Geoffrey Chaucer

Well on in the pilgrims’ famous journey to Canterbury, Harry Bailey, the host of the Tabard and master of ceremonies, called on Chaucer for his story. The poet had hitherto kept in the background, though before they had set out, he had made a point of speaking with each of his fellow travellers. “What a man!” said the Host;

“Thou lookest as thou woldest fynde an hare,
For evere upon the ground I se thee stare.”

Come forward, man, look cheerful” (the Prioress had just finished a sad story), “What a dainty waist! Like mine” (the Host was a big fellow).

He semeth elvyssh by his contenaunce,
For unto no wight dooth he daliaunce”

Chaucer protests that he is no story-teller, knows only one old rhyme; “some dainty thing,” the Host infers from his looks. But it proves to be a tedious old romance, so tedious that the Host stops it, for even he is bored with its bourgeois commonplace.

How much of this is Chaucer’s true portrait of himself, and how much ironical sly caricature? There is reason to think that he was not tall, but ruddy, plump, and cheerful, with pointed beard, and, one imagines, of kindling eye, quiet voice, and few words. In his House of Fame he has the eagle reprove him for indifference even to his next-door neighbors; for after office hours he runs home,

And also domb as any stoon
Thou sittest at another book,

like a hermit. And in the Prologue to the Legend of Good Women he confesses that nothing can tear him away from his books, but a holiday or the spring,

Whan that I here the smale foules synge,
And that the floures gynne for to sprynge.

Many a sleepless night he takes an old romance to bed with him. It is clear at any rate that this man loved the country, loved an old book, loved fun even to the point of his own joke on himself. And it will appear that, big or small, assertive or shy, nothing human escaped his ever questing eye and ear.

Geoffrey, son of John Chaucer a wine merchant, was born in London not earlier than 1340. He came of middle-class stock, but through some association of his father with the Court, became a youthful page to Elizabeth, wife of Lionel, Duke of Clarence, younger son to Edward III, and thus began his great career.

Like Arcite in the Knight’s Tale, it seems

his name is spronge,
Bothe of his dedes and his goode tonge.

First “valet,” then “squire” or secretary in the King’s household, his duties became more and more responsible. Meantime in 1359 he had gone campaigning in France, was taken prisoner, and ransomed. In his middle twenties he married a lady-in-waiting, Philippa Roet, eventually the sister-in-law of John of Gaunt. Two sons, Thomas and “litel sone Lowis,” were born–whether other children is not known; nor whether the marriage was happy. Certain lines of the poet about marriage have led some to think that it was not, but that does nor follow. The most happily married are sometimes the very ones to think every other venture but theirs either a failure, or at best only a partial success.

Meanwhile Chaucer seems to have had no university education. Possibly as a lad he went to a London school. The cathedral school of St. Paul’s in his day was equal to providing such equipment of literary knowledge as he had. He spoke and read French of course, and probably spoke, certainly read, Italian. He also read Latin, yet not so easily but that on occasion he found an Italian “crib” easier. With such gift of tongues he proceeded in the rigorous manner of a genius to educate himself, ranging freely through many writers, and appropriating what he required. Of these four were chief–Boethius and his Consolation of Philosophy; Jean de Meun, satiric co-author of the Roman de/a Rose; Boccaccio, both in his Italian and his Latin works; and Ovid, who was Chaucer’s favorite narrator of classical lore. In one place he speaks of owning sixty books “olde and newe,” a large library for the times.

In 1367 Chaucer was rewarded by a life pension for services to the King, and the next year he made his first recorded official journey to the Continent. Meanwhile, as a young courtier in his twenties he turned off “balades, roundels, vire-layes” in the fashionable manner of contemporary French poets, studio pieces, probably in far greater number than have survived. He may also have begun his translation of the Roman de la Rose. Translations are often a great poet’s means of schooling himself in the technique of his art. In 1369 he wrote his first considerable poem, The Book of the Duchess, in memory of the lovely young Blanche, wife of John of Gaunt, just dead of the plague.

During his thirties Chaucer was much engaged in diplomatic services, and an important member of some eight commissions to Flanders, France, or Italy. Of these the Italian journeys of 1373 and 1378 were of most importance. All told he must have spent a year’s time in Italy, including Florence, and such contact with the world of Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio had profound influence on his mind and art. Some wish to believe that he met the great Petrarch, but proof is still wanting.

