Geoffrey Chaucer has been called the Father of the English language. He did for the English narrative what Shakespeare later did for drama. He was the first writer to use lines of poetry that had an appeal to those interested in nature and books. His writing was very modern for his time, even more, modern than the writings of others after he died, but he stayed within the traditions of medieval poetry.
Chaucer was born in London, no one knows exactly what date but sometime between 1340 and 1344. Chaucer’s father, John Chaucer, was a wine merchant although his last name from the French word chaussier indicates that his ancestors were shoemakers. He would sometimes hold positions in the royal administration and he was a significant member of the business community. Chaucer and his parents were lucky to escape the plague during the times of the Black Death, the epidemic that was spread to European lands from the Middle East. In June of 1348, it entered the coastal towns of England and within a few months, two million out of five million inhabitants were dead. At this time, Chaucer was four to eight years old and very fortunate to not have been infected.
Any details concerning Geoffrey Chaucer’s career in civil service come from contemporary documents. Records indicate that in 1357 Chaucer was serving as a page in the household of King Edward’s son Prince Lionel and his wife Elizabeth. Because he held this position he was given rights that most Englishmen did not have, such as the right to bear arms and fight for the king. Along with those rights he was given the title of valets. Chaucer took some time away from the royal family and went to school, whose name remains unknown.
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The next seven years of his life are very indefinite. He had many other jobs in government service. Over his lifetime he served King Edward III, The Countess of Ulster, King Richard II, and The Earl of Derby, who later became King Henry IV. He also fought from 1359 to 1360 in the Hundred Years War that took place between England and France. While he was in battle, he was captured by France, taken prisoner and ransomed for 16 pounds. In 1366 he married a woman named Philippa de Roet, a maid to Queen Philipa. They had two children, Thomas and Lewis. By 1367 Chaucer was known to be serving Edward III as a Valet and a new social rank of esquire.
No one knows at what point in his life Chaucer began writing. His first writings are believed to be the translations of Le Roman de la Rose, literature from thirteen century France. Chaucer never translated the whole thing, just pieces of it because a character in this poem, Christine de Pisan, was originally portrayed as “dirty” in some parts. Chaucer liked this character, so he did not translate those parts. The Book of the Duchess was his first true work. It was a long poem that served as an elegy for John of Gaunt’s wife, Blanche, who had died during the Bubonic Plague. He also wrote many short poems, but his longer ones turned out to be the most popular. Some of his short poems include The Treatise on the Astrolabe and The Complaint of Mars. Lack of Steadfastness and The Former Age were written to reflect his negative feelings towards Richard II.
Chaucer travelled, often to France and Italy on military-related expeditions. Records show that he went to Italy a few years after 1368, first Genoa, and then Florence. He was chosen for these expeditions because he had experience selling and buying wine, he had learned some Italian from being around his parents’ wine business, and had been loyal to the royal court for many years. Here Chaucer was able to study some of Italy’s best poets and writers. At this time, Italy was not a nation but an accumulation of city-states. These city-states were full of strong cultural activity with the early stages of the renaissance humanism movement in action. Petrarch had just finished the Canzoniere and Boccaccio was writing as well. During his three-month stay in Italy, he became accustomed to these writers as well as with Dante, the poet and author of the Divine Commedia, who soon becomes of Chaucer’s biggest influences.
Chaucer was made controller of wool customs in London in 1374, which he soon realized was a difficult job. While serving this position he noticed that political tensions were forming between the court and Parliament and he thought it would be best to move outside of London for a while. That same year he wrote The House of Fame, a 2,000-line poem about a man who dreams he is carried to heaven. It displayed the influence Dante had on him; for example, Chaucer based his eagle in this poem on the Divine Commedia. This work was and is still preserved, but only a few copies exist. But Chaucer had not gained his popularity yet.
King Edward died in 1377 and his grandson Richard became King Richard II at only ten years old. Chaucer returned to a life of civil service when he travelled to France and northern Italy. His position was the junior member of an embassy to Bernabo Visconti. From this second visit to Italy, he brought back with him copies of works of Boccaccio, whose influence shows up many times in Chaucer’s later work. After his return, he wrote The Parliament of Fowls, preserved in fourteen manuscripts, and about a dream vision. At the beginning of the poem, the narrator picks up the book Dream of Scipio by Cicero and falls asleep.
Troilus and Criseyde were written between the years 1381 to 1386, based on the works of Boccacio. Its setting is the Trojan War; two people, Troilus and Criseyde, are in a prison. Troilus decides to go to battle instead of marrying Criseyde. Troilus dies and goes to heaven where he can keep an eye on Criseyde. The poem actually gained some popularity and admiration. This was a first for Chaucer. In 1386 he started writing The Legend of Good Women, which remains unfinished. From these two works, Chaucer became a well-known figure in London’s literary circle. Some men even started a “Chaucer Circle.” Chaucer was able to write maintain activity in his society.
