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.