He was a man full of the blood and beer of Merrie England, capable of taking in his stride the natural difficulties of life, drawing their sting with a forgiving humor, and picturing all phases of the English scene with a brush as broad as Homer’s, a spirit as lusty as Rabelais’.
His name, like so much of his language, was of French origin; it meant shoemaker, and probably was pronounced shosayr; posterity plays tricks with our very names, and remembers us only to remake us to its whim. He was the son of John Chaucer, a London vintner. He won a good education from both books and life; his poetry abounds in knowledge of men and women, literature and history. In 1357 “Geoffret Chaucer” was officially listed in the service of the household of the future Duke of Clarence. Two years later he was off to the wars in France; he was captured, but was freed for a ransom, to which Edward III contributed. In 1367 we find him a “yeoman of the King’s Chamber,” with a life pension of twenty marks ($1,333?) a year. Edward traveled much with his household at his heels; presumably Chaucer accompanied him, savoring England as he went. In 1366 he married Philippa, a lady serving the Queen, and lived with her in moderate discord till her death.70 Richard II continued the pension, and John of Gaunt added ten pounds ($1,000?) annually. There were other aristocratic gifts, which may explain why Chaucer, who saw so much of life, took little notice of the Great Revolt.
It was a pleasant custom of those days, which admired poetry and eloquence, to send men of letters on diplomatic missions abroad. So Chaucer was deputed with two others to negotiate a trade agreement at Genoa (1372); and in 1378 he went with Sir Edward Berkeley to Milan. Who knows but he may have met ailing Boccaccio, aging Petrarch? In any case, Italy was a transforming revelation to him. He saw there a culture far more polished, lettered, and subtle than England’s; he learned a new reverence for the classics, at least the Latin; the French influence that had molded his early poems yielded now to Italian ideas, verse forms, and themes. When finally he turned to his own land for his scenes and characters, he was an accomplished artist and a mature mind.
No man could then live in England by writing poetry. We might have supposed that Chaucer’s pensions would keep him adequately housed, fed, and clad; after 1378 they totaled some $10,000 in the money of our time; besides, his wife enjoyed her own pensions from John of Gaunt and the King. In any case, Chaucer felt a need to supplement his income by taking various governmental posts. For twelve years (1374–86) he served as “controller of the customs and subsidies,” and during that time he occupied lodgings over the Aldgate tower. In 1380 he paid an unstated sum to Cecilia Chaumpaigne for withdrawing her suit against him for rape.71 Five years later he was appointed justice of the peace for Kent; and in 1386 he had himself elected to Parliament. It was in the intervals of these labors that he wrote his poetry.
He describes himself, in The House of Fame, as hurrying home after he had “made his reckonings,” and losing himself in his books, sitting “dumb as a stone,” and living like a hermit in all but poverty, chastity, and obedience, and setting his “wit to make books, songs, and ditties in rime.” In his youth, he tells us, he had written “many a song and lecherous lay.”72 He translated Boethius’ De consolatione philosophiae (The Consolation of Philosophy) into good prose, and part of Guillaume de Lorris’ Romaunt de la roseinto excellent verse. He began a number of what may be called major minor poems: The House of Fame, The Book of the Duchess, The Parliament of Fowls, and The Legend of Good Women; he anticipated us in being unable to finish them. They were ambitious yet timid tentatives, frank imitations, in theme and form, of Continental origins.
In his finest single poem, Troilus and Criseyde, he continued to imitate, even to translate; but to 2,730 lines that he lifted from Boccaccio’s Filostrato he added 5,696 lines of other provenance or coined in his own mint. He made no attempt to deceive; he repeatedly referred to his source, and apologized for not translating it all. Such transfers from one literature to another were considered legitimate and useful, for even well-educated men could not then understand any vernacular but their own. Plots, as Greek and Elizabethan dramatists felt, were common property; art lay in the form.
