzas of Rime-royal, it tells of a tragic story from the time Troilus first sees Criseyde, a young and beautiful widow whose father, Calchas has abandoned Troy and gone over to the Greek side, until she proves unfaithful to him, and death puts an end to his suffering. For there skilfully ordered books the story rises steadily to climax when Troilus with the aid of Pandarus, his friend and the uncle of Criseyde, having overcome her natural caution and conventional reserve, finally possesses her completely, both body and soul. For three years they are united in a mutual love that could not be more complete. Then in the last two books events move inevitably toward their tragic conclusion. Through an exchange of prisoners Criseyde must go to her father in the Greek camp. She leaves, swearing undying love and fidelity and promising to find some way of returning before ten days are past. But by the time the ten days are up her handsome Greek escort, Diomede, has caused her to change her mind, and within a few months she has given him the brooch which had been Troilus's parting gift to her when she left. Troy
Chaucer's source for Troilus and Criseyde, is Boccaccio's II Filostrato but Chaucer has radically changed the structure and emphasis of the story. Instead of an almost unmotivated recital of a mere intrigue, he has written a genuine psychological novel, analysing minutely the action and reaction of character and situation upon the leading persons. In his hands the lovers' go-between, Pandrus, is transformed from a gilded youth of Troilus own age and temperament to a middle-aged man, plausible, good-natured, full of easy worldly wisdom and materialistic ideas—a character as true to type and as vitally alive as if Shakespeare had drawn him. The growth of the love-passion in Cressida's heart is traced through its gradual stages with a subtlety entirely new in English poetry. The action, dialogue, and 'stage-setting' of the poem are all created with the magic realism of a master of narrative art. Though the scene is ancient
, though the manners and customs are those of medieval knights and ladies, though the texture of the whole is stiffly brocaded with the conventions of courtly love, we seem, in many passages, to be looking at a modern play or reading from a modern novel, so intimate and actual does it appear. Troy
The Legend of Good Women
In The Legend of Good Women Chaucer returns to the love-vision for his framework. This unfinished work is a somewhat tiresome collection of accounts of loving and faithful women—including Cleopatra, Medesa, Lucrece, Ariadne, Philomela, and others—which Chaucer explains was required of him as a penance by the god of love for having written heresies against love's law, and particularly for having drawn the character of a faithless woman in Troilus and Criseyde. The legends themselves, constructed on the analogy of that common medieval form, the legendary or collection of saints' lives, seems to have been written without any great enthusiasm, and there is nothing in them approaching the art of the Troilus. But the Prologue to The Legend of Good Women which exists in two interestingly different versions has a charm and liveliness that the body of the work lacks. This is how the Prologue begins:
A thousand times have I herd men telle.
That there is joye in heven and peyne in helle;
And I accorde wel that hit is so;
That there is joye in heven and peyne in helle;
And I accorde wel that hit is so;
And with that word my bokes gan I take
And right this on my legend gan I make,
And right this on my legend gan I make,
In The Legend of Good Women Chaucer first uses the heroic couplet, from that time to be the most favoured metre for English narrative verse.
The culmination of Chaucer's work as a poet is to be found in his great unfinished collection of stories called The
Tales. Written between 1380 and 1400, they are the most comprehensive work by a poet in any language of the world. Taken as a whole they represent the entire range of English society in the fourteenth century, with the exception of the highest aristocracy and the lowest order of villeins or serfs. Artistically, they are the mature expression of a poetic vision developed in twenty-five years of personal, social, diplomatic and literary life. Canterbury
It has been pointed out that Chaucer borrowed the idea of a connected series of tales from Boccaccio. This may not be true. The plan of collecting different tales and linking them up by means of a central story was of immemorial antiquity in the East. But if Chaucer owes any debt to Boccaccio he has repaid it with interest, for the framework of the Canterbury Tales is far more artistic than that of the Decameron.
