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Geoffrey Chaucer was born in London in the year 1328. Of his parentage and youth we know but little. His education must have been very carefully conducted; for, in his works, he displays a scholarly acquaintance with almost all the branches of knowledge which were then in vogue. IIe began to write at an early age, and continued to compose until the last year of his life. “We find him by turns in King Edward's army, in the king's train, husband of a maid of honor to the queen, a pensioner, a place-holder, a member of Parliament, a knight, founder of a family which was hereafter to become allied to royalty. Moreover, he was in the king's council, brother-in-law of John of Gaunt, employed more than once in open embassies or secret missions at Florence, Genoa, Milan, Flanders, commissioner in France for the marriage of the Prince of Wales, high up and low down on the political ladder, disgraced, restored to place. This experience of business, travel, war, and court was not like a book education."* And yet it was this very experience which made him a man of the world, acquainted with the age in which he lived and with its needs; and notwithstanding all this busy action, he still had time to think and to write.
In his writings, Chaucer borrowed much-from the French, from the Italian, from older writers; "wherever he found anything directed to Geoffrey Chaucer,” says Lowell," he took it and made the most of it.” And indeed it was in this faculty of making the most of whatever came in his way that he excelled. In all his earlier works the influence of French literature and of the tastes and manners of the Trouvères may be plainly traced. The Romaunt of the Rose, commonly ascribed to Chaucer, is but little more than a literal translation from the French; and The Boke of the Duchesse, and The Complaint of the Blacke Knight are plainly imitations of French models. In The Court of Love, The Cuckow and the Nightingale, The Flower and the Leaf, and The House of Fame, distinct traces of the influence of the then decaying chivalric literature are seen. Between the years 1372 and 1378 Chaucer visited Italy in the character of ambassador for the king, and there he became acquainted with the works of the great Italian authors of that period, and was imbued with something of their literary spirit. The works of Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio had already begun that widespread influence which they have since exerted, not only over English literature, but over all the literature of Europe. Petrarch and Boccaccio were Chaucer's contemporaries; Dante had died in 1321.
* Taine. Vol I.
When Chaucer returned to England, his knowledge of poetry was no longer confined to the Trouvère models. He had studied the Divina Commedia of Dante, and learned what comprehensiveness and depth there may be in poetry. In the sonnets of Petrarch he had discovered what may be gained by elegance of diction. In Boccaccio's Filostrato and Decameron he had found suggestions for the materials for exquisite stories not yet attempted in English. “He saw clearly and felt keenly what were the faults and what the wants of the prevailing literature of his country." He began to feel a species of contempt for the romance models which he and his countrymen had, up to that time, so servilely copied. Immediately, therefore, he set to work to inaugurate a new style and a more refined taste in English poetry. He wrote the history of Troilus and Crescide, borrowed from the Italian of Boccaccio's Filostrato; The Legende of Good Women, which is now notable as having inspired Tennyson with the idea of his Dream of Fair Women; The Complaint of Mars; Annelida and Arcite; and The Parlament of Foules, wherein is first shown something of that broad humor which afterwards becomes so conspicuous in The Canterbury Tales. We cannot afford to dwell here on these less important works of the great poet; some of them, as belonging more properly to other departments of poetry, will be spoken of elsewhere. We hasten
to a consideration of Chaucer's greatest work--the work of his last years and the most perfect specimen in existence of English story-telling poetry—the Canterbury Tales.
On an April day, five hundred years ago, when the young grass was springing from the damp, warm earth, and the little birds were making “ melodie,” Chaucer stopped on a day at the Tabard Inn, in Southwark,
Redy to wenden on my pilgrimage
there to visit, with others, the shrine of Thomas à Becket,
The holy, blissful martyr,
At this season of the year many people were accustomed to make pilgrimages to that shrine, and hence there is no wonder that thirty other persons meet at the same inn, all bound upon the same journey. The company comprises representatives from all the walks of middle-class life; but there is neither a prince nor a beggar among them. “The
" characters are described by Chaucer with a vigorous fidelity which has never been surpassed in the whole range of art. Every figure stands out from the canvas sharp and clear, like pictures seen through a stereoscope. Not a touch, not a line is wanting; each trick of speech and peculiarity of dress or feature is photographed with pre-Raphaelite fidelity.” The first place in this description is given to the knight.
A worthy man,
With him ther was his sone, a yonge Squier,
gesse. With the knight also was a Yeoman, his only servant, whom Chaucer describes as
Clad in cote and hood of
A forster was he sothely as I gesse.
His hed was bald, and shone as any glas,
rost. His palfrey was as broune as is a bery. There was also a Nun, a prioress, “ ful simple and coy," named Madame Eglantine. She spoke the French of Stratford-at-bow, but was entirely ignorant of the French of Paris. She was a dainty eater.
She lette no morsel from hire lippes falle,
Of grese, when she dronken hadde hire draught. Her nose was long, her eye was gray as glass, her mouth was small, and her forehead,
It was almost a spanne brode, I trowe. She was so tender-hearted that she would weep if she saw a mouse caught in a trap. She had with her some “smale houndes,” -lap-dogs,–
that she fed
Or if men smote it with a yerde smert. In the company of this nun was “another Nonne also, and Prestes thre." Then there was a Friar, a very solemn man, but “a wanton and a mery.” He was a “Limitour," that is, a friar to whom a certain district had been assigned in which to beg. He was well known at the taverns and by every tapster, much better than he was known by the poor of the parish. He was withal courteous and lowly, and the best beggar“in al his house."
For tho a widewe hadde but a shoo,
Yet wold he have a ferthing or he went. Next came a Merchant, with a forked beard and a beaver hat, and his boots clasped “fair and fetichly.” He made high-sounding speeches, and delighted to boast of his wealth, so that "no wight might know that he was in dette."
Next followed in order a Clerk of Oxford, wearing a threadbare coat, and who would rather have twenty books at his bed's head than to have the richest robes “or fidel or sautrie," who spoke little and always to the purpose, and who on every occasion conducted himself as one who “wolde gladly lern and gladly teche;" a “Sergeant of the lawe, wary and wise,” who knew all the quips and turns of the law and every statute by rote; a Franklin with a daisy-white beard, who delighted in “a sop of wine” and a table loaded with dainties; a Haberdasher, a Carpenter, a Weaver, a Dyer, and an Upholsterer, all clothed in the livery of “a great and solemn fraternity;" a Cook who accompanied the five last mentioned
To boile the chickenes and the marie bones,