The years from 1374 to 1386 were a busy time. Not only had he his diplomatic duties, but he was serving as Comptroller of Customs, in a responsible post of the bustling port. Salary was small, but there were good perquisites and associations with men of wealth and importance. Yet he somehow hoarded leisure enough to finish several great poems–his House of Fame, his Parliament of Birds, and his greatest complete work, Troilus and Criseyde. Besides, he translated Boethius’s Consolation and wrote several of the stories afterwards embodied in the Canterbury Tales, including that of the Knight. He lived with Philippa in a rent-free house over Ald-gate in the city wall to the east, which, thus removed, looked into the city on one side and across country on the other–like the poet who lived in it. As the years passed he became a man of substance and importance, receiving various royal benefits, among them a daily pitcher of the royal wine, afterwards commuted to an annuity.

In 1386 he ceased to be Comptroller, gave up the Aldgate house, and seems to have retired to an estate of his own in Kent, not far from town, and lived as a country gentleman. He was justice of the peace, and sat briefly in Parliament as member for Kent. But business did not get the best of poetry. He began his collection of tales called The Legend of Good Women, interrupted in 1387 by the grander and more absorbing scheme of The Canterbury Tales. And among the rest he had his literary friends–the poet Gower, the scholar Ralph Strode, and the distinguished French poet, Deschamps, who sent him a highly laudatory ballade honoring the “grant translateur, noble Geoffroy Chaucier.”

Thus he lived a busy practical life along with a busy poetical one, and who shall say which was more important to his art? Greater responsibilities awaited him. From 1389 to 1391 he was Clerk of the King’s Works and had charge of repairs on some eleven royal abodes together with their grounds, not to mention incidental tasks of erecting temporary stands for tournaments, and the repair of banks and bridges along four miles of the Thames below London. For two years he seems to have discharged the heavy duties of this office ably and well. He was then appointed to be forester of the royal forest at North Petherton in Somerset. His last decade may have been divided between the forest and London; or possibly he never saw the forest, but farmed out his duties and enjoyed the income. Somehow during his last years he became less wealthy, though perhaps not so poor as has been supposed. His Complaint to His Purse, one of his last poems, is a whimsical perversion of lyric love. Various are the records of his suits, debts, payments, and collections. In 1399 he took a house close to Westminster Abbey. There he died the next year, and was the first of the famous poets to be buried in what has become the Poets’ Corner.

Through all the turmoil of the times and its three kings, the decline of Edward III, the misbehavior of Richard II, the usurpation of Henry IV, in spite of vicissitudes these kings were alike in their regard for the welfare of their faithful and gentle servant Geoffrey Chaucer.

Chaucer’s poetry has been divided between a French period, an Italian period, and an English period. French influences no doubt determined the quality of his early work, and he was deeply schooled in them; Italian influences followed from reading Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio; however, neither French nor Italian influences were ever superseded, but were subtly absorbed by the growing energies of his native English genius.

Chiefly from his early years, but also scattered through his life, issued short “complaints,” to his Lady, to Pity, of Mars, of Venus; envoys, like his jokes on his friends Scogan and Bukton; ballades, like the noble one on Truth, on Gentilesse, and on Lack of Steadfastness.

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From early youth Chaucer had doubtless been a reader of the famous love allegory called the Roman de la Rose. At any rate either in his youth, or perhaps not until his forties, he translated at least a part of this vast poem. The first 4068 lines were the work of Guillaume de Lorris, born about 1200. Forty years after Guillaume laid down his pen, it was continued to 22,000 lines by Jean Clopinel de Meun.

Guillaume, the idealist of chivalric love, when not yet twenty, dreamed, so he says, a May morning dream of bright
fields and birds, of a garden enclosed in frescoed walls and filled with fair ladies dancing. By a Narcissus fountain a lovely rosebud was bursting into bloom. An arrow from the love-god’s bow pierced his heart, and he would forthwith have seized the rosebud, for it was his lady-love. But affairs of the heart are not so easy. Between hosts of allegorical friends, such as Generosity, Fair-Welcome, and Courtesy, and hosts of allegorical enemies, such as Jealousy, Danger (Woman’s Disdain), and Wicked Tongue, the poet’s love is put to trial, the plot is complicated, vicissitudes arise, and various nice points are debated at length. Doubtless Guillaume, like any kind novelist, would have brought his lover eventually into happy possession, but at the moment of the lover’s deepest despair his work broke off.

