A Brief Introduction to the Life and Works of Geoffrey Chaucer
Created | Updated Nov 1, 2006
Of al this world the large compas
Hit wol not in myn armes tweyne -
Whoso mochel wol embrace,
Litel therof he shal distreyne.1
- Attributed to Geoffrey Chaucer
Geoffrey Chaucer was the greatest English poet of the later Middle Ages. Working in the language now called Middle English, he was a contemporary of the anonymous author of 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight' and a friend of the man behind 'Confessio Amantis', John Gower. Chaucer is generally considered to be second only to William Shakespeare in terms of his contribution to English Literature.
The year of Chaucer's birth is not known with any accuracy but is guessed to be sometime in the first half of the 1340s. The traditionally accepted date of his death - the date engraved on his tomb in Westminster Abbey - is 25 October, 1400. Information about his life has been gleaned from surviving legal records: lawsuits, wills, lease records, royal pension records and marriage records, for example. Between his birth and death, Chaucer rose from being the son of an obscure minor bureaucrat and wine merchant to being a court official and royal ambassador. Among his acquaintances were the greatest poets of the age and the originals of some characters from Shakespeare's History Plays2. From the records that have survived it seems that Chaucer achieved a state of semi-retirement in the last decade of his life. It was during this decade that he did most of his work on his unfinished masterpiece, The Canterbury Tales.
Chaucer is primarily remembered for the long and complicated collection of poems collectively known as The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer wrote some other works, including other, long, narrative poems and shorter lyrics, as well as a number of prose works.
Readers of The Canterbury Tales might be familiar with Chaucer's prose from 'The Parson's Tale'. Chaucer composed two other major prose works: Boece, a translation, and A Treatise on the Astrolabe, a scientific work.
Boece is a translation of The Consolation of Philosophy originally written in Latin by the late Roman senator and philosopher Boethius. Boethius's work was exceptionally influential throughout the European Middle Ages and was translated into many languages. Boethius was also a great influence on Chaucer's thought, but the prose of his translation is, by modern standards, poorly structured and disjointed.
A Treatise on the Astrolabe
Chaucer's scientific paper, an explanation of the use of the Astrolabe, an astronomical instrument, is written with more clarity. Perhaps this clarity is a function of the work being a product of Chaucer's own thoughts rather than an attempt to translate the thoughts of someone long dead.
Chaucer's poetry is written in forms of verse derived from Continental traditions rather than the Anglo-Saxon alliterative tradition of poems such as Beowulf. Unlike in the Anglo-Saxon tradition, Chaucer's verse uses consistent rhyme, often in couplets, as in The Canterbury Tales, or in more complicated stanzaic structures, as in 'Troilus and Criseyde' and the love visions. As well, Chaucer's verse has regular meter (usually Iambic), a prosody fundamentally different from the Anglo-Saxon3.
A very small number of short poems by Chaucer have survived, although it is suspected that he wrote a great many. A small majority of the surviving short poems are love lyrics, for example, 'The Complaint to his Lady'. A number of others are in the ballade form and are humorous or religious. In these short poems Chaucer shows a great concern with the technicalities of metrics. As well as being of more general interest, the short poems are of help in understanding the development of English metrical types.
'The Book of the Duchess'
'The Book of the Duchess' is generally considered an occasional poem on the death, in September 1369, of Blanche, Duchess of Lancaster and the first wife of John of Gaunt. The poem is a highly original adaptation of the traditional love vision form to the purposes of an elegy. The result is a touching consolation to the widower that breathes new life into a staid traditional form.
The poem describes the meeting between a dreamer and a knight who is depressed over the way Fortune has treated him. The knight has been the lover of the perfect lady, but death has taken her from him.
'The House of Fame'
'The House of Fame' is also a somewhat conventional love poem that draws heavily on Latin authors such as Ovid and Virgil (it contains a summary of part of the Aeneid). Also Chaucer refers to the works of Italian poet Dante in 'The House of Fame'.
In the dream that structures the poem, Chaucer journeys to two Temples, 'The House of Fame' and 'The House of Rumour', where various aspects of truth and falsehood are revealed by allegorical classical divinities. The poem is unfinished.
'Anelida and Arcite'
'Anelida and Arcite' is a strangely diffuse unfinished retelling of an old Roman story previously retold by the Italian, Boccaccio. The poem begins with two invocations, the first to Mars and Bellona, divinities of War, and the second to the Muses. The irregular stanzaic verse form is the most complicated Chaucer ever used. The story is the unheroic tale of a faithless knight named Arcite who has a habit of abandoning ladies. This narrative seems to serve mainly as a prologue to the unfinished lament of the lady Anelida.
'Parliament of Fowls'
'The Parliament of Fowls' is yet another love vision. In a dream, Chaucer wanders into the Garden of Nature on St Valentine's Day and there witnesses the birds coming together to choose mates. There is a conflict between a flock of male eagles for the female eagle on the Goddess' hand. The males hold a debate and Nature is the judge, but she defers the decision to her eagle. The female eagle judges that she must have a year to decide.
'Troilus and Criseyde'
'Troilus and Criseyde' is a rarity in the works of Chaucer in that he managed to finish it. As well, the poem captures Chaucer at the height of his artistic power. He achieves great elegance and fluidity in the difficult Rhyme Royal4 measure while depicting vivid characters and emotions within a coherent plot.
