English poet. The Canterbury Tales, a collection of stories told by a group of pilgrims on their way to Canterbury, reveals his knowledge of human nature and his stylistic variety, from the sophisticated and subtly humorous to the simple and bawdy. His early work shows formal French influence, as in the dream-poem The Book of the Duchess and his adaptation of the French allegorical poem on courtly love, The Romaunt of the Rose, in which the meaning is conveyed in symbols. More mature works reflect the influence of Italian realism, as in Troilus and Criseyde, a substantial narrative poem about the tragic betrayal of an idealized courtly love, adapted from the Italian writer Boccaccio. In The Canterbury Tales he shows his own genius for metre (rhythm) and characterization. Chaucer was the most influential English poet of the Middle Ages.
Chaucer was born in London, the son of a wine dealer. Taken prisoner in the French wars, he had to be ransomed by Edward III in 1360. In 1366 he married Philippa Roet, sister of Katherine Swynford, the mistress and later third wife of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. Payments during the period 1367–74 indicate a rising fortune and show that Chaucer made several journeys abroad, both on military service and public business. He was sent to Italy (where he may have met the writers Boccaccio and Petrarch), France, and Flanders. He was controller of wool customs (1374–86), and of petty customs (1382–86). He became justice of the peace for Kent in 1385 and member of Parliament for Kent in 1386. In 1389 he was made clerk of the king's works, and superintended undertakings at Woolwich and Smithfield. In 1391 he gave up the clerkship and accepted the position of deputy forester of North Petherton, Somerset. Late in 1399 he moved to Westminster and died the following year; he was buried in the Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey.
The first of his poems that can be dated with certainty, The Book of the Duchess, was written as an elegy (lament for the dead) on the Duke of Lancaster's first wife, Blanche, who died in 1369. This was one of four allegorical dream-poems; he also wrote several love complaints, a group of moral and personal ballads, and another (unfinished) collection of tales, The Legend of Good Women. Many of his works cannot be dated exactly but the list of works in the first Prologue to The Legend of Good Women (1385–86) gives evidence of earlier writings, while topical references and dedications often help with dating in general. His dream-poem The Parliament of Fowls, in which birds debate a dispute of love, is usually dated 1382 from its connection with Richard II's marriage. The translation of De Consolatione Philosophiae by Roman philosopher Boethius, as well as Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde and The Knight's Tale probably all belong to the first half of the 1380s.
Though the Prologue and the general plan of The Canterbury Tales are thought to be later work, the tales themselves probably incorporated a good deal of earlier material. In the envoy to The Complaint to his Empty Purse, Chaucer implores Henry IV for increased payments, suggesting 1399 as the date. A Treatise on the Astrolabe (an introductory manual on the construction and use of the astronomical instrument) as well as the revised version of the Prologue to The Legend of Good Women belong to the 1390s. The Canterbury Tales were left unfinished at his death. Difficult to date are Anelida and Arcite and the unfinished dream-poem The House of Fame.
Though Chaucer's themes are rarely his own invention, there is a recurring and profound originality in his handling of them. Much of his poetry is concerned with varying concepts of love – human, divine, and philosophical – and in order to show their various aspects he sets them in a dramatic context beside marriage, tyranny, lust, ill fortune, faithlessness, and death. The contrasting demands of human love and rationality is also a favourite theme, and Troilus and Criseyde may owe something of its timeless appeal to the conflict found in it between idealizing human love and the values of eternal life.
With similar versatility and through his use of critical and ironic undertones Chaucer also produces refreshing variations on an accepted literary style. The dream-allegory as well as the love narrative show new possibilities under his treatment, while the technique in The Canterbury Tales of ascribing each of the stories to a character introduced in a prologue produces a many-layered interest. Chaucer's profound insight into character and situation and the final values that emerge are based firmly on a deeply Christian view of life. The Canterbury pilgrims have an animation and a solidarity that makes them immediately sympathetic to a modern reader, and the element of appraisal surrounding this colourful gathering adds greatly to the flavour with which each individual emerges: the Wife of Bath, the Pardoner, the Knight, Madam Eglantine, and Chaucer himself. As in all his work, warmth and humour soften the portrayal of vice and wretchedness, and they are presented together with more wholesome joys and sorrows in a positive universal picture of humanity.
Troilus and Criseyde
Chaucer, Geoffrey The Canterbury Tales
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