Biography of Chaucer


CHAUCER, GEOFFREY, the father of English poetry, was born, if we may credit traditions, in 1321, and from a passage in the Testament of Love, his birthplace seems to have been London. The deepest obscurity rests on his early history. It has been said that he studied at Cambridge and afterwards, removed to Oxford.

In 1359, Chaucer assures on his own authority, that he served under Edward III, in his French campaign, and was therein made prisoner. The date of his return from captivity, and of his subsequent marriage, cannot now be ascertained. He married Philippa, youngest daughter of Sir Payne Roet, whose estates lay in Hainault. His wife's sister, Katharine, ultimately became the wife of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster; and it may be presumed that the high connection thus established aided in no inconsiderable degree the poet's advancement in life. After his marriage he began to mix in public affairs. He was sent on an embassy to Genoa in 1372, and on that occasion has been supposed by some to have had an interview with Petrarch, then residing at Padua, and to have heard from his lips the story of Griselda. On his return he was appointed comptroller of the customs on wools, and in the same year the King granted him a pitcher of wine daily for life. In 1387, Chaucer lost his wife. Where he spent his closing years cannot now be ascertained. It seems however to be tolerably certain that during the last years of his life he was a resident of London. There he died on the 14th of October, 1400, and was buried in Westminister Abbey, the first of a long line of poets whose ashes make that place so venerable.

Chaucer was a worthy representative of the 14th century. He was a master of the science, the theology, and the literature of the time. His poems are numerous, and exhibit every variety of poetic excellence. His earlier performances, such as The Flower and the Leaf, The Romaunt of the Rose, are, after the French fashion then prevalent, gorgeous allegories, full of queens and kings, bowers, bevies of beautiful ladies, and brave knights, and pious nightingales that sing the praises of God. They appeal potently enough to the eye, but they do not in the slightest degree, touch the heart or relate themselves to human concerns. Quite diffrently The Canterbury Tales, so full of humor, pathos, and shrewd observation. In these Tales, English life, as it then existed, is wonderfully reflected - when the King tilted in the tournament, when the Knight and his lady rode over the down with falcon on wrist, when pilgrimages bound for the tomb of St. James passed on from village to village, when friars sitting in taverns over wine sang songs that formed a remarkable contrast with the services they so piously and sweetly intoned. All that stirring and gaily apparelled time - so different from our own - is seen in Chaucer's work, as in some magic mirror; and in his case as in every other, when the superficial tumults and noises that so stun the cotemporary ear have faded away, leaving behind that which is elemental and eternal, the poet is found to be the truest historian.