- Beginning with Chaucer [Biography]
HumanitiesWeb HumanitiesWeb
Periods Alphabetically Nationality Topics Themes Genres Glossary

Selected Works
According To...
Related Materials


Get Your Degree!

Find schools and get information on the program that’s right for you.

Powered by Campus Explorer

& etc

All Rights Reserved.

Site last updated
28 October, 2012
Real Time Analytics
Outlines of English and American Literature
Geoffrey Chaucer
by Long, William J.

  "Of Chaucer truly I know not whether to marvel more, either that he in
  that misty time could see so clearly, or that we in this clear age walk
  so stumblingly after him."
                                    (Philip Sidney, cir. 1581)

It was the habit of Old-English chieftains to take their scops with them into battle, to the end that the scop's poem might be true to the outer world of fact as well as to the inner world of ideals. The search for "local color" is, therefore, not the newest thing in fiction but the oldest thing in poetry. Chaucer, the first in time of our great English poets, was true to this old tradition. He was page, squire, soldier, statesman, diplomat, traveler; and then he was a poet, who portrayed in verse the many-colored life which he knew intimately at first hand.

For example, Chaucer had to describe a tournament, in the Knight's Tale; but instead of using his imagination, as other romancers had always done, he drew a vivid picture of one of those gorgeous pageants of decaying chivalry with which London diverted the French king, who had been brought prisoner to the city after the victory of the Black Prince at Poitiers. So with his Tabard Inn, which is a real English inn, and with his Pilgrims, who are real pilgrims; and so with every other scene or character he described. His specialty was human nature, his strong point observation, his method essentially modern. And by "modern" we mean that he portrayed the men and women of his own day so well, with such sympathy and humor and wisdom, that we recognize and welcome them as friends or neighbors, who are the same in all ages. From this viewpoint Chaucer is more modern than Tennyson or Longfellow.


Chaucer's boyhood was spent in London, near Westminster, where the brilliant court of Edward was visible to the favored ones; and near the Thames, where the world's commerce, then beginning to ebb and flow with the tides, might be seen of every man. His father was a vintner, or wine merchant, who had enough influence at court to obtain for his son a place in the house of the Princess Elizabeth. Behold then our future poet beginning his knightly training as page to a highborn lady. Presently he accompanied the Black Prince to the French wars, was taken prisoner and ransomed, and on his return entered the second stage of knighthood as esquire or personal attendant to the king. He married a maid of honor related to John of Gaunt, the famous Duke of Lancaster, and at thirty had passed from the rank of merchant into official and aristocratic circles.

Periods of Work

The literary work of Chaucer is conveniently, but not accurately, arranged in three different periods. While attached to the court, one of his duties was to entertain the king and his visitors in their leisure. French poems of love and chivalry were then in demand, and of these Chaucer had great store; but English had recently replaced French even at court, and King Edward and Queen Philippa, both patrons of art and letters, encouraged Chaucer to write in his native language. So he made translations of favorite poems into English, and wrote others in imitation of French models. These early works, the least interesting of all, belong to what is called the period of French influence.

Then Chaucer, who had learned the art of silence as well as of speech, was sent abroad on a series of diplomatic missions. In Italy he probably met the poet Petrarch (as we infer from the Prologue to the Clerk's Tale) and became familiar with the works of Dante and Boccaccio. His subsequent poetry shows a decided advance in range and originality, partly because of his own growth, no doubt, and partly because of his better models. This second period, of about fifteen years, is called the time of Italian influence.

In the third or English period Chaucer returned to London and was a busy man of affairs; for at the English court, unlike those of France and Italy, a poet was expected to earn his pension by some useful work, literature being regarded as a recreation. He was in turn comptroller of customs and superintendent of public works; also he was at times well supplied with money, and again, as the political fortunes of his patron John of Gaunt waned, in sore need of the comforts of life. Witness his "Complaint to His Empty Purse," the humor of which evidently touched the king and brought Chaucer another pension.

Two poems of this period are supposed to contain autobiographical material. In the Legend of Good Women he says:

      And as for me, though that my wit be lytė,
      On bokės for to rede I me delytė.

