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CHAUCER is a star of the first magnitude. First great writer of English verse, he proudly wears the honoured title,—“Father of English Poetry;” nor can the most brilliant of his successors feel ashamed of such a lineage.
The accounts of his early life are very uncertain. He calls himself a Londoner; and an inscription on his tomb, which signified that in 1400 he died at the age of seventy-two, seems to fix his birth in the year 1328. The words "Philogenet, of Cambridge, Clerk,” which occur in one of his earliest works in reference to himself, have caused it to be inferred that he was educated at Cambridge. But Warton and others claim him as an Oxford man too; and, if he studied there, it is more than probable that he sat at the feet of Wycliffe, and imbibed the doctrines of the great reformer. An entry in some old register of the Inns of Court is said to state, that “Geffrey Chaucer was fined two shillings for beating a Franciscane friar in Fleet Street;" which ebullition of young blood is the only recorded event of his supposed law-studies in the Inner Temple.
The favour of, John of Ghent, won we know not how, introduced him to Court and the favour of King Edward III. The handsome and accomplished poet, with his red lips and graceful shape, was the very man to win his way in a courtly circle. He went with the army to France, where in 1359 he was made
SUNSHINE AND SHADOW..
prisoner at the siege of Retters. On his release and return home, whenever that happened, we find his prospects grow brighter and brighter. One grant following another, showed how dear the man of letters, who could also wield a sword, was to the brave old king. When in his thirty-ninth year (1367), the poet received a pension of 20 marks ; which, as each silver mark weighed eight ounces and was worth £10 of our money, was equivalent to £200 a year. Five years later, he was sent with two others to Genoa,
on an important commercial mission; during which trip 1372 he is thought to have travelled in northern Italy, to A.D. have visited Petrarch at Padua, and to have heard from
the very lips of that “old man eloquent," the story of “Patient Grisilde,” which he afterwards embodied in the Clerkes Tale.
Then came other royal grants,-a pitcher of wine daily for life -the office of Comptroller of Customs of wool, wine, &c., in the Port of London—the wardship of a rich heir, for three years' guardianship of whom he got £104. During this sunshine of kingly favour he married a maid of honour, whose sister afterwards became the wife of his patron, John of Ghent. By this union a pension of 100 shillings, lately conferred on his wife, was added to his income. Two more diplomatic missions, to Flanders and to France, proved the confidence reposed in him by his royal master. Thus rich, honoured, useful, and, we may conjecture, happy, Geoffrey Chaucer saw in 1377 the grey head of the third Edward go down with sorrow to the grave.
At first, under the new reign, all was bright, and continued so for some seven years. In the first year of Richard II. his daily gallon of wine was exchanged for a pension of 20 marks, and other gifts were bestowed on the prosperous comptroller. But soon his sun was darkly clouded. It was not likely that he could avoid taking an active part in the difficulties that arose between Richard and Lancaster; and, as his feelings were strongly enlisted on the side of the duke, he fell into disfavour with the king. Embroiled especially in a London riot, raised by John of Northampton, who was a friend of Lancaster, the poet was forced to flee to the Continent. There, in Hainault, in France, and in Zee
land, he lived with his wife and children for eighteen months, becoming at last almost penniless through generosity to his fellow-exiles, and the failure of supplies from home, where his agents had treacherously appropriated his rents. Returning, he was flung into the Tower, and lay there until he was forced to sell his two pensions to save his family from starvation; nor was he freed until, indignant at the base ingratitụde of those in whose cause he was suffering, and pressed both by the threats and the entreaties of the Court, he confessed his guilt and denounced his accomplices. Then, Lancaster being once more in the ascendant, royal favour smiled on the poet. He was made Clerk of Works at Westminster and other places, receiving, in lieu of the pensions he had been forced to sell, a pension of £20 and an annual pipe of wine.
Wearied with public life, he retired about 1391 to his house at Woodstock, where he sat down in sober age and country quiet to write his great work—The Canterbury Tales. His remaining days were spent at Woodstock and Donnington Castle, both gifts from the princely Lancaster and within these sheltering walls he rested and wrote. The accession of Henry IV. brought good fortune to the poet, whose pension was doubled; but he did not live long to enjoy this greater wealth. Within a house which is said to have stood in a garden near the site of Henry the Seventh's Chapel at Westminster, he died on the 25th of October, 1400. His body was buried close by in the Abbey, where the dust of England's noblest dead is laid.
