Article abstract: A great innovator and a great master of English poetry, Chaucer used his descriptive and narrative skill to express a comic vision of humanity undimmed by the passage of six centuries.
In 1386, Geoffrey Chaucer testified to being more than forty years old and to having served in a military campaign of 1359, so it is likely that he was born between 1340 and 1345, the most probable year being 1343. His parents, John and Agnes Chaucer, were London property owners; John and other members of the family were vintners, wine wholesalers, and holders of offices in the customs service. Records such as deeds, wills, and inventories suggest that fourteenth century residents of Vintry Ward near the Thames River in London lived prosperously and comfortably. Although no record of Chaucer’s schooling has been found, he would most likely have been educated, like other merchants’ sons, at a school such as the one attached to St. Paul’s Cathedral, which had in its library—and doubtless in its curriculum—works of Latin grammar and classical poetry of Vergil, Ovid, and other favorites of the mature Chaucer.
In 1357, Chaucer served in the household of Elizabeth de Burgh, Countess of Ulster, perhaps as a page. The English nobility traveled often, and the young Chaucer likely experienced trips to the country estates of other aristocrats; certainly he often expressed his fondness for the country and the beauties of nature. In 1359, the young man took part in one of the military operations of the Hundred Years’ War between England and France. Captured by the enemy near Reims, Chaucer may have seen Reims Cathedral and nearby Chartres. He was ransomed in March of 1360; later that year there is a record of his having carried documents from Calais to England for Prince Lionel, the Countess of Ulster’s husband. Undoubtedly the expedition marked his first direct contact with a culture that influenced his poetry heavily from the start.
Nothing is known for certain of Chaucer’s activities between 1360 and 1366. In the latter year, his father died. Also, Chaucer was granted a safeconduct to Navarre, perhaps as part of a diplomatic mission, perhaps for a pilgrimage (Navarre being on the direct route to the shrine of St. James of Compostela in Spain). A final event of that year was his marriage to Philippa, probably the daughter of Sir Gilles de Roet, another of whose daughters, Katherine, would marry John of Gaunt, a later patron of the poet. In 1367, Chaucer was in the household of King Edward III and may also have been studying law at the Inner Temple. Chaucer’s poetry shows familiarity with the Inns of Court, and though evidence connecting him with the Inner Temple is hearsay, the kinds of skills it taught prospective lawyers would have been useful at court and in his later official positions. Possibly Chaucer began to write poetry at this time, for anyone who could imitate the popular French courtly verse would find encouragement. The poet depicts himself as sedentary and bookish; his portrait, which was executed some years after his death, shows a grave man with wide-set eyes, a long, straight nose, and a mustache and forked beard. He looks like a man who might be trusted with a diplomatic mission, not necessarily like the possessor of the priceless sense of humor that his literary works reveal him to be.
The earliest Chaucerian poem that can be dated even approximately is The Book of the Duchess, written after the death of Blanche of Lancaster in 1368 and offering consolation, though in a whimsical way, to her widower, John of Gaunt. This 1,334-line poem exemplifies Chaucer’s characteristic interest in love as a subject and in the rhymed couplets popular in French poetry of the time. He continued to serve King Edward, and his 1372 diplomatic journey to Genoa and Florence may well have contributed significantly to his development as a poet, for the three greatest Italian writers of the century, all of great interest to Chaucer, had Florentine connections. Dante had died some fifty years earlier, but both Petrarch and Giovanni Boccaccio were living. If Chaucer, remaining in Italy several months, did not meet them, he could hardly have avoided extending his knowledge of their work. Returning early in 1373, Chaucer was again sent to Genoa later that year.
In 1374, the mayor and aldermen of London leased to Chaucer a dwelling over Aldersgate rent-free, and the king appointed him as controller of the export taxes levied on wool, sheepskins, and leather in the nearby customhouse, a post which made him responsible for receipts averaging nearly twenty-five thousand pounds per year. A line in Chaucer’s poem The House of Fame referring to his “reckonings” suggests that the work dates from this period, though whether in the middle or late 1370’s cannot be determined. Although it is in the form of a dream vision, as had been The Book of the Duchess, The House of Fame displays greater technical mastery. The narrator falls asleep and dreams of being in a temple of the goddess Venus, on the walls of which he sees representations of famous legendary events, particularly those dealing with love, such as Aeneas’ encounter with Dido in Vergil’s Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.). Emerging from the temple, the narrator meets an eagle with golden feathers that seizes him in its claws and soars high into the air. The eagle proves to be friendly, however, and very talkative, promising to take his prisoner to the House of Fame, where he can learn more about love than he has ever learned from his books. Upon arrival, he discovers the House of Fame to be a large, chaotic, puzzling place. He is about to meet a “man of great authority” who will presumably interpret the confusion; then the poem breaks off, after 2,158 lines.