Again, in The House of Fame he speaks of finding his real life in books after his daily work in the customhouse is ended. Some of the "rekeninges" (itemized accounts of goods and duties) to which he refers are still preserved in Chaucer's handwriting:

      For whan thy labour doon al is,
      And hast y-maad thy rekeninges,
      In stede of reste and newė thinges
      Thou gost hoom to thy hous anoon,
      And, also domb as any stoon,
      Thou sittest at another boke
      Til fully dawsėd is thy loke,
      And livest thus as an hermytė,
      Although thine abstinence is lytė.

Such are the scanty facts concerning England's first great poet, the more elaborate biographies being made up chiefly of guesses or doubtful inferences. He died in the year 1400, and was buried in St. Benet's chapel in Westminster Abbey, a place now revered by all lovers of literature as the Poets' Corner.

On Reading Chaucer

Said Caxton, who was the first to print Chaucer's poetry, "He writeth no void words, but all his matter is full of high and quick sentence." Caxton was right, and the modern reader's first aim should be to get the sense of Chaucer rather than his pronunciation. To understand him is not so difficult as appears at first sight, for most of the words that look strange because of their spelling will reveal their meaning to the ear if spoken aloud. Thus the word "leefful" becomes "leveful" or "leaveful" or "permissible."

Next, the reader should remember that Chaucer was a master of versification, and that every stanza of his is musical. At the beginning of a poem, therefore, read a few lines aloud, emphasizing the accented syllables until the rhythm is fixed; then make every line conform to it, and every word keep step to the music. To do this it is necessary to slur certain words and run others together; also, since the mistakes of Chaucer's copyists are repeated in modern editions, it is often necessary to add a helpful word or syllable to a line, or to omit others that are plainly superfluous.

This way of reading Chaucer musically, as one would read any other poet, has three advantages: it is easy, it is pleasant, and it is far more effective than the learning of a hundred specifications laid down by the grammarians.

Rules for Reading

As for Chaucer's pronunciation, you will not get that accurately without much study, which were better spent on more important matters; so be content with a few rules, which aim simply to help you enjoy the reading. As a general principle, the root vowel of a word was broadly sounded, and the rest slurred over. The characteristic sound of a was as in "far"; e was sounded like a, i like e, and all diphthongs as broadly as possible,--in "floures" (flowers), for example, which should be pronounced "floorės."

Another rule relates to final syllables, and these will appear more interesting if we remember that they represent the dying inflections of nouns and adjectives, which were then declined as in modern German. Final ed and es are variable, but the rhythm will always tell us whether they should be given an extra syllable or not. So also with final e, which is often sounded, but not if the following word begins with a vowel or with h. In the latter case the two words may be run together, as in reading Virgil. If a final e occurs at the end of a line, it may be lightly pronounced, like a in "China," to give added melody to the verse.

Applying these rules, and using our liberty as freely as Chaucer used his, [Footnote: The language was changing rapidly in Chaucer's day, and there were no printed books to fix a standard. Sometimes Chaucer's grammar and spelling are according to rule, and again as heaven pleases.] the opening lines of The Canterbury Tales would read something like this:

      Whan that Aprille with his shoures sote
        Whan that Apreelė with 'is shoorės sohtė

      The droghte of Marche hath perced to the rote,
        The drooth of March hath paarcėd to the rohtė

      And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
        And bahthėd ev'ree vyne in swech lecoor,

      Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
        Of whech varetu engendred is the floor;

      Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
        Whan Zephirus aik with 'is swaite braith

      Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
        Inspeerėd hath in ev'ree holt and haith

      The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
        The tendre croopės, and th' yoongė sonnė

      Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne,
        Hath in the Ram 'is hawfė coors ironnė,

      And smale fowles maken melodye,
        And smawlė foolės mahken malyodieė,

      That slepen al the night with open ye
        That slaipen awl the nicht with open eė

      (So priketh hem nature in hir corages)
        (So priketh 'eem nahtur in hir coorahgės)

      Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages.
        Than longen folk to goon on peelgrimahgės.