Chaucer's chequered life was such as to wear off all the little roughnesses and conceits of his earlier character, and bring the fine, grain of the manly nature below into full view. He saw both the lights and the shadows of human existence,-at one time the admired of a brilliant Court, at another a prisoner and an exile. But through every change he seems to have borne a heart unsoured by care; and even in old age, when his locks hung in silver threads beneath his buttoned bonnet, a joyous spirit shone in his wrinkled face. A small, fair, round-trimmed beard fringed those lips, whose red fulness was remarked as a special beauty in the hands
56 THE “CANTERBURY TALES.”
some face of the young poet. His common dress consisted of red hose, horned shoes, and a loose frock of camlet, reaching to the knee, with wide sleeves fastened at the wrist. Chaucer's fame as a writer rests chiefly upon his Canterbury Tales. The idea of the poems is, perhaps, borrowed from the “Decameron” of Boccaccio, in which a hundred tales are supposed to be told after dinner by the persons spending ten days in a country house near Florence during a time of plague. Chaucer's plan is this: A company of some twenty-nine or thirty pilgrims collect at the Tabard Inn in Southwark, bound for the shrine of St. Thomas à-Becket at Canterbury. The motley gathering contains specimens of nearly every character then common in the streets and homes of England. After the Prologue has described the company and their start, a brave Knight, bronzed by the Syrian sun, tells the first tale. Then follows the Miller, “dronken of ale;” and so the tale goes round, often merrily, but sometimes of a sadder tone, beguiling the miles of the weary road. As Chaucer sketches the plan of the work in his Prologue, each pilgrim ought to tell two stories when going to Canterbury, and two more on the homeward way; and the whole proceedings were to be wound up with a supper at the Tabard, where the teller of the best tales was to be entertained by the rest of the band. The poet did not live to complete his design. Twenty-four tales only are given; the arrival at Canterbury, the scenes at the shrine, the tales of the return, the wind-up supper, are all untold. Two of the stories —the Tale of Melibeus and the Persones Tale—are in prose, and afford a very favourable specimen of Chaucer's power in that kind of writing. Nothing could surpass the “Canterbury Tales,” as a series of pictures of the middle-class English life during the fourteenth century. Every character is a perfect study, drawn from the life with a free yet careful hand,-in effect broad, and brilliant in colour, but painted with a minuteness of touch and a careful finish that remind us strongly of the elaborate pencilling of our Pre-Raphaelite artists, whose every ivy-leaf and straw is a perfect picture. This great work was written during the quiet sunset of
CHAUCER's MINOR WORKS. 57
the poet's life, when, after his sixtieth year, he rested from the toils and troubles of a public career. It is composed in pentameter couplets, a form of verse thoroughly suited to the spirit of our English tongue, and used by almost all the great masters of our literature. The abundance of French words in the language of Chaucer is easily accounted for by the fact that French was not in the poet's day quite superseded as the speech of the upper classes in England. Many of Chaucer's words require a French accentuation; such as aventùre, licóur, coráge. There has been much discussion about the true way of reading Chaucer; some maintaining that the rhythm is to be preserved by certain pauses, while others, following Tyrwhitt, sound as a separate syllable the e, which is now silent at the end of so many words. Most prefer the latter method, which has the advantage of giving to the language an antique air, suitable to the cast of the plot and the period of the poem. The ed at the end of certain verbs, and the es terminating nouns in the plural number or the possessive case, are always to be made separate syllables. Most of Chaucer's minor and earlier works are either in part or altogether translated from French, Italian, and Latin. The Court of Love, and a heavy tragic poem in five books, called Troilus and Creseide, are thought to have been the work of his college days. The Romaunt of the Rose is an allegory, in which the troubled course of true love is painted in rich descriptive verse. The House of Fame depicts a dream, in which the poet is borne by a huge eagle to a temple of beryl, built on a rock of ice, where he sees the Goddess of Fame dispensing her favours from a carbuncle throne. The Legende of Goode Women narrates some passages in the lives of Cleopatra, Dido, Ariadne, and other dames of old classic renown. But most beautiful of all these is the allegory called The Flour and the Lefè, of which the plot is thus given: “A gentlewoman out of an arbour, in a grove, seeth a great companie of knights and ladies in a daunce upon the greene grasse; the which being ended, they all kneele down, and do honour to the daisie, some to the flower, and some to the leafe. The meaning hereof is this:–They which honour the flower, a thing fading