Geoffrey Chaucer was born in the reign of Edward III, lived through that of Richard II, and died the year after Henry IV ascended the throne. His life thus covers a period of glaring social contrasts and political change.
Edward‘s reign marks the highest development of Medieval civilization. The spirit of the court was that of romantic idealism. England went forth on foreign conquest. But there was another side to this picture. The King and his nobility led a gay life. Trade expanded. Wealth increased among the commercial classes. But the masses of people sunk in misery. Pestilence ravaged the land. Black Death swept away one third of the population. Famine followed plague. Thieves multiplied. The enormous cost of French wars had to be met by heavy taxation. There was widespread social unrest.
Political troubles grew under Richard‘s unwise and despotic rule. The constitutional conflicts between the King and his subjects resulted in endless discard and confusion.
Another evil of Chaucer‘s age was the corruption of the Church there was very spiritual zeal and energy left in the country. The greater priests heaped up wealth. They lived in a Godless and worldly way. The ordinary clergy were ignorant and careless. The friars were notorious and greedy. It was at this point John Wycliff, the morning star of reformation started his work. He is an earnest man. He gave the best oh his life for reviving spiritual Christianity. He wrote religious pamphlets. He sent his poor priests far and wide with the message of the gospel. He produced a complete version of “The Bible”.
Social unrest and the beginnings of religious movement were two of the active forces in the England of the later fourteenth century. A third influence came from the new learning. The spirit of new learning had arisen in Italy chiefly from a renewed study of the Literature of classical antiquity. The leaders of the great revival were the two Italian writers Petrarch ((1304-74) and Boccacio (1313-75). It was through their work, influence of humanism passed into England. Its effect was shown in the quickened sense of beauty, delight in life and the free secular spirit. They began to appear in our literature.
Geoffrey Chaucer is the greatest figure in the English literature of the 14th century. He has thrown all his contemporaries completely into shade. He was born about 1340 in London. His father was a flourishing merchant vinter. We know nothing about his childhood. At the age of 17, he received a court appointment. Then he became a valet in the King‘s Chamber. He was closely connected with the court. He toured the continent on diplomatic mission. He was thus brought into direct touch with the Italian culture. He may even have met Petrarch and Boccacio. Then he fell on evil days. The grant of the royal pension placed him beyond want. He died in 1400 and was buried in that part of West Minster Abbey which came to be known as the Poet‘s corner.
Chaucer‘s education as a poet was two fold. Part of it came from literature and part of it came from life. He was a thorough student. He tells us how he would pore over his beloved volumes, till he was dazed. He was a man of world and affairs. He had travelled much. He had seen life. His relationship with people of all sorts brought him into intimate relation with people of all sorts. He had quick insight into character.
Chaucer’s work in general:
Chaucer‘s literary career is divided into three periods; his French, his Italian and his English period.
His early work was done on French models. He translated “Roman de la rose“. He wrote an allegory on the death of Blanche, John of Gaunt‘s wife called “The Boke of Duchesse“.
As a result of his visits to Italy french influences disappeared. Italian influences took their place. He wrote “The House of Fame”, and “Troylus and Cryseyde”. He wrote an unfinished “Legend of Good Women“. Finally he became English. It means instead of being imitative, he becomes independent, relying upon himself. To this period, belong the minor poems and “The Canterbury Tales”. It is Chaucer‘s most characteristic work.
The Canterbury Tales:
“The Canterbury Tales” is a collection of stories. Pilgrimages were very popular in the fourteenth century. The shrine of the murdered St. Thomas Becket at Canterbury is one of the favourite expeditions.
A number of pilgrims on the eve of their departure meet at the Tabard Inn in Southwark. Chaucer is also there on the same errand. The jolly host of the Tabard, Harry Bailey gives a hearty welcome to the pilgrims. He tells them that to beguile the tedium of the journey each member of the party shall tell two tales on the way to Canterbury and two on the way back. Those who tell best stories will be given free supper after their return to the Tabard Inn. The suggestion is applauded and “The Canterbury Tales” is the result.
In the ‘Prologue’ Chaucer introduces his fellow pilgrims. The military profession is represented by a knight, a squire, and a yeoman; the ecclestiastical, by a prioress, a nun, a monk a friar, a summoner, a pardoner, a poor parson, and a clerk of Oxford who is a student of Divinity. Then we have a lawyer, a physician and number of miscellaneous characters. The Prologue is masterpiece of insight, sureness of touch, fine discrimination, and subtle humour. All the characters give unique value to Chaucer‘s picture of men and manners in the England of his time.
The Poet‘s plan was a large one. But he lived to complete a small portion only (i.e) merely a fragment of twenty four tales. The tales differ widely in character by whom they are told. The tales are not original in theme. Chaucer takes his raw material from many different sources. Chaucer has a quick eye for anything and everything. The “Knightes Tale” is also Chaucer‘s finest work.
General Characteristics of Chaucer’s Poetry:
Chaucer was not a poet of the people. He was a court poet, who wrote for cultured readers and a refined society. The great vital issues of the day never inspired his verse. He made his appeal to a favoured few who wanted to be amused by comedy. They did not wish to be disturbed by the reminders of Plagues and famines.
Thus, though he holds a mirror up to the life of his time, the dark underside of it is nowhere reflected by him. He is called as “the morning star of the Renaissance”. Chaucer mastered the difficult fourteenth century English and made it easier. Chaucer is called father of the English poetry.