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[Born 1328-died 1400.]
We know but little of the great Father of English Poetry, the "well of English undefiled," as he has been aptly named; but that little is interesting. He was born in London, as he informs us; and the stock from which he derived his birth was a good, though not an illustrious one. A portion of his studies were conducted at Cambridge; another portion at Oxford; and, according to Leland, he studied subsequently at the University of Paris. He was one of the most distinguished ornaments of the splendid court of King Edward III., who enriched him with several offices of emolument, and, in his more advanced life, of dignity also. Woodstock Park, one of the royal residences, was presented to Chaucer; and beneath the shades of its ancient oaks he resided frequently during thirty years of his life. The estimate in which he was held may be inferred from the circumstance that he was sent by Edward III., in the last year of that monarch's reign, on a political mission to the Republic of Genoa. After the death of Edward, finding himself involved in the political troubles connected with the Lollards, he fled to the Continent; and on his return to England was, for a time, thrown into prison. A few months before his death, Chaucer left his country retirement for a house which he rented in the garden of the chapel belonging to the Convent of Westminster. He was buried in Westminster Abbey; and many British poets have since that time laid their bones beside his.
It was not till after he had travelled into France, Holland, and the Low Countries, that Chaucer became known at the English court. He was then about thirty years of age, a man of a commanding presence, and stored with all the learning of the age. It is not surprising that he soon became the idol of the young, as well as the counsellor of the aged. He was especially the friend of King Ed
ward's fifth son, the Duke of Lancaster, afterwards the King of Castille, but best known by the name of John of Gaunt. It was at his request, and in allusion to events in the life of that brave and chivalrous prince, that Chaucer wrote liis "Book of the Duchess," "The Complaint of the Black Knight," and "The Dream of Chaucer." He wrote "La Prière de Nôtre Dame" at the request of his friend's wife the beautiful Lady Blanche, and various other poems at that of Queen Philippa, the Countess of Essex, the Countess of Salisbury, the Lady Mary, Countess of Pembroke, and others among his friends; and indeed the greater number of his poems seem to have been thus an outgrowth from his friendships. Chaucer was a soldier as well as a courtier, and accompanied Edward III. when he invaded France at the head of 100,000 men. He became allied to the royal family of England, having married Philippa, the sister of John of Gaunt's second wife. This event took place about the fortieth year of his age, after an attachment of nine years, during which the duke had ever befriended him. It was during his courtship that he translated the " Romaunt of the Rose," the most celebrated specimen of the earlier French poetry. This work he addressed to Philippa. His brother-in-law presented him with the park and castle of Donnington, at which the poet frequently made his residence, and of which interesting ruins remain.
Chaucer left two sons behind him. The eldest, Thomas, rose to high offices, and was at one time elected Speaker of the House of Commons. His daughter married De la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, thus connecting the family of Chaucer, by a second link, with that of the
The person of Chaucer was noble, and his countenance beautiful. He is described as having a face full and smooth, a pale complexion, and hair of a dark yellow. His beard was long and pointed, his forehead large and marble-like in its smoothness, and his eyes ever tended to the ground. As such we commonly see him in the old portraits.
Chaucer's works belong to the first and highest class of English poetry. In the skill with which he delineates character he is an anticipation of Shakespeare; in the sweetness, tenderness, and ideality of his verse, a precursor of Spenser. In spite of the coarseness which belongs to some of Chaucer's poems (and which he lamented on his death-bed), there is also a delicacy and subtle grace, as well as a pathos, about them which are lost in the versions of Pope and Dryden. In the geniality, simplicity, and unlaboured strength of his verse, he reminds us often of Homer. His greatest work is his Canterbury Tales, begun at Woodstock after he had past his sixtieth year, and carried on at intervals, in spite of the troubles which assailed his later life, but which neither subdued his spirit nor disturbed its serenity. In Chaucer's poetry a graphic picture is presented to us of England as it stood at its most glorious era; when chivalry was carried by the Black Prince higher than it had ever soared before, and when literature was in its springtide. In his poetry all the knightly worth, the generosity, the high sense of
honour, and the courtesy, that illustrated Edward's court, rise before our eyes; and not less, that spirit of liberty which was then growing up in England, in conjunction with the growth of its municipalities. Chaucer was to England what Dante was to Italy. If he was the "Morning Star" of English poetry, he was not less the Evening Star of the Middle Ages. He is the memorial of what England was in the old Catholic times, and a token of what her literature, then commencing, would have been, but for the Wars of the Roses, which threw her back into barbarism.
This is not the place to discuss the question whether Chaucer wrote rhythmically (as Southey affirms) or metrically. It may be remarked, however, that the difficulty commonly found in reducing his verse to harmony arises almost wholly from the reader's want of attention to the mode of accenting syllables which Chaucer adopted, whether as a poetic license, or in conformity with the custom of his time. Syllables, or letters, which with us remain unpronounced become vocal in his verse, as olde for old, thingés for things; and short syllables he frequently makes long, as statúre for stature. How easily this difficulty is removed in reading will be perceived from the following extracts, which are accented in the poet's manner. As for the obscurity of Chaucer, it is chiefly occasioned by the obsolete spelling of his day. This will be observed at once on comparing the first of the extracts which we have given, in which the ancient spelling is retained, with the others, in which it is modernised. The language of Chaucer is an interesting study. A peculiar sweetness belongs to it; amongst other reasons, in consequence of its retaining the plural in n, for which, except in a few instances, such as oxen, children, we have substituted the harsher letter s.
FROM THE PROLOGUE TO THE CANTERBURY TALES.
A Knight ther was, and that a worthy man,
To riden out, he loved chevalrie,
Trouthe and honour, fredom and curtesie.
And therto hadde he ridden, none more ferre,
Though that he was worthy he was wise;
1 coworthy of a gentleman