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For about two centuries after the Norman conquest, Anglo-Norman was almost exclusively the language of literature in this country. The few exceptions belong to the last expiring remains of an older and totally different Anglo-Saxon style, or to the first attempts of a new English one, formed upon a Norman model. Of the two grand monuments of the poetry of this period, Layamon belongs to the former of these classes, and the singular poem entitled the Ormulum to the latter. After the middle of the thirteenth century, the attempts at poetical composition in English became more frequent and more successful, and previous to the age of Chaucer we have several poems of a very remarkable character, and some good imitations of the harmony and spirit of the French versification of the time.
During this latter period there had been a great movement in intelligence and art throughout Europe, which was shewing itself sometimes in one place and sometimes in another, and which was giving great promises of a splendid future. By the end of the thirteenth century it broke out in Italy in Dante, and a little later in Petrarch. In France it shewed itself in a multitude of poetical compositions, remarkable for their spirit and harmony of versification. In England it became magnificently embodied in Chaucer, almost to rise and die with him; for two centuries passed away before another poet was produced who could lay any claim to rivalry with his great predecessor.
According to the best information that can be collected, Geoffrey Chaucer was born somewhere near the year 1328,* his family being apparently citizens of London. The accounts of his earlier years and of his education are vague and unsatisfactory; but he was certainly a man of extensive learning, and he had the education of a gentleman : he is generally believed to have been bred to the law. We learn frona Chaucer's own testimony, given at a later period, in the case of the Grosvenor peerage, that in the autumn of 1359 he was in the army with which Edward III. invaded France, which was his first military service, and that he was made prisoner by the French during the expedition which terminated with the peace of Chartres in May 1360.
We know nothing further of Chaucer's history until 1367, when a pension of twenty marks yearly for life was granted by the king to the poet, as one of the valets of the king's chamber, in consideration of his services. About the same time he married Philippa, one of the ladies in attendance on the queen, who is said to have been the eldest daughter of Sir Payne Roet, king-of-arms of Guienne, and sister of Katherine, widow of Sir Hugh Swynford, and subsequently wife of John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster. In 1370, as we find from the records, Chaucer was employed in the king's service abroad. Two years after this, on the 12th of November, 1372, the poet was sent on a mission to Genoa, to treat on the choice of a port in England where the Genoese might form a commercial establishment; he appears to have remained in Italy nearly a year, as we do not trace him in England until the latter part of November 1373, and we then find, by the allowance of his expenses, that he had been on the king's service to Florence as well as to Genoa. We are,
* The following notice of the personal history of the poet is chiefly an abridgment of the Life of Chaucer by Sir Harris Nicolas, who gathered together a mass of curious facts from the public records, many of them not known before.
unfortunately, in perfect ignorance of Chaucer's movements in Italy; and the statement of the old biographers that he visited Petrarch at Padua, is founded on mere suppositions totally unsupported by any known evidence. It can hardly be believed, however, that Chaucer did not profit by the opportunity thus afforded him of improving his acquaintance with the poetry, if not with the poets, of the country he thus visited, whose influence was now being felt on the literature of most countries of Western Europe. He was evidently well acquainted with the writings of Dante, and probably with those of Petrarch, if not with those of Boccaccio. He distinctly quotes the former poet more than once; thus, in the Wife of Bath's Tale :
“ Wel can the wyse poet of Florence,
That hatte Daunt, speke of this sentence.” The “sentence,” as Chaucer gives it, is almost a literal translation from the Purgatorio. It may be observed also, that the inference from this and other circumstances is strongly in favour of the belief that Chaucer was well acquainted with the Italian language, which Sir Harris Nicolas doubts, I think without sufficient reason.
That Chaucer acquitted himself well as an ambassador, and that the king was satisfied with his services, we can have no doubt ; for on the 23d of April following the monarch made him a grant for life of a pitcher of wine daily, an appropriate gift for a poet, but which nevertheless seems to have been soon commuted for the payment of its value in money. About six weeks after this, on the 8th of June 1374, Chaucer was appointed comptroller of the customs and subsidy of wools, skins, and tanned hides in the port of London; and it was stipulated that he should write the rolls of his office with his own hand, and perform his duties personally and not by deputy. This might be supposed to shew that Chaucer's poetical talents were not very generously appreciated; but it appears in reality that it was a mere formula of the grant of the office. From this time to the end of the reign of Edward III., the poet continued to enjoy the royal favour; and he not only received several marks of his sovereign’s generosity, but he was employed frequently in public service of importance. During the last year of Edward's reign, A.D. 1377, he was sent successively to Flanders and to France, being in the first mission associated with Sir Thomas Percy (afterwards Earl of Worcester), and in the second attached to an embassy to treat of peace with Charles V.
It is probable that Chaucer was re-appointed one of the king's esquires on the accession of Richard II., and he certainly did not decline in court favour. In the uniddle of January 1378, he was again sent to France, attached to an embassy, the object of which was to negotiate King Richard's marriage with a daughter of the French monarch. stay in France was not long, for in the May of the same year he was employed on a new mission, being sent with Sir Edward Berkely to Lombardy, to treat with Bernardo Visconti, Lord of Milan, and the celebrated Sir John Hawkwood, apparently to persuade them to assist in some warlike expedition contemplated by the English government; and from this mission Chaucer appears not to have returned until the end of the year. It was on this occasion that Chaucer nominated as one of his representatives, in case of any legal proceedings during his absence (to which people in those days were liable), John Gower, a circumstance that establishes the fact of the intimate friendship between the two poets. We know that Chaucer dedicated his Troilus and Creseide, written in the sixteenth year of the reign of Richard II. (1392-3), to Gower; and the latter poet, in the Confessio Amantis, makes Venus say of Chaucer:
" And grete wel Chaucer, when ye mete,
As my disciple and my poete ;