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CENTURY READINGS FOR A A COURSE
IN ENGLISH LITERATURE
GEOFFREY CHAUCER (c. 1340-1400)
Since Chaucer's father, John Chaucer, was not only a successful London vintner, but also, probably, an occasional servant of the king, it is not surprising that at an early age our poet himself entered the service of royalty. Our earliest records concerning him show that in April, 1357, he was occupied, perhaps as page, in the household of Elizabeth, wife of Prince Lionel, son of Edward III, where he continued to serve throughout that year and probably into the next. During this service, Chaucer accompanied the princess to Ilatfield, in Yorkshire, to London, and probably to other parts of England. We surmise that he witnessed more than one brilliant chivalric entertainment, and that at Hatfield, during Christmastide of 1357, he met his future friend and patron, John of Gaunt. During the year 1359, Chaucer served as a soldier in the army of Edward III, in France. Having been taken prisoner, not far from Reims, he was released through a ransom to which the king himself contributed the substantial sum of sixteen pounds. After the conclusion of this expedition, with the Peace of Brétigny, May 8, 1360, Chaucer returned to England, wliere he seems to have increased in favor at court, for in 1367 he was granted a life pension of twenty marks as a valet of the king. During the next ten or fifteen years, Chaucer took part in a considerable number of diplomatic missions to the Continent, of which the most important, from a literary point of view, are a secret embassy to Genoa and Florence (Dec., 1372, to April, 1373), and a mission to Milan (May to September, 1378). Although Petrarch and Boccaccio were both living at the time of Chaucer's first visit to Italy, we have no evidence that the English poet met either of them. To these Italian journeys, however, may be due Chaucer's subsequent devotion to Italian literature. Aside from his diplomatic employment, the poet had official duties at home in connection with the customs of the port of London. In 1374 he was appointed comptroller of the customs and subsidy of wools, skins, and tanned hides, and in 1382 he received the additional appointment of comptroller of the petty customs. In the autumn of 1386, Chaucer sat for a short time in parliament as a knight of the shire for Kent. In the political eclipse of Richard, from the latter part of 1386 to 1389, Chaucer lost his offices, a loss that left him, presumably, much leisure for writing. During this period he may have written a considerable part of The Canterbury Tales. In 1389, Chaucer was again in the service of the government as clerk of the king's works, and although the loss of this appointment, in 1391, left him in straitened circumstances, a royal pension of twenty pounds, in 1394, and a yearly gift of a tun of wine, in 1398, contributed somewhat toward his comfort. When Henry IV, son of Chaucer's old patron, John of Gaunt, came to the throne in 1399, the poet promptly addressed to him a baliade entitled The Compleynt of Chaucer to his Empty Purse. To this pleasant bit of beg. ging the king responded readily with a pension of forty marks, in addition to the annuity of twenty pounds that had been granted in 1394. Chaucer spent his last days, then, in comparative comfort, and on his death, October 25, 1400, he was buried in the south transept of Westminster Abbey, which has since become the · Poets' Corner.'
Although the exact chronology of Chaucer's works is far from certain, the literary influences under which he wrote are clearly defined. As a courtier, diplomat, and man of the world, he was familiar with literary fashions at home and abroad, — literary fashions definitely embodied in his works. His first poems are imitations or translations of French poems popular at court both in France and in England. To an early stage of his career is assigned his translation of at least part of the Roman de la Rose, a French poem composed during the thirteenth cen. tury and popular in the fourteenth. French in style is The Book of the Duchess, written in 1369 as a lament for the death of Blanche, wife of John of Gaunt. Upon French models Chaucer composed his early poem, A. B. C., and numerous shorter poems that highten balades, roundels, virelayes. The Parliament of Fouls, written, probably, in 1382, in honor of the marriage of Richard II and Anne of Bohemia, is conspicuously influenced by French poetical taste. During his journeys to Italy, or before, Chaucer acquired a new source of literary inspiration in the works of Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio. Although from Dante and Petrarch his literal borrowings are few, his extensive verbal obligations to Boccaccio are shown in Troilus and Criseyde, written about 1383, and in the Knight's Tale. The House of Fame, written, perhaps, about 1379, clearly shows the influence of Dante, as well as of French allegorical poetry. To the last fifteen years or so of Chaucer's life, without specification, may be assigned the Legend of Good Women and the Canterbury Tales. Although in these works Chaucer used a multiplicity of sources, the poems themselves show vigorous increase in English spirit and in literary originality.
THE CANTERBURY TALES
Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote The droghte of Marche hath percèd to the
roote, And bathed every veyne in swich licour, Of which vertu engendréd is the flour; Whan Zephirus 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, (So priketh hem nature in hir corages): Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages, And palmers for to seken straunge strondes, To ferne halwes, couthe in sondry londes; And specially, from every shires ende Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende, The holy blisful martir for to seke, That hem hath holpen, whan that they were
seke. Bifel that, in that sesoun on a day, In Southwerk at the Tabard as I lay Redy to wenden on my pilgrimage To Caunterbury with ful devout corage, At night was come in-to that hostelrye Wel nyne and twenty in a compaignye, Of sondry folk, by aventure y-falle In felawshipe, and pilgrims were they alle, That toward Caunterbury wolden ryde; The chambres and the stables weren wyde, And wel we weren esèd atte beste. And shortly, whan the sonne was to reste, 30 So hadde I spoken with hem everichon, That I was of hir felawshipe anon, And made forward erly for to ryse, To take our wey, ther as I yow devyse.
But natheles, whyl I have tyme and space, Er that I ferther in this tale pace,
36 Me thinketh it acordaunt to resoun, To telle yow al the condicioun Of ech of hem, so as it semèd me, And whiche they weren, and of what degree; And eek in what array that they were inne:
And at a knight than wol I first biginne.
45 Trouthe and honour, fredom and curteisye. Ful worthy was he in his lordes werre, And thereto hadde he riden (no man ferre) As wel in cristendom as hethenesse, And evere honoured for his worthinesse. 50 At Alisaundre he was, whan it was wonne; Ful ofte tyme he hadde the bord bigonne Aboven alle naciouns in Pruce. In Lettow hadde he reysed and in Ruce, No cristen man so ofte of his degree. In Gernade at the sege eek hadde he be Of Algezir, and riden in Belmarye. At Lyeys was he, and at Satalye, Whan they were wonne; and in the Grete
See At many a noble aryve hadde he be. At mortal batailles hadde he been fiftene, And foughten for our feith at Tramissene In listes thryes, and ay slayn his foo. This ilke worthy knight hadde been also Somtyme with the lord of Palatye, Ageyn another hethen in Turkye: And everemore he hadde a sovereyn prys. And though that he were worthy, he was
wys, And of his port as meek as is a mayde. He nevere yet no vileinye ne sayde In al his lyf, un-to no maner wight. He was a verray parfit gentil knight. But for to tellen yow of his array, His hors were goode, but he was nat gay. Of fustian he weréd a gipoun
80 With lokkes crulle, as they were leyd in