The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales describes how the poet, moved by the passion for wandering that comes with the spring, found himself at the Tabard Inn in Southwark, across the Thames from London, bound on a pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Thomas A Becket at Canterbury. Here he meets twenty and nine other pilgrims setting out with the Same purpose. A thirtieth, the Canon's Yeoman, joins them later. At the suggestion of Harry Bailey, the host of the Tabard Inn, they agree to enliven their journey, which is to be made on horseback, by each telling two tales on the way out and two on the way back. The teller of the best story was to be given a supper at the end at the expense of all others, and the host was also to accompany them and act as judge and director of the contest. The promised one hundred and twenty tales were, however, never completed. There are in all twenty-four tales, some incomplete, and some taken from his earlier work to fill out the general plan. Their order although a little facilitated by the link passages remains in some respects hypothetical. Thematically they cover a wide range including love and chivalry. Though all but two of them are written in verse, they contain passages of exquisite poetry. It is, therefore, appropriate to call them stories as well as poems.
The General Prologue does much more than provide a framework for the tales. It contains in the sketches of the various pilgrims knight, squire, prioress, tradesman, doctor, lawyer, ploughman, monk, friar, nuns, priests, sumnoner, sailor, miller, carpenter, yeoman and the Oxford scholar—the most vivid picture of typical medieval men and women. Manly says that certain of them must represent, in part or whole, actual people known in
at that time. But many of the details of the description are undeniably from literary sources, and most of the portraits are clearly larger than life. London
Dryden's appraisal of Chaucer's achievement in the Canterbury Tales is the best so far. According to him Chaucer has taken into the compass of his Canterbury Tales the various manners and humours of the whole English nation, in his age. Not a single character has escaped him. All his pilgrims are severally distinguished from each other; and not only in their inclination, but in their very physiognomies and persons...Some of his persons are vicious, and some virtuous ; some are unlearn'd or (as Chaucer calls them) lewd, and some are learn'd. Even the ribaldry of the low characters is different : the Reeve, the Miller, and the Cook, are several men, and distinguished from each other as much as the mincing Lady-Prioress and the broad speaking, gap-toothed Wife of Bath. But enough of this. There is such a variety of game springing up before me, that I am distracted in my choice, and know not which to follow. 'Tis sufficient to say, according to the proverb, that here is God's plenty.'
His Contribution to the English Language
The English language before Chaucer was in so crude a state that it could hardly be made the vehicle of poetry. It was derived from four dialects of Old English and was spoken and written very diversely in different parts of
. Geographically, Old English had three forms—Southern, Midland and Eastern. In fact, there were no precise geographical boundaries to define the terms Southern and Northern. In general they signified the England Thames as the boundary between Sourthern and , and Midland Humber, between and Northern. The Middle English dialects different from one another in vocabulary, pronunciation, inflectional forms, and spelling. Written dialect was however sometimes less individualistic than the spoken one. The divergence of forms must have posed for Chaucer some difficulty in reading the works of certain contemporaries. Midland
Since the English language was still in the making, two foreign languages were in common use in Chaucer's
. Latin was the language of the Church and of the learned and was recognised as the universal vehicle of writing. It was employed as a living language in most of the religions and scientific tracts. French was the language of the court and was utilised in all the intricate processes of the government, from the administration of the law-courts to the keeping of the king's household accounts. Changes in the fortune of both these languages were, however, round the corner. Towards the end of the century their hold became precarious. Latin began to lose ground steadily. The Wiclifite translation of the Bible threatened its hitherto unchallenged position as the language of the Church ; and the Renaissance had not yet come to give a new life among secular scholars. French was still spoken at the court ; but in 1387 it was no longer considered an essential part of a gentleman's education. There was on the other hand a significant reform—the replacement of French by English as the medium of teaching in schools. England
That Gower, after writing his first two monumental works in French and Latin, should have thought it safe to entrust the fame of his third, the Confessio Amantis, to the language of his native land is an indication that the Vernacular had become the accepted literary language of
