Free Study Guide for The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

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A Brief Overview of Geoffrey Chaucerís Life

Chaucer was probably born sometime between 1340 and 1345 and led a varied career as a courtier, diplomat and civil servant under Kings Edward III and Richard II. Thus his vocation brought him into contact with people from different walks of life and social hierarchies and provided him with many opportunities to make an insightful observation of the entire medieval society.

Chaucer was the son of a wealthy London wine merchant and his mother was Agnes de Compton, a lady at Court. It is probable that Chaucer attended the Latin grammar school of St. Paulís Cathedral and later studied law at the Inns of Court.

In 1357 he became page to the Countess of Ulster, Elizabeth, the wife of Prince Lionel, third son of Edward
III. Here he learned the ways of the court and made the acquaintance of great men like John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and Edward IIIís fourth son. He also learned how to use arms as a page. Chaucer was sent to France on an invitation. However he was captured and released for ransom in1360. No information is available on his life till 1366.

In 1366 Chaucer married Philippa Roet, a lady in waiting to the queen. There is no way of finding out whether this marriage was entered into for love or for other reasons. By 1367 Chaucer became esquire to Edward III. In 1370 Chaucer was sent abroad as a diplomat for negotiations. He served as Controller of Customs for London from 1374 to 1386. In 1386 Chaucer moved from his London residence to the countryside probably to Greenwich. He then moved to Kent when he was appointed a Justice of Peace and then Knight of the Shire. However in the very same year Richard II stripped Chaucer of all his appointments when his patron, John of Gaunt, left on a military expedition against Spain. This created financial difficulties for Chaucer. But his offices were restored on John of Gauntís return to England in 1389. He was appointed Clerk of the Kingís Works from 1389 to 1391 and was chiefly responsible for the maintenance of royal buildings and parks. During the course of his checkered career as a civil servant Chaucer traveled on several diplomatic missions to France, one to Spain in 1366, and two to Italy from 1372 to 1373 and in 1378 where he discovered the works of Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio. These works served to widen and enrich Chaucerís literary resources.

In the last years of his life Chaucer received a pension from the king and lived reasonably comfortably. He leased a house within the area of Westminster Abbey. He died on 25 October 1400 and was buried in the Abbey in what is now known as the Poetís Corner.

Chaucerís Works

Chaucer wrote for a very sophisticated and learned audience of fellow courtiers and officials and even members of the royal family. It is believed that he read his works aloud to this very select audience. During this time the culture of the English upper classes was predominantly under the French influence. English was seen as the language of the lower classes. Thus it is hardly surprising that the contemporary fashionable French poets --- Guillaume De Machaut, Eustace Deschamps and Jean Froissart ---influenced Chaucer and his early works. Chaucer was also thoroughly familiar with the dream allegory Le Roman de la Rose by the French poets Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun. Chaucer thus absorbed the courtly love tradition that was the predominant theme of all French poetry. Chaucer in fact translated Le Roman de la Rose but only a fragment of it survives. Chaucerís diplomatic visits to Italy brought him into contact with the works of Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio which left a deep imprint on his own later poetry. Chaucer was extremely well read. One can easily detect the influences of Virgilís Aeneid, Ovidís Heroides and Metamorphoses, Lucanís Pharsalia, Statiusí Thebaid, Boethiusí De Consolatione Philosophiae, and Macrobiusí commentary on Ciceroís Somnium Scipionis.

The Book of the Duchess probably written in 1369 is Chaucerís first important work. It is an elegy for the John of Gauntís first wife, Blanche, who died in 1369, and reveals the influence of Ovid and Machaut. It is a dream allegory in which the poet meets a man dressed in black in a forest who tells him about how he courted a beautiful lady and concludes with the revelation that he is at present mourning her death. The House of Fame also a dream allegory followed next and showed the influence of Dante. The Parliament of Fowls was Chaucerís next major work. While still in the dream allegory tradition, it combines the influence of Dante and Boccaccio. The poem celebrates St. Valentineís day and describes the mating of birds, which engenders a great debate. All these three dream sequences were written between 1369 to 1385. In this period Chaucer also translated religious, philosophical and historical works including Ďa life of St. Ceciliaí, a sequence of medieval tragedies describing the lives of men weighed down by adverse fortune, and a translation of Boethiusí The Consolation of Philosophy.

Troilus and Criseyde (1382 - 85?) relates the famous story of Troilusí fatal love for Criseyde, the widowed daughter of Calchas, an astronomer who had foreseen the fall of Troy and defected to the Greek camp. Troilus sees and falls in love with Criseyde and begins a secret affair through the agency of her uncle Pandarus. Their happiness is short-lived and the Greeks demand Criseyde in exchange for a prisoner of war. Fearing public wrath, the lovers neither escape nor negotiate, and Criseyde goes to the Greeks promising to return as soon as possible. However she does not return and Troilus becomes sad and desolate. In the meanwhile Criseyde takes the Greek Diomede as a lover. Troilus sees her betrayal in a dream and devotes himself to the battle. He dies a heroís death and ascends to the seventh sphere from where he looks down on earth and realizes the vanity of worldly glory. Chaucer next wrote The Legend of Good Women in 1386 but abandoned it in 1387. He then started work on his most magnificent creation The Canterbury Tales. He continued to write this for the next thirteen years or so but could not complete his original plans.

Apart from these writings a vast body of spurious material is also attributed to Chaucer. Scholars have labeled this material which includes nearly hundred pieces of verse, the Chaucerian apocrypha. It is believed that a fifteenth century manuscript distributor John Shirley was responsible for these erroneous attributions.

John Dryden called Chaucer the "father of English poetry". Chaucer certainly contributed to the growth and development of English language by employing it at a time when as a rule, court poetry was written in Latin, French or Anglo-Norman. He extended the range of poetic vocabulary and meters in English. He was also the 1st poet to use iambic pentameter, the 7 line stanza that is now termed the rhyme royal, and the heroic couplet. He was one of the most skilful English poets. Chaucer also wrote in prose. Some of his prose writing includes Boece, A Treatise on the Astrolabe, The Tale of Melibee, and The Parsonís Tale.

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