Despite all discounts, Chaucer’s Troilus is the first great narrative poem in English. Scott called it “long and somewhat dull,” which it is; Rossetti called it “perhaps the most beautiful narrative poem of considerable length in the English language”;73 and this too is true. All long poems, however beautiful, become dull; passion is of poetry’s essence, and a passion that runs to 8,386 lines becomes prose almost as rapidly as desire consummated. Never were so many lines required to bring a lady to bed, and seldom has love hesitated, meditated, procrastinated, and capitulated with such magnificent and irrelevant rhetoric, and melodious conceits, and facile felicity of rhyme. Only Richardson’s Mississippi of prose could rival this Nile of verse in the leisurely psychology of love. Yet even the heavy-winged oratory, the infinite wordiness, the obstructive erudition obstinately displayed, fail to destroy the poem. It is, after all, a philosophic tale—of how woman is designed for love, and will soon love B if A stays too long away. It has one character livingly portrayed: Pandarus, who in the Iliad is the leader of the Lycian army in Troy, but here becomes the exuberant, resourceful, undiscourageable go-between to guide the lovers to their sin; and thereby hangs a word. Troilus is a warrior absorbed in repelling the Greeks, and scornful of men who, dallying on soft bosoms, become the thralls of appetite. He falls deliriously in love with Criseyde at first sight, and thereafter thinks of nothing else but her beauty, modesty, gentleness, and grace. Criseyde, after waiting anxiously through 6,000 lines for this timid soldier to announce his love, falls with relief into his arms, and Troilus forgets two worlds at once:
All other dredes weren from him fledde,
Both of the siege and his salvacioun.74
Having exhausted himself in achieving this ecstasy, Chaucer hurries over the bliss of the lovers to the tragedy that rescues it from boredom. Criseyde’s father having deserted to the Greeks, she is sent to them by the angry Trojans in exchange for the captured Antenor. The brokenhearted lovers part with vows of everlasting fidelity. Arrived among the Greeks, Criseyde is awarded to Diomedes, whose handsome virility so captivates his captive that—qual plum’ in vento—she surrenders in a page what before had been hoarded through a book. Perceiving which, Troilus plunges into battle seeking Diomedes, and finds death on Achilles’ spear. Chaucer ended his amorous epic with a pious prayer to the Trinity, and sent it, conscience-stricken, to “moral Gower, to correct of your benignitee.”
Probably in 1387 he began The Canterbury Tales. It was a brilliant scheme—to join a varied group of Britons at the Tabard Inn in Southwark (where Chaucer himself had emptied many a tankard of ale), ride with them on their vacation pilgrimage to the shrine of Becket at Canterbury, and put into their mouths the tales and thoughts that had gathered in the traveled poet’s head through half a century. Such devices for stitching stories together had been used many times before, but this was the best of all. Boccaccio had assembled for his Decameron only one class of men and women; he had not made them stand out as diverse personalities; Chaucer created an innful of characters so heterogeneously real that they seem truer to English life than the stuffed figures of history. They live and very literally move, they love and hate, laugh and cry; and as they jog along the road we hear not merely the tales they tell but their own troubles, quarrels, and philosophies.
Who will protest at quoting once more those spring-fresh opening lines?
Whan that Aprille with his shoures sote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the rote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour,
Whan Zephyrus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne,
And smale fowles maken melodye,
That slepen al the night with open yë;...
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages ...
To feme halwes, couthe in sondry londes ...
In Southwerk at the Tabard as I lay
Redy to wenden on my pilgrimage
To Canterbury with ful devout corage,
At night was come in-to that hostelrye
Wel nyne and twenty in a companye,
Of sondry folk, by aventure y-falle
In felawshipe, and pilgrims were they alle,
That toward Canterbury wolden ryde.*
Then, one after another, Chaucer introduces them in the quaint sketches of his incomparable Prologue:
A Knyght ther was, and that a worthy man,
That fro the tyme that he first bigan
To ryden out, he loved chivalrye,
Trouthe and honour, fredom and curteisye ....
At mortal batailles hadde he been fiftene,
And foughten for our feith at Tramissene ....
And though that he were worthy, he was wys,
And of his port as meke as is a mayde.
He never yet no vileinye ne sayde
In al his lyf, unto no maner wight;
He was a verray parfit gentil knyght.
And the Knight’s son:
... a yong Squyer,
A lovyere, and a lusty bacheler ....
So hote he lovede, that by nightertale [count of nights]
He sleep namore than dooth a nightingale.
And a Yeoman to serve the Knight and the Squire; and a most charming Prioress:
Ther was also a Nonne, a Pioresse,
That of hir smyling was ful simple and coy;
Hir gretteste ooth was by sëynt Loy [St. Louis];
And she was cleped madame Eglentyne.
Ful wel she song the service divyne,
Entuned in hir nose ful semely . ..
She was so charitable and pitous
She wolde wepe, if that she sawe a mous
Caught in a trappe, if it were deed or bledde.
Of smale houndes had she, that she fedde
With rosted flesh or milk and wastel-breed;
But sore weep she if oon of hem were deed ....
Of smal coral aboute her arm she bar
A peire of bedes, gauded al with grene;
And ther-on heng a broche of gold ful shene,
On which ther was first write a crowned A,
And after, Amor vincit omnia [Love conquers all].
Add another nun, three priests, a jolly monk “that lovede venerye” (i.e., hunting), and a friar unmatched in squeezing contributions out of pious purses.
For thogh a widow hadde noght a sho [shoe],
So plesaunt was his In principio,
Yet wolde he have a ferthing, er he wente.
Chaucer likes better the young student of philosophy:
A Clerk ther was of Oxenford also,
That un-to logik hadde longe y-go.