by the last decade of the fourteenth century. Since the dialect that Gower and Chaucer adopted belonged to the east midlands, the district of London and the two universities of England and Oxford , and the district in which the King had his residence, it was called the King's English. Cambridge
To Chaucer goes the credit of transforming a dialect into a language. When he took it up it was a poor, breathless thing. It had no matchability with Latin and French. Chaucer therefore consciously decided to breathe unprecedented vigour into it. Endowing it with all the grace and refinement which he detected in French poetry, he made it altogether a new language. He borrowed French words and enlarged the capacity of the native tongue. Guided by a reformer's sense, he redeemed the language from unnecessary puns, conceits, jingles and antithetic affectations. He also replaced the lawless treatment of rhyming verse by the metrical models of
and made his own experiments with poetic measures. He introduced the seven-line stanza (ababbcc) which is now known as the Chaucerian stanza and practised the ten-syllabled rhymed couplet in hitherto unknown moulds such as the rondeau, the virelay and the ballad. It is said that the mastery which he acquired in the use of the heroic-couplet is matched by none except Dryden. Arthur Compton-Ricket praises Chaucer for imparting to the English language the qualities of a living speech. He says that Chaucer is the first writer to use 'naked words' in English and make this composite language a thing compact and ideal. France
Difficulties of Reading Him
Difficulties of reading Chaucer, as W.J. Long puts it, are more apparent than real, being due largely to absolete spelling, and there is small necessity for using any modern versions of the poet's work, which seem to miss the quiet charm and dry humour of the original. If the reader will observe the following general rules, which of necessity ignore many differences in pronunciation of fourteenth-century English, he may, in an hour or two, learn to read Chaucer almost as easily as Shakespeare : (1) Get the tilt of the lines and let the meter itself decide how final syllables are to be pronounced. Remember that Chaucer is among the most social of poets, and that there is melody in nearly every line. If the verse seems rough, it is because we do not read it correctly. (2) Vowels in Chaucer have much the same value as in modern German ; consonants are practically the same as in modern English. (3) Pronounce aloud any strange-looking words. Where the eye fails, the ear will often recognise the meaning. If eye and ear both fail, then consult the glossary found in every good edition of the poet's works. (4) Final e is usually sounded (like a in
) except where the following word begins with a vowel or with h. In the latter case the final syllable of one word and the first of the word following are run together, as in reading Virgil. At the end of a line the e, if lightly pronounced, adds melody to the verse. Virginia
Some of the words used by Chaucer are now obsolete or used in the French sense or had contemporary concepts outlived by the modern age. This difficulty can be overcome by coming across such, words again and again and knowing their exact Chaucerian shades. Their modern equivalents from a glossary or notes won't solve the problem to one's satifaction.
His Metre and Versification
Skeat regards Chaucer as the first great English metrist who enriched the literature of his country with several forms of metre which had not been previously employed. These he borrowed chiefly from Guillaume de Machault who made use of stanzas of seven, eight, and nine lines, and even wrote at least one 'Compleint' in the 'heroic' couplet. The metre of four accents, in rimed couplets had been in use in English long before Chaucer's time; and he adopted it in translating Le Roman de la Rose (the original being in the same metre), and in the Book of the Duchesse, and in the House of Fame. The ballad-metre, as employed in the Tale of Sir Thopas, is also older than his day. Most probably this tale is a burlesque imitation of some of the old Romances. Likewise, there is nothing new in the four-line stanza used in the Proverbs. According to Skeat Chaucer was the first poet to use the following metres in English : (a) The eight-line stanza with the ryme order ababbcbe. (b) The same eight-line stanza with a refrain, (c) The seven-line stanza with the rhymes ababbcc. (d) The same seven-line stanza with a refrain, (e) Terza Rima. (f) The ten-line stanza, aabaabbab. (g) The nine-line stanza, aabaabbab. (h) The same nine-line stanza with internal rhymes, (i) Two stanzas of sixteen lines each with rhymes aaabaaabbbbabbba. (j) The nine-line stanza aabaabbcc. (k) The roundel. (l) The heroic couplet, (m) The six-line stanza with the rhymes ababcb. (n) The ten-line stanza aabaabbaab. (o) The six-line stanza ababaa. (p) The five-line stanza with rhymes aabba.