Early Works of Chaucer

In his first period, which was dominated by French influence, Chaucer probably translated parts of the Roman de la Rose, a dreary allegorical poem in which love is represented as a queen-rose in a garden, surrounded by her court and ministers. In endeavoring to pluck this rose the lover learns the "commandments" and "sacraments" of love, and meets with various adventures at the hands of Virtue, Constancy, and other shadowy personages of less repute. Such allegories were the delight of the Middle Ages; now they are as dust and ashes. Other and better works of this period are The Book of the Duchess, an elegy written on the death of Blanche, wife of Chaucer's patron, and various minor poems, such as "Compleynte unto Pitee," the dainty love song "To Rosemunde," and "Truth" or the "Ballad of Good Counsel."

Characteristic works of the second or Italian period are The House of Fame, The Legend of Good Women, and especially Troilus and Criseyde. The last-named, though little known to modern readers, is one of the most remarkable narrative poems in our literature. It began as a retelling of a familiar romance; it ended in an original poem, which might easily be made into a drama or a "modern" novel.

Story of Troilus

The scene opens in Troy, during the siege of the city by the Greeks. The hero Troilus is a son of Priam, and is second only to the mighty Hector in warlike deeds. Devoted as he is to glory, he scoffs at lovers until the moment when his eye lights on Cressida. She is a beautiful young widow, and is free to do as she pleases for the moment, her father Calchas having gone over to the Greeks to escape the doom which he sees impending on Troy. Troilus falls desperately in love with Cressida, but she does not know or care, and he is ashamed to speak his mind after scoffing so long at love. Then appears Pandarus, friend of Troilus and uncle to Cressida, who soon learns the secret and brings the young people together. After a long courtship with interminable speeches (as in the old romances) Troilus wins the lady, and all goes happily until Calchas arranges to have his daughter brought to him in exchange for a captured Trojan warrior. The lovers are separated with many tears, but Cressida comforts the despairing Troilus by promising to hoodwink her doting father and return in a few days. Calchas, however, loves his daughter too well to trust her in a city that must soon be given over to plunder, and keeps her safe in the Greek camp. There the handsome young Diomede wins her, and presently Troilus is killed in battle by Achilles.

Such is the old romance of feminine fickleness, which had been written a hundred times before Chaucer took it bodily from Boccaccio. Moreover he humored the old romantic delusion which required that a lover should fall sick in the absence of his mistress, and turn pale or swoon at the sight of her; but he added to the tale many elements not found in the old romances, such as real men and women, humor, pathos, analysis of human motives, and a sense of impending tragedy which comes not from the loss of wealth or happiness but of character. Cressida's final thought of her first lover is intensely pathetic, and a whole chapter of psychology is summed up in the line in which she promises herself to be true to Diomede at the very moment when she is false to Troilus:

  "Allas! of me unto the worldės ende
  Shal neyther ben ywrķten nor y-songė
  No good word; for these bookės wol me shende.
  O, rollėd shal I ben on many a tongė!
  Thurghout the world my bellė shal be rongė,
  And wommen moste wol haten me of allė.
  Allas, that swich a cas me sholdė fallė!
  They wol seyn, in-as-much as in me is,
  I have hem doon dishonour, weylawey!
  Al be I not the firste that dide amis,
  What helpeth that to doon my blame awey?
  But since I see ther is no betre wey,
  And that too late is now for me to rewé,
  To Diomede, algate, I wol be trewé."

The Canterbury Tales

The plan of gathering a company of people and letting each tell his favorite story has been used by so many poets, ancient and modern, that it is idle to seek the origin of it. Like Topsy, it wasn't born; it just grew up. Chaucer's plan, however, is more comprehensive than any other in that it includes all classes of society; it is also more original in that it does not invent heroic characters but takes such men and women as one might meet in any assembly, and shows how typical they are of humanity in all ages. As Lowell says, Chaucer made use in his Canterbury Tales of two things that are everywhere regarded as symbols of human life; namely, the short journey and the inn. We might add, as an indication of Chaucer's philosophy, that his inn is a comfortable one, and that the journey is made in pleasant company and in fair weather.

An outline of Chaucer's great work is as follows. On an evening in springtime the poet comes to Tabard Inn, in Southwark, and finds it filled with a merry company of men and women bent on a pilgrimage to the shrine of Thomas ą Becket in Canterbury.

