Geoffrey Chaucer 1340?–1400
English poet, prose writer, and translator. See also Geoffrey Chaucer Literary Criticism and The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale Criticism.
Widely regarded as the "father of English poetry," Geoffrey Chaucer is the foremost representative of Middle English literature. His Canterbury Tales is one of the most highly esteemed works in the English language, and its "General Prologue" has been acclaimed by critics as "the most perfect poem in the English language." Notable among his other works are the Book of the Duchess, Parlement of Foules, House of Fame, Troilus and Criseyde, and Legend of Good Women. Familiar with French, English, Italian, and Latin literature, Chaucer was able to meld characteristics of each in a unique body of work that affirmed the ascent of English as a literary language. Chaucer's works, which reflect his consummate mastery of various literary genres, styles, and techniques, as well as his erudition, wit, and insight, are regarded as classics of European literature.
Born into a family of London-based vintners sometime in the early 1340s, Chaucer had a long and distinguished career as a civil servant, serving three successive kings—Edward III, Richard II, and Henry IV. As a member of court, he traveled to Spain in 1366 on what would be the first of a series of diplomatic missions to the continent over the next decade. In 1368 the death of Blanche, the first wife of John of Gaunt—Edward Ill's fourth son and the poet's courtly patron—occasioned Chaucer's composition of the Book of the Duchess, which was in circulation by the time he went to France in 1370. He traveled to Italy in 1372 and 1373, visiting Genoa and Florence, and upon his return to England was appointed a customs official for the Port of London, a post he would hold until 1386. Chaucer's career as a civil servant frequently took him to continental Europe over the course of the next decade, but by 1385 he was living in Kent, where he was appointed a justice of the peace. The following year he became a member of Parliament. The next few years were difficult ones for Chaucer. Linked to the royal family, he suffered as the aristocracy began to seize power in England. His fortunes rose again, however, with the return of John of Gaunt from the continent and Richard II's regained control of the government from the upstart barons. Chaucer was appointed a clerk of the king's works, but was removed from this office in 1391. The next few years were dismal for him. By 1396, records suggest, he had established a close relationship with John of Gaunt's son, the
Earl of Derby, who as King Henry IV later confirmed Chaucer's grants from Richard II and added an additional annuity in 1399. In December of that year, Chaucer leased a house in the garden of Westminster Abbey, where he lived for the remainder of his life. When Geoffrey Chaucer died on 25 October 1400, he was accorded the honor of burial in the Abbey (then traditionally reserved for royalty) and his tomb became the nucleus of what is now known as Poets' Corner.
Inspired in large part by French court poetry, Chaucer's first major work, the Book of the Duchess, was written to soothe the grief of John of Gaunt after his wife's death in 1368. At the opening of the poem the narrator succumbs to sleep as he reads the story of Seyes and Alcyone. In a dream he meets a mourning Black Knight. The narrator then inquires about the Knight's anguish, and the Knight, as he relates his stornion of the work holds that Chaucer surpasses his French models in the Book of the Duchess by transforming the insincere courtly language and sentimental romance imagery of dying for love into a poignant reality. House of Fame and Parlement of Foules are thought to comment upon efforts to arrange a suitable marriage for the young Richard II. A dream-vision, House of Fame appears to be an examination of the function of poets, the nature of poetry, and the unreliability of fame. Parlement of Foules also takes the form of a dream-vision, and betrays the influence of Italian Renaissance literature. The work is generally seen as an allegorical disputation on love.
Troilus and Criseyde, an adaptation of Boccaccio's Il Filostrato (c. 1338) was long considered by some critics to be Chaucer's finest poetic achievement. A tale of thwarted love set against the backdrop of the Trojan War, the work is thought to possess a symmetry, decorum, and metaphorical quality lacking in Boccaccio's story. Likewise, Chaucer's adaptation adds depth and changes the depiction of the main characters. His Criseyde is more refined, elegant and sympathetically portrayed than her capricious predecessor; she is not degraded after deciding to accept the political betrothal to the Greek warrior Diomede rather than marry Troilus. Troilus himself is reduced to an impotent passivity, although he formulates many of the primary concerns of the story. Critics note these as tensions between erotic and intellectual spheres, interpreting the poem in one of three general ways: as a psychological novel, the first in English; as the epitome of courtly love romances; or, as a religious and philosophical allegory. The last of Chaucer's dream-vision poems, Legend of Good Women relates the traditional stories of such faithful women as Dido, Cleopatra, and Lucrece. Considered somewhat dull and perfunctory by some, the unfinished Legend is valued by critics largely for its structure as a collection of interconnected stories that prefigures the form of Chaucer's masterpiece, the Canterbury Tales.
