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in the year 1340 in London. And he lived most of his life in London. Spenser, Ben Jonson, Milton, and other later writers were also Londoners. But London in the fourteenth century was not the vast province covered with houses-filled with smoke and harassed by unceasing noise-that London now is. It was a clean, quiet, almost noiseless city, full of shady gardens, every house different in character from every other, permeated by green lanes, and the short streets divided and refreshed by green fields. The quiet meadows were within a few minutes' walk of the very heart of the city. There were no cabs or carriages, no part of the endless grind and roar that now fill the main arteries of London; but the slow leisurely rumble of a market-cart intensified the sweet silence. It was, indeed, as Mr Morris says:
London, small, and white, and clean;
The clear Thames bordered by its gardens green.
You could hear the songs of the birds clear and thrilling in the streets; and the citizens had the English love of the country so thoroughly in their blood, that, on the morning of the First of May, they rose at daybreak, with songs in their mouths and in their hearts, to do honour to the coming summer, gathered boughs of blossoming hawthorn, and with it decked the doorways of their houses-so that each street smelt from end to end of the May, and thick bushes of green and white met the eye on every side.
May, with all thy floures and thy greenë,
The streets did not swarm with people dressed in black, or in dull and dead colours; but there were here and there groups of persons dressed in bright red or yellow or green or blue and white, and sometimes the one half of a man's coat was of a different colour from that of the other side.
His father was John Chaucer, citizen and vintner of London. His grandfather was Richard Chaucer, also a vintner; and the name of Chaucere is said to be on the roll of Battle Abbey. John Chaucer's house was in Thames Street, on a stream called Walbrook *-because it flowed past London Wall-which rose in Finsbury Moor, beyond the street still called Moorgate, and flowed into the Thames near what is now Cannon Street. The
* There is still a street of this name.
boy went to school in the neighbourhood; and no doubt he sometimes helped his father in the wine-cellar, and filled the pots of the citizens with their daily supply of draught-wine. But Chaucer's father had a connection with the court of Edward III. He attended that king when he went with his Queen Philippa on an expedition to Flanders and Cologne ; and it is to this connection that Geoffrey owed his appointment as page in the household of Elizabeth, the wife of Prince Lionel, the third son of Edward III. He was then seventeen. Young men in the time of Chaucer went either to the university, or entered the service of some nobleman as page. There they learned courtesy of manners, riding, the use of arms, and all that related to the life of a soldier, a nobleman, and a man of public affairs. There is also a tradition that Chaucer was a member of both of the universities of Oxford and Cambridge; but this is doubtful. His position in the household of Prince Lionel threw him into the society of the most distinguished men and women of the time; his imagination would be fired by the splendour of the court festivities; he would meet on frank and cordial terms the great statesmen and warriors and writers of the age.
3. His Official Life.-In the year 1359, Chaucer-then a young man of nineteen-joined the army of Edward III., which invaded France in November of that year. In this campaign Chaucer was made prisoner; but he was released under the Peace of Brétigny in 1360, when the king paid for him a ransom of £16. In the year 1367, he was appointed one of the 'valets of the king's chamber,' and is mentioned in the patent or commission as 'dilectus valettus noster.' He received, by the same patent, a pension of twenty marks* for life. John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, the fourth son of Edward, a man of exactly Chaucer's age, was his great friend and patron; and he remained true to Chaucer to the end of his days. When Blanche, the wife of John of Gaunt, died at the age of twenty-nine, Chaucer wrote a beautiful poem in her honour-'The Dethe of Blaunche the Duchesse.' Between the years 1370 and 1380, the poet was employed in seven diplomatic missions-some of them of great
* A mark is 13s. 4d. But there was little or no comparison between the buying power of money in Chaucer's time and now. A sheep sold for 2s. 6d. ; a horse might be bought for 18s. 4d.; a chicken cost 2d. ; and the price of a day's labour at the plough was 3d. Money must have gone, then, from ten to twenty times as far as it does now.