When resumed by Jean, the fair dream light has faded, and the action slackens under the cold literal daylight of Jean’s cynical satire. Yet he keeps the scheme and the characters; if only to deliver long speeches which strip the medieval cult of courtly love naked of all its idealism.

This extraordinary work had enormous influence, direct or indirect, not on Chaucer only, but on much of the poetry of the next three centuries. It is another instance of the quickening influences from the South that breathed warm life into English Literature. It is an epitome of medieval literary devices, conventions, and ideas about love. In its day it was enormously popular in France and England, and is still an amusing, often charming, handbook of the code of love in the medieval world. The allegory, the dream, the May morning, the meadow, the garden, the frescoes of famous love affairs, the fountain, the trial of the lover, the porter Idleness, the personifications, the arrows of Cupid, the debate, the contrast of carnal and ideal love in Venus and Cupid, the siege–these and other devices appear and reappear in various combinations of various poetic merit.

Fragments survive of a Middle English translation of several thousand lines, but with the doubtful exception of the first 1200 lines they are not Chaucer’s. Yet translate the poem he did, at least in part, thus schooling himself in all its allegorical devices, and what is far more important, attuning the English language to the exquisite refinements of French love poetry, in accents of which it was hitherto incapable. Thus he built the great instrument for his mature performance yet to come.

The dream loveliness of Guillaume captivated Chaucer; but so also did the cynicism of Jean. This we infer from the frequent reminiscence of the Roman in his various works. Chaucer was great enough to embrace both and realize the usefulness of each. In one he valued the rich heritage of the chivalric age, now passing away; in the other he recognized the weakness of that age through the depreciating eye of Jean and the new spirit of the dawning Renaissance.

In his exquisite and youthful Book of the Duchess Chaucer employed several of the court-of-love devices–an old love story of Ceys and Alcyone from Ovid and Machaut, the May-dream, the birds singing matins, the meadow, the cruelty of Fortune, and the “complaint,” this time not of the lover, but of the widower. For John of Gaunt disguised as a “man in black,” laments in a “debate” the loss of his beloved “White,” the Duchess Blanche. She had died in 1369.

Within the next ten years Chaucer again uses the court-of-love devices in a grander project–The House of Fame. Again the dream, the temple, the frescoes, the allegory; again Venus and the rehearsal of old love-stories. But it is now December, not May, and the landscape a desert from which the austere eagle of Jove carries Chaucer, as he had carried Dante, up to a “sudden view of all this world at once,” past clouds and brewing storms to the palace of the goddess Fame. There amid reverberations of all the world’s music, and babel of the world’s rumor, crowds of men press forward to the goddess’s throne for fame. It is a picturesque, but disillusioned review of the perennial human instinct of self-advertisement. The poem has come down to us not quite complete, but its two thousand lines reveal a Chaucer emerging from his French school. His stroke is more vigorous with new Italian energies, especially those of Dante–for he had already sojourned many months in Italy. Virgil, Ovid, Macrobius, and others have reinforced his growing powers. Old romance now serves a grander, more austere use. Through the allegorical veil we discern a Chaucer amid the world of men, interested but coolly observing how most things are at sixes or at sevens, yet heartily detesting pretence and dishonesty.

Once again, probably in the early eighties, Chaucer fingers the old devices in his Parliament of Birds. He falls adreaming over the popular Somnium Scipionis, and in a lovely garden on St. Valentine’s Day hears the birds “debate” a love affair. Some have associated the poem in one way or another with the betrothal of young King Richard to Anne of Bohemia, or with a wedding in John of Gaunt’s family, but nothing is proved. The allegory of birds of prey (peers), water-birds (merchants), seed-birds (farmers), and worm-birds (lower class) suggests something in the poet’s mind of larger social import than a mere love affair, even a king’s.

Somewhere in the 1380’s his greatest complete work engaged his energies — the Troilus and Criseyde. Grand in its very proportions–it is cast into five books of seven-line stanzas, totalling more than eight thousand lines–it is grander still in its simplicity and its searchings of the human heart. For his story Chaucer went to Boccaccio, who in his poem Filostrato had developed a mere love episode in the Roman de Troie of Benoit de Sainte-Maure, written about 1160, and in a Latin prose version of the Roman by Guido delle Colonne of 1287. Chaucer also consulted Benoit and Guido, besides Joseph of Exeter’s twelfth-century Latin poem. Ostensibly then the Troilus of Chaucer is one of those romances of chivalry dealing with the “matter of Troy” which go back for their story, not to Homer, but, by link after link, to late Latin versions of the famous tale. But Chaucer has built something far exceeding the limits of a mere literary species.

