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 servant with considerable responsibility.) At intervals, Howard interrupts his narrative to consider Chaucer’s works with a harmonious blend of biographical and literary analysis. By the time the reader has finished, he has a vivid sense of Chaucer the man--and he is ready to hunt for a good edition of the poet’s works.
Marvelous as this book is, it is not without flaws. Donald Howard died in March, 1987. Although the publisher says that the book was completed several months before his death, there are clear indications that Howard would have made revisions had he lived. Several passages, for example, substantially repeat information given in earlier sections, often with similar wording. Further, without questioning the necessity for conjecture in a life of Chaucer, one can fairly say that Howard should have put a tighter rein on his empathic imagination. Such flaws, however, will not spoil the reader’s pleasure.