Works of Chaucer, First Period. The works of Geoffrey Chaucer are roughly divided into three classes, corresponding to the three periods of his life. It should be remembered, however, that it is impossible to fix exact dates for most of his works. Some of his Canterbury Tales were written earlier than the English period, and were only grouped with the others in his final arrangement.
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, the most popular poem of the Middle Ages,--a graceful but exceedingly tiresome allegory of the whole course of love. The Rose growing in its mystic garden is typical of the lady Beauty. Gathering the Rose represents the lover's attempt to win his lady's favor; and the different feelings aroused--Love, Hate, Envy, Jealousy, Idleness, Sweet Looks--are the allegorical persons of the poet's drama. 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 "Dethe of Blanche the Duchesse," better known, as the "Boke of the Duchesse," a poem of considerable dramatic and emotional power, written after the death of Blanche, wife of Chaucer's patron, John of Gaunt. Additional poems are the "Compleynte to Pite," a graceful love poem; the "A B C," a prayer to the Virgin, translated from the French of a Cistercian monk, its verses beginning with the successive letters of the alphabet; and a number of what Chaucer calls "ballads, roundels, and virelays," with which, says his friend Gower, "the land was filled." The latter were imitations of the prevailing French love ditties.
Second Period. 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, and Shakespeare makes use of it in his Troilus and Cressida. The immediate source of Chaucer's poem is Boccaccio'sIl Filostrato, "the love-smitten one"; but he uses his material very freely, to reflect the ideals of his own age and society, and so gives to the whole story a dramatic force and beauty which it had never known before.
The "Hous 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. To this house come all rumors of earth, as the sparks fly upward. The house stands on a rock of ice
writen ful of names
Of folk that hadden grete fames.
Many of these have disappeared as the ice melted; but the older names are clear as when first written. For many of his ideas Chaucer is indebted to Dante, Ovid, and Virgil; but the unusual conception and the splendid workmanship are all his own.
The third great poem of the period is the Legende of Goode Wimmen. As he is resting in the fields among the daisies, he falls asleep and a gay procession draws near. First comes the love god, leading by the hand Alcestis, model of all wifely virtues, whose emblem is the daisy; and behind them follow a troup of glorious women, all of whom have been faithful in love. They gather about the poet; the god upbraids him for having translated the Romance of the Rose, and for his early poems reflecting on the vanity and fickleness of women. Alcestis intercedes for him, and offers pardon if he will atone for his errors by writing a "glorious legend of good 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 the plan 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.
Third Period. Chaucer's masterpiece, the Canterbury Tales, one of the most famous works in all 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 so well that in the Canterbury Tales he has given us a picture of contemporary English life, its work and play, its deeds and dreams, its fun and sympathy and hearty joy of living, such as no other single work of literature has ever equaled.