As lene was his hors as is a rake,
And he nas nat right fat, I undertake;
But loked holwe, and ther-to soberly.
Ful thredbar was his overest courtepy.
For he had geten him yet no benefyce,
Ne was so worldly for to have offyce.
For him was lever have at his beddes heed
Twenty bokes, clad in black or reed,
Of Aristotle and his philosophye,
Than robes riche, or filthele, or gay sautrye ...
Of studie took he most cure and most heed.
Noght o word spak he more than was nede ...
Souninge in moral vertu was his speche,
And gladly wolde he lerne, and gladly teche.*
There was also a “Wife of Bath,” of whom more anon, and a poor Parson, “riche of holy thoght and werke,” and a Plowman, and a Miller, who “hade on the cop [top] of his nose a werte, and ther-on stood a tuft of heres reed as the bristles of a sowes eres”; and a “Maunciple” or buyer for an inn or a college; a “Reeve” or overseer for a manor; and a “Somnour” or server of summonses:
He was a gentil harlot [rogue] and a kinde;
A bettre felawe sholde men noght finde.
He wolde suffre, for a quart of wyn,
A good felawe to have his concubyn
A twelf-month, and excuse him atte fulle.
.. rood a gentil Pardoner ...
His wallet lay biforn him in his lappe,
Bret [brim] ful of pardouns come from Rome al hoot [hot].
And there was a Merchant, and a Man of Laws, a “Frankeleyn” or freeholder, a Carpenter, a Weaver, a Dyer, a “Tapier” or upholsterer, a Cook, and a Shipman. And there was Geoifrey Chaucer himself, standing shyly aside, “large” (fat) and difficult to embrace, and “looking forever upon the ground as if to find a hare.” And not least was mine host, owner of the Tabard Inn, who vows he has never entertained so merry a company; indeed, he offers to go with them and be their guide; and he suggests—to pass the fifty-six miles away—that each of the pilgrims shall tell two tales going and two on the return, and that he who tells the best “shal have a super at our aller cost” (a supper at the general expense) when they reach the inn again. It is agreed; the moving scene of thiscomédie humaine is set; the pilgrimage begins; and the courtly Knight tells the first story—of how two dear friends, Palamon and Arcite, see a lass gathering flowers in a garden, fall equally in love with her, and contend in a fatal joust for her as the complaisant prize.
Who would believe that so romantic a pen could turn in a line from this chivalric fustian to the scatophilic obscenity of the Miller’s Tale? But the Miller has been drinking, and foresees that his mind and tongue will slip to their wonted plane; Chaucer apologizes for him and himself—he must report matters honestly—and he invites the chaste reader to skip to some story “that toucheth gentillesse .... moralitee, and holinesse.” The Prioress’s Tale begins on a sweetly religious note, then recounts the bitter legend of a Christian boy supposedly slain by a Jew, and how the provost of the town dutifully arrested its Jews and tortured a number of them to death. From such piety Chaucer passes, in the prologue to the Pardoner’s Tale, to a sharp satire on relic-mongering peddlers of indulgences; this theme will be centuries old when Luther trumpets it to the world. Then, in the prologue to the Wife of Bath’s Tale, our poet reaches the nadir of his morals and the zenith of his power. It is a riotous protest against virginity and celibacy, put into the bawdy mouth of an expert on matrimony, a woman who has had five husbands since she was twelve years of age, has buried four of them, and looks forward to a sixth to assuage her youth:
God bad us for to waxe and multiplye ...
But of no nombre mencioun made he,
Of bigamy or of octogamye;
Why sholde men speke of it vilainye?
Lo, here the wyze king, dan [lord] Salomon,
I tro we he hadde wyves mo than oon;
As, wolde God, it leveful were to me
To be refresshed half so ofte as he! ....
Alas, alas, that ever love was synne!
We shall not quote her physiological confessions, nor their masculine counterpart in the Somnour’s Tale, wherein Chaucer stoops to study the anatomy of flatulence. The air is cleared when we come to the fable of the ever obedient Griselda in the Oxford Cleric’s Tale; neither Boccaccio nor Petrarch had told so well this legend dreamed by some harassed male.
Of the fifty-eight stories promised in the Prologue Chaucer gives us only twenty-three; perhaps he felt, with the reader, that 500 pages were enough, and that the well of his inventiveness had run dry. Even in this bubbling stream there are muddy passages, which the judicious eye will overleap. Nevertheless, the slow, deep current carries us buoyantly along and gives forth an air of freshness as if the poet had lived along green banks rather than over a London gate--though there, too, the Thames was not far to seek. Some of the paeans to outdoor beauty are stereotyped literary exercises, yet the moving picture comes alive with such naturalness and directness of feeling and speech, such revealing firsthand observation of men and manners, as rarely may be found between the covers of one book; and such a cornucopia of images, similes, and metaphors as only Shakespeare would again provide. (The Pardoner “mounts the pulpit, nods east and west upon the congregation like a dove on a barn gable.”) The East Midland dialect that Chaucer used became through him the literary language of England: a vocabulary already rich enough to express all graces and subtleties of thought. Now for the first time the speech of the English people became the vehicle of great literary art.
