Uncertainty about Chaucer
The early life of Chaucer is clouded with uncertainty. It is, for example not known with any degree of certainty as to the year in which he was born. By common consent, the year of his birth is taken to be 1340, though it is possible that the actual year was up to three years earlier or later. Chaucer’s father was for a time purveyor or supplier to King Edward III. The boy is known to have occupied for some time the position of a page in the household of the king’s daughter-in-law, the Duchess of Clarence.
In 1359, he accompanied the king’s army to France where he is known to have fought in the war during 1359-60. In this war, Chaucer was taken prisoner but was released on ransom. He was assumed in March 1360. There can be little doubt that rich memories of this first-hand experience of the pageant of medieval warfare were stored in his mind, to go into his creative works in later years.
Marriage of Chaucer
There can be a little doubt that Chaucer’s career benefited greatly from his marriage. His wife Philippa de Roet, was the lady in waiting to the Queen. His sister-in-law Catherine became the mistress of John of Gaunt and later married him to become his third wife. These influential connections, along with his visits abroad on diplomatic missions must have given Chaucer a wide knowledge of the world. And also, saved him from that restriction of outlook which was the feature of life in the upper classes of society.
Chaucer seems to have been on active diplomatic services during the years 1368 to 1387. He is then known to have made several journeys abroad on diplomatic missions, in which he seems to have been quite successful. He traveled to Flanders, France, and Italy. It was inevitable that the wide travels should have brought Chaucer into contact with many types and classes of men, and thus helped in making him a great delineator of character. Early in the 1360s, Chaucer had become attached to the royal household as an esquire of the King’s Bedchamber. This enabled him to spend about a decade at the court of King Edward III, which was at that time the most magnificent among the European courts. In the atmosphere, it was greatly influenced by France and its court, especially in manners and taste for literature.
Chaucer was a favorite of the King and after a spell in the diplomatic service of the country. He held many other positions which were a mark of royal favor and carried considerable benefits and power, without imposing any particular duties on the incumbent. One of these was the position of the controller of customs on wool, leather, and skins at the port of London.
For some time he held this position concurrently with that of the controller of petty customs at the port of London. In 1386, he held the position of the Knight of the Shire for the County of Kent and continued as such for another year. This entitled him to sit in Parliament. In 1389, he was appointed Clerk of the King’s works in and around London from 1391 right up to death. Chaucer appears to have also occupied the position of the forester of one of the royal forests. Chaucer was the recipient of a pension as well as a monetary grant from the treasury for about three decades. For some time both he and his wife received a pension from John of Gaunt also.
Chaucer and France
Chaucer was influenced by France and Italy, and the two influences mark distinct periods in his life as well as in literature. The courtly tradition in England was the same as that in France and the tradition of French courtly love-poetry dominated English literature. For some years in the early part of his career as a poet, Chaucer was, to all intents and purposes a French love poet, with the only difference that he was writing in English. He depicted courtly love and modeled his works on the lines of love visions. The most famous of the French work of this type was the Roman de la Rose where the rose is a mystic symbol of love.
Chaucer in fact also translated some part of this work into English. During the period of French influence, Chaucer wrote elegant poetry to satisfy the tastes of the knights and ladies at the court of the king. This was what every elegant aristocrat of the day was also doing. However, one of Chaucer’s products of this period at least was head and shoulders above the typical works of this kind. That was the Book of the Duchess which Chaucer wrote to bring solace to the prince John of Gaunt, who had suffered bereavement in the death of his wife, Blanche, the Duchess of Gaunt.
The Book of Duchess
The Book of the Duchess is the earliest of Chaucer’s work, and reflects well his life and tastes at this stage. The Duchess had passed away in 1369. Chaucer here uses the convention of the dram allegory. The poet falls asleep while reading a poem in which the wife learns from her husband who appears to her in a dream, of his death at sea. In his own dream, the poet goes to the one disconsolate knight who stands apart from the others, clad in black and engrossed in grief. The deep grief of the widower comes out in the conversation that the poet has with him. The knight at first represents his grief in the guise of a player who has suffered a reverse at chess. The other player is a false fortune who has checkmated him and deprived him of his queen.