Most of Chaucer's lines if read naturally and with a proper regard to grammatical endings, have an obvious rhythm. But there are many cases, apart from doubtful textual reading, where there is uncertainy as to elision or apocopation, or even reasonable choice between two ways of rendering a line.
In The Canterbury Tales the basic line of Chaucer's verse is the same as that of Shakespeare's blank verse or Pope's heroic couplets ; the imabic pentameter or line consisting of five feet, each foot made up of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. Thus:
A Knight, he was, and that a worthy man.
But, as in Shakespeare or Pope, great variation is possible within this basic pattern. Feet may be reversed, extra syllables may be added, and the result will be very different from the stiff regularity of the basic line. Again, Chaucer sometimes introduces a variation unknown to Pope and uncommon in Shakespeare, by omitting the first unstressed, syllable of a line. Thus : 'Lo, how deere, shortly for to sayn'. Headless lines of this type, however, are the only ones likely to give any difficulty to someone accustomed to reading English verse. In reading Chaucer aloud, it is probably better not to attempt a mechanical division into feet and stressed and unstressed syllables, but simply to follow the natural rhythm of each phrase as it might be spoken, while at the same time keeping in mind the basic unstressed/stressed pattern. Like other English poets, Chaucer produces some of his most effective verse by playing off the actual rhythms of speech against the 'ideal' pattern of metrical regularity : the exception of regularity is built up so that it may be defeated as well as fulfilled. In conclusion, one may say that in versification Chaucer, like all great poets, is a law unto himself.
William Langland, or Langley (1332-1400) is one of the early writers about whose life no authentic account is available. A hypothetical biography, according to Kemp Malone, would run somewhat as follows: Born about 1332 at Ledbury in
Shropshire, the son (possibley illegitimate) of Eustace de la Rokayle, was sent to school, perhaps at the priory of Great Malvern, by his father and his friends, and took minor orders. At the age of about thirty he began the first version of his great poem Piers Plowman or The Vision of William concerning Piers the Plowman. In the course of the work he moved to where he lived in Corhnill with his wife Kittee and his daughter Calote, a kind of Clerical vagabond earning his bread by means of the Paternoster, Placebo, Dirige, the Psalter, and the Seven Penitential Psalms, which he sang for the souls of those who contributed to his support. Nothing was heard about Langland after 1399 and the date of his death is uncertain. London
In Piers Plowman Langland points out in imperfect symbols way of slavation for society and for the individual. He assails the religious and secular corruptions of his age. While he is sympathetic to the sufferings of the honest throughout the poem, he is no leveller. His remedy for social ills lies in each man doing his duty in his own sphere. In religion he emphasises simple faith and obedience to the words of Christ rather than upon ecclesiastical forms, penance, and indulgence. Technically, too, the poem is commendable, though Langland is more a reformer than an artist. The depth of his feeling and the keenness of his vision lift his words above mere preaching. With him, it is said, begins the use of imaginative literature for social reformation. Piers Plowman may not be a great work of art, it is definitely a social document of immense value in medieval English literature. The following lines in modern English taken from Passus V illustrate the predominant tone of the poem :
There was laughing and cheating and "Let go the cup!"
Bargains and beverages began to arise,
And so they sat so till even song, and sang some while,
Till Glutton had gulped down a gallon and a gill.
Bargains and beverages began to arise,
And so they sat so till even song, and sang some while,
Till Glutton had gulped down a gallon and a gill.
