Geoffrey Chaucer has been called the father of English poetry, but the shape of his life is not familiar to most readers--even those who remember bits of THE CANTERBURY TALES from school. Indeed, the historical record of Chaucer’s life contains many gaps and yet more ambiguous facts. (Even the dates of his birth and death are not certain; it is likely that he was born in 1342 or 1343, and he died in 1400.)
Enough solid information exists, however, to construct a narrative of the poet’s life, set against the vivid background of the fourteenth century world, and Donald Howard has accomplished that task brilliantly. For the general reader, the text is supplemented by a helpful chronology, a discussion of Chaucer’s pronunciation, a guide to further reading, and brief discussions of the order of THE CANTERBURY TALES and the evolution of Chaucer’s reputation; the scholar will find almost one hundred pages of notes.
Howard’s account interweaves Chaucer’s personal experience, such as it is known (his education, marriage, and work; his literary encounters and his reading), with the great events of his era: the plague, the Hundred Years’ War, the dynastic struggles immortalized in William Shakespeare’s historical plays. (One surprise for many readers will be the extent to which Chaucer led an active public life at the fringes of power. Entrusted with several important diplomatic missions, primarily to Italy, he was for many years a civil...
(The entire section is 388 words.)
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