Begun sometime around 1386, the Canterbury Tales features a series of stories told by a group of travelers on a pilgrimage to the shrine of Thomas à Becket in Canterbury, and is said to reflect the diversity of fourteenth-century English life. The pilgrims depict the full range of medieval society, and the tales they relate span the literary spectrum of the period. The Canterbury Tales begins with a "General Prologue," introducing the pilgrims with short, vivid sketches—beginning with a knight and his entourage, followed by several ecclesiastics and representatives of the lower classes. The stories told are generally indicative of class and personality, with certain exceptions, often for ironic effect as scholars note. The social variety of the pilgrims is highlighted by the diversity of the tales and their themes: courtly romance, racy fabliau, allegory, sermon, beast fable, saint's life, and, at times, a mixture of these genres. In part due to the intricacy and proposed length of the work, critics believe that Chaucer's final plan for his Canterbury Tales was never realized; he either died before be could place the sections he envisioned in the proper sequence or stopped work on it all together. Nevertheless, the work contains what many readers feel is a realistic depiction of Chaucer's world that points to the vast and diverse knowledge of the poet and conjures the complexity of the fourteenth-century European mind.
Chaucer's genius was recognized in his own time and his works have since attracted a vast body of criticism. Praised by French and English contemporaries alike for his technical skill, he was revered as a master poet and lauded for his contributions to the English language. The outstanding English poet before Shakespeare, Geoffrey Chaucer brought Middle English to its full efflorescence. The originality of his language and style, the vivacity of his humor, the civility of his poetic demeanor, and the depth of his knowledge are continually cited as reasons for the permanence of his works. His poems continue to draw the interest of readers and critics centuries after his death and remain among the most acclaimed works throughout the English-speaking world.
Book of the Duchess c. 1368-1369
Anelida and Arcite c. 1373-1374
Canterbury Tales c. 1375-1400
House of Fame c. 1378-1381
Parlement of Foules c. 1378-1381
Troilus and Criseyde c. 1382-1386
Legend of Good Women c. 1386
Chaucer's Poetry: An Anthology for the Modern Reader [edited by E. Talbot Donaldson] 1975
Other Major Works
Roman de la Rose [translator; The Romance of the Rose] (poetry) c. 1360
Boecius de consolacione [translator; Consolation of Philosophy] (prose) c. 1380
Treatise on the Astrolabe (prose) c. 1391
Equatorie of the Planetis (prose) c. 1391
The Complete Poetry and Prose of Geoffrey Chaucer [edited by John H. Fisher; revised edition, 1989] (poetry and prose) 1977
A Variorum Edition of the Works of Geoffrey Chaucer [edited by Paul G. Ruggiers] (poetry and prose) 1979
The Riverside Chaucer [edited by Larry D. Benson] (poetry and prose) 1987
SOURCE: "A Descriptive Catalogue," in Blake: Complete Writings, edited by Geoffrey Keynes, Oxford University Press, 1966, pp. 563-85.
[Blake is perhaps the most esteemed English poet and artist of the Romantic period. In the following excerpt from his 1809 "Descriptive Catalogue" of his paintings and drawings, he describes Chaucer's Canterbury pilgrims as examples of "universal human life. "]
The characters of Chaucer's Pilgrims are the characters which compose all ages and nations: as one age falls, another rises, different to mortal sight, but to immortals only the same; for we see the same characters repeated again and again, in animals, vegetables, minerals, and in...
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SOURCE: "English Literature," in The Early Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson: 1833-1836, Vol. I, edited by Stephen E. Whicher and Robert E. Spiller, Harvard University Press, 1959, pp. 205-88.
[Emerson, an influential literary figure and philosopher during the nineteenth century, founded the American Transcendental movement. In the following excerpt from a lecture delivered in 1835, he places Chaucer in the English literary tradition, praising him for his delightful and authentic literary portraits.]
Geoffrey Chaucer in the unanimous opinion of scholars is the earliest classical English writer. He first gave vogue to many Provençal words by using them in his elegant and...