In fiery and direct denunciation of the vices of the times, Landland makes an interesting comparison with Chaucer. Both portray their society very realistically.
John Gower. (1325-1408) was an aristocratic, conservative landed gentleman, with rich manors in
and elsewhere. He was known court, where his poetry met with much appreciation. He was extremely pious. In his old age he resided in lodgings inside the priory of St. Mary Overy (now St. Saviour's) in Southwark, not far from the Tabard Inn which Chaucer had made famous. Here he spend his last days in devoted observances; and here his sculptured figure can still be seen on his tomb, his head crowned with roses, pillowed upon his three chief volumes. Each of these was written in a different tongue : the Speculum Meditantis in French the Vox Clamantis in Latin and the Confessio Amantis in English. This diversity in the choice of language shows clearly the opinion of the age—that the English tongue was not, as yet, obviously the one instrument of liteary expression (Moody and Lovett). Kent
Gower was in the opinion of several generations, the greatest of Chaucer's contemporaries. He was some ten or twelve years Chaucer's senior. But to bracket Gower and Chaucer together, as was done by many early and some later critics, is absurd. Chaucer was a genius, Gower was a man of no great talent. His work, however, helped to establish the standard literary language. He could tell a plain story plainly, and was a competent, if uninspired, craftsman. His work is learned and careful. He has however nothing of Chaucer's vivacity and charm. He gives gloomy view of life and society. In fact, he is a typical average poet of his century.
John Barbour (1316-95), who may be called the father of Scottish poetry was a far more worthy contemporary and rival of Chaucer than his friend and fellow Englishman Gower. Of his personal history but little is known. He was a churchman, and had attained to the dignity of Archdeacon of Aberdeen by the year 1357 ; so that his birth cannot well be supposed to have been later than 1320. He is styled Archdeacon of Aberdeen in passport granted to him in that year by Edward III at the request of David de Bruce (that is, King David II of Scotland) to come into England with three scholars in his company, for the purpose, as it was expressed, of studying in the University of Oxford to which he came again in 1365 and 1368. In 1357 he was appointed by the Bishop of Aberdeen one of his two Commissioners deputed to attend a meeting at
about the ransom of the king. Nothing more is heard of him till 1373, in which year he appears as one of the auditors of Exchequer, being styled Archdeacon of Aberdeen, and clerk of probation of the royal household. In his later days he appears to have been in the receipt of two royal pensions, both probably bestowed upon him by Robert II who succeeded David II in 1370. Edinburg
Barbour's great work is Bruce (1375), a lengthy poem of twenty books and thirteen thousand lines. It is history of
's struggle for freedom from the year 1286 till the death of Bruce and the burial of his heart (1332). The heroic theme is the rise of Bruce. The central incident of the poem is the battle of Scotland . The poem, often rudely but pithily expressed, contains much absurd legend and a good deal of inaccuracy, but it is no mean beginning to the long series of Scottish heroic poems. The Scotch in which the poem is written was undoubtedly the language then commonly in use among the poet's countrymen; for whom he wrote and with whom his poem has been a popular favourite eversince its appearance. Divested of the grotesque and cumbrous spelling of the old manuscripts, Barbour's language is quite as intelligible at the present day to an English reader as that of Chaucer; the obsolete words and forms are not more numerous in one writer than in the other, though some that are used by Barbour may not be found in Chaucer, as many of Chaucer's are not in Barbour, the chief general distinction being the greater breadth given to vowel sounds in the dialect of the Scottish poet. Bannockburn
Barbour is far from being a poet equal to Chaucer; but there is no other English poet down to a century and a half after their day who can be placed by the side of the one any more than of the other.
