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GEOFFREY CHAUCER. 1328—1400.
- That renowned Poet
We now come to one of the brightest names in English literature to him who has been distinctively known as “The Father of English poetry”_ Geoffrey Chaucer. Warton, with great beauty and justice, has compared the appearance of Chaucer in our language to “a premature day in an English spring, after which the gloom of winter returns, and the buds and blossoms which have been called forth by a transient sunshine, are nipped by frosts and scattered by storms."
Chaucer was born probably about the year 1328, though all attempts to fix the precise year have utterly failed. His parentage is unknown, nor is there any certainty where he was educated. His great genius early attracted the notice of the reigning sovereign, Edward III., and he soon became the most popular personage in the brilliant court of that monarch. It was in this circle of royalty that he became attached to a lady whom he afterwards married, Philippa Pyknard. She was maid of honor to the queen Philippa, and a younger sister of the wife of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. By this connection, therefore, Chaucer acquired the powerful support of the Lancastrian family, and during his life his fortune fluctuated with theirs. To his courtly accomplishments he added much by foreign travel, having been commissioned by the king in 1372 to attend to some important matters of state at Genoa. While in Italy he became acquainted with Petrarch, and probably with Boccacio, whose works enriched his mind with fresh stores of learning
Freedom all solace to man gives;
More than all wealth beneath the skies. 1 The three distinguished scholars of Italy of the fourteenth century were, DANTE, (1265-1321,) the father of modern Italian poetry; PETRARCH, (1304—1374,) the reviver of ancient learning, and the first founder and collector of any considerable library of ancient literature: and BOCCACIO, (1313 -1878,) the father of modern Italian prose.
and images of beauty, and whose great success was doubtless a spur to his ambition to attain a like enviable fame.
On his return home, the friendship and patronage of the reigning monarch were continued to him. He was made controller of the customs of wine and wool, the revenue from which office, together with a pension that was granted to him, gave him a liberal support. During the whole of the reign of Edward III., his genius and connections ensured to him prosperity, and also during the period of John of Gaunt's influence in the succeeding reign of Richard II., 1377—1399. But during the waning fortunes of that nobleman, Chaucer also suffered, and was indeed imprisoned for a short time; but on the return of the Duke of Lancaster from Spain, 1389, he had once more a steady protector, and on the accession of Henry IV., he had an additional annuity conferred upon him. But he did not live long to enjoy this accession to his fortune, for he died on the twenty-fifth of October, 1400, and was interred in Westminster Abbey.
We know little of Chaucer as a member of society ; but we know that he had mingled with the world's affairs, both at home and abroad. Accomplished in manners and intimately acquainted with a splendid court, he was at once the philosopher who had surveyed mankind in their widest sphere, the poet who haunted the solitudes of nature, and the elegant courtier whose opulent tastes are often discovered in the graceful pomp of his descriptions. The vigorous yet finished paintings, with which his works abound, are still, notwithstanding the roughness of their clothing, beauties of a highly poetical nature. The ear may not always be satisfied, but the mind of the reader is always filled.1
Chaucer's genius, like Cowper's, was not fully developed till he was advanced in years; for it was not until he was about sixty, in the calm evening of a busy life, that he composed his great work on which his fame chiefly rests, his CANTERBURY TALES. He took the idea, doubtless, from the Decameron of Boccacio,2 at that time one of the most popular of books. He supposes that a company of pilgrims, consisting of twenty-nine “sundry folk," meet together at the Tabard inn, Southwark,3 on their way to the shrine of Thomas á Becket,4 at Canterbury. While at supper they agreed, at the suggestion of their host, not only to pursue their journey together the next morning, but, in order to render their way the more interesting, that each should divert the others with a tale, both in going and returning, and that whoever told the best, should have a supper at the expense of the rest; and that the landlord should be the judge.
It will thus be seen that the plan of Chaucer is vastly superior to that of Boccacio. His characters, instead of being youthful and from the same city, are of matured experience, from various places, and are drawn from different classes of mankind, and consequently are, in their rank, appearance, manners, and habits, as various as at that time could be found in the several departments of middle life; that is, in fact, as various as could, with any probability, be brought together, so as to form one company; the highest and lowest ranks of society being necessarily excluded. But what gives us the greatest admiration of the poet, is the astonishing skill with which he has supported his characters, and the exquisite address that he has shown in adapting his stories to the different humors, sentiments, and talents of the reciters. He has thus given us such an accurate picture of ancient manners as no contemporary writer has transmitted to posterity, and in the Canterbury Tales we view the pursuits and employments, the customs and diversions of the reign of Edward III., copied from the life, and represented with equal truth and spirit. It has been justly remarked, that it was no inferior combination of observation and sympathy which could bring together into one company the many-colored conditions and professions of society, delineated with pictorial force, and dramatized by poetic conception, reflecting them. selves in the tale which seemed most congruous to their humors. The following are some select characters, as portrayed in the Prologue.
1 Read Hippisley's Early English Literature : also, Todd's Tlustrations of Gower and Chaucer. "I take unceasing delight in Chaucer. His manly cheerfulness is especially delicious in my old age. How exquisitely tender he is."- Coleridge's Table Talk. Read, also, Chaucer Modernized, 1 vol. 12mo, with a well-written introduction on English poetry by R. H. Horne, and versifications by Wordsworth, Leigh Hunt, and others.