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SOURCE: "Troilus," in Chaucer and His Poetry, Harvard University Press, 1915, pp. 108-21.
[Kittredge is renowned as the editor of the Complete Works of Shakespeare (with Irving Ribner) and for his collections of English and Scottish ballads as well as for his studies of Chaucer, including Observations on the Language of Chaucer's Troilus and Chaucer and His Poetry from which the following excerpt is taken. In this passage, Kittredge summarizes the situation and action of Troilus and Criseyde and argues that it is a superlative love tragedy.]
Chaucer is known to everybody as the prince of storytellers, as incomparably the greatest of our...
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SOURCE: "Chaucer and the Rhetoricians," in Proceedings of the British Academy, Oxford University Press, 1926, pp. 95-113.
[Manly was an esteemed professor of Medieval English known for his valuable contribution to Chaucer studies through his lectures and his eight-volume collection. The Text of the Canterbury Tales, Studied on the Basis of All Known Manuscripts. In the following excerpt from his published lectures, Manly describes the rhetorical styles of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Book of the Duchess, Parlement of Foules, and other poems. He traces Chaucer's style to the lessons given in medieval rhetorical texts, suggesting that Chaucer was following set conventions in his...
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SOURCE: "The Art of Geoffrey Chaucer," in Proceedings of the British Academy, Oxford University Press, 1930, pp. 297-326.
[Lowes is noted for his essays and lectures on poetry and is the author of Geoffrey Chaucer and the Development of His Genius. In the following excerpt from one of his published lectures, Lowes provides cultural, biographical, and literary sources for Chaucer's works.]
My subject, as I have announced it, is a theme for a volume, but titles can seldom be brief and specific at once. I mean to limit myself to an attempt to answer—and that but in part—a single question: What, aside from genius, made the poet of the greater...
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SOURCE: "The Legend of Good Women," in The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1957, pp. 480-82.
[F. N. Robinson is the editor of the widely used The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer noted for its extensive textual notes and introductions to Chaucer's works. In the following essay originally published in 1933, Robinson discusses the Legend of Good Women in relation to its sources and other works by Chaucer.]
Next to the description of April "with his shoures sote" at the beginning of the Canterbury Tales, probably the most familiar and best loved lines of Chaucer are those in the Prologue to the Legend of Good Women which tell of...
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SOURCE: "The Framework of the Canterbury Tales," in University of Toronto Quarterly, Vol. XX, No. 2, January, 1951, pp. 137-54.
[In the following excerpt, Clawson explains the functions of the framing narrative within the "General Prologue" and throughout the Canterbury Tales as a linking device.]
[The] idea of a pilgrimage as the occasion for the telling of a sequence of stories was one of the happiest devices of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. [Quotations are from the Complete Works edited by F. N. Robinson (1933).] The religious motive of a pilgrimage made possible the coming together on a friendly footing of representatives of many...
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SOURCE: "The Crucial Passages in Five of the Canterbury Tales: A Study in Irony and Symbol," in The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. LII, No. 3, July, 1953, pp. 294-311.
[Owen is renowned for the textual criticism in his works, Discussions of the Canterbury Tales, Manuscripts of the Canterbury Tales and Pilgrimage and Storytelling in the Canterbury Tales. In the following essay, Owen analyzes symbolic passages in the "Franklin's Tale," the "Merchant's Tale," the "Wife of Bath's Tale," the "Pardoner's Tale," and the "Nun's Priest's Tale" to show how they foreshadow and unify their plots.]
Chaucer's Art in the Canterbury Tales...
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SOURCE: "Chaucer The Pilgrim," in PMLA, Vol. LXIX, No. 4, September, 1954, pp. 928-36.
[Donaldson is a scholar of Medieval and Old English Literature known for his translation of Beowulf for modern readers and his book, Speaking of Chaucer. In the following excerpt, Donaldson analyzes the persona of the fictional Chaucer, the narrator of the Canterbury Tales, and discusses the differences and similarities between this fictional protagonist and the poem's actual author.]
Verisimilitude in a work of fiction is not without its attendant dangers, the chief of which is that the responses it stimulates in the reader may be those appropriate not so much...
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SOURCE: "Troilus and Criseide," in Chaucer's Poetry: An Anthology for the Modern Reader, Scott, Foresman and Company, 1975, pp. 1129-44.