John Wycliff (1328-84) was the most famous writer of English prose in the fourteenth century. It is now certain that he was born about 1328 at Wycliffe in the North Riding of Yorkshire. He proceeded to
about 1345 where he gradually distinguished himself and became Master of Balloil College by 1360. During the aforementioned years he received the usual strict training in scholasticism with grammar and logic as its basis and emphasis on Aristotle. Later he spent his time in the study of theology, lectured on the Bible and the sentences of Peter Lombard, a standard textbook of the day. In 1361, he was appointed rector of Fillingham, but resigned his charge in 1368 to accept one nearer Oxford , at Ludgershall. He his degree of Doctor of Theology until 1372. About this time he appears in the service of the king which marks the second stage of his career. His opposition to the papal claim on the Crown recommended him to the government. In 1374, he was made the rector of Lutter-worth, in Leicestershire, where he stayed untill his death. In the same year, he was sent to Oxford as a member of a commission to negotiate with representatives of the pope. The years that followed were engaged in serious writing. Bruges
Primarily a theologian and religious reformer, Wyciffe helped, though unintentionally, to foment the peasant rebellion. He attacked the temporal power of the church, advocating, partly in the interests of the overburdened poor, the appropriation by the state of all church property, especially of land. While waging a war of theory on this and other ecclesiastical questions, he planned and carried out a great practical movement known as the Lollard Movement, for arousing the common people to a more vital religious life. He sent out simple, devoted men to preach the gospel in the native tongue, and to bring home to their hearers the living truths of religion which the formalism of the medieval church had obscured. These 'poor priests', dressed in coarse russet robes and carrying staves, travelled through the length and breadth of the land, as Wesley's preachers travelled four centuries later, calling men back to the simple faith of early apostolic times. Wycliffe and his Lollard priests began the great Protestnat appeal from the dogmas of the church to the Bible which culminated, in the sixteenth century, in Luther and the Reformation.
Wycliff's connection with English literature is, in a sense, accidental, but is nevertheless very important. He left two volumes of sermons and some treatises representing translations and abridgments of his Latin works. The most famous are De papa, the Church and Her Members, of Servants and Lords and Wedded Men and Wives. But his great work, which earned him the title of "father of English Prose", is the translation of the Bible. It is said that Wycliff himself translated the gospels, and much more of the New Testament ; the rest was finished by his followers, especially by Nicholas of Hereford. These translations were made from the Latin Vulgate, not from the original Hebrew, and the whole work was revised in original Greek and Hebrew, and the whole work was revised in 1388 by John Purvey, a disciple of Wycliff.
Though Wycliff's translation abounded in Latin constructions, it nevertheless furnished the foundations of that 'Biblical dialect' which is still an important element of English style, and from which was to rise the famous Authorised Version of 1611. On the whole Wycliff's English is vigorous and painted, and has a homely simplicity that makes its appeal both wide and powerful.
John Mandeville is a controversial figure. His authenticity both as a man and a writer has been challenged by many a literary historian. He himself professes to have been born at
S. Albans, to have left in 1322, and after spending years on his vast journey, to have arrived at England , where he was persuaded to write down his experience in a book entitled The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, one of the best-known books of the Middle Ages. Mandeville pretends to have seen many incredible things such as the gigantic race with one eye in the middle of the foreheads, people with no heads but with eyes in their shoulders, other with great ears, hanging to their knees, snails so great that many persons may lodge in their shells, and scores of other marvels. Setting out to write merely a great guide-book for those who might be making pilgrimage to Liege , the author gives the usual account of routes, and towns, and places of interest at the more important points. But when this part of his plan is finished, he continues with his travels in Jerusalem , Egypt , Asia Minor, Persia , India Cathay or and many other places. China
In the last fifty years the sources of Mandeville's Travels have been minutely traced, and it is now known that the whole work is compilation which could have been written without the author's venturing a foot from home. The book is, however, written in excellent style in the
Midland dialect which was then fast becoming the literary language of . Though a translation, it is the first remarkable prose work in modern English having a distinctly literary style and flavour. England