2 Boccacio supposes that when the plague began to abate in Florence, (1348,) ten young persons of both sexes retired to the country to enjoy the fresh air, and pass TEN DAYS agreeably. (Hence the name DECAMERON, from the Greek dera (deka) “ten," and pepa (hemera) “a day." Their principal amusement was in telling tales in turn; and as each of the ten told a story a day, and as they continued together ten days, the Decameron consists of one hundred tales.
8 Opposite the city of London, on the Thames.
4 For the murder of this famous archbishop in the reign of Henry II., A.D. 1171, see History of Enviund. Canterbury is 53 miles south-east from London.
1 Read D'Israeli's Amenities of Literature, 3 vols. 8vo.
2 In a subsequent age, the great work of Chaucer exerted a powerful influence in helping on the great cause of the Reformation. So much was Cardinal Wolsey offended at the severity with which the papal clergy were treated in the Pilgrim's Tale, that he laid an interdict upon its ever being printed with the rest of the work, and it was with difficulty that the Ploughman's Tale was permitted to stand. John Fox, (1517—1587,) the historian of the martyrs, thus writes : “But much more I mervaile to consider this, how that the bishops condemning and abolishing all maner of English bookes and treatises, which might bring the people to any light of knowledge, did yet authorize the Workes of Chaucer to remaine. So it pleased God to blind then the eies of them, for the more commodoty of his people." 3 Sote-sweet. 4 Rote-root.
5 Holt-grove, forest. 6 To make this line consistent with the first, it should read Bull instead of Ram, for he says that the time of this pilgrimage was when the showers of April had pierced into the root the drought of March, so that April, which corresponds to the constellation of the Bull, must have been far advanced Read, Tyrwhitt's Introduction to Canterbury Tales. 7 Courages-hearts, spirits.
9 Couth-known. 10 Wend-go, make way.
The holy blissful martyr for to seek
Befell that in that season on a day,
THE KNIGHT AND SQUIRE.
With him there was his son, a younge Squire,
Embroider'd was he, as it were a inead
1 That is, the inn called “The Tabard." The Tabard was a "jacket, or sleeveless coat, worn in times past by noblemen in the wars, but now only by heralds, and is called their coat of arms in service."-Speght. 2 Wenden-go, make way. 3 Wide-spacious. 4 Eased atté best- commodiously lodged. 6 Farre-farther. 6 Wonderly deliver-wonderfully active: from the French libre, free. 7 Chevachie, (French, chevauchee,) a military expedition. 8 Conducted himself well, considering the short time that he had served. Floyting-fluting, playing on thu flute, whistling. The squire would not, in all probability, have a flute always with him. I should therefore prefer the reading that he "whistled all the day :” as being a more natural touch of character, as well as in keeping with the hilarity of youth. 10 Nightertale-night-time, I In the interesting character of the "clerk" or scholar, whose poverty, delight in study, and inattention to worldly affairs are eminently conspicuous, Warton thinks that Chaucer glanced at the inattention paid to literature, and the unprofitableness of philosophy.
THE CLERK. A Clerk2 there was of Oxenford also, That unto logic haddé long ygo.3 As leané was his horse as is a rake, And he was not right fat I undertake, But lookéd hollow, and thereto soberly. Full threadbare was his overest courtepy; For he had gotten him yet no benefice, Nor was nought worldly to have an office For him was levers have at his bed's head Twenty bookes clothéd in black or red Of Aristotle and his philosophy, Than robés rich, or fiddle or psaltry: But all be that he was a philosopher Yet hadde he but little gold in coffer, But all that he might of his friendés hente On bookés and on learning he it spent, And busily 'gan for the soulés pray Of them that gave him wherewith to scholay.7 Of study took he mosté cure and heed; Not a word spake he more than was need, And that was said in form and reverence, And short and quick, and full of high sentence :8 Sounding in moral virtue was his speech, And gladly would he learn and gladly teach.
THE WIFE. A good Wife was there of besidé Bath, But she was some deal deaf, and that was scathe. Of cloth-making she haddé such a haunt 10 She passéd them of Ypres and of Ghent. In all the parish, wife ne was there none That to the off’ring before her shouldé gone, And if there did, certain so wroth was she, That she was out of allé charity. Her coverchiefsll weren full fine of ground; I dursté swear they weigheden a pound, That on the Sunday were upon her head : Her hosed weren of fine scarlet red, Full strait ytied, and shoes full moist12 and new Bold was her face, and fair and red of hew. She was a worthy woman all her live; Husbands at the church door had she had five.13
? That is, a scholar. 3 Ygo-part. pzst, gone. 4 Overest courtepy-Oppermost short cloak. 6 Lever- rather. Hent-catch hold of. 7 Scholay-study. 8 High sentence-I. e. lofty period, 9 Scathe-harm, damage. 10 Haunt-custom. 11 Head-dress. 12 Moist--fresh.
18 This alludes to the old custom of the parties joining hands at the door of the church before they went up to the altar to consummate the union; and this jolly dame and good housewife is represented as having gone through that interesting ceremony five times.