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The Life of Chaucer by Period

by William J. Long

Life of Chaucer. For our convenience the life of Geoffrey Chaucer is divided into three periods. The first, of thirty years, includes his youth and early manhood, in which time he was influenced almost exclusively by French literary models. The second period, of fifteen years, covers Chaucer's active life as diplomat and man of affairs; and in this the Italian influence seems stronger than the French. The third, of fifteen years, generally known as the English period, is the time of Chaucer's richest development. He lives at home, observes life closely but kindly, and while the French influence is still strong, as shown in theCanterbury Tales, he seems to grow more independent of foreign models and is dominated chiefly by the vigorous life of his own English people.

First period. Chaucer's boyhood was spent in London, on Thames Street near the river, where the world's commerce was continually coming and going. There he saw daily the shipman of the Canterbury Tales just home in his good ship Maudelayne, with the fascination of unknown lands in his clothes and conversation. Of his education we know nothing, except that he was a great reader. His father was a wine merchant, purveyor to the royal household, and from this accidental relation between trade and royalty may have arisen the fact that at seventeen years Chaucer was made page to the Princess Elizabeth. This was the beginning of his connection with the brilliant court, which in the next forty years, under three kings, he was to know so intimately.

At nineteen he went with the king on one of the many expeditions of the Hundred Years' War, and here he saw chivalry and all the pageantry of mediæval war at the height of their outward splendor. Taken prisoner at the unsuccessful siege of Rheims, he is said to have been ransomed by money out of the royal purse. Returning to England, he became after a few years squire of the royal household, the personal attendant and confidant of the king. It was during this first period that he married a maid of honor to the queen. This was probably Philippa Roet, sister to the wife of John of Gaunt, the famous Duke of Lancaster. From numerous whimsical references in his early poems, it has been thought that this marriage into a noble family was not a happy one; but this is purely a matter of supposition or of doubtful inference.

Second Period. In 1370 Chaucer was sent abroad on the first of those 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 the prominence of Italian literary influences. During the intervals between his different missions he filled various offices at home, chief of which was Comptroller of Customs at the port of London. An enormous amount of personal labor was involved; but Chaucer seems to have found time to follow his spirit into the new fields of Italian literature:

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

Third Period. In 1386 Chaucer was elected member of Parliament from Kent, and the distinctly English period of his life and work 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:

And as for me, though that my wit be lyte,
On bokes for to rede I me delyte,
And to hem yeve I feyth and ful credence,
And in myn herte have hem in reverence
So hertely, that ther is game noon
That fro my bokes maketh me to goon,
But hit be seldom, on the holyday;
Save, certeynly, whan that the month of May
Is comen, and that I here the foules singe,
And that the floures ginnen for to springe--
Farwel my book and my devocioun!

In the fourteenth century politics seems to have been, for honest men, a very uncertain business. Chaucer naturally adhered to the party of John of Gaunt, and his fortunes rose or fell with those of his leader. From this time until his death he is up and down on the political ladder; to-day with money and good prospects, to-morrow in poverty and neglect, writing his "Complaint to His Empty Purs," which he humorously calls his "saveour doun in this werlde here." This poem called the king's attention to the poet's need and increased his pension; but he had but few months to enjoy the effect of this unusual "Complaint." For he died the next year, 1400, and was buried with honor in Westminster Abbey. The last period of his life, though outwardly most troubled, was the most fruitful of all. His "Truth," or "Good Counsel," reveals the quiet, beautiful spirit of his life, unspoiled either by the greed of trade or the trickery of politics:

Flee fro the prees, and dwelle with sothfastnesse,
Suffyce unto thy good, though hit be smal;
For hord hath hate, and climbing tikelnesse,
Prees hath envye, and wele blent overal;
Savour no more than thee bihovë shal;
Werk wel thyself, that other folk canst rede;
And trouthe shal delivere, hit is no drede.
Tempest thee noght al croked to redresse,
In trust of hir that turneth as a bal:
Gret reste stant in litel besinesse;
And eek be war to sporne ageyn an al;
Stryve noght, as doth the crokke with the wal.
Daunte thyself, that dauntest otheres dede;
And trouthe shal delivere, hit is no drede.
That thee is sent, receyve in buxumnesse,
The wrastling for this worlde axeth a fal.
Her nis non hoom, her nis but wildernesse:
Forth, pilgrim, forth! Forth, beste, out of thy stall,
Know thy contree, look up, thank God of al;
Hold the hye wey, and lat thy gost thee lede:
And trouthe shal delivere, hit is no drede.