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Geoffrey Chaucer Biography | Poet

Photo of Geoffrey Chaucer

Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1343 – October 25, 1400) was an English author, poet, philosopher, bureaucrat (courtier), and diplomat. He is often referred to as the Father of English Literature. Although he wrote many works he is best remembered for his unfinished frame narrative The Canterbury Tales. He is sometimes credited with being the first author to demonstrate the artistic legitimacy of the vernacular English language, rather than French or Latin.


Chaucer's first major work The Book of the Duchess was an elegy for Blanche of Lancaster. Although unlikely that it was commissioned by her husband John of Gaunt, as some scholars have claimed, he did grant Chaucer a £10 annuity on 13 June 1374. Two other early works were Anelida and Arcite and The House of Fame. Chaucer wrote many of his major works in a prolific period while working as customs comptroller. His Parlement of Foules, The Legend of Good Women and Troilus and Criseyde all date from this time. He is best known as the writer of The Canterbury Tales, a collection of stories (told by fictional pilgrims on the road to the cathedral at Canterbury) that would help to shape English literature.

The Canterbury Tales contrasts with other literature of the period in the naturalism of its narrative, the variety of stories the pilgrims tell and the varied characters who are engaged in the pilgrimage which sets it apart from other literature of the period. Many of the stories narrated by the pilgrims seem to fit their individual characters and social standing, although some of the stories seem ill-fitting to their narrators, probably representing the incomplete state of the work. Chaucer drew on real life for his cast of Pilgrims; the inn keeper shares the name of a contemporary keeper of an Inn in Southwark, and real life identities for the Wife of Bath, the Merchant, the Man of Law and the Student have been suggested. The many jobs Chaucer held in medieval society; page, soldier, messenger, valet, bureaucrat, foreman and administrator probably exposed him to many of the types of people he depicted in the Tales. He was able to ape their speech, satirise their manners and still offer them popular literature.

Chaucer's works are sometimes grouped into, first a French period, then an Italian period and finally an English period, with Chaucer being influenced by those countries' literatures in turn. Certainly Troilus and Criseyde is a middle period work with its reliance on the forms of Italian poetry, little known in England at the time, but to which Chaucer was probably exposed during his frequent trips abroad on court business. In addition, its use of a classical subject and its elaborate, courtly language sets it apart as one of his most complete and well-formed works. In Troilus and Criseyde Chaucer draws heavily on his source, Bocaccio, and on the late Latin philosopher Boethius. However, it is The Canterbury Tales, wherein he focuses on English subjects, with bawdy jokes and respected figures often being undercut with humour, that has cemented his reputation.

Chaucer also translated such important works as Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy and The Romance of the Rose by Guillaume de Lorris (extended by Jean de Meun). However, while many scholars maintain that Chaucer did indeed translate part of the text of The Romance of the Rose as Roman de la Rose, others claim that this has been effectively disproved. Many of his other works were very loose translations of, or simply based on, works from continental Europe. It is in this role that Chaucer receives some of his earliest critical praise. Eustache Deschamps wrote a ballade on the great translator and called himself a "nettle in Chaucer's garden of poetry". In 1385 Thomas Usk made glowing mention of Chaucer, and John Gower, Chaucer's main poetic rival of the time, also lauded him. This reference was later edited out of Gower's Confessio Amantis and it has been suggested by some that this was because of ill feeling between them, but it is likely due simply to stylistic concerns.

One other significant work of Chaucer's is his Treatise on the Astrolabe, possibly for his own son, that describes the form and use of that instrument in detail. Although much of the text may have come from other sources, the treatise indicates that Chaucer was versed in science in addition to his literary talents. Another scientific work discovered in 1952, Equatorie of the Planetis, has similar language and handwriting compared to some considered to be Chaucer's and it continues many of the ideas from the Astrolabe. The attribution of this work to Chaucer is still uncertain.





Chaucer wrote in continental accentual-syllabic metre, a style which had developed since around the twelfth century as an alternative to the alliterative Anglo-Saxon metre. Chaucer is known for metrical innovation, inventing the rhyme royal, and he was one of the first English poets to use the five-stress line, the iambic pentameter, in his work, with only a few anonymous short works using it before him. And the arrangement of these five-stress line into rhyming couplets was first seen in his The Legend of Good Women, was used in much of his later work and became one of the standard poetic forms in English. His early influence as a satirist is also important, with the common humorous device, the funny accent of a regional dialect, apparently making its first appearance in The Reeve's Tale.