The events are simple enough. Criseyde is a fair young widow of Troy, whose father has deserted and gone over to the Greeks. Troilus, boasting himself love-proof, falls desperately in love with her. His friend Pandarus, also Criseyde’s uncle, manipulates a series of communications and meetings by which Criseyde’s heart is won, and the two lovers are for two or three years consummately and secretly happy. But an exchange of prisoners tears them apart; and, though she promises in ten days to return to her courtly lover, the Greek Diomede, a common, masterful man of action, irresistibly usurps Troilus’s place in her heart. Poor Troilus in despair, rushes to his death in battle.

Such is the bare story told by Boccaccio and Chaucer. But Chaucer has modified and expanded the material, and, like a good playwright, has detached himself from the narrative. He has cast it into five books, as it were into five acts, and each book is but a succession of scenes in dialogue with briefest description, rapid stage direction, and occasional lyric intervals. In the first book the hopeless Troilus is transformed by Pandarus’s promise of help; in the second the lovers meet for the first time; in the third the affair is consummated; in the fourth they part; in the fifth Troilus despairs at last. The poet shows all a dramatist’s skill in crises, transitions, interludes, and suspense.

But in a profounder sense he is a dramatist. He has humanized his characters and set them in highly dramatic contrast with each other. Troilus is the central figure-young, engaging, active, the perfect courtly lover, an idealist, loyal and enduring, to whom lack of faith and disloyalty are simply incomprehensible. On the other hand Criseyde–sweet, helpless, lovely, without much mind, easily subject to the will of others, yet ever practically aware of her situation, to whom the present necessity is far more pressing than past or future; who thus, like many another, proves untrue in the end, breaks a man’s heart without really meaning to, yet seems hardly to deserve the harsh condemnation which both Troilus and Pandarus hurl after her. Then Pandarus, a warm, loyal friend, practical, intriguing and resourceful, conventional, correct, sensible, but incapable of idealism, laughing down matters of serious concern, genial and likable without charm–he is a perfect foil to the principals.

Great power the poet shows in his invention or elaboration of scenes–the first meeting of the two after Deiphobus’s dinner party, where the suspense and secrecy are heightened by the hurried manipulations of Pandarus; or the meeting of consummation at Pandarus’s house; or the scene where Troilus seeks comfort but finds only desolation in gazing at the shuttered and deserted house of his lady. Not less is the vigor and sophistication of Chaucer’s dialogue. Wit, finesse, badinage, quick interplay, strong emotion, laughter, tears, trembling, all enter into the wonderful scene wherein Pandarus first tells Criseyde of Troilus’s passion. With equal delicacy Chaucer traces the course by which “Troilus and Troietown,” when once Criseyde has gone over to the Greeks, slid “knotteles thorughout hire herte.”

With all the fears and hopes of a lonely lover, Troilus on the tenth day climbs the walls to catch the first glimpse of Criseyde returning as she had promised. All day he watches. Once in the gloaming he thinks he sees her. Then in deep night he goes home still hoping. At the very moment she is listening with interest to Diomede’s first compelling plea. The irony of the situation is in tune with the irony of the whole poem. The perfect lover finds his perfect mate. With the skil-ful help of a friend and happy accident they possess one another in bliss. All is as it should be. Yet the end is betrayal and death. Troilus can only moan: “I have it not deserved.” Pandarus had done his best. In his dismay he can only curse the woman. Yet such is the world, says Chaucer:

In ech estat is litel hertes reste;
God leve us for to take it for the beste!

This world seems all a matter of blind Fortune or destiny. Meanwfiile what remedy? Beneath the poem runs a stream of laughter, which breaks forth at times in the various voices—hearty, or bubbling, or cynical, or bitterly mirthless. And the soul of Troilus at last looking down from Heaven’s felicity laughs at the pettiness and confusion he has left behind.

To such conclusions averring the destiny or mutability of mundane things, Chaucer may have been encouraged by reading his favorite Boethius On the Consolation of Philosophy. But the Troilus ends with an epilogue and prayer. And though this is a literary convention, yet in the present instance these closing lines are vibrant with tension which is anything but specious, as he commends young, fresh lovers who would love aright to consider “that sothfast Crist”

For he nyl falsen no wight, dar I seye.

