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Preluded those melodious bursts that fill
With sounds that echo still."
and distinguished line of great English poets who are the glory of English literature; first in time, and among the first in power. We know, to be sure, that there were poets before Chaucer, just as there were dramatists before Shakspere and painters before Raphael, but Chaucer so far transcends all English writers before his time that there is no second even longo inter vallo. He stands a towering mountain peak in the wide expanse of several centuries of mediocrity.
Birth and Early Days.- Every statement of fact about Chaucer, as in the case of Shakspere, has given rise to controversy, and nothing has been the subject of more controversy than the date of his birth. The inscription by his grave in Westminster Abbey records the day, month, and year of his death (October 25, 1400); that there is no mention of the date of his birth would seem to indicate that when the inscription was placed there the exact date was not known. For many years 1328 was the date given because Speght, whose biography of the poet appeared in 1598, almost two hundred years after the death of Chaucer, wrote, “in the day of our Lord 1400, after he had lived about seventy-two years." Then in Urry's edition of Chaucer's works, 1721, the actual mention of 1328 occurs. As an example of the zeal of scholarship, it would be interesting to follow the processes by which this date was altered to 1340, but to present the facts and arguments in full would require many
pages. The exact date is still undetermined. Lounsbury concludes his full discussion with saying, “My own conviction is strong that the weight of the evidence we have is decidedly in favor of a year considerably earlier than 1340 as that of the poet's birth. A time between 1331 and 1335 would be in satisfactory accordance with all the conditions that are implied in the references made to his age by Chaucer himself or by his contemporaries.”
Tradition places șis birth in London. His father and grandfather were vintners, John, the father, probably enjoying the fruits of a good business. Brought up in surroundings not especially conducive to abstinence, and living in a time when cold water as a beverage was considered injurious, the poet might easily have fallen into that, conviviality which has ruined so many budding geniuses. In the Pardoner we have an invective against drunkenness, and we may attribute to Chaucer himself the practice and precept which we find in Troilus and Criseyde —
"In every thing, I wot, there lies measure:
For though a man forbid all drunkenness,
Military Service. - What schools he attended and what teachers he had, we do not know. The great English universities, Oxford and Cambridge, were flourishing in his day, and it is pleasant to think of him as attending one of them, but although he mentions both Oxford and Cambridge, not a particle of evidence has ever been produced to show that he attended either. In 1357 we hear of him as serving in the household of Lionel, the third son of the king, Edward III. About 1359 he went into military service; it was then that the king made his last military expedition into France. Froissart tells us how the army took grain and mills to grind the grain, ovens to bake, and smithies to forge.
Chaucer became a prisoner of war; on the ist of March, 1360, Edward III contributed £16 towards his ransom. Whether
this amount is a part or the whole of the ransom is not known. As money then had about ten times the purchasing power of today, the amount would be equal to $800.
Public Service. - During his life three kings occupied the English throne, Edward III, Richard II, and Henry IV. He was on good terms with each of them. His activity in public affairs is attested by his numerous missions to the continent, for during the ten years beginning with 1370 he made six or seven official trips to the mainland. From 1374 to 1386 he held the office of controller of the customs and subsidy of wools, skins, and tanned hides in the port of London, and in 1386 he was elected to Parliament for the county of Kent. On September 6, 1390, he was robbed of £20 and horse by highwaymen— two separate thefts on the same day; by a writ of January 6, 1391, he was freed from the obligation of making repayment to the state of the stolen money. In 1394 he received a grant of £20 a year for life. As it is on record that several times he drew his allowance, or part of it, in advance, he likely had that unfortunate characteristic which seems to be the lot of most poets improvidence. When Henry IV came to the throne in 1399, an addition of forty marks yearly was made to the £20 previously granted under Richard II. On December 24, when, whether born a few years later or earlier than the supposed date of his birth, he was approaching old age, he leased a house for fiftythree years or “less if he dies sooner." On February 21, 1400, he drew his pension in person, and so must have been in the enjoyment of health sufficiently good to enable him to move about; but some months later, October 25, 1400, he died, if there is truth in the record on his tombstone. He was buried in Westminster Abbey - the first, and for centuries the only man of letters to rest in that stately edifice which has since become the Valhalla of the princes of English poetry.
This rapid survey of the public career of Chaucer shows him as a man of affairs. He was not a cloistered recluse, evolving from his inner consciousness a theory of life, but an active man of the world, who studied life at first-hand.
The inscription on his grave reads:
Annum si quaeras Domini, si tempora vitae
25 Octobris 1400.
Ærumnarum requies mors.
1556. Marriage. There is some evidence to the effect that he married about 1366, and that his married life extended over a period of twenty years. Who Philippa, his wife, was is a much disputed question. Speght thinks she was a sister of Katharine, who as the widow of Sir Hugh Swynford became the third wife of John of Gaunt; if this be true it might help to explain Chaucer's close relationship with court affairs, for John of Gaunt was the son of Edward III. That he had a son, Lewis, we know from his Astrolabe, prepared for the instruction of his boy. There is a Thomas Chaucer who died in 1434, a man of some wealth and prominence, but there is no evidence to show that he was the son of the poet.
Three Literary Periods.— His literary life is usually divided into three well-defined periods; the first, extending to 1370, is marked by French influence; the second, ending with 1385, shows the influence of Italian writers; and the third, or English period, ends with his death.
French influence naturally came first, since the court of Edward III was essentially a French court, and Chaucer as a youth lived in its environment. When he joined the English army invading France, he saw war as carried on with chivalry and knighthood at their highest degree of outward splendor. On his return to England he translated the Roman de la Rose, the most famous work in French at that time. Of this translation some 2000 lines remain. This work had a profound influence upon Chaucer and during its ascendency he wrote “ballads, roundels, and virelays.” The most important of these minor
works was the Book of the Duchesse, written to lighten th bereavement of John of Gaunt for the death of his wife. It may
be said that the Roman de la Rose was the work o two French poets, Guillaume de Lorris, who wrote the first par of the poem between 1225 and 1230, and Jean de Meun, who wrote between 1268 and 1277. The former was not a great poet but he was an idealist and purist, while Jean de Meun was realist and revolutionist. The influence of both is seen in Chau
The Italian Period was possibly brought about by. Chaucer's many missions to the Continent, for, as has been said, during the ten years beginning with 1370 he made six or seven officia journeys to various Courts in Europe. It is but natural to believe that the great Italian literature would attract a gifted mind like Chaucer's. Petrarch, Dante, and Boccaccio present a trio of literary power and influence to whose guidance our aspiring poet might well yield himself. The first poem produced after the Italian influence had set in was The Parlement of Foules, written in 1382 in honor of the marriage of King Richard to Lady Anne of Bohemia. Like most poems of the time it was of the dream-vision type. The sources show a two-fold influence, that of the departing Medieval Age and that of the new Italian culture. In general structure it resembles the Book of the Duchesse, and in its treatment of birds who speak like men it foreshadows the Nun's Priest's Tale. Troilus and Criseyde, considered by some to be his masterpiece, also belongs to this period. The poem is so long, occupying 264 pages in Skeat's edition, and at times so tedious, that it has never enjoyed the popularity which has fallen to the Canterbury Tales.
“Troilus is a lovesick boy who takes a beautiful but worthless woman for an angel of heaven. Pandarus is a middle-aged busybody who, unsuccessful in his own loves, undertakes to manage the loves of others. Criseyde is the artistic center of the story, and on the strange complexity of her double nature Chaucer has expended his best energies, adding of his own invention two episodes which wholly alter the conception of her character." The immediate source of the poem was Boccaccio's Filostrato.