importance. In one of these he had to treat with the Doge of Genoa regarding the choice of an English port to which Genoese vessels might trade. There is a tradition that, while on this embassy, Chaucer had an interview with the great Italian poet Petrarch at a place called Arqua near Padua; and that Petrarch recited to him the story of the patient Griselda. But the tradition is doubtful; and Chaucer had Petrarch's works to read the story in. Soon after his return from the embassy, on St George's day the 23d of April 1374-the king made him a grant of a daily pitcher of wine, to be received from the king's butler at the port of London. This grant was in 1378 commuted for an annual payment of twenty marks. In the same year he was appointed comptroller of the customs of wools, skins, and leather in the port of London; and a few days after this important appointment he received from John of Gaunt a pension of £10 a year for life as an acknowledgment of the services rendered by him and his wife Philippa to himself and his consort. Who Chaucer's wife Philippa was is not clearly made out. The ordinary tradition is that she was the daughter of a knight of Hainault, Sir Paon de Roët, king-of-arms of Guienne, and sister to Katharine, the widow of Sir Hugh Swynford, who afterwards became the wife of the Duke of Lancaster. In 1377, the last year of the reign of Edward III., Chaucer was employed along with Sir Thomas Percy (who was afterwards created Earl of Worcester) on a secret mission to Flanders; and in the same year he was sent on a mission, in company with two other distinguished knights, to treat of peace with Charles V., king of France. In 1378, the first year of Richard II.'s reign, Chaucer was again sent to France with the Earl of Huntingdon to arrange a marriage for Richard with the daughter of the king of France. In 1382, Chaucer was appointed comptroller of the petty customs, in addition to his previous comptrollership. By the terms of his first office, he had been bound down to make every entry in the Customs books with his own hand; but he was now allowed the privilege of employing a deputy. He would thus have more leisure for the writing of his CANTERBURY TALES, which seem to have occupied him at intervals between the years 1373 and 1400. The PROLOGUE is said to have been written while on a journey in the year 1388.
4. His Later Life.-Chaucer was in 1386 elected knight of the shire-or M.P.-for the wealthy and beautiful county of Kent. This was during the nonage of Richard II. Chaucer's friend and
patron, John of Gaunt, was abroad; and his brother, the Duke of Gloucester, acted as regent of the kingdom. But the Duke of Gloucester hated every one who belonged to the party of his brother. Accordingly, on the 1st of December of this year, Chaucer was dismissed from both his offices. The poet was now reduced from affluence to poverty; and he was obliged to raise money by borrowing on the security of his two pensions. His wife died in the midst of Chaucer's greatest trouble, in 1387. It was in the following year, 1388, that Chaucer made his pilgrimage to the shrine of Thomas à Becket, at Canterbury-a pilgrimage which supplied him with the frame for his great work, the Canterbury Tales. In the year 1389, Richard II., disgusted with the action of his council, suddenly dismissed them and took the reins of power into his own hands; the party of Lancaster was restored to favour, and with this turn of affairs Chaucer again rose into prosperous circumstances. He was appointed clerk of the works at Westminster and also at St George's Chapel in Windsor Castle. He, however, lost both these posts in 1391, and was for three years out of office. In 1394, he received a grant of £20 a year for life from the king; and it is believed that he was at this time in considerable distress from poverty and from failing health. John of Gaunt died in 1399, at the age of fifty-nine; and Chaucer was of exactly the same age. But Henry Bolingbroke, the son of the Duke of Lancaster, deposed Richard II. No doubt, Chaucer knew Henry well, and had often dandled him upon his knee when a little boy. A day or two after his coronation the poet sent him a quaint and humorous poem-' Complaynte of Chaucer to his Purse'-every verse of which ended with the line:
Beth hevy ageyne or ellës mote I dye.
And in another stanza he calls his purse the 'queen of comfort and good company :'
Quene of comfort and goodë companye,
Beth hevy ageyne, or ellës moote I dye.
Within four days after Henry came to the throne, though he must have been over head and ears in work with the new affairs of the crown, he doubled Chaucer's pension of twenty marks; and the poet was again in comfort and security. On Christmas Eve 1399, he signed an agreement for the lease for fifty-three years of a house in the garden of the chapel of
St Mary, Westminster. In this house he died on the 25th of October 1400.
5. His Person and Works.-Chaucer was a big stout man with a fair face and small features. A shy and silent man, he was given to observation of others and meditation, to hard study at nights, and to recording in his books and poems the fruits of 'the harvest of a quiet eye.' There were two things that Chaucer was heart-wholly fond of-study and nature. After coming home from his hard work at the Custom-house-work, as we have said, every part of which required his own special attention, instead of rest and amusement, he sat over his books till midnight, until his eyes were 'dased' with his reading and the dull light of his lamp. Year in, year out, he was always at his books. But, when the month of May came, and nature was overflowing with joy and music, he shut his books and went out into the fields to spend the day in the open air and sunshine, among flowers and trees, and green grass and singing birds. He says in his Legende of Good Women:
Save, certeynly, whan that the monethe of May
Is comen, and that I here the foulës syngë
And, when he found himself there, great tides of joy and cheerfulness swept through his heart; and such lines as these broke from his lips with happy power:
Herkneth these blisful briddës how they syngë,
And seth the fresschë flourës how they spryngë;
He is one of the best story-tellers that ever lived. He knew the weak points and the strong points of men and women; and he looked upon their weaknesses with a humorous and kindly eye. He did not apportion his respect for men and women according to their rank, but saw quite clearly that gentilesse or genterye is a quality of soul and character and not of rank or possession. And he uses one of the simplest but one of the most beautiful similes in all literature to clench his meaning:
Tak fuyr and ber it in1 the derkest hous
* Nonne Prestës Tale, 380-382.
8 Thence or away.