The Troilus and Criseyde is a medieval poem. Its Troy is medieval, its costumes, its social manners. It embodies the ideals of courtly love–the enduring lover, his acute distress, the lady slow yielding, the consummation without marriage, the secrecy; yet an ideal love by courtly standards, which is far above mere carnal desire, for it brings the man to noblest realization of himself, and condemns utterly the unfaithful one.

But Chaucer has touched the old conventions with the greatness that undates them, charging them with thought, feeling, and behavior that are still and at all times human. The fine young man of ordinary mind, physically active and courageous, passively luxuriating in his emotions; the woman, sweet, of good intention, equal only to the immediate moment, far more actual than Irene Forsyte; the disillusioned man of the world, unprincipled but devoted, with no ideals other than those of his “set”; the selfish, irresistible, always successful, woman-questing, unloved man of affairs: the reader of Troilus has not merely read about these, he has met them in the flesh.

In 1385, by the appointment of a deputy controller, Chaucer gained more leisure for his beloved books, and soon after he was at work upon his Legend of Good Women. It turned out to be a rehearsal for his grand masterpiece, consisting of a long Prologue and nine tales completed, with ten more projected.

The tales are sweetly, briefly, and gracefully told—about Thisbe, Dido, Ariadne, Philomela, and other such love-lorn ladies of antiquity. Ovid, in his Heroides, and Boccaccio had successfully compiled such groups. But vary them as he could, Chaucer seems to have been bored with their sweet monotony, and to have forsaken them for perhaps the same reason that their lovers did.

His Prologue pleased him more, for he revised it after he had abandoned the legends. We must agree with his preference. It opens with a confession of faith:

A thousand sythes have I herd men telle
That there is joye in hevene, and peyne in helle.

Perhaps. No living man has been in either. We can only believe old books. As for Chaucer,

these olde aproved storyes
Of holynesse, of regnes, of victoryes,
Of love, of hate, of othere sondry thynges–

it is between them and a meadow in May that his heart is divided. At all events he once slept and dreamed in such a meadow–and of course found himself again in the complete setting of the court of love, fair ladies and all. This time he adores not the rose, but the daisy, as in French margarite poems–Love’s queen, Alceste, possibly at moments an allegorical disguise for Queen Anne, to whom he dedicated the poem. The god of love scolds him for his slander of women, for example, of Criseyde. Alceste “debates” the case, and imposes the gentle penance of composing the legends of good women. The old conventions still, but so subdued to the poet’s power that he can play with them as he pleases, and make them serve the mature vigor of his artistic purpose.

The Legend may have been crowded from Chaucer’s mind by the lustier idea of the Canterbury Tales. Such groups of “frame-stories” had been devised long before–Arabian Nights, The Seven Sages, Boccaccio’s Decameron–but the one most like Chaucer’s scheme of a pilgrimage is the Novelle of Sercambi of Lucca, written after 1374. Whatever its source, the new project sprang up into stout and original growth in the English poet’s mind. Everyone has read of the thirty or so pilgrims at the Tabard Inn of an evening, cheered by a good supper, and all agog with travellers’ anticipation of the exciting journey to Canterbury and the shrine of St. Thomas the Martyr. It is springtime;

Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages.

Which is Chaucer’s grave way of saying, with a twinkle, that when spring gets into his bones, one feels like breaking bounds, and cutting a caper.

And what an array of rank and calling–high, humble, bad, good, lively, dull–no wonder some have thought it was the poet’s object to have all classes represented. More likely his poet’s eye had singled out of his wide world certain picturesque originals to begin with. There was, it seems, an actual Tabard Inn in Southwark, and an actual, well-known innkeeper named Henry Bailey. These figures, real or imaginary, he developed with due regard to artistic and dramatic juxtaposition. It was a happy idea of Chaucer’s to assemble this odd assortment away from home and social hindrance, in that genial humor of the road that melts the barriers and lets the mind flow free.

By the Host’s proposal each of the pilgrims was to tell two stories on the journey out, and two on the way back, making about one hundred and twenty altogether. Only a quarter of these were finished, together with the great Prologue, single prologues to various tales, and “links” or passages of transition between certain of the tales. In its unfinished state the work consists of ten fragments, but the exact order in which Chaucer would have arranged them, whether all were tales for the outward journey, or some for the return, whether the sixty miles to Canterbury were to be covered in two, three, or four days, are still questions of debate. Some are literal enough to object that one mount could not easily tell a tale to thirty other mounts strung along the road. Chaucer’s comment on such a comment would be worth having. He has created genial conditions perfect for story-telling, and that is enough.