The poetry of Chaucer, along with other writers of the era, is credited with helping to standardise the London Dialect of the Middle English language; a combination of Kentish and Midlands dialect. This is probably overstated: the influence of the court, chancery and bureaucracy—of which Chaucer was a part—remains a more probable influence on the development of Standard English. Modern English is somewhat distanced from the language of Chaucer's poems owing to the effect of the Great Vowel Shift some time after his death. This change in the pronunciation of English, still not fully understood, makes the reading of Chaucer difficult for the modern audience, though it is thought by some that the modern Scottish accent is closely related to the sound of Middle English. The status of the final -e in Chaucer's verse is uncertain: it seems likely that during the period of Chaucer's writing the final -e was dropping out of colloquial English and that its use was somewhat irregular. Chaucer's versification suggests that the final -e is sometimes to be vocalised, and sometimes to be silent; however, this remains a point on which there is disagreement. When it is vocalised, most scholars pronounce it as a schwa. Apart from the irregular spelling, much of the vocabulary is recognisable to the modern reader. Chaucer is also recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary as the first author to use many common English words in his writings. These words were probably frequently used in the language at the time but Chaucer, with his ear for common speech, is the earliest manuscript source. Acceptable, alkali, altercation, amble, angrily, annex, annoyance, approaching, arbitration, armless, army, arrogant, arsenic, arc, artillery and aspect are just some of those from the first letter of the alphabet.



Chaucer's early popularity is attested by the many poets who imitated his works. John Lydgate was one of earliest imitators who wrote a continuation to the Tales. Later a group of poets including Gavin Douglas, William Dunbar and Robert Henryson were known as the Scottish Chaucerians for their indebtedness to his style. Many of the manuscripts of Chaucer's works contain material from these admiring poets and the later romantic era poets' appreciation of Chaucer was coloured by their not knowing which of the works were genuine. It was not until the late 19th century that the official Chaucerian canon, accepted today, was decided upon; largely as a result of Walter William Skeat's work. One hundred and fifty years after his death, The Canterbury Tales was selected by William Caxton to be one of the first books to be printed in England.


Chaucer's English

Although Chaucer's language is much closer to modern English than the text of Beowulf, it differs enough that most publications modernize (and sometimes bowdlerize) his idiom. Following is a sample from the prologue of the "Summoner's Tale" that compares Chaucer's text to a modern translation:


Line Original Translation
  This frere bosteth that he knoweth helle, This friar boasts that he knows hell,
  And God it woot, that it is litel wonder; And God knows that it is little wonder;
  Freres and feendes been but lyte asonder. Friars and fiends are seldom far apart.
  For, pardee, ye han ofte tyme herd telle For, by God, you have often times heard tell
  How that a frere ravyshed was to helle How a friar was taken to hell
  In spirit ones by a visioun; In spirit, once by a vision;
  And as an angel ladde hym up and doun, And as an angel led him up and down,
  To shewen hym the peynes that the were, To show him the pains that were there,
  In al the place saugh he nat a frere; In the whole place he saw not one friar;
  Of oother folk he saugh ynowe in wo. He saw enough of other folk in woe.
  Unto this angel spak the frere tho: To the angel spoke the friar thus:
  Now, sire, quod he, han freres swich a grace "Now sir," said he, "Are friars in such good grace
  That noon of hem shal come to this place? That none of them come to this place?"
  Yis, quod this aungel, many a millioun! "Yes," answered the angel, "many a million!"
  And unto sathanas he ladde hym doun. And the angel led him down to Satan.
  --And now hath sathanas,--seith he,--a tayl He said, "And Satan has a tail,
  Brodder than of a carryk is the sayl. Broader than a large ship's sail.
  Hold up thy tayl, thou sathanas!--quod he; Hold up your tail, Satan!" he ordered.
  --shewe forth thyn ers, and lat the frere se "Show your arse, and let the friar see
  Where is the nest of freres in this place!-- Where the nest of friars is in this place!"
  And er that half a furlong wey of space, And before half a furlong of space,
  Right so as bees out swarmen from an hyve, Just as bees swarm from a hive,
  Out of the develes ers ther gonne dryve Out of the devil's arse there drove
  Twenty thousand freres on a route, Twenty thousand friars on a route,
  And thurghout helle swarmed al aboute, And they swarmed all over hell,
  And comen agayn as faste as they may gon, And came again as fast as they had gone,
  And in his ers they crepten everychon. And every one crept back into his arse.
  He clapte his tayl agayn and lay ful stille. He clapped his tail again and lay very still.[1]


Monuments and Tributes

A building has been named in Chaucer's honour at the United Kingdom Civil Service College.

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