Tales from Chaucer, by Charles Cowden Clarke, , at sacred-texts.com
p. xiv p. xv
GEOFFREY CHAUCER, the father of English poetry, was born in the second year of the reign of Edward III, 1328, and almost certainly in London, notwithstanding the contradictory accounts of his biographers; since he himself, who must be the surest authority upon this point, when speaking of the troubles which were occurring in that city, says, "The city of London, that is to me so dear and sweet, in which I was forth-grown; and more kindly love have I to that place than to any other in earth (as every kindly creature hath full appetite to that place of his kindly ingendure)."
The earliest account we have of Chaucer is that he was entered a student of the University of Cambridge, of which college, however, no record exists—none, at least, has hitherto been discovered. Here at the age of eighteen he wrote his poem of the "Court of Love." From Cambridge he went to Oxford, but to which college is again as much a matter of conjecture as the former place of his abode. Here he completed his studies and became, says his biographer Leland, "a ready logician, a smooth rhetorician, a pleasant poet, a grave philosopher, an ingenious mathematician, and a holy divine."
Being thus accomplished, he travelled into France, Holland, and the Low Countries, and upon his return home entered himself of the Inner Temple, where he
studied the municipal laws of the land. Shortly after he had begun to turn his mind to this branch of learning, his lustrous talents made him known at the court of Edward III, a prince as eminent for his patronage of genius as for his romantic valour. In this gay region of chivalry, mirth, and gallantry, surrounded by wit and beauty, he started upon the full career of life: his age the prime of manhood (nearly thirty), and person of just proportion, with a fair and beautiful complexion, full and red lips, and a graceful and dignified carriage, to crown which attractions may be added his newly-fledged renown as a love-poet—all gave him the advantage over any competitors. A handsome and modest young poet moving about a gallant court is a beautiful picture for the mind to contemplate.
His first preferment was to that of king's page at a yearly salary of twenty marks—no mean stipend at that period; this act was followed by appointment to the office of gentleman of the king's privy chamber, with an additional gratuity of twenty marks; and shortly after we find him promoted to be shield-bearer to the king, a post of signal honour, since by the fulfilment of its duties he was brought in immediate vicinage to the royal person, and upon occasions of victory was rewarded with military honours.
About the period of his marriage he received another proof of royal favour in the grant of a pitcher of wine to be furnished to him daily; and this was quickly followed by his being appointed comptroller of the customs for wool, woolfels, and hides, with an especial clause subjoined to the patent that the duties of the office should be
performed in person, and even that the accounts should be written with his own hand. Chaucer was no drone in the common hive; he filled this situation with unimpeached honour and integrity, and at the time when places of the same description, in the old age and weakness of the king, were farmed out and the people compelled to pay for services not performed, no shade of imputation for such unworthiness attaches to this poet's memory. No one, as he says of himself, could "speak evil of his administration"; also that he "never defouled his conscience for any manner of deed." Other casual benefits, together with his permanent offices of emolument, contributed to render him a very wealthy man.
The next public employment in which we find Chaucer engaged is that of ambassador, having been sent out to France in conjunction with the Earl of Huntingdon and Sir Richard Sturry to negotiate a match between the daughter of the French king and the young Prince of Wales, afterwards Richard II. The mission, however, terminated only in obtaining a prolongation of a truce between the two countries.
In the fourth year of the reign of Richard II, that prince confirmed to Chaucer and his wife Philippa the annuity grants that had been made to them. About the same time too the poet's son Thomas married Maud, daughter of Sir John Burghershe; she was one of the wealthiest heiresses of that time.
But who in thinking of Chaucer connects him with the comptrollership of the customs or as a page? Yet these employments, with all their temporal benefits, brought with them much labour and anxiety; while the beneficent
spirit of nature rewarded him during life with untroubled calm and happiness for his devotion at her shrine, and after death with a crown of glory as fresh and vivid as the recurring flowers that she sprinkles over her green lap.
The short period in which he survived the dethroning of Richard II was mainly occupied in arranging his worldly affairs, which had been thrown into disorder; for all the public acts of that unhappy monarch were, after his deposition, annulled. Chaucer was, therefore, compelled to leave the quiet of Donnington and plunge into the turmoil of business, a change of habit that few aged men could encounter with impunity—to the poet, who was stooping under the weight of years, it proved fatal. In the full enjoyment of his clear faculties, but with an exhausted frame, he died on the 25th of October, 1400, in the seventy-second year of his age.
He descended to his grave in the fullness of a high reputation as an extraordinary genius and a generous and noble-minded man. He was buried in the great south aisle of Westminster Abbey—that quarter now so well known under the name of "Poets’ Corner."
The career of Chaucer, from whichever point we may view it, assumes a character greatly elevated above that of ordinary men. He was a poet, a philosopher, an astronomer, a logician, a linguist, a politician, a theologian, a humanist, a gentleman in the modern acceptation of the term, and a virtuous man. His conduct as a man holding a public office stands unimpeached for integrity. He was a gentleman, for he was the universal theme of admiration in a refined court—particularly by
the women, and they rarely err in making a correct estimate of a man's temper and habits. He was a humanist, for he has ever at hand an apology for the frailties of our nature; above all, when he would atone for the lapses of the most responsible and the least excused of our race—the women.
Many of the tales of Chaucer prove him to have been a linguist of no ordinary standard; and his prose essays stamp him a logician. It has been already shown that he was well versed in the science of astronomy—as much of it at least as was known in that age. That he was a philosopher in the most practical acceptation of the term—that of humanising his fellow-creatures and making them happier as well as wiser—we need only refer to the best and most carefully written of his poems.
As a poet, his chief power lay in description, and this was marvellous; whatever object it is his purpose to delineate, he inspects and probes, and twists, and turns it on every side, as a botanist pores into a flower; and then he presents it to you clothed in the minute perfection of a Dutch painting with the charms of ease, grace, and freedom superadded. So patiently did he study the characters of the people he described that he seems not to have more closely examined their costumes (accurately as he did this) than he did their habits of thought. Hence, the speeches he puts into their mouths are so truly in keeping that their great merit almost becomes neutralised in the mind; for we feel that he merely put down what he heard as well as what he saw when describing his characters. The late Mr. Hazlitt, in his lectures on the poets, has most happily in one pithy sentence (a remarkable
feature in his critical analyses) struck out Chaucer's poetical faculty. He says, "His poetry reads like history. Everything has a downright reality, at least in the narrator's mind. A simile or a sentiment, is as if it were given in upon evidence." Again: "He speaks of what he wishes to describe with the accuracy, the discrimination, of one who relates what has happened to himself, or has had the best information from those who have been eyewitnesses of it. The strokes of his pencil always tell. He dwells only on the essential, on that which would be interesting to the persons really concerned: yet as he never omits any material circumstance, he is a prolix from the number of points on which he touches without being diffuse on any one, and is sometimes tedious from the fidelity with which he adheres to his subject, as other writers are from the frequency of their digressions from it. The chain of his history is composed of a number of fine links, closely connected together, and riveted by a single blow.
"He is contented to find grace and beauty in truth. He exhibits for the most part the naked object, with little drapery thrown over it. His metaphors, which are few, are not for ornament, but use, and as like as possible to the things themselves. He does not affect to show his power over the reader's mind, but the power which the subject has over his own."