The story was an old one when Chaucer took it over, but not as old as it pretends to be. Chaucer took the story over from Boccaccio's Il Filostrato, making some changes to characters, lengthening the story, and vastly improving it. Boccaccio himself borrowed the story from an earlier Italian, Guido delle Colonne. Guido got his version from the Frenchman Benoit de Ste-Maure in the Roman de Troie, who pretended that he got it from the Romans Dares Phrygius and Dictys Cretensis. The works of Dares and Dictys do not mention anything approaching the story of 'Troilus and Criseyde' (although the character Troilus is mentioned, as referenced in Homer's Iliad - which also contains a similarly named Cressida). In fact, the story of 'Troilus and Criseyde' bears only the most superficial of links to the Classical legends of the Trojan War; for the most part it is a wholly medieval invention.
But what a story it is! Troilus, a prince of Troy, has fallen in love with Criseyde, the daughter of a Trojan seer, Calchas. Calchas has fled Troy to the enemy Greek camp, taking his daughter with him. Troilus's uncle, Pandarus, arranges for the couple to exchange letters and, finally, for them to share a night in the privacy of his house. Calchas convinces the Greeks to demand his daughter in exchange for the release of a Trojan prisoner. Both young lovers are distraught, but Criseyde promises to return to Troilus in ten days. On the tenth day, she is seduced by a Greek prince, Diomedes and remains with the Greeks. Through dreams and prophecies from his sister Cassandra, Troilus learns rumour of Criseyde's betrayal, but is only convinced when he sees Criseyde's brooch on Diomedes' armour. Troilus then runs into battle in a rage, fighting Diomedes whenever he can, and finally being killed by the great Greek warrior, Achilles. The story was picked up by Robert Henryson in The Testament of Crisseid and retold by Shakespeare in Troilus and Cressida. The tale of separated lovers and ensuing tragedy is arguably a source for the plot of Romeo and Juliet, and the lover's facilitator, Pandarus, is immortalised in the modern English verb 'to pander'.
The Legend of Good Women
'The Legend of Good Women' is yet another unfinished love vision. In the prologue, Chaucer wanders out on a May morning and falls asleep in the meadows. And he dreams. He dreams that he meets the god of love and Queen Alceste, a metamorphosed daisy. These two dream figures berate Chaucer for writing 'Troilus and Criseyde' and for translating The Romaunt of the Rose5. They argue that men have been turned away from courtly love because he has depicted unfaithful women. Chaucer sets out to balance his previous work with a tribute to good women. The rest of the poem is the beginning of a catalogue, gleaned from myth and literature, of such women.
The Canterbury Tales
The Canterbury Tales is a collection of 24 tales, mostly in verse, introduced by 'The General Prologue'. The collection closes with a short prose piece known as 'Chaucer's Retraction' in which the author asks that the reader ascribe all that is good in the work to the Lord. All that is bad in the Tales should be ascribed, not to the author's will, but to his lack of skill, for he would 'ful fayn have seyd bettre if I hadde had konnynge.'
'The General Prologue' introduces the structure of the collection. While on a pilgrimage to the shrine of St Thomas in Canterbury, Chaucer falls in with a number of pilgrims at the Tabard Inn, in Southwark. The pilgrims come from all walks of Medieval English life, and their appearances and characters are vividly described in the 'Prologue'. As the pilgrims set out together in the morning, they come to an agreement to entertain each other on the long road by telling two tales each on the way to and from St Thomas' Shrine. Sadly, Chaucer was never able to complete even one tale for each of the described pilgrims. But the existing 23-verse tales with their prologues, together with the prose 'Parson's Tale' and 'The General Prologue' present a rich and varied pageant of Medieval life, and the verse tales offer examples of most Medieval poetic genres.
The Canterbury Tales grows out of a continental tradition of tale collections that reached its pre-Chaucerian height with Boccaccio's Decameron. Chaucer, however, in The Canterbury Tales, takes the original step of carefully matching the tales to their tellers, so that the teller's personality is expanded by the tale he or she tells. Chaucer was continuing to struggle with this matching at the time he died, as evidenced by the fact that parts of a tale told by a woman seem to be being told by a man. Obviously some parts of the Tales were far from their final form when Chaucer took his leave.
While The Canterbury Tales remains unfinished (like so much of Chaucer's work), we know from internal evidence that he intended 'The Knight's Tale' to follow 'The General Prologue' at the beginning of the collection and 'The Parson's Tale' to close. Even in this incomplete form, the knight's tale of courtly love, the parson's dry sermon on the Seven Deadly Sins, and all the tales in between give us an hilarious and unparalleled view into a world far away in time and yet so very, very close to who we are today.
does not fit in my two arms -
whoever will embrace a lot
a little of it he will restrain.
2For example, Chaucer was married to the sister-in law of John of Gaunt. John of Gaunt appears in Richard II. He was the father of Henry IV and grandfather of Henry V.3Some help with technical literary terminology may be found at this Guide entry.4The Rhyme Royal is a stanzaic form, with five foot lines in seven line stanzas with an ababbcc rhyme scheme. Here is the second stanza of 'Troilus and Criseyde':
To thee clepe I, thou goddesse of torment,Chaucer maintained this form for over 8000 lines.5There exists a Middle English translation of the French Romance of the Rose but there is general agreement that if Chaucer had any part in this surviving version, it was a small one.
Thou cruel Furie, sorwing ever in peyne;
Help me, that am the sorwful instrument
That helpeth lovers, as I can, to pleyne!
For wel sit it, the sothe for to seyne,
A woful wight to han a drery fere,
And, to a sorwful tale, a sory chere.