In 1386 he was elected to be a member of the Parliament for Kent, the town which he later left London for before the campaign led by Parliament against royal corruption. He seems to have escaped death again; people were later executed who had positions similar to Chaucer’s position before he left. Chaucer’s next occupation was serving as the clerk of the king’s works just a few months after King Richard II began running the government for himself.
This job was a challenging one for Chaucer, with many responsibilities such as overseeing building repairs, paying wages, obtaining materials, and recruiting workmen. After that job was finished, he stayed in Kent and wrote his Canterbury Tales, his most highly acclaimed, most beautifully written and most popular of all his works. In these tales, Chaucer surpassed the intellectual and poetic standards of his day.
In these tales, Chaucer told the story of pilgrimages to Canterbury. The characters in his tales each have their own personality and they each tell four stories. At the beginning of his tales, he introduces the characters in order of their social ranking. Between 1389 and his death Chaucer’s goal was to complete all thirty characters but he died having finished only twenty-four on October 25 of the year 1400.
The characters and tales he did finish have remained unchanged from the day he died. Chaucer was buried in Westminster Abbey, and a monument to him was erected during Mary Tudor’s reign. In later years other authors were buried near him, and this part of the Abbey came to be known as the Poets’ Corner. No memoirs of Chaucer exist.
Chaucer grew up serving the king and had a life full of culture and adventure. The experiences that came from this type of life helped make his vernacular English writing so vivid. As a youth, he observed the wine-selling crowds from his parents’ business, those same crowds have appeared in his writings. One of his poems, The Treatise on the Astrolabe, was dedicated to his children, showing them the love and pride he had for his children. Chaucer used his experiences in The Hundred Years War to write Troilus and Criseyde.
Chaucer had a good sense of humour, and the ability to tell a great story. Today he is recognized for these things and his sophisticated style of writing. The style he used brought many people to admire him. He was able to subtly blend into his works the philosophical concerns people had in his day.
He can be seen as both an ethical and religious poet. He has affected the English language and its poetry on so many different levels. He was the first poet to write in English, making English a major literary language. Chaucer was the first to introduce the seven-line stanza in iambic pentameter. During his life, he admired and was impacted by many famous poets, but even more famous poets later admired him, such as Shakespeare. He is still being studied in famous universities and the admiration for his works will live on.
THE DIRT ON CHAUCER
Being the Father of the English Language does not make you perfect. Chaucer, as all famous people, had lived the life of poetry and adventure, along with misbehaviour and dependence on the royal family. Chaucer would have never made it through life without the royal family always protecting him. When he was taken prisoner in the Hundred Years War, he would have been killed if the king wasn’t there ready with money to bail him out.
He got a lot of special treatment from the royal family. For example, he was given a license to travel from Dover to France with two horses along with ten pounds and twenty shillings. On those trips, he would always manage to spend all his allowance and ask for more, just like a spoiled child. Also, the king gave him five litres of wine every day of his life as some type of payment and he got to live rent-free when he moved to escape the problems with Parliament and the court. And somehow he was always in debt, no matter how good his salary was.
Until his death, Chaucer always felt the guilt of not obeying his inner-self and giving his whole life to writing. He had trouble focusing on one thing at a time. He left many of his poems incomplete as if someone else was going to finish them for him. If Dante could finish all of the Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise then why couldn’t he complete thirty characters of Canterbury Tales? And if he wanted his poems to be that long, he should’ve quit working for the government to have more time to write. And why write these long, complicated poems when only five percent of England could even read at all.
Some of his works are very racist and chauvinistic. Two of his poems portray very negative views of women as if women in that time weren’t degraded enough. In the “Prioresse’s Tale” from The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer displayed harsh and bitter feelings toward the Jews. He shows this anti-Semitism when he has a small boy murdered by a Jew and thrown into the sewer. When William Shakespeare, who looked up to Chaucer, wrote a playoff of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, it failed miserably and it lowered Shakespeare’s reputation.
Chaucer had a hard time coming up with anything of his own; he was always using and elaborating on other people’s ideas instead of being creative. He didn’t even come up with the idea to write his poetry in English, it was John Gower’s idea. When he served in the government he was a coward and never took any sides. He made sure to get himself out of harm’s way so nothing bad would happen to him. He could never keep a job, they were always too demanding and Chaucer was never up for the hard work.
Chaucer did some stupid things in his life. After he married his wife who he didn’t even get along with, he raped a woman named Cecily Chaumpaigne. Also, When Chaucer didn’t get the money that King Henry IV once owed him he got very angry. He had just bought a new house in the garden at the east end of Westminster Abbey and needed to pay for it. He wrote an annoying little poem to the King complaining about it. Who writes a poem asking for money? Why didn’t he just write a simple letter instead?
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Right before Chaucer died he seemed to have gone crazy. He demanded that all his poems be burned because he somehow got the idea that they were too obscene to be published anymore. Chaucer might have been the greatest English poet of his time but he doesn’t make much sense and although he is still studied, Chaucer’s glory as a poet diminished as soon as Shakespeare picked up a pen. Greatest English poet of his time, yes, but of all time? No way.
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