Last reviewed: June 2018
October 25, 1400
Geoffrey Chaucer (CHAW-sur), one of the greatest of English writers, made his living as a civil servant and composed poetry as an avocation. His career, however, contributed to his literary growth. He was born into a prosperous family and reared in London. His father, a wine importer, was able to find him a position (in 1357 or earlier) as a page boy in the household of King Edward III’s daughter-in-law, Elizabeth of Ulster. From this period on, despite the political uncertainties of the age, Chaucer enjoyed the uninterrupted favor of the members of the courts of, successively, Edward, Richard II, and Henry IV, both as a man of business and as a poet. Geoffrey Chaucer
Chaucer served as a soldier in France in the campaigns of the Hundred Years’ War in 1359 to 1360. Between 1368 and 1387 he was sent abroad on diplomatic missions to France and Italy on at least seven occasions. He acquired the training necessary for business, probably at the law school known as the Inner Temple. He was a controller of customs in London from 1374 to 1385, became a justice of the peace in Kent in 1385 and a member of Parliament for the county in 1386, served in London again from 1389 to 1391 as a clerk of the works, and was thereafter awarded a less active royal appointment as subforester.
About 1366 he married Philippa Roet of Flanders, who was lady-in-waiting to Queen Philippa and later to John of Gaunt’s second wife, Constance. (Chaucer’s wife’s sister became Gaunt’s third wife.) Records suggest that he had two sons and a daughter and that his wife died in 1387. He died in 1400 in a house that he had rented on the grounds of Westminster Abbey, and he was buried in that section of the Abbey later to become known as the Poets’ Corner.
The maturation of Chaucer’s genius can be illustrated by four works. In the Book of the Duchess the narrator dreams that he shares the grief of a lonely young knight, who proves to be John of Gaunt mourning his newly lost first wife. The conception is original, and the expression of sympathy is gracefully tender, but the framework of the dream vision and the knight’s description of his love are strongly influenced by French models.
In the uncompleted Hous of Fame, another dream vision, the narrator is carried off by an eagle to learn whether those who are in the service of love are happy. The self-confident and domineering eagle was suggested to Chaucer by his reading of Dante Alighieri’s Paradise but here plays a novel comic role in a work that parodies the artificiality of medieval courtly love conventions.
Troilus and Criseyde, Chaucer’s first major poem, amplifies Giovanni Boccaccio’s pseudoclassical romance, Il Filostrato, giving depth to the sorrowful Troilus, elusiveness to the timid Criseyde, robust comicality to the officious Pandarus, immediacy to the setting, and a new significance to the tragedy of the two lovers separated by the Trojan War.
In The Canterbury Tales, a masterpiece though uncompleted, Chaucer turns to the English scene, as do his contemporaries William Langland and John Gower, and focuses on the men, women, children, and animals familiar to him in life. An assorted group of pilgrims entertain themselves by telling stories on the way from London to Canterbury. Through his descriptions in the General Prologue and dramatizations in the links connecting the tales, he portrays in detail seven members of the feudal order, thirteen people associated with religious life, and fourteen townspeople—the chivalrous Knight, the aristocratic Prioress, the fraudulent Pardoner, the impoverished Canon’s Yeoman, the amorous Wife of Bath, the reticent narrator, and the rest who have gained an independent identity. The tales that Chaucer supplies match the tellers in their rich variety—the Knight’s courtly romance, the Miller’s racy fabliau, the Second Nun’s pious saint’s life, the Nun’s Priest’s mock-heroic fable, the Pardoner’s hypocritical sermon, and the Parson’s sincere one.
Like most medieval craftspeople, Chaucer, whether as young apprentice or as mature master, followed the pattern of established models. His success can therefore be partially explained by the vast extent of his reading of “old, approvèd stories.” The sources for most of his works influenced his style. His comic tone, for example, is often reminiscent of that of Ovid, his favorite Latin poet; and his philosophical ideas are usually those of Boethius. He appears to have culled materials in turn from the French—notably Guillaume de Machaut and Jean Froissart—then from the Italians—Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio—and finally, perhaps, from his fellow countryman Langland. His ultimate achievements, however, were profoundly original. Chaucer’s skill as a raconteur, his deftness of characterization and description, his perfection in metrical technique, his understanding of human religious, moral, and philosophical instincts, his knowledge of life and acceptance of its mingled tragedy and comedy, and his transcendent sense of humor are, in combination, unique.