[In the following excerpt from an essay originally published in 1958. Donaldson presents the theme of Troilus and Criseyde as a paradoxical statement in which Chaucer asserts both the importance and the transitory nature of human values.]
Chaucer's longest single poem is his greatest artistic achievement and one of the greatest in English literature. It possesses to the highest degree that quality, which characterizes most great poetry, of being always open to reinterpretation, of yielding different meanings to different...
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SOURCE: "Fiction and Game in The Canterbury Tales," in The Critical Quarterly, Vol. 7, No. 2, Summer, 1965, pp. 185-97.
[In the following excerpt, Josipovici explains the function of the game motif as a method of resolving immoral aspects of the "Miller's Tale" and "The Pardoner's Prologue and Tale," and as a method of ironic self-revelation that reveals the folly of the pilgrims.]
Wherever we turn in The Canterbury Tales [quotations are taken from The Poetical Works of Chaucer, ed. by F. N. Robinson (1933)] we are faced with a conflict between the moral and the immoral, the edifying and the unedifying, the religious and the secular. This conflict...
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SOURCE: "The Satiric Pattern of The Canterbury Tales," in Six Satirists, edited by Beekman W. Cottrell et ai, Carnegie Institute of Technology, 1965, pp. 17-34.
[Knox has written a study of irony in literature from 1500 to 1755. In the following essay, Knox analyzes the forms of irony in the Canterbury Tales.]
Suppose we put to ourselves this question: To what extent, precisely, are the Canterbury Tales a work of satire? From one point of view we might answer the question very easily, simply by running through the Tales collecting an exhibit of disengaged passages and episodes which strike us as obviously satiric. But suppose we put the...
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SOURCE: "Chaucer's Religious Tales," in The Critical Review, No. 10, 1967, pp. 18-32.
[Robinson is the noted author of Chaucer and the English Tradition and Chaucer's Prosody: A Study of the Middle English Verse Tradition. In the following essay, Robinson discusses the religious motifs used in the "Prioress's Tale," the "Clerk's Tale," and the "Man of Law's Tale."]
Of the devotional and moral Canterbury Tales—a surprisingly large proportion of the whole work—the potentially interesting ones are the Prioress's, the Man of Law's and the Clerk's; and about these three there is a deep-seatedly mistaken critical tradition, namely that they are all...
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SOURCE: "The Uncourteous Knights of The Canterbury Tales," in English Studies, Vol. 72, No. 3, 1991, pp. 209-18.
[Taylor is the author of Chaucer's Chain of Love. In the following essay, he examines Chaucer's portrayal of flawed knighthood by analyzing the "Franklin's Tale," the "Physician's Tale," the "Wife of Bath's Tale," and the "Merchant's Tale."]
Although the pilgrim-knight whom hazard honours as the first teller of tales is portrayed by Chaucer in great detail as a warrior who serves both secular and religious causes, the Knight's own tale tells of knights in the service of ideals of courtesy. Indeed, the eight tales which feature knights concern...
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SOURCE: "The Book of the Duchess: Chaucer and the Medieval Physicians," in The Melancholy Muse: Chaucer, Shakespeare and Early Medicine, Duquesne University Press, 1995, pp. 38-65.
[In the following excerpt, Heffernan analyzes the narrator of the Book of the Duchess in terms of medieval concepts of depression.]
Comparing Chaucer's understanding of mental states, as it appears in The Book of the Duchess, with those ideas recorded in medical texts makes even more evident the human values in the poem to which generations of readers have responded. Examining Chaucer thus is not an unliterary approach. Even Robert Jordan [in Chaucer's Poetics and the...
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SOURCE: "The Book of the Duchess," in Oxford Guides to Chaucer: The Shorter Poems, edited by A. J. Minnis et al., Clarendon Press, 1995, pp. 73-90.
[Minnis is a scholar of Medieval Literature and the author of many notable works including Chaucer and the Pagan Antiquity and Chaucer's Boece and the Medieval Tradition of Boethius. In the following excerpt, Minnis uses historical information and analyses of verse form, rhetoric, and style to praise Chaucer's The Book of the Duchess.]
Blanche of Lancaster died on 12 September 1368, perhaps of the plague. Two major monuments were constructed to preserve her memory. One was a poem by Geoffrey...
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