In the later 1370’s, Chaucer made several trips to the European continent, including another to Italy in 1378, after which he seems not to have gone abroad until after his customs duties ended in 1386. During the interim he almost surely wrote several other major works. The Parliament of Fowls (1380), another dream vision, in honor of Valentine’s Day, has been thought to refer to the negotiations involving Anne of Bohemia and her suitors, one of whom, Richard II, had succeeded Edward III upon the latter’s death in 1377. Regardless of whether a political meaning is intended in Chaucer’s poem, wherein three male eagles argue their cases for marriage to a young female before a court of birds presided over by Dame Nature, it remains a charming poem. Another major endeavor was Boece (1380), a prose translation of one the most widely influential of all medieval philosophical works, Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy (c. 523). Chaucer’s knowledge of Boethius’ thought also permeates Troilus and Criseyde (1382), which some critics consider his masterpiece. Based on a story of two lovers frequently told in the Middle Ages, Chaucer’s poem owes most to Boccaccio’s Il Filostrato (1335-1336?), but the English poet exhibits great originality in his depictions of its three main characters: a Trojan prince, the widowed daughter of a Trojan priest, and the latter’s uncle, Pandarus. The narrative, told in five books comprising 8,239 lines, or 1,177 rime royal stanzas, has elements of romance, comedy, tragedy, and what the modern world would call the psychological novel.
Chaucer’s last important poem before The Canterbury Tales is called The Legend of Good Women, and it probably dates from around 1386, by which time he had moved to Kent and was in fact representing the shire in Parliament as that body was beginning to assert itself against the young King Richard II. The Legend of Good Women purports to have been written at the request of “Queen Alceste” (possibly a representation of Richard’s Queen Anne) to atone for Chaucer’s negative portrayal of Criseyde by recounting the stories of “good women.” (Whether that was Chaucer’s true intention, however, is called into question by the work’s satirical overtones.) Chaucer left the work unfinished, but the prologue, which exists in two versions, contains a much-admired description of Chaucer’s favorite season, spring.
Indications are that Chaucer wrote the “General Prologue” to The Canterbury Tales in the late 1380’s, a period of change in his life. He was replaced at the customhouse, he made his last trip to the Continent (to Calais in 1387), and his wife, Philippa, died, presumably also in 1387. Twice in 1388 he was sued for debt. In the midst of these troubles, however, he was planning and beginning to carry out his most ambitious poem, the fruit of a lifetime of shrewd observation of human nature and a carefully honed narrative gift. In 1389, King Richard II appointed him to another responsible position. As clerk of the king’s works, Chaucer oversaw the construction and maintenance of royal residences, hunting lodges and preserves, and such facilities as the Tower of London, which was not only a residence but also a fortress, armory, prison, mint, and storehouse for records. Although he had assistants, his duties were now more extensive than they had been in the customhouse. Two years later, he relinquished this task for another as deputy forester of the royal forest in Somerset, which may have allowed him more time to work on The Canterbury Tales.
Chaucer’s last years were marked by a power struggle at court, with Henry of Lancaster triumphing over Richard and forcing his abdication in 1399. Sometime after Henry’s coronation in October of 1399, Chaucer addressed to the new king a short poem, “The Complaint of Chaucer to His Purse,” the last work known to have come from his pen. Chaucer is often ironic, and it is difficult to determine how seriously to take his lack of funds, but clearly he depended on the royal goodwill for his livelihood throughout his career. He may well have continued to work on The Canterbury Tales, which he left incomplete at his death, but what he left stands as one of the most substantial and brilliant literary works in English.
Late in 1399, Chaucer took a long-term lease on a house near Westminster Abbey, but on October 25, 1400, he died, and as a tenant and parishioner of the Abbey was permitted burial there. Although no one realized it at the time, his entombment marked the beginning of Poets’ Corner at the Abbey.
