Geoffrey Chaucer (1340-1400)- English Literature Essay (100 Level Course)
Chaucer was born in London, probably about 1340. The son of a well-to-do wine merchant, he had the opportunity of coming into contact with the new merchant class. In 1357 he entered the household of the Duke of Clarence’s wife, thus coming to move in Court circles as well. At the age of nineteen he took part in the Hundred Years’ War,
was per haps taken prisoner by the French and then ransomed by King Edward III. Back in England, he returned to service at Court.
He was often sent abroad on diplomatic missions and also visited Italy, where he probably met Petrarch and Boccaccio and read some Dante. He sat in Parliament as the representative of Kent. The many ups and downs of his life never prevented him from writing. He died in 1400 and was the first poet to be buried in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.
Chaucer’s literary production is usually divided into three periods:
(in imitation of the French)
– Le Roman de la Rose, an unfinished translation of the French allegorical poem by Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meung.
– The Book of the Duchess, an allegorical lament on the death of John of Gaunt’s first wife.
(mostly under Italian and Latin influence)
– Troilus and Criseyde, from Boccaccio’s Filostrato.
—The House of Fame, for which he was partly indebted to Dante and Ovid.
– The Legend of Good Women, made up of an allegorical prologue and nine stories of women, for which he was indebted to Ovid’s Hero ides.
— The Parliament of Fowls, rich in comic spirit.
(also called the English Period)
The Canterbury Tales, although some of the tales later introduced into the work had been written earlier.
Chaucer was certainly the right man at the right time. His contacts at Court, his diplomatic missions abroad, his frequent journeys throughout England, as well as his experience in the newly formed Parliament gave him the opportunity to meet many kinds of people: nobles, churchmen, merchants, students, commoners, each belonging to a precise social class or profession. As for Eng land itself, it had finally developed into a united, self-confident and highly patriotic nation.
When he realized that his country was ready for a literature of its own, he decided to write a work in English (that is to say Middle English), which could be understood by anybody, learned or unlettered, who read or heard it.1 His initial idea was certainly to write a collection of tales, as the title suggests. Writing tales, however, was fashionable at the time, especially after the French and Italian models which looked back in turn to ancient Greece and Rome.
But Chaucer probably had another purpose in mind: he wanted to give his countrymen a hook that would be a true mirror of England and in which they could really recognize themselves. So when he began his masterpiece (probably in 1387) he turned for inspiration to the many people he had met during his life and whose images he had stored in his memory for years. He nevertheless needed a framework in which to insert them, and once more he turned to his European culture for help. He probably remembered Boccaccio’s Decameron, and found here the idea of a social event as a pretext for bringing various people together. This event, however, was to be typically English, so he thought that the traditional annual pilgrimage to Canterbury would certainly be the best setting for his characters.
He therefore imagined that, one April day in the Tabard Inn at Southwark in London, twenty-nine pilgrims met before setting out on a pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Thomas à Becket at Canterbury. The host of the Inn, Harry Bailly, offered his services as guide and suggested that each pilgrim should tell two stories on the way to Canterbury and two on the way back. Chaucer himself was invited to join the company, as we learn from the opening lines of the poem.