After supper appears the jovial host, Harry Bailey, who finds the company so attractive that he must join it on its pilgrimage. He proposes that, as they shall be long on the way, they shall furnish their own entertainment by telling stories, the best tale to be rewarded by the best of suppers when the pilgrims return from Canterbury. They assent joyfully, and on the morrow begin their journey, cheered by the Knight's Tale as they ride forth under the sunrise. The light of morning and of springtime is upon this work, which is commonly placed at the beginning of modern English literature.

As the journey proceeds we note two distinct parts to Chaucer's record. One part, made up of prologues and interludes, portrays the characters and action of the present comedy; the other part, consisting of stories, reflects the comedies and tragedies of long ago. The one shows the perishable side of the men and women of Chaucer's day, their habits, dress, conversation; the other reveals an imperishable world of thought, feeling, ideals, in which these same men and women discover their kinship to humanity. It is possible, since some of the stories are related to each other, that Chaucer meant to arrange the Canterbury Tales in dramatic unity, so as to make a huge comedy of human society; but the work as it comes down to us is fragmentary, and no one has discovered the order in which the fragments should be fitted together.

The Prologue

The Prologue is perhaps the best single fragment of the Canterbury Tales. In it Chaucer introduces us to the characters of his drama: to the grave Knight and the gay Squire, the one a model of Chivalry at its best, "a verray parfit gentil knight," the other a young man so full of life and love that "he slept namore than dooth a nightingale"; to the modest Prioress, also, with her pretty clothes, her exquisite manners, her boarding-school accomplishments:

  And Frensh she spak ful faire and fetisly,
  After the scole of Stratford attė Bowė,
  For Frensh of Paris was to hir unknowė.

In contrast to this dainty figure is the coarse Wife of Bath, as garrulous as the nurse in Romeo and Juliet. So one character stands to another as shade to light, as they appear in a typical novel of Dickens. The Church, the greatest factor in medieval life, is misrepresented by the hunting Monk and the begging Friar, and is well represented by the Parson, who practiced true religion before he preached it:

  But Christės lore and his apostles twelvė
  He taughte, and first he folwėd it himselvė.

Trade is represented by the Merchant, scholarship by the poor Clerk of Oxenford, the professions by the Doctor and the Man-of-law, common folk by the Yeoman, Frankelyn (farmer), Miller and many others of low degree. Prominent among the latter was the Shipman:

  Hardy he was, and wys to undertakė;
  With many a tempest hadde his berd been shakė.

From this character, whom Stevenson might have borrowed for his Treasure Island, we infer the barbarity that prevailed when commerce was new, when the English sailor was by turns smuggler or pirate, equally ready to sail or scuttle a ship, and to silence any tongue that might tell tales by making its wretched owner "walk the plank." Chaucer's description of the latter process is a masterpiece of piratical humor:

  If that he faught and hadde the hyer hond,
  By water he sente hem hoom to every lond.

Variety of Tales

Some thirty pilgrims appear in the famous Prologue, and as each was to tell two stories on the way to Canterbury, and two more on the return, it is probable that Chaucer contemplated a work of more than a hundred tales. Only four-and-twenty were completed, but these are enough to cover the field of light literature in that day, from the romance of love to the humorous animal fable. Between these are wonder-stories of giants and fairies, satires on the monks, parodies on literature, and some examples of coarse horseplay for which Chaucer offers an apology, saying that he must let each pilgrim tell his tale in his own way.

A round dozen of these tales may still be read with pleasure; but, as a suggestion of Chaucer's variety, we name only three: the Knight's romance of "Palamon and Arcite," the Nun's Priest's fable of "Chanticleer," and the Clerk's old ballad of "Patient Griselda." The last-named will be more interesting if we remember that the subject of woman's rights had been hurled at the heads of the pilgrims by the Wife of Bath, and that the Clerk told his story to illustrate his different ideal of womanhood.

The Charm of Chaucer

The first of Chaucer's qualities is that he is an excellent story-teller; which means that he has a tale to tell, a good method of telling it, and a philosophy of life which gives us something to think about aside from the narrative. He had a profound insight of human nature, and in telling the simplest story was sure to slip in some nugget of wisdom or humor: "What wol nat be mote need be left," "For three may keep counsel if twain be away," "The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne," "Ful wys is he that can himselven knowe,"

  The firste vertue, sone, if thou wilt lere,
  Is to restreine and kepen wel thy tonge.