Not because of his poetry but because of the commercial prominence and social connections of the Chaucer family, Geoffrey Chaucer is the first English poet for whom something like a full biography can be pieced together. Because he wrote in the dialect of London, eventually the standard dialect of English, Renaissance critics could, with some difficulty, read his poetry and recognize his genius, whereas excellent poets such as William Langland (c. 1330-c. 1386) and the anonymous author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (second half of the fourteenth century), whose dialects proved more troublesome, fell into neglect. Although literary historians now recognize the excellence of these contemporaries of Chaucer, he continues to be the great favorite, indeed the only English poet to be read and enjoyed continuously for six hundred years.
Chaucer’s practice established accentual syllabic meter as the norm of English verse for five centuries thereafter. Beginning with the four-stress lines of The Book of the Duchess and The House of Fame, which imitated the French poets of his time, Chaucer developed the five-stress line which became the backbone of the major poetry of William Shakespeare, John Milton, Alexander Pope, William Wordsworth, and many others. He appears to be the deviser of the rhymed pentameter couplet and of the seven-line stanza, which became known as rime royal. He filled those verse forms with a wide variety of narrative types from the rough-and-tumble of the fabliau in “The Miller’s Tale” to the serious romance as exemplified by “The Knight’s Tale.” His descriptions of the assembled Canterbury pilgrims bring alive a variety of late medieval types, from gentlefolk to artisans. The modern reader readily identifies Chaucer’s fourteenth century men and women with their modern counterparts. Everyone has known someone like the hearty and assertive but parsimonious proprietor of the Tabard Inn, Harry Bailey; or like that brazen confidence man, the Pardoner; or like the fastidious, self-indulgent Prioress. In the Wife of Bath, Chaucer created one of the great comic characters in literature, larger than life, an imperious feminist, outrageous, but fiercely and somehow admirably resolute.
From his earliest work, Chaucer radiated good humor, boundless love of nature, and keen interest in people, but he worked away from the dream visions favored by poets of his time to the sharp daylight world of the Canterbury pilgrimage. Incorporating social criticism into his work, Chaucer nevertheless accepted society with all of its defects; as a dutiful Christian who saw this life as a pilgrimage to a greater and eternal life, he still cherished this world and its denizens, including its moral wanderers. John Dryden’s reaction in 1700 still applies: “Here is God’s plenty.”
Borroff, Marie. Traditions and Renewals: Chaucer the Gawain-poet, and Beyond. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2003. A collection of essays that provide a fresh and different analysis of Chaucer’s work.
Brewer, Derek. Chaucer. London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1973. Intended “for people with literary taste but not necessarily with any specialized knowledge,” this relatively short biography judiciously interprets the somewhat sparse and sometimes puzzling facts of the poet’s life. Though undocumented, this book is the work of a respected Chaucerian scholar who writes with grace and sensitivity.
Brewer, Derek. Chaucer in His Time. London: Nelson, 1973. This volume may profitably be read as a companion to the biography above. The focus is on the way life must have seemed to Chaucer, not on his life and works as such, although the most important facts and accomplishments are recapitulated. Revealingly illustrated.
Chute, Marchette Gaylord. Geoffrey Chaucer of England. New York: E. P. Dutton and Co., 1946, rev. ed. 1962. This general reader’s life of Chaucer, first issued in 1946, remains the best of its type. The style is clear and unpretentious, and the facts are set forth in the context of background information such a reader will invariably need. The author discusses the poet’s literary achievement but is more successful at conveying the flow of his life.
Coghill, Nevill. The Poet Chaucer. New York: Oxford University Press, 1949, 2d ed. 1967. Coghill’s book interweaves three biographical chapters with discussions of Chaucer’s poetry, emphasizing matters which influenced his writing and omitting details of his official life.
Crow, Martin M., and Virginia E. Leland. “Chaucer’s Life.” In The Riverside Chaucer. Edited by Larry D. Benson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 3d ed. 1987. Part of the front material in this impressive new edition, this biographical essay briefly but authoritatively presents the principal known facts of Chaucer’s life. It will serve the purposes of the reader for whom accuracy and conciseness are more important than atmosphere.
Crow, Martin M., and Clair C. Olson, eds. Chaucer Life-Records. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1966. Not a biography but a compiliation of all known records pertaining directly to the poet, this basic reference work will give the student of Chaucer an opportunity to experience directly the materials on which any responsible life must be based.
Gardner, John Champlin. The Life and Times of Chaucer. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977. Written by a popular novelist who was also a medievalist, this lively and handsomely produced book nevertheless has drawn sharp criticism from medieval scholars for its lapses in taste and judgment, its careless appropriation of sources, and its failure to fuse its often interesting parts into a coherent whole.