However, under the persistent questioning of the poet, the knight gives a touching account of the beauty of his deceased lady-love and describes how he wooed and won her. In spite of the formality of the convention, Chaucer succeeds in imparting to his work a lively realism and a subtlety of psychological depiction which are refreshingly modern – in fact, Chaucer seems to have enjoyed the realism. Chaucer was to use the form of the love-vision at least once again, in the Parliament of Fowls. The convention also figures in the prologue to his Legend of Good Women.
Chaucer’s contact with Italy had a profound influence on his as well on the course of English literature of the century. He first visited Italy around 1372. Italy had by then already emerged out of the intellectual darkness of medievalism, although the Renaissance was still some decades away. The small city-states of Italy were witnessing a spurt of intellectual and artistic activity which was nothing short of miraculous. The poetry of Dante was having its full impact. Patriarch was still alive and so was Boccacio. The influence of the last of these was no doubt of the utmost importance in so far as Chaucer’s most immortal work, The Canterbury Tales is concerned. From the works of Chaucer, we can form some idea of the life of mental activity which he saw in Italy and which, no doubt, became his own ideal.
He was very eager to study and from his works, we get the image of the poet sitting dumb as a stone at his studies at the end of the day’s work. Italy then already exhibited the unquenchable temper of the Renaissance, which was to take another century to have its influence felt in England. Moreover, it was the great masterpieces of Italian literature which stimulated Chaucer to give his best. Among the greatest works by Chaucer which can be traced to the influence of Italy are Troilus and Criseyde, which was an adaptation of a long poem of Boccaccio.
Last Years of Life
Much less is known about the closing years of Chaucer’s life, especially the last decade of the century. It may be assumed that changes in monarchy caused him some anxiety and that for a time, he might even have suffered a temporary cessation of loyal favor. The accession of Henry IV in 1399 must naturally have caused concerns to one who had enjoyed the favors of Richard II, but the new king confirmed the royal grants of his predecessors. However, Chaucer did riot live long to enjoy these favors, for he died at the turn of the century. There is some evidence for the tradition that Chaucer fell into monetary difficulties and passed the last years of his life in poverty and debt. He died in 1400 and was buried in Westminster Abbey.
The dates of Chaucer’s works can be assigned only approximately. The Book of the Duchess was written in 1369 or 1370. The unfinished House of Fame was written around 1380. The Parliament of Fowls was written about two years later. Troilus and Criseyde were completed around 1385. The Legend of Good Women, also unfinished, was written around 1386. Chaucer is believed to have started work on The Canterbury Tales around 1387. It is probable that the collection was revised and rearranged a number of times. His literary career falls into three distinct periods. The first period of French influence lasted from 1359 to 1372. Chaucer used the isosyllabic couplet during this period of his career as a poet. The Book of the Duchess and the part of the Romaunt of the Rose which is attributable to Chaucer belongs to this period.
The second was the period of Italian influence, especially of the influence of Dante and Boccaccio which lasted from 1372 to 1386. Chaucer now discards the isosyllabic couplet and patronizes the heroic stanza of seven liens, and also uses the heroic couplet. The House of Frame, the Parliament of Fowls, The Legend of Good Women, and the first drafts or some of The Canterbury Tales belong to this period. The third period was that of Chaucer’s maturity in which the meter used is only the heroic couplet. The Canterbury Tales, which were designed about 1387 belong to this period, as does a translation of Boethius and a Treatise on the Astrolabe complied for his little son, Lewis. The Canterbury Tales first came out in print in 1478, the printer being Caxton. Chaucer’s collected works were first issued by W. Thynne in 1532.
Personality of Chaucer
If our knowledge of the events in Chaucer’s private life is scant, we are able to form a pretty good picture of the poet’s personality from his works. This is in spite of the fact that the framework of most of Chaucer’s narratives is dramatic. The strongest impression that we get is of a man who is tolerant and cheerfully humorous in spite of the observation of life at first hand is evidenced in all his works. One of his most endearing traits is the ability to laugh at himself. His genial humor is roguish and quizzical but never becomes corrosive, and his irony is always gentle. He is a lover of books, but a lover of life and of Nature no less.
He is a born storyteller and a skillful delineator of character. In one of The Canterbury Tales, he characterizes himself as large and corpulent, and in another work, he speaks of his figure being such that it would have been difficult for any woman to pass her arms around him in embracing him. Robert Dudley French depicts Chaucer’s intellectual temperament thus.