Though born and bred in London, Geoffrey Chaucer belonged to a family of wine merchants who can be traced to the town of Ipswich. It is thought that the family was of French origin because of their name Chaucer which in French ‘Chaucier’ means ‘hose-makers.’ They were, however, vintners having property in and around London. Both Chaucer’s father and his grandfather are known to have served the King at various times performing the duty of collecting the King’s customs.
Not much is known about the poet’s grandfather Robert Chaucer, except that he was a vintner, owned property in Ipswich, was deputy to the King’s chief butler in 1308 and 1310 and married a widow Mary, from the affluent family of the Westhales. They had a son John, born in 1313. He carried on the family business of a vintner and inherited the entire property. It was with a desire to acquire this property that John Chaucer’s aunt i.e. Robert’s sister, made an attempt to abduct him in order to marry him off to her daughter Joan. The attempt was foiled and the abductors were sued at Law. It is in the records of this case that we find John Chaucer being mentioned at an early age. John later married a wealthy widow, a certain Agnes, who brought with her more property and the family prospered further. It is probably in their house on Thames Street, that Geoffrey Chaucer was born to them, perhaps in the year 1340.
No record survives of the poet’s early years and we can only conjecture about how and when Chaucer received the education that fitted him for his career as a courtier and a poet. The first concrete evidence shows him to be already employed as a page in the household of the Countess of Ulster. Chaucer’s life as a page would have taught him many things. The polite manners and elaborate etiquette of the gentlefolk would have been observed and learned by him while waiting at the table. Keeping his eyes and ears open he probably picked up many scandalous and comic stories as well. His interest in music can be traced back to these years, but being a literate he, while listening to the songs and romances, also read them for himself, both in English and French. His remarkable memory for the poems of the continental French poet Machaut, evidences in The Book of the Duchess. It was here that he was given instruction in military training. His life as a page offered him ample opportunity to observe human behavior minutely and probably just like the pilgrim Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales, he went about his job quite unobtrusively.
Subsequent records show Chaucer serving three different Kings in non-poetic capacity. The amount of tact, diplomacy and adaptability required to have equally good relations with three different monarchs, is anybody’s guess and we can form a rough estimate of the kind of person Chaucer might have been to have succeeded in this difficult job. Records show that he accompanied King Edward on his invasion of France; was a diplomat to the continent trying to establish peaceful relations between France and England; went to Italy in 1372 – a journey which was to influence his literary career; was appointed comptroller of customs in 1374, and was legal guardian to young Edmund Staplegate of Kent and to the heir of the late John Solys. He probably even went to France to negotiate a marriage between the French Princess and Richard II, but was not successful. Chaucer’s own marriage was however, with a certain Phillipa Roet. His marriage was another step towards a further advancement in court because Philippa was in direct attendance to the Queen as one of her ‘domicellae.’ She was the daughter of Sir Payne Roet, a knight of Hainaut and King of Arms of Guienne in the reign of Edward III.
Having served as comptroller of customs, Chaucer was appointed one of the Justices of Peace for Kent on October 12, 1385 and in 1386 he was elected Knight of the Shire for Kent. It is around this time that we find Chaucer engaged in hectic literary activity since the three of his greatest works have been dated to this period of his life. Troilus and Criseyde was written between 1382 and 1385; the Legend of Good Women probably in 1385 or 1386 and The Canterbury Tales was begun around 1387. It is quite likely that he voluntarily resigned from his duties as a comptroller of customs to devote more time to his writing, for records show that around this time he vacated his office as well as the house over Aldgate. He took up residence in the country. During the latter part of the year 1387, Chaucer’s wife passed away, but the poet did not marry again. His leisure was however encroached upon once again when on July 12, 1389 he was appointed clerk of the King’s works. This job though remunerative, involved a lot of personal attention and claimed much of Chaucer’s time and energy. He held the post for two years and since it involved a great amount of risk to life, he relinquished his job on June 17, 1391. The new position he now took up was as sub-forester of the King’s park in Somersetshire.
Around this time however, Chaucer’s good fortune seemed to be ebbing slowly. There are records to prove that he borrowed small sums of money and in April 1398, a certain Isabella Buckholt sued him for a debt of £14. But the evidence is not adequate enough to prove that in the last decade of his life Chaucer was in serious financial difficulties. Moreover his favour at court was strong enough to have any of his petitions granted to him. In October of the year 1398, his petition for a daily butt of wine was granted immediately by King Richard. This was however, the last of Richard’s gifts to his ‘beloved esquire’ for in 1399, Henry IV usurped his throne. Chaucer received favours from this new King as well. In December 1399, Chaucer made another change of residence to Westminster Abbey and died in this house on October 25, 1400. He was buried at Westminster Abbey.
