Chaucer made his living as a civil servant and composed poetry as an avocation. His career, however was such as to contribute to his literary growth. He was born about in 1343 of a prosperous family and reared in London. His father, a wine-merchant, was able to find him a position as a page boy in the household of King Edward III’s daughter-in-law, Elizabeth of Ulster, and from this period on, Chaucer enjoyed the uninterrupted favors of the members of the court of successively, Edward, Richard II, and HENRY IV, both as a man of affairs and as a poet.
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He served as a soldier in France, in the campaigns of the Hundred Years of War in 1359-1360 and was sent abroad on at least seven occasions between 1368 and 1387, either to France or Italy, on diplomatic missions. He was married to Philippa Roet of Flanders, who was lady-in-waiting to Queen Philippa and later to John of Gaunt’s second wife Constance.
Chaucer’s boyhood was spent in London, on Thames Street, where the world’s commerce was continually coming and going. Of his education, we know nothing, except that he was a great reader. At nineteen he went with the king on one of the many expeditions and saw chivalry and all the pageantry of the medieval war at the height of their outward splendor. Taken prisoner at the unsuccessful siege of Rheims, he is ransomed for money out of the royal purse. Returning to England, he became close with the royal household, the personal attendant and confidant of the King. It was during his first period that he married a maid of honor to the queen. This was probably Philippa Roet, sister of John of Gaunt , the famous Duke of Lancaster.
In 1370, Chaucer was sent abroad on the first of these diplomatic missions that were to occupy the greater part of the next fifteen years. Two years later, he made his first official visit to Italy, to arrange a commercial treaty with Genoa, and from this time is noticeable a rapid development in his literary powers and development missions he filled various offices at home, chief of which was Comptroller of Customs at the port of London.
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In 1386, Chaucer elected Member of Parliament from Kent, and the distinctly English period of his life and works begins. Though exceedingly busy in public affairs and as receiver of customs, his heart was still with his books, from which only nature could win him.
Works of Chaucer
Chaucer’s works are broadly divided into three periods:
The best known, though not the best poem of the first period is the Romaunt of the Rose, a translation from the French, Roman de la Rose- a graceful but exceedingly tiresome allegory of the whole course of love. Chaucer translated this universal favorite, putting in some original English touches; but of the present Romaunt, only the first seventeen hundred lines are believed to be Chaucer’s own work.
Perhaps the best poem of this period is the “The Book of the Duchess“, best known as the “The Deth of Blaunche“, a poem of considerable dramatic and emotional power, written after the death of Blanche, the wife of Chaucer’s patron, John of Gaunt. Additional poems are “Complaint to Pite”, a graceful love poem: the “A B C “, a prayer to the virgin, translated from the French of a Christian Monk, and a number of what Chaucer calls “ballads, roundels, and virelays.” The latter were imitations of the prevailing French love ditties.
The chief work of the second or Italian period is Troilus and Criseyde, a poem of eight thousand lines. The original story was a favorite of many authors during the Middle Ages, which Shakespeare makes use of in his Troilus and Cressida.
The “House of Fame” is one of Chaucer’s unfinished poems, having the rare combination of lofty thought and simple homely language, showing the influence of the great Italian master. In the poem the author is carried away in a dream by a great eagle from the brittle temple of Venus, in a sandy wilderness, up to the hall of fame.
The third great poem of the period is the Legend of Good Women. As he is resting in the fields among the daisies, he falls asleep and a procession draws near. First, comes the love God, leading by the hand Alcestis, and model of all wifely virtues, whose emblem is the daisy; behind them follow a troupe of glorious women, all of whom have been faithful in love. They gather about the poet; and God upbraids him for having translated the Romance of the Rose, and for his early poems reflecting on the vanity and fickleness of women. Chaucer promises, and as soon as he awakes sets himself to the task. Nine legends were written of which “Thisbe” is perhaps the best. It is probable that Chaucer intended to make this his masterpiece, devoting many years to stories of famous women who were true to love; but either because he wearied of his theme, or because plans of the Canterbury Tales was growing in his mind, he abandoned the task in the middle of his ninth legend- fortunately, perhaps for the reader will find the prologue more interesting than any of the legends.
Chaucer’s masterpiece, the Canterbury Tales, one of the most famous works of literature, fills the third or English period of his life. The plan of the work is magnificent: to represent the wide sweep of English life by gathering a motley company together and letting each class of society tell its own favorite stories. Though the great work was never finished, Chaucer succeeded in his purpose as well that in the Canterbury Tales he has given us a picture of contemporary English life, its work and play, its deeds and dreams, it’s fun and sympathy and hearty joy of living, such as no other single work of literature has ever equaled.
WILLIAM LANGLAND (1332-?..?)
Very little is known of Langland. He was born probably near Malvern, in Worcestershire, the son of a poor freeman, and in his early life lived in the fields as a shepherd. Later he went to London with his wife and children, getting a hungry living as clerk in the church. His real life meanwhile was that of a seer, a prophet after Isaiah’s own heart, if we may judge by the prophecy which soon found a voice in Piers Plowman. In 1399, after the success of his great work, he was possibly writing another poem called Richard the Redeless, a protest against Richard II, but we are not certain of the authorship of this poem, which was left unfinished by the assassination of the king. After 1399, Langland disappears utterly, and the date of death is unknown.
JOHN WYCLIF (1324-1384)
Wyclif, as a man, is by far the most powerful English figure of the fourteenth century. His great work, which earned him his title of “father of English prose”, is the translation of the BIBLE. Wyclif himself translated the gospels, and much more of the New Testament; the rest was finished by his followers, especially by Nicholas of Hereford. Though Wyclif’s works are now unread, except by occasional scholars, he still occupies a very high place in the English literature.
About the year 1365, there appeared in England an extraordinary book called the Voyage and Travail of Sir John Maundeville, written in excellent style in the Midland dialect, which was then becoming the literary language of England. The original work was probably in French, which was speedily translated into Latin, then into English and other languages; and wherever it appeared, it became extremely popular, its marvelous stories of the western land being suited to the credulous spirit of the age. At the present times there are said to be three hundred copied manuscripts of “Mandeville” in various languages.