There are literally hundreds of such "good things" which make Chaucer a constant delight to those who, by a very little practice, can understand him almost as easily as Shakespeare. Moreover he was a careful artist; he knew the principles of poetry and of story-telling, and before he wrote a song or a tale he considered both his subject and his audience, repeating to himself his own rule:

  Ther nis no werkman, whatsoever he be,
  That may bothe werkė wel and hastily:
  This wol be doon at leysur, parfitly.

A second quality of Chaucer is his power of observation, a power so extraordinary that, unlike other poets, he did not need to invent scenes or characters but only to describe what he had seen and heard in this wonderful world. As he makes one of his characters say:

  For certeynly, he that me made
  To comen hider seydė me:
  I shouldė bothė hear et see
  In this place wonder thingės.

In the Canterbury Tales alone he employs more than a score of characters, and hardly a romantic hero among them; rather does he delight in plain men and women, who reveal their quality not so much in their action as in their dress, manner, or tricks of speech. For Chaucer has the glance of an Indian, which passes over all obvious matters to light upon one significant detail; and that detail furnishes the name or the adjective of the object. Sometimes his descriptions of men or nature are microscopic in their accuracy, and again in a single line he awakens the reader's imagination,--as when Pandarus (in Troilus), in order to make himself unobtrusive in a room where he is not wanted, picks up a manuscript and "makes a face," that is, he pretends to be absorbed in a story,

            and fand his countenance
  As for to loke upon an old romance.

A dozen striking examples might be given, but we shall note only one. In the Book of the Duchess the poet is in a forest, when a chase sweeps by with whoop of huntsman and clamor of hounds. After the hunt, when the woods are all still, comes a little lost dog:

Hit com and creep to me as lowė Right as hit haddė me y-knowė, Hild down his heed and jiyned his eres, And leyde al smouthė doun his heres. I wolde han caught hit, and anoon Hit fleddė and was fro me goon.

Chaucer's Humor

Next to his power of description, Chaucer's best quality is his humor, a humor which is hard to phrase, since it runs from the keenest wit to the broadest farce, yet is always kindly and human. A mendicant friar comes in out of the cold, glances about the snug kitchen for the best seat:

  And fro the bench he droof awey the cat.

Sometimes his humor is delicate, as in touching up the foibles of the Doctor or the Man-of-law, or in the Priest's translation of Chanticleer's evil remark about women:

                  In principio
  Mulier est hominis confusio.
  Madame, the sentence of this Latin is:
  Woman is mannes joye and al his blis.

The humor broadens in the Wife of Bath, who tells how she managed several husbands by making their lives miserable; and occasionally it grows a little grim, as when the Maunciple tells the difference between a big and a little rascal. The former does evil on a large scale, and,

  Lo! therfor is he cleped a Capitain;
  But for the outlawe hath but small meynee,
  And may not doon so gret an harm as he,
  Ne bring a countree to so gret mischeef,
  Men clepen him an outlawe or a theef.

Freedom from Bias

A fourth quality of Chaucer is his broad tolerance, his absolute disinterestedness. He leaves reforms to Wyclif and Langland, and can laugh with the Shipman who turns smuggler, or with the worldly Monk whose "jingling" bridle keeps others as well as himself from hearing the chapel bell. He will not even criticize the fickle Cressida for deserting Troilus, saying that men tell tales about her, which is punishment enough for any woman. In fine, Chaucer is content to picture a world in which the rain falleth alike upon the just and the unjust, and in which the latter seem to have a liberal share of the umbrellas. He enjoys it all, and describes its inhabitants as they are, not as he thinks they ought to be. The reader may think that this or that character deserves to come to a bad end; but not so Chaucer, who regards them all as kindly, as impersonally as Nature herself.

So the Canterbury pilgrims are not simply fourteenth-century Englishmen; they are human types whom Chaucer met at the Tabard Inn, and whom later English writers discover on all of earth's highways. One appears unchanged in Shakespeare's drama, another in a novel of Jane Austen, a third lives over the way or down the street. From century to century they change not, save in name or dress. The poet who described or created such enduring characters stands among the few who are called universal writers.


Terms Defined

Referenced Works