Chaucer began his literary career by translating Roman de la Rose, a French composition begun by Guillaume de Lorris and completed by Jean Clopinel. By translating a French work, Chaucer was only following the prevalent fashion but his next work which was an elegy on the death of Queen Blanche, the wife of John of Gaunt, was his own composition. T’he Book of the Duchess was accompanied by three other short poems Pity, Complaint to his Lady, and A.B.C. All these poems were modeled on French ideals of poetry. In the next group of poems we find Chaucer branching off into narrative verse for the first time. Life of S. Cecilia and Stories of Griselda and Constance show an increasing confidence in the language and also certain touches of humor which were later to form an integral part of Chaucer’s poetry.
Twelve Tragedies and The Complaint of Mars intervene between the writing of his second great work i.e. Troilus and Cressida. Meanwhile he translated De Consolation Philosophiae of Boethius. Subsequently The House of Fame and The Parliament of Fowles followed. Both of these were marriage poems written with a characteristic touch of Chaucerian irony and humour. His next ambitious attempt was The Legend of Good Women, but the tale of Palamon and Arcite is alluded to in the prologue to the Legend and is perhaps one of Chaucer’s finest works. The Legend of Good Women was abandoned after he had written nine of the nineteen tales planned. The idea of having a number of tales linked by some device had already taken shape in Chaucer’s mind. The Canterbury Tales though left unfinished, were a successful rendering of this same idea. This was his last important work and its writing spread over many years. Chaucer wrote a few other short poems apart from these – The Former Age, Fortune, Truth, Gentilesse, Lak of Stedfastness are minor poems. Then there are the three ballads which are usually called The Complaint of Venus, the Envoy to Scogan, the Envoy to Bukton and the Compleynt of Chaucer to his Purse which was most certainly his last work, complete the long list of his literary achievement.
The Canterbury Tales is undoubtedly Chaucer’s most well-known and often read work. With the General Prologue in part and with The Canterbury Tales on the whole, Chaucer ushered into the world of poetry, new subjects and new methods of treatment. This was perhaps his greatest achievement because when he began to write, the adventures and romances of the knights and ladies had begun to lose their charm. Chaucer drew upon reality, upon people he met daily and who were familiar figures to everyone because they were English people and not figures drawn from French, Italian or Latin literature. Not only were the subjects new, Chaucer’s method of treating them was new as well. He introduced the conversational tone into English poetry. His easy flowing metre succeeded in removing the monotony and complications that were there earlier in the octosyllabic couplets and long involved stanzas. Chaucer’s seven-line stanza and ten or eleven syllabled couplets were refreshing. His gentle humour and seemingly serious but jesting manner makes Chaucer a delight to read. As a teller of tales and as a painter of pen portraits Chaucer remains unsurpassed even today.
His Poetic Vision
In this prolific poetic career Chaucer’s poetic vision took shape gradually and as it grew it become more detailed, sharp and realistic by the time he came to write The Canterbury Tales. As Nevill Coghill writes:
He began to notice – but always with apparent good humour – the many self- contradictions between a man’s profession and his behaviour; he became aware – one might almost say delightedly ironically aware – of certain blackguardism in humanity. Certainly there were some blackguards … but it would seem that for all his awareness of their wickedness he had no real fear they would corrupt the world. They would meet their reward in due course, and he had a fair comic idea of the kind of hell in which some of them would meet it.
This, I think, underlies the cheerfulness of Chaucer’s poetical vision of the world; he does not deny the evil in it, on the contrary he singles it out, often enough, and with acuity and relish; but the general good health of society and the general agreement as to the purpose of life, seen with lightest allegory as a pilgrimage, seems to have led him to think that the evils he saw about him could be contained, as the pilgrimage moved along, without too much trouble; he did not share the view of his great contemporary, the author of Piers Plowman, that the Day of Anti Christ was upon them.
(From Nevill Coghill: Introduction to A Choice of Chaucer’s Verse, Faber and Faber, London, 1972).
In The Canterbury Tales the readers are constantly subjected to a kind of double vision, which by implication puts things in correct perspective. The attitude of the poet, however, continues to have a tolerance for all human frailties, therefore the satire never ever borders on the invective and the world remains light-hearted.
Because of Chaucer’s cheerfully hopeful poetical vision, coupled with frequent touches of humor and irony, The Canterbury Tales make for an interesting and delightful reading despite laying bare the corruption rampant in fourteenth century England and exposing the rogues who thronged its streets.