The material, as in Shakespeare, is mostly secondhand. Chaucer took his stories anywhere: the Knight’s Tale from Boccaccio’s Teseide, Griselda from the Decameron, and a dozen from the French fabliaux. The last source may explain some of Chaucer’s obscenity; however, the most fetid of his tales has no known source but himself. Doubtless he held, with the Elizabethan dramatists, that the groundlings must be given a bawdy sop now and then to keep them awake; he made his men and women talk as matched their rank and way of life; besides, he repeats, they had drunk much cheap ale. For the most part his humor is healthy—the hearty, lusty, full-bodied humor of well-fed Englishmen before the Puritan desiccation, marvelously mixed with the sly subtlety of modern British wit.
Chaucer knew the faults, sins, crimes, follies, and vanities of mankind, but he loved life despite them, and could put up with anybody who did not sell buncombe too dearly. He seldom denounces; he merely describes. He satirizes the women of the lower middle classes in the Wife of Bath, but he relishes her biological exuberance. He is ungallantly severe on women; his mordant quips and slurs reveal the wounded husband revenging with his pen the nightly defeats of his tongue. Yet he speaks tenderly of love, reckons no other boon so rich,75 and fills a gallery with portraits of good women. He rejects the gentility that rested on birth, and calls only him “gentil that doth gentil deeds.” But he distrusts the fickleness of the commons, and counts any man a fool who hitches his fortunes to popularity or mingles with a mob.
He was largely free from the superstitions of his time. He exposed the impostures of alchemists, and though some of his storytellers bring in astrology, he himself rejected it. He wrote for his son a treatise on the astrolabe, showing a good grasp of current astronomic lore. He was not a very learned man, for he liked to display his learning; he swells his pages with large patches of Boethius, and makes even the Wife of Bath quote Seneca. He mentions some problems of philosophy and theology, but shrugs his shoulders at them helplessly. Perhaps he felt, like any man of the world, that a prudent philosopher will not wear his metaphysics on his sleeve.
Was he a believing Christian? Nothing could exceed the ruthlessness and coarseness of his satire on the friars in the prologue and body of the Somnour’s Tale; such darts, however, had more than once been aimed at the brothers by men of orthodox piety. Here and there he raises a doubt of some religious dogma: no more than Luther could he harmonize divine foreknowledge with man’s free will;76 he makes Troilus expound determinism, but in an epilogue he rejects it. He affirms his belief in heaven and hell, but notes at some length that those are bournes from which no attesting traveler returns.77 He is disturbed by evils apparently irreconcilable with an omnipotent benevolence, and makes Arcite question the justice of the gods with reproaches as bold as Omar Khayyam’s:
O cruel goddes, that governe
This world with binding of your word eterne,
And wryten in the table of athamaunt [adamant]
Your parlement, and your eterne graunt,
What is mankind more un-to yow holde [your estimation]
Than is the sheep that rouketh [huddles] in the folde?
For slayn is man right as another beste,
And dwelleth eke in prison and areste,
And hath sicknesse, and great adversitee, And ofte tymes giltiless, pardee!
What governaunce is in this prescience,
That giltinesse tormenteth innocence? ....
And when a beest is dead he hath no peyne,
But man, after his death, must weep and pleyne . ..
Th’answere of this I lete to divynis [divines].78
In later years he tried to recapture the piety of his youth. To the unfinished Canterbury Tales he appended a “Preces de Chaucer.” or Prayer of Chaucer, begging forgiveness from God and man for his obscenities and worldly vanities, and proposing “unto my lyves ende .... to biwayle my giltes, and to study to the salvacioun of my soule.”
In those last years his joy in life yielded to the melancholy of a man who in the decay of health and sense recalls the carefree lustiness of youth. In 1381 he was appointed by Richard II “Clerk of our Works at our Palace of Westminster” and other royal residences. Ten years later, though he was little more than fifty, his health seems to have broken down; in any case, his tasks proved too much for his strength, and he was relieved of his office. We do not find him in any later employment. His finances failed, and he was reduced to asking the King for six shillings eight pence.79 In 1394 Richard granted him a pension of twenty pounds a year for life. It was not enough; he asked the King for a yearly hogshead of wine, and received it (1398); and when, in that year, he was sued for a debt of fourteen pounds he could not pay it.80 He died on October 25, 1400, and was buried in Westminster Abbey, the first and greatest of the many poets who there again bear the beat of measured feet.*