Clearly, the knight was to begin, followed in order by the Miller, the Reeve, the Cook· Then the succession is broken; and the final order, even if it was settled in Chaucer’s mind, cannot be determined.

1387 is the usually accepted date at which Chaucer entered upon his grand undertaking, though several of the tales, certainly the Knight’s and the Second Nun’s, had already been composed. We may think of the poet during those last thirteen years finding, as he had leisure, his happiest solace in work on his masterpiece.

The great Prologue is doubtless the most original part of the Canterbury Tales. There is precedent in plenty for the tales themselves, but nothing before in literature like this astonishing series of portraits. One knows not whether to wonder most at their variety, their grouping, or the easy vigour of execution.

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The reader passes as it were through chamber after chamber of a portrait gallery. There are finished full-lengths, half-lengths, sketches, miniatures· The Knight is flanked by Squire and Yeoman· Three superb full-length portraits of Prioress, Monk, and Friar, fill another wall. The grave Clerk stands in fine contrast between the Merchant and the Man of Law. A brilliant sketch in white, blue, orange-red, and black, pure as an old illumination, drawn as by magic, is the Miller; the Yeoman is a smaller one in green. Variously does Chaucer com. bine features, manners, history, costume, and accoutrements. Where the mind of the subject is shallow he leans on externals for effect. But in such as the Knight, the Friar, or the Parson, colour and objects are subdued, and the deeper, graver quality of heart and mind preoccupy us. With the strict economy of the great artist he chooses the all-significant detail:

Of fustian he wered a gypon,
Al bismotered with his habergeon·

Which is not only picturesque but expresses more than pages could the seasoned, hard-riding, unromantic knight in the real world–no plumed young carpet-dandy of old romance.

The supreme reality of Chaucer’s portraits convinces one that he had originals for at least some of them. There was Harry Bailey; and perhaps Henry of Lancaster suggested the Knight. In any case, the Prologue carries us into the living, actual English world of the fourteenth century. Yet it has an even deeper reality, reminding us of people and types we know. The Knight and the modern explorer, the Prioress and the lady-principal, the Merchant and the commercial traveller, the punctilious lawyer–these are obvious modern counterparts; and not modern only, for they will be familiar in every age.

Chaucer’s portraits embody a triple reality. They are individuals sharply defined; yet they are also typical–a typical monk; a typical seaman; beneath all is the base of common unchanging humanity which alone makes the greatest art and poetry.

One of Chaucer’s favourite words is “old,” and in his Canterbury Tales, as elsewhere, he has chosen only stories told before. In this he is but like the others of his class–Shakespeare, Spenser, Milton. Besides, like his Pardoner, he prefers

olde stories longe tyme agoon,
For lewede [uneducated] peple loven tales olde.

Bat his interest was not merely antiquarian. Stories oft-told have improved by the telling, and have absorbed something human from every skilful hand that touched them; a new-minted tale is barren.

For out of olde feldes, as men seith,
Cometh al this newe corn fro yeer to yere;
And out of olde bokes, in good leith,
Cometh al this newe science that men lere.

Varied as were his sources, he, therefore, dared to select well-worn “favourites,” which took new life from his magic touch. The Knight repeats a high romance of two men and a girl from the “matter” of Thebes, as told by Boccaccio in his Testicle. The Miller and the Reeve tell racy fabliaux of common life, often written down, oftener told in a corner, and cleverly localized, after the habit of those who purvey them. The Wife of Bath, vulgar and blowsy, was naturally put down for a fabliau, but Chaucer, with exquisite art, gives her a “lay,” a charming old fairy-tale known in all lands, of the disenchanting kiss. Less appropriately the Man of Law repeats the ever-moving story of Constance, long-suffering from one mother-in-law after another, not to mention others; more than twenty versions of the tale were current at the time. Out of old Christian tradition came the Prioress’s high and tender story of the little school-boy martyr. Everywhere, in Orient and Occident, was known a story like the edifying exemplum of the Pardoner. The Franklin recalls an old Breton lay. The jolly “sweete preest” draws from the animal cycle of Reynard, famous over all Europe, but especially in France and Germany, a rousing tale of the Cock and the Fox.

Not more varied are the origins of these tales than their quality and manner of telling. The Knight’s Tale is a most skilful condensation of Boccaccio, which Chaucer has made wholly his own, warm with old romance, dignified with courtly love, splendidly picturesque in setting and spectacle. It unfolds itself essentially in act and scene as did Troilus. And yet sympathetic as he is with all this beauty, Chaucer is never wholly nor solemnly committed to it. There is Theseus, magnanimous, dignified, likeable; yet sententious, long-winded, without sense of humour, soft towards the ladies, and greedy of the “public eye” –in short, one perennial kind of politician. Other touches of amusing realism, of Chaucer’s sly humour, often too sly to be caught at once, or his sudden droll reversals of mood, as at the moving death of Arcite–all these elements serve as foils to the romance, and tend not to wreck its delicate beauty, but to refine it.

But not all is a delicacy. With broad and unerring stroke Chaucer presents the rough, coarse, sometimes brutal farce that delights the ordinary man, yet always with the verve of the great artist. At the opposite extreme are the stories of the Man of Law, the Prioress, the Clerk, the Second Nun, all in the same seven-line stanza of lyric quality, setting forth examples of high and devoted patience of women and children under affliction. On this plane, the poet holds in check his instinct to make fun, and reverently clothes these exalted figures in the tender and delicate beauty characteristic of the ripest medieval art.

The Priest’s story of the cock and the fox, and the Pardoner’s story of the rioters and their ruinous folly, are a comic and a serious example of the same method. After a strikingly picturesque beginning, to get attention, the tale begins to move, though at a pace purposely so slow that the reader grows im-patient-the modern reader is often exasperated. But gradually it gathers momentum, and at last rushes headlong to an overwhelming conclusion.

Both stories are charged with Chaucer’s usual vivid, distinct animation. His animals, for all their humanity, never for a moment cease to be animals. Chaunticler is a Theseus, yet never ceases to be a cock; Dame Pertelote combines the virtues of the Wife of Bath and the Prioress, yet is all hen.

The Pardoner’s Tale, which is only an exemplum in the clever but shameless sermon of that precious rascal, deals with events rather than characters–events in which moral cause and effect and destiny agree. And the dominating figure of that strange, meek, old man! Chaucer clothes him in uncanny mystery–is he Death? or the Evil One? or some moral force? or just a wise old man? Nothing can surpass Chaucer’s subtlety in this bit of art.

Chaucer’s greatness is based on his power of portraiture. He has the clarity of Holbein, a wider range than Velasquez, and more pictorial power than Sargent. His representation of Nature ignores the grand, the sublime–later times were to discover these–but it is full of the creative energy which permeated Nature, as his times saw it.

Emelye, that fairer was to sene
Than is the lylie upon his stalke grene.

Not primarily a resemblance of colour, or delicacy, or stateliness, or what not, but of the fresh life that fills the whole plant, and flowers in all the other graces.

With such powers, Chaucer generally used, and needed little poetic embellishment. True, his earlier work is often “aureate” with all the flowers and “colours” of medieval rhetoric, and he can for the occasion recall these fineries later. But his imagery is usually simple and natural. He loved a racy proverbial simile, caught from the wit of common men. It is no wonder that his wide range between coarse and fine, between high and low, and his relish for everything human, made him, and make him, a popular poet for all times that can read him.

Yet what conclusions did he draw from this amusing, sad, gross, noble, lively, good, bad world that surged about him, but did not overwhelm him? Fortune or Destiny seems to have some part in it, he agrees with Boethius; a man must face the situation like a man. He favours the man capable of dreams and ideals and mysticism over the merely practical man of affairs. The world is full of gross abuses and wrongs and impostures. What can one do about it? Chaucer is no reformer like Wyclif or Langland. He views the rascals with amused contempt or sometimes transfixes them with terrible power. At times he questions old beliefs about Heaven and Hell, and what becomes of the soul, but with no bitter scepticism; and the faith of the old Church, without its fine points of doctrine, is still a comfort to him.

In fine his view of life is sympathetic though aloof. He keeps out of the tragic depths and views his wide world with the detachment of the comedian, transcribing it for us vigorously, but with delicate and profound subtlety.

Reference


  • Charles Grosvenor Osgood, The Voice of England, 2nd Ed., 1935, 1952 Harper and Brothers Publishers, New York.

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